Gaylord T. M. Kelshall
IN MARCH 1943, GERMAN U-boats tore apart convoy HX 229 in the North Atlantic.
Their success was a direct result of the efforts of the shadowing U-boat, which doggedly
hung onto the convoy while vectoring other boats into position. It was a frustrating job, made all the more so since the Allies knew their best chance to evade the growing threat
was to eliminate the shadower. In this case, the shadower was U-615, and she paid dearly
for her success. The destroyers HMS Anemone and Harvester caught the submarine and, over a span of ninety minutes, inflicted serious damage in a series of seven successive depth charge attacks on the submerged boat.
Nevertheless, U-615 doggedly hung onto the convoy until released from the arduous task
and allowed to attack. The gathering dusk and heavy sea mist surrounded the surviving merchant ships. After two attempts in a long and difficult hunt, U-615 was finally in position. A torpedo tore into the ammunition-filled Edward B. Dudley, which disintegrated with its entire crew in a blinding flash. In order to see its quarry clearly, U-615 had crept close to the ship before launching the fatal torpedo, so close that it took a few moments
after the explosion for the U-boat commander to realize that he had been hit by a piece of
flying debris, which left his right arm numb.1
The daring commander of U-6 15 was Ralph Kapitsky, and the sinking of the Liberty ship
Edward B. Dudley was only his third success, and thus he was not considered an ace in the accepted sense. As part of Group Tiger during his second war patrol, Kapitsky attacked convoy ONS 136 in October 1942, sinking his first two ships in the process, the freighters
El Lago and the large 12,000-ton Empire Star. But it was the heavy damage suffered by U-615 while shadowing convoy HX 229 in March of 1943 that was to have dramatic consequences for both its commander and her crew. 2
* * *
Ralph Kapitsky was born on June 28, 1916, in the beautiful university city of Dresden to
peace loving, respectable parents. Ralph would later write that he could not understand how his father, who was with the Deutsche Bank, could have sired two sons who would go
on to follow military careers so at variance with their parents’ life. Despite a youth dominated by a Christian education, sedate living, the opera and theater—Ralph once played the part of Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and later Macbeth—the two brothers found themselves in the service, motivated by the slogan “You are nothing, your country is
Ralph joined the Kriegsmarine in April 1935, while his brother Johannes joined the Wehrmacht panzer forces shortly thereafter. By October of that year Ralph was an officer
cadet aboard the old armored ship Schlesien, and attended the naval academy at Flensburg.
After brief service as a midshipman on the cruiser Karlsruhe, Ralph was transferred to the Luftwaffe later that year to be trained as a navigator and observer, and eventually as a co-pilot of naval aircraft of Coastal Air Group 806.
The start of World War II found his unit assigned to the invasion of Poland, with Kapitsky
flying in a HE-111. After several bombing missions—which included, ironically, anti-submarine patrols—Kapitsky’s aircraft was shot down and he was injured in the crash. His
wounds did not prove serious, and he was able to take part in the Battle of Norway soon
afterward. After the Norwegian Campaign, Kapitsky was trained as an observer and gunner, first in a Stuka and then in a JU-88. By July 1940, his squadron was based at Caen, France. Fortune smiled on the Dresden native, who flew and survived one hundred
missions during the Battle of Britain. To his great joy, the Kriegsmarine reclaimed him in
December 1940 and he was assigned to submarine duty. By July 1941, Kapitsky was serving with the 7th Flotilla as First Watch Officer on Horst Elfe’s U-93. After completing two patrols on U-93, Kapitsky underwent rigorous training to prepare him for his own boat, U-615, a Type VII under construction at the Blohm and Voss shipyards at Ham burg.
After a work-up in the Baltic, U-615 departed Kiel, Germany in March 1942 on her first
operational war patrol around Great Britain to La Pallice, France, where Kapitsky was assigned to the 3rd Flotilla and from which base he would operate on his second and third
war patrols. 4
Forced to undergo lengthy repairs after the battles around convoy HX 229 in March 1943,
Kapitsky and U-615 missed the slaughter of May 1943, when the Allies achieved their first decisive success in the war against the U-boats by sinking forty-one submarines.
Admiral Karl Dönitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U-boats, was forced to recall his crews
from the North Atlantic until they received the technical equipment necessary for them to
face the Allied anti-submarine forces on equal terms. It was a major defeat for the U-boats and a loss of prestige for Dönitz, who looked upon the episode optimistically as but a temporary setback. Still, for reasons of morale and strategy, he could not cease operations completely after the May 1943 debacle. But where could he best utilize his depleted fleet
of boats? During 1942, German submarines had achieved a string of solid successes in Caribbean waters, sinking more than three hundred and fifty ships in the poorly defended
terminus of the North Atlantic convoy routes. Against Dönitz’s objections, Adolf Hitler had ordered the U-boats reassigned from the Caribbean theater to oppose the Allied landings in Africa. Would the Caribbean region yield still more sinkings?5
The two important commodities flowing from the Caribbean were oil and bauxite, both of
which were vital to the Allied war effort. Losses in this theater had earlier forced the Allies to reinforce substantially the Caribbean, but Dönitz felt that the inexperience of the defenders would allow his boats a chance to repeat their 1942 exploits in 1943. While the
defenders had indeed been inexperienced and unorganized the prior year, by mid-1943 the
Caribbean defenses were quite a different matter.
Three factors were operating against the U-boats dispatched by Dönitz to the Caribbean.
First, in order to even get into the Atlantic, the boats had to traverse the Bay of Biscay, a death trap for U-boats effectively patrolled by aircraft of the RAF Coastal Command.
Second, boats bound for the Caribbean needed tankers to refuel them during the lengthy
voyage. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Allies had broken their naval codes and had
effectively hunted the vital tanker U-boats to destruction. Third, the strength of the defending forces in the Caribbean had been significantly upgraded and organized, making
the region not only a difficult but extremely dangerous area of operations.
Still, these considerable obstacles might have been overcome and the Caribbean theater turned once again into a fruitful hunting ground had it not been for a change in U-boat tactical doctrine. Instead of diving when approached by attacking aircraft, U-boats were ordered to stay on the surface and fight off the enemy with enhanced anti-aircraft armament. The policy, however, was fatally flawed. Once the U-boat stayed on the surface
to fight, it could not dive without providing the aircraft an undefended and helpless target.
Nor could a U-boat outlast an aircraft. Pilots quickly learned they could simply stay out of range and call for reinforcements, at which point coordinated attacks from the air would
saturate the boat’s defenses. The “Fight Back” Order doomed the 1943 Caribbean
offensive to failure.6
The first boat to sortie from the French ports on the Caribbean operation was Günther Müller-Stöckheim’s U-67 on May 10, and the last boat to return was the emergency tanker
U-760, which was so badly damaged that on September 8 it entered a Spanish port and was interned. Sandwiched between, forty-four U-boats were committed to the Caribbean
and a further eight to the Brazilian theater. Of these fifty-two boats, thirty-three—a staggering 64%—were lost. The defeat of the 1943 Caribbean Campaign was an even greater disaster for the U-boats than May 1943. 7
Lieutenant Commander Ralph Kapitsky’s U-615 was one of the boats assigned to the 1943
Caribbean offensive. Kapitsky sailed from La Pallice on June 12 in company with Herbert
Rasch in U-257 and Bernhard Zurmühlen in U-600, relying on the mutual protection of the combined firepower of the three submarines to see them safely across the Bay of Biscay. Just two days out the group was attacked over a period of several hours by Whitley bombers of RAE Coastal Command. The aircraft inflicted damage on all three boats, with each suffering men killed and wounded. During the melee U-615’s AA
armament scored the only German victory of the day when it brought down a Whitley bomber. That the boats managed to survive at all was due more to luck than anything else:
there were several similar battles being waged in the bay simultaneously, and thus the RAF could not concentrate on them.
