Military history


Had Hitler not unwisely insisted that about fifty U-boats be assigned to defend against a supposed invasion of Norway and to support Rommel’s operations in North Africa, the U-boat campaign of 1942 in American waters doubtless would have been much more devastating than it was. As Dönitz predicted, the U-boats diverted to those peripheral tasks achieved little. Several were lost. These operations, in brief:


In compliance with Hitler’s direct order to send more U-boats to the Arctic, between January and the end of March eighteen new Type VIIs went directly there from Germany, raising that force to about twenty-five boats.* Those operating in the Arctic waters were commanded by a rear admiral, Hubert Schmundt, who was advised by Jürgen Oesten. These boats based in Kirkenes and Narvik and returned often to Trondheim for refits and battle-damage repairs. Schmundt, Oesten, and other staff officers established headquarters aboard ships, first on the E-boat tender Tanga in Kirkenes, then on the luxury yacht Grille (built for Hitler) in Narvik.

The Arctic boats had no luck whatsoever in the month of February. While they patrolled in the nearly twenty-four-hour darkness of the Arctic winter, convoys PQ 9, PQ 10, and PQ 11 (in all, about fifty merchant ships) arrived in Murmansk without any harm from U-boats. The opposite-sailing QP convoys likewise escaped attack by German forces.

When Tirpitz sailed March 6 on her futile first mission against convoys PQ 12 (sixteen ships) and QP 8 (fifteen ships), four U-boats based at Kirkenes deployed off Murmansk to intercept PQ ships that might escape Tirpitz. Two other U-boats sailed from Narvik to directly support Tirpitz. One, Otto Köhler’s new U-377, was mistakenly attacked by the Luftwaffe, which claimed an “enemy submarine” sinking. When it was realized that the “enemy” was probably Köhler in U-377, the OKM, fearing the boat lost, upbraided the Luftwaffe, but U-377 was not seriously damaged.

Patrolling close off Murmansk, Burkhard Hackländer in U-454, who had intercepted PQ 8 in January, also intercepted PQ 12. He sent beacons to call in the other three boats near Murmansk, but only Max-Martin Teichert in the new U-456 found him. Neither boat had success, and PQ 12 arrived without loss. In a biting critique to the OKM, Dönitz pointed out that the boats had been placed too close to Murmansk; they needed much more sea room to operate against a PQ convoy.

The next Murmansk convoy, PQ 13, and its westbound counterpart, QP 9, sailed on March 20 and 21, respectively. A massive Arctic storm scattered the twenty ships of PQ 13 over thousands of square miles of ocean. As the various ships straggled into the Murmansk area, the Luftwaffe sank two and three of the four U-boats sank one each: Friedrich-Karl Marks in U-376, Siegfried Strelow in U-435, and Max-Martin Teichert in U-456.

At this time, three Norway-based U-boats commanded by older but green skippers were lost. The British minesweeper Sharpshooter, which was escorting the westbound convoy QP 9, came out of a snowstorm on March 24 and rammed and sank the U-655, commanded by Adolph Dumrese, age thirty-two, who was on his first war patrol. Sharpshooter, which recovered “two lifebuoys and a canvas dinghy,” reported: “Submarine turned upside down and sank stern first.” There were no survivors. An escort of PQ 13, the British destroyer Fury, was credited with sinking U-585, commanded by Bernhard Lohse, age twenty-nine, on March 29, but it was discovered after the war that U-585 did not attack PQ 13. Assigned to lay TBM mines (the Bantos field) off the Rybachi Peninsula, she may have been destroyed by one of her own mines. There were no survivors. En route to Norway, a new boat, U-702, commanded by Wolf-Rüdigen von Rabenau, age thirty-four, struck a mine in the North Sea and sank with all hands.

The next Arctic convoys, PQ 14 and QP 10, sailed on April 8 and 10, respectively. Enlarged to twenty-four freighters, PQ 14 unexpectedly ran into drift ice which caused damage to numerous ships and forced sixteen of the twenty-four freighters and two minesweeper escorts back to Iceland. Eight freighters, including the convoy commander’s flagship, the 7,000-ton British Empire Howard, pressed on to Murmansk. As the stragglers were approaching the Kola Inlet, Heinz-Ehlert Clausen, age thirty-two, in the new boat U-403, hit and sank Empire Howard with two torpedoes. Friedrich-Karl Marks, age twenty-seven, in another new boat, U-376, fired three torpedoes at “a 10,000-ton cruiser,” doubtless Edinburgh, and claimed hits for damage. But Edinburgh reached Murmansk unhurt, as did the other seven freighters. Luftwaffe planes and U-boats hit the opposite-sailing QP 10, composed of sixteen empty freighters. The Luftwaffe sanl two ships and severely damaged a third, the 5,800-ton Russian Kiev. Siegfried Stelow in U-435 sank the Kiev and a 6,000-ton Panamanian freighter, bringing total losses to QP 10 to four ships, and Strelow’s total sinkings (from two convoys) to three ships for 18,252 tons, making him far and away the tonnage leader among the German skippers based in Norway.

