Military history


Facing the second year of the war and fully aware of the tightening bond between the United States and Great Britain, Dönitz was a frustrated warrior. He had not once wavered from his belief that Great Britain could only be defeated by a massive U-boat assault. He viewed the preparations for a possible invasion of the British Isles—and rumors of secret preparations for an attack on the Soviet Union—as ludicrous diversions of resources from the main task.

Hitler had promised U-boats—hundreds of U-boats—but Hitler had not delivered. When push came to shove for steel and other materials, the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe consistently took precedence. Moreover, preparations for the invasion of Britain (conversion of river barges to landing craft, etc.) had diverted labor and matériel from the U-boat construction program. Dönitz complained to Raeder and the OKM that twenty-three oceangoing boats had been delayed four to six months because of a shortage of torpedo tubes. As a result of this bottleneck—and others—the modest production schedule of U-boats for 1940 had fallen behind by thirty-seven boats. Besides that, Dönitz warned, unless emergency steps were taken, the U-boat arm would run out of torpedoes in October.

Under intense pressure from Dönitz, Admiral Raeder had a showdown meeting with Hitler. Perhaps by that time Hitler realized the Luftwaffe was losing the Battle of Britain, that an invasion was out of the question, and that the war with Britain could not be won without massive numbers of U-boats. Whatever the case (documentation is lacking), Hitler at last emphatically and explicitly granted highest possible priority (“Special Stage,” replacing the overused “First Priority”) to U-boat and submarine torpedo construction, and to U-boat maintenance and repair and training.

Hitler also raised the possibility of stopgap assistance from an ally. Benito Mussolini had offered to send thirty oceangoing submarines to operate in the Atlantic, provided Hitler would permit them to base in German-occupied Bordeaux. Dönitz was skeptical. Word of the Italian submarine fiasco in June—especially the craven surrender of Galileo to a British trawler—had reached the U-boat arm. Nonetheless the offer could hardly be refused.

Dönitz had to be encouraged by news of the Hitler-approved U-boat construction program, to be carried out with “Special Stage” priority. It envisioned a production rate of twenty-five U-boats a month by December 1941, merely fifteen months away. If those numbers were realized, it seemed possible that the naval war with Great Britain could be won in 1943. But Dönitz had no knowledge of the fabulous cavity magnetron, nor of the Turing-Welchman bombes, nor of the miniaturization of radar and HF/DF (Huff Duff) to fit on small vessels, nor had he any inkling of the ability of the U.S. Maritime Commission to mobilize merchant-ship construction on a truly immense scale.

The turning point in the Battle of Britain occurred on September 15,* when RAF Fighter Command decisively Repulsed a massive Luftwaffe attack, claiming 183 kills. The confirmed kill was only about one-third that number, but the blow was a crushing setback for the exhausted and riddled Luftwaffe. Two days later, Hitler officially postponed the invasion of England (Sea Lion) and intensified secret planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union (Barbarossa) in the spring of 1941.

Through the winter of 1940 the war against Great Britain was waged by the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. The Luftwaffe shifted to night bombing of British cities (“The Blitz”). The Kriegsmarine continued the campaign against British shipping by U-boats, a few warship and merchant-ship raiders, torpedo boats, and surface-ship minelayers. The oceangoing U-boat force continued to bear the burden of the naval war.

In preparation for the invasion, Dönitz had moved U-boat headquarters to a spartan building in Paris, linked to a superb radio net. When the invasion was canceled, he directed the staff to prepare to move onward to Lorient. But the move was delayed until adequate communications facilities could be established in Lorient. In the interim, Dönitz—promoted to vice admiral—directed the boats from his Paris headquarters and conferred at length, either in Paris or Lorient, with every skipper within hours of his return from war patrol.

Dönitz commenced the second year of submarine warfare with twenty-four commissioned oceangoing boats, three fewer than the day the war began, and only about half of that number fully combat-ready. The other half included four brand-new boats in workup and unavailable for combat; two trained but green boats which had not yet made war patrols; the U-A, returned from her long—but very successful—voyage to West Africa in need of drastic modifications; the Type VII U-31, salvaged and recommissioned but an unknown quantity; three marginal Type VIIs; three aging Type IXs; and the VIIB U-52 in the shipyard for overhaul.

It was not much of a force to wage a submarine war. But Dönitz had some factors working in his favor. The bases at Lorient and St. Nazaire were fully staffed and capable of providing fast refits. The torpedoes (with British-type impact pistols) were more dependable; the shortage of torpedoes was being overcome by emergency measures. Most of the constricting rules of warfare had been rescinded. The first group of big Italian oceangoing submarines had arrived in Bordeaux.* The codebreakers at B-dienst had established the general pattern of the inbound and outbound North Atlantic convoys. The convoys were thinly escorted and other ASW measures had been reduced to a minimum.

