Operation Brazil and Lone Wolf U-507 1942

B-25B “Lero-Lero”

Unit: Agrupamento de Aviхes de Adaptatio (Adaptation Airplane Group), Forca Aerea Brasileira

Serial: 10 (FAB-2310, US 40-2310)

Circa 1942. This is one of the first B-25’s of FAB.

FAB B-25’s arrived at Salvador in 1942 and then located at BANT, BAF and BAS (BAF – Base Aerea de Fortaleza (Fortaleza AB), Ceara / BANT – Base Aerea de Natal (Natal AB), Rio Grande do Norte / BAS – Base Aerea de Salvador (Salvador AB), Bahia). Her sisters was 40-2263, 40-2255, 40-2306, 40-2309, 40-2316 and 40-2245. The last one, the ’45’ was the first Brazilian airplane to engage an enemy in battle. In this case, the Italian submarine ‘Barbarigo’ in May 22, 1942.

Brazil’s air force had become active in hunting and attacking German submarines so it was already in the fight though the nation was officially neutral, but between August 15 and 19, the sinking of six ships off the Brazilian coast took the republic into the war. Notably the army wanted to revenge the deaths of the 16 officers and 125 men of its Seventh Artillery Group on the passenger ship Baependy (sunk on August 15). The sinking of the Baependy raised questions that went unaddressed, about the competence of army leaders who did not take adequate precautions against the known submarine threat. They may have thought that peaceful coastal traffic would not be attacked. It may puzzle readers that the Brazilian Navy did not provide an armed escort. The two services were not accustomed to cooperating, and the navy did not yet have an anti-submarine capability. A Brazilian officer of that era, Nelson Werneck Sodré, in his memoir, condemned the ineptitude of Dutra and Góes for allowing such an obviously dangerous troop movement and the insensitivity of the army bureaucracy in indemnifying the survivors with a mere month’s pay, whose payment was delayed. Unfortunately Sodré fertilized the Nazi-created rumors of American responsibility for the sinkings by saying that there was no proof that the submarines were German.

Of course there was proof, Sodré was either ignoring it or perhaps he did not want to believe it. Both Germany and Italy had submarines operating in the South Atlantic. On June 2, 1942, the Brazilian press reported that Brazilian air crews flying B-25s had sunk two Italian subs. Radio Berlin warned that retaliation would be swift. Authorities in Natal ordered a blackout to make night attacks more difficult. Marines at the Natal Air Base dug trenches and set up machine guns. Fear gripped the people of Natal because of the radio threats. The German government saw Brazilian cooperation with the American forces as the end of Brazilian neutrality and believed that when Brazil was ready it would formally enter the war. Likewise German officials seemed offended that a military nonentity of mixed race would dare take defensive measures against Axis vessels. The commander of the German Navy, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, on June 15, 1942, met with Hitler, who approved a massive submarine attack on Brazilian ports and coastal shipping, called “Operation Brazil.” Thereafter a number of subs, variously reported as eight to ten, left French ports for the South Atlantic.

The Brazilian fleet was all but obsolete and had no experience or appropriate vessels to combat submarines. The great 305 mm guns on its two 1910 battleships were useless against subs. The ports without anti-submarine nets were defenseless. Submarines could stealthily enter the great bays at Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia to sink vessels anchored there, and at Recife the area protected by the seawall was so small that many ships were anchored outside it. They made easy prey. The German submarines would encounter a Brazilian fleet “incapable of efficiently reacting to a surprise attack.” The hard truth was that “the extreme fragility of Brazilian naval defense was similar to that in the Army and in the recently created Air Force.” Brazil was paying the price for successive governments’ inability to pull the country out of its deep underdevelopment.

