Military history


Owing to the complicated new restrictions Hitler had placed on U-boats pending the success of Barbarossa, Dönitz was compelled to give Iceland and the Northwest Approaches a wide berth. Hence in July 1941, he shifted most of the twenty boats that sailed afresh to more southerly waters to attack Gibraltar and Sierra Leone convoys. In addition, Dönitz sent another wave to Freetown: four boats, all commanded by Ritterkreuz holders. These four were to refuel secretly from the German tanker Corrientes in the Spanish Canaries.

Reading naval Enigma currently and fluently, the British almost completely outwitted Dönitz in July. They reinforced the Gibraltar and Sierra Leone convoys with extra air and surface escorts and cleverly diverted the convoys, taking advantage of an unseasonably dense fog in the central Atlantic. They brought to bear such strong diplomatic pressure on Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco that he closed the Canaries to German U-boats, forcing a cancellation of the special four-boat task force to Freetown. As a result, no U-boat discovered a convoy in July. All the initial convoy contacts came from Focke-Wulf Condors basing in Bordeaux, or from the Italian boats based there.

The first Condor contact came on July 1, about 600 miles due west of Lorient. Dönitz ordered five boats to operate against the convoy, including the crack U-96, commanded by Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock. The boats established the convoy’s precise position by taking widely spaced bearings on the Condor’s beacon signals. Late on July 2, Klaus Scholtz, inbound from the Greenland area in U-108, found the convoy—Gibraltar-bound, he reported. But before Scholtz could bring up the other boats or the aircraft, he lost the ships in a dense fog and put into France, completing a highly satisfactory patrol of forty-one days during which he sank seven ships for 27,000 tons.

Pursuing this contact through fog to the southwest, on the morning of July 5, Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96 happened upon a curious formation of five ships: a Royal Navy yacht, Challenger, leading a 6,000-ton freighter, Anselm. Three corvettes, Petunia, Lavender, and Starwort, were deployed to port, starboard, and astern of Anselm with good reason: Anselm was a troopship with 1,200 soldiers on board.

Braving the menace posed by this unusually heavy escort, Lehmann-Willenbrock closed submerged and fired a full bow salvo at the Challenger and Anselm. He missed Challenger but two torpedoes hit Anselm. The ship sank in twenty-two minutes, but that was time enough for the crew to launch all but one of the lifeboats. Nonetheless, 254 of the 1,200 soldiers were lost. The yacht Challenger pulled sixty survivors from the water.

The three corvettes immediately pounced on U-96. Starwort’s sonar was out of commission, so Petunia and Lavender, which had firm contacts, delivered the attack. Petunia launched six depth charges and Lavender, twenty. When the attack carried the corvettes close to the survivors in the water, the depth-charging had to be broken off, but it had been deadly accurate. Later in the day Lehmann-Willenbrock reported to Kerneval that he was aborting the patrol with “extreme” depth-charge damage.

The second Condor report came a week later, on July 7: another outbound convoy about 250 miles off North Channel. Dönitz alerted all boats in the vicinity, but none was able to find the convoy. Nor any other convoy. As a result, confirmed sinkings in the first three weeks of July were abysmal: Lehmann-Willenbrock’s troopship, plus three other ships for 13,300 tons; one by Klaus Scholz in U-108 and two by Robert Gysae in U-98.*

Dönitz was baffled and frustrated. Twice in a period of six days (July 15 to 20) he logged: “The difficult problem as ever is to find convoys.” As usual, he blamed the lack of contacts on the shortage of U-boats. “Only when the number of boats is larger,” he logged, “and there are more of them to keep a lookout, will the situation become more favorable.” He shifted the boats here and there, forming temporary patrol lines, then dissolving them and reforming new lines in other areas. But the British cleverly countered these moves. Nothing seemed to work for the Germans.

The third convoy contact came from the Italian boat Barbarigo on July 22, west of Gibraltar. She called in Bagnolini. Barbarigo sank a confirmed ship, the 8,300-ton British tanker Horn Shell; Bagnolini claimed hits on two ships, but no British report confirmed her attack. Upon learning of this contact, Dönitz attempted to bring up the four boats of the canceled Freetown special task force. One of these four, the U-109, commanded by Heinrich Bleichrodt, could not respond. She had put into Cadiz, Spain, for emergency repairs from the German supply ship Thalia. Dönitz substituted Rolf Mützelburg’s U-203, which had come south in vain pursuit of another ship, but the British took prompt evasive action and neither Mützelburg nor the other three skippers could find Barbarigo’s convoy.

