While Dönitz took leave in the month of January 1941, his chief of staff, Eberhard Godt, directed the U-boat war.
At the beginning of the year, four December boats were still on patrol, two on weather-reporting station. These four were joined by five others: two new IXBs, U-105 and U-106, which sailed from Germany, and three boats from Lorient. All were handicapped by winter darkness and by a seemingly endless parade of brutal storms. The only Ritterkreuz holder on patrol, Heinrich Liebe in the aging Type IX U-38, who had sunk two ships in December (sharing one with Tazzoli), incurred “heavy” depth-charge damage and was forced to abort to Lorient. At mid-month there were seven U-boats in the North Atlantic and a number of Italian boats, including Torelli, commanded by Primo Longobardo, who had trained in combat under Otto Kretschmer in U-99.
The hunting continued to be very poor. The glancing attack by Hipper on the military convoy on Christmas Day and the hideous weather had led the British to delay again the sailing of Halifax convoys. For example, when convoy Halifax 103 was ready to put to sea, the bad weather forced thirty-one ships to abort the voyage. In the whole month of January, only 243 ships crossed from Canada to the British Isles in convoys, 170 of them in Halifax convoys, seventy-three in Slow Convoys.
In the first half of January, Axis submarines in the North Atlantic sank only six ships, all sailing alone or stragglers from storm-tossed convoys. Primo Longobardo in Torelli accounted for three of the sinkings for 12,291 tons, the most successful patrol by an Italian submarine to then. The new Type IXB U-105, commanded by Georg Schewe, age thirty-one, from the duck U-60, sank the 4,800-ton British freighter Bassano. The new IXB U-106, commanded by Jürgen Oesten, age twenty-eight, from the duck U-61, sank the 10,600-ton British freighter Zealandic. The promising new skipper, Georg-Wilhelm Schulz in U-124, sank the 6,000-ton British freighter Empire Thunder, an exasperating and near-fatal victory requiring the expenditure of five torpedoes. The first two missed, the third hit, and the fourth missed and circled back, missing U-124 by “a few meters.”*The fifth hit and finally sank the ship. After thirty-eight miserable days at sea, Schulz returned to Lorient in ill humor.
At this time, a third Italian boat was lost in the North Atlantic. She was the Nani, commanded by Gioacchino Polizzi. She was sunk on January 7 by depth charges from the British corvette Anemone. There were no survivors from this boat either.
One of the new VIICs, U-96, commanded by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock who had sunk five ships on his first patrol, sailed from Lorient on January 9, after merely twelve days in port. He arrived off Rockall Bank on January 16, and that day and the next U-96 found and attacked two big British freighters, which were sailing unescorted: one for 14,118 tons and one for 15,000 tons.
Lehmann-Willenbrock expended all twelve torpedoes to sink these ships and returned to Lorient on January 22, having been out only fourteen days. His score of 29,000 tons sunk was far and away the best performance by any U-boat in the month of January.
In conformance with Hitler’s personal order, Luftwaffe gruppe 40, based in Bordeaux, commenced convoy-spotting in January. An average of two Condors per day patrolled the area near Rockall Bank. The airmen found convoys on January 11, 16, and 20, but owing to the unfavorable weather, the scarcity of U-boats, and the incorrect position reports from the Condors, Godt was not able to put a single boat in contact with any of the convoys. When it was discovered that the position reporting from the Condors could not be relied upon, the airmen were directed to shadow the convoys and send beacon signals to home in the U-boats.
Another six boats sailed in the second half of January: four from Lorient, including the IXB U-103, commanded by Ritterkreuz holder Viktor Schütze, and two from Germany. The latter were the record-holding VIIB, U-48, once more under command of Ritterkreuz holder Herbert Schultze, and the new IXB U-107. The last was commanded by Dönitz’s son-in-law Günter Hessler, age thirty-one, who had married Ursula Dönitz in November 1937 and had joined the U-boat arm in April 1940. These boats, too, found poor hunting. The Condors spotted convoys on January 26, 28, and 30, but owing to failures in communications and other factors, none of the U-boats could be brought into play.
In the waning days of this frustrating month, on January 29, a Lorient VIIC, U-93, commanded by Claus Korth, ran into the heavily escorted inbound Slow Convoy 19. Upon receiving Korth’s report, Godt ordered all boats in the vicinity—and the Condors—to home and close on beacon signals from U-93. Meanwhile, Korth attacked, sinking three ships for 21,300 tons, including the 10,500-ton British tanker W. B. Walker. Herbert Kuppisch in U-94 came up and sank two straggling freighters. Oesten in U-106 sank another straggler. An escort, the crack British destroyer Antelope, which had sunk U-31 and U-41, mistook an empty life raft for the U-boat and rammed it, botching the counterattack.