During a lull in the attacks, the three U-Boat captains held a conference. They were aware
that if they continued on the surface, the RAE would eventually swamp them with coordinated attacks. Therefore they decided that they would separate and continue the passage submerged. As U-615 prepared to dive, her crew carried below the body of Third
Watch Officer Hans Peter Dittmar; who was killed on the bridge during one of the attacks.
The submariner, a veteran of Gunther Prien’s famous attack on Scapa Flow in U-47, was
making his tenth patrol. It was unnerving for the crew to have the dead body aboard in the
cramped quarters of the U-boat, especially since Dittmar had been one of the most popular
persons aboard U-615.
The balance of the journey beneath the surface of the Bay of Biscay proved uneventful.
When out of reach of the aircraft, U-615 committed Dittmar’s body to the deep and began
her run to the Caribbean on the surface. The next hurdle Kapitsky faced was the always
dangerous task of refueling at sea. The heavy toll of U-boat “Milch Cows” (large U-tankers used primarily for supply and refueling purposes) was creating a logistical crisis in the mid-Atlantic. The loss of tanker U-118, for example, compelled U-Boat Command to
improvise and juggle the refueling schedules of several boats. Forced to assume U-118’s
assignments, Konstantin Metz’ U-487 topped off her tanks from three outbound boats (U-
170, U-535 and U-536) whose orders were canceled. The logistical fuel knots in the mid-
Atlantic also compelled U-Boat Command to order Kapitsky’s U-615 to take fuel directly
from U-535. The transfer of twenty tons of fuel by an ordinary fire hose from one boat to
another was a slow and tedious operation, made even more so by the presence of an American carrier group that was hunting Metz’ tanker, which was operating nearby. While
this time-consuming operation was underway the crews of U-615 and U-535 could hear the exploding depth charges that were ripping apart U-487. Both boats kept a watchful eye
and had to be ready to quickly disengage and dive if the hunters appeared.9
Once the refueling was completed, Kapitsky turned U-615 toward the Caribbean while U-
535, her operational patrol cancelled, headed in the opposite direction for France. She never made it. Caught by British aircraft in the Bay of Biscay, the U-boat was sunk with
all hands on July 5. In the meantime U-615 completed an uneventful passage across the Atlantic and entered the Caribbean by slipping between the islands of Antigua and Guadeloupe. Kapitsky had received a comprehensive briefing on the Caribbean before embarking on his patrol, but from the start he demonstrated that he was an unconventional
commander. The normal U-boat entry points to the Caribbean were the Windward
Passage, the Mona Passage, occasionally the Anegada Passage or the Galleon’s Passage—
but never the Guadeloupe Passage. The latter course was too long, too shallow and under
the nose of the anti-submarine squadron based in Antigua, which was responsible for watching Vichy French Guadeloupe. No other U-boat in the Caribbean war is recorded as
having used this entry point to the operating area.10
Once inside Kapitsky turned south for Trinidad. His assigned operating area was off Curacao and like other U-boat commanders, he had been warned about getting too close to
Trinidad. The adjacent Gulf of Paria was a major training area for U.S. Navy ships, as well as the terminus of the North Atlantic convoy routes. In February 1942, Albrecht Achilles
in U-161 had resolutely penetrated the Gulf of Paria, sinking two ships in Trinidad’s Port
of Spain harbor. As a result of this audacious attack, the island was vastly reinforced and had become a major anti-submarine base. The defenders spent the rest of the war waiting
for U-161 to return. U-boats made it a point to keep clear of Trinidad—particularly in 1943.11
But the temptation proved too great for Ralph Kapitsky. The daring commander took U-
615 south to Trinidad and penetrated the Gulf of Paria for a look around. After he crossed
the controversial minefield that the British and Americans spent the war arguing about, bottom-mounted sonars picked up U-6 15’s propeller noises, followed by the magnetic loops detecting his crossing. Within minutes Kapitsky had satisfied his curiosity and slipped back out to assume his assigned position off Curacao. The brief penetration had left a disturbed hornet’s nest in his wake. Unbeknownst to Kapitsky, for days after he left anti-submarine forces on Trinidad were still hunting him.
The island of Curacao was where convoys that originated in Trinidad picked up oil tankers
which, via New York or Halifax, would eventually reach Britain or Russia. The area was
crawling with tanker traffic, but unlike 1942, when it had been a favorite operating area of the U-boats, it was now heavily defended. It was also the home base of the Liberator bombers of the 8th anti-submarine squadron. Kapitsky soon discovered it was virtually impossible to operate off Curacao. Even though he sighted considerable tanker traffic, strong surface escorts and heavy air cover kept him submerged and unable to obtain adequate firing positions. 12
Although Kapitsky’s patrol around Curacao was frustrating, his perseverance eventually paid off. On July 28, the 3,000 ton Dutch tanker Rosalia crossed his bow and he sent her to the bottom ten miles south of Curacao with two well-aimed torpedoes. Reaction to the
attack was immediate and vicious. On the following day Kapitsky was caught on the surface by a Liberator 60 miles northwest of Curacao, and the plane’s four depth charges
gave the boat a severe shaking up. Kapitsky had believed that the area northwest of the island might offer some respite from the non-stop air activity, but he was mistaken. After
moving U-615 east of the island, Kapitsky inadvertently ran into convoy GAT 77 on its way to Trinidad. Unfortunately for the U-boat, Kapitsky’s periscope was sighted as he was
making his approach, and once again the boat was subjected to a depth charge attack.
Frustrated and exhausted, Kapitsky determined to give his crew a rest and moved northeast of the island into the open area off the convoy routes.13
While U-615 was evading the probing enemy off Curacao, the 1943 Caribbean offensive
was sputtering to a conclusion. For a month the Caribbean had been witness to dozens of
vicious clashes between the U-boats and defending aircraft. Pursuant to the “Fight Back”
Order, many of the U-boats had stayed on the surface to battle it out—with disastrous results. Twenty-two boats were operating in the Caribbean theater during this period, and
all of them were blanketed by heavy air cover. Daily battles were being fought throughout
the area, and many U-boats were being sunk or badly damaged. The German crewmen were discovering the hard way that a U-boat simply could not carry enough AA
ammunition to defend itself against the non-stop, relentless attacks from the air.
