Military history

ATLANTIC U-BOAT OPERATIONS: OCTOBER-DECEMBER 1939

Apart from the first wolf pack, only four boats sailed to the Atlantic in October. One was a Type VII of the Salzwedel Flotilla, U-34, which despite the design flaws and other problems of the VIIs, was believed to be capable of an Atlantic patrol. The other three formed a special (but loosely organized) task force that, in response to Raeder’s demand, was to lay a minefield at the British naval base at Gibraltar, then attack Allied shipping in the Mediterranean.

Commanded by Wilhelm Rollmann, age thirty-two, the U-34 was the only boat to make a completely independent patrol in October. While going northabout the British Isles to the Western Approaches, Rollmann bagged two small freighters (one Swedish, one British). Hunting in the Western Approaches, he found an inbound convoy, Halifax 5, and despite repeated torpedo failures, he sank an 8,000-ton British freighter, Malabar, and so damaged another, Bronte, that it had to be sunk by British destroyers. But U-34was not combat-ready. An internal tank cracked and Rollmann was forced to abort. En route home, he captured the 3,200-ton Norwegian freighter Snar—his second prize in as many patrols—raising his score for two patrols to an impressive eight ships for 33,600 tons. But the U-34’s mechanical failure reinforced the view that until the VIIs were extensively modified, they were not safe for torpedo patrolling. Pending the modifications, no more VIIs were to be sent on torpedo patrol.

The three-boat Mediterranean task force was composed of the clumsy Type I sister ships U-25 (finally out of overhaul) and U-26, and the VIIB, U-53. The plan was for Klaus Ewerth in U-26, who had laid the fruitful minefield at Portland, to precede the other boats by several days and lay delayed-action TMB mines at Gibraltar. On his signal that the field was laid, the other two boats, waiting outside in the Atlantic, were to slip through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, where all three boats were to attack shipping with torpedoes.

Everything that could go wrong did. Ewerth in U-26 ran into intense ASW patrols and bad weather and was forced to abort the mine mission and did not make a second try. When he returned to Germany, he was assigned to other duty. While awaiting the go-ahead signal, the clumsy sister ship, U-25, commanded by Viktor Schütze, age thirty-three, attacked two ships which came his way. In the first attack Schütze experienced four contact-pistol failures under perfect conditions (stationary target, calm sea, short ranges, careful aiming) and finally sank the ship. In his second attack, by gun, the recoil cracked the torpedo-loading hatch and Schütze was forced to abort and return to Germany. Ernst-Günther Heinicke in U-53 refused to penetrate the heavily patrolled Strait of Gibraltar and flailed around for days out of touch.

The Mediterranean task force was thus a failure.

Schütze in U-25 broke radio silence to report the malfunction of the four contact pistols. His report ignited an absolute furor at the OKM and Dönitz’s headquarters. Raeder demanded yet another exhaustive investigation. Meanwhile, on November 10, Dönitz ordered all boats to revert to magnetic pistols, which the Torpedo Directorate assured him had been improved. It was a calculated risk, but he reasoned that a half-baked, improved magnetic pistol was better than an impact pistol that apparently did not work at all.

Dönitz was Furious. The torpedo technicians, he wrote in his war diary, did “not understand the matter.” At least “30% of all torpedoes are duds.” They “either do not detonate at all or they detonate in the wrong place.” The skippers were “losing confidence” in their torpedoes, he went on. “In the end their fighting spirit will suffer. The torpedo failure problem is at present the most urgent of all the problems of U-boat warfare.” But the Directorate seemed unable to correct the flaws.

In the month of November, the Atlantic U-boat campaign was disrupted by yet another special operation. The “pocket” battleship Deutschland, operating in the North Atlantic (with meager results), had incurred engine trouble and was aborting to Germany. At about the same time, the battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were to make a sortie into the Atlantic. Believing these movements might provoke capital ships of the Royal Navy into action, which could be tracked by B-dienst, the OKM directed that several U-boat traps be laid in the North Sea, utilizing both oceangoing boats and ducks.

Dönitz chose four oceangoing boats for the main trap: the VIIBs U-47 (Prien) and U-48 (Schultze) and, reluctantly, two patched-up Type VIIs, U-31 (Habekost) and U-35 (Lott). He laid the trap on a line east of the Shetlands. As expected, the Royal Navy picked up the movements of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and deployed to search and attack, and B-dienst provided the OKM with current data on the British movements. But the operations of all ships, both German and British, were hampered by hideous weather.

Patrolling on the surface in huge seas on November 28, Lott in U-35, sixty miles east of Shetland Island, saw a heavy cruiser (Norfolk) and broke radio silence to report her. Twelve miles northeast of U-35, Prien in U-47 picked up Lott’s message and plotted a course to intercept.