Although the inbound and outbound North Atlantic convoys sailed on predictable schedules through a relatively restricted area in the Northwest Approaches, the experience of August had shown that those convoys were not all that easy to find. The British varied the sailing routes, going north or south of Rockall Bank, and diverted around locations where convoys were under attack or where a U-boat had been seen or DFed. With so few boats to patrol, Dönitz could cover only a few of the possible routes and still keep the boats close enough to one another to mount pack attacks. Since the boats could not “see” or “hear” for more than a few miles, and less in unfavorable weather, many convoys had slipped by undetected.

To assist in convoy spotting, Dönitz had appealed to the Luftwaffe for aerial reconnaissance near Rockall Bank. Two “naval” air gruppes, basing in France, were designated for that purpose. However, the Luftwaffe, fully committed to the Blitz, to air-dropping newly produced “acoustic” mines in British seaports, and to other missions, had not yet provided assistance. “Despite all my endeavors,” Dönitz complained in his diary, the Luftwaffe “reported no forces available for this task.”

Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, Commander in Chief U-boats from September 28, 1935, to January 30, 1943, and of the German Navy from January 30, 1943, to May I, 1945, when he succeeded Adolf Hitler as chief of state.

Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander in Chief of the German Navy from October 1, 1928 to January 30, 1943.

Admiral Percy L. H. Noble. Commander in Chief Western Approaches from February 17, 1941, to November 19, 1942.

Winston S. Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty from September 3, 1939, to May 10, 1940, thereafter Prime Minister, and Alfred Dudley Pickman Rogers Pound, First Sea Lord from June 12, 1939, to his death in office on October 15, 1943.

Surprise unveiling of the reborn U-boat arm in 1935. These small U-boats are new Type II “Ducks,” used mostly as school boats.

A nest of U-boats showing clearly the difference in size of the Type VII and the larger Type IX, one of which is moored outboard in the front row. For additional information, see the contrasting cutaways.

Preparing for a war patrol, a German submariner finds a cramped writing nook in the bow torpedo room, which is festooned with sausages, cheese, bread, and other food.

Loading a torpedo into the bow room. Standard German torpedoes were 23½ feet long, 21 inches in diameter, and weighed 3.383 pounds. Including four missiles in the torpedo tubes, the usual war load forward in the Type VII and Type IX was ten.

The Commander in Chief U-boats and the boats at sea kept in touch by means of radio transmissions, encoded and decoded on a naval Enigma machine. This is a “four-rotor” naval Enigma, on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Ready and eager for action in the Atlantic, the Type VII U-564 sails for a war cruise.

The British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, where Günther Prien in U-47 sank the battleship Royal Oak.

Günther Prien, Germany’s most celebrated U-boat skipper. He sank 189,156 tons of Allied shipping to rank third in tonnage among all skippers. Killed in action March 1941.

Otto Schuhart in U-29 hit the British aircraft carrier Courageous, shown here mere moments before she sank.

A Type Vll in the rough waters of the North Atlantic, seeking victims.

Herbert Schultze. skipper of U-48 who sank 183,432 tons, to rank fifth.

Joachim Schepke, skipper of U-100, who sank 155,882 tons to rank thirteenth. Killed in action March 1941.

Otto Kretschmer, the “Tonnage King,” who sank forty-five ships for 269,872 tons to rank number one among all German skippers. Captured by the British from his sinking boat, U-99, in March 1941, he spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.

Hit by a U-boat torpedo, an unidentified Allied tanker sinks beneath the waves.

Heinrieh Lehmann-Willenbroek, skipper of U-96, who sank 183,223 tons to rank sixth. He was depicted, fictionally, in Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel, TV miniseries, and feature film Das Boot.

Adalbert Schnee, skipper of U-201, won fame and high decorations for bold attacks on Allied convoys. He sank twenty ships and damaged several others.

Reinhard Suhren, tabled executive officer of U-48 and later skipper of U-564. The skippers of U-48 credited Suhren with aiming and firing the torpedoes that accounted for over 200,000 tons of Allied shipping.

Jürgen Oeslen, skipper of the Type IXB U-106, sank ten ships and damaged the British battleship Malaya.

Eitel-Friedrieh Kentrat, skipper of U-74, returning to base after a successful cruise.

