Military history


The attack on convoy Outbound Gibraltar 69 in late July was the only noteworthy success of the U-boat force since its extended battle in late June with Halifax 133, a drought of one full month. Even so, Dönitz continued drawing the boats ever eastward and southeastward into the waters of the Southwest Approaches, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Canaries.

By August 1 the twenty-odd boats on patrol were deployed in three groups: a main group of twelve boats in areas several hundred miles west of Ireland and the English Channel, replicating the U-boat dispositions during the early days of the war; a group of four boats in areas due west of Gibraltar Strait; another group of four boats skippered by Ritterkreuz holders—the canceled Freetown special task force—in areas west of the Canaries. The eight boats in the Gibraltar-Canaries area were authorized to secretly put into Spanish ports (Cadiz, El Ferrol) in event of an emergency. Hans-Dietrich von Tiesenhausen, age twenty-eight, in the new U-331, who had burned up much fuel futilely chasing Outbound Gibraltar 69, replenished in Cadiz.

On August 2 a boat of the northernmost main group, the U-204, commanded by Walter Kell, reported an inbound convoy about 500 miles due west of Brest in dense fog. Kell had detected the convoy on his hydrophones, but had not made visual contact. Upon receipt of his report, Dönitz ordered Kell to shadow while he launched Focke-Wulf Condors and brought up the other eleven boats of the main group. These included Ritterkreuz holder Engelbert Endrass, who was taking U-46—the last of the original VIIBs of the Wegener Flotilla—home to the Training Command.

The convoy Kell had found was inbound Sierra Leone 81, composed of seventeen big ships. The escort, joined by a contingent from Gibraltar, was very strong: twelve warships, including the ex-American four-stack destroyers Campbeltown (with Type 286 meter-wavelength radar) and St. Albans, and the destroyer Wanderer; a catapult ship, Malpin, equipped with a Hurricane; and nine corvettes.

The Condors and the boats closed on the convoy on August 3. Malpin launched its Hurricane, piloted by R.H.W. Everett, a noted English jockey. He got close on the tail of a Condor and emptied his guns. The Condor came apart and crashed into the sea—the first to fall to a ship-launched fighter. Everett ditched alongside the destroyer Wanderer, which put over a whaler and pulled him from the sea. Honored with a DSO, Everett was killed five months later while conducting a routine aircraft-ferry mission in the British Isles.

One of the first boats to join Kell was the U-401, a new VIIC commanded by Gero Zimmermann, age thirty-one. Commissioned on April 10, U-401 had completed her workup in Oslo Fjord in ninety days. She sailed from Trondheim July 9 on her first Atlantic patrol and had been at sea for twenty-six days. This, her first contact with the enemy, was brief and fatal. The destroyers Wanderer (which had helped sink the duck U-147 in June) and St. Albans and the corvette Hydrangea detected U-401 on sonar and delivered a punishing depth-charge attack. The boat disappeared with the loss of all hands.

By the evening of August 3, about ten U-boats—most of them new boats on maiden or second patrols—had converged on Sierra Leone 81. Unaware of the loss of U-401 or of the heavy escort with this convoy, Dönitz radioed: “This night is decisive. Go in and attack! You are more numerous and stronger than the enemy.” But there was a full moon and the escorts were too numerous, and none of the boats got in to shoot. Another new VIIC from Germany, U-565, commanded by Johann Jebsen, age twenty-five, barely escaped disaster. Crippled by a diesel-engine breakdown, Jebsen was forced to abort.

During the daylight hours of August 4, the boats and the Condors continued to track the convoy. It drew ever closer (200 miles) to the west coast of Ireland where it was well within reach of Coastal Command aircraft. During the pursuit, yet another new VIIC from Germany, U-431, commanded by Wilhelm Dommes, age thirty-four, lost both diesels. Dommes repaired one but could do nothing about the other, and he, too, was forced to abort.

