Military history

“A WONDERFUL SUCCESS”

The recall of the ten boats of the Wegener and Hundius flotillas, the abort of U-26, and the diversion of the damaged U-30 to Iceland to land the wounded, left nine Type VIIs of the Salzwedel Flotilla to carry on the war against British shipping. Of these, five were low on fuel. Three Type VIIs of the reserve were newly arrived, but one of these, U-32, had been assigned to a minelaying mission* and carried only a few torpedoes.

Seven of the nine boats were deployed in abutting patrol zones due west of the English Channel, an area the British called the Western Approaches. The sea-lanes to and from the British Isles converged there and the area was dense with shipping of all kinds. To provide all these ships some protection, the Admiralty had deployed the old aircraft carrier Courageous* with a destroyer screen to mount ASW patrols.

Three Salzwedel boats in the Western Approaches had achieved successes against British shipping in the early days of the war. On September 7, Hans-Wilhelm von Dresky, age thirty-one, in U-33 had sunk a 4,000-ton freighter. That day and the next, Wilhelm Rollmann, age thirty-two, in U-34 had sunk a 5,500-ton freighter and wrecked a 5,500-ton tanker, Kennebec, put down by British warships. Otto Schuhart, age thirty, in U-29 got the biggest and most important ship, the 10,000-ton tanker Regent Tiger, sunk on September 8. Then a lull had set in, broken only by Schuhart’s sinking of an 800-ton seagoing tugboat on September 13.

The killing picked up again on September 14, the day Lemp and Glattes tangled with Ark Royal farther north. Günter Kuhnke, age twenty-seven, in U-28 patrolling into the mouth of St. George’s Channel, sank a 5,000-ton freighter. To the west, Schuhart in U-29 found and attacked another big tanker, the spanking-new British Influence, 8,500 tons.

During his attack on the British Influence, Schuhart had a bizarre and troubling experience, similar to that of Glattes when he shot at Ark Royal. Schuhart’s first two torpedoes, fitted with magnetic pistols, spontaneously “prematured,” or blew up before reaching the target, shaking the boat and forcing him to shoot again. Believing that something might be drastically wrong with the magnetic pistols, Schuhart later broke radio silence to report these “prematures.” When Dönitz, in turn, reported the malfunctions to the Torpedo Directorate, the experts there were also deeply puzzled. Pending further investigation, the experts recommended that the magnetic pistols be set back or down “two zones” to “reduce sensitivity,” an order Dönitz relayed to all boats. The reduced-sensitivity settings meant that to sink a ship of 3,000 tons or less, which had a weaker magnetic field, only contact (or impact) pistols were to be used, imposing on the skippers the need to ascertain target tonnage of medium-sized ships with a high degree of accuracy.

On September 15, U-31, commanded by Johannes Habekost, age thirty-two, a reserve boat which had just completed the hazardous voyage through the English Channel, picked up an outbound convoy. Per prior instructions, Habekost broke radio silence to report its course and speed to Dönitz. This was the first “clear” contact with a convoy by any U-boat in British waters and it caused tremendous excitement. Dönitz ordered all boats in the Western Approaches, including Schuhart in U-29 and Ernst-Günther Heinicke, age thirty-one, in the late-sailing VIIB U-53, to converge on the convoy. During the night Habekost in U-31 hauled around the convoy and gained position to shoot early on the morning of September 16. He thought he sank two big ships, but apparently he also experienced torpedo malfunctions. Only one ship, the 4,000-ton British freighter Aviemore, went down.

Both Heinicke in U-53 and Schuhart in U-29 responded to the contact. Hunting for the convoy on September 17, Heinicke ran across a 5,000-ton inbound British freighter, Kafiristan, and put her under with gunfire and torpedoes. While he was attempting to assist the panicky survivors, a flight of Swordfish biplanes from Courageous attacked U-53 with bombs and machine-gun fire, forcing Heinicke to crash dive—and to leave some gunners topside. They perished in the sea.

