Military history


Berlin rightly worried about the Mediterranean Basin. The Italian naval and air forces had failed to gain control of this vital strategic area. Capitalizing on breaks in Luftwaffe Enigma, which directed German aircraft to escort specific convoys, British aircraft, surface ships, and submarines had cut heavily into the flow of supplies from Italy to German and Italian forces in North Africa. The lack of supplies had prevented Rommel’s Afrika Korps from capturing bypassed Tobruk and had undermined the ability of Axis forces to repulse a possible British offensive. Moreover, a belief persisted in Berlin that the British were preparing an amphibious landing behind Axis forces—in Algiers and Oran—to trap Rommel between giant pincers.

To cope with this increasingly perilous situation, the OKM directed that in addition to the six U-boats ordered to the Mediterranean in September, Dönitz must do everything possible to interdict the flow of British supplies to the Mediterranean via the Strait of Gibraltar.

Dönitz was reluctant to comply. He continued to view the war in the Mediterranean as a distant second in importance to the war in the North Atlantic. Based on the small size and small number of ships in the Gibraltar convoys, he did not believe the flow of supplies from the British Isles via Gibraltar to be all that significant. The bulk of British supplies, he argued correctly, went to Egypt via Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Cape Town, South Africa. Moreover, the U-boat attacks on Gibraltar Convoys 70 and 71 in August had shown that those convoys were very heavily protected by air and surface escorts, so much so that they could almost be viewed as U-boat traps. Only the most experienced U-boat skippers had any chance of success against them and, as the attacks in August had shown, the chances were slight. Those experienced skippers were urgently needed in the North Atlantic, where the opportunities for delivering a meaningful blow at Great Britain’s lifelines were greater and the risks smaller.

The upshot was a compromise. Dönitz was to continue the U-boat war against the Gibraltar convoys; however, the boats, organized into smaller groups of about eight, were to be deployed much farther offshore where British air patrols were less intense and where the U-boats might also intercept Outbound South convoys en route to Sierra Leone, inbound Sierra Leone convoys, and military convoys outbound via Cape Town to Egypt, known as Winston Specials. The packs could be temporarily reinforced, as required by boats outbound to the North Atlantic or by those with sufficient fuel and torpedoes homebound to France. The Bordeaux-based Condors were to assist the packs in hunting and tracking convoys.

For the first three weeks of September, the hunt for Gibraltar and Sierra Leone convoys was fruitless. The boats and Condors found several, but owing to the ability of the British to read naval Enigma and thus to evade U-boat patrol lines and to miserable weather, neither of the first two packs, group Bosemüller (seven boats) and group Kurfürst (eight boats) sank a ship. As the boats departed for other tasks or to France, the remainder were regrouped into a single pack, group Seewolf, but it had no success either. On September 14, Coastal Command aircraft (as yet unidentified) bombed and seriously damaged two VIICs of this pack, Gerd Schreiber’s veteran U-95 and Robert Bartels’s U-561, forcing both to abort.

Soon after group Seewolf dissolved, an Italian boat operating west of Gibraltar reported a northbound convoy. This was Homebound Gibraltar 73, consisting of twenty-five ships, escorted by a destroyer, two sloops, eight corvettes, and the fighter-catapult ship Springbank. Only three U-boats were close enough to intercept and attack this convoy, but one of these, U-371, commanded by Heinrich Driver, was en route to the Mediterranean under orders not to attack any ships in the Atlantic.

Driver passed close to the convoy and reported its position. His report enabled Dönitz to put the other two boats on the convoy track. Fresh from France, these boats were U-124 under command of twenty-five-year-old Johann Mohr, the boat’s former first watch officer, and U-201, commanded by Adalbert Schnee, who had won a Ritterkreuz for his dogged attack on Gibraltar 71 in August. The U-124 was a IXB, a type that Dönitz considered to be too large, slow-diving, and too clumsy for attacks on the very heavily escorted Gibraltar convoys, but he had utmost confidence in young Mohr.

