Military history

THE OCTOBER SLAUGHTER

Still in Paris, on the first day of October 1940, Dönitz had eighteen oceangoing boats under his direct command, ten of them captained by Ritterkreuz holders. But that modest force was to be pared by one-third during the month. Four aged and unreliable Type VIIs were to be withdrawn from combat to the training command, and two VIIBs were to patrol home for extended overhaul and modification. On orders of the OKM, one IXB, U-65, was to make an extended cruise to Freetown, Sierra Leone, replicating U-A’s impressive lone voyage to that area.

To help fill the gap created by these diversions, the OKM directed that most of the Italian boats arriving at Bordeaux were to patrol northward into the zones theretofore reserved for the German boats. Dönitz greeted this decision with skepticism. At Hitler’s personal order, the Italian boats were to remain under operational command of the Italian U-boat chief, Vice Admiral Angelo Perona, in Bordeaux. No Italian boat had ever operated in the cold, rugged North Atlantic; none had trained for the difficult tasks of convoy tracking and pack attacks. Dönitz believed the Italian boats might prove useful for reconnaissance—convoy spotting—but until the skippers and crews had received intensive training under German supervision, he doubted they would make any significant contribution. His skepticism was to be borne out.

Two new boats which had sailed from Germany in late September reached the hunting grounds in early October. One was the VIIB U-103, commanded by Viktor Schütze, who had made several Atlantic patrols in old U-25. The other was the IXB U-123, commanded by Karl-Heinz Moehle, age thirty, from the duck U-20. Both boats were first assigned to weather-reporting duty at 26 degrees west, to indoctrinate the green crews to the Atlantic and to satisfy the demands of the Luftwaffe. On October 6, Schütze in U-103 sank the 7,000-ton Norwegian tanker Nina Borthen; Moehle in U-123 sank a 6,000-ton freighter.

Two days later Dönitz ordered the U-124 (Schulz), outbound from Lorient on his second patrol, to relieve U-103 and U-123 on weather duty. The latter two boats were to form a patrol line west of Rockall Bank with two other boats from Lorient, Liebe’s U-38, which had sunk the 14,100-ton British steamer Highland Patriot, and Bleichrodt’s U-48. Bucking foul, heavy weather, Schütze in U-103 found inbound Slow Convoy 6, from which he sank two ships and damaged another, the 3,700-ton Graigwen. Bedeviled by the mountainous seas and fog, Moehle in U-123 could not find the convoy, but he came across the damaged Graigwen and sank her with a torpedo. Nor could U-38 or U-48 find the convoy.

While searching for Schütze’s convoy, Bleichrodt in U-48 ran straight into another big inbound convoy, Halifax 77. He radioed an alert and beacon signals. Then, in his third well-executed night surface attack in a month, Bleichrodt sank three ships for 21,900 tons, including the 10,000-ton British steamer Port Gisborne and the 7,100-ton Norwegian tanker Davanger. In response to Bleichrodt’s alert, Fritz Frauenheim in U-101, coming up from Lorient, found a straggler from the convoy and sank it.

Farther north, the brand-new U-93, commanded by Claus Korth, age twenty-nine, entered the operating area. Commissioned merely two months earlier, July 30, 1940, the U-93 was the first of the new Type VIICs to reach the Atlantic. The VIICs were nearly identical to the VIIBs, but they were two feet longer and incorporated some internal design and mechanical refinements. The VIIC was to become the standard “production line” medium U-boat.

Korth found convoy Outbound 227 on October 14. He gave the alarm, drawing U-103 (Schütze) and others into the chase. In his attack, Korth in U-93 missed his targeted ships, but hit and sank the 9,300-ton British freighter Hurunui. Coming up, Schütze in U-103 picked off one 4,700-ton ship from this convoy with his last torpedoes, then turned about for Lorient. Korth lost that convoy but found yet another outbound convoy. In two attacks on the night of October 16-17, he again missed his targeted ships but hit and sank two others.

