Military history


In the chaotic days of June 1940, during the collapse of France and the Allied counterinvasion of Norway, the Royal Navy was stretched to the breaking point. It had to simultaneously evacuate Allied forces from France and Norway, gear up for the attack on the French Navy in North African bases, confront the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean and Red seas and the Indian Ocean, pursue the German merchant ship raiders Atlantis and Orion in the south Atlantic, and prepare for a probable invasion of the British Isles. Because of these commitments—and the loss of fifteen destroyers sunk and twenty-seven damaged during the Norway operation and Dunkirk evacuation—the escort of convoys and other ASW measures in home waters had to be cut to the bone.

As it happened, the reduction of British convoy escort and ASW forces coincided with the implementation of Dönitz’s plan to reopen the Atlantic U-boat war with a maximum commitment of force over a wide area, a plan that had been unavoidably delayed from May to June. Moreover, the U-boat crews were well rested from the ordeal in Norway. Faith in the torpedoes had been restored by the successes of Oehrn in U-37 and Frauenheim in U-101, employing impact pistols only.

On June 1 there were twenty-four oceangoing boats in commission, including the ex-Turk U-A—three less than the day the war began. Two (the VIIB U-100 and the IXB U-123) were brand-new and still in workup. One, U-37, was inbound from patrol. Three, U-29, U-43, and U-101, were still on patrol in Iberian waters. The other eighteen sailed from Germany in June, bringing the total deployed to twenty-one boats, the largest number committed to the North Atlantic at one time since September 1939.

Raeder and the OKM directed an all-out effort to trap and destroy the Allied forces withdrawing from Norway. In early June Gneisenau and Scharnhorst sailed for that purpose. They found—and sank—the old carrier Glorious and her two destroyer escorts, but in this action, one of the British destroyers, Acasta, hit Scharnhorst with one torpedo, inflicting damage sufficient to force Gneisenau and Scharnhorst to break off further operations and run into Trondheim.

At the request of the OKM, Dönitz diverted five outgoing U-boats to form a trap in the Orkneys to intercept other Allied ships retreating from Norway. One of the five, U-65, was forced to abort to Bergen with mechanical problems; the other four, U-A, U-25, U-51, and U-52, had no luck. When released from the trap, U-A, commanded by Hans Cohausz, age thirty-two, went on to the Faeroes-Iceland area to attack the line of British auxiliary cruisers of the Northern Patrol and sank one, the 14,000-ton Andania. The other boats, including U-65, which resailed from Bergen, went to the Western Approaches. En route, the cranky U-25, commanded by a new skipper, Heinz Beduhn, age thirty-two, from the duck U-23, missed a battle cruiser (Renown or Repulse) but hit and sank the 17,000-ton auxiliary cruiser Scotstoun (ex-Caledonia).

Nine boats converged in the lightly defended Western Approaches. These included Prien in U-47, who had rescued three downed Luftwaffe crewmen in the Orkneys, and Liebe in U-38, who had diverted to Dingle Bay, Ireland, to land another Abwehr agent.* In a matter of a few days these nine boats, employing torpedoes with impact pistols, inflicted an amazing slaughter. In all, eight of the nine boats in the Western Approaches sank thirty-one ships for about 162,500 tons.

• Prien in U-47 sank seven ships for 36,000 tons, including the 13,000-ton British tanker San Fernando and the 2,580-ton Dutch tanker Leticia.

• Liebe in U-38 sank six for 30,400 tons, including the 10,000-ton Norwegian tanker Italia.

• Hans Jenisch in U-32 sank five for 16,000 tons, including the 9,000-ton Norwegian tanker Eli Knudsen.

• Dietrich Knorr in U-51 sank three for 22,200 tons, including the 12,000-ton British tanker Saranac.

• Günter Kuhnke in U-28 sank three for 10,300 tons.

• Otto Salmann in U-52 sank three for 9,400 tons.

• Von Stockhausen in U-65 sank two for 29,300 tons, including the big 28,124-ton French liner Champlain, damaged by the Luftwaffe.

• Fritz-Julius Lemp in U-30 sank two for 8,900 tons.