Taking up a waiting position about 600 miles west of the English Channel on the afternoon of September 20, Mohr detected smoke on the horizon. It was a convoy, but not the one he was expecting. This one was Outbound Gibraltar 74, southbound from the British Isles. Composed of twenty-seven ships, it was escorted by a sloop, five corvettes, and the “jeep” carrier Audacity, on her maiden voyage in convoy duty. Upon receiving Mohr’s report, Dönitz directed him to shadow and send beacons to bring up the only other boat in the area, Schnee’s U-201.

Mohr shadowed until Schnee made contact, then attacked after dark on September 20. In his first salvo, he fired three torpedoes and got three hits. He claimed sinking two freighters for 15,000 tons and damage to an 8,000-ton tanker. In reality he sank two small freighters for 4,200 tons total and did no harm to the “tanker.” The merchant ships lit the sky with brilliant new star shells, called snowflakes,* and chased U-124 off and down.

The next day, while Mohr in U-124 and Schnee in U-201 maneuvered to close after dark, Dönitz sent out Condors to attack the convoy. In response, Audacity launched her six Martlets (the British version of the American-built Grumman Wildcat). One of the Martlets shot down a Condor—the first aerial victory for a “jeep” carrier in the war—and another machine-gunned U-124 or U-201, forcing one or the other to dive. However, one of the Condors bombed and sank a freighter that had fallen behind while rescuing the crews of the two ships Mohr had sunk.

Mohr and Schnee closed on the convoy after dark from opposite sides. Mohr set up on three ships, intending to fire two torpedoes at each. As he was on the point of shooting, all three ships blew up and sank. Schnee, as Mohr reported to Dönitz, had beat him to the punch. Schnee claimed sinking 14,000 tons, but the three ships totaled only 4,500 tons. Harassed by escorts and the Martlets from Audacity, neither boat was able to make another attack.

Total damage to Outbound Gibraltar 74 by Mohr and Schnee: five ships for 8,700 tons.

The fortuitous encounter with Outbound Gibraltar 74 was all well and good, but the main assignment for U-124 and U-201 was the heavily escorted, Home-bound Gibraltar 73, which the Italian boats were still stalking and reporting. Astonishingly, the convoy appeared to be headed directly into the area where Mohr and Schnee had attacked Outbound Gibraltar 74. On September 24 Dönitz sent Condors out to check on the Italian reports. The aircraft confirmed the convoy’s position and course, adding that the Italians had attacked it, sinking and/or damaging three ships.*Two other VIIs sailing from France, Rolf Mützelburg’s U-203 and Franz-Georg Reschke’s U-205, were directed to reinforce Mohr and Schnee.

Homing on the Condor beacon signals, Mohr in U-124 was first to make contact with Homebound Gibraltar 73, closing the ships in heavy seas and rain on the morning of September 25. First he shot two torpedoes at what he claimed to be a cruiser, but which was probably a destroyer. Both missed. Then he fired one torpedo at what he claimed to be a destroyer. It also missed. Finally, he fired two torpedoes at what he claimed to be a 12,000-ton tanker. Both torpedoes hit the target, but it was a 3,000-ton British freighter and it sank.

Late that night, Mützelburg in U-203 came up to join Mohr, and both skippers attacked at about the same time. Mohr claimed sinking two more ships for 11,000 tons, but postwar records credited only two small British freighters for 2,700 tons. Mützelburg claimed sinking a freighter and a tanker for 20,000 tons. Postwar records credited three small freighters for 7,700 tons. The escorts drove Mohr and Mützelburg off and under.

During September 26, Mohr and Mützelburg doggedly clung to the convoy, bringing up Schnee in U-201 and Reschke in U-205. After dark, Mohr and Schnee attacked again. Firing off his remaining torpedoes, Mohr claimed sinking a ship of 3,000 tons and possible damage to another of 5,000 tons. Postwar records credited only a 1,800-ton freighter. Schnee claimed sinking a corvette and two freighters for 8,000 tons. No corvette was hit but the 5,200-ton fighter-catapult ship Springbank and another freighter of 2,500 tons went down. Still hanging on, the following night Schnee expended the last of his torpedoes, claiming two more freighters for 8,000 tons, but only one for 3,100 tons was confirmed. Mützelburg in U-203 had no chance to attack again. An aircraft “with United States markings” caught and bombed Reschke in U-205, forcing him to abort to France for repairs.

