The Burning Shore

How Hitler's U-Boats Brought World War II to America


By Ed Offley

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On June 15, 1942, as thousands of vacationers lounged in the sun at Virginia Beach, two massive fireballs erupted just offshore from a convoy of oil tankers steaming into Chesapeake Bay. While men, women, and children gaped from the shore, two damaged oil tankers fell out of line and began to sink. Then a small escort warship blew apart in a violent explosion. Navy warships and aircraft peppered the water with depth charges, but to no avail. Within the next twenty-four hours, a fourth ship lay at the bottom of the channel — all victims of twenty-nine-year-old Kapitäeutnant Horst Degen and his crew aboard the German U-boat U-701.

In The Burning Shore, acclaimed military reporter Ed Offley presents a thrilling account of the bloody U-boat offensive along America’s east coast during the first half of 1942, using the story of Degen’s three war patrols as a lens through which to view this forgotten chapter of World War II. For six months, German U-boats prowled the waters off the eastern seaboard, sinking merchant ships with impunity, and threatening to sever the lifeline of supplies flowing from America to Great Britain. Degen’s successful infiltration of the Chesapeake Bay in mid-June drove home the U-boats’ success, and his spectacular attack terrified the American public as never before. But Degen’s cruise was interrupted less than a month later, when U.S. Army Air Forces Lieutenant Harry J. Kane and his aircrew spotted the silhouette of U-701 offshore. The ensuing clash signaled a critical turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic — and set the stage for an unlikely friendship between two of the episode’s survivors.

A gripping tale of heroism and sacrifice, The Burning Shore leads readers into a little-known theater of World War II, where Hitler’s U-boats came close to winning the Battle of the Atlantic before American sailors and airmen could finally drive them away.



VIEWED FROM THE AIR, THE NORTH CAROLINA COAST WOULD not have resembled a major battlefield. Yet, as the sun climbed above the eastern horizon, bathing the pine scrub forests and inland waterways in a brilliant orange light, a brutal and desperate struggle was raging just offshore. On Tuesday, July 9, 1942, the area was a critical combat theater of World War II, as it had been for the past six months.

A confluence of factors had made this intersection of land and ocean the fulcrum of the ongoing naval confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Western Allies, a vicious maritime clash now known as the Battle of the Atlantic. By July 1942, the combatants had expanded beyond the British Empire and Nazi Germany. America’s entry into the war against Germany on December 11, 1941, had thrown the US military into the fray. In turn, Hitler’s Ubootwaffe, or U-boat Force, initiated an all-out war against American merchant shipping. Vizeadmiral (Vice Admiral) Karl Dönitz, commander-in-chief of the U-boat Force, aimed to win a guerre de course against the Western Allies, sinking their merchant ships at a rate faster than new construction could replace them. Aware that American supplies were the lifeline keeping Britain in the war, his strategic imperative was to starve the import-dependent United Kingdom out of the fight, thereby depriving the Allies of a launching pad for an invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.*

Beginning in early 1942, Germany’s U-boat forces had shifted their operations from the mid-Atlantic to the American coastline, where Allied merchant vessels steamed as they took on supplies in East Coast ports or proceeded from the Caribbean with cargos for England. Each day, scores of merchantmen traveled independently through those unprotected waters. Between the Newfoundland Grand Banks and the shallow waters off Florida, the richest hunting ground for the U-boats was the expanse of Atlantic Ocean off the North Carolina coast.

In the waters off Cape Hatteras, climate, geography, and ocean currents combined to create a bottleneck through which merchant ships had to pass as they steamed along the coast. Several dozen miles out from the string of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, the Gulf Stream constantly flows north from warmer latitudes. Driven by prevailing westerlies and fed by saltwater currents emerging from the Caribbean and West Indies, this river of warmer water, usually about sixty miles wide and 4,000 feet deep, powers along the eastern seaboard at an average speed of five nautical miles per hour. When it reaches Cape Hatteras, about halfway down the Outer Banks, the Gulf Stream collides with the colder waters of the southerly Labrador Current, producing fog, extreme waves, and frequent storms. To avoid these offshore hazards and the treacherous conditions closer inshore, merchant ships were forced to thread a thirty- to fifty-mile-wide needle between the Outer Banks and the Gulf Stream. The German U-boat sailors stalking those cargo-laden targets favored this area as a lucrative target area.1

