The German U-Boat Attack off Cape Cod: World War I Arrives in New England

On July 21, 1918, New Englanders found themselves with World War I on their doorsteps in the form of a German U-boat attack off Cape Cod at its elbow. The German raider, U-156, destroyed 45 vessels over the course of its life – five of them off Cape Cod that day.

The German U-boat Attack

The attack came between 10:30 and 11 a.m. on the tugboat Perth Amboy as it towed four barges from Gloucester to New York. One was loaded with stone, the others empty after having delivered their loads of coal. The German sub first fired torpedoes at the tugboat, but all missed.

The torpedo passing by was the first the tugboat knew of a U-boat in the area.

Nauset Beach in November

The sub then began shelling. The first shot hit the wheelhouse of the tugboat, setting it on fire. Then the Germans turned to the barges, efficiently sinking three. The final barge proved a more difficult target. Though the Germans shelled it for a half-hour, it still stayed afloat.

The attack subsided temporarily when two planes from the Chatham Naval Air Station arrived. Tourist eyewitnesses, astounded as the fighting played out just off shore at Nauset Beach, saw one plane swoop low and the airman toss something at the sub. But it didn’t explode.  Later, newspapers would report that the airmen were student pilots and they tossed sand bags at the boat because they had no live ammunition.

World War I U-boats docked in Germany.

Warfare off the Beach

As the plane circled back around for another pass, the sub stopped firing on the tugboat and barge. It then trained its machine guns on the planes. Within minutes, the German vessel submerged out of sight. It was a surprising and dangerous move in the shallow waters. The boat, however, stayed out of view and the airmen, thinking the enemy had left, returned to Chatham.

The attack hadn’t ended, however. After the planes flew away, the U-boat again surfaced and resumed firing until it sank the final barge. With the barges taken care of, the U-boat crew resumed shelling the tugboat. Only when the tug was in flames from the bow to the stern did U-156 finally submerge and leave the area.

Old Harbor Lifesaving Station in Chatham around 1900.

Rescuers from the Coast Guard lifesaving station pulled the tugboat’s crew to shore. The crew members from the barges all made it safely to land. Merchant vessels in the area picked up most of them from life boats. In all, 41 people had to be rescued, including three women and five children. One member of the tugboat crew suffered serious injury to his hand, hit by a shell fragment.

Several shells from the U-boat reached the beach and a marsh in Orleans, but did no damage. A sign at Nauset Beach reads,

Three miles offshore, in the direction of the arrow, was the scene of attack of a German submarine on a tug and barges July 21, 1918. Several shells struck the beach. This is the only section of the United States’ coast shelled by the enemy during World War I.

Why War?

The German sinking of unarmed merchant vessels without letting the crews to escape was a major stated reason why the U.S. entered the war in 1917. And the summer tourists got a first-hand look at exactly what that type of warfare looked like.

In part, U.S. intelligence said, the show was probably deliberate. The Germans intended it to undermine American confidence as the nation expanded its troop presence in Europe.

This story was updated in 2022.

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