I located Dr. Dew and he gave me his permission to continue to use to use the article on the web site. Dan Jensen 7/21/2005
Thanks for your e-mail requesting reprint rights. Unfortunately, we do not have continuing exclusive rights to "The Day Hitler Lost the War" that appeared in our February 1978 issue. Once we publish an article, all rights revert back to the author. It will be necessary to obtain approval from him or his heirs.
We do not have a current address for author Dew and I have no information as to his whereabouts. In the instance of an old article such as this one, I normally suggest that you attempt to search the Internet for contact information for Mr. Dew so that you have a paper trail of your attempts to locate him.
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Good luck to you.
Patricia L. Marschand
Operations Administrator
The American Legion Magazine

The Day Hitler Lost the War


Lee A. Dew

The torpedo cut through the blue Caribbean like a shark, leaving a phosphorescent wake in the dark water. With the roar of flames it struck the tanker Pedernales, heavy with Venezuelan crude oil. The time—0131, February 16, 1942.
War came to the Western Hemisphere! The first attack by the German Navy on American land targets was aimed at a key element of the Allied war effort, the giant oil refinery on the island of Aruba in The Netherlands Antilles. From Aruba poured aviation gasoline critical to the RAF fighter and bomber commands on the home islands; for the beleaguered British troops on Malta and along the battle line in Egypt, and for the growing American military forces.
If the Aruba refinery was destroyed, the vast wealth of the Venezuelan oil fields would be denied the Allies. Britain, struggling to stay in the war, would be mortally wounded. The United States, frantically building a military capability in the first months after Pearl Harbor, would be denied a most important resource for this most mechanized of all wars.
Kapitanleuinant Werner Hartenstein peered from the conning tower of the submarine U-156 towards its victim. "It will be a good night," he thought to himself. Quickly he barked orders. The crew altered course slightly to port..
"Shoot!" A second torpedo sped from the tube. The tanker Oranjestad exploded in a ball of flame. Again Hartenstein turned and looked at his artillery officer; Lieutenant Dietrich A. von dem Borne.
Von dem Borne nodded. He understood the captain’s message. Now it would be his turn. The refinery, illuminated and helpless, would feel the power of the 105 mm cannon mounted on the foredeck of U-156. The storage tanks full of aviation gasoline would be easy targets at a range of 1,500 meters.
For Hartenstein, for the men of U-156, and especially for von dem Borne this night’s work was the culmination of five months of intensive effort.
Von dem Borne had been delighted when his orders finally came through assigning him to U-Boat duty. The son of a vice admiral in the Imperial German Navy, Berlin-born von dem Borne was determined to follow his father in a naval career.
After receiving his commission he was assigned to a minelayer, and he began the war with a series of missions around the British Isles, including a daring trip into the mouth of the Thames River.
A transfer to destroyer duty bored him. He remembered the fate of the German surface fleet during World War I—sitting out the war in inactivity and dejection following the great Battle of Jutland. The U-Boat service was where the action would be in this war! He was able to wrangle a transfer to Bremen and the newly completed U-156.
Hartenstein was a professional sailor. His career began in 1928 when he joined the navy of the Weimar Republic. A strict disciplinarian and hard taskmaster, Hartenstein earned the nickname "Crazy Dog" from his U-156 crew. Always immaculate in dress and erect in posture, he demanded top performance of his ship, his men, and above all, himself. On his tunic he wore the Iron Cross, first and second class, and the Cross of Gold, earned as commander of the torpedo boat Jaguar, his last assignment before entering the submarine service. At 33, it was his first U-Boat Command.
Von dem Borne respected Hartenstein as a professional and as a good sailor, but "Crazy Dog" was not a man who made friends easily and von dem Borne maintained a proper subordinate-captain relationship. Lieutenant, Paul Just on the other hand, was a friend of von dem Borne. Just, second watch office on U-156, joined the Luftwaffe in 1936 and flew 160 missions over the British Isles before entering the submarine service in 1941. Like von dem Borne, U-156 was Just’s first U-Boat.