Despite the mountainous seas, the interception was perfect. Sighting Norfolk’s top hamper, Prien submerged and closed to about 1,000 yards. He fired a single torpedo with the improved magnetic pistol. He then made ready a second tube, but the heavy seas slewed the boat around and Prien lost sight of Norfolk in the periscope. Eighty-six seconds after firing, the men on U-47 clearly heard a detonation and cheered.

Prien surfaced in the turbulent seas to assess the damage. Closing the cruiser, unseen, he observed that “the upper deck [was] slightly buckled and piping [was] hanging over the starboard side.” The ship’s reconnaissance aircraft was “tilted on its tail.” He saw black smoke at the point of torpedo impact—beneath Norfolk’s starboard torpedo rack.

The cruiser hauled away and disappeared in rain squalls. Prien attempted to pursue for a second attack, but the heavy seas defeated him. He broke radio silence to report: “Have torpedoed one London-class cruiser. One hit. Wind strength 10.” He did not claim a sinking then or later, merely that one hit was “highly probable.” Leaping to the conclusion that Norfolk was sunk, the OKM was ecstatic, gloatingly logging the attack as “a magnificent success.” Over Dönitz’s objections, Berlin propagandists claimed that a U-boat had sunk a “London-class” heavy cruiser and named Prien—the “Bull of Scapa Flow”—as the U-boat skipper who had done the job.

Churchill and First Sea Lord Pound first got the news from Berlin radio. In response to an Admiralty query, Norfolk reported herself undamaged. She had seen an explosion in her wake but had assumed it to be an aircraft bomb. She had not sighted U-47. The improved magnetic pistol on the torpedo Prien fired had apparently malfunctioned. The BBC denied the sinking, but Berlin radio persisted in the claim, elevating Prien to ever greater celebrity.

At dawn on the day following Prien’s unsuccessful attack on Norfolk, Lott in U-35 was cruising on the surface near the Shetland Islands. Lott’s radio report of his sighting of Norfolk, which had enabled Prien to find her, and Prien’s radio report of the attack may have been DFed by the British. In any event, the British destroyer Icarus saw U-35 and turned to attack, with the rising sun behind her.

Blinded by the sun, Lott’s bridge watch failed to see Icarus approaching. Caught by surprise, Lott crash-dived and went deep—to 229 feet—and steered evasive courses. But Icarus got her on sonar and dropped depth charges set for 250 feet. Two other destroyers, Kingston and Kashmir, responded to Icarus’s alert. Directed by Icarus to the likely spot, Kingston made two depth-charge attacks, which jammed the U-35’s diving planes and put her at a sharp up angle. In an attempt to bring the bow down and regain control of the boat, Lott rushed all available men to the forward torpedo room and put on full speed. All in vain. The depth charges had also ruptured fuel and ballast tanks aft and no amount of weight forward could level the boat.

Believing the boat to be doomed, Lott blew all ballast tanks and surfaced. He manned his deck gun to shoot it out, but when he saw three destroyers close by and when one of them, Kashmir, fired at U-35, Lott gave up and ordered the boat scuttled. As U-35slowly flooded and settled, the gun crew raised their arms in surrender. Kashmir fished four officers and twenty-seven men from the icy water; Kingston picked up Lott and eleven others, who were last to leave the boat. All forty-three men of U-35 were rescued.

Owing to the diversion of U-47 and U-48 to the North Sea submarine trap, only three oceangoing boats were available to mount the U-boat campaign in the Atlantic in November. These were the brand-new VIIB, U-49, and two IXs, U-41 and U-43, the latter also brand-new. Carrying improved magnetic pistols, they sailed into the cold, mountainous, and forbidding seas.

These boats, and others, were the beneficiaries of yet another relaxation in the U-boat rules. On November 12 Hitler authorized the on-sight sinkings of any and all enemy passenger vessels of whatever size, known (or seen) to be armed, and any and all tankers, including those of neutral nations (but not American or friends or allies of Germany), which were “beyond all doubt” going to or from the British Isles or France. This relaxation meant that any tanker in British waters could be sunk without warning or without assuring the safety of the crew.

