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Battle of the Atlantic
Search and Rescue
The Hooligan Navy

The North Atlantic Run

The Battle of the Atlantic had been raging for over two years before the U.S. joined the war and Coast Guard operations in the North Atlantic began well before the U.S. entered the war. Cutters performed convoy escort duty side-by-side with British and Canadian ships. Once the U.S. entered the war, the cutters became fully involved in the battle. In the grand scheme of convoy routing, the U.S. was responsible for the western half of the Atlantic. U.S. escort groups escorted convoys from Halifax to the English coast and then pick up a west-bound convoy and escort it to Halifax. Adm. Doenitz’s u-boats waited in the middle.

U-boat tactics called for centralized radio control. The British developed a high-frequency radio direction finder, called “huff-duff” to locate them based on their constant radio use. The Coast Guard manned shore-based huff-duff stations. In 1942, shipboard huff-duff became available making intelligence available to the escorts on scene. The escorts used radar to locate surfaced u-boats and sonar to track submerged ones. The fact that England had broken the German naval code using Ultra technology was counterbalanced by the fact that the Germans had also broken the Allied merchant codes. So, even though the Allies knew the German locations and plans, the Germans also knew the convoy routes and makeups.

The Allies used long-range aircraft fling from land bases in the States and England to cover the convoy for most of its route. But an air gap existed south of Greenland where most of the coming battles were waged. The Germans called it the “Devil’s Gorge”, the Allies, “Torpedo Junction”.

The North Atlantic storms in the winter of 1942-1943 were the worst in 50 years, rendering radar and sonar almost useless. Over 100 u-boats waited in the path of the convoys. The resulting carnage has been called the “Bloody Winter”.

Through 1943, only one escort group, Ocean Escort Group A-3, was under American command. It was commanded by Capt. Paul Heineman, USN, and consisted of USCGC Spencer, USCGC Campbell, one British, and four Canadian corvettes. Ships often transferred between groups and groups, when under threat of attack, were often reinforced by ships held in reserve in Iceland. Ships held in reserve in Iceland included USCGCs Bibb, Duane, Ingham, and Hamilton (lost on 29 January 1942). These six cutters were of the newly commissioned Secretary-class. Spencer and Campbell had shipboard huff-duffs.

The first Coast Guard action came on 17 December 1942 when Ingham, escorting Convoy SC-112, sent U-626 to the bottom with all hands. Later, a wolf pack attacked SC-118, sinking SS Henry Mallory. Bibb and Ingham ignored a British command to maintain course and stopped to assist Mallory’s crew. Coastguardsmen jumped over the side to pull 235 survivors to safety. Bibb then rescued another 33 men from the stricken SS Kalliopi before rejoining the convoy.

In February 1943, Convoy ON-166, bound for Halifax, was attacked. On 20 February, Spencer attacked a radar contact and drove off U-604. On 21 February, Spencer gained a sonar contact, attacked, and sent U-529 to the bottom. Campbell attacked and damaged two u-boats and rescued 50 men from a Norwegian tanker. She then attacked a sonar contact, forced U-606 to the surface, and rammed her, incurring damage to her engine room in the process. She drifted for four days until a tug towed her to Newfoundland. Spencer then attacked and damaged U-454 in the final action of the week-long, 1,000-mile battle.

March was the deadliest month of the war in the North Atlantic. In the first three weeks, the Allies lost 97 ships, and even America’s industrial strength could not keep up. Convoy SC-121 lost 13 out of 59 ships.

On 16 April, Spencer forced U-175 to the surface. After a gun battle, the German crew abandoned their ship. A boarding party led by Lt. Ross Bullard determined that the u-boat could not be salvaged. Bullard became the first American serviceman to board an enemy warship underway at sea since the 19th century. Spencer then rescued the 41 German crewmen.

