Military history

THE MEDITERRANEAN: SUPPORTING ROMMEL

The twenty Type VII U-boats based in the Mediterranean on April 1, 1942, to support Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps continued to operate under extremely difficult conditions. The patrols were still brief but nerve-shattering and risky. Some skippers cracked from the strain. Others rotated back to Germany to command larger U-boats under construction. Notwithstanding pressures from Berlin and Rome and the new Mediterranean U-boat commander, Leo Kreisch, the Italian-run shore facilities at La Spezia, Pola, and Salamis remained slow and slovenly. When on April 1, an Allied aircraft hit Helmut Rosenbaum in U-73 with four bombs or depth charges, repairs at La Spezia required four full months.

The Mediterranean U-boats had been organized into Combat Flotilla 29 for administrative purposes in early 1942. The flotilla commander during the first six months was the fifty-eight-year-old Franz Becker. In June 1942, he was relieved by. Ritterkreuz holder Fritz Frauenheim, who had won fame in the Atlantic while commanding U-101. He was to hold that post a full year.

Six boats patrolled the eastern Mediterranean in April 1942. Off Mersa Matruh on April 7, Egon-Reiner von Schlippenbach in U-453 hit by mistake the 9,700-ton British hospital ship Somersetshire with three torpedoes. Fortunately for all concerned, she survived the hits and limped into Alexandria. Hitler personally approved the OKM’s plan to keep the error secret like the Athenia affair and to deny any Allied charges of atrocities. Von Schlippenbach altered his log accordingly. In nearly the same spot, on April 23 a new skipper in U-565, Wilhelm Franken, age twenty-seven, claimed sinking two freighters for 9,500 tons, but postwar records confirmed only one, a 1,400-ton British coaster.

Four of the six boats sailing to the eastern Mediterranean were assigned to lay TMB (magnetic) mines during the period from April 13 to April 15.

• The U-81, commanded by Friedrich Guggenberger, who had won a Ritterkreuz for sinking the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, planted a field at Haifa, Palestine. No confirmed sinkings were attributed to this field. After planting the mines, Guggenberger cruised north toward Beirut, where he sank two ships by torpedo: the 1,150-ton Vichy French trawler Viking and the 6,000-ton British tanker Caspia. Returning to Palestinian waters from April 16 to April 26, Guggenberger sank seven sailing ships by gun and one by ramming, and bombarded an electric power station in Tel Aviv.

• The U-331, commanded by Hans-Dietrich von Tiesenhausen, who had won a Ritterkreuz for sinking the battleship Barham, planted a field at Beirut. Von Tiesenhausen then entered the harbor on the surface in darkness and fired a torpedo at a 3,000-ton Norwegian freighter moored at a pier. He thought he damaged that ship, but she was shielded by barges that absorbed the explosion. The next day he fired a torpedo at a 4,000-ton freighter, but the torpedo failed to explode. In the several days following, von Tiesenhausen sank three sailing vessels and destroyed the electric power station in Beirut by gun. As far as could be determined, his minefield did not sink or damage any Allied vessels.

• The U-561, commanded by Robert Bartels, planted a field at Port Said, the Mediterranean entry to the Suez Canal. A month later, on May 15, these mines sank two freighters for 11,754 tons and damaged a third for 4,000 tons. In view of these successes, Bartels was directed to lay another field at Port Said on June 18 and yet another on July 10. However, the second and third fields produced no recorded results. After that, Bartels left U-561 and returned to Germany to commission one of the large U-boats.

• The U-562, commanded by Horst Hamm, planted a field at Famagusta, a seaport on the east coast of Cyprus. About two weeks later, on April 29, these mines sank a 156-ton sailing ship and an 81-ton tugboat, but nothing of military value. After laying the field, Hamm took U-562 to Turkish waters. The British asserted later that he violated international law by entering a Turkish harbor, where he found a British ship taking on cargo, then followed her to sea and attempted to sink her. However, the attack failed.

