DAVID AND GOLIATH: The ICARUS And THETIS Battle German U-boats

By Dr. Robert M. Browning Jr.

The Second World War came to the East Coast of the United States in January 1942, when the Germans, with great success, began attacking merchant shipping from Maine to Florida. Admiral Karl Donitz, the commander of Germany's U-boat fleet planned to surprise the Americans by bringing the war to the doorstep of the United States. To do so, he sent five type IX U-boats to attack shipping directly off the East Coast. Termed Paukenschlag or "Operation Drumroll", Donitz correctly judged just how devastating these attacks could be. The whole operation was so successful that the U-boat commanders called it the "Happy Time."

The U.S. was caught largely unprepared for this onslaught. The U.S. Navy had not committed its large heavily armed ships, which included destroyers, for coastal convoy protection. Thus, the earliest convoy and patrol work was done by small craft, naval submarine chasers and Coast Guard patrol types. These small ships were augmented with Reserve and Auxiliary picket boats improvised from small private craft and converted for Naval use. The patrol vessels were in turn supported by only minimal air cover which made their jobs more difficult. It was, however, in some of the smaller craft that the U.S. scored its early and unexpected victories against the U-boats.

There were only three classes of Coast Guard cutters that rated as submarine chasers. The most important were the 165B class and the 125 foot "Buck and a Quarter" class. Both of these classes had chased rumrunners just a decade before. These ships were designed for coastal patrols but not for heavy weather or ocean patrols. These vessels, however, served admirably during the war in the Atlantic and Pacific in nearly all circumstances and weather conditions. These small cutters began patrolling off the East Coast shortly after the Germans began "Operation Drumroll."

One of the earliest submarines to reach the Coast was U-352. The sub had made an earlier trip off Iceland but failed to sink any ships. U-352 left Europe for its second war sortie on April 4th and arrived off the American coast on May 2nd after a four week crossing. The sub's commander, Kapitanleutnant Hellmut Rathke, was determined to do better his second time out. Three days after taking station off the American coast, he attacked a refrigerator ship with no success. Rathke attacked three more freighters but all escaped without harm. On May seventh, U-352 was nearly caught on the surface by an airplane and a crash dive barely saved it from the plane's bombs. The plane radioed the sub's position and now the hunter had become the hunted.

When U-352 arrived off the East Coast the largest anti-submarine combatant in the immediate area to oppose it was the diminutive 165 foot cutter Dione. The cutter's patrol area extended from Norfolk, Virginia, to Morehead City, North Carolina, one of the busiest areas for shipping off the East Coast and also an active submarine hunting ground. It was here that the U-boats performed their most damaging work. For several months the daily routine of the patrol vessels off North Carolina was filled not only with hunting submarines but also with the rescue of hundreds of men from torpedoed ships. There were so many torpedoings that these small cutters spent much of their time shuttling between reported attacks and sinkings.

The German submarines began moving their attacks further south, therefore the Navy shifted anti-submarine vessels in this direction. The 165 foot Icarus, a sister of the Dione, received orders to proceed to Key West, Florida. Here the cutter would work the southern end of the "Bucket Brigade Convoys." Icarus had spent the first months of the war making patrols out of the New York area and left for Florida early on May 8th. The small cutter began the routine trip south, passing a couple of convoys, and arrived off the Coast of North Carolina a day later. Armed with obsolete sound detection gear, a World War I era Y-gun, stern depth charge racks, a 3-inch deck gun and a combination of six .50 caliber and Lewis machine guns, Icarus was much less of a threat to a U-boat than a destroyer.

U-352 meanwhile continued to hunt for its first victim. Kapitanleutnant Rathke thus far had been either the unluckiest U-boat commander or the poorest shot. On the 9th of May he thought his luck would change. Shortly after 4 p.m. the radioman on board U-352 heard propeller noises. Relaying the news to Rathke, the commander decided to attack, even though it was daylight and thus more dangerous. Looking through the periscope Rathke saw a mast and passed the word for two bow tubes to be loaded. Making a crash dive, Rathke, ordered the attack periscope up and fired two torpedoes. Several moments later, the sub shuddered from an explosion. Rathke thinking he had finally succeeded in sinking a ship, ordered the sub back to periscope depth. Looking through his sights, he discovered that instead of sinking a merchantman, the Coast Guard patrol vessel Icarus was heading straight for him.

