Before Pearl Harbor, when the United States was supposedly neutral, Hitler had forbidden the German Navy from firing on American ships, to avoid bringing the U.S. into the war. But immediately after Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war, the German Navy dispatched five long-range U-boats toward the east coast of the U.S. The aim was to disrupt the supply line of American goods to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. One of the U-boats, commanded by 28-year old veteran Reinhard Hardegen left German-controlled France on December 24, 1941. At sea, Hardegen opened his secret orders and learned his precise destination: New York City. The mission had been assembled hastily, and he had been given only tourist maps and guidebooks of the city. Fortunately (for the Germans) a tourist map included a view of the harbor.

Not long after midnight on January 14, 1942, Captain Hardegen spotted and torpedoed the Norness, a Norwegianowned tanker, off Long Island. The following day, he destroyed the British tanker Coimbra. In the hours between these two torpedo attacks, Hardegen slipped undetected into New York Harbor for an astonishing look around, an experience he described in his 1943 book, “Auf Gefechtsstationen!” The title means “Man Your Battle Stations!”

In Captain Hardegen’s version of events, he destroyed the Norness after he led U-123 into New York Harbor and saw the glow of the city’s lights. Historians know from official documents that the Norness went down before Hardegen entered the harbor, and that the Coimbra was hit afterward. Hardegen himself in later years said that since the book was published during the war, he was required to change or disguise details, and alter the sequence of some events. His book—with an introduction by Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, who led the German submarine fleet—was intended to build morale and recruit young men to the U-boat command, not to help the Allies by divulging secrets.

Captains Story Below

We had already been traveling for several weeks now. Crossing the North Atlantic in winter wasn’t exactly a pleasure. Storms and rain, heavy seas, squalls of hail, driving snow, and the thick fog on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland—this was our day-to-day monotony. We were already hugging the Canadian coast, and it was bitter cold. A thick layer of ice covered the boat, and the bridge watch would have icicles hanging from his beard. Now and then we had to submerge so the ice would melt off and we could remain battle-ready.

One day during the crossing I called the crew together and finally told the men our destination. We were to penetrate New York Harbor and from there operate closely along the coast. Their response was astonished disbelief. At first, people thought I was joking. New York—it sounded so far away, so unreal. But that’s where we were going!

I told them that in the First World War a U-boat touched briefly at Newport, and without further ado began the march home. Lieutenant Commander Rose sank a great number of steamers near the Nantucket lightship. Earlier, the Deutschland had been at Baltimore as a merchant submarine, and Captain König gladly made a second trip across the “great pond.” And at the end of the war, large underwater cruisers operated along the U.S. coast. Why shouldn’t we now be able to do the same?

[After sinking the British freighter Cyclops off the Canadian coast near Halifax.]

Our first hit had struck home, and we were in the best of moods as we headed for New York Harbor to reach our position at the appointed time.

A beautiful night with a new moon. The brightly glimmering lights of the metropolis lay before us. There was certainly no blackout here. The lights were burning just as they had in peacetime, and we could clearly make out the lights of New York’s Long Island suburbs.

Slowly we pushed closer toward the coast, and our plumb showed a water depth of only a few meters. An emergency dive was no longer possible. If we were to be suddenly surprised by enemy naval forces, our most important defense—submerging—would be denied us. But what did we care about that now? Impudence reigned.

It was a wonderfully intoxicating feeling to stand there with the dark shadows of the coast before us, where a row of lights ranged along the seafront like a glimmering string of pearls, with now and then the headlights of a car flitting by. A few of the bigger lights were certainly hotels, and then behind them we saw the bright glow in the sky that only a city of millions gives off. Years ago, as a cadet, I stood at the top of the Empire State Building and felt the pulse of this mega-city work its way into me. Now I was seeing it again for the first time, knowing that this time victory was all mine.

I can’t really describe the feeling with words, but it was incredibly beautiful, magnificent, and I’d have given a kingdom for such a moment, if I’d had one to give. We were the first to stand here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier was looking at American shores. Everyone on board knew that we had been called upon to strike the first blow here, and we were all animated by an irrepressible urge to hit as hard as possible, since this had to be a powerful opening for a new combat sector in this decisive war.

We encountered a group of trawlers, and off Sandy Hook we saw the tugs and pilot boats that stay there.
Everything seemed as if it were peacetime. No one had any idea that the dark shadow avoiding all other vessels was a German submarine scouting out its position at the entrance to New York.

We had seen enough, and now lurked somewhat farther out for our prey. The hour of the “Drumbeat” had arrived, and the dance could begin. The Commander of Submarines was sitting over in France at his command post, his thoughts always with us, his U-boat men, waiting for the first dispatch from America. He wouldn’t have to wait long. That very night we sank our first tanker off New York.

I was standing on the bridge with Lieutenant Hoffmann, who, as Schneider’s successor, was making his first trip as chief petty officer, and observed a large, modern motor tanker approaching us. It was heavily laden, and had just left New York Harbor. Here, where it considered itself clear of its own minefield, it increased speed and headed for the Nantucket lightship, from which it would then continue its trip to England. It would reach neither. A strong explosion jolted it midship. A tall column of fire shot up, eerily illuminating the night sky. When the column collapsed on itself, a ghastly mushroom cloud, smoky and black, stood over the ship, which now lay listing heavily. The masts had buckled and the antennas snapped. Its distress call could only be transmitted weakly, yet our diligent radio operators were able to pick it up. “The tanker Norness has hit a mine south of Long Island.”

Aha! It seemed that no one here believed in German Uboats! Then another explosion was heard. This time it took the hit aft in the engine room. It quickly sank deeper, till the stern was touching ground. The prow was sticking 30 meters straight up out of the water, which was very calm. Were they still mistaking German torpedoes for mines?

. . . On board we were proud and happy about the kickoff, and laughed at what fools the New Yorkers had made of themselves.

Reinhard Hardegen, “Auf Gefechtsstationen!” U-Boote im Einsatz gegen England und Amerika. Mit einem Geleitwort von Grossadmiral Dönitz. [“Man Your Battle Stations!” U-boats Deployed Against England and America. With an introduction by Fleet Admiral Dönitz.] (Leipzig: Boreas-Verlag, 1943), 170-171, 174-175, 178. Translated for the New-York Historical Society by Jeffrey Essmann, 2012.

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