Dönitz returned from leave February 1. By then the active “aces” were prepared to resume the Battle of the Atlantic. Herbert Schultze in U-48 and Viktor Schütze in U-103 were already in the hunting grounds. Günther Prien, Otto Kretschmer, and Wolfgang Lüth were in Lorient, preparing their boats for combat. Fritz-Julius Lemp, Joachim Schepke, and Engelbert Endrass were in Germany, also preparing their boats for combat. If all went well, by the end of the month all eight “aces” who still commanded U-boats were to be back in action.
All did not go well, however. In Lorient on February 4, Wolfgang Lüth’s U-43 mysteriously flooded and sank at dockside, knocking the boat out of action for three months. A court of inquiry found that a ballast-tank vent valve had been left open by mistake. The court blamed the first and second watch officers, Hinrich-Oskar Bernbeck and Erwin Witte, and ordered them to pay for the repairs out of savings and salaries(!). In Germany, the intense cold and a sudden onset of heavy Baltic ice delayed the overhaul of Schepke’s U-100 and the workup of Lemp’s new boat, the IXB U-110*
Counting six new boats that were to sail from Germany, Dönitz had eighteen boats to deploy in February. Notwithstanding the terrible weather and the paltry returns of January, he insisted that the bulk of the boats should operate in the North Atlantic in cooperation with the Condors employing so-called improved communications procedures. But he also agreed to remount German patrols to West African waters, one by Clausen’s U-37, replicating its voyage of December, and another by the U-A, which was entirely unsuitable for anticonvoy operations in the North Atlantic.
Two factors had led Dönitz to view patrols to West African waters more favorably. First, the Afrika Korps, commanded by Erwin Rommel, was en route to North Africa to rescue the reeling Italian Army, half of which (130,000 men) had surrendered to the still small but adept British Army of the Nile. The Italian submarines in West African waters had failed to make any significant dent in the British convoys rounding the Cape of Good Hope to support the Army of the Nile. Any U-boat successes against those convoys would amount to direct German support for Rommel. Second, the battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst had finally broken out of the North Sea. The heavy cruiser Hipper, sailing from Brest, was to join them for raids against the British convoys in the South Atlantic. The supply ships supporting Gneisenau and Scharnhorst could also supply the U-boats.
In the North Atlantic, Dönitz’s son-in-law Günter Hessler in the new IXB U-107 found convoy Outbound 279 on February 3. After flashing an alert, Hessler attacked, sinking a 4,700-ton freighter, then shadowed during the day. Dönitz relayed the report and ordered six other boats to converge on the convoy. Still shadowing, on the following evening Hessler sank a second ship of 5,000 tons. No other boats found the convoy, but while searching for it, Salmann in U-52 and Moehle in U-123 came across the inbound Slow Convoy 20, from which they sank one ship each, as did Hessler in U-107, responding to their reports. Korth in U-93 polished off another ship from this convoy with his deck gun, a 2,700-tonner which had been damaged by a Condor.
The Admiralty got wind of the breakout of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst from the North Sea and positioned powerful Home Fleet forces (Nelson, Rodney, Repulse, etc.) south of Iceland to intercept them. A British cruiser, Naiad, got a fleeting glimpse of the German vessels southbound in the Denmark Strait, but the British disbelieved—or discounted—the report. Equipped with primitive radar, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst evaded Naiad at high speed and withdrew northward into the strait to prepare for a second try on February 3-4.
The Gneisenau and Scharnhorst had orders to attack Halifax convoys in the area west of Iceland. Assuming the attack would again draw out the Home Fleet, the OKM directed Dönitz to lay a submarine trap south of Iceland to ambush its ships. On February 8, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst intercepted convoy Halifax 106, but upon seeing that the convoy was escorted by the battleship Ramillies,* the Germans, who were under orders to avoid battles with capital ships, broke off the attack. As anticipated, the Home Fleet sailed west in pursuit of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Dönitz, meanwhile, had positioned eight German U-boats to the submarine trap south of Iceland. One of these, Herbert Schultze in U-48, sighted—and reported—a “battle cruiser and a light cruiser,” but he was unable to get into shooting position. On February 10, a Whitley of Coastal Command Squadron 502, piloted by J. A. Walker, caught Korth in U-93 on the surface and bombed the boat, hastening her return to Lorient. The repairs to U-93 were to take three months. No other boats intercepted Home Fleet units. The submarine trap was thus a failure.
