Battery 223 and a Day at the Beach
One of the joys of moving east is how close we are to the coast. When I discovered I could lunch at Cape May and enjoy a day at the shore and still be home for the night, I was in heaven.
On a particularly lovely afternoon we drove all the way down to the lighthouse at Cape May Point to enjoy the state park beach, a quiet haven for those of us who walk in the surf or sit and watch the waves but don’t swim (there’s no lifeguard). When we climbed over the barrier dune, I noticed an odd concrete structure on an otherwise empty stretch of beach between the state park and the nature conservancy. It looked like a bunker of some sort, and was a jarring sight on a quiet afternoon.
Luckily, there were signs explaining it. What I saw was, in fact, the remains of Battery 223, a concrete reinforced gun battery, once part of the Cape May Military Reservation, which in turn was part of the Harbor Defense of the Delaware. Goodness. On a sunny day, standing with my beach towels in tow and sunscreen on my nose for a day at the beach, the concept seemed surreal, but there it was.Being from the Midwest I’d never given much thought to harbor defenses. In thinking about World War II, like many Americans, I tended to think of coastal defenses as “over there,” in Europe, or on the other side of the continent in the direction of Japan. I was wrong. I later discovered that the World War II era Delaware defenses included over two dozen such batteries, numerous radar towers on military reservations, and Fort Miles, which was built in 1940, as well as at least three other, older, forts still active through the 1940s.
It didn’t take much thought to realize what they were protecting, or at least one of them. The port of Philadelphia is no longer what it once was, and it is easy to forget its importance as a port and ship building center, but in the 1930s and 40s it was a high value target by any measure. At its peak during the war, the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, “The Navy Yard,” employed over 40,000 people and built 53 ships including the battleship New Jersey now docked across the Delaware in Camden, NJ.
But seriously, how much of a threat was the Nazi navy? A big one, as it turns out. In 1942 during Operation Drumbeat, an attempt to disrupt American shipping and terrorize the east coast in the opening months of the war, German submarines or U-boats, sank 255 vessels off the U.S. eastern coast carrying a total of 1,425,996 in gross cargo tonnage. They badly damaged an additional 56. While the U.S. quickly took counter measures, and the numbers dropped, U-boat attacks continued. Ultimately the toll, by various counts 350-600 ships sunk and 5-6000 merchant seaman lost, out paced losses at Pearl Harbor.
U-boats patrolled American waters throughout the war. Three of the last to surrender did so in U.S. ports. Two surrendered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but U-858 surrendered at Fort Miles, inside the Delaware Bay.
We’re getting ready to go back to Cape May this summer, this time for a full week. Perhaps we’ll make it across the bay for a look at Fort Miles, now a museum. Perhaps we’ll do that another time. Day at the beach? We just paid tribute to the D-Day landings after seventy-five years. I may never look at beaches in quite the same way again. When I do, I’ll also remember the civilian pilots who flew depth charges and patrolled the coast, the merchant seamen who risked their lives to supply Europe and our troops, the navy’s Atlantic fleet, and those who defended the Delaware.
For more information see:
“Harbor Defense of the Delaware,” map and inventory on Forts, Camps, and Stations of the U.S. and Canada FortWiki, http://fortwiki.com/Category:Harbor_Defense_of_the_Delaware
“Operation Drumbeat: U-Boat Marauders on the American Coast,” Warfare History Network, December 4, 2018, https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/operation-drumbeat-u-boat-marauders-on-the-american-coast/
“Ships hit by U-boats off the US East Coast (and Gulf)”, U-Boat.net, https://uboat.net/maps/us_east_coast.htm
Wray, Dr. Gary D., “Two Submarines Brought WWII to Delaware,” Fort Miles Historical Association, http://fortmilesha.org/two-submarines/
Caroline Warfield is a writer of family-centered historical romance. She is currently expanding her novellas “Roses in Picardy” and “The Last Post,” which take place in and around Amiens in 1916 and 1919, into a full length novel.
You can find her here: https://www.carolinewarfield.com/