The Allies added destroyer escorts and patrol frigates to the convoys. A major innovation was the escort carrier, which carried ASW aircraft and eliminated the air gap. In May 1943, the Allies sank 41 u-boats. In July, 45 u-boats went to the bottom taking only 24 cargo ships with them. Doenitz retired his u-boats from the North Atlantic.

By 1944, the Coast Guard manned 30 Edsall-class Destroyer Escorts (DEs) and the entire 75-ship class of Tacoma-class Patrol Frigates (PFs). In March 1944 Leopold became the first Coast Guard DE sunk by a u-boat. In April, Joyce sank U-550.

In 1945, the Navy moved to hunter-killer group. CDR Reginald French commanded Coast Guard-manned Escort Division 46, comprised of Pride, Menges, Mosley, and Lowe. This group accounted for the last three Coast Guard u-boat kills, U-866, U-857, and U-853, in April and May of 1945.

The Med Run

Malta's geographical position, halfway between the strategic British bases at Gibraltar and Alexandia, close to the Sicilian Channel between Sicily and Tunis and on the sea route between Italy and its possessions in Libya, made it a vital base for control of the Mediterranean sea routes. For Britain this was the short route, via the Suez Canal, to its colonies in India, East Africa and the Far East and also to the major oil producers of Iraq and Iran. During the first year of the war, however, this region was a military backwater. Much of the coast was under Allied control and the rest was neutral. Moreover, the British and French fleets dominated. The only other effective regional naval power was Italy, but at this time she was neutral. As a result, British defences on Malta were neglected. As Italy joined the war and France fell, Malta became isolated. Britain began to run a series of convoys through the Med to keep the base fighting. The main opponent of these convoys, unlike the Arctic and Atlantic convoys, were German and Italian aircraft. Italian subs played a smaller role. Through the valiant efforts of these convoys, Malta remained a major supply base for the Allies in North Africa.

While her sister 327s were engaged in the North Atlantic, USCGC Taney, after fighting in the Pacific through 1943, fought on the Mediterranean convoy route in 1944. She was the flagship for many convoys bound from the U.S. to Africa. The main threat on this run was German air power in the Med. The aircraft were as deadly as the u-boats. The main weapon against these aircraft was the 5"/38 cal. dual purpose gun. Because of her operations in the Med, Taney was armed with four 5”/38s, the only 327 to be so armed.

The Russian Convoys

After Germany invaded Russia, the U.K. and later the U.S. began providing materials to that country by convoy. The Arctic Convoys travelled from the U.K. and the U.S. to Archangel and Murmansk in northern Russia. These convoys faced the harshest weather conditions of the war. There were 78 convoys between August 1941 and May 1945 (although there were two gaps with no sailings between July and September 1942, and March and November 1943). About 1,400 merchant ships delivered vital supplies to the Soviet Union. 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were lost. The Germans lost a number of vessels including one battleship and at least 30 u-boats as well as a large number of aircraft. No Coast Guard manned units participated in the Russian convoy toute.

Coastal Convoys

As soon as the U.S. declared war, Germany sent u-boats to harass shipping along the U.S. east coast. The first German u-boats began operating there in January 1942. East coast shipping included not only ships that routinely plied the coastal trade, but also those bound to and from trans-Atlantic convoy runs. The convoys usually assembled in Halifax and ships bringing goods form all up and down the coast sailed north to join them. No north-south convoys were established yet, so ships sailed independently and unescorted. The German boats rested on the bottom by day and hunted at night. Ships were torpedoed within sight of people on the shore. Amazingly, as gunfire could be clearly heard by tourist on the beaches, as fires from stricken ships lit the night sky, and as oil and bodies washed ashore from sunken ships, cities along the coast refused to participate in a nighttime blackout. It was claimed that darkness would hurt the tourist industry. So ships sailed offshore, clearly silhouetted by the lights on shore. The German captains called this the “Happy Time”.

