As you approach Kiel Bay, Germany’s major port and naval base on the Baltic Sea, you
will notice on your port bow a huge brick structure in the shape of a stylized submarine
conning tower soaring 236 feet into the skies above the bay and its gently rolling hinterland once carved out by glaciers during the ice age. This is Germany’s Naval Memorial, erected in the interwar period at Laboe where Kiel Bay widens to be come one
with the Baltic Sea beyond. A daunting symbol from afar and a haunting place to visit close-up with its subterranean halls and chambers containing paintings, inscriptions, wreaths, battle flags, ship models and battle mock-ups, the Laboe memorial stands as a shrine to those who served Germany at sea and paid for that service with their lives. To this day German naval units dip their colors in respect as they pass the memorial on their
way in or out of the bay, and warships flying foreign flags do likewise as a courtesy one
seafaring nation customarily extends to another.
A few miles up the bay at Möltenort, still on your port bow and diagonally across from the
Kiel Canal’s Baltic terminal, you will encounter another memorial set close to the water’s
edge on a peninsula. It is much smaller and less loud and obvious than the one at Laboe, in many ways more intimate, more personal, more silent—not unlike that branch of the German navies whose legacy is being remembered here: the U-boats. The memorial at Mӧltenort pays tribute not so much to the abstraction of heroic wartime duty as to the specific, individual sacrifice of each boat and each crew member that failed to return.
Today bronze tablets and markers list U-boat after U-boat and man after man who went down as they fought literally on all seven seas in the two World Wars. If the Laboe Memorial inspires awe vis-à-vis the magnitude of the sailors’ collective achievement and
ordeal, a stay at Mӧltenort moves visitors with a humbler, subtler reminder of every single life cut short before its time—almost 30,000 in World War II alone. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, conceived on the same principle, daily yields a similar effect.
The men whose stories are told in the present volume naturally knew the memorials at Laboe and Mӧltenort well and passed them perhaps a hundred times in the course of their
naval training and shipboard careers. In the late 1930s and early 1940s recollections of World War I were still vivid, meaningful and immediately applicable to contemporary developments. Indeed, more than one young officer must have wondered about the odd similarities between the U-boat war 1914-1918 and the latest conflict then unfolding: the
same enemy, the same mission, the same strategy, virtually the same technology and of course the same esprit de corps that had set the U-boat service apart from and—in its own
sell-assured estimation—above the rest of the fleet. Would all this also mean the same result, the same terrible toll in human lives and unrewarded effort that the earlier war had exacted?
When hostilities opened in 1939, their end and outcome, mercifully from a German point
of view, lay clouded in a distant future. Guarded optimism ruled the day, even as the German Navy knew it was once more the underdog compared to the Royal Navy and had
no alternative, especially after 1941, but to wager everything again on the submarine card
—essentially to buy time for the Army and Luftwaffe to win the war elsewhere. And so
the silent hunters slipped out of their shelters along Europe’s shores—from Norway’s North Cape all the way to Salamis in the Mediterranean and Constanta in the Black Sea—
to be swallowed up in the vastness of the sea and to stalk their prey with the same doggedness and deadliness that had marked the U-boat campaign a generation before.
Since 1945 most aspects of this struggle have been told, written down and made the subject of documentaries, motion pictures and television programs, from both the Allied and the Axis points-of-view, a thousand times over. Not a year goes by without major new
efforts to ascertain the facts and fathom the meaning of the drama that unfolded on the high seas and beneath them, from the sinking of the Athenia on September 3, 1939, to May 1945, when the surviving U-boats and their crews hauled down their battle ensigns
and surrendered to the Allies.
Silent Hunters: German U-Boat Commanders of World War II, seeks to contribute to our understanding of that drama in several important ways. First, it presents in considerable detail the stories of six German U-boat commanders whose extraordinary wartime records
are not exactly unknown in the English-speaking world but have never received the kind
of intimate exposure in biographies, autobiographies as well as scholarly monographs and
essays that others like Kretschmer, Prien, Lüth, Topp, Subren, Metzler, Schaeffer, Werner,
Cremer or Henke have enjoyed over the years. In fact, only Heinz Eck’s entanglement in
the Peleus affair and his subsequent trial as a war criminal received coverage in an English-language book back in 1948—a work long out of print on a subject virtually forgotten except by those who make the U-boat war their area of interest and expertise. In
another instance, Karl-Friedrich Merten’s recent lengthy memoirs are available, but only
to those with access to the German language. In short, Silent Hunters rescues from relative obscurity a handful of men whose stories should do much to enlighten those who desire a
broader and clearer picture of the war at sea.
Secondly, besides adding breadth to our knowledge of the U-boat war the essays in this collection add much needed depth and context. They replace bleak and blank stereotypes
with subtler images, leaving room to explore the spectrum of human emotions,
expressions, connections and decisions that is always there but necessarily ends up under
the table when writers try to catch the “big picture” or follow some murky agenda, be the
motivation one of accusation, apology or glorification. Such limitations largely fall away
in this volume as the reader relives the precise moments when Erich Topp and Engelbert
Endrass became Castor and Pollux; when Fritz Guggenberger’s pleasant sojourn off Rio de Janeiro turned into instant disaster; when Karl-Friedrich Merten felt compelled to attack former comrades to save the honor of his service; when Victor Oehrn hatched a scheme that would bring great glory to someone else; when Ralph Kapitsky realized that
he and his boat would not make it home; or when Heinz Eck faced and failed the test of
his life on a sultry, tropical night in the wastes of the Central Atlantic.
Moreover, these essays were written by experts—every one a published and respected author in the field of German naval history in general and the relentless U-boat war in particular. They combed the archives, interviewed and corresponded with survivors, compiled, compared and assessed secondary sources on the events in question, and then wrote their essays in the full awareness that considerable controversy and debate continues about the nature of U-boat war and about the men who fought it.
Lastly, this book reminds those of us who were not yet alive when the silent hunters engaged in their deadly game of just how central World War II has remained in the lives
and memories of those who experienced it. History will remember Engelbert Endrass always as Günther Prien’s First Watch Officer at Scapa Flow and as Erich Topp’s best friend. For Americans, Topp remains the man who sank the Reuben James on Halloween
1941, no matter what else he might have done in his long and distinguished career since.
Fritz Guggenberger, were he still with us, could never shed the image of the U-boat ace who sent the Ark Royal to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Heinz Eck would have ended the war along with millions of others in an Allied POW camp and then taken up some benign post-war career had it not been for the imponderable coincidence that made U-852
cross the path of a Greek freighter off the African coast in 1944, the one bound for the Indian Ocean, the other for the New World.
In more than a superficial sense, they and all the others became both creatures and captives of the war forever.
Eric C. Rust