To the south of Korth, Georg-Wilhelm Schulz in U-124 encountered and sank a (1,813-ton) lone British freighter, Trevisa, in the early hours of October 16. Schulz did not know it, but that ship had become separated from Slow Convoy 7, escorted by a single warship, the sloop Scarborough, which was looking for a local escort group comprised of sloops Fowey and Leith and two corvettes. Twenty-four hours later, Bleichrodt in U-48 sighted SC 7, flashed an alert to Dönitz, and immediately attacked, sinking the 9,500-ton British tanker Languedoc, a 3,800-ton British freighter, Scoresby, and damaging a 4,700-ton British freighter. A few hours later, Liebe in U-38 sank by gun and torpedo another ship that had separated from SC 7, the 3,600-ton Greek Aenos. Upon receiving Bleichrodt’s contact report, Dönitz ordered five other boats to converge on the probable course of the convoy. Meanwhile, Bleichrodt in U-48 ran across a westbound British freighter which had separated from an outbound convoy. He chased and sank her, but that action took him too far west to again attack SC 7. Liebe in U-38, believed to be too far north of the convoy, was actually the next to find it, in the early morning hours of October 18. He reported the contact and attacked, damaging the 3,700-ton British freighter Carsbreck.

Based on Liebe’s report, the five boats Dönitz had ordered to attack SC 7 raced to the northeast. On the evening of October 18, all five made contact with SC 7, which had been reinforced by its local escort. That night all U-boats attacked in calm seas by the light of a full “hunter’s moon.” It was a chaotic and confusing battle. Kretschmer in U-99 captured its drama from the U-boat point of view in his log of October 18-19, a legendary document:

1745: Wind, southeast, force 3; sea 3; moderate cloud. U-101 [Frauenheim] which is 2 or 3 miles north, signals by searchlight: ‘Enemy in sight to port.’

1749: A warship is sighted, bearing 030, steering east. Soon afterwards, smoke to left of her. Finally the convoy. While hauling ahead to attack, we sight a steamship in the southeast, apparently on a westerly course.

1928: Submerge for attack.

1950: Surface, as the ship is making off slowly to the east. Haul further ahead: at 2000 [hours] pass within a few hundred meters of a U-boat on the surface, apparently U-101 again.

2024: Another U-boat has torpedoed the ship. Shortly afterwards, exchange recognition signals with U-123 [Moehle]. Convoy again in sight. I am ahead of it, so allow my boat to drop back, avoiding the leading destroyer.* The destroyers are constantly firing starshells. From outside, I attack the right flank of the first formation.

2202: Weather: visibility moderate, bright moonlight. Fire bow torpedo by director. Miss.

2206: Fire stern torpedo by director. At 700 meters, hit forward of amidships. Vessel of some 6,500 tons sinks within 20 seconds. I now proceed head on into the convoy. All ships are zigzagging independently.

2230: Fire bow torpedo by director. Miss because of error in calculation of gyro-angle. I therefore decide to fire the rest of the torpedoes without the director, especially as the installation has still not been accepted and adjusted by the Torpedo Testing Department. Boat is soon sighted by a ship which fires a white star and turns towards us at full speed, continuing even after we alter course. I have to make off with engines all out. Eventually the ship turns off, fires one of her guns and again takes her place in the convoy. I now attack the right flank of the last formation but one.

2330: Fire a bow torpedo at a large freighter. As the ship turns towards us, the torpedo passes ahead of her and hits an even larger ship after a run of 1,740 meters. This ship of some 7,000 tons is hit abreast the foremast, and the bow quickly sinks below the surface, as two holds are apparently flooded.

2355: Fire a bow torpedo at a large freighter of some 6,000 tons, at a range of 750 meters. Hit abreast foremast. Immediately after the torpedo explosion, there is another explosion with a high column of flame from the bow to the bridge. The smoke rises some 200 meters. Bow apparently shattered. Ship continues to burn with a green flame.

0015: Three destroyers approach the ship and search the area in line abreast. I make off at full speed to the southwest and again make contact with the convoy. Torpedoes from the other boats are constantly heard exploding. The destroyers do not know how to help and occupy themselves by constantly firing starshells, which are of little effect in the bright moonlight. I now start to attack the convoy from astern.