Officers and crew turned out in full dress for the christening ceremony, held at the Breman shipyard on September 4, 1941.
By December, the crew had shaped up and Hartenstein concluded they were ready for their first taste of action. On Christmas Eve, U-156 left Kiel and moved silently through the Kiel Canal to the North Sea. Their orders were to proceed to Narvik, in Norway, to interdict British shipping.
Rough seas prevented action at Narvik and Hartenstein fumed. Fiercely he increased his pressure on the crew—drill and more drill became the order of the day. It was freezing, and the submarine’s heating system barely took off the chill. The boat was heated by water circulated from the engine’s cooling system, but unless the U-Boat was moving at top surface speed (18.3 knots) this system was inefficient.
U-156 passed north of Scotland and into the Atlantic, where two floating weather buoys were dropped off west of Ireland. The buoys radioed information to German meteorologists, and were vital to the Reich’s naval and air force planners. U156 now headed for the big base at Lorient, arriving January 8, 1942.
For 11 days Just and von dem Borne supervised the loading, with torpedoes, fuel, commissary supplies and tropical uniforms being packed into every available space. Hartenstein, as usual, said nothing, leaving the junior officer to speculate on their next mission. One thing was certain—it was to be an extended combat patrol in tropical waters. This time they would be able to use their 25 torpedoes.
On January 19 they slipped their lines and eased out of the French harbor, steering southwesterly through the Bay of Biscay. As they passed the Azores the crew guessed their destination was South America.
U-156 entered the Caribbean on February 10, driven at top speed by the two 2,500 horsepower Diesel engines. Continuing on a southwesterly course, the sleek Class IX-C boat approached the Dutch island of Curacao three days later.
Hartenstein addressed the crew on February 13, and for the first time explained their mission.
U-156 was a part of the "Neuland Gruppe", five boats assigned to a mission of vital importance to the German High Command. Their objectives, the oil refineries on the islands of Aruba and Curacao, and the tanker fleet which carried crude oil from the Venezuelan oil fields in Lake Maracaibo to the refineries.
The Aruba refinery was the target of U-156. Hartenstein explained that it was then the world’s largest refinery, its main production was aviation gasoline and motor fuels. It was the primary source of fuel for the RAF and the British Eighth Army guarding the Suez Cannel.
Deny fuel to the Eight Army and Rommel’s Afrika Corps could sweep into Alexandria, occupy the Suez Cannel and continue into the Middle East. Turkey and possibly Iran might come into the war on the side of the Germans. Russia would be outflanked on the south, and the flow of British and American supplies to the Russians through the Persian Gulf could be halted.
It was a heady prospect.
The mission U-156 , in Hartenstein’s mind, would alter the war irrevocable in favor of Germany. Britain would have to agree to a peace on German terms. The United States, reeling from Japanese blows in the Pacific, would be only to glad to negotiate.
The refinery in Aruba, Hartenstein continued, was supplied with crude oil from Venezuela by shallow-draft tankers capable of negotiating the bars in the mouth of Lake Maracaibo. Destroying the tankers was important, but the main objective was the refinery itself. Hartenstein’s battle plan was simple. Torpedo any tanker which appeared an easy target, then shell the refinery at leisure with the 105 mm cannon. The hundreds of thousands of gallons of stored petroleum in the refinery tank farm would make an easy target, and once the oil was ignited it would pour into the refinery area, destroying everything in its path.
Aruba was sighted on the evening of the 13th. The submarine surfaced at dusk and took bearings at a lighthouse on the eastern tip of the island. After full dark the boat proceeded around the point and, on the surface, sailed past the refinery and the adjacent village of Lago, home to more than 3,000 Americans—refinery workers and their families.
The officers on the conning tower marveled at the brightly-lit refinery. After the darkness of blacked-out Europe, Aruba seemed almost like a mirage, a dream from some forgotten time. Hartenstein noted in his log: "four large tankers were in port and three were at roadstead."  Easy targets, the thought.
