If you’re a history buff visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina, your itinerary likely includes popular attractions such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Corolla’s Whalehead Club, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the site from which an entire colony vanished on the northern tip of Roanoke Island. But to fully experience everything the Outer Banks has to offer those with an affinity for learning about the past of this stretch of seashore between sound and sea, a stop at the British Cemetery is a must.
Nestled well off the main road in a wooded lot on Ocracoke Island, the British Cemetery is a historic spot within the confines of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Maintained by the National Park Service, the 2,290-square-foot cemetery marks the final resting spot of heroic British sailors who fought alongside American troops defending the Eastern Seaboard from attacks during World War II.
Soon after American was thrust into war with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Germany launched a covert mission code-named Operation Paukenschlag. This initiative—whose English translation is Operation Drumroll—called for a series of assaults on unsuspecting ships sailing within the merchant-heavy sea lanes along the East Coast of the United States. Although today this stretch of the southern Outer Banks is prized for its pristine beaches, minimal development and wide array of wildlife, the area was once characterized by fiery explosions at sea and referred to as “Torpedo Junction” due to the massive amount of submarine assaults that occurred here in the early 1940s.
Orchestrated by Karl Donitz, a German admiral and U-boat commander, the operation began when five submarines were sent on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean in late December 1941. Unaware of the submarines making stealth underwater advances upon the shoreline of the Outer Banks, U.S. merchant ships continued upon their trade routes, protected only by a handful of naval vessels assigned to patrol this portion of the Atlantic—the majority of which were slow and unsuited to take on submarine attacks. According to the National Park Service, only one vessel—a 165-foot-long Coast Guard cutter named the Dione—patrolled the waters off Cape Hatteras, rendering the region extremely vulnerable to well-timed submarine attacks.
In addition to its lack of preparedness in terms of the types and number of ships patrolling the seaboard, the U.S. also failed to take proper precautions onshore to reduce the risk of underwater assaults on naval vessels. Local lighthouses—including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Ocracoke Lighthouse—remained lit at night, and blackout restrictions were not enforced. With lights along the shoreline ablaze throughout each evening, a brightly lit backdrop was created, allowing German U-boat commanders to easily spot the location of merchant ships passing along the coastline of the Outer Banks.
Having not prepared properly for a potential attack—and unknowingly creating the perfect conditions for submarine assaults—U.S. ships were an easy target for the German sailors, who had years of experience conducting submarine attacks on unsuspecting victims. The result was devastating: In the first six months of 1942 alone, 397 Allied merchant ships were struck and sunk in the poorly protected sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Hatteras—with the bright beacon of light emitted from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the massive currents that converged at Cape Point in Buxton—became a navigational focal point for U-boat commanders. More than 80 ships were sunk in this particular spot that earned the area its nickname of Torpedo Junction.
Relatively unchecked by unprepared American Naval forces, the German U-boats continued their slaughter of merchant ships. When those in command came to the realization that the loss of so many ships ultimately threatened the entire war effort, the U.S. finally accepted assistance from the British Royal Navy in patrolling the coast of North Carolina and began to strike back against enemy German forces. Bolstered by the aid of 24 British ships—including a transformed trawler called the HMS Bedfordshire—the U.S. was eventually able to regain control of the waters surrounding Torpedo Junction on the Outer Banks.
Although Admiral Donitz called off the attacks on Torpedo Junction in the summer of 1942 and sent his submarines to places that provided less resistance, the U.S. and its British allies suffered greatly from Operation Paukenschlag. On May 12, 1942, the HMS Bedfordshire was struck by a torpedo while patrolling the coastline of the Outer Banks. All 34 British crew members were killed when the ship sunk, and several of their bodies washing ashore on Ocracoke Island in the days following the attack.
Outer Bankers residing on Ocracoke Island buried the bodies of these brave British sailors who fought alongside American naval forces next to the grave of another British soldier who was killed when the San Delfino was sunk by a torpedo just one year earlier. The plot of land that serves as the final resting place of America’s allies at Torpedo Junction is now known as the British Cemetery in historic Ocracoke village and attracts hundreds of visitors to pay their respects each year. In honor of their sacrifice while assisting U.S. trips in the fight against German forces, memorial services—including a 21-gun salute and the placement of wreaths on all the graves—are held at the British Cemetery each year on the anniversary of the Bedfordshire’s sinking and attended by locals and visitors to the Outer Banks alike.