The reader should recall that Brazil of 1942 was totally dependent on the sea for transport among its coastal cities north of Rio de Janeiro. Vitória, Salvador, Maceió, ecife, Natal, Fortaleza, São Luis, and Belém were basically islands separated one from the others by vast stretches of land. Brazilians, at the time, described the country as an archipelago. There were no long-distance connecting railroads or all-weather highways. Indeed in 1942–1943, “there were eighty miles of paved road in that vast country outside of the cities.” Rudimentary aviation was available only to a small portion of the elite. The first regular flight between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo began in August 1936 with two 17-passenger German-made Junkers . That same year construction began on Brazil’s first civilian airport, Rio’s Santos Dumont , which would be completed only in 1947! Significantly it was built on landfill in Guanabara Bay partly to accommodate the seaplanes of international airlines. Everything moved by water, which meant that the Brazilian economy could be shattered by submarines. The consequences of such an attack for the political situation could only be bad. Vargas was slowly recovering from his May automobile accident and would be in no condition to hold things together. Moreover, despite the political-military accord signed with the United States in May, the Brazilian high command was not hurrying to implement it.

Providentially, Hitler had approved “Operation Brazil” with the stipulation that before it was launched there should be a review of the diplomatic situation. That brought the plan to the foreign ministry and the desk of former ambassador to Brazil, Karl Ritter, the same who had been declared “persona non grata” and expelled by Oswaldo Aranha. Ritter was responsible for liaison between the foreign ministry and the military. Such a submarine offensive against still officially neutral Brazil would mean expanding the war. Ritter argued that pushing Brazil into the conflict could have negative consequences for interactions with Chile and Argentina, who still had diplomatic and commercial relations with the Axis. Besides he thought that Italy and Japan ought to be consulted before such an attack. From an operational point of view, an attack was complicated by the great distance from Europe and the submarine’s vulnerability during the 26 days en route. The submarines would have to surface regularly to recharge their batteries and so would be vulnerable to attack. It was true that because Brazil was neutral, its cities would be lit up at night making it easier to see targets in silhouette, and Brazilian coastal shipping would likely still be brightly lit. It should be noted that submarine attacks on ports had some recent precedence. In February 1942, a German submarine attacked a refinery on Aruba and a Japanese sub fired on a refinery at Santa Barbara, California.

There is some confusion regarding when “Operation Brazil” was cancelled and when and who ordered the attacks in August. Colonel Durval Lourenço Pereira carefully reconstructed the dating and origins of the various orders and contra-orders showing that Admirals Donitz and Raeder in their defense testimonies during the Nuremberg trials and American historians were inaccurate about timing and responsibility. The startling reality is that, instead of a wolf pack of submarines, there was only one submarine, U-507, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Harro Schacht, whose attack procedures were strikingly inhuman.

Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht

U-507 was one of the original vessels designated for the campaign against Brazil. When the foreign ministry, that is, Karl Ritter, objected to “Operation Brazil,” it was cancelled and the submarine commanders were told to destroy their orders. They were given other missions in the Atlantic. On August 7 Lieutenant Commander Schacht requested by radio to “freely maneuver” along the Brazilian coast. Jürgen Rower, a distinguished German historian, was puzzled by U-507’s mission, but suspected that it might have been motivated by the naval command’s desire for retaliation for Brazil’s participation in allied anti-submarine operations. He thought that it contradicted Hitler’s cancelation of “Operation Brazil” and that it was a “foolish mistake.” It was a mistake that had frightful consequences for the passengers and crews of defenseless Brazilian coastal transports.

U-156 (foreground) and U-507 (background) on 15 September 1942

On the afternoon of July 4, 1942, Schacht’s U-507 and a companion vessel U-130 headed into the open ocean from the port of Lorient on the coast of Brittany. Their destination was a stretch of ocean between the tiny Brazilian islets of São Pedro and São Paulo and the islands of Fernando de Noronha. The islets are 590 miles from Brazil’s northeastern shore. Their mission was to patrol one of the quadrants by which the German navy divided the vast ocean. The outward voyage was uneventful except for an encounter with a sonar-equipped destroyer, which detected the U-507 and launched four depth charges. The charges missed the submarine but caused some slight damage that produced a constant loud pinging sound that Schacht feared could be detected at a distance.

After passing the Azores, Schacht was ordered by radio to operate jointly with U-130 commanded by Captain Ernst Kals and the Italian sub Pietro Calvi, but that very day a British destroyer sank the Calvi. On the afternoon of July 23, the two German subs were given their patrol quadrants being told that traffic crossed those quadrants in scattered fashion in a northeasterly direction and vice versa. They were patrolling a stretch of the Atlantic narrows between Dakar and Brazil, focused on convoys and single vessels coming from Trinidad and Georgetown. Their orders took the two subs in autonomous directions. Brazil itself was beyond their area. So how did U-507 end up in Brazilian waters?