Passing the refinery, U-156 continued along the coast to the main city of Oranjestad, where the boat submerged and entered the harbor mouth. All was quiet in the small harbor, so U156 moved to the western end of the island where the Eagle refinery, operated by Royal Dutch Shell, was located. One tanker was moored at the long Eagle Pier, which jutted some 420 meters from the southwestern tip of the island. This pier, too, was illuminated.
Satisfied, Hartenstein ordered U-156 submerged, to wait for the time to strike.
On the evening of the 15th the submarine surfaced again, about one mile off the Lago refinery. The crew prepared for combat. Lt. von dem Borne directed the gunnery crews in readying their 105 mm and 37 mm guns and the 30 mm antiaircraft gun. Lt. Just, below, prepared the torpedoes. Hartenstein studied his prey, lying unsuspecting in the distance.
Zero hour approached. Carefully Hartenstein maneuvered his boat into position on the surface. The silhouette of the Pedernales was outlined clearly against the lights on shore. The order was given—the torpedo sped towards its target, striking the tanker amidships. The log of U-156 told the story:
0831 (Berlin Time) Surface shot at tanker—detonation after 48.5 seconds. Tanker burned immediately.
Two minutes later another torpedo shattered the tanker Oranjestad, anchored, like the Pedernales, in the roadstead of the harbor awaiting clearance to unload its crude oil.
Burning oil quickly spread around both ships. Crewmen scrambled toward lifeboats or jumped from slanting decks into the sea. Shouts and screams echoed across the fire lit water.
Hartenstein, cool and precise as always, ordered a change of course to 300 degrees. U-156, still on the surface, moved along the coastline until it was immediately opposite the refinery, three-fourths of a mile off the barrier reef.
The gun crews stood ready, and, at von dem Borne’s order, slammed the first shell into the breach of the 105. The refinery and its hundreds of storage tanks were a massive target-there was no way they could miss.
"Fire," von dem Borne shouted, and the cannon exploded in a burst of flying metal. One crewman lay on the deck, mortally wounded. Von dem Borne, one foot a mass of bloody tissue and splinters of bone, was slammed backward against the base of the conning tower. What had gone wrong?
A crewman dashed toward the conning tower with a report, in response to Hartenstein’s shout of rage. The round had detonated in the cannon barrel. Someone had failed to remove the muzzle plug which kept salt water out of the barrel when the boat was submerged. The cannon was useless, its barrel splayed and twisted.
Hartenstein, a skilled artilleryman, examined the cannon. It was unworkable. He ordered the 37 mm crew to open fire with their little gun, and 16 rounds were arched toward the refinery, with no visible result. In disgust Hartenstein ordered a cease-fire, and set his course toward the other end of the island. At least he might get another tanker.
(While the four other U-Boats in the "Neuland Gruppe" carried 105 mm guns, only the U-156 was assigned to Aruba. The four others had different missions and the German High Command, for some unknown reason, failed to follow up after the U-156’s failure at Aruba).
The big tanker Arkansas lay at the Eagle Pier, its tanks empty and degassed. Hartenstein sent three torpedoes toward the ship. One grounded on the beach, one disappeared to seaward, and one struck the Arkansas, causing only minor damage.
Furious and helpless, Hartenstein ordered U-156 to submerge. The pharmacist’s mate treated von dem Borne’s foot as best he could, stopping most of the bleeding. The wounded seaman, Businger, died later that day. That night, some 17 hours after the initial attack, U-156 surfaced for the funeral ceremony.
The next day U-156 left Aruban waters for Martinique, and von den Borne was put ashore for treatment at the Vichy French naval hospital.
Meanwhile, what of Hartenstein’s victims? The Pedernales, although critically wounded, did not sink. Her back broken, she drifted out to sea, a burning hulk. Eight of her crew were dead, many of the surviving 18 wounded or burned.
The Oranjestad sank within an hour, as fire consumed the vessel. Fifteen of her crew died. At Eagle there were no casualties from the attack on the Arkansas, but the next day four demolition men were killed attempting to disarm the torpedo which had run up on the beach.
Three other tankers were sunk that night by other U-Boats of the Neuland Gruppe, The Lago tankers San Nicholas and Tia Juana and the Gulf tanker Monagas were sent to the bottom.