After dark on that day, the remaining boats, including Engelbert Endrass’s U-46, closed to attack in bright moonlight. The escorts beat off Endrass and five other boats, and only four managed to shoot that night. The first was the VIIC U-372, commanded by Heinz-Joachim Neumann, age thirty-two, on its maiden patrol from Germany. He claimed sinking two ships for 12,000 tons and a probable hit on another 7,000-ton vessel. In reality, his salvo sank two medium British freighters for a total of 8,300 tons. He missed the British freighter Volturo, which retaliated and forced Neumann under with close fire from her 4” gun and smaller weapons, and drew in the corvette Zinnia. Attempting to ram, Zinnia chased, firing her 4” gun, but Neumann dived and escaped.

Next to shoot was the dogged shadower, Walter Kell in U-204. He chose what he claimed was a 14,000-ton freighter, but which was probably the convoy flagship Abosso, a steamer of 11,300 tons, with 274 passengers embarked. If he hit Abosso (or another ship), it did not sink. He then sank the 5,000-ton British freighter Kumasian. Next to shoot was Helmuth Ringelmann in U-75. He claimed sinking two British freighters for 12,000 tons, but his confirmed score was one, the British Cape Rodney, for 4,512 tons. Last to shoot was Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat in U-74, who claimed sinking one ship of 8,000 tons and damage to three others of 8,000 tons. His torpedoes actually sank the 5,400-ton British freighter Harlingen.

Coastal Command aircraft appeared at dawn over the convoy and encountered a blast of “friendly” antiaircraft fire from tired and itchy-fingered British gunners. One aircraft sighted a U-boat and dropped two 500-pound ASW bombs, but these inflicted no known damage. Having been drawn very close to the Irish coast, the U-boats were compelled to break off. The four boats that shot torpedoes claimed sinking six ships for 46,500 tons, but in reality they had sunk five for 23,200 tons. Based on unusually thorough information from B-dienst, Dönitz concluded that the boats had positively sunk four ships for 24,500 tons and probably damaged six others. Considering that most of the boats were “quite inexperienced” and the convoy escort (as it turned out) was strong, and the moonlight unfavorable, Dönitz logged that he was well satisfied with the outcome.

Several other boats of this group also returned to port. Engelbert Endrass in U-46, who sank no ships on this patrol, retired U-46 to the Training Command. Like his mentor, Prien, and his peers, Kretschmer and Schepke, Endrass turned down a safe job in the Training Command in favor of combat and returned to Lorient as a replacement skipper. The U-558, commanded by Günther Krech, age twenty-six, onetime naval aviator and first watch officer on Schepke’s U-100, was forced to abort when one of his midshipmen became gravely ill.

Despite the risks, after the battle with Sierra Leone 81, on August 5 Dönitz resumed U-boat warfare in the waters off Iceland and the Northwest Approaches. This decision was prompted in part by B-dienst codebreakers who made a tentative but useful break in the North Atlantic convoy codes; in part by the belief that since no U-boats had operated in those waters for weeks, he might catch the Allies napping; in part because fourteen more new U-boats were Atlantic-bound in August, raising the total Atlantic operational force to over sixty oceangoing boats, enough to send an unprecedented thirty-eight boats out in August and to cover several widely spaced hunting grounds simultaneously.

Accordingly, the boats at sea or sailing afresh were deployed into three loose groups: a North Group, near Iceland; a Center Group west of Scotland and Ireland; and a South Group off Gibraltar Strait. British codebreakers promptly detected this redeployment, noting especially the newly created North Group, which posed a possible threat to the Prince of Wales, en route to Argentia, Newfoundland, with Churchill and his party.

The North Group was established, initially, by holding two new Atlantic-bound boats near Iceland. One of these was the U-501, commanded by thirty-six-year-old Hugo Förster, the most senior skipper in the Atlantic, but new to submarines. Commissioned on April 30, the U-501 was the first of a new type, designated IXC. Four days out of Trondheim, on August 11, Förster intercepted a slow outbound convoy about seventy miles due south of Iceland. Heavily escorted by surface vessels and aircraft, the convoy was designated Outbound North 5. Förster’s contact report was confirmation to the Admiralty’s U-boat Tracking Room that U-boats were back in Icelandic waters.