• Beduhn in the clumsy U-25 made a submerged attack on a tanker, but a following ship rammed the boat and forced her to abort with bent periscopes and a damaged conning tower.

After exhausting their torpedoes, six of these nine boats followed the crippled U-25 back to Germany. While passing North Channel submerged in the early hours of July 2, Prien, who had one supposedly “defective” torpedo left, encountered the 15,500-ton British ocean liner Arandora Star, outbound to Canada. When she zigzagged toward U-47, Prien saw guns on her bow and stern and deemed her to be fair game. He shot the supposedly defective torpedo at a range of one mile. It hit directly amidships—a perfect bull’s-eye. Since it was daylight, Prien did not stick around to see the outcome.

Unknown to Prien, the Arandora Star was jam-packed with 1,299 male Germans and Italians who were being shipped to detention camps in Canada. There were 565 Germans, of which eighty-six were military POWs of “bad character” and 479 “civilian internees,” deemed a threat to internal security. The 734 Italians were all civilian internees. The Germans and Italians were guarded by 200 British Army personnel. Including the Arandora Star’s crew of 174, there were 1,673 people on the ship. She was not marked with a red cross or other signs to indicate her special category nor had the Admiralty requested “free passage” for her.

Fatally holed and flooding, the Arandora Star remained afloat about one hour. During that time the ship got off an SOS and launched ten lifeboats and scads of rafts. The prisoners and guards—all mixed together—and lastly the crew abandoned ship but, the official Admiralty reports stated, many Italians refused to leave. In response to the SOS, a Sunderland appeared overhead and dropped packets of emergency supplies, and the Canadian destroyer St. Laurent, which was eighty-four miles away screening the battleship Nelson, raced to the rescue.

Guided by the Sunderland, the St. Laurent reached the scene in early afternoon. She rescued the hundreds of survivors from the ten lifeboats, then sent the lifeboats and her own boats to collect other survivors from the rafts and wreckage. Rushing the rescue so that she herself would not become a victim of the U-boat, within a mere thirty-five minutes the crews had fished every survivor in sight from the sea. When a British destroyer, Walker, arrived to assist, she scoured the area but could find no sign of life—or of the U-boat.

In this remarkable operation, St. Laurent rescued over half of those on board Arandora Star when Prien’s torpedoes struck. Those saved included 322 Germans, 243 Italians, 163 military guards, and 119 crew. A total of 826 perished, including 713 Germans and Italians. It was by far the greatest loss of life in a noncombatant-ship sunk by a U-boat thus far in the war.

When U-47 reached Wilhelmshaven, Dönitz, as yet unaware of the tragedy, praised Prien to the high heavens. He was credited with sinking ten ships for 68,587 tons, far and away the best performance by any skipper in the war. In the postwar accounting, the sinkings were to be reduced to eight ships for 51,483 tons. Even so, it was the best single patrol in confirmed tonnage sunk to that time. The fact that his torpedoes killed 713 Germans and Italians on Arandora Star was concealed from the Axis public.

The VIIBs U-46 and U-48 were under orders to join the three boats already in Iberian waters (U-29, U-43, U-101) to form a pack off Cape Finisterre. The pack, to be controlled by Hans Rösing, the new skipper of the famous U-48, was to intercept an inbound troop convoy that included the giant ocean liners Queen Mary (81,000 tons) and Mauritania (36,000 tons), bringing 25,000 Australian soldiers to the British Isles.

Southbound to the rendezvous, both Rösing and the new skipper of U-46, Englebert Endrass, ran across innumerable ships. Rösing in U-48 sank three and damaged another. Endrass in U-46 sank four, including the 20,277-ton British auxiliary cruiser Carinthia, and severely damaged an 8,700-ton British tanker. Both boats arrived at the rendezvous low on torpedoes.

While proceeding to the rendezvous, Frauenheim in U-101, who had already sunk three ships, sank three more (one British, two Greek), the last on June 14, to the west of Cape Finisterre, on the day before the scheduled rendezvous. This sinking may have alerted the Queen Mary convoy and caused it to veer well out to sea. Whatever the case, the pack rendezvous proved to be fruitless. None of the five boats spotted the convoy.