Rounding the British Isles in terrible weather, Gustav-Adolf Mügler in U-41 sank a British trawler with his 4.1” deck gun on November 12. Taking pity on the survivors, he fished about half the surviving crew from the icy seas, intending to put them on board another trawler. Before he could do so, Mügler ran across the 11,000-ton Norwegian tanker Arne Kjöde, which, under the relaxed rules, appeared to be fair game for attack. While the British trawler survivors looked on in horrified fascination, Mügler sank the tanker with a single electric torpedo fitted with an improved magnetic pistol. He made no effort to rescue the tanker crew (five died). Later in the day he found another trawler and off-loaded the British.*

The weather off the British Isles turned from terrible to hideous. Accordingly, Dönitz directed the three Atlantic boats to patrol farther to the south off the Iberian Peninsula. While passing southbound through the Western Approaches, all three boats found targets. Mügler in U-41 attacked a British freighter, Hope Star, but three torpedoes missed or malfunctioned. Wilhelm Ambrosius, age thirty-six, in the new IX U-43, sank a 5,000-ton British freighter, Arlington Court. Curt von Gossler, age thirty-four, commanding the new VIIB U-49, fired four torpedoes at the 7,000-ton British freighter Rothesay Castle, but without success. Two destroyers, Echo and Wanderer, pounced on U-49 and delivered a punishing depth-charge attack, during which von Gossler was driven to the unprecedented depth of 557 feet.

Finally escaping, that night von Gossler hauled to the west to get off an important report to Dönitz. He had nothing but bad news: three G7a (air) torpedoes with improved magnetic pistols had prematured, two of them after a run of only 656 feet. One G7e (electric) with a magnetic pistol had failed to fire. This report, Dönitz wrote, was “a bitter disappointment.” All “our best hopes” for the “improved” magnetic pistol “were dashed in one blow.” Dönitz fumed on: “The torpedo can in no way be regarded as a front line weapon of any use.”

This latest torpedo disaster—and the near loss of von Gossler’s U-49—so infuriated Raeder that he resorted to a drastic measure. He reached outside the Kriegsmarine and brought in a civilian scientist, Dr. E. A. Cornelius, and named him “Torpedo Dictator.” Cornelius was to have “wide powers” not only to correct the faults of the torpedoes (pistols, depth keeping, etc.) but also to take measures to increase torpedo production, which was badly lagging. The appointment was “of major importance to the U-boat arm,” Dönitz noted. “It is hoped he will be completely successful.”

With all four bow torpedo tubes and a periscope out with unrepairable damage, von Gossler in U-49 was compelled to abort. He limped into Wilhelmshaven after only twenty days at sea, feeling very lucky to have survived. His descent to the astounding depth of 557 feet proved to be a valuable experience. Until then it was believed that the Type VIIB would implode or “crush” at such depths. The discovery meant that the Type VIIBs could safely descend to at least fifty-seven feet below the maximum depth setting (500 feet) of British depth charges. Hence an important new avenue of escape from depth charges had opened up.

Heinicke in U-53, a legacy of the abortive Mediterranean task force, was still patrolling cautiously off the Iberian Peninsula. Finding a convoy, he reported it and shadowed. On instruction from Dönitz, Heinicke transmitted a “beacon” signal to home in the southbound IXs, U-41 and U-43. By this means an impromptu three-boat pack developed, loosely directed by Dönitz. Mügler in U-41, who paused to sink a small British tramp en route, made contact with the convoy, Sierra Leone 7, taking over as the shadower from U-53, which had been driven off by the escorts. All three boats, operating independently, shot at ships of the convoy, but only Am-brosius in U-43 sank one. British and French destroyers pounced on U-41 and U-43. They held U-41 down for an unprecedented twenty hours* and severely damaged U-43, which finally shook loose and escaped west, where Ambrosius sank a lone 2,500-ton British freighter before aborting the patrol due to battle damage, and heading for Germany.

The results of the November operations in the Atlantic were meager. Mügler in U-41, who reported nine torpedo failures in eleven shots, was credited with four ships for 12,914 tons, including two trawlers, but only one of the sinkings, the Norwegian tanker Arne Kjöde, was worth the trip. Ambrosius in U-43, severely damaged, was credited with four ships for 16,000 tons. Von Gossler in U-49, also severely damaged, sank none. Heinicke in U-53, who had balked at entering the Mediterranean, sank no ships, returned to Germany with eleven of his fourteen torpedoes, and went to other duty. The repairs to U-43 and U-49 were to keep both boats out of service until March 1940.

The operations plan for December was more encouraging. Dönitz believed he might get six boats to the Atlantic: U-47 (Prien) and U-48 (Schultze), released from the submarine trap in the North Sea, and four other boats, including the VIIBs U-51 and U-52, returning to service after months of repairs and modifications. But the plan was not realized, owing to what Dönitz characterized as an act of “sabotage.” The crews found sand in the lubricating oil of U-25, U-51, and U-52. The U-25 was repaired and sailed, only to abort in the North Sea with an unrelated oil leak, but U-51 and U-52 could not sail in December. The U-52 was so badly damaged, Dönitz noted in his diary, that she was to be out of action “until further notice.” The sailing of the other boat, U-46, was delayed for other reasons.

Thus, not six but only two boats, Prien’s U-47 and Schultze’s U-48, were available to mount the Atlantic U-boat campaign in early December, and both of these were low on fuel. Taking advantage of the relaxed rules, on the way to the Shetlands Schultze sank the 6,300-ton Swedish tanker Gustaf E. Reuter. Both boats confronted brutally cold weather and mountainous seas, which flung ice water at the bridge watches, and pitched, rolled, and yawed the boats to alarming angles.