The unlucky Type IXC U-154, homebound from a patrol in tropical waters, floats over spare torpedoes to the lucky U-564.

A German Focke-Wulf 200 Condor, military version of a prewar airliner. Based in France to scout out Allied convoys for the benefit of the U-boats, the Condors were much feared by the Allies but, in reality, achieved little.

British warships capture the Type IXB U-110, May 9, 1941. The attempt to tow her to port failed and she sank, but not before an Allied boarding party got her naval Enigma machine, codebooks, and other priceless intelligence booty.

The Type IXB U-109 returning from a war cruise.

Safely berthed in the massive U-boat pens at St. Nazaire, Occupied France, two Type VIIs undergo refits.

When Hitler indefinitely postponed the invasion of England in mid-September, two oceangoing boats of the August group were still on patrol: U-47 (Prien) on weather-reporting station at 20 degrees west longitude, and U-65 (von Stockhausen). Ready or not for combat, twelve oceangoing boats sailed in September: five from Germany and seven from Lorient. All were assigned to interdict North Atlantic convoys in the Northwest Approaches, attacking whenever possible at night on the surface to avoid being pinned down by escorts and, at the same time, radioing contact reports and beacon signals to bring in other boats.

The Ritterkreuz holder Otto Kretschmer in U-99 was the first to sail from Lorient. To help indoctrinate Italian submarine skippers in Atlantic warfare, Kretschmer took along Primo Longobardo, skipper of the Torelli. Near Rockall Bank Kretschmer promptly sank two medium-size freighters, one British, one Norwegian. Alerted by von Stockhausen in U-65, who had found an inbound convoy, Halifax 71, and had sunk two ships from it, Hird and Tregenna, Kretschmer closed on the scattering convoy and picked off another medium-size British freighter, Crown Arun.

The famous, record-holding U-48 left Lorient behind Kretschmer. She had yet another new skipper, her third in a year. He was Heinrich Bleichrodt, age thirty, replacing Ritterkreuz holder Hans-Rudolf Rösing, whom Dönitz had sent to Bordeaux to work with the Italian submarine command. On September 15, near Rockall Bank, Bleichrodt intercepted an inbound convoy, SC 3. In his first attack as skipper, Bleichrodt assured U-48’s first-place standing by sinking four ships for 12,500 tons, including one of the escorts, the sloop Dundee, but no other boats made contact.

Proceeding westward, beyond the escort “chop line” at 17 degrees west longitude, on the morning of September 18 Bleichrodt found an unescorted outbound convoy. He tracked the ships during the daylight hours and attacked in bright moonlight on the surface. For his first target he chose a large “passenger ship” in the center of the convoy. He fired two torpedoes at her, but both were poorly aimed and missed. In a second attack, he fired one torpedo at the “passenger ship” and one at a 5,000-ton freighter. Both torpedoes hit and both ships sank.

The “passenger ship” was the convoy flagship, the 11,000-ton British liner City of Benares, crowded with 400 passengers. Among these were ninety English children who were being resettled in Canada to escape the Blitz. In the rush to abandon the sinking ship in darkness and heavy seas, the crew let go some lifeboats haphazardly. These crashed down upon others, killing or throwing passengers or crew into the icy waters, and holing some boats. Some lifeboats drifted for many days before they were found. Altogether about 300 passengers—including seventy-seven of the ninety children—died in the sinking.

Although the City of Benares was unmarked and darkened, and the Admiralty had not requested safe passage for her, the cries of outrage (“Hitler’s foulest deed”) from London for this sinking exceeded those evoked by the sinking of Athenia a year earlier. The impact was heightened by the release of the grim lifeboat stories of the thirteen surviving children. As a result of this tragedy and the near-disaster on the liner Volendam three weeks earlier, the British government canceled the Children’s Overseas Resettlement Scheme. Having no idea of the pain and suffering he had caused, Bleichrodt went on to sink yet another British freighter the following night, bringing his total bag to seven confirmed ships for 31,800 tons sunk within four days, another new record for U-48.

Still at his weather-reporting station, on September 20 Günther Prien in U-47 was nearly run down by the forty-ship convoy, Halifax 72. Having only one torpedo left, Prien broadcast an alert to Dönitz and abandoned his weather station to track the convoy. Upon receiving the alert, Dönitz directed five other boats—all from Lorient—to converge on Prien’s beacon signals. The five boats found Prien on the night of September 21, forming a pack of six, the largest number of U-boats ever concentrated against a convoy.

