Torpedoes in the Gulf: Galveston and the U-Boats, 1942-1943
Melanie Wiggins. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995. 265 pp. Illus. Notes. Bib. Ind. $29.50 ($26.55).
Reviewed by Homer Hickam
In January 1942, the German U-boat flotilla of Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz began a merciless assault on merchant shipping along the U.S. East Coast. From January through the end of April, 172 merchantmen and warships were sunk or seriously damaged. Determined to continue this heavy success, Doenitz ordered his U-boat raiders south, into the Gulf of Mexico. Korvettenkepitan Harro Schacht of the U-507 was the first in, arriving on 30 April 1942. An experienced commander, Schacht began a rapacious 16-day campaign, sinking eight freighters and tankers before running out of torpedoes. Twenty-three more U-boats later followed U-507’s example, with 56 ships sunk and 14 damaged during a 20-month campaign. In contrast, only two U-boats were lost, the U-166 and the U-157. Melanie Wiggins’s book is a history of this U-boat incursion into the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. response. The battle that ensued was tiny compared to the vast battle against the U-boats in the Atlantic, but it was nonetheless important, whereas the Gulf was an important route for the delivery of desperately needed oil and supplies for the expanding U.S. war effort.
Wiggins focuses on the city of Galveston, Texas, which at the beginning of the United States’ entry to World War II was an important oil tanker port and a potential enemy target. She begins her book with a description of Galveston prior to and just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, followed immediately by an account of the adventures of the first U-boats into the Gulf. She then describes the comings and goings of various Galveston politicians, the growth of the city’s businesses, and branches out to describe overall naval strategy before returning to the subject of U-boats again. A reader looking for a consistent theme will be disappointed; the author clearly was looking for a narrative thread but never quite found it.
As long as her narrative concerns Galveston, Wiggins’s work is interesting and vital, but when she tries to tell the story of the U-boat captains and crews who fought in the Gulf, she loses her way. Her matter-of-fact descriptions of U-boat attacks are especially and disturbingly bloodless, without any sense of the fire and oil and sweat and blood that flowed on the sea during a torpedo attack. Although occasionally she includes an account from an Allied crew member, her accounts are essentially from the German point of view. This is perhaps understandable, however, because many surviving German U-boat crew members are now quite willing to talk and expand on their wartime experiences. Moreover, U-boat logs are readily available at the National Archives in Washington, and their authors made a point of giving a succinct account of each attack. In contrast, the merchant ships that were attacked usually did not survive; their logs and often their crews went down with them. The unfortunate result for Wiggins’s book is an uncritical view of German motives and conduct.
Underlining this, Wiggins states at the end of Chapter 5 (a chapter concerning the attacks on merchant shipping by U-506 and U-607) that “the commanders did the best they could to allow the escape of merchant ship crews, although many perished. The U-boat men did not hate the Americans. They were just doing their job.” In fact, Schacht and his U-606 were particularly vicious in their attacks. When he attacked the Munger T. Ball with two torpedoes on 4 May, Schacht surfaced and machine-gunned the U.S. tanker in an attempt to set her afire. This tactic failed, but it did set the gasoline on the water ablaze, incinerating the crewmen who had jumped overboard to get away from the machine-gun fire. The next day, the U- 507 went after the Alcoa Puritan, shelling her until her captain ordered the ship stopped and abandoned. Schacht took no notice, continuing to shell the freighter while the crew desperately tried to launch their lifeboats. With lifeboats still near the ship, Schacht then sent a torpedo into her. This was war, of course, and Schacht did nothing illegal, but if he was doing the best he could for the safety of the merchantmen, it certainly escaped the notice of those who were lost or stranded on that bloody sea while Schacht roared off eagerly looking for his next victim.
Some petty technical errors also detract from the book. For instance, Wiggins has Schacht on page 31 submerging to recharge batteries during the night. A U-boat of that era had to surface and fire up her diesels to recharge the electrical power plant. Also, Wiggins often lists the date of an attack as a day later than it actually happened. This was because U-boat commanders recorded times in their logs according to the time zone in Berlin, and these are the times listed in Jürgen Rohwer’s Axis Submarine Successes, 1939-1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), the source book for all U-boat researchers. A small error, perhaps, but one indicating a lack of critical study of the source documentation.
Nevertheless, there is much about this book to admire. Wiggins’s history is essentially sound. The rare photographs of German crews and commanders are worth the price of the book for U-boat war buffs, and there are also some very helpful charts and tables that describe U-boat Gulf activities. The Gulf U-boat war was a sideshow within a sideshow—but it was an important one, so far neglected by historians. Wiggins’s book helps fill this gap.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776
Philip K. Lundeberg. Basin Harbor, VT: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 1995. 112 pp. Bib. Illus. Maps. Photos. $14.95 ($13.45) paper.
Despite its relatively small size and the unfavorable outcome for the Americans, the campaign on Lake Champlain had far- reaching consequences during the American Revolution. What appeared to be a defeat for the rebellious colonists actually turned out to be a strategic masterpiece that contributed to the critical American victory at Saratoga. Historical documents are combined with archeological evidence to create this informative account which details the battle by focusing upon one of the gunboats that played a part.
Over There: A Marine in the Great War
Carl Andrew Brannen. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press 1996. 180 pp. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $24.95 ($22.45).
The popular image of Marines storming beaches in the Pacific often overshadows some of the Corps’ other important exploits. This memoir recounts a young Marine’s experiences during World War I while fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. Brannen describes how he came to be a Marine, the training he received, the voyage “over there,” and his combat experiences.
Hellions of the Deep: The Development of American Torpedoes in World War II
Robert Gannon. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1996. 240 pp. Bib. Figs. Gloss. Illus. Ind. Notes. $28.50 ($25.65).
Early in World War II, it became apparent that the U.S. Navy’s torpedo program was a disastrous failure. Gathering some of the nation’s top scientists into a gymnasium at Harvard University, the Navy began what it termed “radical research” in an all-out attempt at correcting this potentially fatal flaw. Based upon extensive research, including numerous interviews with scientists, engineers, submarine skippers, and Navy bureaucrats, Gannon has recreated the story of how American torpedoes went from “worst to first” in those critical days of the war.