The fourth convoy contact came from another Condor on July 25, 400 miles due west of the English Channel. This was a combined outbound Gibraltar-Sierra Leone convoy, designated Gibraltar 69. It was composed of twenty-six ships, escorted by nine corvettes and an armed trawler. Eleven widely dispersed U-boats picked up the Condor’s beacon, enabling Kerneval to plot the convoy’s position with fair accuracy. Beacons from a second Condor were intercepted by fifteen U-boats, which confirmed the initial position.

Dönitz detailed eight U-boats to operate against this southbound convoy. All raced to the plotted position at maximum speed. The U-79, commanded by Wolfgang Kaufmann, out from Lorient on its second patrol, and the IXC U-126, commanded by Ernst Bauer, age twenty-seven, fresh from Germany on its first patrol, reached the designated position first. Neither saw any sign of the convoy and after a megaphone conference, Bauer radioed the bad news to Dönitz, who in turn directed the eight boats to search along specific bearings to the south and southwest.

On the following morning, July 26, another Condor found the convoy. Six boats picked up its beacon signal and Kerneval plotted a new fix. Presumed to be accurate, the new fix put the convoy 215 miles from the position reported by the Condor. Seven boats were “quite close” to the reported fix and yet, inexplicably, none could find the convoy. Was the Condor’s report accurate after all? Were the British transmitting deceptive beacon signals? Another Condor searched both positions later in the day, but saw nothing.

Dönitz was at the point of calling off the chase when one of the boats spoke up to report contact. She was the new IXC U-68, commanded by Karl-Friedrich Merten, age thirty-five, a senior officer from the crew of 1926, twenty-seven days out on his maiden patrol from Germany. Dönitz ordered Merten to shadow and send beacon signals. As he was doing so, unknown to Merten, the convoy was in the process of splitting up. Half of the ships—those bound for Sierra Leone—left unescorted, making best speed. Two of the nine corvettes left to join a Gibraltar convoy homebound to the British Isles.

At about midnight three other boats joined Merten’s U-68: Kaufmann’s U-79, Bauer’s U-126, and Mützelburg’s U-203. After they had checked in, Dönitz directed Bauer to shadow and authorized Merten to shoot at will, but his attack was thwarted by a corvette. When he lost contact, it fell to Kaufmann in U-79 and Mützelburg in U-203 to launch the first torpedoes. Kaufmann claimed sinking three ships for 24,000 tons and damage to two others. Mützelburg claimed sinking two ships for 14,000 tons. In fact, Kaufmann sank one confirmed ship, a 2,500-ton British freighter, and Mützelburg sank one confirmed ship, a 1,500-ton British freighter.*

Three of the seven corvettes counterattacked. Rhododendron fired off twenty-four depth charges, probably at Merten’s U-68. Sunflower and Pimpernel teamed up on another U-boat. They attempted to ram, but the boat dived. They fired twenty-two depth charges. These timely and aggressive counterattacks, plus defensive action by the other four corvettes, drove the U-boats off and prevented any further attacks that night.

During the daylight hours on July 27, Bauer in U-126 continued to shadow and send out beacon signals. These enabled Merten in U-68, Mützelburg in U-203, and two other new VIICs from Germany, U-561, commanded by Robert Bartels, age thirty, and U-562, commanded by Herwig Collmann, to regain contact. But Bartels suffered a mechanical breakdown and was forced to abort. Yet another boat, U-371, commanded by Heinrich Driver, making his second patrol, later found the detached, southbound Freetown section of the convoy and sank two 7,000-ton freighters.

At about dark, Dönitz authorized the shadower, Bauer in U-126, to attack. To him and the other boats he sent an exhortatory message: “All boats off the convoy to utilize any chances of attack. If no good chances beforehand, attempt as from 0200 to attack simultaneously. Split up escorts. Escorts probably weaker than in previous night. Continue to report contact and send beacon signals. Bring up other boats, attack yourselves. Press on!”