When this failure was realized, Dönitz released the five boats for independent patrol. With his last torpedoes Frauenheim sank the 13,200-ton British steamer Wellington Star and went home to high praise. His total bag—seven ships for 42,022 tons—slightly topped that of Otto Schuhart, making it the second best patrol in confirmed tonnage sunk after Prien’s. Rösing in U-48 sank four more ships, including the 7,500-ton Dutch tanker Moerdrecht, bringing his confirmed total on this first patrol to seven ships for 31,500 tons sunk. Endrass in U-46 fired three torpedoes at the carrier Ark Royal, en route to join British forces for the attack on the French Navy, but he missed. Before returning home he sank one more ship, bringing his confirmed total for his first patrol as skipper to five ships for 35,300 tons. Berlin propagandists gave Frauenheim, Rösing, and Endrass the full publicity treatment, inflating the tonnages sunk (that of Endrass to 54,000 tons).

The return of the seven boats from the Western Approaches and the three from Iberian waters, and a decision to send U-A on a pioneer cruise to the African coast, left only four boats (U-29, U-30, U-43, U-52) to carry on the Atlantic war, pending the arrival of the last five boats outbound from Germany. Inasmuch as all four boats still had plenty of torpedoes (neither U-29 nor U-43 had yet sunk a ship), Dönitz ordered all four to refuel in Spanish ports. Schuhart in U-29, Ambrosius in U-43, and Lemp in U-30 sneaked into Vigo on June 19, 21, and 25, respectively, to refuel from the German freighter Bessel; Salmann in U-52 put into El Ferrol on July 2 to refuel from the Max Albrecht.

After refueling, these four boats patrolled independently. Schuhart in U-29 sank four ships for 25,000 tons, including the 9,000-ton British tanker Athellaird, but his attack periscope broke and he was forced to abort to Germany. Ambrosius in U-43 also sank four ships (for 29,000 tons), including the 13,400-ton British liner Avelona Star and the 8,600-ton British tanker Yarraville. Ambrosius then returned to Germany, arriving after ten weeks at sea, a new endurance record. Lemp in U-30 was credited four more ships for 17,500 tons, bringing his total for the patrol to six. Salmann in U-52 sank one more, making his total four.

Meanwhile, the last five boats to sail from Germany in June arrived in the Atlantic. These were the clumsy U-26, the VII U-34, two new Type VIIBs on first patrols, U-99 and U-102, and the new Type IXB, U-122, which had made one supply trip to Norway. The U-26, commanded by Heinz Scheringer, reached the Western Approaches in late June with serious engine problems. Despite the deficiencies, Scheringer patrolled aggressively, sinking three freighters* and damaging another, the British Zarian, in convoy. One of the convoy escorts, the new Flower-class corvette Gladiolus, pounced on U-26 in favorable sonar conditions, dropping thirty-six of her forty-one depth charges set at 350 to 500 feet.

The charges badly pounded U-26, causing leaks but not fatal damage. In the early hours of July 1, Scheringer surfaced to charge his depleted batteries and to escape in the fog. By that time, the British sloop Rochester and a Sunderland of Coastal Command’s Australian Squadron 10, piloted by W. M. (“Hoot”) Gibson, had come on the scene in response to Gladiolus’s alert. Seeing U-26 surface, Rochester commenced a high-speed run to ram. Had the U-26’s diesels and motors been working properly and had Scheringer been able to charge batteries, the boat might have escaped. But with Rochester (believed to be a “destroyer”) bearing down firing her forward gun and the Sunderland overhead, he was forced under again.

The Sunderland saw the “swirl,” or disturbed water, where U-26 had submerged and ran in for an attack. Hoot Gibson dropped four 250-pound antisubmarine bombs, which exploded very close and rocked the boat. The bombs did no real damage, but Scheringer had no battery charge left and the boat was still leaking in the stern as a result of the depth-charge attack from Gladiolus. Fearing U-26 would be fatally damaged by the apporaching “destroyer,” Scheringer surfaced, intending to scuttle. When the boat appeared, the Sunderland dropped four more bombs, but by then U-26’s chief engineer had set in motion scuttling procedures and the crew was leaping into the water.