Although the Americans were also losing aircraft in these encounters, they had so many squadrons assigned to the theater that they could afford to lose some of the machines to protect the merchant ships. During the entire month of July U-Boats sank only three tankers, two freighters and two schooners, at a frightful cost in return. In the mid-Atlantic, U.S. carrier groups were destroying the limited number of U-boat tankers almost as soon
as they were assigned to their operational areas. In addition to the destruction of a valuable asset, their loss also determined how long operational U-boats could stay at sea. Without
the “Milch Cows,” many boats were left at sea thousands of miles from home without enough fuel to reach port. As a result, U-boat Command had no option but to call off the
Caribbean offensive. Even this decision did not stop the slaughter, since the RAF was waiting in the Bay of Biscay to pounce on the returning boats. Of the nineteen U-boats that survived the offensive, only two, Stahl in U-648 and Carlsen in U-732, made it back
to the French bases undamaged.14
The order recalling U-615 arrived on August 1. Kapitsky dutifully turned the boat’s bow
eastward and made for Galleon’s Passage between Trinidad and Tobago. His aborted attack on convoy GATT 77, however, had revealed his presence to the Americans, who were determined to sink the offending U-boat. A combined air and sea search of the area
between the Dutch islands and Trinidad was launched with the specific intent of finding U-615. Four days later on August 5, the destroyer USS Biddle obtained an asdic contact and delivered a depth charge attack, but U-615 managed to avoid the explosives and slipped away. The Biddle’sdiscovery, however, narrowed the parameters of the search area, and relays of Mariner flying boats were now quartering the region northwest of Trinidad. Near midnight on the same day, Lt. J. M. Erskine, flying Mariner P-6 of VP 204,
obtained a radar contact forty miles northwest of Blanquilla Island. Flying over the contact, Erskine released a pair of flares which illuminated a U-boat running eastwards on
the surface. He attacked with a pair of high explosive bombs in a fast descending spiral,
but after the bright flashes faded, the submarine was still on the surface heading east.
The audacious Kapitsky had decided to gamble that evening. He had been heading east at
the leisurely pace of 6 knots, so that no appreciable wake would give away the boat cutting its way across the ocean’s surface. The aircraft had surprised him, but it was a dark, rainy night and Kapitsky believed that the aircraft would lose him once the flares died out. He was wrong. Within a short time Kapitsky found himself directly in the path of
an attacking Mariner—without an anti aircraft gun manned. Erskine passed directly over
the U-boat, but three of his four depth charges hung up in the bomb bays. The fourth charge hit the water one hundred and fifty yards ahead of the boat’s bow. Kapitsky turned
U-615 hard to starboard and hit the crash dive alarm. By the time Erskine could get back
into position U-615 had disappeared, but he still put one depth charge thirty yards ahead
of the swirl, which shook the diving U-boat.
Even though the submarine had narrowly escaped destruction, the Americans were
jubilant over the discovery. They had pinpointed the boat’s exact location, and Erskine’s signal to Chaguaramas Naval Air Station generated an immediate response, as Mariner P-6 took off to join the hunt. The two VP-204 Mariners dissected the area, while down below Kapitsky slowly ran eastwards underwater, hoping for a chance to surface and make
better speed. At 2:00 a.m. P-6 obtained another radar contact and attacked. After the depth charges went off the flight crews were appalled to see a two masted inter-island schooner
in the light of a flare. The vessel was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and though she survived, her crew received a considerable shock from the unpleasant experience. The clever Kapitsky had surfaced and used the schooner as a decoy, operating for a short while
within its radar shadow before eluding his pursuers once again. 15
The mistaken attack on the sailboat and the realization of Kapitsky’s ruse only served to
annoy the Americans and increase their desire for revenge. A Harpoon anti-submarine bomber of VB-130 from Edinburgh Field in Trinidad joined the Mariners in their pursuit
of the quarry. From Antigua in the north to Dutch Guiana in the south, anti-submarine squadrons turned out in force. They had been triangulating U-boat signals for some time
and realized that the Germans were pulling out of the Caribbean. Although they knew they
had won, it only increased their desire to destroy the dreaded underwater machines.
Between Puerto Rico in the north down the chain of eastern islands to French Guiana, there were twenty-one anti-submarine squadrons operating, as opposed to only three during 1942, when to the U-boats the Caribbean had become known as the Golden West.
Kapitsky was operating in a very hazardous environment, close inshore and moving in the
direction of the largest U.S. Naval anti-submarine base in the world. And the Americans
knew he was there.16
At dawn on Friday, August 6, the Americans made a tactical mistake. With four convoys
operating close to Trinidad and another about to depart, air cover was necessary to protect the merchant ships. As a result, only one aircraft, Mariner P-4 of VP-205, was assigned to
take over from the three airplanes that had carried out the all night task of holding U-615
under the surface. Many of their aircraft were operating east of Trinidad hunting the retreating U-boats, and it was deemed a priority to use most of the remaining planes to guard the convoys. Nevertheless Mariner P-4, flown by Lt. A. R. Matuski, with two other
officers and eight enlisted men aboard, took over the search for U-615. Their preliminary
hunt failed to turn up any sign of the U-boat, and Matuski flew west to his base line for a creeping search to the eastward. Kapitsky, desperate to ventilate his boat with fresh air and re-charge his batteries, watched the Mariner flying boat through his periscope as its disappeared westwards. His opportunity had arrived. The long gray shape of U-615 rose
from the depths and the diesels took over from the electric motors, drawing ocean air through the boat and charging life back into the drained batteries. 17
U-615’s commander knew he needed a maximum charge on his batteries for the hazardous
run past Trinidad, which meant he would have to spend a considerable amount of time running on the surface. Using his abundant firsthand experience as an aircraft navigator, as well as his knowledge of anti-submarine procedure, he attempted to calculate exactly how
long it would take the flying machine to return, and how far eastwards he could run at maximum surface speed, timing his stay on the surface to coincide with the return of the
airplane. Kapitsky was good at his craft, and his calculations were remarkably accurate.
Unfortunately, he miscalculated by about ten seconds.18
At 1:30 p.m. Kapitsky judged he had pushed his luck enough and that the flying machine
would soon be back in the area. A normal dive was ordered. In the easy atmosphere of a
precautionary submergence, unhurried by attack, no one saw the Mariner on the horizon.
The bridge watch disappeared below and the conning tower hatch was closed. U-615
began her last dive.
Lieutenant Matuski probably fixed the U-boat on radar and cut a corner, obtaining visual
contact soon afterwards. Using cloud cover to conceal his approach, he set up his attack.
The conning tower of U-6 15 was just dipping below the waves when the Mariner swept
overhead and bracketed the helpless boat with four depth charges. The shattering blasts threw the boat out of control and caused heavy damage, and she began to plummet downwards into the depths of the sea. Kapitsky fought to regain control of U-615 and blew her ballast tanks to arrest the descent. Badly wounded, U-615 was out of control. Her
terrified crew watched in horror as the boat continued to sink to more than eight hundred
feet, well beyond her designed crush depth. With her hull groaning from the immense pressure, the U-boat finally reversed her downward plunge and began to ascend. After what seemed like an eternity, rising ever faster, she broached the surface in a welter of foam. Overhead a jubilant Matuski radioed Chaguaramas, informing them that he had attacked and a damaged a submarine. He noted that the U-boat was down by the stern and
proceeding very slowly. 19
Indeed U-615 was badly damaged. The interior of the U-boat was utter chaos. Her lubricating oil tank had burst open and the precious oil had flowed down into the bilges,
where it mixed with tons of sea water coming in through damaged stern glands. Without
lubricating oil, both diesels were out of commission. The starboard electric motor had also shorted out, leaving only the port motor to move the crippled U-615 at barely two knots.
Equipment was scattered everywhere, pipes had burst, bulbs were smashed, electric circuits shorted. Even if U-615 had been left alone, her crew would have been hard pressed to get her operating again. But they were not left alone.
The Mariner pilot had radioed for help, but like most young pilots Matuski did not wait for it. Instead, he set up another attack run on what he considered to be a beaten U-boat. U-615’s AA armament had been increased before she sailed from La Pallice, not as dramatically as some of the other boats, but enough to provide a lethal barrage. Her deck
gun had been removed, while the after end of the conning tower had been widened and extended so that she would carry two single 20mm cannons instead of the original one.