U-boat commanders loved Cape Hatteras for a second reason. The underwater topography along the North Carolina coast provided protection that greatly offset the World War II–era U-boat’s one serious weakness. Powered by diesel engines on the surface and battery-driven electric motors while submerged, the U-boats in 1942 were extremely vulnerable to detection by aircraft and sonar-equipped warships when operating in shallow waters. While the continental shelf is over a hundred miles wide off the mid-Atlantic states and Florida, making it difficult for U-boats to operate there with any degree of secrecy, off Cape Hatteras the seabed quickly drops to several hundred feet in just a couple dozen miles to the east, creating a readily accessible hiding spot during the dangerous daylight hours. The deepwater haven served the U-boats well. By July 7, U-boats operating off the Outer Banks had sunk forty-five merchant ships totaling 262,137 gross registered tons.2

In the first half of 1942, the Allies had suffered a devastating and prolonged defeat in the western Atlantic. Plagued by shortages of aircraft and warships and hobbled by poor training and inferior weaponry, the US Navy and US Army Air Forces (USAAF) achieved scant results in their effort to halt U-boat attacks on merchant ships. Thus far in the Battle of the Atlantic, Germany had lost only four U-boats and 161 submariners in North American coastal waters. In a desperate move, the US Navy and USAAF, over the months leading up to July, had rushed patrol squadrons to bases up and down the East Coast to provide an air umbrella over the coastal shipping routes. It was an uphill fight. The aircrews were inexperienced, their search-and-attack doctrine had serious flaws, and their aircraft sensors and weapons were insufficient to thwart the U-boat threat. Thus far, Admiral Dönitz appeared on track to achieve his strategic goal.3

IN RESPONSE TO THE U-BOATS LURKING OFFSHORE, US military planners had selected the new Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in eastern North Carolina as a temporary base for antisubmarine patrols. Although the base was still a construction site, the crisis in the Atlantic necessitated an ad hoc response. Cherry Point’s location between Hampton Roads, Virginia, to the north and Charleston, South Carolina, farther down the coast, meant that aircraft from the base could cover the entire Outer Banks region. Initially, the navy and USAAF sent a number of observation and scouting squadrons to Cherry Point on temporary patrol duty, but their unarmed, short-range SOC-3 Seagull amphibian biplanes and O-52 Owl observation aircraft posed no threat to the U-boats. However, in mid-May, the Army Air Forces dispatched the first of a series of light bomber units to North Carolina that flew A-20 Havoc, B-18 Bolo, or A-29 Hudson bombers. With this new combat capability, planners devised a daily cycle of three antisubmarine patrols, each conducted by two bombers. The flights followed the same pattern. After reaching a separation point twenty-five miles offshore, one aircraft flew parallel to the shoreline up to Hampton Roads, while the second proceeded southwest parallel to the coastline until reaching Charleston. Each mission lasted five hours, with the three patrols overlapping to ensure no gap in coverage.

The twin-engine Lockheed A-29 Hudson proved to be an effective patrol bomber against U-boats during the war. Flown by the US Army Air Forces, US Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force, and Royal Air Force, Hudsons during the first twenty-eight months of the war were credited with sinking twelve out of forty-six U-boats destroyed by aircraft and forcing the surrender of a thirteenth, the Type VIIC U-570. USAAF PHOTO.

On July 7, the patrols went off as scheduled. By mid-morning, the first pair of bombers was nearing the halfway point of the patrol, and a second group of airmen was preparing for takeoff. Taxiing to the head of one of Cherry Point’s four runways, the pilots radioed readiness for departure. It was 10:15 A.M. The air traffic controller granted permission to take off, and the two A-29 Lockheed Hudsons raced down the runway and lifted into the air. At the twenty-five-mile point, one pilot turned onto the southwest leg toward South Carolina. The second Hudson turned to the left and headed north toward Hampton Roads.4

Cutaway diagram of a Type VIIC German U-boat. ILLUSTRATION BY ROBERT E. PRATT.