Three U-boats patrolled the western Mediterranean in late April to interdict the powerful Allied naval forces, including the American carrier Wasp, attempting to get aircraft and supplies to Malta. None found any warships to attack. Two of the three boats were lost:

• On May 1, a Hudson of British Squadron 233, flying at 1700 feet and piloted by Sergeant Brent, sighted the U-573, commanded by Heinrich Heinsohn. The plane dived and dropped three 250-pound depth charges set for 25 feet. One failed to detonate but the other two exploded close, savaging U-573. Soon the circling Hudson’s crew saw about ten men on the bridge raise their hands in surrender. In response, the Hudson’s crew passed up an opportunity for a machine-gun strafing attack, for which it was later severely reprimanded.*

Running low on fuel, the Hudson was forced to break off and return to base. Although U-573 could not dive, Heinsohn eluded all other Allied aircraft and ships and limped into Cartagena, Spain, assisted the last few miles by two Spanish Navy tugs. Technically “interned,” Heinsohn reported to Berlin that repairs to U-573 were to take three months and that Spanish authorities agreed to “cooperate.” However, Berlin decided against repairs and gave the boat to Spain, which repaired it and rechristened it G-7. Heinsohn and his crew eventually returned to Germany for reassignment.

• In the same area on the following day, May 2, a Sunderland of British Squadron 202, piloted by R. Y. Powell, caught U-74, commanded by Karl Friedrich, who had recently replaced the Ritterkreuz holder Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat. In contrast to the Hudson’s casual attack on U-573, the Sunderland doggedly held contact with U-74 and brought in the British destroyers Wishart and Wrestler. The combined air and sea attack destroyed U-74 with no survivors.

The loss of U-74 and U-573 reduced the Mediterranean force to eighteen boats, including those such as U-73 undergoing prolonged battle-damage repairs. Excluding small craft, the entire Mediterranean U-boat force sank but three merchant ships for 8,500 tons—and no warships—in April. Perhaps because of the continuing poor returns and the high risks, there was no great rush to replace the lost boats.

When Erwin Rommel resumed the long-delayed offensive from Gazala (Libya) toward Egypt on May 27, the U-boat force commander, Leo Kreisch, deployed nine boats to assist Axis ground forces. Eight of the boats patrolled close to the African coast from Gazala to Mersa Matruh to attack Allied vessels attempting to supply or evacuate the reeling British Eighth Army. The other, U-83, commanded by Hans-Werner Kraus, was to land an Axis commando force in the Gulf of Bomba. While closing the coast, Kraus shot at an escorted steamer. He claimed he missed his target and hit and sank the “corvette” escort, but the claim could not be confirmed. Owing to “technical problems” the commando operation was aborted, but Kraus continued his patrol.

Two boats were lost in the early stages of Rommel’s offensive, reducing the Mediterranean force to sixteen.

• On the morning of May 27, a British Blenheim bomber spotted a U-boat sixty miles off the coast of Bardia, midway between Tobruk and Mersa Matruh. This was U-568, commanded by twenty-eight-year-old Joachim Preuss, who had hit and damaged the American destroyer Kearny the previous October. The Blenheim dropped a number of close bombs, one of which ruptured a fuel tank and caused a leak. In response to the plane’s signal, the commander of a nearby convoy escort detached two destroyers, Hurworth and Hero, to carry on the hunt. The ships gained sonar contacts and in eight attacks over two hours Hurworth fired fifty depth charges at U-568, and in three attacks Hero fired twenty.

Since Hurworth was out of depth charges and Hero had only twenty left, the convoy-escort commander detached a third destroyer, Eridge, which arrived at 6:00 P.M. with thirty-five depth charges and took over the hunt. Hero carried out four more attacks, expending all of her depth charges. Eridge carried out six attacks, expending all but five of her depth charges. While Hero and Eridge held sonar contact and stalked, Hurworth broke off to run into Tobruk to get yet more depth charges.