Schacht’s U-507 was now on its own and seeing no targets, the crew practiced submerging and firing the deck gun. Isolated from his colleagues deployed across the South Atlantic, Schacht was the only commander who did not have any “victories.” His earlier companion Kals had sunk two ships, but in more than a month since leaving Lorient, U-507 had not fired a single torpedo. For ten days he did not see any ships at all, which led him to think that maritime traffic had been diverted westward toward the Brazilian coast. The boredom and tedium must have been corrosive on the crew’s morale. On the surface the heat of the equatorial zone, the glare of the sunlight reflecting off the sea would have been physically draining, and while submerged the stink of the diesel engines and the sulfuric acidy smell from the electric batteries mixed with the odors of the unwashed crew wearing the same uniforms for weeks must have been extremely distasteful. There was only one toilet available for the 56 crew men. On August 3 the sub was 90 nautical miles from the coast of Ceará when it turned back toward the open ocean. Reaching a point northeast of the islets São Pedro and São Paulo, Schacht made a decision that “would bring unexpected consequences for the Axis war effort.”

Late on the night of August 7, he asked permission from the Submarine Command to operate freely on the Brazilian coast. Some 15 hours later, he received the go-ahead from Submarine Command: “Change course and head for Pernambuco.” This exchange of radio messages shows that historians have been wrong for decades attributing the attacks on Brazilian coastal shipping to the considered planning of the German navy or to orders from Hitler. In reality, it was the decision of a lone sub commander seeking victims. It coincided with the presence of a convoy (AS-4) at Recife ready to head to Africa carrying critically important Sherman tanks for British forces, and German naval leaders hoped that U-507 could do some damage to it and subsequent convoys. In an analysis related to “Operation Brazil,” German naval planners had given Pernambuco considerable importance for the security of Allied convoys. On August 14, a radio message to Schacht emphasized Recife as a resupply and gathering point for convoys and ships from Florida via Georgetown to Natal, St. Helena Island, and Cape Town. Schacht had other ideas. He considered heading toward Rio de Janeiro, however, was dissuaded by his declining fuel supply. The meaning of Submarine Command’s repeated instructions to Schacht was that he was to attack the allied convoys heading toward Cape Town and not Brazilian coastal shipping. On his own he did the opposite. Did Schacht’s disobedience allow Convoy AS-4 to escape unscathed? If so perhaps he contributed to the German defeat at El Alamein? He apparently believed that the reason he had not encountered ships during the previous days was that the Allies had shifted their routes further to the west along the Brazilian coast. He had the idea that oil tankers were coming into the Atlantic through the Strait of Magellan and up the South American coast to a crossing point to Freetown in Africa. He shied away from Pernambuco, which perhaps he thought was too heavily protected. Admiral Ingram had chosen Recife for his headquarters because he believed that Recife’s closeness to Cape São Roque, the nearest location to Africa and thus “most strategic point in South America,” made it the best port for his operations.

August 1942 Disaster on the Coast of Sergipe and Bahia

Schacht took up station off the coast of Bahia and its great port of São Salvador. There he ran less chance of discovery before he could strike. If U-507 was detected, it could plunge into the deep waters off Bahia. The captain was not a coward, but he was cautious. He was one of the German Navy’s 2% of submarine commanders responsible for 30% of sinkings during the war. It is notable that of the 870 U-boats sent after Allied shipping, fully 550 did not sink or damage a single ship. Of a total of 2450 Allied merchantmen sent to the bottom, 800 were sunk by only 30 commanders. Harro Schacht was among that number and was one of Germany’s most intrepid and daring submariners. It is not clear whether he thought he was disobeying orders, perhaps he considered a radio message of July 5 authorizing attack without warning “against all Brazilian merchant ships, including disarmed and recognized as Brazilian” as sufficient sanction. Of course, the July 5 message did not give permission to attack vessels in Brazilian waters. The German Submarine Command never gave an order to attack Brazilian coastal shipping. Recall that Hitler had expressly vetoed “Operation Brazil.” At the Nuremberg trials, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, commander of the German Navy, testified that his submarines had attacked Brazilian ships because they lacked clear identification as neutral and that Germany had advised all South American countries to illuminate their vessels so that they could be recognized at night. However, Brazil had not been so advised, even though Raeder’s testimony implied that it had. Schacht did not long survive these events and left no explanations of his conduct, but all the evidence points to his action as violating orders by sinking seven ships in Brazilian coastal waters. The leading scholar of the submarine attacks, Durval Lourenço Pereira, reached the firm condemning conclusion: “The massacre in the waters of the northeastern litoral happened thanks to the initiative and the personal decision of Lieutenant Commander Harro Schacht”.

