Military history

THE LOSS OF KOTA PINANG, ATLANTIS, AND PYTHON

Notwithstanding the sharp decline in U-boat successes in West African waters, Dönitz continued patrols to that area in late fall of 1941. As before, the presence of even a few U-boats accomplishing little compelled the British to convoy, drew ASW forces from the decisive North Atlantic area, and indirectly helped Rommel.

Two further “waves” set off for that distant area.

The first of two boats, Ernst Bauer in U-126 and Nikolaus Clausen in U-129, sailed in late September. They—and the other boats in the South Atlantic—were to be supported by a supply ship, Kota Pinang, which sailed from Bordeaux at the end of September. Alerted to this scheme by Enigma decrypts, the Admiralty ordered two Gibraltar-based cruisers, Kenya and Sheffield, to intercept Kota Pinang. Kenya found her about 750 miles west of Spain in the early hours of October 4 and sank her by gunfire, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves.

Clausen in U-129 had been assigned to rendezvous with Kota Pinang and provide escort. He arrived that morning in the midst of the shelling. After Kenya hauled out, Clausen closed the lifeboats and took aboard the 119 German survivors. He reversed course for Lorient, but upon learning of this setback, Dönitz directed Clausen to take the survivors into El Ferrol, Spain. Two days later, Clausen stood off that port, transferred the survivors to a Spanish tugboat, then returned to Lorient to replenish his greatly depleted food and fresh-water supplies. In due course the German survivors were repatriated to German-occupied France.

The loss of Kota Pinang was a severe blow to the South Atlantic U-boat campaign. As a result, it was necessary to start four of the five boats in South Atlantic waters on homeward voyages, leaving only Merten’s U-68, which had resupplied from both the U-111 and the damaged U-67. Homebound, Zapp in U-66, Winter in U-103, and Hessler in U-107 were temporarily attached to the luckless group Stoertebecker off Gibraltar, but none had sufficient fuel or provisions to operate effectively, and they soon went on to France. Upon arrival, Hessler was promoted to the job of first staff officer to his father-in-law, replacing Viktor Oehrn, who went to the Mediterranean.

As it happened, at this time the famous German raider Atlantis was homebound from a long voyage in the Pacific. Dönitz made arrangements to resupply Merten’s U-68, Bauer’s U-126, and Clausen’s U-129 from Atlantis, but shortly after sailing, Clausen in U-129 suffered an engine failure that forced him to return to France for the second time.

That left only two boats in the South Atlantic in late October: Merten in U-68 and Bauer in U-126. Exploring very far into the South Atlantic to find the convoy routes, Merten reconnoitered the islands of Ascension and St. Helena. He found nothing at Ascension, but at St. Helena he boldly slipped into the harbor at Jamestown and sank the 8,100-ton British tanker Darkdale with a salvo of four torpedoes. He then took U-68 east to explore the African coast at Walvis Bay, British Southwest Africa. On the way, he sank two big British freighters for 10,300 tons, which were sailing alone. Off Freetown, Bauer in U-126 sank three lone ships for 16,900 tons, including the 7,000-ton tanker British Mariner, and on October 19, the 5,000-ton American freighter Lehigh* which was zigzagging, leading Bauer to mistake it for a British vessel, or so he claimed. Both boats then hauled out to the mid-Atlantic to rendezvous with the homebound raider Atlantis.

The second wave of U-boats to the South Atlantic was more ambitious. Four boats, including Bauer’s U-126, supported first by the raider Atlantis, then by a supply ship, Python, freshly sailed from France, were to attack shipping directly off Cape Town, South Africa. The other three boats were Joachim Mohr in U-124, Nikolaus Clausen in the delayed U-129, and the U-A, returned to the Atlantic after months in a shipyard, still commanded by Hans Eckermann. From Enigma traffic, the Admiralty divined what was afoot and set in motion countermeasures to spoil the German operation.