After about twelve hours of brutal punishment, Preuss had no choice but to surface and attempt to shake the destroyers in the darkness. At about midnight on May 27-28, he came up merely 1,250 yards ahead of Eridge. Although Eridge and Hero had Type 286 radar, neither set picked up U-568, but the lookouts did, and both destroyers opened fire with main batteries, drawing Hurworth back to the scene. Preuss dived and eluded immediate destruction but when he surfaced again at 4:00 A.M., close to the three destroyers, they saw him and again opened fire. Guns blazing, Eridge ran in and dropped three of her five remaining depth charges, set for fifty feet. By that time Preuss and his crew had scuttled ship and were jumping into the water, begging to be rescued. Hurworth and Eridge sent boarding parties to capture secret papers, but they arrived too late, and U-568 sank beneath their feet. The whaleboats picked up Preuss and forty-six other Germans, apparently the entire crew.

• On the morning of June 2, a Swordfish of British Fleet Air Arm Squadron 815, piloted by G. H. Bates, found and attacked another U-boat off Bardia, but much closer to the shore. This was U-652, commanded by Georg-Werner Fraatz, who had engaged the American destroyer Greer the previous September. The Swordfish attacks utterly disabled—but did not sink—U-652. When Fraatz radioed his situation and asked for help, Guggenberger in U-81, who was nearby searching for some German airmen who had ditched, responded within two hours. Fraatz and Guggenberger attempted to tow U-652 to Salamis but failed. After the crewmen of U-652 transferred to U-81, Fraatz sank his wrecked boat with one of Guggen-berger’s stern torpedoes. Fraatz and his crew debarked at Salamis and later returned to Germany to commission one of the big U-boats.

The other boats patrolling off North Africa in June in support of Rommel had mixed success. Franz-Georg Reschke in U-205 sank the 5,450-ton British light cruiser Hermione, which was attempting to reach Malta. This success earned Reschke high praise from Berlin propagandists, but not, as expected, a Ritterkreuz. Wilhelm Dommes in U-431 sank a 4,200-ton tanker, a 2,000-ton coaster, and possibly a 300-ton landing craft, and rescued nine downed German airmen. Heinrich Schonder in U-77 sank the 1,000-ton British Hunt-class destroyer Grove. Hans-Dietrich von Tiesenhausen in U-331 and Egon-Reiner von Schlippenbach in U-453 attacked a convoy, claiming damage to three ships.

After aborting the commando raid, Hans-Werner Kraus in U-83 patrolled off Palestine and Lebanon. In a furiously aggressive seven-day period, June 7 to 13, Kraus claimed sinking three small freighters and four sailing ships, and damage to a 6,000-ton freighter. While returning to Salamis on June 19, Kraus received word that he had been awarded a Ritterkreuz. A crewman remembered that U-83 entered Salamis flying twenty pennants representing total ships claimed sunk and sporting a big Ritterkreuz on the conning tower with the figure “20” beneath it. Wilhelm Dommes in U-431 entered Salamis at the same time, flying seven pennants, representing the total ships he claimed sunk. The crewmen remembered that the simultaneous entry of U-83 and U-431 into Salamis had been staged and filmed by propagandists and shown as a newsreel in German movie theaters.*

Several other U-boats had success in the Palestine-Lebanon area in June. Heinz-Joachim Neumann in U-372 sank the valuable 14,650-ton submarine tender Medway, mother ship of the British 1st Submarine Flotilla, while she was shifting from Alexandria, Egypt, to a safer berth in Beirut, Lebanon. Escorted by a light cruiser and seven destroyers(I), Medway had embarked 1,135 men. Because of smart seamanship during the rescue, only thirty men were lost. Hans-Otto Heidtmann in U-559 sank a 4,700-ton tanker and damaged another of 6,000 tons, also earning a “well done” from Berlin propagandists. The U-97, commanded by a new skipper, Friedrich Bürgel, age twenty-five, sank three coasters for about 4,000 tons off Haifa.

In his drive east toward Egypt, Rommel again bypassed the British citadel of Tobruk. This time the Germans assumed the British would attempt a “Dunkirk”—an evacuation by sea. To thwart that possibility, the Germans rushed three U-boats to the area to establish a blockade, but it was unnecessary. As related, on June 21, the garrison in Tobruk surrendered to Axis forces.

