Confusion on the Atlantic

Confusion on the Atlantic

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  • Jul, 03 , 23

Reaping the Whirlwind is a history of WWI U-boat operations in the western Atlantic, specifically during the period after America officially entered the war. Very little has been written on this subject in English, and German primary source material has been largely neglected in what English works do exist. Author Dominic Etzold has sourced documentation from both American/Allied and German archives to construct the most definitive account to date. Examining an incident from both sides can prove enlightening, as illustrated by the excerpt below:


Curiously, American sources unanimously claim that a straggler from the aforementioned convoy, the American tanker Joseph Cudahy, reported herself as being shelled by U-140’s deck guns on July 18 at 45°33' N, 41° W. Despite traveling at the slow speed of 9 knots (well below U-140’s maximum surface speed of 15.8 knots), and her 3-inch stern guns being outranged by the U-Kreuzer’s 15 cm cannons, she was miraculously able to escape unscathed and without ever having to return fire.

This event cannot be corroborated with U-140’s war diary, except for the fact that Kophamel intercepted the tanker’s signal and was himself confused by it. He assumed it to have originated from a lone, separated steamer he encountered, but one he did not attack (in fact, he expressly ruled out use of the deck guns), on July 16 at 45°38' N, 36°10' W. Upon picking up the dubious broadcast on July 19, he recorded,

“‘Allo’ message intercepted in which [our] boat is being reported. It’s pretty wrong, but it being another vessel is out of the question. It is assumed that the steamer saw our boat and steered away—otherwise its disappearance could not be explained. The night was so dark and impenetrable that I hadn’t believed we could be observed, especially since we only had the steamer in sight for about 2 minutes. Instructions being broadcast from New York warn that all preparations should be made between 35°–45° north latitude.”

Interestingly, the war warnings being intercepted by U-140 could be traced back to the American protected cruiser USS Galveston (C-17), which also heard the tanker’s curious “allo” message.

Like Kophamel, Capt. Francis L. Chadwick, the commander of Galveston, also originally cast doubt on the signal’s accuracy—instead believing it to be a trap. For reasons unexplained, he later established the signal as being legitimate, and relayed the warning back to the 3rd Naval District, which would go on to dispatch a submarine hunter squadron consisting of fifteen sub chasers and the destroyer USS Jouett (DD-41) the next week. Regrettably, they would never venture any farther than 60 mi. / 96 km from the coastline, leaving U-140 free to continue her hunt unhindered.


Regarding this event, American historians have generally accepted that Joseph Cudahy sighted and was fired upon by U-140. The diary of U-140’s captain indicates that the two vessels may very well have crossed paths, but it seems unlikely that any shots were fired. The encounter was understandably a stressful situation for the crew of Joseph Cudahy, and it happened in rough seas, at night; they may have genuinely believed that they were engaged by the submarine. Their fears were certainly justified; the ship was torpedoed and sunk a month later.

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