PBS NOVA ‘Nazi Attack On America’ Shows How Close U-Boats Infiltrated East Coast

TV Picks: PBS’ NOVA “Nazi Attack On America” Premieres Wednesday, May 6, 2015 at 9PM/8c on PBS
Twitter: @novapbs

Everyone has heard of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, infamous attacks that are seared deeply into our nation’s collective memory. But how many Americans are aware of the far deadlier underwater attacks that once raged on our shores?


Launched by German U-boats barely a few miles off our coastline, Operation Drumbeat began in the early days of 1942 and inflicted devastating blows to the U.S. “Nazi Attack On America”, a new NOVA/National Geographic special, investigates this forgotten battlefield on our doorstep.

Using state-of-the-art technology, renowned explorer and Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard and his team make a remarkable find on the wreck of U-166, which unravels a 72-year-old mystery about how the sub was destroyed, restores honor to a discredited U.S. naval officer, and re-writes this chapter of WWII history.

This new NOVA/National Geographic special premieres Wednesday, May 6, 2015 at 9PM/8c on PBS (check local listings).

NOVA is thrilled to team up again with National Geographic and legendary explorer Bob Ballard to bring viewers this incredible story of technology and innovation and new discovery,”” said Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA. “”It’s important to make Americans aware of these events that took place so close to home and the vital role they played in the war.””

When America entered WWII in January 1942, the U.S. quickly became a target. The damage was immense. Over three and a half years, German U-boats sank 609 ships in American waters and claimed over 5,000 American lives. More than three million tons of cargo was lost. In return, only a handful of U-boats would ever be sunk in American waters, including U-166.

The investigation centers on a nearly forgotten Nazi battlefield, over 4500 miles from Europe, on the doorstep of New Orleans. Ballard and his team set out aboard his Exploration Vessel Nautilus, surveying the sunken relics for the NOVA/National Geographic film using remotely operated vehicles Argus and Hercules. Haunting underwater footage reveals the watery graves of sunken vessels with vivid battle scars–a cargo ship hauling aluminum ore vital to America’s wartime factories, an oil tanker with 90,000 barrels of oil still trapped inside, lifeboats from a passenger ship riddled with bullet holes. More than 50 wrecks litter the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, sunk by Nazi U-boats.

“It’s hard to believe that in my lifetime this was a battlefield,” says Dr. Robert Ballard, Founder of Ocean Exploration Trust and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. “This was a place where you could die. The German U-boats were audacious and very successful in sinking a large number of ships in the Gulf of Mexico in a very short period of time.”

Viewers will hear firsthand the exclusive interviews with German WWII submariners, who speak frankly about the deadly operation and convey in stark detail what life was like on these vessels. Erich Topp, Commander of U-552, and the third most successful U-boat commander of the war, describes Drumbeat as “a shooting of hares”–calling the cargo ships easy game due to the lack of American countermeasures. Werner Hirschmann, a Chief Engineer on U-190, candidly relates the terror of depth charge attacks from American ships above. Horst von Schroeter, Watch Officer on U-123, one of the first subs in Drumbeat, conveys chilling details of being so close to U.S. shores the crew could smell the forest and see the cars driving on American roadways two or three miles away.

NOVA also looks at the technology behind these deadly machines, which out of all Nazi innovations, Winston Churchill feared the most. Commanded by Admiral Karl Dönitz, nearly 1200 U-boats were built by the Nazis–including long-range Type 9 vessels, the smaller Type 7 craft, which had more modest range and torpedo payload but existed in greater numbers, and the Type 14 “milk cows,” the floating gas stations that carried extra fuel, torpedoes and provisions to restock the other subs in the Atlantic Gap, so they didn’t have to return all the way home. The film also touches on the innovations of Allied scientists and engineers, such as cracking the German Enigma code and developing the B-24 Liberator bomber, which ultimately turned the tide against the U-boats.

Many Americans don’t know this, but German U-boats weren’t uncommon off the US coast. Several were actually sunk by US depth charges during WWII:


Together with the new expedition and story of discovery, Nazi Attack on America uses archival footage and interviews with military historians, such as Martin Morgan, Timothy Mulligan, and German U-boat historian Axel Niestle, to tell the full story of Operation Drumbeat and Hitler’s U-boats—how close they came and the devastating toll they exacted. The program also delves into another little known daring attack on America–Operation Pastorius–which used U-boats to secretly deliver teams of Nazi spies to American soil, landing saboteurs on Long Island, NY and near Jacksonville, FL.

At the heart of the documentary is a fascinating science detective story surrounding the wreck of U-166, sunk in the summer of 1942 just 35 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The film features extremely rare black and white footage of U-166 during sea trials with the young crew in training, which was filmed by its captain just weeks before it left for the Gulf of Mexico and never returned.

Controversy surrounds the sinking of the sub in the Gulf of Mexico shortly after the U-boat attacked a passenger ship, the S.S. Robert E. Lee. Twenty-five passengers were lost, but 404 survived, rescued by Captain Herbert G. Claudius, U.S. Navy commander of escort vessel PC 566. In addition to rescuing survivors, Claudius attacked the U-boat with depth charges and concluded that he had sunk or mortally wounded the sub. The Navy, however, ruled that he had missed U-166; his attack was graded “F,” and he was relieved of command and sent back to school.

What Ballard and his team find during the expedition will throw the official history off the rails, prove that Claudius did in fact sink U-166 —and cause the US Navy to reopen the case. With expert insights from experienced U-boat wreck diver Richie Kohler, the team seeks to prove that an injustice has been done and to find the evidence needed to set the record straight.

The investigation uses sophisticated tools, including the robotic eyes of the ROVs, remotely operated submersibles Argus and Hercules, high-resolution computer mapping and a photomosaic that takes thousands of extreme close-ups for a detailed image—as well as hours of careful scrutiny by experts. The team then sends the findings to the Chief of Naval Operations, the most senior officer in the U.S. Navy.

In a dramatic and powerfully moving conclusion, NOVA/National Geographic cameras are there to capture history-making events featuring Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, and Gordon Claudius, son of Herbert G. Claudius.

Nazi Attack on America is a NOVA/National Geographic Special. Jared Lipworth is Executive Producer for National Geographic. Paula S. Apsell is Senior Executive Producer of NOVA. Produced and Directed by Kirk Wolfinger (Nazi Attack on America). Written and Produced by Rushmore DeNooyer (Nazi Attack on America). NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and public television viewers.

The expedition to U-166 was also funded in part by National Geographic’s Expeditions Council.