ABOUT 120 MILES EAST-NORTHEAST of Cherry Point that morning, beneath a featureless spot on the surface of the Atlantic, forty-six German sailors were suffering in almost unbearable agony as they waited out the dangerous daylight hours submerged near the seabed. Their Type VIIC U-boat was in its fifty-eighth day at sea since leaving its base in France on May 19. The air inside the 220-foot-long submersible was fouler than usual because the primitive scrubbing units that stripped the air of dangerous carbon dioxide were failing. Worse, the ambient water temperature rose above seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit each day. Without cooler water outside the boat to offset the heat from the U-boat’s batteries and electric motors, the machinery pushed the interior temperature to well over one hundred degrees. The sailors suffered splitting headaches and fits of vomiting from the foul stench of diesel fumes, unwashed bodies, and human waste.

The only good news for the crew was that the boat had used up all but two of its torpedoes, so the crewmen were no longer cramped by the extra torpedoes kept in storage racks above the deck plates in the bow compartment, where most of them slept. Just aft of the bow compartment was the officer’s berthing space, the commander’s cubbyhole, and two tiny spaces where the duty radiomen stood watch. In the small hydrophone room, one of the two radiomen wore a headset listening for sounds of approaching enemy warships. The second radio watch-stander sat in the cramped radio room, waiting to pick up signals from U-boat Force Headquarters in Lorient, France. But most activity took place in the center of the boat in the larger Zentrale (control room).

Throughout the morning of July 7, the U-boat loitered in a restless state of suspended animation several hundred feet down. In quieter sea conditions, the U-boat could rest on the seabed. However, the flow of the Gulf Stream was strong enough to drag the boat against the sand and rocks, increasing the chance of damage or, even worse, detection by enemy sonar. Under the supervision of the first watch officer (1WO), a half dozen crewmen in the U-boat’s control room worked to maintain a careful hover just a few feet above the seabed. The helmsman and another control plane operator oriented the submerged U-boat head-on into the Gulf Stream current, while a machinist’s mate operated the trim tanks to maintain the boat’s neutral buoyancy by shifting ballast water from forward to aft, or vice versa, as the situation dictated. Farther aft in the stern compartment, sailors monitored the two electric motors that drove the boat’s twin propellers at just enough speed to neutralize the current. It was tedious, never-ending work to keep the five-hundred-ton U-boat properly suspended.5

Despite the atrocious atmosphere inside the U-boat, the crew’s morale was good. They endured these hellish conditions with stoic indifference. Both the commander and his men were proud of their accomplishments thus far in their third war patrol. Their record to date was four Allied ships sunk totaling 21,789 gross registered tons, including two naval patrol vessels, and four damaged merchantmen for another 37,093 gross tons. With a fuel state approaching the minimum required for the 3,000-mile return trip to France, the U-boat commander told his men he planned to hunt for only “a day or two more” before breaking off patrol.6

The bow compartment of a U-boat is crammed with perishable foods and spare torpedoes at the outset of a patrol. CLAY BLAIR COLLECTION, AMERICAN HERITAGE CENTER, UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING.

At about 2:00 P.M. local time, the commander decided to cleanse the submersible of its foul air. He had taken this step on previous days to bring some much-needed relief to his crew. Blowing the ballast tanks, the crew brought the U-boat to periscope depth. Up in the conning tower, the commander raised the thin search periscope above the surface and made a quick circle. The ocean and sky appeared empty. The hydrophone operator reported no underwater sounds that would indicate the presence of an enemy patrol vessel. The commander ordered the U-boat farther up until its slender bridge structure was barely out of the water, its main deck awash.