Since February 1942 Brazil had lost 12 ships to Axis submarines, but they had all been off the East Coast of the United States or in the Caribbean and adjacent waters. Somehow such losses could be accepted as costs of doing business traversing known war zones. Being attacked while traveling from one state to another via “our territorial waters” would elicit very different emotions. Meanwhile the South Atlantic took on increasing importance in the summer of 1942 because the Germans successfully shut down British convoys using the Arctic above Scandinavia to reach the Russian port of Archangel. The losses were so heavy that the Arctic route had to be discontinued. FDR and Churchill were determined to keep the Soviet Union fighting. The best alternative route was to convoy from the United States via the South Atlantic, around Africa through the Indian Ocean to Iran and thence overland to Soviet territory. An idea of the importance of the route can be seen in the 47,874 aircraft that were shipped disassembled to Russia via the “Persian Corridor.” The route was some 10,000 nautical miles longer than the Arctic one, but there was no other choice. This meant that Brazil and the bases there increased in significance. Brazil was literally the keystone in the edifice of the logistical war. And the war was not going well for the Allies. On January 2, 1942, Manila fell to the Japanese, who also swept over the Netherlands East Indies, then in the next month, the British surrendered Singapore, losing 130,000.

troops taken captive. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on April 18 was predictive of the future and boosted Allied morale, but did little to change the immediate dark trend. In Egypt, on June 21, Rommel’s supposedly weakened Africa corps surprised the British by seizing Tobruk in a relatively brief combat, losing another 6,000 soldiers to the Nazi forces, along with all their armament. Loss of the Suez Canal loomed as an alarming possibility. The Germans would get to 70 miles from Alexandria before being stopped at El Alamein on June 29. Without doubt the war could be won or lost in the South Atlantic. Armies cannot fight without weapons and all sorts of supplies and so safe routes for shipping were crucial to obtain victory. That is why the Axis was sending submarines into the South Atlantic and why the Allies had to destroy them.

Ironically Schacht’s impatience and decision to head to Brazil caused him to miss the S.S. Seatrain Texas which was carrying 250 Sherman tanks steaming for Cape Town and, via the Red Sea, for Port Suez. At Cape Town the British gave it the code name “Treasure Ship.” The US Merchant Marine history concluded that “These Sherman tanks, the first Allied tanks which matched the German Mark IV Panzer in firepower, were a decisive factor at the battle of El Alamein which began on October 23, 1942, and resulted in an Allied victory.” Of course, the intense air cover that Army Air Corps planes gave to the British Eighth Army played an extremely important role, and they would not have been there without Brazilian cooperation and the Parnamirim base at Natal.

Leaving his assigned quadrant caused U-507 to miss the important cargo targets. Schacht’s next action would cause war between Brazil and Germany. He was heading south away from Recife and toward Salvador da Bahia. Submarine Command’s instructions allowed attacking without warning all merchant vessels cruising with their lights out. He was aware that Brazilian coastal ships carried both cargo and passengers. Strictly speaking passenger vessels were not on the list of approved targets, but he could have been frustrated after 40 days at sea and still carrying his compliment of 22 torpedoes. He was moving southeast and would encounter the passenger steamer Baependy on a north-northeast heading. The confrontation of these two vessels had a certain irony to it. They had the same birthplace, at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg. The Baependy had been launched 40 years before and had fallen into Brazilian hands during World War I. U-507 was laid down in 1939. The Brazilian vessel had its running lights on, but its flag and name were in the dark. As Schacht maneuvered into attack position, he saw a light on the horizon, likely another ship. If he acted quickly, he could get two victims. He launched two torpedoes each with an explosive mixture equal to 280 kilos of TNT.