0138: Fire bow torpedoes at large heavily-laden freighter of about 6,000 tons, range 945 meters. Hit abreast foremast. The explosion sinks the ship.

0155: Fire bow torpedo at the next large vessel of some 7,000 tons. Range 975 meters. Hit abreast foremast. Ship sinks within 40 seconds.

0240: Miss through aiming error, with torpedo fired at one of the largest vessels of the convoy, a ship of the Glenapp class 9,500 tons.

0255: Again miss the same target from a range of about 800 meters. No explanation, as the fire control data were absolutely correct. Presume it to be a gyro failure, as we hear an explosion on the other side of the convoy some seven minutes later.

0302: Third attempt at the same target from a range of 720 meters. Hit forward of the bridge. Bow sinks rapidly level with the water.

0356: Fire at and miss a rather small, unladen ship, which had lost contact with the convoy. We had fired just as the steamer turned towards us.

0358: Turn off and fire a stern torpedo from a range of 690 meters. Hit aft of amidships. Ship drops astern, somewhat lower in the water. As torpedoes have been expended, I wait to see if she will sink further before I settle her by gunfire.

0504: Ship is sunk by another vessel by gunfire. I suppose it to be a British destroyer, but it later transpires that it was U-123 [Moehle]. Some of her shells land very close, so that I have to leave the area quickly. The ship was Clintonia, 3,106 tons.

No one could ever precisely sort out who sank what from SC 7 that night. Some boats obviously torpedoed—and claimed—the same ships. When Dönitz asked for reports, some boats included ships sunk in earlier actions, adding to the confusion. Based on flash reports while the boats were still at sea, Dönitz concluded that the six boats he believed to have engaged SC 7 had sunk thirty ships for 196,000 tons. In the postwar years, German U-boat scholar Jürgen Rohwer, working in collaboration with the Admiralty, determined that the U-boats had sunk considerably less: twenty ships for 79,646 tons. The comparison:

Four boats in the Atlantic that were out of torpedoes or low on fuel headed for Lorient. Kretschmer in U-99 arrived on October 23, having been out but nine days—the shortest war patrol on record. Frauenheim in U-101 came in the next day, having been out only twenty days. Kretschmer got a new load of torpedoes, topped off his fuel tanks, and resailed a week later, October 30, the fastest turnaround time yet recorded at Lorient. Apparently exhausted, Ritterkreuz holder Fritz Frauenheim, who had overclaimed by five ships for 42,200 tons, left U-101 and went to the training command.

Günther Prien in U-47, who had sailed from Lorient too late to engage in the action with SC 7, arrived in the hunting grounds on October 19. Within mere hours he found the large, heavily escorted inbound convoy Halifax 79. In response to his alert, Dönitz directed four other boats to converge on Prien and attack.

A second savage convoy battle ensued on the night of October 19-20. All five boats tore into the formation, shooting left, right, and center, also hitting ships hit by others. Fresh from Lorient with a full load of torpedoes and fuel, Prien was the most aggressive shooter, claiming eight ships for 50,500 tons. Based on flash reports, Dönitz concluded that the other four boats sank an additional nine ships for a grand total of seventeen ships for 113,100 tons. The confirmed total was also much less. Again, it was difficult to establish who had sunk what. Dönitz’s credits and Rohwer’s postwar analysis:

* Shared credit for two ships with U-46 and U-48.

Dönitz and the Berlin propagandists groped for adjectives to gloat over these successes. Combining the attacks on SC 7 and Halifax 79 into one prolonged battle (“The Night of the Long Knives”), Dönitz logged that eight U-boats, manned by about 300 men, had sunk forty-seven ships for 310,000 tons, “a colossal success.” The propagandists credited Prien with his claim of 50,500 tons, elevating his credited total to 200,000 tons, a new milestone for a single skipper, which drew a telegram of congratulations from Hitler and yet another exalted award: a cluster of Oak Leaves to his Ritterkreuz. Credited with sinking 105,396 tons in two brief patrols on U-48 (plus the sloop Dundee), Bleichrodt earned a Ritterkreuz. Frauenheim in U-101 was credited with 51,000 tons; Kretschmer in U-99 with 45,000 tons; Moehle in U-123 with 44,500 tons; and Schepke in U-100 with 34,200 tons.