The Coast Guard was charged with protecting the coastal shipping lanes. The main weapons against the u-boats were the “B” class 165-foot Argo/Thetis-class and 125-foot Active-class cutters, plus a variety of tenders, tugs, and converted yachts. All together, there were about 70 ships for the entire coast. Aircraft aided in the search missions. The Navy complimented the patrols with older destroyers.

The early months did not go well. Cutters spent most of their time rescuing sailors from sunken ships, salvaging stricken ships that did not sink, and marking sunken ships as hazards to navigation. Finally, in March, Navy aircraft sank two u-boats, and in April, USS Roper nailed another. On 9 May, USCGC Icarus nailed U-352. LT Maurice Jester was awarded the Navy Cross. May also saw the inauguration of north-south escorted convoys and mandatory blackout conditions for all coastal cities. On 13 June USCGC Thetis, commanded by LTJG N.C. McCormick, nailed U-157. On 1 August, a Coast Guard J4F piloted by Chief Aviation Pilot Henry White and crewed by RM1 George Boggs sank U-166 with a single well-placed depth charge. This was the only Coast Guard air victory over a u-boat in the war. White was awarded a DFC and Boggs an Air Medal. In the first six months of the war, the U.S. had sunk only six u-boats and the Coast Guard accounted for three of them. Germany had built 123 more. U-boats had claimed 400 ships. Among the casualties was USCGC Acacia, a buoy tender sunk by deck guns by U-161. But the new convoy system and the blackout worked. This, coupled with newer, more capable escort vessels coming into the fleet, began to turn the tide. At the end of August, Germany pulled her u-boats form the coast in search of easier prey. Individual boats still forayed to the coast, but Happy Time was over.

In the Caribbean Sea, the Coast Guard manned eight corvettes, 208-foot vessels built in Canada and commissioned between November 1942 and August 1943. All were principally employed escorting coastal convoys between Florida and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was rather monotonous duty enlivened by an occasional sonar contact and more frequently by rough weather, in which the little ships justified their reputation for seaworthiness, and for lack of sea kindliness. They also acquired four SC-1-class sub chasers of WWI vintage.

Search and Rescue (SAR)

A traditional peacetime mission that became even more important during the war was search and rescue, especially off the war torn East Coast. Thousands of u-boat survivors owe their lives to the work of Coast Guard stations along the coast. On 23 January 1942, motor lifeboats from Stations Hatteras Inlet and Ocracoke saved two men from the tanker Empire Glen. On 27 January, motor lifeboats saved 28 out of 32 men from the tanker Francis E. Powell. On 3 February, CGC Nike saved 40 crewmen from the United Fruit freighter San Gil. On 5 February, a Coast Guard aircraft directed Nike to the 37-man crew of the torpedoed tanker China Arrow. On 15 February, CGC Calypso rescued 42 crewmen from the torpedoed Buarque. On 16 February, CGC Woodbury saved 40 crewmen from the torpedoed tanker E.H. Blum. On 19 February, the tanker Pan American was torpedoed and its lifeboats caught fire. Her crew of 38 jumped into the water. CGC Forward dodged through the patches of fire to rescue 18. On 21 February, Vigilant went to the aid of the burning tanker Cities Service Empire to rescue three men in a lifeboat with fouled falls. The cutter then picked up another 36 men from lifeboats. The tanker W.D. Anderson went down in flames off Palm Beach. Her only survivor was rescued by the Auxiliary. On 28 February, motor lifeboats from Station Shark River went to the assistance of the tanker R.P. Reser. The tanker was completely engulfed in flames and burning oil spread 500 feet around her. The boat crew located a survivor who was too slippery from oil to be pulled aboard. They fastened a line around him and towed him away from the fire. When they finally got him on board, they went back into the flames and went through the same routine for a second survivor. That was all they could find out of a crew of 49. This list could go on and on.