The U-26 went down quickly with all hatches open. Rochester came up with guns trained. After allowing the survivors to swim a while in order to scare them into talking more freely, Rochester fished all forty-eight men from the water. There were no casualties, but the scare tactic did not work. The U-26 crew was one of the most reticent to be captured, British intelligence reported.

That same day, July 1, the brand-new VIIB, U-102, commanded by Harro von Klot-Heydenfeldt, age twenty-nine, from the duck U-20, was only a few miles away, lying in wait for a convoy inbound from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Von Klot-Heydenfeldt found a straggler from the convoy, the coal-burning 5,219-ton British freighter Clearton, loaded with wheat, and he sank her with two torpedoes.* The blast killed eight of her crew; the other twenty-six abandoned in lifeboats.

In response to Clearton’s distress signal, the British destroyer Vansittart, on patrol in the area, raced to the scene. An hour later Vansittart got a good sonar return on U-102 and made two runs, dropping eleven depth charges set for 350-500 feet. After that, Vansittart could not regain contact. She recovered the Clearton survivors and returned to the scene, where she found a huge oil slick. She remained in the area, hunting, until evening of the following day, July 2, noting a continuous rising of oil. From that evidence Vansittart concluded she had sunk the U-boat, but this was not sufficiently convincing to confirm a kill. However, in postwar years, when both German and British records could be compared, Admiralty historians concluded that Vansittart had indeed sunk the U-102 with the loss of all hands, merely nine days out on her first patrol.

The new IXB, U-122, commanded by onetime Weddigen Flotilla chief Hans Günther Looff (Rösing’s brother-in-law), age thirty-four, sank one 5,100-ton ship on June 20 and, the next day, broadcast a weather report for the benefit of the Luftwaffe. Nothing further was ever heard from the boat. Unable to match her loss with any Allied attack, Admiralty authorities for years listed the cause of her demise as “unknown.” After a reinvestigation in recent years, Admiralty historians concluded the loss was due to an “accident”—perhaps an error committed by one of her green crewmen. She was about sixteen days out on her first patrol.

Dönitz soon learned through the Red Cross that U-26 was lost and that all hands had been rescued. The loss of this onetime flagship of the U-boat arm was a sentimental wrench, but no surprise; her sister ship, U-25, had been rammed and nearly lost in the same waters only three weeks earlier. Neither of these unsafe, unreliable boats should have been sent to operate in the Western Approaches. However, far worse in terms of military effectiveness was the disappearance without trace of the new boats U-102 and U-122.

The last two boats to sail from Germany in June were the old Type VII U-34, commanded by Wilhelm Rollmann, and the new VIIB U-99, commanded by Otto Kretschmer, age twenty-eight, from the duck U-23, who had sunk six and a half confirmed ships for 22,500 tons, including the British destroyer Daring. For good luck, Kretschmer had welded horseshoes on both sides of the conning tower, but he got off to an unlucky start. Outbound, one of his men fell ill and had to be landed in Bergen. This diversion took U-99 into the path of the damaged Scharnhorst, homebound from Trondheim. Mistaking U-99 for a British submarine, one of Scharnhorst’s scout planes bombed her and forced Kretschmer to return to Germany for repairs.

The U-34 and U-99 reached the Western Approaches in early July. Over the next ten days both skippers found good hunting. Rollmann in U-34 sank an impressive eight ships for 22,400 tons, including the British destroyer Whirlwind and the 2,600-ton Dutch tanker Lucretia. Kretschmer in U-99 sank four confirmed ships for 13,800 tons and claimed another (which could not be verified) for 3,600 tons. He also took a prize, the 2,100-ton Estonian Merisaar, which, however, was sunk by the Luftwaffe en route to Bordeaux. During one of these attacks, British escorts found U-99 and delivered a punishing depth-charge attack (Kretschmer counted 127 explosions) that kept the boat down for eighteen grueling hours and forced it to the unprecedented and terrifying depth of 700 feet.