“Blow all tanks! Diesels full speed ahead,” the commander called. He popped the circular hatch open, quickly climbing up onto the U-boat’s narrow, exposed bridge with three lookouts. As he and the others began scanning the sky, the boat’s chief engineer ordered the two Germaniawerft six-cylinder M6V 40/46 diesel motors lit off. However, instead of opening the bridge-mounted air intakes that fed air directly to the two engines, the crew left them shut. As the two engines thundered to life, they sucked sweet sea air into the boat through the open bridge hatch in a welcome, man-made gale. The longer the diesel engines ran, the cleaner the atmosphere inside the ship would be—and with the U-boat some thirty to thirty-five miles away from the Outer Banks, it had ample room to maneuver before it would arrive in the dangerous waters above the continental shelf. The U-boat slowly headed on a course of 320 degrees toward the distant shore.

THE FIRST OF THE TWO LOCKHEED HUDSONS on midday patrol was into its fifth hour of flight and on the reciprocal leg of its southwesterly patrol route when it arrived in the vicinity of Cape Hatteras, flying parallel with the coastline about thirty miles offshore. The squadron’s tactical doctrine at that time, reflecting the USAAF’s inexperience in hunting U-boats, dictated that the aircraft fly at an altitude of just one hundred feet above sea level. However, the bomber’s pilot opted to exploit the current weather conditions on this patrol, particularly a cloud layer at 1,200 feet. He was flying just above the broken canopy of clouds on the assumption that he and his crew could see much farther than at the lower altitude and that the clouds would cloak the aircraft from any U-boat lookouts.

It was 2:12 P.M. when the pilot spotted a tiny, feather-like line on the water about ten miles from his left-hand window. He instinctively lifted the aircraft higher up into the cloud layer, turned left to a heading of due west, and pulled back on the throttles to reduce engine noise that U-boat lookouts might detect, while alerting his four crewmen over the intercom. After a minute, the pilot quickly dropped the aircraft’s nose below the layer for several seconds as everyone peered out of the aircraft. The line in the ocean was still there and becoming clearer. The Hudson remained concealed in the clouds as it approached the potential target, the pilot and crew tense with apprehension. No Army Air Forces warplane had ever sunk a U-boat in American waters. If all went well in the next few minutes, that distinction would be theirs.7

* For a comparison of naval officer ranks in the American, British, and German navies of World War II, see Appendix on page 267.



A LINE OF ARMY TRUCKS DROVE SLOWLY UP TO THE MAIN GATE of Florida’s Drane Army Airfield, where uniformed military policemen waved them through. The trucks halted in front of the airfield’s induction center, and several dozen men in civilian clothes climbed down, each lugging a small suitcase. It was a weekday in early March 1941, and the latest crop of army aviation cadets was reporting for active duty at the busy airfield outside of the town of Lakeland.

One of the cadets who stepped down from the truck at Drane was a stocky, twenty-two-year-old New Yorker named Harry Joseph Kane Jr. The day before, he had boarded the southbound Tamiami Champion at Penn Station in New York for the overnight trip to central Florida and a chance at winning a commission—and his pilot’s wings—in the US Army Air Corps.1

Over the course of 1940, Kane—like many of his contemporaries—had deemed it prudent to prepare himself for war. While the United States officially remained neutral as the global conflict raged in Europe, the violence was metastasizing worldwide like a runaway cancer. Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 had finally prompted Hitler’s European foes to declare war on the Nazi regime, but the subsequent fifteen months had brought nothing but more German conquests. The Wehrmacht had invaded and occupied seven more European states and launched a prolonged air war and U-boat campaign against Great Britain. Adolf Hitler’s reach now extended from the Arctic Circle to the Pyrenees and from the English Channel deep into Eastern Europe. Germany’s Italian and Japanese allies were also on the move from China and the western Pacific to North Africa and the Middle East.