During this phase of the fighting in the Mediterranean, British air and naval forces eliminated four more Italian submarines. A Catalina of British Squadron 202, piloted by Australian R. M. Corrie, sank Veniero on June 7. The British submarine Ultimatum, commanded by Peter R. H. Harrison, which had sunk Millo in March, sank Zaffiro on June 24. The corvette Hyacinth drove Perla to the surface with depth charges and captured the boat and twenty-five survivors. Two South African trawlers, Protea and Southern Maid, assisted by a British aircraft, sank Ondina on July 11.

• • •

When Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps ran out of supplies and bogged down at El Alamein in early July, the British redoubled their efforts to get aircraft and supplies to Malta. These efforts culminated with the dispatch from England of a convoy, Pedestal, comprised of fourteen big, fast merchant ships, massively escorted by British warships, including the battleship Nelson and carrier Victorious, temporarily detached from the Home Fleet.

Alerted by intelligence sources, the Axis prepared a hot reception for Pedestal. The Axis naval forces included an Italian cruiser squadron, about eighteen Italian submarines and twelve PT boats, and three German U-boats: the U-73, commanded by Helmut Rosenbaum (returning to action after four months of battle-damage repairs), the U-205, commanded by Franz-Georg Reschke, and the U-331, commanded by Ritterkreuz holder Hans-Dietrich von Tiesenhausen. However, on August 9, an Allied aircraft hit U-331, wounding two men and forcing her to abort to La Spezia for repairs.

Convoy Pedestal passed by Gibraltar into the Mediterranean in a dense fog the evening of August 10. On the following day, Axis air forces found, reported, and attacked the huge formation, which included two battleships, four aircraft carriers, seven cruisers, and thirty-two destroyers. The Italian submarine Uarsciek was the first of the Axis naval units to attack, firing three torpedoes at the carrier Furious, which was to go only part way to launch Spitfires for Malta. The Italian skipper reported two solid hits, but these could not be confirmed in British records. Unaware of her close call, Furious launched her thirty-seven Spitfires, then prepared to reverse course for Gibraltar.

Helmut Rosenbaum in U-73 lay submerged not far away. In the early afternoon of that same day, August 11, the whole huge formation came right toward him. He had an easy shot at four of the fourteen merchant ships in the convoy, but his orders were to attack major warships first. As the formation bore down upon him, he got a quick periscope glimpse of the old 22,600-ton aircraft carrier Eagle, screened by seven destroyers. Coolly slipping between the escorts, Rosenbaum closed to 500 yards and fired four bow torpedoes. All hit. Eagle sank in eight or ten minutes, with the loss of about 260 of her 1,160-man crew and all sixteen of her aircraft. The destroyers Laforey, Lookout, and Malcolm and the fleet tug Jaunty rescued most of Eagle’s survivors, while the other destroyers hunted vainly for Eagle’s killer. Rosenbaum took U-73 very deep and lay doggo, unharmed by a rain of poorly aimed depth charges.

Later that afternoon Rosenbaum surfaced and got off a contact report that concluded: “Hit Eagle four torpedoes 500 yards. Sinking noises clearly heard. Depth-charged. No damage.” Congratulatory messages poured in from Berlin, Rome, and elsewhere. Admiral Raeder directed that Rosenbaum be immediately awarded a Ritterkreuz* When U-73 returned to La Spezia, he was promoted and sent to command the German U-boat force in the Black Sea.* His first watch officer on this patrol, Horst Deckert, age twenty-three, the son of German-American parents who lived in Chicago, was promoted to command U-73.

After Furious reversed course for Gibraltar, she was screened by a half-dozen destroyers, many of them crowded with Eagle survivors. One of the screen was Wolverine—famous for supposedly sinking Günther Prien in U-47—commanded by a new skipper, twenty-nine-year-old Peter Gretton. That night Wolverine picked up an unidentified submarine on her radar at close range. Unhesitatingly Gretton rang up flank speed and rammed the target at 26 knots. It proved to be the medium-size Italian submarine Dagabur, which sank instantly with the loss of all hands. The “terrific” impact of the collision severely damaged the aged Wolverine, which limped into Gibraltar, where in due course she got a temporary bow and went onward to England. There Gretton was decorated and promoted to command Escort Group B-7 on the North Atlantic run.

