Military history


The six new Type VIIBs of the Wegener Flotilla, comprising another third of the German U-boats in the Atlantic, patrolled a larger arc west of the British Isles, reaching around to the Bay of Biscay. To the untutored eye, the VIIBs looked identical to the Type VIIs of the Salzwedel Flotilla, but, in fact, they incorporated significant technical improvements: greater length (218 feet versus 211), more powerful diesel engines (2,800 horsepower versus 2,320), greater surface speed (17.2 knots versus 16 knots), much larger fuel capacity (108 tons versus 67), heavier armament (fourteen torpedoes versus eleven),* and a single stern torpedo tube located internally.

The Type VIIB U-47 patrolled Area I, 300 miles west of Bordeaux, France. Barely nine months old, U-47 was commanded by thirty-one-year-old Günther Prien, who was destined to become the most famous submariner of all time. Prien was one of hundreds of German merchant marine officers who had been recruited into the rapidly expanding Reichsmarine. His background was typical of that group, upon which Dönitz had drawn for U-boat skippers.

Born in 1908 in the Baltic seaport of Lübeck, Prien was one of three children of a judge. He obtained a basic education at the Katharineum prep school. When his parents divorced, his mother moved with the children to Leipzig. By 1923, when Prien was fifteen, the economic chaos in Germany had reduced his mother to pauperhood. To help ease her burden—and fulfill a boyhood longing—Prien abandoned his education and left home to join the merchant marine, spending a last few hoarded marks on a three-month course at the Seaman’s College in Finkenwarder.

Prien’s career in the German merchant marine spanned eight years. Beginning as a lowly cabin boy on a full-rigged sailing ship, he was a good seaman, a staunch ally in forecastle and barroom brawls, and an apt pupil. Cruising to every corner of the world on a variety of merchant ships, he learned telegraphy, navigation, laws of the sea, ship handling, and the art of leadership. Rising steadily through the ranks, by 1931 he was a first mate and qualified for captain’s school. But when he graduated from there in January 1932 with his master’s certificate, the German merchant marine was in the grip of the Great Depression and there were no jobs for aspiring captains.

Unwillingly beached at this climactic moment in his chosen career, Prien had a tough year in 1932. He worked at odd jobs ashore, but when those ran out, he was forced to join the Labor Service (a German precursor of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps), digging ditches and draining fields. Upon learning that the expanding Reichsmarine had opened its officer-candidate program to merchant marine officers, Prien jumped at this opportunity and in January 1933, age twenty-five, he joined the Navy. He thus became a member of the crew of 1933, but in age and maritime experience he was the equal of the men in the crew of 1926.

After an apprenticeship especially tailored for experienced merchant marine officers, he was commissioned and moved ahead at an accelerated pace, married, had a daughter, and volunteered for U-boat duty. Upon graduation from the submarine school in 1935, he served as a watch officer on the big experimental Type I boat, U-26, making the showboat voyages to Spain. Rated as one of the half-dozen best U-boat officers in the force, Prien became the third and most junior officer (by crew) selected to command a new VIIB. In the Atlantic war games of May 1939, he had been the most aggressive, had “shot” from the closest range, and had “scored” highest.

For days Prien had been dodging and hiding from all ships and aircraft. On the first day of the war, September 3, he saw no ships. On September 4 he received the news of the Athenia sinking over radio broadcasts. Later that day came the direct order from the Führer barring attacks on passenger vessels of any kind. Still later that day a pointed reminder to observe the Submarine Protocol arrived from Dönitz: “Operation orders Para Via remain in force for the war against merchant shipping.” Prien responded accordingly. He stopped a Greek neutral and let her pass unmolested. He closed on two other ships, a Swede and a Norwegian, but when he saw their markings and flags, he did not even bother to stop them.

Near daybreak on September 5, the first watch officer of U-47, Engelbert En-drass, age twenty-eight, who like Prien was a onetime merchant marine officer, spotted a darkened ship that was zigzagging. Prien dived and sent the gun crew to battle stations. When he closed the track, Prien surfaced and fired a shot from his 88 mm (3.4”) deck gun. Instead of stopping, the ship put on steam and turned tail, radioing the U-boat alarm, SSS, the position, and its name: Bosnia. She was a small British freighter of 2,407 tons, with a cargo of sulphur. Upon hearing the radio signals, Prien fired four more rounds from the deck gun directly at the ship. Three hit. The crew abandoned ship in panic, capsizing a lifeboat. Survivors floundered in the water.