Another new boat picked up Förster’s report. She was the VIIC U-568, commanded by Joachim Preuss, age twenty-seven, from the duck U-10. Förster was driven off by air escorts that dropped close depth charges or bombs, but in the early hours of August 12, Preuss got in and shot at an escort (in violation of Hitler’s order) and a ship he reported as a 7,000-ton freighter. He hit an escort, the corvette Picotee, which blew up and sank, but he apparently missed the freighter. Other escorts counterattacked U-568 and drove the boat under and held it down while the convoy escaped. The Picotee was the first British warship to be sunk by a U-boat in almost a year.

Later that same day, two other new boats of the North Group reported separate outbound convoys passing south of Iceland. The boats were the VIIC U-206, commanded by Herbert Opitz, age twenty-six, and the IXC U-129, commanded by the veteran Nikolaus Clausen, who had returned the famous old U-37 to the Training Command. Escorts drove Opitz off his convoy, but Clausen stuck with his, which he described as “large.” Dönitz directed Opitz, Förster, Preuss, and two other new boats to home on Clausen’s beacon signals and to pursue the convoy westward—and to attack it to destruction.

The possibilities offered by convoy Outbound North 5 persuaded Dönitz to make a large northwestward shift of the Center Group. On his orders, the entire Center Group (twelve boats) joined the chase on August 13, speeding toward Greenland. Thus eighteen U-boats were unknowingly heading directly toward the track of the Prince of Wales, en route home from Argentia, Newfoundland, to Iceland, screened by two American destroyers, on one of which Ensign Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., was embarked. Aware from Ultra of the shift of U-boats and the danger posed to the Prince of Wales and her distinguished party, Admiralty officials—and perhaps those on board the battleship and destroyers—doubtless spent a sleepless night devising evasive courses. But Churchill casually passed off the moment in his memoirs, writing that the voyage to Iceland was “uneventful, although at one point it became necessary to alter course owing to the reported presence of U-boats near-by.”

The long chase of convoy Outbound North 5 to westward by these eighteen boats produced nothing. Clausen in U-129 lost contact with the convoy and no other boat could find it. None saw the Prince of Wales, which arrived safely in Iceland as scheduled on August 16, and departed for Scapa Flow with a British destroyer screen the following day. Outfoxed by the U-boat Tracking Room, during the next eighteen days only one of the U-boats at sea sank an Allied ship, and it was an insignificant 1,700-ton Panamanian freighter. That U-boat was the aging Type IX U-38, commanded by a new skipper, Heinrich Schuch, age thirty-five. The Prince of Wales reached Scapa Flow undetected.

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During these futile chases in the northern area, Kerneval received word from a “spy” that a big convoy had left Gibraltar for the British Isles. Dönitz alerted the South Group, sent out Condors and pulled in the four-boat group patrolling west of the Canaries. A boat of the South Group, Wolfgang Kaufmann’s U-79, found the convoy, Homebound Gibraltar 70, on the afternoon of August 10. Dönitz ordered Kaufmann to shadow and to send beacon signals for the benefit of the other boats and the Condors, but the convoy was heavily escorted by aircraft and surface vessels, and “destroyers” drove Kaufmann under.

The group from west of the Canaries, composed of the four Ritterkreuz holders who had aborted the special mission to Freetown, raced in at maximum speed. On the morning of August 11 one of these skippers, Claus Korth in U-93, found the convoy, reporting that it had made a sharp turn north and was tightly hugging the Portuguese coast. An air escort drove Korth off and bombed him, causing so much damage that he was forced to abort to France. But Korth’s report enabled Kaufmann in U-79 to reestablish contact and another Ritterkreuz holder, Herbert Kuppisch in U-94, to find the convoy. The escorts drove off Kaufmann and Kuppisch, delivering a “heavy” depth-charge attack on Kaufmann in U-79. Acting on these reports, another boat of the South Group, von Tiesenhausen’s U-331, also found the convoy. He was driven off “three times,” he reported, and was finally forced to abort with a mechanical breakdown.

