The Burning Shore: How Hitler’s U-Boats Brought World War II to America

By Ed Offley. 288 pp. Basic, 2014. $27.99.

In June 1942, flames leapt into the air and black smoke from the last giant oil tanker in a northbound convoy filled the sky near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, on the United States’ mid-Atlantic coast. Swimmers felt the shock wave from the blast before they heard it; bronzed vacationers gathered and watched from the shore. As word quickly spread, thousands more spectators raced to the beach.The extremely capable Horst Degen,commander of U-701, had just struck,bringing the war startlingly close to home for these bystanders. In previous months, the 28-year-old Degen had led a wolf pack that inflicted serious damage on Britain’s lifeline, like others prowling throughout the Atlantic. Indeed, in the first half of 1942, the Third Reich’s rampaging U-boats had destroyed more than350 merchant ships, causing consternation and deep unease among the Allies.

To the daring and resourceful men in German navy commander Admiral Karl Dönitz’s underwater fleet, these months were “the happy time”—der Glückliche Zeit. For Americans, the period was deadly. Hundreds of merchant sailors lost their lives, often in sight of American shores. Sadly, the U.S. Navy had initially resisted rudimentary defenses, like forming coastal shipping into convoys; and although it was now ramping up its technology and training, the navy still had not deployed enough destroyers to combat the U-boat threat in American waters. The worst damage Degen wreaked was in and around the Chesapeake Bay, an under-protected estuary near the nation’s capital. The bay proved an ideal hunting ground because of its proximity to deep water, where U-boats could crash dive and hide.

Degen was a formidable predator. After effectively mining the waters off Virginia’s Naval Station Norfolk, he sank three ships on his first patrol. But that was his last success. On July 7, 1942, Lieutenant Harry Kane and his crew, flying a Lockheed Hudson, spotted Degen’s boat on the surface. Using the latest antisubmarine techniques and technology, and flying exceedingly low on a bombing run, Kane sank Degen’s boat as it tried to dive. For those caught inside, nightmarish minutes followed.

Above, Kane circled, then spotted men in the water. What followed was an act of extraordinary mercy. Slowing the Hudson down to “near-stalling speed,” Kane counted about 16 German heads bobbing below, struggling to survive. Kane got on the intercom and ordered his crew to take off their life jackets; these were then dropped to the Germans along with a life raft. “They were beaten,” Kane later said of the U-boat survivors. “They couldn’t hurt anyone anymore.”

It was one of the first sinkings of a German boat in American waters. Degen and some of his men drifted for more than two days at sea before a Coast Guard plane picked them up. Amazingly, not long after, antagonists Kane and Degen met in a navy hospital. More than 40 years later the two reunited again and became firm friends.

The Burning Shore is a fast-paced and expertly drawn account of the 1942 battle for supremacy in the waters along the United States’ Eastern seaboard. The book adeptly recaps the tactics and technologies rapidly developing during this crucial phase, but the story’s electrifying tale centers on Kane and Degen, two compelling rivals. Throughout, we are reminded of just how close the Allies came to defeat in the toughest chapter of the Battle of the Atlantic. But above all, this is a story of decent men in terrible times. “We couldn’t leave them to drown like rats,” Kane recalled of Degen and his fellow survivors. “They were like us; they’d a job to do and they’d done it.”

 

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.