Prien cruised among the panicky survivors, hauling them on board U-47. His men righted the overturned lifeboat and bailed it out. In the midst of the rescue, a Norwegian ship came up and stopped. Prien instructed the Norwegians to assist. In response, they lowered a boat and, in due course, collected all the British survivors. After the Norwegian ship was well out of the way, Prien fired one torpedo at Bosnia. The ship buckled and sank in seconds. She was the second British ship to be torpedoed after Athenia—and the first freighter.

At dawn the next day, September 6, Prien found another British freighter, Rio Claro, 4,086 tons, outbound from London with a mixed cargo. Prien surfaced, gun manned. The ship stopped but began radioing the U-boat alarm, SSS. Prien fired a shot, but when this failed to silence the radio, he put three shells on the bridge. The radio went dead; the crew abandoned ship in lifeboats. Prien sank the ship with a torpedo, then inspected the lifeboats. All had food, water, compasses, sails, and signal flares. While he was debating whether or not to fetch a neutral ship to take the survivors on board, an aircraft appeared—perhaps in response to the SSS—and he dived. That apparent hostile act decided it for him: The survivors were on their own.

In the early afternoon of the next day, September 7, Prien came upon another small British freighter, Gartavon, 1,777 tons, carrying a cargo of iron ore. When she sighted U-47, she signaled SSS and tried to run off. A lucky hit from the deck gun brought down a goalpost mast and the radio antenna, and the ship hove to. Prien watched as the crew lowered a single boat, which pulled off in a hurry. Then, suddenly, the unmanned ship got under way and headed directly for U-47. Before abandoning ship, the crew had somehow rigged the ship to ram U-47. Prien put on emergency speed—gun blazing—and maneuvered out of the way just in time, passing so close to Gartavon that her wash slewed U-47 half around.

Prien left the abandoned ship circling and approached the single, crowded lifeboat. He was chagrined at having been tricked, but nonetheless he offered the captain an opportunity to return to his ship to launch a second lifeboat. When that offer was refused, Prien made certain the one lifeboat was adequately provisioned. He told the captain that he would send a neutral to help if he came across one, but in view of the hostile act taken against U-47 he would not radio for help. He then returned to Gartavon and fired a single torpedo, but it malfunctioned—zigging wildly off course. Deciding to husband his torpedoes, Prien sank the ship with the deck gun.

Due west of Prien, Herbert Schultze, age thirty, another former merchant marine officer, patrolled Area H in U-48, a sister ship of U-47. On September 5, Schultze ran across a big freighter inbound to the British Isles, but a shot from his deck gun failed to stop her. She bent on steam and hauled off, emitting clouds of soot, radioing SSS. In an attempt to silence the radio, Schultze directed gun fire at the bridge. The ship stopped and all the crew—save the radio operator—took to the lifeboats. While they did so, Schultze withheld fire, even though the SSS signals continued. After the crew had pulled off, Schultze closed on the ship and took off the radio operator. Then he fired a single torpedo, which ran true. Down went Royal Sceptre, a British ship of 4,853 tons, loaded with grain.

Approaching the lifeboats, Schultze asked if there were any wounded. There were none. All else was in order. He handed the radio operator over to a lifeboat, saluting his courage, then told the survivors to stand by. He had seen smoke on the horizon—an unidentified freighter coming up. Schultze made a beeline for the other ship, which turned out to be another big British freighter, S.S. Browning, 5,332 tons, outbound to Latin America. Schultze fired his deck gun to stop her, intending to direct her captain to rescue Royal Sceptre’s crew. But before he could make known his intent, the freighter crew lowered boats and abandoned ship in a panic.

Exasperated, Schultze closed on the lifeboats. He instructed the crew to return to Browning and to go pick up the Royal Sceptre’s crew. Naturally leery, the Britishers made no move to comply. Angrily waving his arms, Schultze finally got his point across. The crew returned to the ship, steamed off and picked up the Royal Sceptre’s crew, and carried the men on to the ship’s destination in Brazil.* Over the next two days, September 6 and 7, Schultze stopped and searched several more neutrals and let them pass unmolested. Early in the morning of September 8, he found a 5,000-ton British freighter, Winkleigh. After the crew had abandoned ship, Schultze sank her with a torpedo.

The five large, long-range Type IX boats of the Hundius Flotilla, U-37 to U-41, patrolled the most distant waters: the coast of the Iberian Peninsula and the western approaches to the Strait of Gibraltar.