In all, during February, March, and April 1942, the Arctic U-boat force sank merely five merchant ships for about 30,600 tons, plus the 250-ton British ASW trawler Sulla. In return, three U-boats were lost with all hands in the same period. Of course, no Allied invasion of Norway occurred.

Northwest Approaches.

Until the Norway-based U-boat force reached a permanent strength of about twenty-five boats, Dönitz continued to maintain eight or more U-boats from the Atlantic force on patrol in the Northwest Approaches. In early February these boats, designated group Westwall, comprised four boats earmarked for permanent duty in Norway and four new boats en route to France to join the Atlantic force. As noted earlier, these boats attacked several convoys on the North Atlantic run.

The U-586, commanded by Dietrich von der Esch, age twenty-seven, who was merely three weeks into his first patrol, discovered convoy Outbound North (Slow) 63 on February 6. In response to his report, three other Westwall boats—all new—converged on his beacons: Heinrich Zimmermann in U-136, Amelung von Varendorff in the Type VIID (minelayer) U-213, and Hans-Jürgen Zetzsche, age twenty-six, in U-591. But Zetzsche was too low on fuel to chase, and before he could get in an attack he was forced to break off and head for Norway. Von der Esch reported that he fired a full bow salvo at a “cruiser,” but the four torpedoes were “duds.” He reloaded his bow tubes and then fired four more torpedoes at three escorts but, he reported, all missed.

The British escort of this convoy DFed these U-boat contact reports by Huff Duff. The ex-American four-stack destroyer Chelsea and the corvette Arbutus, equipped with Type 271 centimetric radar, peeled off to run down a bearing. Arbutus got a radar contact at 3,000 yards on one of the boats, Zimmermann’s U-136. Arbutus drove U-136 under and attacked with depth charges, but Zimmermann counterattacked with torpedoes and blew Arbutus to pieces. Temporarily disabled by jammed steering gear, Chelsea finally came up to assist. She saw a U-boat, probably U-136, and opened fire with her guns, but the boat swung around and passed close down Chelsea’s port side, then dived. Chelsea got a sonar contact and carried out four deliberate depth-charge attacks, but Zimmermann evaded and continued to shadow the convoy.

Concerned that these green skippers might come to grief, Dönitz called off the attack. En route to Norway for permanent duty, von der Esch in U-586 encountered the 9,100-ton Norwegian tanker Anna Knudsen sailing alone. He fired his last three torpedoes at her, claiming a hit for damage, which was later confirmed. He then proceeded to Bergen, then onward to Narvik to operate against PQ convoys.

Also en route to Bergen and low on fuel, Zetzsche in U-597 found a group of targets on February 10. It was Slow Convoy 67, composed of twenty-two ships, thinly escorted by six Canadian corvettes that were pioneering Admiral King’s new “straight through” escort scheme—a nonstop voyage from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Londonderry, Northern Ireland (“Newfie to Derry” as the sailors put it). In response to Zetzsche’s report—and aware of his low fuel situation—Dönitz authorized him to attack. Zetzsche shot all of his internal torpedoes at three ships; one 4,000-ton Norwegian freighter sank.

Zimmermann in U-136 came up on Zetzsche’s beacons. Shortly before midnight, he fired a bow salvo at a cargo ship and one of the escorts. He apparently missed the cargo ship, but one or more torpedoes hit the Canadian corvette Spikenard, which blew up and went down slowly—the second corvette (after Arbutus) sunk by Zimmermann within five days. No immediate effort was—or could be—mounted to look for Spikenard survivors. The next day at 11:00 A.M., a British corvette, Gentian, found eight Spikenardcrewmen on a raft. No others were ever found. The other twenty-one ships and the five corvettes of Slow Convoy 67 reached port safely.

Continuing his patrol in the vicinity of Rockall Bank, Zimmermann in U-136 had further success. On February 16, he sank a straggler from convoy Halifax 174, the 6,900-ton British motorship Empire Comet. Three days later he found the big, fast, heavily escorted convoy Halifax 175. It was his report that brought up Kölle in the new, Americas-bound Type IXC U-154, who, as related, shot all fourteen internal torpedoes to no effect, owing to a defective torpedo-data computer. Zimmermann also had a frustrating experience: his last two torpedoes failed or missed. Two other Westwall boats, von Varendorff’s Type VIID (minelayer) U-273 and Karl-Ernst Schroeter’s U-752, also responded, but by then the convoy was nearing the British Isles and Coastal Command aircraft frustrated their attacks. Schroeter reported two hits on a big tanker—as well as two misses—but his hits could not be confirmed.

