Military history

RETURN TO THE MIDDLE AND SOUTH ATLANTIC

At the time Dönitz launched group Wolf against the North Atlantic convoys, he deployed a smaller group, Hai (Shark), to reopen the U-boat war in the middle and South Atlantic.

Group Hai was composed of four veteran boats sailing from France in June, plus the veteran U-752, sailing in early July. All were Type VIICs, which were better suited for attacking convoys than the Type IXs. They were to patrol to Freetown, supported by the Type XB minelayer U-116, temporarily serving in the Atlantic force as a supply boat. She could provide fuel oil, lubricating oil, fresh water, and food, but not torpedoes.

The ablest and most experienced skipper in group Hai was the Ritterkreuz holder Adalbert Schnee in U-201. He did not disappoint. Southbound on July 6, he found and sank the impressive 14,500-ton British freighter Avila Star. Four days later he discovered convoy Outbound South 33, west of the Madeira Islands. Schnee shadowed and brought up all of group Hai, save the U-752, which had sailed last.

A hard convoy battle raged over the next seventy-two hours. Schnee in U-201 sank four British ships for 26,000 tons: three freighters and the 7,000-ton tanker British Yeoman. Werner Schulte in U-582 sank two big British freighters for 16,400 tons. Werner von Schmidt in the provisional tanker U-116 (which had two stern torpedo tubes) sank the 4,300-ton British freighter Shaftesbury and captured her captain. The irrepressibly aggressive Heinrich Zimmermann in U-136 (who had sunk two corvettes, Arbutus and Spikenard, within a week in February) attacked but was trapped by three escorts: the Free French destroyer Leopard, the British frigate Spey, and the British sloop Pelican, all of which adroitly capitalized on radar and Huff Duff. Pounded by gunfire and depth charges, the U-136 went down with the loss of all hands. The cautious Heinz Hirsacker in U-572 made contact with the convoy but did not attack.

Adalbert Schnee’s report electrified Kerneval. Including the Avila Star, he had sunk by torpedo and gun five ships for 40,500 tons in a mere nineteen days. Counting past claims and overclaims, Schnee’s score exceeded 200,000 tons and therefore he qualified for the award of Oak Leaves to his Ritterkreuz. As with Rolf Mützelburg in U-203, the award was radioed to Schnee* and plans were set in motion for Hitler to present the medals to Schnee and Mützelburg at the same time.

After the attack on Outbound South 33, Schnee was left with one torpedo and a few rounds of deck-gun ammunition. He therefore asked Kerneval if he could be detached from group Hai and remain in his present position. But Kerneval denied the request, emphasizing that U-201 could serve well in a reconnaissance role. Schnee complied unhappily. Off Freetown, he found no traffic whatsoever. After he had expended his last torpedo to sink what he claimed to be a corvette—in actuality the 500-ton British ASW trawler Laertes—he was permitted to return to France, where Hitler awarded him and Mützelburg the Oak Leaves in a joint ceremony. Promoted to a newly created job, First Staff Officer (Operations) to Dönitz, Schnee turned the U-201 over to a new skipper and did not return to combat.

Patrolling off Freetown or to seaward, the remaining three VIIs of group Hai had mixed success. The aggressive Karl-Ernst Schroeter in U-752, who had made prior patrols in Arctic, North Atlantic, and American waters, sank four freighters (one American, one British, one Norwegian, one Dutch) for 21,700 tons. Werner Schulte in U-582 sank two more ships (both American) for 14,300 tons, bringing his score to four ships for 30,600 tons, and captured the captain and engineer of one of them, Stella Lykes. Heinz Hirsacker in U-572 turned in another disappointing patrol: one Dutch freighter for 5,300 tons sunk.