To the east of U-53, that same day, while he was running submerged, Schuhart in U-29 saw a Swordfish biplane. A Swordfish 300 miles west of England over open water meant that an aircraft carrier had to be close by. Schuhart remained submerged, keeping a sharp periscope watch. At about 1800, the watch sighted a puff of smoke on the horizon. It was the carrier Courageous! Schuhart adjusted his own course to improve his position and went to battle stations. During quick periscope observations, he saw aircraft circling the carrier but only two fleet destroyers. The other two destroyers of her screen had gone west to the scene of the Kafiristan sinking to hunt Heinicke’s U-53.

Try as he might, Schuhart could not close the range to Courageous. Later he wrote in his log: “At the time it looked like a hopeless operation. Because of the aircraft I could not surface and my underwater speed was less than 8 knots while the carrier could do 26. But we were told during our training to always stay close and that is exactly what I did, following him submerged….”

Schuhart hung on doggedly for an hour and a half. Then suddenly, at 1930, Courageous abruptly altered course, turning into the wind to take on aircraft. The turn brought her directly toward U-29. Schuhart gave orders to open the bow caps on three forward torpedo tubes. He had to shoot by guesswork because, as he wrote in his log, “the vast size of the target upset all normal calculations and in any case I was looking straight into the sun.”

At 1940, Schuhart fired a fan of three torpedoes at a range of 3,000 yards. While they were running, one of the destroyers, still unaware of U-29, passed by at 500 yards. To avoid detection, Schuhart took the boat deep. Going down, the crew heard and felt two hits. “The explosions were so heavy,” Schuhart wrote, “that I thought the boat had been damaged. There was jubilation among the crew, although we were all wondering what would happen to us next.” He leveled the boat at 180 feet—deeper by thirty feet than he had ever dived—then cautiously eased deeper.

Two torpedoes hit Courageous. As it happened, a Dutch passenger liner, Veendamn, was passing nearby. The passengers saw a huge white cloud engulf Courageous. At first they believed the cloud was a smoke screen, but seconds later they heard two tremendous explosions and saw flames shooting through the cloud, then pieces of steel and dismembered aircraft hurtling skyward. They watched in horror as Courageous rolled slowly to port and sank, fifteen minutes after the torpedoes struck. Of her 1,260-man crew, 519 perished. Veendamn and a British freighter, Collingworth, which responded to the distress call, rescued the survivors from the oily waters.

The two destroyers found U-29 on sonar and attacked with a vengeance. The U-boat reeled under the impact of the depth charges. During one attack, Schuhart remembered, he thought the conning tower would implode. But it held. The intermittent pounding went on for four hours—to 2340—until both destroyers had expended all depth charges. Easing away silently, U-29 surfaced and Schuhart radioed Dönitz: “Courageous destroyed. U-29 homebound.”

By the morning of September 18, the news of Schuhart’s victory had been broadcast worldwide. The Admiralty promptly withdrew the remaining three Home Fleet carriers from ASW missions. Although Hitler (as Raeder remembered) had not wished to humiliate the British by sinking a capital ship, no specific order had been issued to U-boats prohibiting attacks on such ships. In fact, the Kriegsmarine was ecstatic, as was Karl Dönitz. Schuhart’s feat was the crowning blow of the psychological impact Dönitz had hoped to achieve in the first U-boat offensive. “A wonderful success,” he noted gleefully in his headquarters diary. Raeder directed Dönitz to award Schuhart the Iron Cross First Class, and every member of the U-29 crew the Iron Cross Second Class.

Running low on fuel, food, and torpedoes, six of the nine Type VIIs of the Salzwedel Flotilla, including the U-30 setting out from Iceland, soon commenced the homeward voyage to Germany. The exodus left four boats to carry on the naval war in British waters: the newly arrived Type VII boats of the Salzwedel reserve, U-31, U-32, and U-35, plus Heinicke’s VIIB, U-53, which still had a good supply of fuel and torpedoes. After laying a minefield in Bristol Channel during the night of September 17, the U-32, commanded by Paul Büchel, age thirty-two, joined the other three boats for torpedo attacks. But, following the sinking of a 4,900-ton freighter on September 18, Büchel had a mechanical breakdown and U-32 was forced to abort the patrol, leaving only two VIIs of the Salzwedel Flotilla and U-53 in British waters.