Prien arrived in the Western Approaches so low on fuel he had to limit his Atlantic patrol to about five days. During that brief period he sank three big and important ships: the 8,800-ton British freighter Navasota, the 6,200-ton Norwegian tanker Britta, and the 8,150-ton Dutch freighter Tajandoen. In the attack on Navasota, British destroyers counterattacked U-47, and for the first time in the war Prien and his men felt the impact of depth charges. But the counterattack was desultory and Prien evaded and headed home. En route he shot his last torpedoes at two ships, but the torpedoes missed or malfunctioned.

When Prien arrived in Wilhelmshaven, he was again accorded a hero’s welcome. In spite of indignant denials from London, Berlin persisted in crediting him with sinking the cruiser Norfolk, inflating his total sinkings in three patrols to 72,000 tons. In reality he had sunk three ships for 23,168 tons on this patrol, elevating his total confirmed sinkings to 61,500 tons, which, however, put him in first place. He reported that eight of twelve electric torpedoes (with improved magnetic pistols) had missed or malfunctioned. Having completed the necessary three war patrols to qualify, all hands were awarded a new and coveted decoration: the Kriegsabzeichen, or U-boat badge.

Left alone in the Western Approaches in appalling weather, Schultze in U-48 patrolled for only seven days. In that time he, too, accounted for three important ships: a 5,000-ton Greek freighter, the 6,700-ton British freighter Brandon, and the 7,400-ton British tanker San Alberto, which was so badly damaged she had to be sunk by a British destroyer. After Schultze left the Atlantic on December 19, for a period of five days there were no U-boats in those waters.

On arrival in Wilhelmshaven from this third patrol, Schultze found himself on the way to becoming a national hero, like Prien and Schuhart. He had sunk four more ships for 25,618 tons, bringing his total to twelve ships for 77,500 tons. That was almost twice the number of confirmed ships Prien had sunk and substantially greater tonnage. Inflating Schultze’s kills to an even “80,000 tons,” Berlin propagandists gave Schultze and his crew the full publicity treatment. The crew was awarded medals and the U-boat badge, but Schultze did not get a Ritterkreuz. Dönitz had decreed that to earn that high award a skipper had to sink 100,000 tons of enemy shipping or perform a feat of exceptional daring, such as Prien’s penetration of Scapa Flow.

Owing to the sabotage of U-51 and U-52, and the abort of U-25, only one boat sailed from Germany in December to make a torpedo patrol. This was the VIIB U-46, commanded by Herbert Sohler. Outbound in the North Sea, Sohler sank a 1,000-ton Norwegian freighter and earned the dubious distinction of being the only U-boat in the Atlantic on Christmas Day. Sohler found plenty of shipping in the Western Approaches and attacked aggressively, but he achieved no other sinkings. Two weeks into the patrol, one diesel engine broke down, forcing Sohler to abort. Reviewing the boat’s shooting record for three patrols during which merely two ships for 8,000 tons had been sunk, Dönitz concluded that the fire-control party needed further training and sent the boat back to “school,” a humiliation for this Veteran but unlucky crew, and yet another unforeseen deduction from the dwindling Atlantic force.

Counting the first (abortive) wolf pack and the Mediterranean task force, Dönitz mounted only sixteen torpedo patrols to the Atlantic during the three-month period October-December 1939, five less than the initial deployment in September. Three of these sixteen (U-40, U-42, U-45) had been lost, plus U-35 of the North Sea submarine trap.* Two, U-43 and U-49, had incurred severe battle damage. U-51 and U-52 had been sabotaged and U-46 had been sent to retraining. The sixteen Atlantic patrols had resulted in thirty-five ship sinkings or prizes, an average of 2.2 ships sunk or captured per boat per patrol, about the same as the September averages and thus a disappointment. The five leading skippers in tonnage sunk were Schultze, Prien, Schuhart, Hartmann, and Rollmann.

Admiralty statisticians calculated that as of December 31, 1939, a total of 5,756 ships had sailed in British convoys, most of them in home waters or the North Sea. Of these, the Admiralty boasted, only four had been sunk by U-boats. That was an understatement, but the general thrust was true. According to the meticulous work of the German U-boat historian Jürgen Rohwer, in that four months of the so-called Phony War in 1939, all U-boats, including the North Sea ducks, sank 123 merchant ships of 500 gross tons or more. Excluding the French convoy KJF 3, only fourteen of the 123 ships sunk by U-boats were sailing in convoy, three inbound from Halifax, two inbound from Sierra Leone, three inbound from Gibraltar, and the rest outbound in ballast,

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