By Dr. Gary D. Wray

uboatsOperation Drumbeat by the Germans was the first major attack on our homeland. We are telling that story at our Fort Miles museum, through the prism of U 853 and U 858.

The history of Fort Miles and the Fort Miles museum is closely linked to the story of two famous German WWII submarines, U 853 and its sister, U 858. Both were launched in Bremen, Germany, in 1943, and each is a key part of Fort Miles and our Fort Miles museum. This is that story.

Of all of Germany’s forces in World War II, its navy submarines got closest to U.S. shores. While one of the smallest segments of the huge German war effort, the German submarine force was one of the most potent, sinking thousands of ships and killing thousands of world sailors, including many off the coast of the United States. The German submarine force suffered the highest loss rate of the war, with more than 30,000 men lost of a force of 40,000.

Because of their effective and consistent attacks on the American homeland, German submariners were heroes at home for taking the war directly to the enemy coast.

Few know how close WWII came to U.S. mainland

Most Americans do not know that during the winter of 1941-1942, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany sent five submarines to attack the East Coast of the United States. The attack, codenamed Operation Drumbeat by the Germans, lasted more than six months, killed more than 6,000 sailors and sank more than 300 ships. It was an Allied disaster, one that most Americans know little about to this day. It was the first major attack on our homeland and the first serious threat to our homeland security in the 20th century.

This is an important story that needs telling. We are telling it inside our Fort Miles museum through the prism of two German U boats that took part in the attack, U 853 and U 858.

If most Americans don’t know about the German submarine attack on the East Coast in 1942, fewer Americans know that the German navy launched its final attack (codenamed Operation Seawolf) on our East Coast in the closing days of WWII. A few months before Hitler was to take his life and the war ended May 8, 1945, the German navy sent six boats from bases in Norway to attack our coast and, the Germans hoped, to repeat the successes of Operation Drumbeat. U 853 and U 858 were part of that attack. While U 853 sank one of the last ships destroyed in WWII, the collier Black Point, near the entrance to Long Island Sound, it was attacked May 5-6, 1945, by four American hunter-killers and became the last U boat destroyed in U.S. waters. On May 14, 1945, its sister, U 858, surrendered at Fort Miles.

How a U-boat weapon landed in a Delaware forest

On a snowy February day in 2004, I was teaching a college American history class in Georgetown, Del. After class, a school custodian approached me about a “machine gun” found in the woods behind the college. We drove in his truck to the woods. There, with its twin barrels down in the mud, was an almost complete German Flak 38! I told the custodian that it was not a machine gun but something much more deadly, a twin-barreled 20mm German anti-aircraft weapon. Examining it carefully, I read the “byf” code and knew that it was made at the Mauser factory for a U boat, but which boat? That would be the real surprise. I called Joe Johnson, a FMHA board member, and asked him to send a tow truck to the college to pick up the weapon. We took it to Joe’s shop in Lewes, then I started to research the weapon.

The German Flak 38 was a potent weapon, feared by all Allied pilots flying lower than its 6,000-foot (2000m) range. It was a crewserved weapon, firing almost 900rpm (rounds per minute) of 20mm shells from its two barrels. It was noted for its excellent sights and was the most popular German low-level weapon of ships and airfields, protecting both from low-flying, strafing Allied planes.

Many an Allied pilot was shot down by this weapon, and most U boats were armed with it for offense (shooting enemy ships on the surface) and for defense against Allied air attacks. This actual weapon, I was to learn, was a vet of Allied air attacks.

These two U boats were peers built as a six-boat contract by AG Weser in Bremen in 1943. They were a new model of the older Type IX long-range boat and had emerged as the key weapon for attacking the U.S. East Coast. They were built for extended range (more than 12,000 miles) and were designed to dive faster than other submarines to better avoid destruction by its most feared enemy, Allied aircraft.

Many U boats had been destroyed in the critical one minute it took to dive the boat. The new Type IX C/40 boat had a streamlined bow to allow the boat to submerge quicker after being seen by enemy aircraft. This new boat could disappear in about 30 seconds, saving the critical time it took to determine the life or death of a sub. The boat was armed with two twin 20mm Flak 38 cannon and a 37mm cannon to fight off enemy planes and ships. It was also armed with a 105mm deck gun but that was removed to allow the boat to dive quicker later in the war. During WWII, the Germans built 111 Type IX boats (out of almost 1,200 accepted into service) and sank more than 25 percent of all the Allied tonnage sunk during the war. They were, without a doubt, the most dangerous and effective of all WWIII German stealth weapons.

U 858 and U 853 had contrasting histories

Both German submarines had exciting careers. U 853 chased the Queen Mary in 1944 when it was taking U.S. soldiers to England but the Queen Mary was too fast and eluded attack. U 858 was the first  enemy combatant to surrender to the continental United States since the War of 1812.

U 858 was laid down Dec.11, 1942, and commissioned Sept. 30, 1943. KptLt. Thilo Bode was its captain for its entire war career. It was Bode who surrendered U 858 to the United States at Fort Miles on May 14, 1945. After working the submarine up on sea trials in the Baltic, Bode took it on two uneventful war patrols before its 61-man crew arrived at Fort Miles and internment. Other than in practice, U 858 never fired a torpedo in anger nor did it sink a ship on its two war patrols.