Altogether, group Westwall and the Americas-bound boats had come upon a half dozen east- or westbound North Atlantic convoys in February. Dönitz logged that the increasing frequency of North Atlantic convoy contacts was “surprising.” Six months earlier he and others at Kerneval had suspected that the British might be reading naval Enigma and had demanded an investigation. Yet no one at Kerneval detected any relationship between the increasing convoy contacts and the changeover to four-rotor Enigma.

In order to maintain the eight boats of the Westwall group on station in the Northwest Approaches during March, Dönitz was compelled to provide six boats from France that had been scheduled to sail to the Americas in late February. Inasmuch as four of the six—Berger in U-87, Praetorius in U-135, Thurmann in U-553, and Degen in U-701—had patrolled to the Americas in the first wave and were familiar with that distant territory, the diversion to Westwall was frustrating not only to Dönitz but also to the skippers and crews.

Only four of the eight Westwall boats had contact with the enemy in the month of March, and the results were slight. On March 1, in foul weather, Praetorius in U-135 found an Outbound North convoy 240 miles west of the Hebrides. He shot four torpedoes but all missed. Five other Westwall boats attempted to home on Praetorius’s beacons, but the bad weather defeated them. A few days later von Varendorff in the Type VIID (minelayer) U-213 came upon a large ship escorted by two destroyers, but owing to the heavy weather he was unable to attack.

Conducting an exceptionally bold patrol close to the dangerous south coast of Iceland, during a six-day period, March 6 to March 11, Degen in U-701 attacked five different ships and patrol craft, firing seven torpedoes. He claimed sinking one cargo ship and three patrol craft for 4,100 tons, but the postwar records credited only one 272-ton fishing trawler and two 500-ton British ASW trawlers, Notts Country and Stella Capella.

Gerd Kelbling, age twenty-six, in the new U-593, merely ten days out from Germany, found a convoy, but owing to the freeze-up on the Baltic, the boat had had scant tactical training. Dönitz therefore ordered Kelbling to attack only in darkness and only if the circumstances were completely favorable. Air and surface escorts thwarted his attack.*

During the abortive sortie of the Tirpitz against the Murmansk convoy PQ 12, March 6 to 11, the OKM placed the eight boats of the Westwall group under control of the admiral commanding group North, to support and protect Tirpitz. Four experienced boats, designated group York, were to hunt aggressively for Home Fleet units that might sortie to intercept Tirpitz. The other four less experienced boats were to play supporting roles, but upon a request from Dönitz, these four were returned to Kerneval’s control, and were replaced by four new boats sailing from Germany. Neither group York nor the four boats released to Kerneval found any targets. At Dönitz’s suggestion, beginning on March 25, the four new boats from Germany commenced replacing group York, which also returned to Kerneval’s control. The eight new boats that replaced Westwall were to remain permanently based in Norway.

The OKM directed that the four boats of group York, inbound to France, detour through the Denmark Strait to scout for Home Fleet or American capital ships. Since the York boats were low on fuel, Dönitz could not comply. Rather, he assigned that task to a new Type VII, U-252, commanded by Kai Lerchen, age thirty-one, which sailed from Germany March 26 on a special mission (Dana) to land a German agent on Iceland. After landing the agent, Lerchen reconnoitered the Denmark Strait, where he sank a 1,400-ton Norwegian freighter. Inbound to France on April 14, he ran into a convoy and reported. Since Lerchen also had had scant tactical training, Dönitz authorized him to attack only at night under favorable conditions.

The convoy was Outbound Gibraltar 82, escorted by a trimmed-down version of British Escort Group 36, commanded by the “U-boat killer” Johnny Walker in the sloop Stork. The Admiralty DFed Lerchen’s contact report and alerted Walker, who in turn notified the four corvettes of his group. Vetch, equipped with Type 271 centimetric-wavelength radar, picked up U-252 on the surface at 7,500 yards and chased for thirty minutes, firing her main battery and snowflake. In defense, Lerchen shot two torpedoes, which only barely missed Vetch, then dived. Stork joined Vetch, and the two vessels dropped forty-five depth charges, which destroyed U-252 with the loss of all hands. Walker lowered a whaleboat to look for survivors, but the boatmen found only “a revolting mixture of oil, wood, blood, and guts.” They fished up some small wooden pieces from the boat, a sheepskin coat, and a pair of leather trousers, which contained a penciled chit headed “U-252,” and “a human heart and lungs, complete but penetrated by splinters.” Stork’s physician pickled the heart and lungs in a bottle “for the future pleasure of the Medical Branch.”