They were mounted, how ever, without any gun shields. Her potential to increase the odds
of inflicting lethal blows against aircraft was found in the rectangle around the hatch, where four MG 34 infantry machine guns were mounted. A normal MG 34 could fire up to
nine hundred rounds per minute, but U-615 mounted two twin short barreled versions, called the 81Z. Thus, in theory at least, the six machine gun barrels in the battery could put up a barrage of five thousand four hundred rounds per minute—in addition to the nine
hundred rounds per minute combined rate of the two 20mm cannons. U-boats could not carry enough ammunition to feed these guns for very long, but when they all opened fire
together, the effect could be catastrophic for the target. There was another major drawback to this type of armament: the machine guns were only effective at three hundred yards or
less, which meant the gunners had to wait under fire for the target to close to point blank range before their own weapons could be used.
As soon as U-615 surfaced Kapitsky ordered his gunners onto the bridge. The scrambling
crewmen reached their assigned positions in time for Matuski’s second attack. Eight minutes after the first radio message, Chaguaramas received a second garbled
transmission which said “P-4 damaged—damaged—Fire,” followed by an ominous
silence. Nothing more was ever heard from Mariner P-4. Days later another Mariner on patrol reported a broken wingtip float, an uninflated dinghy and a cardboard box floating
well to the westward. The debris was all that was left of the third Mariner that VP-205 had lost during the July 1943 battles. 21
It was at this point in the ongoing battle that the warrior Ralph Kapitsky obviously was came to the fore. U-6 15 was so badly damaged that she could never safely dive again, and
at two knots on a single electric motor without any means of recharging the batteries, her
life span was obviously drawing to an end. In addition, she was taking on water, and only
the heroic efforts of her mechanics working feverishly below decks held the bow above the surface, with her stern just awash. Under similar circumstances most U-boat
commanders would have abandoned ship. But Kapitsky refused to do so. Instead, he ordered all the AA ammunition piled on the bridge and personally directed the gunners, while urging his crew below to contain the water flooding into the boat and repair what they could. 22
Even before the second radio message from Mariner P-4, the duty reserve crew under Lt.
L. D. Crockett, VP-204, had been alerted. The airplanes from Crockett’s squadron, however, were either already air borne or badly damaged from the frequent and bloody July clashes with the U-boats. Undaunted, Crockett borrowed Mariner P-11 from VP-205,
which was the only available machine at a base that housed five squadrons of flying boats.
Within minutes Crockett was airborne in the Mariner and heading for the site of the developing crisis, one hundred and eighty miles northwest of Trinidad.
During the hour or so that it took Crockett to get to the scene of the fight, Chaguaramas
was hurriedly recalling aircraft to refuel and back up P-11. The other anti-submarine bases in Trinidad were also informed of the situation and they, too, began recalling and reassigning aircraft. For months, sometimes for more than a year, these flight crews had crisscrossed the Caribbean looking for U-boats. Although their patrols had turned the area
into an extremely dangerous theater for the submarines, many of the pilots had never seen
one, let alone sunk one. Now, at last, they had caught a U-boat that could not get away, and there were many volunteers who itched to get involved.
While Crockett was approaching in the Mariner and the several bases were planning the
U-boat’s demise, the Germans were feverishly attempting to stabilize their floating platform. Kapitsky managed to raise the stern of U-615, bringing the boat back to something approaching an even keel. Pouring lubricating oil by hand, one diesel engine was coaxed into life, though only for short spurts. As many of the crewmen labored, the
gunners kept a sharp lookout for the expected American attack. At 3:30 p.m., Crockett found U-615. L. D. Crockett had some experience fighting U-boats. Just three weeks earlier, as the captain of a VP-204 Mariner, he had watched helplessly as his co-pilot died with a 20mm shell in his stomach, fired from Horst Dietrichs’ U-406. With Crockett’s attention focused on coaxing his badly damaged Mariner back to home base and saving the lives of the rest of the crew, U-406 made good its escape. Although he had an intense
desire for revenge, Crockett was a cautious, experienced pilot who resisted impulses to rush rashly into an attack. Instead, he circled the damaged U-615 from three miles out at
three thousand feet. The crippled boat was proceeding very slowly northward, a cloud of
blue diesel smoke trailing above its wake. On his second circuit he could see a few puffs
of smoke as 20mm shells self-destructed immediately behind the Mariner. Surprised by the accuracy of the long distance shooting, he pulled P-11 even further away from the still dangerous U-boat. Having passed a full appreciation of the situation to Chaguaramas, Crockett decided to carry out his attack. 23
Kapitsky and his men watched the Mariner circling their crippled boat, fully aware that this was the beginning of the end. We will never know whether Kapitsky questioned his
decision to continue the fight knowing he could never save U-615. Apparently his sense of
duty was stronger than his desire for mere survival. Kapitsky was determined that his boat
was going to go down fighting. When the Mariner P-11 began its attack run, Kapitsky brought his gunners to the ready. Crockett was trying a high level attack from fifteen hundred feet with explosive bombs. It was a cautious assault on the boat, intended more to
keep the submarine busy while he waited for reinforcements than to bring about its destruction. At almost a mile the twin .50 caliber machine guns of the nose turret began
walking their bullets towards the U-boat, while Crockett judged his position by eye, intending to bomb without the benefit of a bomb site.24
U-615’s guns remained silent even when the heavy American bullets began hammering the U-boat. Kapitsky was holding his fire, waiting until the Mariner was within effective
range. At three hundred yards he gave the command and all eight barrels of his antiaircraft battery erupted. Mariner P-11 was repeatedly hit by the wall of fire, but Crockett was still able to drop his bombs, which exploded off the U-boat’s port quarter. Although
U-615’s crew felt the surge from the blast, it did little if any harm to the boat. The same was not true for the Mariner. Besides the many holes in the aircraft and smashed equipment, a 20mm shell had ripped a huge hole in the starboard wing root, causing a spectacular gasoline-fed fire. Crockett realized that sooner or later the fire would reach a main fuel tank, and P-11 would disintegrate. He did not harbor a death wish, but if in-flight immolation was to be his fate, then the U-boat would also have to die.
Kapitsky slowly turned U-615 to starboard and watched in amazement as the huge
Manner, instead of flying out of range, came spiraling down toward the boat.
Unbeknownst to Crockett, as the aircraft swept downwards Navy Machinist A. S. Creider
had hauled himself up into the wing root, where he began tackling the source of the fire.
Crockett pulled out of his dive at two hundred feet, boring straight in towards the U-boat, which was now heading south. Trailing a long column of smoke and flame, the Mariner
shuddered under the impact of numerous cannon shells and machine gun bullets as it closed the distance. Hitting back with its own heavy machine guns, Crockett passed right
over U-615 and bracketed the U-boat with four MK-44 depth charges. As the pilot hauled
the badly damaged aircraft around, he could see four tall towers of water spewing up around U-615. 25
Once again chaos reigned aboard the U-boat. The depth charges had opened up numerous
cracks in the hull and water was pouring in. Down below in the dark cigar-like hull, terrified sailors were working up to their knees in seawater, and the boat’s stern was once again beneath the sea. This time, however, the boat’s bow was well out of the water, a particularly precarious position for a U-boat. If the nose of a submarine rises too high, water contained in the forward ballast tanks will empty into the sea through the open bottoms of the tanks, making the submarine highly unstable and liable to slide underwater
stern first. Concerned about the boat’s dangerous angle, Kapitsky shouted orders down the
hatch to assist the dazed men working below, who were feverishly attempting to properly
trim the boat. Meanwhile, his gunners kept a wary eye on the Mariner as it sped away.