Although the loss of the comer Heinrich Zimmermann in U-136 was keenly felt, and Hirsacker again failed, group Hai was deemed a success. Altogether the four surviving VIIs and Werner von Schmidt’s U-116 (minelayer) sank sixteen ships for about 103,000 tons. Notwithstanding the terrible heat—Schnee reported temperatures of 120 degrees inside U-201—the good results of Hai and the availability of U-tankers persuaded Dönitz to send additional boats to the Azores and West Africa.

Seven boats sailed to West African waters in July: six Type IXs and the Type VIID minelayer U-213. In due course, these and other boats were to be supported by three of the five tankers, U-459, U-460, and U-462. While outbound from Lorient on July 27, a Coastal Command Wellington of the Czech Squadron 311, piloted by J. Stransky, attacked U-106, commanded by Hermann Rasch. Rasch boldly fought back with his bridge flak guns. In this battle, one officer was killed and Rasch was wounded, forcing him to abort. The boat did not sail again until late September.

A week out from Lorient on July 31, the VIID minelayer U-213 commanded by Amelung von Varendorff found a convoy near the Azores. Von Varendorff reported the contact to Kerneval and then attacked, but the result was fatal. The British sloops Erne, Rochester, and Sandwich, all fitted with Huff Duff, caught and sank U-213 with the loss of all hands.

Two Type IXs sailed south in loose company: Ernst Kals in the U-130 and Harro Schacht in U-507. On July 14 Kals in U-130 came upon a northbound convoy, Sierra Leone 115. It was escorted by four warships, one of which, Lulworth, was an ex-Coast Guard cutter. Schacht in U-507 and Primo Longobardo in the Italian submarine Pietro Calvi heard Kals’s alert and closed on the convoy.

The Lulworth picked up “strong” Huff Duff signals and ran out the bearing. She came upon Longobardo in Calvi and Kals in U-130 having a těte-à-těte. When the submarines saw Lulworth, they crash-dived. An hour and a half later, Lulworth got Calvi on sonar and carried out three depth-charge attacks that severely damaged the Italian and forced her to the surface. Calvi had two 4.7” deck guns versus Lulworth’s two 3” guns, but the depth charges had knocked out both of Calvi’s guns. Longobardo fired his stern tubes, but Lulworth evaded, responding with her 3” and smaller weapons. Her accurate fire hit Calvi’s bridge, killing Longobardo and his second-in-command, whereupon Lulworth came about to ram. Calvi evaded wildly, but on the third try Lulworth hit the Italian boat in her stern, smashing her propellers and forcing her to surrender.

Meanwhile, in response to Lulworth’s alarm, two sloops, Bideford and Londonderry, rushed to the scene. By that time Lulworth had put a boarding party on Calvi, but the British were hampered by a fire in the conning tower, flooding, and the rush of the Italians to get topside and jump into the sea. Creeping into the scene, Kals in U-130 attempted to attack Lulworth, but the latter heard the U-boat on sonar and let fly more depth charges, driving Kals off. The explosions probably killed some Italians in the water and further damaged Calvi, which suddenly upended and sank. The Lulworth boarding party had reached the interior of the boat but found only a “chart and rough log.” Its leader was trapped in the sudden sinking and killed. The British vessels rescued thirty-five of seventy-eight crew members from Calvi.

Kals hauled out to report what he had done to help Calvi and to request instructions. Calvi’s loss and the inability of Kals to get around the escorts led Kerneval to believe the convoy to be far more strongly protected than was the case. Accordingly, Kerneval directed Kals in U-130 and Schacht in U-507 to break off operations and proceed to the Freetown area, where they were to refuel from von Schmidt’s Type XB minelayer U-116, which had earlier supported group Hai.

It was a long, slow, hot journey to the south. En route Kals in U-130 sank two big ships by torpedo and gun: the 10,100-ton Norwegian tanker Tankexpress and the 7,200-ton British freighter Elmwood. As planned, Kals and Schacht refueled from U-116 on July 28. Two days later, Kals sank the 8,400-ton British freighter Danmark, bringing his score to 25,700 tons. Schacht in U-507, who had made a sensational patrol to the Gulf of Mexico in May, found no targets.