Bauer in U-126 did not wait long. Shortly before midnight he closed on the surface and fired six torpedoes—four from the bow tubes and two from the stern tubes. In this, his first attack of the war, Bauer claimed sensational results: four ships for 20,000 tons sunk. In fact, he had sunk two 1,300-ton freighters, the British Erato (the convoy flagship) and a Norwegian. The corvettes Rhododendron and Begonia counterattacked; the convoy dispersed.

Two other boats moved in to attack the remaining ships, which were fleeing in all directions. Merten in U-68 shot at one of the corvettes. He saw a jet of red flame at the side of the corvette and claimed a sinking. He either missed or the torpedo failed; no corvette was hit that night. Bartels in U-561 claimed sinking two ships (one a 12,000-ton tanker) for 16,000 tons, and damage to a 5,000-ton auxiliary cruiser. But only one ship, a 1,900-ton British freighter, actually went down.

By the evening of July 28, five of the original thirteen Gibraltar-bound ships had reformed into a loose convoy, escorted by five corvettes and a Catalina. Three U-boats were still stalking the ships. Sighting the U-boats, the Catalina and two corvettes swept astern of the convoy, forcing two U-boats off.

Mützelburg hung on doggedly and launched his second attack after dark. He claimed sinking three ships for 17,000 tons, plus a “destroyer.” Actually, he sank only two small freighters for 2,800 tons, one British, one Swedish. The corvette Rhododendronreported that three torpedoes had been fired at her, but she evaded them by “violent maneuvers.” She and the corvette Fleur de Lys counterattacked, each expending all depth charges except three, but Mützelburg escaped without noteworthy damage.

Misled by the overclaims from the six boats that had shot at convoy Outbound Gibraltar 69, Dönitz believed another “great convoy battle” had taken place. He calculated the skippers had sunk seventeen or eighteen ships for about 108,000 tons, plus a destroyer and a corvette, figures Berlin propagandists hastened to inflate and release.* In reality, the sinkings were half of the Dönitz calculation and the tonnage only one-quarter of the claim. Five boats had sunk seven confirmed Gibraltar-bound ships for 11,303 tons and Heinrich Driver in U-371 had sunk two of the thirteen Freetown-bound ships for 14,000 tons. Total: nine ships for 25,300 tons. No destroyer or corvette had been sunk. Seventeen of the twenty-six merchant ships reached port.

During the month of July, 412 loaded merchant ships sailed from Canada in Halifax and Sydney (or Slow) convoys to the British Isles. Remarkably, not one ship fell victim to a U-boat. To avoid possible angry Axis reaction to the American occupation of Iceland, Halifax 135 followed a “southerly” route. Halifax 136 included the first CAM (fighter-plane catapult) ship. At mid-month, Halifax 138 and Slow Convoy 37 sailed experimentally across the Gulf of St. Lawrence and into the Atlantic via Belle Isle Strait, thence to Cape Farewell, then north along the icebound east coast of Greenland. These convoys encountered heavy fog and icebergs and, as a result, a number of collisions occurred.

The heavy ship traffic in the opposite direction on the North Atlantic run also fared well. Altogether eleven outbound convoys comprising 536 vessels sailed from the British Isles. As related, Robert Gysae in U-98 sank two empty freighters for 10,800 tons from convoy Outbound 341. A Focke-Wulf Condor damaged an empty freighter in Outbound 346.

In sum, upward of one thousand Allied ships of about 5 million gross tons sailed the North Atlantic route in east and west convoys in July, virtually unharmed by the oceangoing U-boats.

Toward the end of July, the British instituted a new system for naming these outbound convoys. After Outbound 346, all convoys bound ultimately for the West Indies, Latin America, or West Africa were named Outbound South (OS). Off North Channel on July 26, Philipp Schüler in the duck U-141 hit two empty freighters in OS 1. One of them, of 5,100 tons, sank; the other limped back to port. After Outbound 349, all convoys bound for Canada or the United States East Coast were named Outbound North (ON). The odd-numbered convoys were slow, the even-numbered convoys were fast.

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