Aboard the aircraft, Creider had miraculously brought the fire in the wing root under control. Although the machine was riddled with holes and the pilot could no longer transfer fuel, it was still flyable.26
By this time the sinking boat could only make two knots with a rudder jammed hard a starboard, which meant that U-615 steamed in a continuous circle. Despite his desperate
condition and the fact that the crippled boat was but one hour’s flying time from the dreaded anti-submarine bases on Trinidad, Kapitsky still refused to surrender. Instead, his shocked and battered men continued to attempt to restore some semblance of order as only
a veteran crew who loved their commander could. As his men feverishly moved about their tasks, the badly damaged Mariner was still circling the U-boat just out of range.
There would be no time to effect major repairs, for Kapitsky knew that this was a sign reinforcements were on the way. Forty-five minutes later, Harpoon B5 of USN anti-submarine squadron VB-130 [pilot unknown], out of Edinburgh Field, arrived on the scene.
Determined to be in on the kill, Crockett in his battered P-11 took overall command of the
attack and arranged for both aircraft to come in together. The Harpoon was armed with four fixed forward-firing .50 caliber machine guns, which delivered 2,000 rounds per minute. When combined with the fire from the nose turret of the Mariner, U-615 would be
saturated with flying metal—just before the Harpoon delivered what its crew hoped would
be the coup-de-grace with her depth charges. The airmen anticipated that the two aircraft
attacking simultaneously would divide the fire of the U-boat. Crockett’s plan ultimately worked, although not quite the way he expected.27
At Crockett’s signal both aircraft, the Mariner on the right and the Harpoon on the left, turned towards U-615. Kapitsky could see the two machines move lower until they were
hugging the ocean at full speed, just fifty feet above the surface. He wisely reminded his
gunners to ignore the damaged Mariner and concentrate on the Harpoon, which carried the
depth charges. At long range the two aircraft began hosing their heavy machine gun bullets into the U-boat. Kapitsky allowed his 20mm guns to return fire, holding back his
machine guns until the range had tightened. While the German gunners manfully held their positions while braving the storm of bullets, both sides saw their plans thrown askew by the speed of the Harpoon. At two hundred and eighty knots, way over the top speed of
the Mariner, the Harpoon began to leave the flying boat behind. In fact, the Harpoon was
so fast that it left the German tracer fire trailing behind it and flew straight through the fire of the Mariner’s bow guns without being hit. As the Harpoon flashed over U-615, four depth charges plummeted down, once again bracketing the U-boat. The Harpoon was long
gone and the German gunners were seeking protection from the expected blast of the depth charges when Crockett safely passed over the U-boat in his battered P-11.
Although the attack was delivered perfectly; U-615 was probably saved by the fact that she was on the surface. Had she been diving or underwater, the explosions would have broken her apart. Strangely, instead of hurling the U-boat upwards, the simultaneous detonation of all four charges had the unusual effect of forcing U-615 underwater. The gunners were immediately washed overboard, while Kapitsky and the lookouts, tethered to
the submerged boat, were sucked beneath the sea. As the water subsided and U-6 15 rose
back above the surface, her gallant gunners swam back to the casing and clambered aboard, where they once again manned their guns. Survivors claimed that U-615 was underwater for a full fifteen seconds—a quarter minute that must have been completely terrifying to those roped to the bridge and trapped inside. Crockett could see that U-615
had been hard hit by the Harpoon’s charges, and he hauled his flying machine around in a
tight turn intending to deliver the killing blow with his single remaining depth charge. To his surprise, the gunners were back aboard and his approach was met by a withering hail
of fire. He quickly turned P-11 out of the way, rejoining the Harpoon at a safe distance.28
While her gunners were still full of fight, U-615 was barely alive. Below decks the U-boat
was a complete wreck. Everything breakable that had survived the previous attacks was now smashed, and only the single electric motor was operable. Lighting was a thing of the
past, and water stood in places waist deep. A few gallant members of the engineering staff
gingerly worked the remaining motor, while the rest of the crew, unoccupied now that damage control efforts were useless, clustered in the control room and conning tower directly above. The bridge was occupied by Kapitsky, his First Watch Officer Herbert Schlipper, six gunners and an unusually large number of loaders, who worked nonstop to
keep the magazines of the weapons full.
Even the most optimistic crew member knew that U-615 was sinking, and that other than
freeing the jammed rudder, which they accomplished, there was little else to be done to save the boat. Kapitsky and his men may well have recalled their three previous patrols,
when at times it seemed all was lost. This was true especially on their second patrol, when they had spent Christmas 1942 facing the worst North Atlantic gales of the century, with
engine breakdowns plaguing them in hurricane force winds. Their current predicament—
riding a U-boat that was nothing more than a slowly sinking platform for a battery of guns, while being attacked by aircraft—was infinitely worse. Yet not once, either at the time of
the sinking or in the years since that traumatic afternoon, did any of them question Kapitsky’s decision to keep fighting. The crew of U-615 stood behind their commander with boundless faith in the fact that he was doing the right thing. Kapitsky himself may have questioned his decision as he stood on the bridge and followed the course of the desperate battle. Before the trip to the Caribbean he had confided to his diary his doubts
about the Nazi Party and Hitler’s leadership. He even went so far as to discuss these matters with friends. Kapitsky’s duty, however—and allegiance—was to his country. He was a free thinker, a leader of considerable ability and a veteran warrior with considerable air and sea combat experience. Now, however, he found himself fighting a soldier’s battle.
Unable to maneuver his boat as a naval vessel, he was simply the commander of a besieged fortress, determined to go down fighting against considerable odds.29
U-615’s commander was also facing a warrior of considerable ability in Lieutenant Crockett. The redoubtable pilot was still on the scene, flying a machine that the average
flyer would long ago have retired from the fight. Just as Kapitsky was determined to go
down fighting, Crockett intended to see the end of the U-boat. The fight had developed into one of brutal endurance and iron courage, and the Mariner pilot was intrigued by this
submarine that refused to die. While the scenario continued to play out, Crockett kept up a continuous running commentary with Chaguaramas, where the staff was also fascinated by
the fight being put up by the lone U-boat. Aircraft were being vectored to the scene of the fight from all over the Trinidad theater, and the pilots were eager to be in on the kill. At the three largest airbases in Trinidad—Chaguaramas, Edinburgh Field and Wailer Field—
pilots impatiently waited on armorers and re-fuelers to get their aircraft combat ready. In many ways, this personal duel between Kapitsky and Crockett was developing into a clash
Kapitsky may have wondered why the battered circling Mariner remained on scene and why a pilot would jeopardize himself and his crew when so many reinforcements were so
close, perhaps not accepting the fact that he was also doing the same thing—without any
hope of reinforcement. In any case he had little time for contemplation because the Mariner and Harpoon had only completed two circuits of his boat before the next aircraft
arrived on scene. Released from convoy coverage, Mariner P-8 of VP-204, flown by Lieutenant jg. J. W. Dresbach, had raced to the scene of the battle.