In Washington, DC, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pursued a two-track response to events overseas throughout 1940. He staunchly reaffirmed neutrality while arming America to the teeth. The US Navy grew from 193 to 337 warships during that period, with another 119 under construction at the end of 1940. The navy’s ranks doubled from 106,000 to 210,000 men by year’s end. The army also expanded—from 190,000 men in the fall of 1939 to nearly 2 million in early 1941. The US military would expand at an even greater rate during the next four years. Production of military equipment such as aircraft, artillery, tanks, and trucks was soaring. Still, during his campaign for a third term in the White House in the fall of 1940, FDR remained adamant about keeping America out of the war. He stated in a Boston speech on October 31, “I have said this before, but I shall say it again, your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” He also defended his ongoing expansion of the US military, saying his objective was to create “a force so strong that, by its very existence, it will keep the threat of war far away from our shores.”2

Despite Roosevelt’s reassurances, Kane and many others of his generation were aware that American neutrality could quickly become a casualty of the spreading global conflict. In a way, the United States had already taken sides in the fight. FDR was steadily bolstering the British in their struggle against Hitler. On September 2, 1940, the United States and Great Britain concluded the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. The British agreed to provide ninety-nine-year land grants for American naval or air bases in eight British possessions in the Western Hemisphere. In turn, the United States provided the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy with fifty World War I–era flush-deck destroyers. Two weeks after that, the possibility of personal military involvement became obvious for everyone in Harry Kane’s age group. On September 16, Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which imposed military conscription on American males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five (the range would expand after Pearl Harbor to between eighteen and forty-five). The winds of war were clearly rising. With no desire to become a common foot soldier, Kane recalled years later that he needed “to get into something so that I wouldn’t have to go into the infantry.” The Brooklyn native decided to become a military aviator.3

For Harry Kane, this was not an impetuous decision. Rather, it was an act of cool calculation typical of the young New Yorker. Although born into a family of wealth and prestige, Kane had been forced to learn self-reliance at an early age. Kane’s maternal grandfather was the co-owner of a prosperous cotton-exporting firm in Brooklyn. When his son, Henry J. Kane Sr., married Gertrude Rose Heaney at the imposing Church of Saint Francis Xavier in Manhattan on October 28, 1916, more than nine hundred family members, friends, and business acquaintances attended, making it the city’s largest wedding of the year. Kane’s parents bought a stately home at 306 Garfield Place in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, where Harry, the first of three sons, was born on June 24, 1918.

Lieutenant Harry J. Kane joined the US Army Air Forces in March 1941, receiving his commission five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. COURTESY OF MARGUERITE KANE JAMESON.

Kane grew up immersed in the Irish Catholic community of Brooklyn, attending private Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. The family’s wealth provided for a comfortable life insulated from the Great Depression, but Kane’s childhood did not pass without trauma. His mother gave birth to two more sons, Frank and Richard, and the family grieved when Richard died at the age of four from a sudden illness. Then, when Harry and Frank Kane were still young, their father abandoned the family, forcing the boys’ mother to raise them alone. Somewhere along the way, Kane realized that if he were to accomplish his goals in life, he alone would identify them and make them come true.

After graduating from Brooklyn Prep in 1937, Kane spent three years working at various jobs, but he began paying close attention to the darkening world headlines. Choosing to join the military service before he was conscripted, Kane enrolled in a private flight school sometime in 1940, earning his private pilot’s license as he mulled over whether to join the Army Air Corps or the navy’s aviation branch. In early 1941, Kane opted for army aviation. His educational record and private pilot’s license won him quick acceptance. At Drane Army Airfield, he would take a three-month primary flight training course. Barring academic failure, an unexpected physiological problem, or aerial mishap, Kane anticipated finishing the other two phases of flight training—a ten-week basic flight school at Gunter Field in Montgomery, Alabama, followed by a ten-week advanced flight school at Barksdale Field in Louisiana—sometime in December 1941.4

SEVERAL WEEKS AFTER KANE ARRIVED IN FLORIDA, in early April 1941, newly promoted Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) Horst Degen took a train from northern Germany through occupied France to the Atlantic port of Saint-Nazaire. While the twenty-seven-year-old was no newcomer to military service or the ongoing European war, this particular journey marked a major milestone in his seven-year naval career. A surface navy officer since receiving his commission in 1936, Degen had transferred into the elite U-boat branch the previous July. Now, having recently finished five months of U-boat training and a three-month U-boat commander’s course, Degen was about to experience an actual wartime U-boat patrol. It was a heady time for a man who had dreamed of a life at sea ever since he was a young boy.