When Bleichrodt in U-48 was awarded the Ritterkreuz, an unusual problem arose. He refused to wear the medal unless a Ritterkreuz was also presented to Reinhard Suhren, age twenty-four, who had been the first watch officer on U-48 since the beginning of the war. The U-48’s total bag then stood at a record 42½ ships for 244,411 tons. Bleichrodt insisted that Suhren was deserving of the medal because he had fired torpedoes from the bridge that had accounted for at least 200,000 of the tons. Bleichrodt’s case was strengthened by the fact that Viktor Oehrn in U-37 had recently obtained a Ritterkreuz for another nonskipper, Suhren’s older brother Gerd, the engineer on the U-37, who had kept the boat running in spite of numerous defects. Dönitz agreed with Bleichrodt, and Reinhard Suhren got his medal.*

The numbers pouring out of Berlin were dizzying and inflated. Nonetheless, there was no denying that SC 7 and Halifax 79 had been savaged. The nine boats engaged in those actions had sunk a total of thirty-three confirmed ships for 154,709 tons. The Allied losses included five big, valuable, fully loaded tankers: the British Longuedoc, Shirak, Caprella, and Sitala, and the Swede Janus. In addition, Prien had severely damaged another big British tanker.

Three of the five boats engaged in the attack on Halifax 79 returned to Lorient: U-38 (Liebe), U-47 (Prien), merely eight days out, and U-100 (Schepke), merely eleven days out. The other two, U-46 (Endrass) and U-48 (Bleichrodt), proceeded to Germany for scheduled yard overhauls and modifications. While passing near the coast of Norway on October 25, Endrass in U-46 was caught on the surface by three Hudson aircraft of Coastal Command Squadron 233. One aircraft, piloted by Arthur T. Maudsley and a Canadian, Everett Baudoux, was riddled by U-46 gunners but dropped ten 100-pound bombs; another, flown by Pilot Officer Winnicott, dropped two 250-pound bombs; the bombs of the third plane, commanded by Pilot Officer Walsh, failed to release. The bombs fell close, inflicting severe damage on U-46 and fatally injuring one crewman. Unable to dive, Endrass limped into Kris-tiansand, Norway, escorted by the German minesweeper M-18. From there he went on to Germany with an air and surface escort. The high-scoring U-46 and U-48 were to remain in German shipyards for the next three months.

Relieved of weather reporting, Georg-Wilhelm Schulz in U-124 was directed to patrol against shipping. On October 20, he intercepted convoy Outbound 229 and sank two big freighters for 11,000 tons. In return, the escorts pounded U-124 with a prolonged and dogged depth-charge attack, the second for the boat in as many patrols. When the cook pointed out that both depth-charge attacks had occurred on the day he served chocolate pudding, Schulz banned that dessert on U-124. Cruising east to fill the void northwest of Rockall Bank, Schulz expended the rest of his torpedoes to sink two more lone ships, then headed for Lorient, having put down a total of five confirmed ships for 20,000 tons, in what Dönitz praised as a “well-executed” patrol.

The four old Type VIIs in Lorient, crammed with French goodies for families and friends, sailed home to the training command in October. Outbound from Lorient the U-31 (Prellberg) was attacked for the third time by an enemy submarine, but evaded. The U-29 (Schuhart), plagued with engine problems, was diverted to the Bay of Biscay to escort the inbound German merchant-ship raider Widder (which had sunk or captured ten ships for 58,645 tons) into Brest, and resailed later. The U-28, U-31, and U-32 patrolled homeward through British waters in heavy, foul weather.

On October 26 a Luftwaffe plane attacked and set on fire the huge 42,348-ton British ocean liner Empress of Britain off the northwest coast of Ireland. Upon learning of the attack—and that the ship was being salvaged—Dönitz directed U-28, U-31, and U-32 to find and sink her.