Dönitz was not displeased by this diversion. He believed the Condor reconnaissance flights near Rockall Bank had forced the British to divert convoys well to the north to avoid aerial detection. Later, when the OKM released the boats of the submarine trap, he left six boats on patrol lines due south of Iceland. Since this area was beyond range of the Bordeaux-based Condors, Dönitz requested that Condor flights be staged to that area from Norway.
Southbound to African waters, on the morning of February 9, Nikolaus Clausen in U-37 ran into convoy Home Gibraltar 53. Comprised of twenty-one ships, the convoy was thinly escorted by one destroyer and one sloop. Clausen gave the alarm, then attacked, claiming three ships for 13,500 tons sunk, but again he inflated the tonnage. His confirmed score was two ships for 3,300 tons.
There were no other German U-boats in Iberian waters, but the heavy cruiser Hipper, southbound from Brest to join Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, was within easy reach, as were the Condors basing at Bordeaux. Sensing a “historic” opportunity to mount a combined U-boat, aircraft, and surface-ship attack on the same convoy, Dönitz directed Clausen to shadow the convoy and to send beacon signals. Meanwhile, Dönitz instructed Gruppe 40 to fly as many Condors as possible to the scene and invited the OKM to bring up Hipper. Five Condors took off. The OKM initially refused to commit Hipper but, on second thought, did so.
Homing on U-37’s beacon signals, audible at 150 miles, the Condors reached the convoy late in the afternoon of February 9. In this first successful joint aircraft/submarine operation, the Condor pilots reported damage to nine ships for 45,000 tons. The confirmed score was five ships sunk. One Condor was damaged and crash-landed in Spain, but the crew survived and eventually returned to Bordeaux.
Still shadowing the shattered convoy for Hipper’s benefit, in the early hours of February 10, Clausen in U-37 struck again. His targets this time were two “big tankers.” His six torpedoes missed the tankers but, Clausen believed, struck and sank two ships behind the tankers for 7,500 tons. Actually, he hit only one ship, a 1,473-ton freighter, which sank, making his total confirmed score three ships sunk for 4,773 tons.*
The riddled convoy Home Gibraltar 53 was scheduled to merge with an inbound unescorted convoy of nineteen ships from Sierra Leone. Racing up from the southwest, Hipper came upon this convoy on February 12 and sank seven ships for 32,800 tons, her first clear success in the Atlantic. She then found another freighter which had separated from the Gibraltar convoy. She took off the crew and sank the freighter, but was then compelled to abort to Brest with engine problems for the second time. Condors escorted her into port.
Dönitz was enormously pleased with this unique operation. The combined German forces had savaged two convoys, sinking sixteen confirmed ships: eight by Hipper, five by the Condors, three by U-37. Foreseeing the possibility of combined submarine and surface-ship operations with Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, he directed that three IXBs (U-105, U-106, U-124) prepare for departure to West African waters to be followed by the U-A, which was sailing from Germany. Having expended all torpedoes, Clausen in U-37 aborted his trip to Africa and returned to Lorient, where he received unstinting praise and the news that the famous but weary U-37 was to patrol home for retirement to the Training Command.
The diversion of Condors to the U-37-Hipper operation and a decision to put Condor crews through a crash course in navigation and communications delayed the staging of these aircraft from Norway. Hence the boats hunting south of Iceland had no help from the Condors for many days. They found no convoys, but several of them picked off lone ships and convoy stragglers in heavy weather. Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96 sank the 8,100-ton British tanker Clea and a freighter, and teamed up with Viktor Schütze in U-103 to sink the 10,500-ton British tanker A. F. Corwin. Schütze went on to sink three other ships for 23,000 tons, including another 10,500-ton British tanker, E. R. Brown. A new VIIC from Germany, U-69, commanded by Jost Metzler, age thirty-two, another former merchant marine officer, sank two unescorted ships for 14,100 tons. Herbert Schultze in U-48, Otto Salmann in U-52, and Ernst Mengersen in U-101 also sank two ships each. Karl-Heinz Moehle in U-123, on weather-reporting duty, sank one.