At that time Reinhard Hardegen in the IXB U-123, returning to Lorient from his long and frustrating patrol off Freetown, was passing close to the Iberian Peninsula. Dönitz ordered Hardegen to reinforce the attack on Homebound Gibraltar 70. Acting on a Condor position report, which proved to be accurate, Hardegen found the convoy late in the day on August 12. But he, too, was driven off and heavily depth-charged—126 explosions, thirty-six of them very close, he reported. The impact of the blasts temporarily disabled both diesels and caused a serious lube-oil leak, which compelled Hardegen to resume his return to Lorient, concluding a sixty-eight-day patrol.

Next to find the convoy were two Ritterkreuz holders in IXBs, Heinrich Bleichrodt in U-109 and Georg-Wilhelm Schulz in U-124. Both were also driven off by aircraft or surface escorts. Bleichrodt in U-109 reported “oil and bubble leaks” which forced him to abort to Lorient, returning to base for the first time with all torpedoes. Frustrated by the escorts, Schulz was unable to gain shooting position and after five sleepless days and nights, he broke off the chase. He, too, returned to Lorient with all torpedoes.

Receiving a steady stream of failure reports from the boats, most of them manned by experienced skippers, Dönitz was puzzled and disconcerted. Recounting in his log the “difficulties” the boats were experiencing in attacking this convoy, he surmised that the escorts were employing some kind of “surface location apparatus.” He therefore issued a radical new order: All boats were to attack the escorts first, firing “fan shots” (two or more torpedoes). If possible, they were to coordinate these attacks and shoot simultaneously, sparing no torpedoes. However, no boat was able to mount an attack on any escort of Homebound Gibraltar 70.

Finally, on August 15, Dönitz called off the chase. It had been a disastrous failure. Not one of the ten boats making contact with the convoy, including the promising skipper Reinhard Hardegen in U-123 and the four Ritterkreuz holders Bleichrodt, Korth, Kuppisch, and Schulz, had been able to get in and launch torpedoes. Four boats had been compelled to abort with battle damage or mechanical breakdown. Only by a miracle, it seemed, did all boats survive this brutal engagement.

Of the failures, none was more disappointing than that of the special four-boat task force, all commanded by Ritterkreuz holders. Forced to cancel the original mission to Freetown owing to the loss of German supply ships, they had patrolled west of the Canaries, then joined the attack on Homebound Gibraltar 70. In about five weeks of patrolling, not one of these aces had fired a torpedo! Upon reaching France, three of the four left their boats for other duty. Korth in U-93, “formerly considered very capable,” and who gave the impression of being “rundown,” Dönitz logged, was sent to a job in the Training Command. Kuppisch in U-94, said to have developed “a case of nerves,” went to Dönitz’s staff in Kerneval. Schulz in U-124 was promoted to command the 6th Combat Flotilla at St. Nazaire.

These three veterans were replaced by three very young—but combat-experienced—officers. The U-93 went to Horst Elfe, age twenty-four, crew of 1936, who had made seven war patrols as a watch officer on Kretschmer’s U-99, after which he commanded the duck U-139 for eight months. The U-94 went to Otto Ites, age twenty-three, crew of 1936, former watch officer on the record-holding U-48, who had commanded the duck U-146 for four months (and sunk a ship). Johann Hendrick Mohr, age twenty-five, crew of 1934, who had been first watch officer to Schulz on the IXB U-124 for eight months, moved up to command of the boat.*

Mere hours after the luckless chase of Homebound Gibraltar 70 had been terminated, on August 17, a Focke-Wulf Condor reported an outbound convoy about 250 miles west of Ireland. This was Outbound Gibraltar 71, guarded by British Escort Group 5. To August 13 this area had been occupied by the Center Group, but Dönitz had sent that group northwest toward Greenland in fruitless pursuit of convoy Outbound North 5, leaving the center area thinly covered. However, Adalbert Schnee in U-201, three days out from Brest, made contact with the convoy and sent beacon signals. The escorts drove Schnee off, but on the following day, August 18, other Condors, homing on Schnee’s beacon signals, relocated the convoy and brought up the few available boats.