Once again Crockett took control and coordinated the attack. The Harpoon on the right and Crockett’s battered P-11 on the left were to come in slightly ahead of P-8, attacking
from the south. All three aircraft changed places several times in order to confuse the U-
Boat’s gunners as to which of the attacking machines actually carried the depth charges.
On Crockett’s order the three planes turned toward U-615. At long range the two outermost aircraft began firing their deadly .50 caliber bullets at the U-boat. This heavy fire was soon joined by guns from the P-8. The attack order solidified, with the faster Harpoon storming toward U-615, followed closely by P-11 and then P-8. The fire from their guns created a sea of mini-geysers around the stricken U-boat, and eventually hammered the hull and battered the conning tower. Although Crockett’s elaborate and well
developed plan seemed to be working, his diversion failed.
Kapitsky, who had been carefully tracking the new Mariner P-8, directed his gunners to hold their fire and concentrate only on the third attacker—the one in the center. They remained at their weapons as the U-boat rattled and clanged from the sounds of striking machine gun bullets. Kapitsky stood with his men in full view of the action, ensuring that
every gun was trained on Mariner P-8. As Crockett’s Mariner P-11 swept overhead, its waist gunner, followed by the twin tail guns, rained bullets onto the U-boat which opened
fire on P-8. The combined fire of the U Boat’s guns shattered the nose of the Mariner and
a 20mm shell slammed into Lieutenant Dresbach. The fatally injured Dresbach’s last conscious act was to release his depth charges, which he accomplished just moments before his corpse slumped forward onto the control column. P-8’s co-pilot, Lt. jg. A. R.
Christian, struggled with the controls while trying to hold Dresbach’s body back, shouting
for the crew to remove the dead pilot from of his seat.30
The depth charges, released fractionally early by the dying pilot, fell about ten yards astern of U-615. The blast from the four charges, which detonated twenty-five feet underwater behind the boat, kicked the stern completely out of the water and smashed the recently fixed rudder and aft diving planes, hurling everyone off their feet. By the time P-8’s crew managed to drag Dresbach’s body out of his seat, the nose of the Mariner was a twisted
mass of torn aluminum and smashed perspex, and the cockpit was covered with blood.
White hot anger boiled inside Lieutenant Christian at the sight of his dead companion.
Instead of trying to evade the U-Boat’s pointblank fire, he hauled the big flying boat around in a tight upward circle. Ignoring Crockett’s shouted radio commands to withdraw,
Christian maneuvered P-8 across U-615 again, releasing two bombs in the process. The explosives, dropped from high above the boat, detonated harmlessly three hundred feet off
the U-boat’s port side. Christian’s decision once again pitted the Mariner against U-615’s
AA battery as the crews of the two other aircraft watched helplessly from a distance.
Somehow the Mariner managed to avoid serious injury the second time around and P-8
flew out of range of Kapitsky’s spitting guns. Christian turned for home with his dead pilot and four seriously wounded crew. 31
In both the attacking aircraft and the operations room in Chaguaramas, there was incredulous dismay followed by intense anger. Everyone thought that this coordinated attack by three aircraft would finish off the stubborn U-boat. No one could understand how it had survived. The offending undersea intruder was effectively thumbing its nose at
the mighty U.S. Navy—a navy that had just defeated a major U-boat offensive against the
Caribbean Theater. Convoys were stripped of their air cover and every available machine
was directed to proceed to the scene of the battle. In addition, three surface ships were detached from near Grenada, and the new destroyer U.S.S. Walker was ordered out of the Gulf of Paria at full speed.
The withdrawing aircraft provided a brief respite for the men on U-6 15. Whatever relief
they may have felt watching Christian’s Mariner leave the scene, however, was dashed away when they realized that their commander had been hit during the attack. A prone Ralph Kapitsky was lying slumped on the deck, his shredded leather garments initially hiding the grievous wound he had suffered. A heavy caliber bullet had smashed into the U-boat commander’s upper thigh near the hip. The wound was bleeding profusely and it
was impossible to apply a tourniquet to halt the loss of blood. Kapitsky lay in a grotesque pose, with one of his legs completely dislocated and thrown up and back across his chest,
a grimace of intense pain masking his face. There was nothing that the crew could do about his wound other than administer morphine to ease the pain.
One of the 20mm gunners was also lying on the deck. The boat’s senior mate, Helmut Langner, had suffered a grievous wound when a fifty caliber bullet smashed through his knee. Langner was the gunner who had brought down the Whitley bomber in the Bay of
Biscay. The disabled mate struggled into a sitting position and called for rope, which he
used as a tourniquet on his thigh to stop the bleeding. 32
Kapitsky was conscious and lucid despite his terrible wound. He even joked with his men
while they propped him against the periscope standard. First Watch Officer Herbert Schlipper attempted to have both Kapitsky and Langner taken below, where they might lie
on their cots in greater comfort, but both men refused. They wanted to die on the bridge,
in action. Realizing he could no longer effectively lead his men, Kapitsky turned over command of U-615 to Schlipper, and asked that he pass along his last regards to his parents. It is significant to note that even though Schlipper was now in command, he too
elected to fight on, as Kapitsky wished him to do.
While the last attack by P-8 had been in progress, Lt. Cmdr Hull, in Mariner P-2 from VP-
205, arrived on the scene. Hull’s machine was part of a third squadron employed in the battle to sink U-615. Lieutenant Crockett had ordered him to wait until Christian’s P-8 had finished its attack. Although annoyed that a mere lieutenant would attempt to tell him what to do, Hull nevertheless held off. Crockett had a vested interest in U-615 and he intended to maintain control of the situation. Once Christian left the scene with his dead
and dying crew in an aircraft that was little more than a mass of holes, Crockett set up another coordinated attack, this time with Hull’s Mariner P-2 in the center position. Once
again the three aircraft barreled in toward U-615, and once again the attack failed.
Because of a mechanical malfunction, the depth charges were released when the Mariner’s
bomb doors opened, and they exploded harmlessly six hundred feet astern of the U-boat.
Despite Crockett’s plea not to attack again, an upset Hull turned his Mariner—in a stunt
similar to Christian’s second attempt—and climbed up to fifteen hundred feet for a high level bombing run. The explosives landed harmlessly five hundred feet from the U boat.
Hull, however, was not as fortunate as Christian had been the second time around, and Crockett and the pilot of the Harpoon watched helplessly as P-2 was ravaged by the U-Boat’s guns. The fire penetrated the aircraft and seriously wounded some of its crew, forcing Hull to turn and head for home. Shortly afterwards the pilot of the Harpoon announced that he was low on fuel and had to head for home as well. Probably feeling like
he had come full circle, Crockett and his battered Mariner P-11 were once again alone with the U-boat that refused to die.33
Reinforcements were not long in arriving. Next on the scene was Lt. Jg. Wallace Wydean’s U.S. Navy Airship K68, from squadron ZP-51. The giant blimp had been almost
at the end of what was known as a Golden Triangle patrol when Wydean, hearing of the
battle to the westward, had elected to join it. Though he was keen to make an attack on U-
615, Crockett ordered him to hold off. Almost every aircraft that had attacked U-615 had
been badly chewed up, with the only plane able to avoid serious damage being the fast Harpoon. The U-boat’s gunners would have taken enormous delight in clawing apart the
slow moving airship, which could only make about seventy knots. Only once in the Caribbean war had a blimp attacked a surfaced U-boat, and the airship was destroyed in
the attempt. Reluctantly obeying his senior officer, Wydean, representing the fourth squadron to join the epic struggle, kept the airship out of range.34
By now it was late evening. Darkness was falling, the sea had turned rough, and to Crockett’s dismay, the weather was growing worse by the minute. August was the height
of the Caribbean hurricane and wet season, and U-615’s battle with Trinidad’s anti-submarine aircraft was taking place in a sector notorious for the development of frightful
nighttime thunderstorms. What is commonly referred to as a “tropical wave” was pushing
through the area, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to see the tiny silhouette of the U Boat’s wallowing conning tower and still stay out of range of its guns.