Prellberg in U-31 was most ideally positioned to intercept the Empress, but Ritterkreuz holder Hans Jenisch in U-32 poached into Prellberg’s area in the early hours of October 28 and found her first. Two seagoing tugs had the Empress in tow; two destroyers provided escort. Jenisch lay doggo on the surface in the dark, allowing the destroyers and tugs to pass, then coolly fired a fan of three torpedoes at Empress from a point-blank range of 656 yards. Two hit, and the Empress went down—the largest ship sunk in the war to then. Berlin propagandists released the news that same day, glorifying Jenisch as the shooter and crediting him with a grand total of 146,816 tons.*

Two days later, on October 30, in rainy and foggy weather, Jenisch found a lone British freighter, Balzac, and attacked submerged, firing one torpedo, which prematured close aboard. Believing she was being shelled, Balzac broadcast an alarm, which brought up two British destroyers, Harvester and Highlander. Unaware of the destroyers, Jenisch attempted a second submerged attack on Balzac. Harvester spotted U-32’s periscope and turned to ram, but when Jenisch saw the destroyer, he broke off the attack and went deep. Fixing U-32 on sonar, Harvester ran in and dropped six depth charges, all wide. Highlander followed with a salvo of fourteen.

Some of Highlander’s charges exploded close to U-32, knocking out the electric motors and rupturing the stern ballast tank and high-pressure air lines. After assessing the damage, Jenisch rushed all hands to the bow compartment to take the up angle off the boat and surfaced on diesel power, hoping to escape in the rain and darkness. But Harvester and Highlander spotted the boat with searchlights and opened fire at point-blank range with 4.7” guns and machine guns. Upon learning that all high-pressure air lines were ruptured and the boat could not dive, Jenisch gave orders to abandon ship and scuttle. Harvester and Highlander fished thirty-three survivors from the icy waters, including Jenisch. Nine of the crew perished.

The British were glad to have captured Jenisch and most of his crew, the first U-boat POWs to be recovered after those of U-26, four months earlier. British propagandists hastened to boast of capturing a U-boat “ace” (or Ritterkreuz holder), stressing that Jenisch had sunk the Empress of Britain. In a vain attempt to undercut the British—and perhaps to reassure the German public—Berlin propagandists promptly and vehemently denied the claim. To buttress their denial, the Germans resorted to the bizarre step of broadcasting a fictional account of Jenisch’s “victorious homecoming,” including a detailed firsthand report from “Jenisch,” describing His sinking of the Empress.

Resuming his voyage home, Prellberg in U-31 found an outbound convoy and chased it westward. At that time there were four Italian boats patrolling near the path of the convoy and three more approaching the area. Dönitz relayed word to the seven Italian boats through his liaison in Bordeaux, Hans-Rudolf Rösing, but none of the Italian boats found the convoy and Prellberg soon lost it in the foul weather. Breaking off the chase, Prellberg came upon the abandoned hulk of the 5,400-ton British freighter Matina, torpedoed earlier by Kuhnke’s homebound U-28. Prellberg shot five torpedoes at the drifting hulk; three missed, but two hit and she went down.

On the morning of November 2 Prellberg spotted a British destroyer and crash-dived. Intending to attack the destroyer, Prellberg went to battle stations and commenced tracking, but the seas were too heavy to fire torpedoes. His would-be victim was Antelope, which had single-handedly sunk U-41 in February and was then maintaining an alert watch.

Picking up U-31 on sonar, Antelope immediately carried out a “pounce attack,” firing a full pattern of six depth charges. At the same time, she broadcast an alert, which brought up the destroyer Achates, but the sonar set on Achates failed. Carrying on alone, Antelope conducted a second attack, dropping another six depth charges which severely jarred the boat, but did no serious damage. Prellberg skillfully evaded Antelope for the next two hours, but the destroyer found him again and carried out another carefully organized attack, dropping another pattern of six depth charges, followed immediately by three more.