Of the seven homebound Type VII Salzwedel boats, only one, U-27, commanded by Johannes Franz, age thirty-two, had not torpedoed and sunk a ship. It was not from want of trying. Deployed to an area near the mouth of North Channel, separating Scotland and Ireland, Franz had conducted a relentlessly aggressive patrol. He had stopped a total of eleven big freighters, fired torpedoes at two freighters, and sunk two trawlers, one by gunfire, one by demolition. On September 18, he saw the inbound Ark Royal, recalled from ASW missions, but she was too far off to attack. Like Glattes and Schuhart, Franz had experienced baffling—and scary—torpedo problems. On September 17, two of the torpedoes he fired at a British freighter had “prematured” after a run of merely 273 yards, badly shaking and damaging the boat. Like Schuhart, Franz had broken radio silence to report the mishap to Dönitz. His report had led to another modification in torpedo-firing procedure.

Homebound on the night of September 19, a few minutes before midnight U-27’s bridge watch sighted “six shapes” on the horizon and urgently summoned Franz to the bridge. Believing the ships to be cruisers, Franz could scarcely credit his luck. He ordered battle stations, night surface, and unhesitatingly maneuvered to attack. Setting three torpedoes with magnetic pistols to run at a depth of twelve to thirteen feet, Franz fired at the overlapping line of ships, hoping to sink at least three cruisers with this one salvo, thereby duplicating the legendary feat of Otto Weddigen in World War I.

In actuality, Franz had fired at a line of seven destroyers. Two of the three torpedoes exploded prematurely about thirty seconds after leaving the tube; the third missed. Alerted by the two explosions, the destroyer Fortune sighted U-27 and instantly turned toward her to attack. Shaken by the premature torpedo explosions and seeing the oncoming Fortune—now correctly identified as a destroyer—Franz crash-dived and went deep. Fortune flung out five depth charges “by eye,” but they were very wide of the mark. Settling down for a proper attack, Fortune gained sonar contact and moved in slowly for another run, dropping five more charges set for 100 and 150 feet. These exploded close to U-27, bending a propeller shaft and causing a serious leak in the packing gland of the shaft.

In the noise of exploding depth charges, Fortune lost sonar contact. All seven destroyers then reformed line abreast for a meticulous search. Meanwhile, Franz came to periscope depth for a look at his attackers. Seeing four destroyers, all close, sweeping the seas with searchlights, Franz went very deep—to 393 feet—and ordered silent running.

The destroyers pressed the hunt. At 0127, Forester got a sonar contact and attacked, dropping depth charges set for 100 and 150 feet. These shallow charges caused no damage and Forester lost contact in the noise. For a time Franz believed he might escape, but at 0212, Fortune regained sonar contact and mounted two consecutive, punishing attacks with depth charges set to explode between 100 and 250 feet. Some of these went off very close to U-27, causing severe flooding. Assessing the damage, Franz decided to surface, hoping to escape in the dark. At 0241, three hours and forty-eight minutes after launching her torpedo attack, U-27 came up in the vicinity of seven destroyers, some burning searchlights. Franz put on emergency speed and ran.

Fortune saw the surfaced U-boat first. She turned to ram and opened fire with her guns. In the face of this fire, Franz, two officers, the quartermaster, and sixteen others dived over the side of the fast-moving boat. They were later fished out by Faulkner. Seeing them jump and other men clustered on the deck, Fortune ceased firing after four rounds and swerved to avoid ramming, now planning to capture the men and boat intact. When U-27 finally halted her futile attempt to escape on the surface, Fortune sent over a salvage party. But by then U-27’s engineer had set scuttling procedures in motion and the boat was sinking. Fortune’s engineer courageously went inside the boat in an attempt to close the sea cocks and ballast-tank vents (and grab whatever papers he could find), but it was too late. The boat was flooding fast and full of chlorine gas. She sank stern first and vertically at 0350. Fortune rescued the remaining eighteen men of the U-27 crew. There were no casualties.