Kals in U-130 remained off Freetown for the entire month of August. In that time he sank by torpedo and gun four more ships for 25,900 tons, including two more Norwegian tankers: Malmanger, 7,100 tons, and Mirlo, 7,500 tons. These successes brought his confirmed score to seven ships (three tankers) for 51,528 tons. Counting sinkings in three prior patrols, Kals qualified for a Ritterkreuz,* awarded by radio while he was homebound.

Finding no action off Freetown, Schacht in U-507 requested authority to cross the Atlantic to Brazilian waters. Although von Ribbentrop had killed the earlier scheme to launch open warfare with Brazil by a sudden strike of about ten U-boats, Berlin did not object to a one-boat foray, provided that Schacht scrupulously avoided attacks on Argentine and Chilean ships.

Schacht reached the coast of Brazil on August 16. That day and the next he attacked six Brazilian freighters, ranging in size from 4,900 tons to 1,100 tons. One torpedo prematured, but the others hit solidly to sink five ships for 14,800 tons. He climaxed the foray on August 19 with a gun attack on the 90-ton sailing vessel Jacyra. He then expended five torpedoes on August 22 to sink a 3,200-ton Swedish freighter. Total sunk: seven ships for 18,100 tons.

In direct reaction to these sinkings, Brazil declared war on Germany on August 22. Scarcely noticed at the time, the declaration merely formalized what had been for several months a state of war. Dönitz planned follow-up U-boat forays to Brazil, but the German Foreign Ministry, still fearful of antagonizing Argentina and Chile, did not view them with enthusiasm.

Two Type IXs working in loose cooperation sailed beyond Freetown to the African Gold Coast, or British Ghana and Nigeria. These were Ulrich Folkers in the IXC U-125, who refueled from U-462, and Erich Würdemann in the Type IXC U-506. Würdemann had fair luck to September 5, sinking three ships for 16,400 tons. Folkers in U-125 could not have had worse luck. To the same date he had sunk but one 815-ton British coaster.

The other IX of the July group was the older Model B, U-109, commanded by Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Bleichrodt. Patrolling off Freetown in August, he sank two tankers for 11,800 tons, the 6,000-ton Norwegian Arthur W. Sewall and the 5,700-ton British Vimeira, from which Bleichrodt captured the captain. Then followed two barren and frustrating weeks at the end of which, on August 25, Bleichrodt also asked permission to go to Brazil, but Kerneval denied the request. Resupplied by the tanker U-460, Bleichrodt had better luck in September, sinking three big British freighters for about 24,000 tons, from the last of which, Peterton, Bleichrodt recovered valuable “secret papers” describing the Allied sailing routes in those waters. These sinkings raised Bleichrodt’s total to five ships (two tankers) for about 35,600 tons. While homebound on September 23, Bleichrodt got word that he had been awarded Oak Leaves to his Ritterkreuz.*

In the first half of August, eight attack boats sailed from French bases to West African waters: another IXB, U-107, and seven Type VIIs. These boats were also to be supported by the three tankers (U-459, U-460, and U-462) as well as by the former Dutch submarine U-D5, outfitted as a torpedo-supply boat.

The U-107, commanded by Harald Gelhaus, sailed on August 15. After crossing the Bay of Biscay, he reported to Kerneval that his Metox radar-detector gear worked well, enabling him to avoid attacks by six separate aircraft(!).

As these U-boats were putting out, on August 19 the British carried out a third hit-and-run “raid” on Occupied France, a very large one. About 5,000 Canadian and about 1,000 other Allied troops, massively supported by the RAF, stormed ashore at the channel port of Dieppe. The Germans decisively repulsed the raiders and inflicted a humiliating defeat. Canadian forces incurred 3,363 casualties; other Allied ground forces, 247. The Germans captured about 2,200 men. The Royal Navy, which incurred 550 casualties, lost the destroyer Berkeley and numerous landing craft. Although the raid was less than a model of perfection, the huge Allied casualties that resulted further strengthened the British resolve not to mount the main invasion, Roundup, until such time that the Allies could be certain of a reasonable chance of success.