As night fell a representative of the fifth squadron to take part in the action appeared on the scene. The aircraft was a B-18 bomber from the 10th Bomber squadron, operating out
of Edinburgh Field. The B-18 was a hybrid aircraft with a shark nosed fuselage mated to
the wings of the DC-2 airliner. Too slow for bombing raids, it was quickly superseded by
the legendary B-17, but it carried a useful bomb load and was suitable for anti-submarine
work. Many B-18s had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese surprise attack
of December 7, 1941. Afterward, the remainder were concentrated in the Caribbean, where for a time they constituted the major anti-submarine weapon. By mid-1943, the B-18 was being phased out and replaced by the B-24 and B-25, but there were still quite a
few of them in operation during the 1943 U-boat offensive. 35
Crockett set up his last attack just as the light was fading. As the two aircraft set up and began their coordinated run at the submarine, U-615 simply disappeared from view.
Kapitsky’s replacement, Herbert Schlipper, had managed to maneuver the crippled boat into a rain storm which, together with the gathering darkness, effectively swallowed the U-boat. The frustration of the attackers was beyond description. They set up a
crisscrossing search grid and regularly dropped flares, but it was little use in the deteriorating weather. Shrugging off the appalling conditions, the giant airship K68 nosed
into the clouds and rain close to the water, with Wydean relishing the fact that he was now useful to the operation. As the search continued, more Mariner flying boats arrived in the
area, all anxious to be in on the kill.
By 8:00 p.m. the hunters had still not located the elusive U-boat. The attackers had other
problems as well. Since none of the aircraft were showing lights, there was a danger of collision as they flitted into and out of rain showers. Lt. Cmdr. Joster’s Mariner P-15, of VP-205, arrived on scene and he took control of the growing operation. The first thing he
did was order Crockett to take P-11 home. The disappointed pilot had no choice. He was
low on fuel in a badly shot up aircraft with wounded crew aboard who needed medical attention. How Crockett had been able to operate without even a compass in the airplane
was a wonder. But by this stage of the operation he had become a liability, and just getting home would be a significant achievement. He managed it in the appalling weather by finding the Venezuelan coast visually and creeping eastward at very low level. All afternoon damaged flying boats had been coming home to Chaguaramas. When they
landed they had to be taxied straight to the ramp, since none of them could float for very
long. The ambulances had been busy ferrying the wounded crew and the dead to the naval
base hospital, and so it was to be with P-11 when she arrived.36
Northwest of Trinidad the epic struggle continued, and at 9:15 p.m. the giant airship finally located U-6 15. The boat was visible between two rain squalls, and Wydean vectored the B-18 bomber into an attack run. Once again, and for the last time, an aircraft came barreling in at low level against the submarine. And once again, fire from an attacking aircraft peppered the U-boat, whose gunners responded with a deadly barrage.
The B-18’s depth charges plummeted into the sea and the hammer blows of the explosions
rocked the U-boat. The charges were close, but not close enough to send U-615 below the
waves. By the time the B-18 was able to turn for another run, U-615 was gone. Schllpper
had managed once again to find temporary sanctuary in another rain storm.
Wydean had been so eager to be in on the kill of U-615 that he had neglected to tell anyone that even an airship needed fuel, and now he was running critically short of the precious liquid. Only after the B-18 attack did he confess the shortage, and Lt. Cmdr.
Joster ordered him to return to base immediately. The airship didn’t make it. Wydean ran
out of fuel and had to attempt an emergency landing on Blanquilla Island, which wrecked
Below the searching aircraft a macabre scene was playing out on the crippled U-615.
Propped against the periscope housing, Kapitsky still clung to life. Lightning flashed through the skies and thunder cracked as the storm continued unabated. The sight was a
tragic one as the mortally wounded commander greeted his crewmen individually and said
his farewells as they came up from below. Somehow the wounded commander managed to
retain a sense of humor. When Engineering Petty Officer Stefan Lehner stood before him,
Kapitsky joked that, because of their present prospects, nothing would come of his recently completed training course as a chief machinist. He shook hands farewell with each of his crew while the accompaniment of humming aircraft engines, methodically searching to find them, played in the distance. Only the weather hid them from their numerous attackers, and by this time the sky was full of them. There were no fewer than
twelve Mariner flying boats overhead, all hunting for U-615. The search had evolved into
the largest anti-submarine operation of the war conducted against a single U-boat. At regular intervals the senior officer would order all the aircraft to simultaneously drop flares, lighting up one hundred square miles of sea, but the weather still hampered them and U-615 remained in the shadows. 38
By now the crew of U-615 was assembled on the casing. For safety reasons, Schlipper had
Kapitsky, Langner and one other wounded man placed into a two-man life raft. The small
craft was resting on the U-boat’s deck, but because of U-615’s slow speed on its dying batteries and the need to stay in the rain showers, it was not always possible to keep the
boat’s bow heading into the rough sea. As a result, a bigger than usual wave washed the
life raft and the two seamen who were attending it off the casing and into the water.
Within seconds the raft and its three wounded occupants, with two sailors clinging to it,
disappeared in the rain and darkness. Schlipper maneuvered U-615 as best he could in a
frantic attempt to find the raft. For an hour they searched until, ironically, they spotted it by the light of the flares that the Mariners were dropping. As the U-boat approached the
lifeboat, Seaman Richard Suhra dived overboard to try and secure it, but he in turn disappeared in the rough sea and was never seen again. After a strenuous operation the raft was finally recovered and hauled back onto the U-boat, where it was made secure. Even
after enduring this, Kapitsky was still conscious and able to joke about his plight, commenting to Schlipper that he was now qualified to receive the silver wound badge.
Ralph Kapitsky died at 1:00 a.m. on August 8, 1943. The commander of the U-boat that
had fought the greatest battle of the war against aircraft passed away against the background sound of snarling hunter’s engines overhead, complimented by lightning and
rolls of thunder, with the lashing rain soaking everyone. The sailors of U-615 sewed his
body into a hammock with a weight between his feet. To the singing of the traditional naval hymn, the words of which were unheard in the fierce wind and rain, his remains was
committed to the deep in a solemn and intensely moving improvised ceremony. Even as the body of their much beloved commander slid over the side, U-615’s gunners stood to
their weapons, waiting and watching. They were still ready to fight.40
But the epic battle was over, for the hunters never found U-615. She was dead regardless,
slowly sinking as the water level below climbed and the last power drained from her batteries. There was nothing that could be done to repair the boat and indeed she was still afloat only because her engineers were slowly bleeding the last of her high pressure air into the ballast tanks. From the moment Lieutenant Erskine had found her and his Mariner
had delivered the first attack, U-615 had taken a fearsome beating and had survived thirteen separate depth charge and bomb attacks. Even for a Hamburg-built boat—which
many U-boat crews considered as the best constructed submarines—she had proved to be
exceptional, equal perhaps to her indomitable commander.