It was 1825 hours and the unwary Baependy was 1500 meters away [1600.4 yards]. On board the Brazilians had just finished dinner and were gathering to celebrate a crew member’s birthday. Soldiers, most of whom were Cariocas, were on the rear deck playing their pandeiros, drumming on cans, and singing sambas. This happy scene was undisturbed as both torpedoes missed their mark and continued on in the darkness. Schacht had miscalculated the speed of the Baependy. He raced ahead and came back at a better angle before launching two more torpedoes at 1912 hours. In his diary he noted “two shots to prevent any possibility of radio transmission by the steamer.” An SOS from the ship could reveal the submarine’s presence. Even if the captain of the Baependy could have seen the torpedoes, at their 40 knot speed, he could not have avoided them. The two torpedoes hit the Baependy about 30 seconds apart.

The 320 passengers were stunned, some frozen in absolute fear, others screaming and trying to reach the deck. Captain Lauro Mourinho dos Reis of the Seventh Artillery Group recalled that glass and wood fragments flew in every direction cutting and killing indiscriminately. The second torpedo had hit the engine room; the lights went out, leaving everyone to struggle for a way out in the dark. Up on deck flames shot into the night. It had happened so rapidly that, despite frenzied efforts, only one of the lifeboats could be let down. Finally on deck Captain Lauro understood that he had to jump overboard to avoid getting sucked under by the sinking ship. A machinist saw the ship’s captain covered in blood on the bridge sounding the ship’s whistle repeatedly as it went under. Those who could not swim thrashed about uselessly, while others held on to floating pieces of wreckage. It had been four minutes from impact to the ship going down prow first. For the 28 survivors in the lone lifeboat, it would be a long dramatic night of terror before they reached land.

Schacht knew he had hit a passenger vessel but did nothing to help the survivors. Instead he attacked the second ship, the Araraquara, a relatively new, luxury vessel He noted that it had its running lights on and was “brilliantly illuminated” but it lacked any mark of neutrality. Two hours after sinking the Baependy, the U-507’s torpedo exploded amidship plunging the Araraquara into darkness. It listed and broke in half and within five minutes it and its 131 passengers were gone. Four crewmen clung to wreckage, one hallucinated and threw himself into the sea, and the others lived to tell the tale.

On August 16 at 0210 in the morning, on the north coast of Bahia, the third victim was the Anibal Benevolo, with 154 passengers and crew on board. Asleep, they had no time to panic; the vessel went down in 45 seconds. Only four crewmen managed to save themselves. U-507 continued toward Salvador. So far it was very successful from a coldly martial point of view. The three ships had not been able to sound an SOS; the German submarine was advancing on Salvador undetected. One of the reasons Schacht chose this region is that the depth of the sea plunges from 40 meters north of the city to 1000 meters at the bay’s mouth. If discovered, he could easily dive to the sub’s maximum depth of 230 meters. Unhappily for Schacht nothing seemed to be afloat in the great bay, except a small sailboat that he did not regard as worth his bother. Before dawn on the 17th, he went back to deep water, where at 0841 he spied a steamer going north. It was the Itagíba, carrying the rest of the army’s Seventh Artillery Group among other passengers. At a distance of 1000 meters, the torpedo hit the ship in the middle. Its passengers managed to get off in lifeboats, although two of the boats were hit or dragged under by the sinking ship. Ten minutes had elapsed.

In an act of temporary mercy, Schacht chose not to sink the yacht Aragipe which came to rescue the people in the crowded lifeboats. Likely he simply did not want to surface to use his deck gun, so as not to reveal his position. The Aragipe was able to crowd on 150 terrified survivors; the remainders were picked up by two of the lifeboats. Meanwhile in Salvador an alarm had been sounded and vessels were held in port. One ship, the Arará, unaware of the warning, had gone amidst the floating wreckage to pick up 18 survivors. Observing through his periscope from 200 meters away, he waited until all were onboard before firing the torpedo. Raising the periscope again to survey the scene, he could only see one lifeboat with five “non-whites” in it.