The loss of U-26, U-102, and U-122 left only four oceangoing boats in the Atlantic in early July: Lemp in U-30 and Salmann in U-52, who had refueled in Spain, Rollmann in U-34 and Kretschmer in U-99, who was out of or low on torpedoes. But these four boats were the first to benefit from an astonishingly swift and efficient move on Dönitz’s part to capitalize on the German occupation of northern France.

Mere hours after the Franco-German armistice had been signed, Dönitz flew to western France to scout locations for U-boat bases on the French Atlantic coast. He chose five sites: Brest, Lorient, St. Nazaire, La Pallice (abutting La Rochelle), and Bordeaux. Meanwhile, his staff loaded a special train with torpedoes, spare parts, and other gear and sent it to Paris. From there the train was routed to Lorient, where an advance party of staff and technicians established the first U-boat base.

Lorient had been a French naval base. Undamaged by the war, it was, in the words of one of the German staffers, “a typically unlovely provincial Breton town.” The better homes were hidden behind high walls shaded by palm trees; all the rest were “huddled together in dirty, narrow, gray streets” and “badly in need of repair.” The staff set up operational headquarters and an officers’ mess in the French Naval Prefecture. Arrangements were made to billet U-boat officers in the Hotel Pigeon Blanc, the enlisted men in the Hotel Bleu Sejour, each of which provided laundry service. Being a navy town, Lorient had numerous cafes and bars and a red-light district.

The four boats left in the Atlantic were directed to put into Lorient. Lemp in U-30 arrived first, on July 7. Salmann in U-52 arrived next. Then Rollmann in U-34, on July 18, and Kretschmer in U-99 on July 21. They were followed by two ducks, U-56 and U-58, which had patrolled over from Bergen.

These U-boat crews preferred basing in Germany, close to families and friends and familiar haunts in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, but they quickly adjusted to the new life in a foreign country. They gorged themselves on French food and alcoholic beverages (wine, champagne, cognac) and enjoyed the company of young French women, many of whom willingly consorted with their conquerors. They traded their reeking heavy winter clothing and oilskins for clean British khakis, which the evacuating Tommies had left behind. Meanwhile, Dönitz arranged for special, luxury railway cars to transport U-boat crews to and from Germany, which were to be available when the facilities in Occupied France were ready to carry out major refits or overhauls.

Counting the four oceangoing boats that reached the Atlantic in May and the sixteen in June, these twenty boats sank ninety-one confirmed ships for about 477,409 tons, including ten tankers. This was an overall average of about 4.3 ships and about 23,000 tons per boat per patrol, far and away the best results in the war to date, the beginning of a brief period the German submariners called “Happy Time.”

Dönitz could be very well pleased with the results of the resumption of the U-boat war in the North Atlantic. Three boats had been lost, but only two of those (the new U-102 and U-122) were militarily significant. For each boat lost, about thirty Allied ships had been sunk, an “exchange” rate comparable to the best months of World War I.

The all-out commitment of the U-boat force in June, however, left Dönitz with no oceangoing boats to sail in July except the four at Lorient, two of which, U-30 and U-52, had reported major engine problems. He was therefore compelled to rely to an unprecedented extent on Bergen-based ducks to patrol the Atlantic approaches to the British Isles.

The May-June slaughter deeply shocked American naval officers in London who were closely observing the U-boat war. Although the overwhelming majority of the merchant ships sunk were sailing alone—unescorted—the Americans, who were unaware of this fact at that time, concluded that to sail merchant ships in thinly escorted convoys was unwise or even foolish. As the U-boat slaughter in the Western Approaches continued into the fall of 1940, the American observers became ever more convinced of this conclusion, a view that was concurred in by the Navy Department in Washington.

Even though these U-boat successes clearly established a need for large numbers of convoy escorts in the event America entered the war, Washington failed to respond to this particular naval challenge. President Roosevelt and the new Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, rejected specific proposals from the Chief of Naval Operations, Harold R. Stark, for a force of suitable escort vessels—even the construction of a prototype. Roosevelt and Knox believed, mistakenly, that when the need actually arose, American industry could quickly mass-produce small, cheap convoy escorts on demand.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!