Designed for extended cruising, the Type IXs were a bit roomier and less uncomfortable than the Type VIIs. Measuring 251 feet overall, the IXs were 40 feet longer than the VIIs and 33 feet longer than the VIIBs. The compartmentation inside the pressure hull of the IXs was similar to that of the VIIs except that the petty-officer quarters and galley, inconveniently located on the VIIs between the control room and engine room, had been eliminated. The eight bunks in that compartment were relocated aft, in a greatly enlarged stern room, which had two internal torpedo tubes; the galley was moved forward to the officers’ compartment. The motor-generators, located in the stern room of the VIIs, were moved forward into the diesel-engine compartment. The five resulting fore-to-aft compartments were thus larger than the six compartments of the VIIs, as was the conning tower and bridge above.

All the numbers of the Type IXs were substantially greater than those of the Types VII and VIIB. Diesel horsepower: 4,000 versus 2,320 to 2,800. Motor-generators: 1,000 horsepower versus 750. Surface speed: 18.2 knots versus 16 to 17.2. Fuel storage: 154 tons versus 67 to 108. Range (at 12 knots): 8,000 versus 4,300 to 6,500. Torpedo capacity: 22 versus 11 and 14. Deck gun 105mm (4.1”) versus 88mm (3.4”). Crew: 48 versus 44.

The Type IX was not the boat Dönitz preferred. His reasons were several. He envisioned a U-boat war fought primarily close in to the British Isles, where all torpedoes were to be expended quickly, and therefore the endurance (or range) advantage of the IX was more or less superfluous. The added torpedo capacity of the IX—twenty-two versus fourteen for the VIIB—was not all it appeared to be. Eight of the twenty-two torpedoes, all air propelled, were stored topside, where they could not be serviced and could only be brought below in calm weather. What counted most with Dönitz was the internal torpedo capacity. The Type IX had fourteen internal torpedoes, versus twelve on the VIIB, not sufficiently advantageous to justify the threefold investment in time and matériel for the larger boat. Moreover, the IXs were slow in diving, had a greater turning circle, were clumsy submerged, lacked the rapid submerged acceleration of the VIIs, and presented the enemy a larger sonar target.

Dönitz had hopes that the five Type IXs in southern waters might operate as a pack against a convoy, tactically directed by Flotilla Commander Werner Hart-mann, on board U-37. But for various reasons, the boats were unable to operate as a group. All patrolled independently over widely spaced areas that appeared to be virtually empty of shipping.

Heinrich Liebe, a thirty-one-year-old lieutenant, commanded U-38. Like Lemp in U-30, Liebe was the son of an Army officer. Like Lemp, Liebe had joined the Reichsmarine at age eighteen. After submarine school and command of the duck U-2, Liebe had commissioned U-38 in December 1938.

Liebe patrolled close off the coast of Lisbon, Portugal, where traffic was densest. On September 5 he sighted a freighter, surfaced, and forced her to heave to for inspection. Awkwardly, she turned out to be the French vessel Pluvoise. After examining her papers, Liebe let her pass, but her captain broadcast a submarine alarm, which was picked up in Berlin. This prompted a rebuke and further tightening of the U-boat rules: “Merchantmen identified as being French are not to be stopped. Incidents with France are to be avoided at all costs.”

The next day, September 6, still off Lisbon, Liebe put a warning shot across the bow of the 7,242-ton British freighter S.S. Manaar with his 4.1” deck gun. As it turned out, Manaar was armed with a gun almost as large (3.94”) mounted on the stern. As U-38 approached, Manaar’s gun crew opened fire. Stunned by this unexpected and hot reception—Manaar was the first British merchantman to fire a gun at a U-boat—Liebe dived and without further ado, sank Manaar with torpedoes. In view of Manaar’s hostile military action against him, Liebe judged Manaar to be excluded from the protection of the Submarine Protocol and made no effort to assist her survivors.

Liebe hauled out of the area and that night broke radio silence to give Dönitz an account of this battle and to warn other U-boats of similar dangers. In Berlin, the naval staff released the details to foreign naval attaches and to the media, stressing that Manaar had fired at U-38 on sight. Dönitz was incensed. It seemed completely unfair that his crews should be required to adhere strictly to the Submarine Protocol in the face of an enemy that was arming its merchant ships, in effect, turning them into warships. But, given the “political situation,” as he put it, he could do nothing more than to warn all U-boats to exercise extreme caution.

