U-123 under Reinhard Hardegen, on return from his celebrated opening attacks of Operation Drumbeat off New York and Cape Hatteras, decided to swing south and perform an exploratory sail-past of Bermuda on his way home. He had just sunk nine ships (Cyclops, Nornesss, Coimbra, Nordana, City of Atlanta, Malay, Ciltivaira, Culebra and Pan Norway) of 57,627-tons, including one damaged, since 12 January. His was the first U-boat of World War II to attack the US coast – in World War I not only had U-boats done so, but one of them, U-53, spent the afternoon of October 7, 1916 hosting officers of the (neutral) US Navy in Newport before sinking six allied ships off Nantucket.
U-123 began its patrol on the 23rd of December, 1941 in Lorient, and ended it in the same port on the 9th of February 1942. On the 19thof January the submarine was chased by a Norwegian whaling factory ship, the Kosmos II. It was a close call but U-123 was able to outrun its erstwhile quarry before aircraft called in by the Norwegians could arrive and cause permanent damage. The final two ships were sunk northeast of Bermuda. On the 27th of January Hardegen vectored in the Greek ship Mount Etna to retrieve survivors of the Pan Norwaywhich he had sunk two days previously.
Since Hardegen’s incursion off Bermuda occurred on 22 January 1942, just over one and a half months following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the US entry into the war, this makes Hardegen’s brush with the greater Bahamas region the first such patrol there. It also renders any “SSS” or “submarine sighted” Morse code signals from Allied vessels or shore stations in the region before that date without credibility, since we know that no subs entered the area until end-January 1942.
Hardegen, who is still alive, achieved the rank of Korvettenkapitän, though at the time he was Kapitänleutnant. Over his career he sank 21 ships for a total of 112,447 GRT and damaged four others for 32,516 GRT – he also sank one warship and damaged another. On 23 April 1942, following this patrol he was awarded the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, and later the U-boat badge with Diamonds. A member of the crew of 1933 at the Naval Academy (Marineschule) in Mürwik,eastern Germany, he was only 30 at the time.
Hardegen actually began his career in the naval air force, but injuries sustained when he crashed as a pilot brought him to the U-boat arm in November 1939, at the outset of the war. His total command experience of five patrols of 240 days at sea on two submarines plus his longevity and accessibility have made Hardegen somewhat of a “darling” of U-boat research into attacks on the Americas, or at least the United States.
Hardagen’s patrols feature prominently in books such as Operation Drumbeat by Michael Gannon and Torpedo Junction by Homer Hickham, and The Fuhrer’s U-boats in American Waters by Gary Gentile (who accused Hardegen of doctoring his log). His feats are extolled on websites such as Sharkhunters of which he is a member. By all accounts Hardegen is a personable and likeable commander and veteran – he was said to have tied the shoe laces of an old merchant mariner who visited him to meet the man who sank him.
Hardegen corresponded with his victims, and took part in two particularly tragic sinkings – that of the only battle-tested armed merchant cruiser which the Americans put forth (the Atik, AK 101 aka the Caroline, in which all members of the US Navy crew and one of Hardegen’s crew perished on a stormy night) and the Muskogee, whose desperate survivors were photographed by Hardegen’s crew but never seen alive again (photos from a German magazine surfaced in a POW camp for allies and survived the war) (Moore).
In short Hardegen came to symbolize the opening attack on the Americas in the way that Werner Hartenstein and Albrecht Achilles symbolized the daring attacks in the Caribbean theater, and that Carlo Fecia di Cossato would represent the ravaging of ships off the Bahamas. He would have to be included in the iconic skippers such as Herbert Werner in his autobiographical Iron Coffins and the skipper in the fictional film Das Boot, which was loosely based on the patrols observed by a war correspondent.
One effort of this work is to move away from the idolatry of Hardegen and others, and move the attention from Cape Hatteras or Trinidad to the area which lies in between – the Bahamas and the channels which run through them, and the submarines which ran through them during the same period – but which have been largely unheralded.
SOURCES: Gudmundur Helgason, Rainer Kolbicz, www.uboat.net, 2011, Kenneth Wynn, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997, Michael Gannon, Operation Drumbeat, Homer Hickham, Torpedo Junction, Gary Gentile, The Fuhrer’s U-boats in American Waters, Moore, Arthur, A Careless Word…a Needless Sinking: a History of the Staggering Losses Suffered By the U. S. Merchant Marine, Both in Ships and Personnel, During World War II, 1998