Early on during WWII, the German Wehrmacht had their way with anyone they decided to fight.

The Wehrmacht formed the heart of Germany’s politico-military power.

The Luftwaffe was the aerial warfare branch of the Wehrmacht during WWII. Germany’s military air arms during World War I (WWI), the Luftstreitkräfte of the German Imperial Army and the Marine-Fliegerabteilung of the German Imperial Navy, had been disbanded in May 1920 in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which stated that Germany was forbidden to have any air force.

U-boat is an anglicised version of the German word U-Boot, a shortening of Unterseeboot. While the German term refers to any submarine, the English one (in common with several other languages) refers specifically to military submarines operated by Germany, particularly in the First and Second World Wars. Although at times they were efficient fleet weapons against enemy naval warships, they were most effectively used in an economic warfare role known as commerce raiding and enforced a naval blockade against enemy shipping. In this case, that would be any enemy of German Third Reich. 

The Armistice terms of 1918 required Germany to surrender all its U-boats, and the Treaty of Versailles forbade it to possess them in the future. In 1935, however, Adolf Hitler’s German Third Reich repudiated the treaty and forcefully negotiated the right to build U-boats. Britain was ill-prepared in 1939 for a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and during the early months of World War II the U-boats, which at that time numbered only 57, achieved great successes again, just like they did in WWI. 

Between 1935 and 1940, the German Wehrmacht ramped up their training and production in open defiance of the WWI terms of surrender to produce a formidable, unchecked military force.

Following the United States’ entry into World War II, Germany decided to undertake Operation Drumbeat (Paukenschlag), which was the initial wave of German U-boats meant for a fast and suprise attack on the United States east coast and Allied shipping.  Convoy Battles of World War II occurred when convoys of cargo ships assembled for mutual defense were attacked by U-boat wolfpacks, Luftwaffe and surface ships of the German Navy. Most were in the North Atlantic from 1939 to 1943. Convoy battles also occurred in the Arctic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and western Pacific Ocean.

Quoting below from: Honor Through Sacrifice: The Story of One of America’s Greatest Military Leaders

“So in early May of 1944, as preparations were made for the 517th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) to ship overseas and join one of these convoys, the regiment companies were staged through Camp Patrick Henry near Newport News, Virginia. On May 17, 1944, the 517th boarded the former Grace liner Santa Rosa, while the 460th and 596th loaded onto the Panama Canal ship Cristobal: destination Italy, although the troopers did not know that yet. All they knew was that their training was soon to be tested in real combat.

Santa Rosa had been requisitioned by the US War Shipping Administration on January 3, 1942, with Grace Line operating the ship as agents, while the ship was allocated to the US Army for troop service. Even in wartime gray, the ship retained her elegant ocean liner lines.

Santa Rosa was painted in wartime gray like most Naval ships of the day, but she still displayed her original beauty – striking twin funnels, sweeping bow and long, beautiful lines of a luxury passenger cruise ship. Tied up to the pier, this ship sat motionless in the water, but projected a sensation of speed, luxury and moonlight tropical nights.

Santa Rosa made 21 voyages from the east coast of the US from 1942-1945: 16 were to Europe, one to Australia, one to India, and three to Africa. On this voyage, she would transport the 517th RCT to Italy.

Trans-Atlantic Ocean travel aboard ship was an experience Gordon was not familiar with, and more than a few troopers got ill from the constant rolling motion of the waves, side to side, up and down. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

Since the convoy would be traveling through the Nazi U-Boat submarine net, the ships’ companies would constantly put the troopers through readiness drills. A clanging bell would sound, then a slight pause and then the bell would sound again like someone banging on a metal trash can!

A Typical Day Aboard Ship

In the early morning hours, a sudden noise unmistakably woke everyone up, with the signal to abandon ship! What a way to start the day, just the thought of jumping into the ice-cold water at 5 a.m. Maybe around noon the water would be inviting, but at this hour? It was a good way to catch hypothermia.

When the ship was two days passage west of the Strait of Gibraltar, it was well within the snare of U-Boat wolfpacks. As the clanging commenced once again—CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! —the notion that it was a drill quickly faded.

Gordon’s feelings of self-preservation suddenly overwhelmed him, so he quickly pulled on his boots, put on his coat and grabbed the pillow that doubled as a life jacket. The ladder that led to the deck, as well as the limited open area, was jammed with a frantic mass of humanity.

Being a sound sleeper and a slow riser was definitely a disadvantage during this time of chaos. Discerning the gravity of the situation, a sudden sense of fear settles in.

A voice on the loudspeaker interrupted the clanging to apologize that the wrong signal was given. The convoy was actually under attack by enemy aircraft and all troops were ordered to remain below deck.

In one direction there was a mass of frantic humanity blocking the only authorized way out. The other direction offered a simple escape to the open deck. But the mass of soldiers turned around and scrambled to get back down below.

Staying below deck during an attack created a claustrophobic sensation, and sensing a potential catastrophe, the folly of following the crowd became very real.

With the ensuing chaos, noise, push and pull of people, it soon became clear that if the ship was sunk, escaping into the water may not have been possible. Looking out a cabin portal, Gordon could see hundreds of tracer rounds arcing skyward illuminating the darkness. Standing in awe, fascinated, as clusters of fiery trajectories exploded from every ship in the convoy, he witnessed the cruiser escorts’ batteries rattling a rhythmic crescendo of anti-aircraft weapons along with the thundering sounds of the cruiser’s big guns.

The sights and sounds were fantastic, the most spectacular fireworks display this young teenager ever witnessed—of course, until the next time it happened. When the batteries stopped firing, the exhibition faded away. All was dark and very quiet, but only momentarily, as the batteries came to life again spewing tracers upward to invisible targets.

Fire trails arced up and away then faded from sight. Slowly the trajectories swung upward overhead. The Luftwaffe attack planes were passing over from side to side but they were too high or it was too dark for the planes to be seen.

After a short delay, the performance was repeated once again. In time, the batteries became silent. The air raid was over and the convoy continued eastward toward Italy.

When the ‘all clear’ was sounded, a voice came over the speakers again: ‘The ship suffered no damage and will continue on with the convoy.’ Some scuttlebutt indicated that several ships got hit, maybe even sunk and hopefully those sailors and troops would be rescued, but the convoy had to keep moving.”

Next up: First Days in Combat, Roman Holiday, Visiting the Pope

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