Finally, on the afternoon of February 19, a lone Condor staging from Norway found a convoy, Outbound 287. Dönitz ordered five boats to converge on the position and Gruppe 40 to send out more Condors at first light the following morning. But the operation was a failure. Three Condors reached the area, but all gave different positions, leading to the belief that a second or perhaps even a third convoy had been detected. Adding further confusion, B-dienst picked up distress calls from a ship reporting a Condor attack in yet another position. One boat, Lehmann-Willenbrock’s U-96, homed on a Condor beacon signal, came upon the convoy in foul weather, and sank a straggler, the 7,000-ton British tanker Scottish Standard. But no other boats could find the convoy.
Several days later, on February 22, a Norway-based Condor reported a convoy near the Orkneys. Dönitz directed two boats, outbound from Germany in the North Sea, to the scene: the VIIB U-46, commanded by Engelbert Endrass, returning from a long overhaul, and a new VIIC, U-552, commanded by Erich Topp, whose duck, U-57, had been rammed and sunk in the Elbe. But, many hours later, the airmen corrected the contact report: The convoy was not near the Orkneys but two hundred miles or more west of the Orkneys, en route to Halifax. It was Outbound 288.
Upon receiving the corrected position report, Dönitz ordered four boats to intercept the convoy and, if possible, three additional, including the weather boat, Moehle’s U-123. The operation was temporarily thrown into confusion when B-dienst reported another distress call from a ship being attacked by a Condor in a position that in no way corresponded to the “corrected” position report. Dönitz rightly dismissed this last report, logging in his diary that B-dienst reports could no longer be relied upon.
A new VIIB from Germany, U-73, commanded by Helmut Rosenbaum, age twenty-seven, from the duck U-2, made contact with the convoy Outbound 288 and flashed a report. Dönitz instructed Rosenbaum to radio beacon signals and hang on “at all costs” while the other boats—and more Condors—attempted to converge. During the night of February 23-24, five German boats and the Italian Bianchi attacked. Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96 sank three ships for 18,400 tons, including the 11,000-ton auxiliary cruiser Huntingdon. Gerd Schreiber in the VIIC U-95 sank three ships for 13,900 tons. Moehle in U-123 sank one, as did Metzler in U-69, Rosenbaum in U-73, and Adalberto Giovannini in Bianchi. In retaliation, a Sunderland and three corvettes delivered a determined depth-charge attack on the green U-69, but the damage was not serious.
During this melee, the Italian submarine Marcello, commanded by Carlo Alberto Teppati, arrived on the scene. One of the convoy escorts, the ex-American four-stack destroyer Montgomery, merely a month out of her overhaul and upgrade, spotted Marcello and attacked with guns and depth charges. The attack was successful; Marcello sank with all hands. She was the first Axis submarine to fall victim to one of the American warships transferred to the Royal Navy in the “Destroyer Deal.”*
Having exhausted all torpedoes, most of the U-boats headed for Lorient. Based on flash reports, Dönitz calculated that the German boats had sunk ten ships for 77,000 tons from convoy Outbound 288. In actuality, the U-boats sank eight ships for 42,282 tons. Claiming seven ships for 55,600 tons sunk on this patrol, Lehmann-Willenbrock qualified for a Ritterkreuz. As a result of sinking four more ships on his patrol, Karl-Heinz Moehle also qualified for a Ritterkreuz* The new skippers, Günter Hessler in U-107 and Jost Metzler in U-69, having sunk four and three ships, respectively, on their maiden patrols from Germany, received warm praise.
South of Iceland on February 24, Erich Topp in the new VIIC U-552, who had sunk six ships for 37,000 tons on the duck U-57, found the next convoy, Outbound 289. Dönitz ordered three boats to join Topp, including two other new boats from Germany: the VIIC U-97, commanded by Udo Heilmann, age twenty-seven, from the duck U-24, and the new IXB U-108, commanded by Klaus Scholtz, age thirty-two. Topp shadowed tenaciously, then attacked, firing all five torpedoes in his bow and stern tubes. All missed. Before he could reload and attack again, an aircraft drove the boat under and the convoy got away.
When Topp surfaced after dark with all tubes reloaded, he saw a big ship coming up unescorted. He set up quickly and fired a fan of three torpedoes, estimating the range at about 1,600 yards. All missed. As the ship approached U-552, Topp saw that he had vastly underestimated her size and therefore the range; it was the huge 43,000-ton French luxury liner (in Allied service) Ile de France. Topp quickly fired his remaining bow torpedo at this fast-moving behemoth, but it too missed. That shot made nine torpedoes fired for nine misses; only three torpedoes remained.
