The Greer: just the facts


Eric Rauchway


April 10, 2023

On September 4, 1941, the German submarine U-652 attempted to torpedo the U.S.S. Greer, a destroyer ferrying mail from the United States to Iceland. The president used the occasion to declare in a fireside chat that

from now on, if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters, the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril.

Denmark, including Iceland, from an atlas of 1940–1945. David Rumsey Map Collection.

There’s a lot to say about this episode, but let’s for this post try to get the facts straight, which historians often do not, even in otherwise reputable books. Consider for example,

On 4 September the German submarine U-652 unsuccessfully tried to torpedo the American escort destroyer U.S.S. Greer, which had attempted to depth-charge the U-boat south of Ireland.1

While “Ireland” is probably an unfortunate typographical error, the assertion that Greer fired first is simply wrong and reflects German propaganda in the days after the attack.2

The bare facts are these:

U.S.S. Greer, carrying the pennant of Commander G.W. Johnson and commanded by Lieutenant Commander L.H. Frost, was proceeding independently toward Iceland on 4 September 1941 in lat. 62°45’ N, long. 27°37’ W, at a speed of 17 1/2 knots. At 0840 a British plane signaled to her that a submerged U-boat lay athwart her course some ten miles ahead. Greer commenced zigzagging, increased speed to twenty knots, went to general quarters, laid a course for the reported position, and on reaching it slowed to ten knots in order to allow her sound gear to operate at full efficiency. She made sound contact with the submarine and maintained it for over three hours, keeping the submerged U-boat always on her bow but not attacking. At 1000 the British plane captain inquired whether Greer intended to attack, and was answered in the negative. He then dropped his depth charges more or less at random, and returned to base to refuel. At 1240 the submarine headed toward the American destroyer and launched a torpedo, which was sighted early enough to be dodged. Greer counterattacked with depth charges, and at 1300 the U-boat shot a second torpedo, which was also avoided. Unable to reestablish sound contact, Greer discontinued the search at 1416 and resumed course for Iceland.3

It seems essential to me for historians relating this episode to note that something like two hours passed after the British plane dropped its depth charges and before the U-boat fired on the Greer. The British attack, such as it was, was not ongoing at the time the German U-boat attempted to torpedo the American destroyer, although one may charitably say (as Waldo Heinrichs does) that the U-boat captain “must have regarded as hostile pursuit” the Greer’s continued persistence in tailing it.4