5 Things to Know About Germany's U-Boats
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The U-166 was deployed as part of Nazi Germany's all-out effort to cut off Britain and other U.S. allies from shipping vital equipment and personnel. It met its end in July 1942 in the Gulf of Mexico, about 45 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, after a depth charge attack. The U-boat was the primary weapon of the German navy for much of World War II.
WOLVES OF THE SEA
Germany's war on Allied supply lines focused mainly on North Atlantic shipping lanes. But the U-boats — hundreds were built during the war — also ranged into the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. The architect of Germany's submarine war plan was Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz, who deployed submarines in groups known as wolfpacks for unrestricted warfare against merchant ships.
A FORMIDABLE FORCE
As U-boats took their toll on Allied shipping, they also played a role in Germany's propaganda effort. An early success for German dictator Adolf Hitler came in October 1939 when the U-47 slipped into a British naval base at Scapa Flow, Scotland, and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak. The U.S. Navy, stretched after the December 1941 attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, was hard-pressed to track down the U-boats in 1942 as they preyed on East Coast shipping. Only after U.S. shipyards turned out massive numbers of escort vessels and patrol planes and new tactics were developed did the Navy get the upper hand on the U-boats.
War records show Germany built more than 1,000 U-boats during the war. The U-166 joined the fleet in March 1942 and was prowling the Gulf of Mexico in July 1942 when it torpedoed and sank the merchant vessel SS Robert E. Lee off the mouth of the Mississippi River. A U.S. escort quickly moved in and dropped depth charges, sending the submarine to the bottom. The U-166 was slow — traveling underwater at about 9 mph — and vulnerable to quicker surface ships. Modern U.S. nuclear-powered subs travel underwater at more than 35 mph.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
The U-boat — or "unterseeboot" in German — was first used in World War I by Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary. German submarine warfare on merchant ships was one reason the United States entered the war in 1917. The German navy still designates its submarines as U-boats. The small modern fleet is not nuclear-powered but runs on diesel-electric power.
U-BOATS IN POPULAR CULTURE
Feared and hunted by the Allies during the war, U-boats and their commanders became romanticized over time, especially in the Cold War years when a rebuilt West Germany was a U.S. ally. Among film portrayals was 1957's "The Enemy Below," in which U.S. destroyer captain Robert Mitchum and U-boat commander Kurt Jurgens are cast as noble adversaries as their vessels duel to mutual destruction. In 1981's "Das Boot" starring Jurgen Prochow, filmmakers offered a more gritty portrayal of U-boat life. Visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago can see the U-505, a U-boat captured during the war.