As arranged, Merten in U-68 met Atlantis on November 13, but the seas were too rough to carry out a resupply. The vessels remained in touch, awaiting a break in the weather. Meanwhile, the British authorized yet another “tactical use” of naval Enigma. Heavy cruisers Devonshire and Dorsetshire and the light cruiser Dunedin sailed independently to track down and sink Atlantis, the supply ship Python, and the five U-boats that were to rendezvous with them. On November 14, the weather abated and U-68 came alongside Atlantis. Merten took on oil, food, water, soap, towels, underwear, and cigarettes, then left to patrol home by way of Freetown.

As also arranged, Bauer in U-126 met Atlantis on November 22, a fine morning. Bauer had developed engine trouble that he was unable to repair and had received permission from Kerneval to abort the Cape Town mission and return to France. Hence Bauer’s supply requirements were not urgent.

The skipper of Atlantis, Bernhard Rogge, invited Bauer and “a few” of his crew to breakfast. Believing the area to be safe from enemy attack, Bauer accepted. While Bauer was taking a bath, an Atlantis lookout reported masts on the horizon. This was the heavy cruiser Devonshire, armed with eight 8” guns. Based on Enigma decrypts, the Admiralty had directed her to the rendezvous area, ostensibly on routine patrol. Her scout plane had found Atlantis and U-126.

Devonshire opened fire at a range of about seven miles. Atlantis and U-126 separated immediately, leaving Bauer and his men stranded on board Atlantis. Commanded by a junior watch officer, U-126 submerged to avoid the gunfire and to attack Devonshire if the opportunity presented itself. Aware that U-126 was nearby, Devonshire remained at extreme range and maneuvered at high speed, pumping shells at Atlantis. When these had wrecked Atlantis beyond any hope, Rogge scuttled and abandoned ship.* Seeing that Atlantis had sunk, Devonshire cleared the area to avoid an attack by U-126.

The U-126 surfaced and picked up Bauer and the other submariners. Bauer got off a report of the disaster to Kerneval, then organized a rescue of the 305-man crew of Atlantis. He took 107 men on board U-126: fifty-five, including all wounded, belowdecks and fifty-two on the upper deck. The other 198 men were distributed among six lifeboats. Bauer took the lifeboats in tow and set a course for the South American coast, reporting his action to Dönitz, adding that on the return voyage, U-126 would require refueling.

Upon learning of the disaster, the OKM and Kerneval arranged for the newly arrived supply ship Python to rescue the Atlantis survivors and return to France. But the Cape Town U-boat assault was to proceed anyway, Merten’s U-68 substituting for Bauer’s U-126, whose engines were still unreliable. The four boats of the reconstituted Cape Town group were to replenish from Python before she returned to France.

Homing on the beacon signals of Bauer’s U-126, Python came up on November 24. She took aboard the 305 Atlantis survivors and then replenished Bauer in U-126. Thereupon Bauer departed for France. Python steamed to a new rendezvous 1,700 miles south of the Atlantis sinking, in order to replenish the four Cape Town boats. Learning of these new arrangements via Enigma decrypts, the Admiralty set in motion a second trap.

En route to the rendezvous with Python, on the afternoon of November 24, Mohr in U-124 sighted the top-hamper of a British warship. She was the old light cruiser Dunedin, zigzagging at high speed. Mohr hauled around to take position along the cruiser’s path, then submerged for a periscope attack. Bedeviled by temporarily inoperable bow planes and a broken depth gauge, Mohr’s attack was less than picture-perfect. Moreover, when he was finally ready to shoot, Dunedin suddenly altered course away. In desperation Mohr fired three torpedoes from the extreme range of 6,000 yards. Astonishingly, after a run of five minutes and twenty-three seconds, two of the three torpedoes hit Dunedin. She blew up and sank instantly, with heavy loss of life.

According to plan, two U-boats met Python on November 30: Merten in U-68 and Eckermann in U-A. Resupplying for the fourth time on his prolonged patrol, Merten in U-68 took on a full load of fuel. The next day, December 1, while Merten was transferring torpedoes from Python to U-68, Eckermann in U-A nuzzled up to take on fuel. Coached to the rendezvous by the Admiralty, the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire, armed with eight 8” guns, arrived in the late afternoon and launched a scout plane, which spotted the German vessels. Concerned that Python might have British POWs on board, Dorsetshire fired two “warning shots” from twelve miles, intending to force Python to surrender.

