Excerpt from The Hemingway Patrols

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The Enemy in the Machine, by Terry Mort (continued)

Hemingway pioneered many big-game fishing techniques.

Ernest Hemingway fishing

These, then, were the enemies that Hemingway went to sea to find—the Germans were in the Gulf in force, and they were supremely dangerous and ambitious. And successful.

Hemingway’s mission was more complicated than merely cruising around and scanning the horizon for enemy submarines, for much of the time the U-boats traveled beneath the surface, and Pilar had no underwater detection equipment. Hemingway might sail Pilar through an apparently empty sea and never know that a submerged U-boat was lurking nearby, perhaps watching him through the periscope and trying to decide whether Pilar was worth destroying. Aside from spotting a periscope, the only way to detect a submerged U-boat was to entice it to the surface. 

The experience of some local fishermen suggested a way to do that.

U-boats, which had traveled far from their bases in France and had been on patrol for weeks, had long since run out of fresh food and were often attracted by the sight of a fishing boat. Having spotted a potential target, the U-boat would suddenly surface in a massive display of foam and streaming water, no doubt astonishing the fishermen. The Germans would then send over a boarding party to relieve the locals of their catch, as well as any fruits or other fresh foods they might have on board. This happened to commercial fishing boats more than a few times during the war. If the fishermen were lucky, the Germans would go on their way with no further harm done, beyond the loss of the catch. If they were not lucky, they would be set adrift in life rafts and their boat sunk with gunfire, for a U-boat would not waste a torpedo on a fishing boat. And if they were very unlucky, they would be machine-gunned along with their boat (though most, if not all, U-boat commanders drew the line at this sort of thing, despite orders from the commander of the U-boat fleet, Admiral Dönitz).2

Hemingway reasoned that a fishing boat such as Pilar would offer a tempting opportunity to U-boat captains on the lookout for fresh food. He would have to hope, though, that the U-boat he attracted was not having a run of bad luck. No U-boat skipper wanted to go home with little or nothing to show for the patrol. Even sinking a fishing boat such as Pilar would be something positive to report.

As he considered this plan, Hemingway must have smiled ruefully at the irony of the situation, for the hunter would now become the hunted, and Pilar would be the bait.

But his plan had a potentially fatal flaw—once the U-boat surfaced and once Hemingway had reported the contact, help would be delayed. ... Hemingway would have to find a way to prolong the enemy’s stay on the surface, since U-boat captains did not linger there longer than necessary. But then, when either aircraft or surface ships arrived, he would need some way to escape the coming attack and avoid becoming the victim of friendly fire. Besides, for all the Navy knew, Pilar might be an enemy craft based clandestinely in Cuba and used for resupply. Numerous German agents were rumored to be on the island cooperating with U-boats; Hemingway’s secondary mission was to be on the lookout for just these kinds of rendezvous.

The only solution he could devise was perhaps characteristic—he would attack the U-boat and try to damage it sufficiently to cause casualties, confusion, and mechanical malfunctions that would prevent the U-boat from submerging and escaping.

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