Military Monday: Operation ‘Drum Beat’ and the East Coast Blackout

by Crocker on April 5, 2010, 8:28 am

in History,Military

It’s indeed strange how time and distance distort memory and even – in some instances – history itself. The late Civil War historian Bruce Catton once referred to all remembrance ceremonies as a form of forgetting. The ritual of remembrance itself becomes a way to repackage unpleasant memories into something more tolerable.

World War II is no exception. Victory in particular creates an obscuring haze that refracts memory – particularly here at home. While we rightly celebrate the “can do” spirit that motivated the home front, the obverse side of the same coin was unpreparedness and – in some cases – an unwillingness to face reality even when it was washing up on our beaches.

Today’s subject is Operation “Drum Beat”, the German submarine offensive against our shipping along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico in the weeks and months after Pearl Harbor. A mere handful of German submarines wrought havoc within sight of tourists in places like Cape Hatteras, Myrtle Beach and Miami Beach. After a remarkable slaughter lasting into late 1942, the US eventually enforced the coastal blackout and organized effective countermeasures with the shoe-string resources available at that stage of the war.

What astonished German submarine crews was the apparent lackadaisical attitude of the US civilian population. American shipping was silhouetted against the bright lights of every coastal honky-tonk from New York to New Orleans. In spite of burning ships within sight of shore and dead sailors washing up on the beaches, there were bitter protests from tourists and businesses alike about the blackout.

The following excerpt is taken from Korvettenkapitän Peter Cremer’s memoir, U-Boat Commander. ‘Ali’ Cremer was known both for his fighting prowess and his luck; his crews said that having Ali as commander was better than life insurance. They were right. Cremer was a member of the fortunate 25% of the U-Boat arm to survive the war. Here is Cremer’s account of Drum Beat and US unpreparedness when he brought U 333 to the Florida coast in May 1942 – nearly half a year after Pearl Harbor.

Operation `Drum Beat’ had begun on 13 January, 1942, and from the day of the declaration of war the United States had had almost five weeks in which to adjust to the new conditions. If she had not thought it necessary to do so, the next seven days were to demonstrate the seriousness of the situation. In that week, from 13 to 19 January, 1942, seven of my comrades sank 17 ships totalling 110,000 tons between New York and Key West. That should have been enough to wake up the Americans. When U 333 arrived it was already 4 May, and it was thanks to the skill of our excellent chief quartermaster that after three and a half thousand miles of sea and sky we found the exact point we had been aiming for, the Bethel Shoal Buoy.

Directly off Florida, we were in one of the loveliest holiday paradises in the world. As in quiet times, the fairway in the strait was marked with buoys, so navigation was not difficult. Everything seemed to me inexpressibly peaceful and I let my officers look through the periscope. When evening came we surfaced and, one after another, the men came up to the bridge for a breath of fresh air and rubbed their eyes in disbelief.

We had left a blacked-out Europe behind us. Whether in Stettin, Berlin, Paris, Hamburg, Lorient or La Rochelle everywhere had been pitch dark. At sea we tried not to show any light, even hiding the glowing cigarette in the hollow of the hand when smoking was allowed on the bridge. Not a ray of light came through the conning-tower hatch. Yet here the buoys were blinking as normal, the famous lighthouse at Jupiter Inlet was sweeping its luminous cone far over the sea. We were cruising off a brightly lit coastal road with darting headlights from innumerable cars. We went in so close that through the night glasses we could distinguish equally the big hotels and the cheap dives, and read the flickering neon signs. Not only that: from Miami and and its luxurious suburbs a mile-wide band of light was being thrown upwards to glow like an aureole against the underside of the cloud layer, visible from far below the horizon. All this after nearly five months of war!

Before this sea of light, against this footlight glare of a carefree new world, were passing the silhouettes of ships recognisable in every detail and sharp as the outlines in a sales catalogue. Here they were formally presented to us on a plate: please help yourselves! All we had to do was press the button.

And help themselves they did.

Here is Cremer describing a later battle off the west African coast between U 333 and corvette HMS Crocus. Cremer was a tough customer and a good man to have as a friend – not as an enemy.

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