The boats attacked doggedly over a period of about twenty-six hours. Bleichrodt in U-48 went in first. Firing his last torpedoes, he sank a 4,400-ton British freighter and damaged another. He then replaced Prien as the convoy “shadower,” radioing beacon signals and position reports. Kretschmer in U-99 attacked next, damaging Elmbank and sinking two British ships, the 9,200-ton tanker Inver-shannon and the 3,700-ton freighter Baron Blythswood* Prien came up to fire his one remaining torpedo, but it malfunctioned or missed. He then joined Kretschmer for a joint gun attack to sink the damaged Elmbank. On the second night, Joachim Schepke in U-100 boldly maneuvered on the surface into the center of the convoy. In one of the most astonishing and fruitful U-boat attacks of the war, Schepke sank seven confirmed ships for 50,300 tons, in a mere four hours. His victims included the 10,000-ton British tankers Torinia and Frederick S. Fales. Hans Jenisch in U-32 damaged a 7,900-ton freighter, but von Stockhausen’s attack failed.

Based on reports from the boats and B-dienst intercepts, Dönitz believed the pack had sunk thirteen ships of the convoy, thus for the first time emphatically validating his tactical theories. The confirmed score was not far off: eleven ships for 72,700 tons sunk and two damaged for 13,000 tons.

While five of the six boats of the pack were inbound to Lorient, Dönitz and Berlin propagandists hastened to gloat over the victory and shower fulsome praise and awards on the skippers. Dönitz credited Prien in U-47 with sinking 43,130 tons on this patrol, bringing his credited total to twenty-four ships for 151,400 tons. That tied Rollmann in numbers of ships credited, but put Prien ahead of Rollmann by about 25,000 in tonnage. Overcredited with one sinking, for a total of eight ships for 61,300 tons on this patrol, counting past claims, Joachim Schepke in U-100 qualified for a Ritterkreuz. Also overcredited with one sinking, for a total of nine ships for 61,300 tons, Bleichrodt in U-48 received unstinting praise. Otto Kretschmer in U-99 was accurately credited six and a half ships for 22,600 tons.*

The first three boats to sail from Germany in September were aging clunkers: the VII U-29, commanded by Ritterkreuz holder Otto Schuhart; the salvaged and recommissioned VII U-31, commanded by Wilfred Prellberg, age twenty-seven; and the IX U-43, commanded by the old hand Wilhelm Ambrosius, returning to the Atlantic after three months of battle-damage repairs. Outbound, two of the three boats were compelled to abort temporarily to Bergen: U-29 with periscope problems, U-43 with leaks.

After reaching the Atlantic, Schuhart in U-29 came upon convoy Outbound 217. He gave the alarm and tracked, bringing up the nearby U-31 (Prellberg) and U-43 (Ambrosius). Schuhart and Ambrosius sank one British freighter each, but Prellberg’s torpedoes malfunctioned or missed. Thereafter, Schuhart in U-29 had an engine malfunction and was forced to abort to Lorient. Several days later, Prellberg in U-31 found another outbound convoy, from which he sank a ship, but a second attack was thwarted by an Allied submarine escorting the convoy, which drove off U-31 with a salvo of torpedoes. Also forced to abort with mechanical problems, while approaching Lorient Prellberg was attacked by another Allied submarine (Trident) and very nearly sunk. Ambrosius in U-43conducted what Dönitz characterized as an “unsatisfactory” patrol, and upon arrival in Lorient he was sent to command a training flotilla in the Baltic.

Responding to Schuhart’s report of the outbound convoy, a Lorient boat, U-32 (Jenisch), which had just sunk a ship traveling alone, found convoy Outbound 217 on September 26. Jenisch torpedoed the 6,900-ton British freighter Corrientes, and doggedly clung to the convoy, going ever westward. The abandoned Corrientes did not sink, but two days later another Lorient boat, Oehrn’s U-37, found the hulk and put it under with gunfire and a torpedo. Pursuing the convoy far to the west, Jenisch sank two more ships from it near 25 degrees west longitude, as well as four more ships on his return leg to Lorient. Crediting Jenisch with sinking eight ships for 42,644 tons on this patrol, Dönitz awarded him a Ritterkreuz.

After polishing off the hulk Corrientes, Oehrn in U-37 sank five other ships for 23,200 tons, including the 7,000-ton tanker British General, giving him a confirmed score of twenty-three and a half ships for 101,414 tons, for which he was awarded a Ritterkreuz. Upon his return to Lorient, Oehrn relinquished command of U-37 and resumed his former job as first staff officer to Dönitz, replacing Werner Hartmann, who was itching to return to sea with a new boat.*

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