When Mohr, Schnee, and Mützelburg radioed their sinking reports, Dönitz was elated. Mohr claimed a total of six ships for 41,000 tons; Schnee seven ships for 30,000 tons plus a corvette; Mützelburg two ships for 20,000 tons and possibly another. Total claims: fifteen ships for 91,000 tons plus a corvette definitely sunk; two other ships possibly sunk. By postwar accounting, Mohr had sunk six small ships for 11,700 tons, Schnee six small ships for 15,200 tons (and no corvette), and Mützelburg three small ships for 7,700 tons. Confirmed totals: fifteen ships for 34,500 tons definitely sunk—five for 8,700 tons from Outbound Gibraltar 74 and ten for 25,800 tons from Homebound Gibraltar 73.

On October 2 a Condor found a southbound convoy, Outbound Gibraltar 75, and Dönitz launched a half-dozen boats in pursuit. Hans-Werner Kraus in U-83 and Walter Flachsenberg in U-71 soon made contact and shadowed doggedly, sending beacon signals, but they were hampered by heavy weather and clever British evasions. Klaus Bargsten in U-563 reestablished contact with the convoy close to the coast of Portugal, but it again evaded pursuit and reached Gibraltar on October 14 without the loss of a single merchant ship. Bravely trailing the ships right into the western approaches to the Strait of Gibraltar, Herbert Opitz in U-206 fired at and hit what he thought was a destroyer, but proved to be the British corvette Fleur de Lys, which sank instantly with heavy loss of life.

The Germans had an efficient spy network in place in Algeciras, Spain, and directly across the Gibraltar Strait at Tangier, Morocco. The spies provided Berlin with precise information on Allied ship and convoy movements at Gibraltar and in the strait. Reading the Abwehr Enigma net currently and fluently, the British were aware of the spy network,* but they could do nothing to thwart its operations or to disguise the ship movements.

The spies reported to Berlin that convoy Homebound Gibraltar 75 was preparing to sail at any hour. Upon learning this, Dönitz directed the boats that had unsuccessfully chased the Outbound Gibraltar 75 south to the strait, plus others organized as group Breslau, to prepare to attack Homebound Gibraltar 75. While waiting, two of the six boats, Walter Kell in U-204, which had escorted the blockade runner Rio Grande to the Azores, and Ritterkreuz holder Reinhard Suhren in U-564, clandestinely refueled from the German supply ship Thalia in Cadiz.

Aware from Enigma decrypts that six boats were lying in wait west of Gibraltar to intercept Homebound Gibraltar 75, the British delayed its sailing for nearly a week. During the wait, Kell in U-204 sank the 9,200-ton British tanker Inverlee; Opitz in U-206 sank a 3,000-ton freighter; Hans-Werner Kraus in U-83 attacked a naval task force consisting of the ancient British carriers Eagle and Argus (serving as aircraft ferries), the cruiser Hermione, and a screening destroyer. Kraus missed the carriers but he was credited, incorrectly, with sinking a destroyer. The task force escaped the gauntlet of U-boats unharmed.

The British mounted daily ASW sweeps to clear out the U-boats lying in wait west of the Gibraltar Strait. On October 19, after Kell in U-204 sank the tanker, the sloop Rochester and the corvette Mallow found and counterattacked Kell’s U-204. Coming up to assist, the corvettes Bluebell and Carnation found an oil slick and the air and fuel flasks of a torpedo, but this was not deemed conclusive evidence of a kill. The Admiralty rated the attack as merely “promising,” but, as was discovered later, Rochester and Mallow had sunk Kell’s U-204 with the loss of all hands.

Finally on the evening of October 22, Homebound Gibraltar 75 sailed. It consisted of seventeen ships and a massive escort of thirteen warships—four destroyers, one sloop, seven corvettes—and the 6,700-ton fighter-catapult ship Ariguani. Ten of the thirteen escorts were equipped with radar—three of them with the powerful new Type 271 centimetric-wavelength sets. In what Dönitz logged as “excellent” work, German spies immediately reported the sailing and the exact number and types of ships in the convoy.