Upon learning that an Allied raid was in progress at Dieppe, Kerneval diverted Gelhaus in the outgoing U-107 (as well as U-69 and U-432) to attack the enemy naval forces in the English Channel, but the Allies withdrew from the Dieppe area before U-107 got there. When this became apparent, Kerneval directed Gelhaus to turn about and sail to southern waters, orders to follow.

The seven Type VIIs formed a new group, Blücher, replacing Hai. These boats included the Ritterkreuz holder Peter Cremer in U-333, who had barely survived a patrol to Florida in May, and the resailing Type VIID minelayer U-214, which had been crippled by a Coastal Command aircraft in June.

Close by the Portuguese Azores on August 16, Gerhard Feiler in the veteran U-653 of group Blücher found a northbound convoy, Sierra Leone 118. It consisted of thirty-three merchant ships, escorted by the armed merchant cruiser Cheshire and four other British warships, including the ex-Coast Guard cutter Gorleston. She and two other escorts, the sloops Folkestone and Wellington, had Huff Duff.

As the other six boats of group Blücher homed in on Feiler’s beacons, the escorts got bearings by radar and Huff Duff. Running down a Huff Duff contact, Folkestone found Cremer in U-333, who was making a radio report, forced him under, and attacked with depth charges six separate times. These attacks, Cremer wrote, were “really close” and they shook the boat “to the breaking point.” The explosions bent his starboard propeller shaft upward, causing internal sparks and a loud and unnerving “screech” in the starboard clutch. The damage forced Cremer to abort.

The U-566, commanded by a new skipper, Gerhard Remus, age twenty-six, chose to open the battle with a daylight submerged attack. Remus fired three torpedoes at two ships and claimed he sank both for 11,700 tons. In reality, only the 6,600-ton Norwegian freighter Triton went down. The escorts pounced on Remus with depth charges, but he evaded, surfaced after dark, and continued stalking the main body.

By the morning of August 18, the convoy had reached a point about 600 miles south of England. This placed it within range of the B-24 Liberators of Coastal Command Squadron 120. The squadron leader, Terence Bulloch, flew the first mission. Cremer in U-333, who was aborting, and Remus in U-566, who was attempting to haul ahead of the convoy, both reported attacks by “land-based” bombers, but the damage to both boats was only “slight.”

In the afternoon of August 18, Günther Reeder in the VIID minelayer U-214 got in to carry out a submerged daylight attack. He fired a full bow salvo of four torpedoes into the formation, claiming four ships sunk for 20,000 tons. In actuality, he sank two big freighters for 13,800 tons and damaged the 10,100-ton armed merchant cruiser Cheshire, which was saved and towed to port. Reeder reported that “land-based” aircraft prevented him from hauling ahead for a second attack.

One of the Liberators, piloted by Squadron Leader Bulloch, attacked Feiler in U-653 with six depth charges and two bombs. The close blasts knocked a crewman overboard and drove the boat under with “severe” damage, the second U-boat (after U-89) Bulloch had seriously damaged in as many days. Upon receiving Feiler’s report later in the evening, Kerneval ordered him to give all the fuel he could spare to the Type VIIs U-406 and U-566 and then to abort. He limped into Brest on August 31. The boat was out of action for two months.

Müller-Edzards in U-590 got contact on the convoy, but the escorts drove him under and put his radio out of commission. Another boat relayed his request to Kerneval for authority to abort. Kerneval directed Müller-Edzards to stay put and if at all possible, to attack, but nothing came of these orders. Unable to communicate or repair the radio, Müller-Edzards aborted, arriving in St. Nazaire on August 23. After hurried repairs, he resailed four days later.