Caught unawares, the German vessels dispersed immediately. The defenseless Python ran away at flank speed, leaving the two U-boats between her and Dorsetshire. Merten and Eckermann dived to attack, but everything possible went wrong. Merten’s torpedoes were not yet properly stowed nor had the boat been trimmed. When he dived, U-68 went out of control, plunging steeply by the bow. The emergency action required to save the boat spoiled any chance of mounting an attack. Eckermann in U-A botched his attack, firing five torpedoes from excessive range with a setup which underestimated Dorsetshire’s, speed. To avoid further U-boat attack, Dorsetshire hauled off and left the area, and Python scuttled.

After Dorsetshire disappeared, the two U-boats surfaced amid Python’s survivors. Including the crew of Atlantis, there were 414 Germans variously distributed in eleven lifeboats and numerous rafts. The Atlantis captain, Bernhard Rogge—the senior officer present—assumed command of the rescue. He put about 100 survivors on board U-68 and another 100 on U-A and redistributed the remaining 200 men in the ten lifeboats. Each of the U-boats then took five lifeboats in tow. Eckermann in U-A reported this second disaster to Kerneval, adding that both U-boats and their trains of lifeboats had sufficient fuel to reach France, about 5,000 miles distant.

The news of this second sinking came as a terrible shock. Dönitz canceled the Cape Town foray and directed the other two boats, Mohr in U-124 and Clausen in U-129, to find U-68 and U-A and render all possible assistance. Racing north on the night of December 3, Mohr in U-124 encountered a blacked-out, zigzagging freighter, which he stopped and searched. She was the 6,300-ton American vessel Sagadahoc, bound for Durban, South Africa. Concluding that her cargo was contraband, Mohr ordered the crew into lifeboats and then sank her, the third American merchant ship to fall victim to U-boats before the United States entered the war.

By December 5, Mohr in U-124 and Clausen in U-129 had arrived at the scene of the Python disaster. Rogge transferred the 200 survivors in the lifeboats to U-124 and U-129 and cast the lifeboats adrift. The four U-boats, each carrying about 104 survivors, then proceeded north at much higher speed. Half the survivors on each boat were belowdecks, the other half on the upper deck, sitting in rubber dinghies or rafts, which would float free in case the boat had to crash-dive. For the survivors topside it was a long, cold, miserable ride.

Meanwhile, Dönitz turned to the Italians for assistance. They sent four big Bordeaux-based boats racing south at maximum speed. These met the four German U-boats at separate locations near the Cape Verde Islands, December 16 to 18, gave them fuel, lube oil, and food, and took aboard 260 German survivors.* While Torelli was en route to France, a British destroyer or corvette caught and severely depth-charged her, but she survived. The other seven boats arrived in France without mishap.

The Atlantis-Python rescue operation soon became a legendary tale. Not a single German of the 414 on Atlantis and Python was lost. But the sinking within the space of sixty days of first Kota Pinang, then Atlantis, and then Python convinced Dönitz that resupply of submarines from surface ships was no longer feasible. Patrols to Freetown—or to Cape Town—had to be abandoned until U-boat tankers under construction became available.

The loss of Atlantis and Python raised anew the suspicion that the British had broken naval Enigma. The OKM agreed the losses were not “coincidental,” but after yet another cursory investigation of communications security, it reaffirmed its faith in Enigma, citing the fact that in recent weeks three prize ships had arrived in France and two blockade runners had departed France and despite heavy radio traffic, none had been attacked. This conclusion was based in large part on the false assumption that the British would act tactically on all Enigma information.

In the second six months of 1941, Dönitz mounted eighteen patrols to West African waters. Four boats of the special Freetown task force had to abort owing to the loss of German surface resupply vessels. Another boat, U-67, rammed by the British submarine Clyde, was forced to abort. The other thirteen boats sank nineteen confirmed ships, an average of only 1.5 ships sunk per boat per (extended) patrol. Six boats sank no ships. One boat, U-111, was lost to British forces. No boats sailed to that area in November and December.

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