Dönitz relayed to group Breslau (five boats) information on the sailing. Several of the boats made contact on the first night, but the escorts beat off the attacks. The destroyer Vidette got a radar contact on a U-boat at three and a half miles and ran in at flank speed to ram, firing her main battery, but the boat crash-dived. Vidette mounted an attack, but her crew botched the depth-charge launching and the boat got away.

On the second night, October 23-24, three U-boats closed the convoy to attack. The corvette Carnation forced one boat under and held her down with depth charges, but the other two boats had better luck. Klaus Bargsten in U-563 missed a freighter but hit the big Tribal-class destroyer Cossack, blowing off her bow. In two attacks, Reinhard Suhren in U-564 fired all eleven internal torpedoes. He claimed hits on six ships for damage, but in reality he hit and sank three British freighters for 7,200 tons. The British tried mightily to save Cossack but she sank under tow.

During October 24 and 25, the boats shadowed and reported while Dönitz sent out several flights of Condors and brought up three Italian boats. A Catalina of British Squadron 202 spotted one of the Italian boats, Ferraris, on the surface seventeen miles ahead of the convoy. Piloted by Norman F. Eagleton, the Catalina attacked with two depth charges and machine guns, but the charges failed to explode. Seeing the Catalina circling, the destroyer Lamerton raced up, firing her 4” guns. Mistaking the destroyer for a corvette, Ferraris responded with her 3.9” gun and tried to run. But Lamerton easily overtook her, whereupon the Italians scuttled and surrendered.

By the night of October 25-26, when the convoy had been reduced to fourteen ships and ten escorts, three boats ran in to attack. Walter Flachsenberg in U-71 shot four torpedoes at a “destroyer” but missed. Other escorts pounced on U-71 and depth-charged her for seven hours, Flachsenberg reported. Kraus in U-83 fired his last three torpedoes at three different ships, claiming all sank. In reality he hit only one ship, the fighter-catapult ship Ariguani, which was saved and towed back to Gibraltar. While preparing to shoot, Bargsten in U-563 was intercepted, attacked, and driven under by the corvette Heliotrope, but she, too, botched her depth-charge attack. Bargsten fired two torpedoes at a “destroyer” (perhaps Heliotrope) from extreme range and claimed a sinking, but his torpedoes also missed.

Group Breslau had shrunk to two boats by the evening of October 26: Bargsten in U-563 and Suhren in U-564. That night Bargsten fired five of his remaining six torpedoes at two freighters, but all missed. Having downloaded one torpedo from a deck canister, Suhren fired it at a freighter from extreme range. He claimed sinking a 3,000-ton ship, but he also missed. Using radar and intership radio to good effect, the destroyer Duncan, the sloop Rochester, and the corvette Mallow counterattacked both boats and held them off.

Although Bargsten and Suhren had only one torpedo between them, during October 27 both boats shadowed the Homebound Gibraltar 75 tenaciously. Their reports and several sightings by Condors enabled Dönitz to vector one other boat to the convoy. She was Heinz-Otto Schultze’s U-432, homebound from the attack on Slow Convoy 48. Homing on Bargsten’s and Suhren’s beacons, in the early hours of October 28 Schultze closed and fired at two freighters. He claimed both sank, but only the 1,600-ton Ulea, which had bravely attempted to ram U-432, went down.

Based on flash reports from all the boats, Dönitz calculated that group Breslau had won a sensational victory over Homebound Gibraltar 75: a destroyer and seven freighters for 34,000 tons sunk by Kraus, Bargsten, and Schultze, six ships for 25,000 tons damaged by Suhren. The reality was much less, reflecting the smaller size of ships in these convoys: the destroyer Cossack and four freighters for 8,800 tons sunk, the fighter-catapult ship Ariguani damaged. Two boats were lost: Kell’s U-204 and Ferraris

As related, on the night of October 31, the U-96, commanded by Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, who was outbound to a Greenland patrol line, came upon a convoy. This was Outbound South 10, consisting of thirtyfour big ships and six escorts bound for Sierra Leone. Since no other U-boats were close by, Kerneval authorized Lehmann-Willenbrock to attack the convoy alone.