When no word came from U-252, and her loss was presumed, Dönitz remarked on the similarity of her disappearance to that of Rollmann’s U-82 in early February. Both boats had reported “lightly escorted” convoys in nearly the same area on the western edge of the Bay of Biscay and were never heard from again. He concluded, wrongly, that the British had organized a “dummy convoy” of “special antisubmarine vessels,” designed to trap U-boats going to and from France. Thus he forbade the U-boats to attack convoys in this area “for the present.” Walker’s success over U-252 was, therefore, much more important than the Admiralty realized. Inbound and outbound Gibraltar convoys as well as Outbound South and inbound Sierra Leone convoys were to enjoy uncontested passage while off the coast of France and the British Isles.

In all, during the period from January to March inclusive, Dönitz mounted thirty-three patrols to the Western Approaches or other areas in the eastern Atlantic.* Except for that of von Varendorff in the VIID (minelayer) U-213, all the patrols were of short duration. Some were merely transfers from Germany to France. These patrols accounted for ten Allied ships for 17,600 tons, including four warships: the American Coast Guard cutter Alexander Hamilton; the British corvette Arbutus; the Canadian corvette Spikenard; and the British ASW trawler Rosemonde. In return, two boats were lost: U-252 and U-581.


Counting the new arrivals and deducting losses, on February 1, 1942, twenty-one U-boats remained in the Mediterranean. Operating from Italian-managed bases at La Spezia, Pola, and Salamis, the force had a new commander: the able destroyer expert Leo Karl Kreisch, replacing Viktor Oehrn. The main missions of the force remained two: support of Rommel’s North African offensive by attacking the coasters supporting the opposing British Eighth Army, and thwarting the British reinforcement of the island of Malta.

As in 1941, the U-boat patrols in the Mediterranean in 1942 were short—seldom more than three weeks—but harrowing in the extreme. The skies were filled with British, German, and Italian aircraft whose air crews could not distinguish between enemy and friendly submarines. Both Allied and Axis air and surface forces planted scores of offensive and defensive minefields. Allied shipping was closely guarded by veteran radar-equipped air and surface escorts, making attacks difficult. Allied submarines posed another hazard.

As a consequence, the Mediterranean U-boats, like the Arctic U-boats, produced thin results. In January, five U-boats recorded attacks, four against Allied destroyers. Near Alexandria, Hermann Hesse in U-133 hit and sank the British destroyer Gurkha II. Off Tobruk, Heinrich Schonder in U-77 hit but only damaged the British destroyer Kimberley. In the same area, Wilhelm Dommes in U-431 sank a 300-ton patrol yacht. All other attacks failed.

In February, seven U-boats recorded attacks. Dommes in U-431 claimed hits on a destroyer and a tanker; Helmut Rosenbaum in U-73 claimed sinking a destroyer; Robert Bartels in U-561 claimed a hit on a freighter; Georg-Werner Fraatz in U-652 claimed hits on a destroyer, a sloop, and a small tanker; Hans-Werner Kraus in U-83 claimed sinking a corvette and small freighter and hits on a destroyer and a freighter; Friedrich Guggenberger in U-81, who had won a Ritterkreuz for sinking Ark Royal, claimed hits on a light cruiser; and Hans-Otto Heidtmann in U-559 claimed sinking a 4,000-ton freighter. But, according to Jürgen Rohwer and postwar Allied records, not one of these ships sank and only a few of the hits for damage could be confirmed.

The deep-running defect in the electric torpedoes had been fixed by March and results improved, but only slightly. Johann Jebsen in U-565 sank the 5,500-ton British light cruiser Naiad. Fraatz in U-652 sank the British destroyer Jaguar, the British frigate Heythrop, and probably a 2,600-ton British tanker. Kraus in U-83 damaged a small freighter. But yet another U-boat was lost. Leaving Salamis on March 14, the U-133, commanded by a new skipper, Eberhard Mohr, age twenty-six, blundered into a defensive minefield and blew up. There were no survivors.*

Admiral Raeder and the OKM were dismayed by the slim returns of the Mediterranean boats. Berlin pointedly logged in early March that although the Mediterranean war patrols were “brief,” there were more U-boats in the shipyards undergoing refit than there were boats on patrol and demanded an explanation from the new U-boat force commander, Leo Kreisch. The latter conceded that the situation was “unfortunate” but explained that many boats returned from patrol with battle damage from aircraft, that there were “difficulties” in the supply lines (from Germany), and that Italian shipyards were “10 percent to 15 percent slower” than German shipyards. He was doing everything possible to speed things up.