In September 1943, ENS W.M.Braswell, flying from AIRSTA Miami, landed next to a ditched and submerged Pan American aircraft, swam to it, pulled three unconscious crewmen from it, and, with help from his radioman, resuscitated all three men before turning them over to a patrol boat. In December 1943, the first Air Sea Rescue Unit was established in San Diego and on 22 February 1944, the National Air Sea Rescue Agency was established. The Coast Guard was the lead agency. In December 1944, ENS F.T. Merritt rescued a Navy fighter pilot who had collided with a target tow aircraft and crashed into the ocean. From 14 to 20 January 1945, AIRSTA Port Angeles aircraft searched along with Army, Navy and Forrest Service aircraft for the crew of a Navy patrol plane that had crashed in the mountains 130 miles northeast of Seattle. On 17 January, four men were found and the Army and Navy secured search efforts. The Coast Guard and Forrest Service continued and found the other two men three days later. Statistics from the Northern California Air Sea Rescue Center show that in 37 air crashes involving 98 people, 51 people were beyond assistance. Of the other 47, 42 were rescued.

The Hooligan Navy

In the early days of the war, the Navy was in desperate need of vessels to patrol the coastal waters to look for subs and rescue survivors from attacks. Alfred Stanford, of the Cruising Club of America, tried to convince the Navy that civilians could help them and offered several sailing yachts to the effort. On 4 May 1942, the Navy directed the Coast Guard Reserve to organize the Coastal Picket Patrol, also known as the Corsair Fleet. In Adm. Morison’s words, “Thus was born the Coastal Picket Patrol (by Cruising Club out of Coast Guard), COMINCH playing the somewhat unwilling role of midwife. The question, whether sailing yachts could be any use in antisubmarine warfare, was debated in the Navy and the press, in waterfront taverns and along yacht club bars, and wherever two or more amateur admirals collided.” Vessels had to be able to cruise in the open ocean for up to two days. They would carry machine guns, depth charges, and a radio. They were organized into six groups; Northern, Narragansett, New York, Delaware, Chesapeake, and Southern. The vessels’ owners stayed onboard as master and the crew was made up of almost anyone who could sail, including Boy Scouts, rumrunners, college kids, and beachcombers. Many came from the Auxiliary. With such a diversified clientele, the fleet began to be referred to as the Hooligan Navy. They were assigned to patrol the 50-fathom curve along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Unfortunately (fortunately?) by the time enough boats were outfitted and crews trained, the u-boat threat along the coast was subsiding and the patrol never got the chance to truly prove itself.

On 13 August 1942, a flight of ten Army aircraft tested the air defense network along the Massachusetts coast. No military ship or shore station picked up the incoming, possibly hostile, flight. The only units that saw and reported them were four of the Picket Patrol craft. On 15 September 1942, Edlu II was patrolling south of Montauk Point when she saw a u-boat surfaced about 100 yards away. When she closed to engage with machine guns, the u-boat captain, unsure of the exact armament of the aggressive boat, crash dived and exited the area. Another German captain surfaced his boat right beside a picket boat, stepped out on deck, and, in perfect English, said, “Get the hell out of here, you guys! Do you want to get hurt? Now scram!” Another yacht, Zaida, was disabled in a winter gale off New England and drifted for three weeks before she was found and her crew rescued. Such was the life of the Hooligan Navy.

As fast as 83-foot patrol boats could be launched and manned, civilian yachts were released from service. On 1 October 1943, the Hooligan Navy was disestablished.

In these very early days of the war, the Coast Guard also purchased or leased several yachts form local boaters and fitted them with weapons and a Coast Guard crew. The service did not bother to rename the leased vessels. As a result, some very interesting names are recorded in the list of cutters. Probably the most notable would be a yacht purchased from a boater from Essington, PA. USCGC Bozo.

For a complete list of cutters engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic (North Atlantic and Malta) go to this Link.

For a complete list of cutters engaged in coastal convoys go to this Link.

For an overview of cutters in the Hooligan Navy go to this Link

For a complete list of Navy combatants manned by the Coast Guard go to this Link.