The latest orders from Dönitz for dealing with inbound or outbound Gibraltar convoys specified that the boats were to attack the escorts first. In the early hours of August 19, three boats closed on Outbound Gibraltar 71. Walter Kell in U-204, literally following the order, fired first at the Norwegian-manned, ex-American, four-stack destroyer Bath and blew it to smithereens. He also claimed sinking two big freighters for 16,000 tons, but these could not be verified in postwar records. Critically low on fuel, Kell was forced to put into France. The U-559, commanded by Hans Heidtmann, age twenty-seven, attacked next. Heidtmann claimed sinking two big freighters for 22,000 tons and damage to another of 8,000 tons, but postwar records credited only one ship sunk, a 1,600-ton British freighter. Schnee in U-201 attacked third, claiming a tanker and two freighters for 20,000 tons, but in reality he sank two British freighters for 5,000 tons. In sum: the destroyer Bath and three freighters sunk, totaling 6,650 tons.

The British took emergency action to protect Outbound Gibraltar 71. The destroyers Gurkha II (ex-Larne) and Lance left military convoy WS 10X and joined the surface escort, adding strength plus the new radio-detecting locating device, HF/DF or Huff Duff. Gibraltar-based Catalinas and Sunderlands arrived to provide additional protection. Condors continued to distantly shadow and report the convoy, but none of the boats could penetrate the large escort screen on the night of August 19-20. Gurkha II and Lancereported a qualified success in DFing the U-boats with Huff Duff. Owing to a shortage of fuel, Heidtmann in U-559 had to put into France.

Two boats commanded by exceptionally able and aggressive skippers hung on: Adalbert Schnee’s U-201 and Reinhard Suhren’s U-564. They closed on the night of August 22-23. Making his second attack on Outbound Gibraltar 71, Schnee claimed sinking two freighters for 9,000 tons and damage to two others for 12,000 tons (raising his total claims on this convoy to six ships sunk for 37,000 tons plus damage). Schnee did in fact sink two freighters, but they were small: one of 800 tons, the other of 2,000 tons. Making his first attack on the convoy, Suhren fired eleven torpedoes over about five hours. He sank the corvette Zinnia (which went down in fifteen seconds) and claimed sinking four freighters for 20,000 tons and damage to four other freighters for 20,000 tons. Postwar records credited Suhren with no sinkings other than Zinnia, but damage to two freighters: the 1,200-ton Clantara, abandoned and sunk by a seagoing tug, and the 2,100-ton Spind, which was also abandoned.

Dönitz directed four other boats, including Erich Topp’s U-552, to join the attack on Outbound Gibraltar 71. Fresh from Lorient, Ritterkreuz holder Topp found the hulk of Spind and put it under with his deck gun, but he subsequently incurred an engine breakdown and was forced to abort, returning to St. Nazaire with a full load of torpedoes. The other three boats chased the convoy, which appeared to head for Lisbon, but the strong surface and air escort drove them off.

Based on flash reports from the five boats, Dönitz believed another great convoy battle had occurred. He credited Kell, Heidtmann, Suhren, Schnee, and Topp with sinking fifteen ships for 90,000 tons, damage to five others for 29,000 tons, plus the sinking of a “destroyer” each by Kell and Suhren. In fact, the five boats had sunk the destroyer Bath, the corvette Zinnia, and eight small vessels for about 14,000 tons.

When Adalbert Schnee in U-201 reached Lorient, Dönitz presented him a Ritterkreuz. According to postwar accounting, at the time of the award, Schnee had sunk (on the duck U-60 and on U-201) only eight or nine ships for about 20,000 tons. Doubtless much weight was given to Schnee’s dogged pursuit of Outbound Gibraltar 71 in the face of punishing enemy countermeasures, and to his substantial overclaims. Reflecting the poor returns of the summer of 1941, it was the only Ritterkreuz to be awarded to a German U-boat skipper in the period from August through October.

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