The Icarus was commanded by Lieutenant Maurice D. Jester. Jester was not a young officer lacking experience. He was 52 years old, having enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1917 as a surfman. During the next twenty years he served on five cutters, advancing to Chief Boatswain in 1935. In December 1941, he received a commission as a lieutenant and a month later was given command of the Icarus.

About the time that Rathke spotted the mast of Icarus, Jester retired to his quarters. With the U-352 nearby, the soundman on board the cutter picked up a "mushy" sound contact. The sound came from off the port bow at a range of about 1900 yards. Jester was called on the bridge. The sharpness of the contact improved and its location began to draw abaft of the beam. Suddenly, an explosion rocked the little cutter and Jester ordered the crew to battle stations and turned the Icarus hard aport toward the suspect sound. Everyone on the bridge realized that they had just been missed by a torpedo that struck the ocean bottom. Icarus steamed toward the contact and for the first time picked up propeller noises on the listening gear.

Rathke saw the speeding cutter in his periscope and knew that his vessel had been detected and that he had to try to escape. He maneuvered U-352 toward the area where the torpedo exploded hoping to hide in the sediment and the disturbed water that was stirred from the bottom. The nose of the submarine pushed into the soft bottom where Rathke planned to wait until the warship made one pass. Since his adversary was only a patrol craft, he thought he might escape or surface to periscope depth and use torpedoes and possibly the deck guns to destroy the Coast Guard vessel. The spot where the torpedo struck, however, was where Jester and Icarus began the search.

With U-352 on the bottom, Jester temporarily lost contact. Calculating the sub's location he made a pass and dropped five depth charges in the shape of a diamond with one charge in the middle. Icarus dropped one charge from a rack, followed by two from the Y-gun, releasing another single charge from the rack and finishing the pattern with another rack charge. Jester then reversed course and detected the submarine moving west. Moving to intercept, three more depth charges were dropped in a V pattern at a point on the U-boats apparent track. Large bubbles began to break the surface and the Icarus doubled back to drop a single charge on this spot. Not satisfied with the results Jester had one more charge dropped to the right side of the previous spot.

The U-352 took a pounding! During the cutter's first run, two of the depth charges fell near the conning tower, one near the deck gun, one over the engine room and the last fell astern. All the gauges in the control room shattered, the lights went out, the attack periscope was damaged, the motors had been knocked off their mounts, the deck gun was gone and the conning tower officer was dead. Rathke knew he could not attack now. His remaining hope was to remain motionless on the bottom and hope the cutter would not be able to detect his boat and then leave. Icarus, though, had not finished. The soundman still hearing the sub moving slowly across the bottom prompted Jester to order subsequent attacks.

Shortly after the last charge was dropped Rathke decided that the Icarus knew where his sub lay and ordered the ballast tanks blown to bring the sub to the surface. He ordered the men into their life jackets and diving lungs and gave instructions for the vessel to be scuttled. The submarine broke the surface forty-five minutes after the battle began only one thousand yards from the cutter. The gun crews of the Icarus immediately opened fire with all six machine guns to prevent the sub's crew from manning their deck guns. Turning Icarus, Jester put it on a course to ram the sub if necessary. Now the three-inch gun on the cutter's bow bore on U-352 and opened fire. The first round was short but ricocheted through the conning tower. The second round passed over the sub, but the next twelve rounds either hit or came close to their mark.

Moments after the sub surfaced, the German crewmen began pouring onto the deck in clock-like precision. The Icarus did not secure its guns and fired on the hapless crew as they abandoned the vessel. After realizing that they did not intend to fight back, Jester ordered his men to cease fire. The sub's crew continued to jump in the water as U-352 sank beneath their feet. The Icarus continued to circle the spot where the sub sank and unleashed one last depth charge over the wreck of the U-352.

