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The deck gun on the U-166, the only enemy submarine sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II

In the pleasant waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a few miles from New Orleans and a mile beneath the surface is a tomb. It is the seaweed-and-barnacle-encrusted wreck of German submarine U-166, the only enemy submarine sunk in the Gulf during World War II. Controversy has surrounded it ever since it went down and never resurfaced in the summer of 1942. Now, Nazi Attack on America, a new NOVA/National Geographic special set to debut on PBS May 6, tells what is known of the Unterseeboote’s fateful voyage and seeks to determine who was responsible for sinking it.

Dr. Robert D. BallardThe documentary follows Robert Ballad, president of the Ocean Explorer Trust, and his crew as they locate and film the wreckage, and then use that film to answer a question that has cast a shadow across an American naval commander’s reputation for over 50 years. To put its story in context, Nazi Attack on America provides background on the German U-boat war that first played out against Atlantic supply convoys before coming to the coastal waters of the United States. Using animated maps, period photos and movies, and a rotating CGI diagram of the inner workings of a U-boat, the documentary does an excellent job of communicating the necessary background information.

Many Americans today do not realize how unprepared their country was for war or how effectively U-boat commanders exploited that unpreparedness. As the film explains, between America’s entry into the war in December 1941 and February 6 of the following year, just five long-range U-boats sank 25 ships off the U.S. without a single loss of their own. The submariners referred to it as the “Second Happy Time” (the first being when they were attacking convoys traveling from the U.S. to England in 1940). One of the film’s commenters sums up this period as being “in effect, a U-boat Disneyland.”

The film cuts back and forth seamlessly between World War II and the present-day story of Ballad’s and his crew’s work to photograph the sunken U-166. In the present, remotely piloted undersea exploration vessels send images to the surface, showing the submarine remains in remarkably good condition. After an initial exploration, one of the vessels takes a high-resolution shot every three seconds. The images are then used to create a photomosaic of U-166’s wreckage.

U-166 conning towerThe reason for this careful image collection is that Ballard and his crew were on a mission to resolve once and for all who should be credited for sinking the enemy sub. Herbert Claudius, USN, commander of sub-chaser PC566, claimed to have gotten the “kill” when he pursued a periscope spotted just after the freighter Robert E. Lee was sunk by a torpedo attack. The PC566 launched depth charges, an oil slick rose, and Claudius sailed to New Orleans expecting to be congratulated on this first strike against the dreaded U-boats in the Gulf. Instead, he was castigated for having his ship out of position while escorting Robert E. Lee, using bad tactics, and other perceived failures. Relieved of command, he was sent back for additional training. Meanwhile, a few days after the Robert E. Lee incident, a Coast Guard plane was credited with sinking the sub at a different location. A good bit of the tension in the film centers around whether or not Claudius’s reputation will be exonerated.

Nazi Attack on America is a compelling film; I was never bored while watching it, even when it was covering subjects I was already familiar with. It gives viewers with little knowledge of the U-boat war enough information to understand the backdrop against which this coastal drama played out, without giving the more knowledgeable an excuse to go raid the ‘fridge. Among the highlights are clips from a home movie shot by the commander of U-166 before its final voyage and an excerpt from a video interview with Erich Topp, the third-most-successful U-boat commander of the war (Topp was also the man who commanded the U-boat that sank the destroyer USS Reuben James, while it was escorting a convoy bound for Great Britain on October 31, 1941, an event memorialized in a Woody Guthrie song.) The narration, editing, and scripting are all well done. Highly recommended.

Nazi Attack on America debuts May 6 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time, but check your local PBS listings.

Gerald D. Swick is senior editor of He previously wrote about U-boats in World War II for the March 2007 issue of Armchair General magazine. That issue also contains an interview with Erich Topp and is available through the HistoryNet Shop.