It had been a bad night for the Allies. Four tankers sunk, one heavily damaged, another holed.  But most important for the war effort, the Lago refinery was unscathed. One of the little 37 mm shells had struck a Diesel oil tank and glanced away harmlessly, leaving only a dent in the steel plating.
It was that close a thing! Had it not been for the carelessness of an unknown German sailor, U-156 might have blown the world’s largest refinery right out of the war. Instead it remained, to produce one out of every 16 gallons of motor fuel consumed during the conflict!
Few people on Aruba knew how great their danger had been. Just as the torpedo struck the Pedernales, an American military supply ship, the Henry Gibbons was preparing to clear the harbor. When the blast from the Pedernales was seen, the pilot refused to proceed and the ship returned to her birth. Aboard the Gibbons was 3,000 tons of TNT!
Had the Gibbons sailed into the path of U-156 and been torpedoed, the blast would have been sufficient to break pipelines and blow gaskets throughout the refinery area. The catastrophe would have been immeasurable. The Gibbons had been scheduled to depart shortly after midnight, but her crew demanded a coffee break before sailing, so her departure had been delayed just long enough to prevent her coming into range of Hartenstein’s torpedoes.
In October 1942, as the British stood at El Alamein and broke the back of the Afrika Corps, Lago gasoline was there. A week later when American and British forces landed in western Africa for Operation Torch, the Pedernales was there in one of the conveys of support vessels.
Found adrift and abandoned by a tug, the Pedernales was towed back to Aruba where the damaged center section was removed and the bow and stern welded together. Shorter by 124 feet, the Pedernales sailed under her own power to the United States, where she was rebuilt.
Hartenstein, meanwhile, was making atonements for his failure. During 1942 he made three successful patrols in the Caribbean and Atlantic, sinking more then 100,000 tons of Allied shipping. Ranking among the top 35 U-Boat commanders, Hartenstein was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
On his forth patrol, Hartenstein dropped his guard. U-156 was cruising on the surface, some 345 miles east of Barbados. The crew was relaxing, many sunbathing on the deck. Suddenly, an American PBY Catalina patrol bomber dove from a patch of clouds at the U-Boat. Leveling off at 100 feet, the PBY dropped three bombs, two of which straddled the conning tower. U-156 broke into three pieces and sank immediately. No survivors were found.
Of the Germans who had been aboard U-156 when she attached Aruba, only Lt. von dem Borne survived. His foot had been amputated at Martinique, and he remained there as a prisoner of war when the allies occupied the French West Indies. Eventually he was taken to New York, where together with other sick and wounded prisoners, he was put aboard the Swedish liner Gripsholm. On May 19, 1944, in Barcelona, Spain, von dem Borne was exchanged and returned to Germany.
After the war he joined the navy of the Federal Republic of Germany where he now holds the rank of Frigattenkapitan (Commander), and is stationed at the Kiel naval base.
One major question remained, why did the Germans not try again to destroy the refinery at Aruba? The abortive attack by U-156 was the only serious effort by the Nazis to disable the gigantic installation, although submarines continued to harass shipping in the Caribbean throughout the war.
The answer lay deep within the politics of the Reich. The German naval high command was bitterly at odds over the tactical use of submarines. Adm. Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief of the Navy during the early years of the war, favored the use of U-Boats against land targets such as Aruba. His adversary, Adm. Karl Doenitz, stressed attacking ships, claiming that shipping was the weakest link in the Allied supply system. By 1942 Doenitz’s view were gaining the support of Hitler, and early in 1943 he replaced Raeder as commander-in-chief.
Aruba was saved, and not only Aruba, but all the other thousands of potential land targets in the Hemisphere, from the locks of the Panama Canal to the flammable wharves of New Orleans, the warehouses of Brooklyn and the tank farms of Staten Island.
The submarines became wolf packs hunters rather than submersible artillery platforms. Torpedoes rather than artillery shells were to be their weapons for the remainder of the war.
Perhaps the momentary lapse of memory by one unknown German sailor on the foredeck of U-156 turned the tide of victory for the Allies.