Convoy Pedestal pressed onward toward Malta, entering the perilous narrows separating Tunisia and Sardinia and Tunisia and Sicily. Per plan, the valuable battleships and carriers of the covering force prepared to reverse course and return to Gibraltar, leaving only the less valuable cruisers and destroyers to protect the merchant ships. However, before this dispersal could be executed, Axis air and naval forces inflicted severe damage on the British formations. Aircraft hit the destroyer Foresight and the new carrier Indomitable, so badly damaging Foresight that she had to be sunk. In a memorable salvo, the Italian submarine Axum, commanded by Renato Perrini, hit the 4,200-ton light cruiser Cairo, the 8,000-ton heavy cruiser Nigeria, and the 9,500-ton American tanker Ohio; in British charter. Hopelessly damaged, Cairo, too, had to be sunk. The Italian submarine Dessie, commanded by Renato Scandola, sank the 7,500-ton British freighter Deucalion (possibly damaged by aircraft) and perhaps damaged the 12,800-ton British freighter Brisbane Star (possibly damaged by aircraft). The Italian submarine Alagi, commanded by Sergio Puccini, sank the 7,300-ton British freighter Clan Ferguson and damaged the 8,000-ton heavy cruiser Kenya. The Italian submarine Bronzo, commanded by Cesare Buldrini, damaged the 12,700-ton British freighter Empire Hope (possibly damaged by aircraft), which had to be sunk by an escort.

The medium-size Italian submarine Cobalto, on her maiden patrol, twice achieved a near-perfect position to sink the carrier Indomitable. However, before she could shoot, the screening destroyers Pathfinder and Ithuriel independently spotted Cobalto and thwarted both attacks. Upon sighting Cobalto’s periscope, Ithuriel closed and dropped five depth charges set for 50 feet, which brought the submarine to the surface. Firing her 4.7” batteries and other weapons, Ithuriel ran in and rammed Cobalto a glancing blow abaft her conning tower. While the Italian submariners were jumping into the water, Ithuriel put her stem against the conning tower and a boarding party scampered down a ladder onto Cobalto. The leader of the boarding party hurried inside the submarine to grab cryptographic materials, but Cobalto sank immediately. Ithuriel recovered all members of her boarding party as well as forty-two Italian prisoners.

As Pedestal pressed eastward to Cape Bon, the two battleships, two remaining carriers, and screens reversed course for Gibraltar, per plan. Thereafter, in the early hours of August 13, a dozen large and small Axis motor torpedo boats tore into the convoy. These hit and stopped the heavy cruiser Manchester, which the British scuttled the next day, and sank four or five of the big merchant ships. At dawn Axis aircraft resumed the assault, hitting other stragglers.

The Italian Navy had planned to strike the convoy with a cruiser squadron, but when Axis air forces failed to provide adequate air cover, the strike was canceled. Some of these retiring Italian warships steamed right into the crosshairs of the British submarine Unbroken, commanded by Alastair Mars, patrolling north of Sicily. Mars had only four torpedoes left, but these, fired in a single salvo, hit and severely damaged the 10,000-ton heavy cruiser Bolzano and the 7,000-ton light cruiser Muzio Attendolo. Destroyers counterattacked, dropping 105 depth charges, but Unbeaten escaped and put into Malta. Neither Italian cruiser was repaired in time to see further action in the war.

Only five of the fourteen merchant ships of the Pedestal convoy reached Malta. British propagandists asserted that since the thirty-seven Spitfires and 32,000 tons of cargo brought in by Pedestal had “saved” Malta, whose forces decisively interdicted the flow of supplies to Rommel in the ensuing weeks, it had been worth the terrible cost in lost and damaged ships. However, postwar British naval studies contend that Allied air and naval forces basing on Malta played only a small and indecisive role in checking Rommel.