As dawn approached with U-615 dead in the water and the waves washing over her, Schlipper ordered her battle ensign raised. He sent engineer Oberleutnant Herbert Skora,
Petty Officer Claus von Egan and the boat’s Mate Abel back down into her control room
to prepare to flood the boat. They could still hear the angry swarm of hunters overhead, although by this stage they were widening their search pattern in the belief that U-615 had eluded them and was escaping.
As the final scenes were playing out on U-615, the new Fletcher Class destroyer USS
Walker, under Lt. Cmdr. Townsend, was racing to the scene in the hope of finishing off the U-boat. Other surface ships were also drawing near, and additional aircraft were being made ready to take over at daylight. At 5:25 a.m., just as the first touch of dawn was lighting the eastern horizon, Schlipper fired a red flare. The burst of light was seen from the bridge of the Walker, which immediately altered course and headed in that direction. In the gathering light the U-boat’s crew could see the topmast of the destroyer racing toward
them. The end had indeed arrived. On Schlipper’s command the engineering crew opened
the sea cocks and flooded the boat before joining the remainder of the lifejacketed crew in the water They watched silently as their gallant boat slid beneath the surface and made her final dive to the ocean floor 10,000 feet below, just to the west of the underwater Ayes Ridge. “She sank under us,” was how one survivor described it. The last thing her crew saw was U-615’s war flag as it dipped below the waves. 41
At 5:55 a.m., the gunner’s control director on the Walker passed word to the bridge that a U-boat was submerging directly ahead at a range of twenty thousand yards. If what the men in the tower saw through their powerful range finder was actually a U-boat, it was the
last glimpse by the Allies of U-615. The Walker raced ahead and found a group of survivors floating in the water. Cutting her engines, she came to a stop alongside them.
There were forty-three Germans bobbing in the sea. There was also one corpse in a lifejacket. When the dinghy had been swept off the casing of the U-boat, the medical kit
was lost as well. As a result, Petty Officer Helmut Langner died from his painful knee wound. The Walker lowered a scrambling net for the U-boat’s survivors, but the water was
rough and the task was difficult. Only two men had climbed the side of the destroyer before a powerful explosion was felt. The detonation coincided exactly with a report from
Mariner P-9, of VP-205, that it had just seen a U-boat submerging to the west of the Walker’s position.
This curious set of circumstances may never be adequately explained. The explosion was
probably one or more of the torpedoes going off in U-615 as she sank and the enormous
water pressure crushed the torpedo pistols. But the Mariner’s report of a U-boat west of the Walker was never adequately explained. Perhaps the air crew had seen a final glimpse
of U-615 and had misreported the direction, although this is unlikely. Another U-boat, Eberhard Dalhaus’ U-634, was in the Caribbean but she was some distance away, heading
north to make her escape out of the Mona Passage. 42
Fearful of a torpedo attack, the Walker pulled up the nets and made speed, leaving the remaining survivors in the water while racing westwards to where the Mariner was circling. Directed by the aircraft, the destroyer carried out two depth charge attacks, the results of which were inconclusive. After a half-hour of fruitless searching, the Walker gave up and returned to the remaining survivors of U-615, who by that time had given up
hope of rescue. A total of forty-three men were fished out of the sea, as was Langner’s body.43
Even though all the facts of the battle were not known and the pieces of the puzzle had not yet been put together, the Walker’s crew was aware that the men in the water were from a U-boat that had put up a tremendous fight. As a result, U-615’s survivors were treated with great courtesy by their captors. To the U.S. Navy, however, the Walker’s plucking of the Germans from the sea was by no means the end of the affair. The engagement had been too hard fought and U-615 had eluded destruction under the most adverse combat circumstances. U-boats running on the surface had been routinely broken into pieces by a
single well-placed depth charge attack. How had U-615 managed to avoid such a fate?
Eventually many convinced themselves that either U-615 had escaped, or they had been fighting several U-boats.
And so the hunt for U-615 was intensified and lasted for another three days. It was difficult for the U.S. Navy to accept that one lone U-boat had caused all that trouble, and it was three days before the Walker landed her forty-three survivors in Chaguaramas for temporary internment in Trinidad’s prisoner of war camp. In the meantime, Petty Officer
Helmut Langner had been buried from the deck of the American destroyer with full military honors. 44
* * *
Ralph Kapitsky is not listed as one of the great U-boat aces of World War II. In his four
war patrols he only sank four merchant ships, but his importance is far greater than his meager showing in the tonnage war. The Dresden native and former Luftwaffe pilot fought
an epic battle that was unique in the annals of a world war in which he played but a small
role. He stood his ground and continued to fight long after many U-boat commanders would have abandoned such a lopsided affair, thereby establishing himself as a fearless leader of men. But what, if anything, did Kapitsky achieve by his apparently hopeless defiance of the odds?
By early August 1943, American airmen had just won a major campaign against the U-boats. The titanic month-long struggle decided who controlled the vital Caribbean choke
point, the terminus of the North Atlantic convoy routes. The American pilots were aware
that they had won. They enjoyed the smell of their hard-bought victory and were dominating the retreating U-boats. Losses in time of war are always higher when a military force is defeated and then tries to retreat from the field of battle. So it was with the U-boats. Admiral Dönitz’s submarines had found the Trinidad Sector an impossible operating area because of the complete dominance of the theater by aircraft. It was so bad
that one of them, Hagenskötter in U-466, had actually radioed U-boat headquarters that the sector was as dangerous as the Bay of Biscay. In actuality it was more hazardous than
Biscay. The latter body of water was nothing more than a transit route through which the
boats had to navigate, while the sea off Trinidad was an operational area where the boats
were expected to stay on station and attack shipping. But by the summer of 1943 the U-
boats were unable to position themselves to sink shipping, and for a month all they had been able to do was survive—at least some of them.
When the boats began to retreat, the American pilots became even more aggressive. As a
result, none of the boats that were trying to get away were able to put much distance between themselves and the anti-submarine bases. They surfaced only to charge their batteries, and even then such an act often proved fatal. The eastward progressing U-boats
were targeted for destruction by relays of aircraft hunting individual boats. It was a situation that could end only one way, with the eventual destruction of each boat. It is at this point in the story that Kapitsky’s actions impacted events.
The protracted struggle around U-6 15 only lasted for one long day, but the fight was so
fierce that it generated a massive anti-submarine operation spanning a full five days.
Kapitsky’s battle was also on the main convoy route, an area that was extremely sensitive
to the Allies. It simply could not be ignored, nor could the potential for catastrophe be downplayed. Thus the presence of a U-boat in that area generated an immediate and overwhelming response from the Americans. Kapitsky’s tenacious fight caused the
Americans to switch the center of gravity of their anti-submarine effort from east of Trinidad to the northwest. Thus twelve large Mariners were assigned to simultaneously hunt the lone U-boat. When the Mariners ran low on fuel, fresh aircraft took their place.
These aircraft were pulled from convoy duty patrolling operations—and the hounding of
other retreating U-boats.45 Kapitsky’s tireless effort and the consequent reallocation of Allied anti-submarine resources provided a lull in the relentless attacks against the other withdrawing boats. The decrease in air patrols allowed them to surface and race eastward
to relative safety. U-190, U-309, U-415, U-510, U-634, U-648 and U-653 owed their escape from the Trinidad death trap to U-615 and her crew.
Although Ralph Kapitsky almost certainly never realized it, he and his men had waged one of the most distinguished rear guard actions of any war.
* * *