Later in the afternoon, Schacht saw a passenger ship coming his way. It was painted gray and did not have a flag or other marks of neutrality. He fired and the torpedo hit its mark but it did not explode. The unnamed vessel was moving too fast for U-507 to catch it before it reached safety in the port. He noted in his log: “It is not possible to stop it with artillery during the day, considering the nearness of the port and the aerial danger.”

It was now clear to the Brazilian and American authorities that submarines were operating in Bahian waters. From Recife the destroyer USS Somers and cruiser USS Humboldt steamed south, and seaplanes from VP-83 squadron flew out on patrol. Meanwhile Schacht, on August 18, had taken U-507 out to sea to make repairs on a mechanical problem in a launch tube. The seaplane PBY Catalina 83P6 found it exposed on the surface and attacked with machine guns and depth charges. U-507 dived rapidly. The pilot, Lt. John M. Lacey, USN, thought he had sunk it because an oil slick and air bubbles appeared on the surface. But all the attack had done was cause a leak in an oil tank. Schacht steered his boat south toward Ilhéus in search for more targets. But the only vessel encountered was a small coastal sailing boat, on August 19, that his crew boarded but not understanding Portuguese learned nothing useful. The Jacyra was carrying a disassembled truck, cases of empty bottles, and cacao. The mestiço crew were sent toward shore and the Germans blew up the vessel. Why they took the trouble to destroy such a harmless craft is a mystery. The smell of fuel oil alerted them to the leak in the tank and the need for repairs. The next day U-507 returned to the entrance to the Bay of All Saints where he found the lighthouses were shut down, but oddly Salvador was still lit up brightly. On the 22nd Schacht encountered the Swedish ship Hammarem without lights and launched a torpedo, but missed. A second one hit its mark but did not explode. As dawn broke he surfaced and fired the 105 mm gun on the rear deck hitting the bridge. The crew abandoned the burning ship, while Schacht maneuvered to fire his last torpedo from the stern tube. Turning north he set course for France. He left behind a Brazil lusting for revenge.

Businesses with German names were sacked. Police rounded up Germans. What some called Brazil’s “ Pearl Harbor” provoked clamorous street demonstrations throughout the country. The streets of Fortaleza, Ceará, filled with people breaking into stores owned by real or supposed Germans and Italians and setting them afire. The police could not control the mob. In Vitória, Espírito Santo, on the 17th the authorities could not quell the rioters, who wrecked some 25 buildings, but took all Axis nationals into custody, while in Belém do Pará, news of the sinkings resulted in mobs destroying some 20 stores, offices, and houses of alleged Axis nationals and sympathizers. In Manaus there were loud anti-Axis demonstrations that saw numerous Axis nationals being beaten and injured. In Natal there was destruction of Axis property and “genuine enthusiasm against enemy for the first time….” São Paulo saw large groups of students shouting for war and a huge number in the plaza in front of the Cathedral clamoring for action. The US Consulate in Porto Alegre reported that there was a systematic smashing of shops belonging to supposed Axis sympathizers. “All around the Consulate at this minute stores are being demolished.” The material damage was already great.40 The outraged Brazilian people demanded a response.

Inadvertently, U-507 would contribute to the eventual Allied victory by its unauthorized attack on Brazilian shipping. After pulling Brazil into the war, Schacht returned to his home base at Lorient in France. Unlike a previous voyage this time there were no medals and the reception was not warm. U-507 retuned to sea in late November and cruised back to Brazil, where it patrolled off of Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte. In conducting attacks Schacht changed his procedure to take prisoner the fated ship’s captain to obtain precise information about cargoes and navigation routes. By New Year’s 1943, he had three British merchant marine captains on board the U-507. In a twist of fortune, on January 13, 1943, a USN Catalina PBY, flying out of the base at Fortaleza, spotted the submarine and dropped four depth charges totaling 884 kilos of TNT making direct hits.

U-507’s voyages of death were ended thanks to the Brazilian-American alliance.

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