There was a full moon; the sky was cloudless. In such light a surface attack was perilous, but there was not enough light for a submerged attack. Making the best of an unfavorable situation, Lehmann-Willenbrock remained on the surface and fired four torpedoes at two big ships from “considerable” range. He claimed two hits “amidships” on each ship, but postwar records confirmed only one sinking, a 6,000-ton Dutch freighter. As Lehmann-Willenbrock hauled out to get off shadow reports, one of the escorts, the ex-Coast Guard cutter Lulworth, spotted U-96 at two miles and counterattacked at high speed. Her gunfire drove U-96 under and prevented another attack. Lulworth threw off twenty-seven depth charges but none fell close. Lehmann-Willenbrock evaded and later surfaced and got off another shadow report.

An interested observer on U-96 was Lothar-Günther Buchheim, a twenty-three-year-old “war artist” or propagandist. To then, artist Buchheim had depicted the U-boat war with oil paintings and charcoal sketches of returning boats and skippers from a shore billet. Equipped with Leica cameras and notebooks, he was making his first war patrol. Shot with a professional artist’s eye, his photographs were remarkable—the best of the war. Many years after the war, Buchheim drew on his notes of this voyage to write a long novel, Das Boot (1973), which became a worldwide best-seller, the basis for a six-hour German television miniseries, and a taut and realistic 145-minute feature film of the same name, released with English dubbing as The Boat. Still later (1976) Buchheim published a “nonfiction” picture book, an impressionistic history of the U-boat war, using his own pictures and combining fact and fiction.

German submariners were delighted with Buchheim’s wartime art, photographs, and heroic stories, but they were appalled by his postwar writings and the film. They denounced him for opening the film Das Boot with scenes of a wildly drunken orgy at an officers’ club in Lorient; for the negative, defeatist, anti-military tone of the book and film; and for the implied criticism of Dönitz. Two U-boat skippers, Karl-Friedrich Merten and Kurt Baberg, were so enraged by Buchheim’s “nonfiction” U-boat history that in 1985 they published an entire book (Nein! So War Das Nicht) pointing out Buchheim’s errors and/or misleading statements.

When Dönitz received Lehmann-Willenbrock’s shadow report, he deployed Condors and directed ten other inbound and outbound boats to home on U-96’s beacons. The boats were organized into a new group, Stoertebecker. While they were converging, Lehmann-Willenbrock attempted a second attack on Outbound South 10 during the night of November 1-2, but the escorts, ex-American four-stack destroyer Stanley and ex-Coast Guard cutter Gorleston, and the British corvette Verbena drove U-96 off with gunfire and depth charges.*

Dönitz had great hopes for the eleven boats of group Stoertebecker. But the group ran into a massive storm—vividly captured on film by Buchheim—which killed any chance for a coordinated attack. After two days of frustration, Dönitz canceled the chase and directed the group to intercept a reported Homebound Gibraltar convoy. When this hunt failed, Dönitz redirected the group to intercept the northbound convoy Sierra Leone 91, but that pursuit failed as well. Outwitted by British evasions and diversions and bedeviled by foul weather, fuel shortages, and mechanical problems, group Stoertebecker was finally dissolved. It sank no ships.

These several U-boat groups patrolling the eastern Atlantic waters in September and October of 1941 to shut down the flow of British supplies to the Mediterranean via the Gibraltar Strait also turned in quite disappointing results. They had mounted attacks against four Gibraltar convoys (Outbound 74 and 75; Homebound 73 and 75) and had sunk nineteen small ships for about 43,400 tons, plus the destroyer Cossack and corvette Fleur de Lys. However, most of the damage in this arduous and risky campaign had been inflicted on the less vital Home bound convoys. To the end of November 1941, all these boats sank only five small Gibraltar-bound merchant ships totaling 8,700 tons and one ship for 6,000 tons from Outbound South 10. This was not much help to Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

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