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Q: In addition to attacking shipping, why didn’t German U-boats surface and shell military or civilian targets on shore?

James Goodwin

Lake Ridge, Va.

A: German and Japanese submarines did halfheartedly attack American land targets. Shore bombardments were risky, and the submarines’ light deck guns were intended to sink undefended merchant ships at short range. They could not hit targets at longer ranges, especially at night.

The Germans considered shore bombardments a waste of time. Admiral Karl Dönitz, Germany’s U-boat führer, was focused on the tonnage war and sinking Allied shipping. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder ordered three U-boats to bombard the Shell oil refinery on Aruba. Dönitz disobeyed and ordered his captains to go after the tankers first and only then undertake Raeder’s bombardment, if conditions allowed. On February 16, 1942, U-156 surfaced after dark to bombard Aruba’s tank farm. However, the crew forgot to remove the protective tampion from the 105mm deck gun, and the weapon exploded with the first round.

Dönitz then sent U-67 and U-502 to Aruba, but their captains aborted because the refinery was blacked out, and a Dutch launch patrolled the harbor. Obviously, they had little stomach for the job. In one last effort on April 19, U-130 attacked the Shell facility at Curaçao. Shore batteries drove it off after firing only 12 rounds.

Japanese submarines did attack targets on American soil. In 1942, I-17 lobbed 17 rounds into the Ellwood oil field near Santa Barbara. Most fell into the tidal flats, but the attack caused a sensation

Four months passed before Tokyo ordered a follow-up. I-26 engaged a lighthouse in British Columbia and I-25 attacked Fort Stevens near the Oregon seaport Astoria on June 21, 1942. It was so inaccurate that the shore battery held fire to keep from giving the sub a point of aim.

I-25’s seaplane, trying to trigger forest fires, twice bombed the Oregon countryside. In the first case, a ranger extinguished the resulting blaze; in the second, the forest was too wet to ignite.


Vincent P. O’Hara, a regular MHQ contributor, is the author of two naval histories: The German Fleet at War, 1939– 1945 ,and The U. S. Navy Against the Axis: Surface Combat, 1941–1945.

Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.