Significance: U-701 is significant to American military, maritime history, and historic archaeology as it was the first U-boat sunk by the United States Army Air Force off the American East Coast during World War II's Battle of the Atlantic.
Multibeam survey of U-701 wreck site. Click here for a larger image. Image: ADUS/NOAA
U-701 sits partially buried on a sandy bottom in 110 feet of water 20.1 nautical miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The strength of ocean currents on the site varies widely from nearly imperceptible to very swift. The strong currents along the sandy seabed typically result in scour around the wreck that leaves more of the port side of the submarine exposed than the starboard side.
Depending on the current, visibility also varies, but commonly ranges around 10-40 feet. Summer water temperatures range between 70-80° F, and winter temperatures are typically in the low to mid-60°s F, making the site accessible to recreational SCUBA divers year round. The shipwreck's vertical relief is in stark contrast to the surrounding featureless sandy seafloor. Its structure serves as hard substrate for encrusting marine organisms and provides shelter for many species of marine life.
NOAA diver taking an image of U-701's conning tower. Click here for a larger image. Photo: NOAA
Multibeam survey of U-701 wreck site (NOAA Ship Nancy Foster, 2016). Click here for a larger image. Image: NOAA
The U-701 was launched on April 16, 1941, and commissioned on July 16, with command given to Kapitänleutnant Horst Degen. Leaving from Kiel on December 27, 1941, Degen and his crew embarked not only on the first war cruise of the U-701, but the vessel was taking part in the first deployment of U-boats in American waters.
Between January 2nd and the 7th, Degen found and attacked several ships, discharging eleven torpedoes. Only two torpedoes found their target sinking a British freighter, Baron Erskine near Rockall, south of Iceland. The weather encountered during the rest of the Atlantic crossing was atrocious forcing Degen to run submerged and unable to replenish his torpedo supply until the weather calmed. After about five weeks of patrolling, U-701 was recalled after having sunk only a single vessel.
On February 26, U-701 embarked on its second war patrol, and Degen was ordered to the Northwest Approaches. In contrast to the previous patrol, Degen conducted this patrol with great success and boldness sinking three confirmed ships and possibly a fourth, Rononia (never confirmed). The ships sank included a fishing trawler, Nyggjaberg and two armed British antisubmarine trawlers: HMS Notts County and HMS Stella Cappella.
U-701 embarked on its third war patrol on May 20, 1942, which would be by far its most successful, but also its last. This patrol was in conjunction with seven other boats dubbed group Hecht. Five of the Hecht boats, including U-701, were diverted for special missions. The special operations of these five boats represent possibly the most aggressive coordinated U-boat assault on the United States in the entire war. Three boats were assigned to mining three ports along the East Coast: Delaware Bay, Boston Harbor, and the Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, two other U-boats were to land Abwehr agents (German equivalent to a CIA operative) on U.S. soil in Long Island and in North Florida. Once they completed their mission, all the U-boats were to converge on the Cape Hatteras area.
The U-701 was assigned to mine the Chesapeake Bay area, and on June 12, 1942, Degen arrived off the entrance to the Chesapeake and proceeded to lay 15 mines. Within 30 minutes, U-701 had deposited all of its mines in 36 feet of water directly in the shipping channel. This minefield was very productive sinking two ships and severely damaging three more. U-701 was the only boat in the Hecht that achieved its goals. Furthermore, this was the only mining operation with appreciable success in U.S. waters in the entire war.
Smoke billows from the side of Robert C. Tuttle after striking a sea mine laid in the Chesapeake Bay's entrance by U-701. Click here for a larger image. Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives
Following the mining operation, Degen took U-701 to the waters of Cape Hatteras as ordered. On June 19, U-701 came into contact with a small U.S. Navy patrol boat, the USS YP-389. After a brutal exchange of deck gun fire, the YP-389 sank. Then on June 26, 1942, U-701 torpedoed the Norwegian freighter Tamesis, and on the following day, fired upon the British tanker British Freedom. Fortunately, both vessels were only damaged.
The fishing trawler, Cohasset, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard preparing for conversion to YP-389. Click here for a larger image. Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives
For Degen and U-701, this patrol had already been exceptional. But on the very next day, they encountered SS William Rockefeller, one of the largest tankers in the world at that time. Degen fired one well-aimed torpedo at the tanker which caused severe damage and brought Rockefeller to a halt. The tanker was escorted by Coast Guard aircraft, which dropped two depth charges and called up the 83-foot Coast Guard Cutter Number 470. The cutter arrived at the site and conducted a depth charge attack that was unsuccessful except it kept Degen away. Fortunately, the Rockefeller's crew had all safely abandoned the ship, because after dark, Degen returned and fired one more torpedo into the burning hull sinking it.
On July 17, 1942, U-701 was patrolling off Cape Hatteras on the surface around 1:00 pm when an Army Air Force Hudson, piloted by Lieutenant Harry Kane out of Cherry Point, N.C., accurately dropped three depth charges. The damage was such that Degen could not blow the ballast tanks and surface. Therefore, survivors most likely had bailed out of the U-701 when it was already sitting on the bottom. Two separate groups of survivors reached the surface. All but seven of the crew escaped the boat. However, Kane was not able to offer assistance in his Hudson, except to radio a position and drop a smoke flare. The remaining crew of 36 drifted with the Gulf Stream for 49 hours. During that time, all but seven of the crew drowned. On July 10, 1942, the Navy blimp K-8 located the survivors and called in a Coast Guard sea plane, which landed and recovered the seven crew members, including Degen.
The crew of the U-701 became Prisoners of War (POWs) and remained in various prison camps in the United States until the end of the war. When the survivors were first brought in, they were suffering heavily from exposure and covered in oil. After a short period of recovery, Harry Kane and the crew of his bomber wished to meet with Degen to apologize for not being able to render more assistance.
Lt. Harry Kane, Jr. (seated left) and Kapitänleutnant Horst Degen (seated right) meet shortly after Kane sunk U-701. Click here for a larger image. Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives
The wreck of U-701 remained completely undisturbed for 47 years, until it was discovered by sport diver, Uwe Lovas in 1989. The wreck sits in approximately 110 feet of water in the shifting sands and currents where the Gulf Stream and Labrador current collide off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Though discovered in 1989, Lovas contacted Horst Degen and assured him that his comrades would not be disturbed, and he kept the location very secret. The site was rediscovered in 2004 following a hurricane and made more accessible to the diving community.
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Video clip depicting the story of the battle between YP-389 and U-701.
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Final archaeological site plan of U-701. Click here for a larger PDF image. Photo: NOAA