Reinhard Hardegen, a leading German submarine commander of the Second World War who brought U-boat warfare to the east coast of North America in the winter of 1942, died on June 9. He was 105.
His death, evidently in Bremen, Germany, was confirmed in the Bremen news media on Thursday by Christian Weber, the president of the Bremen State Parliament.
Soon after the United States went to war with Japan and Germany, Admiral Karl Donitz, the commander of the German submarine service, sent six U-boats to attack oil tankers and freighters in U.S. and Canadian waters before they could head overseas. The mission, code-named Paukenschlag (Drumbeat), was aimed at further disrupting Britain’s precarious supply lifeline and demoralizing its North American allies.
Mr. Hardegen, a captain, provided Drumbeat with some of its most stirring exploits, beginning on Jan. 12, 1942, when his vessel launched a surprise torpedo attack on the SS Cyclops, a British cargo ship off of Canada’s east coast. The SS Cyclops was ripped in half. The survivors, many of whom were injured, scrambled into lifeboats and were adrift for 20 hours in the icy waters off Cape Sable, N.S., before help arrived.
The U-boat continued heading south from there and sank two ships off Long Island. Mr. Hardegen steered the submarine close enough to New York to see the glare from Manhattan’s skyscrapers in the night skies.
“It was a very easy navigation for me,” he told Stephen Ames, a filmmaker, in a 1992 interview.
Approaching the entrance to New York’s Lower Bay on the evening of Jan. 14, 1942, Mr. Hardegen climbed to the bridge of U-123.
“I cannot describe the feeling with words, but it was unbelievably beautiful and great,” he wrote in a war memoir published in Germany in 1943. “I would have given away a kingdom for this moment if I had one. We were the first to be here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier looked upon the coast of the USA.”
By the time Mr. Hardegen’s two war patrols to North America had concluded in May, 1942, he had sunk or crippled 19 merchant vessels, according to Michael Gannon, the author of Operation Drumbeat (1990).
He did so despite suffering a severe leg injury in a crash while serving in Germany’s naval air arm in the 1930s.
Mr. Hardegen’s marauding and the sinkings carried out by fellow U-boat captains led the U.S. Navy to organize convoys of merchant vessels escorted by warships along the coastlines. The U.S. Army ordered lights along the East Coast to be doused or shielded to lessen the silhouetting of ships offshore that had made them easy prey for U-boats.
Mr. Hardegen was born March 18, 1913, in Bremen, Germany. He joined the German navy and visited New York in 1933 on a cadet-training cruise, going up to the Empire State Building’s observatory to gaze at the night skies over the city.
He transferred to the submarine branch in 1939, took command of U-123 in May, 1941, and was chosen for Drumbeat after sinking several ships off West Africa, his rank of kapitanleutnant the equivalent of a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.
In the early hours of Jan. 14, 1942, he brought U-123 east of Long Island and sank the Norwegian-manned oil tanker Norness about 240 kilometres from New York.
He kept his sub underwater during the daylight hours that followed. At nightfall, aided by tourist guidebooks to New York that he had brought along, he surfaced and followed the southern shore of Long Island and Queens, glimpsing the lights of homes and cars in the Rockaways and the illuminated Ferris wheel at Coney Island.
After getting to the outer reaches of New York Harbor, he returned to deeper waters off Long Island, where he sank the British oil tanker Coimbra about 160 kilometres from New York.
The sinkings of the Norness and the Coimbra, a day apart, made for front-page headlines. Mr. Hardegen then headed to Cape Hatteras, N.C., where his submarine sank three more ships before he returned to his base at Lorient, France.
On his second war patrol across the Atlantic Ocean, between March and May, 1942, his toll included the U.S. oil tanker Gulfamerica off Jacksonville, Fla. But his boat was nearly sunk off St. Augustine, Fla., by a destroyer’s depth charges before he managed to get away.
After leaving the submarine service in May, 1942, he held a naval training position and worked on the development of advanced submarine torpedoes. In the winter of 1945, with German forces reeling, he was transferred to land warfare and became a battalion commander.
Soon after Germany surrendered, he was arrested by the British, who mistook him for a someone with the same last name who had been a member of the Nazi SS forces and was held for 16 months before he convinced them he was a career navy officer.
“I was not a Nazi,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 1999 interview. “I did my duty for my country, not for Hitler.”
Returning to Bremen after the war, he founded a marine oil company and was a long-time member of its Parliament.
A list of who he leaves was not immediately available.