The remaining six Type VIIs of the Salzwedel Flotilla in the homebound procession escaped detection. Büchel in U-32 added a minor scalp to his belt by sinking an 875-ton Norwegian ship with demolitions, as did von Dresky in U-33, who sank a trawler with his gun. Rollmann in U-34 captured a 2,500-ton Estonian freighter in the North Sea and escorted it to Germany. The six boats reached Wilhelmshaven between September 26 and 30, five with barely more than cupsful of fuel left in the tanks.

Fritz-Julius Lemp in U-30 arrived from Iceland on September 27. The boat was in terrible condition. One diesel was out, the other barely turning over. Dönitz sent out a minesweeper to tow her in, but Lemp proudly refused help and U-30 limped into the Jade under her own power. Parading on deck with the begrimed, bearded crew was a live turkey, Alfonso, bought in Iceland to augment rations but adopted as a mascot.

Dönitz—indeed, the whole U-boat arm—knew, of course, that Lemp had sunk Athenia. Berlin was still denying that a U-boat had done it, so Lemp and the U-30 crew (as well as the whole U-boat force) had to be enjoined to keep the secret, and the U-30logbook was altered to hide any hint of the sinking. But one worry remained: The wounded crewman, Adolph Schmidt, who had been landed in Iceland, might reveal the truth. Lemp assured Dönitz that Schmidt was completely dependable.*

Legend has it that Lemp was in hot water for sinking Athenia and that the OKM threatened him with a court-martial, but this is unlikely. Although the Athenia sinking had been a mistake, it had done a great deal to sow terror, the psychological blow Dönitz and the Kriegsmarine had sought. Moreover, Lemp had conducted an outstanding patrol. He had sunk three ships (including Athenia) in a marginal patrol area and foul weather, “shot down” (the propaganda version) two aircraft from the Ark Royal, demonstrated commendable chivalry and humanity by rescuing the British pilots and taking them to Iceland for medical care, survived the worst depth charging of any of the Atlantic boats with “unshakable calm,” dived U-30 to an unprecedented depth of 472 feet, and brought his boat home in spite of severe battle damage and engine defects. To have court-martialed Lemp would have sent a wrong signal to the U-boat force (punishing brash aggressiveness) and run the risk of the proceedings leaking to the Allies, thereby exposing Berlin’s lies.

The scores of the first seven Salzwedel Flotilla Type VII boats, including the lost U-27, were otherwise disappointing. In about seventeen days of combat in the Atlantic—September 3 to September 20—they had sunk only fourteen ships and three trawlers by torpedo, gun, and demolition, and captured one prize. Discounting the trawlers, the statistical return was only two ships sunk per boat, or one ship per eight patrol days. Moreover, U-32’s minefield was not productive. It damaged two big freighters—and forced the British to close Bristol temporarily—but it produced no sinkings.

Even so, the skippers and crews returned to a hero’s welcome. Hitler and Raeder paid brief visits to Wilhelmshaven to hand out praise and medals. The man of the hour was Otto Schuhart in U-29, who had accounted for four of the fourteen sinkings, including Courageous and two important tankers. In tonnage sunk, his total was 41,905, a record for a single patrol that was to stand for a long time. The runner-up was Lemp in U-30, with three ships for 23,206 tons, but since Athenia could not even be mentioned, let alone credited, second place went to Wilhelm Rollmann in U-34, who had sunk two ships for 11,400 tons and had taken a 2,500-ton prize. Büchel in U-32 sank two ships and von Dresky in U-33 sank three, but their individual tonnage scores were only about half that of Rollmann. Kuhnke in U-28 sank one ship.

Three boats of the first wave were still in the Atlantic: the Salzwedel reserve U-31 and U-35, and the VIIB of the Wegener Flotilla, U-53. The last returned first. Having sunk two ships—a freighter and the 8,826-ton tanker Cheyenne—U-53 raised the total score of the six Wegener Flotilla boats to eight. The reserve U-31 sank two ships, and the reserve U-35 sank four ships. Including the three trawlers, these six kills raised the total sinkings of the nine Salzwedel boats deployed to the Atlantic to twenty-four, and the average of sinkings per boat per patrol from 2 to 2.6.

The aggregate confirmed kills by all twenty-one oceangoing boats of the first wave were thus as follows:

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