During the terrible ordeal of convoy Pedestal, the British sailed a “decoy convoy” (Drover) from Alexandria westward toward Malta. Its mission was to draw Axis forces away from Pedestal. Anticipating this convoy, but unaware that it was a decoy, the Germans deployed a half dozen U-boats into the eastern Mediterranean. British aircraft escorting this “decoy convoy” and other convoys plying between Port Said, Haifa, and Beirut during August made U-boat operations more hazardous than usual.

Very late on the evening of August 3, a radar-equipped Wellington of British Squadron 221, supporting convoy Drover off Tel Aviv, Palestine, got a contact on a U-boat. This was the U-372, commanded by Heinz-Joachim Neumann, who had sunk the big and important submarine tender Medway on his prior patrol. When he came upon this convoy, he was on the way to put an agent ashore near Beirut, then conduct antiship operations.

The Wellington pilot, Sergeant Gay, dropped flares near U-372 and requested assistance from the convoy escorts. Two big destroyers, Sikh and Zulu, peeled out. Sikh promptly got a good sonar contact and carried out six dogged depth-charge attacks while Zulucarried out one. Neumann got away but when he later surfaced, a lookout in Sikh’s crow’s nest saw the boat, and the two destroyers opened fire with their 4.7” main batteries, forcing Neumann under again. Assisted by aircraft, the destroyers each carried out three more depth-charge attacks. Two other destroyers, Croome and Tetcott, arrived about noon with full loads of depth charges and each carried out three attacks. Finally, at 1:30 P.M., the battered and wrecked U-372 rose to the surface and scuttled. The destroyers captured Neumann and forty-five other Germans, including the unlanded agent.

In the days following, British aircraft caught three other U-boats. North of Alexandria on August 4, Friedrich BUrgel in U-97 was severely damaged. The boat limped back to Salamis, where battle-damage repairs took months. On August 17, the new Ritterkreuz holder, Hans-Werner Kraus in U-83, sank the 5,900-ton Canadian liner Princess Marguerite (misidentified as a 12,500-ton auxiliary cruiser), but British aircraft counterattacked and heavily damaged and disabled U-83. In response to calls for help from Kraus, Axis aircraft, surface ships, and submarines rescued U-83, but she, too, was out of action at Salamis for many months and Kraus also returned to Germany to commission one of the big U-boats. On August 22, a British aircraft inflicted heavy damage on Wilhelm Franken in U-565. He, too, reached Salamis, but he was also out of action for a long time.*

Only one of the half dozen German U-boats patrolling the eastern Mediterranean in late July and August turned in a noteworthy cruise. Emulating Kraus’s patrol in June, Heinrich Schonder in U-77 sank ten sailing ships by gun off the coast of Palestine, Lebanon, and Cyprus in the two-week period from July 30 to August 13. Like Kraus, Schonder won a Ritterkreuz, awarded August 19. Like Kraus and some of the other skippers, Schonder returned to Germany to commission one of the large U-boats.

The aggregate returns from the Mediterranean U-boats remained thin. In the five-month period from April 1 to August 31, inclusive, the twenty U-boats of the force sank four major warships (carrier Eagle, submarine tender Medway, light cruiser Hermione, Hunt-class destroyer Grove) for 43,750 tons and thirteen merchant ships for 45,630 tons, a total of seventeen ships for about 90,000 tons. Italian submarines put away the British light cruiser Cairo and, by mistake, the Italian destroyer Admiral Usodimare. In the same period, five U-boats had been lost, reducing the Mediterranean force to fifteen boats, and several, such as U-83, U-97, and U-565, had been badly damaged. The exchange rate was thus 1.3 ships sunk for each U-boat, ordinarily an unacceptable ratio but tolerated in this case because the U-boats supported Rommel.

By September 1, 1942, thirteen U-boats had been lost inside the Mediterranean. The British had captured 219 German survivors from eight of the boats, but the other 500 or so submariners were killed or missing. Notwithstanding this brutal casualty rate, Hitler decreed that the U-boats were to continue to support Erwin Rommel. The OKM therefore directed Dönitz to plan further transfers of Type VIIs from the Atlantic force to the Mediterranean force.

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