In all, during the period from January to April, the twenty-one boats of the Mediterranean force sank only six confirmed ships for about 14,500 tons. Four of the seven victims were British warships: the light cruiser Naiad, destroyers Gurkha II and Jaguar, and the frigate Heythrop. Another British warship, the destroyer Kimberley, was damaged. These sinkings did not materially assist Rommel, but the presence of the U-boats in the Mediterranean caused the Allies many difficulties.

West Africa.

Two Type IXs sailed to Freetown on February 11: Karl-Friedrich Merten in U-68 and Axel-Olaf Loewe in the new Type IXC, U-505. To conserve fuel, both ran on one diesel engine. South of the Canary Islands, Loewe in U-505 encountered a “fast” convoy, but he was forced off by the escorts, he reported, and could not shoot. Merten encountered no ships on the voyage south.

The boats reached Freetown in the early days of March. The tropical weather was a shock to the crew of U-505, fresh from the frigid Baltic. “The boat was heating up like a furnace in daytime,” a crewman wrote. “Off watch, we went up on the bridge to get a little relief from the stifling heat down below. The uniform was tropical—no shirts after the first glaze of tan, tropical khaki shorts and pith helmets.”

Four months had passed since a U-boat had invaded Freetown waters. Operating independently, Loewe and Merten found many ships sailing alone. In the first eight days of March they sank two ships each. Loewe got the 7,600-ton Norwegian tanker Sydhav and a 5,000-ton British freighter; Merten got two big British freighters for 14,400 tons. Merten also attacked what he believed to be a British submarine, operating with a decoy ship, but both torpedoes missed. These attacks left Merten with ten torpedoes and Loewe with fourteen.

The attacks jolted British naval authorities in the Freetown area. They held single ships in port and reorganized convoys. In the days following, Merten and Loewe reported “no traffic” and requested permission to cross the Atlantic to Brazil. Owing to the delicate political situation vis-á-vis Brazil—and to the distances and unfavorable trade winds—Dönitz denied the request, directing Loewe in U-505 to remain off Freetown and sending Merten in U-68 southward to Lagos, Nigeria.

Loewe patrolled slowly back and forth off Freetown. It was a trying time. “We spotted nothing—absolutely nothing,” a crewman wrote. “It was disgruntling to say the least…. The strain was beginning to show. Looking at the same faces day in and day out, listening to the same stories, grown old after the first few weeks, and now the dismal luck on the hunt had frayed nerves here and there. It showed in little ways—sharpened remarks and glum faces, lined with fatigue that resulted from stifling, sleepless days and nights.”

Southbound to Nigeria, Merten in U-68 ran into a mass of single ships off Cape Palmas, Liberia. In a period of twenty-four hours, March 16-17, he sank by tor-pedo and gun four more British freighters for 19,100 tons. Although he had only three torpedoes left, he proceeded onward to Lagos per orders. On March 25 he came upon a five-ship convoy with three escorts, but an aircraft spotted him and foiled his attack. Running low on fuel, he reversed course and headed home. Rounding Cape Palmas on March 30, he encountered another five-ship convoy. With his last torpedoes, he sank a 5,900-ton British freighter, bringing his kills to seven ships for about 40,000 tons.

Upon receiving Merten’s report of heavy shipping off Cape Palmas, Kerneval shifted Loewe in U-505 to that area. He reported traffic off Cape Palmas, but now it was closely escorted. After being bombed by an aircraft and hunted and depth-charged by a surface vessel, he hauled south into open ocean, crossing the Equator with appropriate ceremonies. Finally on April 3—twenty-nine days since his last success—Loewe found ships. In two night surface attacks over a period of twenty-four hours, he sank two freighters, one American and one Dutch, each of 5,800 tons. He then cruised back to the Freetown area, where he spent another two weeks without seeing so much as a fishing boat. He returned to Lorient on May 7, having been out for eighty-six days, during which he sank four ships for 25,000 tons.

Dönitz was well pleased. The two boats had bagged eleven ships for about 65,000 tons. Moreover, doubtless they had disrupted Allied shipping in the South Atlantic and possibly held in place ASW forces that might otherwise have been shifted to the Americas. Had he had any Type IXs to spare, he would have sent them to Freetown, but all available IXs were committed to the campaign in American waters. Thus Freetown was again left in peace for the next several months.

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