Sinking an enemy sub fell within the orders issued to Jester, but none were in force for rescuing German survivors. Calling both Norfolk and Charleston, Jester finally received permission to pick the men up thirty minutes after the sinking. Icarus picked up thirty-three prisoners but one died enroute. Among them was Kapitanleutnant Hellmut Rathke. Several of the crew spoke English and talked freely with the American sailors. The prisoners arrived at the Charleston Navy Yard the next day providing the Coast Guard with opportunities to photograph the first U.S. captured German U-boat officers and men.

This action was notable because the U-352 was larger, faster and more heavily armed than Icarus. For his actions in sinking the U-352, Lt. Maurice Jester was awarded the Navy Cross.

On the heels of this action was a second U-boat kill--this time by the Coast Guard cutter Thetis. The 165 foot cutter Thetis operated out of Key West, Florida at the beginning of the war. Like the other eighteen vessels of the class, the Thetis was as lightly armed as the Icarus and thus not as much of a threat to a sub as a larger vessel. In the case of the Thetis, however, confidence, superior training and experience would be the difference.

As the German Submarines moved south to attack coastal shipping, the naval authorities scrapped together everything that could detect a sub. The Gulf Sea Frontier would bear the heaviest number of sinkings for any area during May 1942. In this month alone forty-one ships went to the bottom. Naval and Army Air Corps authorities increasingly used aircraft to fight the U-boats. U-boats had a fear of aircraft and usually submerged at the sight of any plane no matter how small. Aircraft increasingly succeeded in spotting subs along the coast.

Late on 10 June 1942 a U-boat was spotted off the northern Cuban coast moving west through the old Bahama Channel. The U-boat was U-157 commanded by Korvettenkapitan Wolf Henne. Henne acted boldly after being spotted and at twilight that same night sank an American steamship in the same area. The next day, a radar-equipped B-18 bomber was sent out to search for the sub. Finding U-157 on the surface the bomber failed on its first pass to drop its depth charges. Turning sharply, the bomber sped back toward the sub and dropped four depth charges on the rapidly diving U-157. Henne and his crew narrowly escaped.

Meanwhile all available surface craft were despatched to find the sub. Twelve Coast Guard patrol craft, including the cutters Triton and Thetis, several destroyers, and more aircraft were sent to locate the enemy. Groups from Miami and Key West made separate searches. Despite all the attention that Henne received he managed to escape the vessels. U-157, however, could not escape the aircraft which spotted his craft three times within a seven hour span and attacked once unsuccessfully.

The Key West group included the cutter Thetis. On June 13th, the group received word that a periscope had been spotted in the Florida Straits. Thetis and the Coast Guard cutter Triton along with the rest of the hunter killer group arrived and began setting up a search pattern in hopes of finding and destroying the enemy vessel.

The commander of the Thetis was Lieutenant (jg) Nelson C. McCormick. McCormick graduated from the Coast Guard Academy near the bottom of his class in 1935. Receiving only a temporary commission he was not made permanent until more than two years after graduation. McCormick, however, had served on three different cutters and had commanded the cutter Dione. Working off the Coast of North Carolina he had already had a great deal of experience hunting U-boats.

At 3:30, An hour after beginning the search, the soundman on the Thetis got a clear contact on the bottom. McCormick did not hesitate, having done this so many times before. Passing over U-157, McCormick turned Thetis around doing fourteen knots. He attacked the sub with seven depth charges, released at five second intervals and two from the y-gun. The charges were set at 200 and 300 feet and fell perfectly around the German sub. Wolf Henne and his crew never again surfaced. Debris from the submarine, however, did. The crew of the Thetis found a couple of pairs of pants and an empty tube stamped "Made in Germany." Five other ships made runs on the target to insure the kill, but Thetis sank the sub and received the credit.

The Coast Guard proved with these two sinkings that they were providing a valuable contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic. The service would continue to fight the U-boats during the entire war, eventually sinking ten more submarines.


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Last Modified 1/26/2012