Degen was born on July 19, 1913, in the town of Hemer in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. His parents, Carl and Josephine Degen, were a respected couple in the town, where Carl Degen was a longtime civil servant and mayor. Horst Degen later recalled that he enjoyed “a happy, carefree time” as a boy, despite the harsh living conditions in Germany after the end of World War I. But tragedy found Degen all the same: both of his parents died before he reached the age of sixteen, leaving him and his ten-year-old sister, Ilse, to be raised by their twenty-three-year-old sister, Hanna, and her husband.

Upon finishing his last year in grammar school (the German equivalent of high school), Degen, then eighteen, traveled to the Reichsmarine Naval Barracks outside Kiel as an applicant to the German Naval Academy. There, he and other candidates were organized into groups of eight and given a battery of academic, physical fitness, and psychological tests to gauge their mental, athletic, and psychological prowess. In one test, instructors placed Degen alone in a room with one-way mirrors through which they monitored him. They told him to lift a heavy metal bar, which, as he did so, was charged with increasing levels of electricity. The candidates who resisted the shock and pain from the electrical current the longest received the highest marks. Degen himself never mentioned his score on that particular test, but his subsequent naval record indicates that he passed. Another challenge entailed following a complicated set of instructions for delivering a message to a navy officer. A classmate of Degen’s, Reinhard Hardegen, later recounted his experience: an instructor dictated, “Carry this piece of paper over that obstacle, cross the ditch, turn left, run until you arrive at a tall tree,” adding, “turn right, walk until you come to a man in a green coat, and say to him, ‘I have been ordered to deliver this paper to you.’” The candidate’s grade would depend on his ability to carry out the instructions accurately.

Horst Degen joined the navy at a time of profound change for Germany and its people. On April 1, 1933, the Reichsmarine formally admitted him as an Offiziersanwärter (officer candidate). Just one week earlier, Adolf Hitler—who had been serving as German chancellor in a coalition government since January 30—had persuaded the German Reichstag to pass a law formally consolidating his hold on power by granting the Nazis full legislative authority for a four-year period. Like many young members of the navy, Degen kept whatever opinions he had of the Nazi Party to himself, even as the regime tightened its grip on German society. He would later tell a navy colleague that while he himself had enjoyed a blithe upbringing as a boy, “This was no longer possible in the present days of the Hitler Youth,” which had supplanted all other children’s organizations and in which participation was mandatory for all.5

After passing the entry tests, Degen and his classmates reported to the Naval Academy at Flensburg-Mürwik. Overlooking the Flensburg Fjord, which links the ancient German city with the Baltic Sea, the academy was founded in 1910 by Kaiser Wilhelm II. At the time that Degen and the other members of the Class of 1933 entered, the academy curriculum included three months of basic infantry training on the island of Dänholm in the Baltic, followed by sailing instruction. Upon completion of that phase in the late summer, the ninety-four members of the Class of 1933 embarked on the four-year-old light cruiser Karlsruhe for a nine-month, around-the-world cruise.6

Leaving Kiel on October 4, 1933, the 8,130-ton warship carried a crew of 1,550 officers and enlisted crewmen, plus the Class of 1933 naval cadets. Karlsruhe skipper Kapitän zur See (Captain) Baron Harsdorf von Enderndorf ordered the cruiser south to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean for port visits in Sicily and Egypt, then transited the Suez Canal for the Indian Ocean and stops in Yemen, Ceylon, and India before a Christmas stopover in Indonesia. Degen would later recall enjoying a sumptuous Christmas Eve dinner with the owners of the Oranje Hotel in Padang before the Karlsruhe once again got underway for Australia and the long Pacific crossing to American Samoa and Hawaii.


On Sale
Mar 25, 2014
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Ed Offley

About the Author

Ed Offley is a seasoned military reporter and the author of Scorpion Down and Turning the Tide. He lives in Panama City Beach, Florida.

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