• • •

The U-boat assigned to the most hazardous mission in the Atlantic, the unsteady U-26, was loaded with mines. She was commanded by a reliable and conservative skipper, thirty-two-year-old Klaus Ewerth. He was a star graduate of the first class (1933) at the secret submarine school, had commissioned the first duck, U-1, in 1935, and had commanded the Type VII, U-35 for two years. In peacetime drills, he had mastered the art of minelaying.

The U-26 mission had been conceived by the OKM. The objective was to foul the British naval base at Portland to prevent the embarkation of British Army troops to France across the English Channel. From its inception, Dönitz had opposed the mission. Sonar-equipped ASW forces were certain to be patrolling the channel approaches to Portland. It was also the home base of the Royal Navy’s sonar school! They could hardly miss big, clumsy U-26.

Ewerth commenced a careful submerged run-in on September 4. As expected, he encountered intense ASW patrols. After playing hide-and-seek for several hours, he aborted the first attempt and returned to deep water. A second attempt also failed. Finally, on the third run-in, Ewerth reached a likely spot off the Portland harbor, the Shambles, undetected, on the night of September 8.

During the years between the wars, the German Navy had developed in secrecy a wide array of mines, vastly superior to those employed in World War I. The U-26 was loaded with one type, the TMB, designed especially to be laid by submarines. The TMB was an untethered “seabed” (or “ground”) mine, with a magnetic pistol, to be laid on the bottom in fairly shallow water (about sixty-five feet). It was 7½ feet long and had a 1,276-pound warhead (twice the explosive power of a German torpedo). When a big ship passed overhead, its magnetic field would actuate the mine’s pistol, exploding the mine directly beneath the keel of the ship with devastating force.

Submarine minelaying was a tedious, exacting, and hazardous business. The mines had to be laid precisely in the selected sea channel, otherwise they would be useless. This required positioning the boat within a few feet of the selected site. Furthermore, by international law, minefields had to be exactly charted so they could be swept after hostilities. The charting was useful as well to the Germans. Should they decide to augment the field, they would know exactly where the first mines had been planted and these could be avoided.

The U-26 carried her mines in the four forward and two stern torpedo tubes, with others stored in the bow and stern compartments. One by one Ewerth booted the mines out of the tubes with compressed air, charting the exact location by means of the navigational lights burning on shore and in the channel. There was no danger to the boat; the mines had delayed-action arming devices, which would not actuate until U-26 was well clear. When all the mines had been laid—and charted—Ewerth eased away submerged to deep water and put the boat on the bottom. After the crew rested, the torpedomen loaded all six tubes with torpedoes, manhandled from the storage spaces below the deck plates.

Submariners of all nations disliked minelaying. It had to be done close to shore in shallow water where if detected, the boat became dangerously exposed to enemy attack. Putting the mines overboard and then reloading the tubes with torpedoes was dangerous and hard physical work. There was no immediate damage to shipping (as in firing torpedoes), and thus no satisfaction and seldom any credit. Besides that, many regarded minelaying as sneaky and underhanded—somehow not quite fair.

While withdrawing westward from the English Channel, the U-26 was again detected by British ASW forces and compelled to engage in prolonged evasion. That and the long delays in planting the field put Ewerth days behind schedule and he was unable to report to Dönitz. When, on September 8, the Admiralty announced that British naval forces had sunk a U-boat that was attempting to lay mines in the English Channel, Dönitz assumed that it was U-26. As a check he radioed Ewerth to report his position. Receiving no reply, Dönitz was convinced U-26 was gone.

Apart from all else, the probable loss of U-26 caused a tremendous flap at the OKM. She had a naval Enigma and documents for it on board. If, as was assumed, U-26 went down in shallow water, the British might salvage her or send down divers and recover the Enigma with its operating instructions and current keys. As a result, the OKM ordered that Enigma settings throughout the entire Kriegsmarine be changed and that henceforth no minelaying U-boat should carry an Enigma. It was a useless precaution; U-26was safe and sound and finally spoke up after Ewerth shook his pursuers and reached the open Atlantic.

Much later it was learned the U-26 minefield paid off. The Admiralty announced that three big “neutral” freighters (a Greek, a Dutch, and a Belgian) triggered mines and sank. These ships displaced a total of 17,414 tons. It was believed that a British patrol sloop, Kittiwake, was badly damaged by a U-26 mine, but, in fact, she hit a British mine.

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