Antelope’s third and fourth attacks fatally damaged U-31. The charges ruptured the stern ballast tanks, flooded the after tube and main induction, leaving the boat with a steep up-angle. In an attempt to regain the trim, Prellberg packed every available man into the bow compartment, but this had no effect and U-31 slid down by the stern to 311 feet. The boat’s engineer believed he could overcome the damage but, as Prellberg later told the British, he believed “a hero’s death to be an overrated gesture” and ordered the engineer to surface and scuttle.

When Antelope saw U-31, she opened fire and lowered away a whaleboat, intending to board and capture secret documents. But U-31, with sea cocks open, was making speed on her electric motors and the whaleboat could not catch up. While Prellberg and his men were diving over the side into the heavy seas, Antelope resumed gunfire and attempted to come alongside U-31 in order to board. But the flooding and unmanned U-31 suddenly turned sharply to port and rammed Antelope, holing two fuel tanks and a boiler room and causing other damage. The collision, however, pushed U-31 over. Flooding through the conning-tower hatch, she sank like a stone.

The Antelope whaleboat fished Prellberg and forty-three others of the forty-five-man crew from the water. One panicked U-31 crewman, who “had used [up] his energy by continually screaming,” the British diagposed, fell into a coma and died aboard Antelope. During subsequent interrogation of the survivors, the British learned that U-31 had been sunk earlier off Wilhelmshaven by a British aircraft and salvaged. She had earned the dubious distinction of being the only U-boat in the war to be “sunk twice.”

Only one of the four old Type VIIs that had set off for Germany in October got there on schedule: Kuhnke’s U-28. Under his command, the U-28 had sunk a total of thirteen and a half confirmed ships for 59,000 tons. Ritterkreuz holder Kuhnke turned the boat over to the training command and went on to commission a new boat. The other homebound Type VII, Schuhart’s U-29—the last Type VII to serve in the combat zone—finally got home in early December, after a stint at weather reporting. Under Ritterkreuz holder Schuhart, U-29 had sunk twelve confirmed ships for 84,588 tons, including the carrier Courageous, but none on her final patrol. Schuhart went to a job in the training command. Partly as a result of their many defects, the ten Type VIIs had lasted only about one year in the Atlantic.

During September and October, four Emsmann Flotilla ducks patrolled home via North Channel to join the training command. Two of the four, U-58 and U-59, sank three ships for 17,500 tons; the others had no luck. Two of the new Type IID ducks patrolled from Germany to Lorient via North Channel to temporarily replace the withdrawing ducks. Both had great success. Outbound to Lorient, the U-137, commanded by Herbert Wohlfarth, age twenty-five, from the old duck U-14 (on which he had sunk nine confirmed ships), sank three ships for 12,000 tons, including the 4,753-ton British tanker Stratford, and damaged a 5,000-ton freighter. On a second patrol from Lorient, Wohlfarth hit the 10,500-ton auxiliary cruiser Cheshire, putting her out of action for six months. Outbound to Lorient, the U-138, commanded by Wolfgang Lüth, from the duck U-9 (on which he had sunk or captured eight confirmed ships), sank four ships for 34,600 tons, including the 13,900-ton British tanker New Sevilla, during a single and remarkable three-hour night surface action. On a second patrol from Lorient, Lüth sank a 5,300-ton British freighter and damaged a 7,000-ton British tanker. Believing the latter had sunk, Dönitz credited Lüth with a total score (on U-9 and U-138) of 87,236 tons,* plus the French submarine Doris, and awarded him a Ritterkreuz—the only commander of a duck to be so honored—and promoted him to command the lackluster Type IX U-43, in Lorient.

The four Bordeaux-based Italian boats that pioneered the way into the rugged North Atlantic performed poorly, as expected. One, Malaspina, reported and attacked a convoy, but her skipper, Mario Leoni, missed and—worse—failed to radio the convoy’s course and speed. As a result, Dönitz was not able to direct other Italian or German boats to the scene. Moreover, it was discovered that Italian operations were restricted by a design flaw in the boats. They were not equipped with external main air-induction pipes for the diesel engines. The air for the diesels was drawn through the conning-tower hatch, which had to be open at all times when the boat was on the surface. In the rough Atlantic, torrents of seawater spilled down the hatch, flooding poorly located electrical panels in the control room.*

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