Meanwhile, Udo Heilmann in the new boat U-97 came up in response to Topp’s reports and found Outbound 289. Perhaps wrongly assuming that Topp was in contact, or wishing to have the convoy all to himself, Heilmann attacked it in the early hours of February 24, without broadcasting a contact report. In five hours he sank a 6,900-ton tanker, British Gunner, and two freighters and damaged a 9,700-ton tanker in ballast. When he reported the result, Dönitz was angry at Heilmann for not sending beacon signals and attempted to bring Topp in again, as well as Gerd Schreiber in U-95. Topp regained contact with the convoy off Iceland in a raging gale, but the weather defeated him and Schreiber as well.
The ranking tonnage “aces” of the U-boat arm, Gtinther Prien in U-47 and Otto Kretschmer in U-99, sailed from Lorient on February 20 and 22, respectively. Prien had been in port seventy-six days; Kretschmer for seventy-two. There had been a substantial turnover in the crews on these two famous boats. The first watch officers on both had left for commanding officers school; other officers had been promoted and assigned to new boats. Owing to British mines and submarines and sporadic air attacks on Lorient, there had not been much opportunity to drill the crew replacements. Both skippers had refused repeated suggestions from Dönitz to take safe jobs in the Training Command.
While Prien was en route to the hunting grounds on February 22, the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst reappeared off Newfoundland. The two battle cruisers attacked a westbound convoy which was approaching the dispersal point in Canadian waters. Between them they sank five ships for 25,784 tons, their first kills since entering the Atlantic on February 4. The battle cruisers then proceeded to the South Atlantic to attack convoys off Sierra Leone. Their appearance off Newfoundland caused great consternation in Ottawa, London, and Washington and yet another disruption and further delays in the convoys departing Halifax. For Admiral Bristol and other Americans in the Support Force who were preparing to escort North Atlantic convoys, this attack by two battle cruisers in what was soon to be the American area of responsibility was a sobering reminder that U-boats were not the only threat and gave rise to the idea of basing some of the old and the new American battleships* at Argentia and at Hvalfjord, Iceland, on the Denmark Strait.
Prien in U-47 sailed directly up the west coast of Ireland. On the afternoon of February 25 he ran into convoy Outbound 290, composed of thirty-nine ships and seven escorts. Prien reported, shadowed, and broadcast beacon signals. Dönitz ordered Kretschmer in U-99 and two boats on first patrols to join: Heilmann in U-97, who was out of torpedoes en route to Lorient, and Rosenbaum in U-73, who was on weather station. He alerted Gruppe 40 to fly Condors on the following day.
Shortly after midnight on February 26, Prien attacked the convoy alone. There was no moon, but the northern lights provided excellent visibility. His first salvo sank a 5,300-ton Belgian freighter and damaged an 8,100-ton British tanker in ballast. After reloading his tubes, he came in and fired a second salvo, sinking two more freighters, a 3,200-ton Swede and a 3,600-ton Norwegian. While again reloading his tubes he continued to track and send beacon signals, adding that he had sunk 20,000 tons. But no other U-boat came up that night.
Later that day, February 26, guided by Prien’s beacon signals, the Condors found and attacked the convoy. One Condor appeared at noon; five in late afternoon. Astonishingly, they sank seven ships for 36,250 tons and damaged another one of 20,755 tons. All the while Prien doggedly and bravely tracked and sent beacon signals. In his last message of the day, Prien reported that he had been “beaten off’ by Allied aircraft and had been depth-charged by escorts. He revised his sinking report upward slightly to 22,000 tons. In actuality, Prien had sunk 12,000 tons.
Heilmann in U-97, who had no torpedoes, made contact with the convoy that evening and took over as shadower. He attempted to bring up Rosenbaum in U-73 and Kretschmer in U-99, but the attempt failed and the convoy dispersed. Dönitz ordered Prien, Kretschmer, and Rosenbaum to rake the ocean westward. Prien sank a lone 4,200-ton British freighter, but neither Rosenbaum nor Kretschmer had any luck. Adalberto Giovannini in Bianchi found two stragglers from the convoy and positively sank one.* Altogether Prien and Giovannini sank four confirmed ships from Outbound 290 and Prien also damaged a tanker in ballast.
The devastating storms in the North Atlantic raged all through the month of February. A “hurricane” hit convoy Halifax 106, sinking two ships and disabling numerous others. Even so, a total of 307 ships crossed from Canada to the British Isles in convoys. During the month, Axis submarines in the North Atlantic sank eleven loaded eastbound vessels, all stragglers from convoys Halifax 106 and 107 and Slow Convoys 20 and 21.