Coastal Command Liberators, Sunderlands, and Catalinas were providing Sierra Leone 118 with nearly continuous air coverage by August 19. Nonetheless, in the late afternoon Horst Dieterichs in U-406, who had temporarily lost his starboard diesel, got ahead, submerged, and attacked by periscope. He hit and sank the 7,500-ton British freighter City of Manila, but in return the escorts hunted and attacked the boat relentlessly, inflicting heavy damage and casualties. Reluctant to abort, Dieterichs broke off the chase and hauled out to the west to make repairs. In the process, he discovered his lubricating oil was contaminated.

In view of the heavy air coverage, Dönitz canceled operations against Sierra Leone 118 on August 20. For the Germans the results of the action were only so-so. Three of the seven boats of group Blücher had attacked and sunk four ships for 28,000 tons and damaged the armed merchant cruiser Cheshire. In return, the air and surface escorts had forced three boats to abort: Cremer’s U-333, Feiler’s U-653, and Müller-Edzards’s U-590. A fourth boat, U-594, commanded by a new skipper, Friedrich Mumm, age twenty-seven, who had lost both air compressors during a depth-charge attack, was directed to obtain spare parts from a U-tanker.

Allied ASW forces had gutted group Blücher. Kerneval therefore directed Gelhaus in the IXB U-107 to join the three surviving Type VII boats, U-214, U-406, and U-566. As these orders were being carried out on August 25, Günther Reeder in the VIID minelayer U-214 reported contact with another northbound convoy midway between the Canaries and the Azores.

The new convoy was Sierra Leone 119. Reeder shadowed, bringing up other boats, but the escorts, acting on Huff Duff contacts, drove U-214 off and under. Gerhard Remus in U-566 and Gelhaus in U-107 got contact next. Remus carried out a submerged daylight attack, sinking two big freighters for 14,000 tons. In response, escorts counterattacked and one of them rammed U-566, demolishing her bridge and raking back her periscopes. After burning away the worst of the ragged steel with welding torches, Remus limped to France. Repairs to the boat delayed her return to combat until late October.

Air and surface escorts thwarted attacks on the convoy Sierra Leone 119 by the other boats of group Blücher. Reeder in U-214 reported that “radar-equipped aircraft” had held him down for “a whole night” and as a result, he fell farther and farther behind and could never gain a firing position. Gelhaus in U-107 reported that the surface escorts drove him under and depth-charged him for a full eight hours. He cleared the area with “a loud knocking noise,” which, however, his crew was able to fix. Driven off by aircraft, Horst Dieterichs in U-406 attempted a day light submerged attack, but it failed.

The surviving Blücher boats, U-107, U-214, and U-406, doggedly shadowed the convoy northward but to no purpose. In view of the heavy air cover, Dönitz canceled operations against Sierra Leone 119. For the second time, Kerneval reorganized group Blücherfor operations off Freetown. The new group was to consist of Ritterkreuz holder Peter Cremer in the resailing U-333, Müller-Edzards in the rejoining U-590, Joachim Berger in the veteran VIIB U-87, plus U-107, U-214, and U-406. Pending the sailing or resailing of the three boats from France, Kerneval parked U-107 and U-214 in a waiting area off Lisbon. While there on September 3, Gelhaus in U-107 sank two British freighters for 8,600 tons.

The return of U-boats to South Atlantic waters in the summer of 1942 was not only timely but also profitable. The five boats of group Hai sank sixteen ships for 103,000 tons. The seven Type VIIs and IXs sailing independently in July sank thirty ships for 158,700 tons. The seven Type VIIs and IXs assigned to group Blücher sank eight ships for about 48,000 tons to September 3. Total: fifty-four ships for about 309,600 tons. Two Type VIIs, the U-136 and the Type VIID minelayer U-213, had been lost with all hands. The exchange rate was thus twenty-seven ships sunk for each U-boat, much higher than the rate in the North Atlantic. In view of the good returns, Dönitz ordered an increase in patrols to South Atlantic and West African waters for the fall of 1942.

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