Dan Rattiner's Stories

World War II Won’t Go Away: Nazi Subs, Coimbra, Montauk Ammunition Alert

The mess is still getting cleaned up near the Hamptons more than 70 years later.

Next Tuesday, July 17, divers from a New Orleans salvage firm will begin examining the sunken hull of an oil tanker torpedoed by a German U-boat 27 miles off Shinnecock Bay. The encounter occurred at 9:45 a.m. on January 15, 1942, just four weeks after Pearl Harbor. In this ship’s hull were nearly 3 million gallons of lubricating oil, on its way from New York City to England as part of America’s effort to bolster the British—the only country in Western Europe not under the Nazi heel.

The Coimbra was a British ship, built five years earlier in Canada as one of the largest oil tankers of the time—423 feet long and weighing 6,768 tons unloaded, it carried a crew of 46, which included the captain, John Patrick Barnard, and six navy machine gunners for protection. However, crossing the Atlantic, no navy escort ship was with it. The torpedo struck on the starboard side about where the engine room is just below the superstructure. She broke in two. Only 10 crewmen survived.

The attack is described on a website, u-boat.net, which collects data about the U-boat fleet from an interested following.

“A huge, towering explosion lit up the night sky and the cargo of oil quickly caught fire and spread across the water. Residents from the Hamptons on Long Island could see the fire at sea 27 miles away and alerted the authorities.”

In recent years, minor oil slicks have appeared on the surface of the sea above the Coimbra. As a result, last month the U.S. Coast Guard, using money from its $1 billion Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, hired Resolve Marine Salvage to look into the matter. During the next two weeks, they will send divers down to the wreck to assess the damage and determine if there is any oil still remaining inside that seeps out or, worst case, could pour out. If there is, it will have to be drained—a tricky business. Oil in any large quantity coming to the surface from this ship will travel along the Gulf Stream toward the beaches of the Hamptons further east

By coincidence, the German commander of U-Boat 123, which sank the Coimbra, died on June 16, 2018 in Bremen, Germany, and his obituary appeared in The New York Times the next day. At 105 years of age, Reinhard Hardegen was likely the last surviving submarine commander in the German U-Boat fleet.

After the war, he had lots to say about his days at the helm U-Boat 123, although he mentions the Coimbra as just 1 of 15 vessels he sank in those two winter months off the American coast. He also said he went about his macabre business uninterrupted.

For example, two days earlier, his U-boat, unmolested, sank the Norwegian oil tanker Norness not far from New York Harbor. After the Coimbra sinking he sank three freighters off the Grand Banks of North Carolina without any intervention.

He also reported that, on the surface one night, he was close enough to New York Harbor to see the bright lights of the tall buildings of Manhattan. In that era, Manhattan was the only place in the world that boasted such skyscrapers.

“I cannot describe the feeling with words,” he said in a war memoir published in Germany—still during the war—the following year. “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.”

The sinking of American merchant ships bound for England had begun even before Pearl Harbor. No one seemed to be able to stop it. During those early years—including at the time of the sinking of the Coimbra—the German commanders referred to it as “The Happy Time.” During that period, more American ships were sunk in the Atlantic than could be built to replace those that went down.

Eventually, the American Navy ordered merchant ships crossing the Atlantic go in convoys, surrounded by warships, and with aircraft available to attack from the skies on demand, and that pretty much turned the tide.

Early in the war, President Roosevelt also ordered military blockhouses built at six-mile intervals all up and down the coast, and that included the Hamptons. Battleship-size guns were embedded into the cliffs at Montauk Point. The machine-gun nest and lookout, the white concrete structure in front of Montauk Lighthouse that still stands, was built to fend off German attacks should they come.

A book about Captain Hardegen, Operation Drumbeat by Michael Gannon, was written in 1990. Operation Drumbeat was the name of the two-month effort that Captain Hardegen was assigned that winter. Further along on his mission he was able to see the Ferris wheel at Coney Island and the lights of homes and cars in the Rockaways.

He sank three more ships off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, then returned home to Lorient in German-occupied France, where he was, with others, presented with the prestigious Knights Cross at a dinner attended by Hitler himself.

After the war, Hardegen became an executive in a German oil company, raised a family and was a longtime member of the German parliament. He said he did not feel remorse about what he did. It was wartime and he was serving his country. “But not Hitler,” he said. “I was a sailor. I had no political leanings.”

Just after midnight on June 23, 1942, five months after Hardegen’s rampage, another U-boat dropped anchor a hundred yards offshore of Atlantic Avenue Beach in Amagansett so that sailors could row a rubber inflatable carrying high explosive and four German saboteurs to the beach. The saboteurs buried the explosives in the sand, and while doing so the leader encountered a Coast Guardsman walking along the dune with a flashlight. The leader bribed him, but the Coast Guardsman ran back to the station, sounding the alarm.

Nevertheless, the Germans made a getaway by ducking through the dunes and potato fields to the railroad station at Amagansett to board a pre-dawn train to Manhattan. Eventually they were caught.

In further World War II news, this past week the Army Corps of Engineers issued a bulletin warning those living at the Montauk Shores condominiums in Ditch Plains to be on the lookout for live ammunition, grenades and small arms that might be discovered under or along the beach in front of that place. That beach is not far from where the Army had built the military base with the big 16-inch guns pointed out to sea. So far, nothing has been found.

World War II is the war that won’t die.

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