After its surrender, U 858 was tied at the Mine Wharf (now the Cape Henlopen State Park fishing pier) for months, toured by local residents and schoolchildren. It was towed to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where it was stripped. In 1947, the U.S. Navy destroyed U 858 with several other German submarines in an exercise 300 miles off Cape Cod, sinking them in thousands of feet of water. We know quite a bit about the final patrol of U 858 because we interviewed crew member Karl Heinz Bahr in 2001 and have his written and oral history.

The story of U 853 is a more exciting than that of U 858. It was laid own before its sister, Aug. 21, 1942, and was commissioned June 25, 1943, under command of Kptlt. Helmut Sommer. U 853 conducted three war patrols, sinking two ships for 5,783 tons. On its second war patrol in May 1944, after sighting and chasing the Queen Mary, U 853 was attacked on the surface by three British Swordfish aircraft. Its captain at that time (KrvKpt. Gunter Kuhnke, winner of the Knights Cross) engaged the enemy on the surface with its antiaircraft weapons, including two Flak 38 mounts.

Its gunners were very effective, hitting all three of the slow Swordfish and damaging one so badly that it was jettisoned overboard when it returned to its carrier. Its last war patrol, however, was not as successful as U 853 continued its attack on the East Coast as part of Operation Seawolf. U 853 attacked USS Eagleboat 56 near Portland, Maine, and destroyed it. The submarine spotted the collier Black Point near the entrance to Long Island Sound and torpedoed it, blowing off its stern and killing 14 of its 46-man crew. The Black Point became the last ship sunk in U.S. waters in WWII. U 853, in shallow water, ran to reach safer deep water to elude American warships but lost the race.

Unknown to U 853, a recent convoy had just arrived in American waters and its three antisubmarine warfare (asw) escorts were immediately ordered to find the escaping U boat and attack it. DD Ericcson, DE Atherton and PF (Patrol Frigate) Moberly immediately took up the hunt for U 853. Seven miles east of Block Island, R.I., the American hunter-killers found the U 853 and the attack began the night of May 5, 1945. Joined by two blimps from Lakehurst, N.J. (K-16 and K-58) with their 7.2-inch rocket bombs, the American force unleashed a withering attack on the submerged boat. After raining down 264 Hedgehogs, 195 depth charges and six rocket bombs from the two blimps, the U 853 was finally destroyed May 6, 1945, and became the final resting tomb in 121 feet of water for its crew of 55.

Local businessman Mel Joseph leads effort to recover sunken boats and their artifacts

That could have been the end of the story for U 853 except for the efforts of an enterprising Delawarean, Mel Joseph of Millsboro, Del. Joseph, a Southern Delaware businessman (M.L. Joseph Construction Co.), was well-known for supporting scuba expeditions. His most famous expedition was that of Mel Fisher on his quest to find the famous Spanish galleon Atocha, the most important ship of the 1622 Plate Fleet sunk off the Florida Keys. With the support of Joseph and others, including Frank Perdue, Mel Fisher found the Atocha’s treasure in 1985 and much of its precious cargo, including gold, silver and jewels. Fisher also found several bronze Atocha cannon, some of which are on display in the Treasures of the Sea exhibit at Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown, Del., donated by Joseph and his family.

Joseph also was interested in raising U 853. He worked directly with the German government to get permission to dive the destroyed boat and attempt to bring it up. Many divers over the years have explored the sunken boat and it was a popular but dangerous dive site because the current is strong and the waters are murky at best. Several divers have been killed diving at the wrecked submarine.

Joseph received permission of the German government to dive the boat and, hopefully, bring it up. But after seeing the condition of the submarine and the dangers involved, the dive team decided that it would be impossible to bring up the boat in one piece. The backup plan became to bring up as many artifacts as the dive team could.

The largest of those artifacts was the submarine’s complete Flak 38 gun tub, which was unbolted from the “wintergarden” near its conning tower and brought to the surface. The team could only find one of the two Flak 38 guns, with the other most likely blown off (with the 37mm gun) in the attack that destroyed the boat. Its 105mm had been removed after U 853’s trials in the Baltic when it was decided not to repair the gun after a crew member forgot to clear it after a dive. The big gun also slowed the time it took to dive the boat so it was removed as it was from most Type IX boats.

From the bottom of the ocean to a college campus

But how did the Flak 38 get to Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown, Del.? The best guess is that Mel Joseph, at one time on the college’s board of directors, donated the weapon to the college for its use and historical interpretation as he had done with his Atocha donations. And then this author entered the story on that winter day in 2004.

How and why the gun got to the woods behind the school is unclear, but fortunately for American history and the history of Fort Miles, I discovered the gun. It was almost karma, putting a WWII historian who knows German weapons well and can read German manufacturing code, looking down at a Mauser factory-made weapon with its twin barrels (one lacking its flash hider) in the Delaware woods.

Researching the gun and working with Mel Joseph’s family and the staff of Delaware Tech, we pieced the story together and rescued the Flak 38. Bringing it to our Fort Miles museum, our enterprising team led by Joe Kosoveach set to work to repair the gun and put it on display. After sending a team to Chicago to take a close look at U 505 on display there, and its Flak 38, our restored Flak 38 is certainly the best in the United States and most probably the best in the world. After seven years of careful restoration by our team, the Flak 38 from U 853 has been on display for three years inside our Fort Miles museum, side by side with photos of the surrender of its sister U 858 on May 14, 1945.

So the two Bremen submarines are united 3,000 miles away at one of the United States’ great forts of WWII. Their story is told to thousands of visitors to the Fort Miles museum as part of the German attack on the American homeland in World War II.