Eric C. Rust
“I’LL BE THE ONE wearing blue jeans,” Fritz Guggenberger had told me on the phone
when I inquired how I might recognize him at the train station of Garmisch-Partenkirchen,
where he had promised to pick me up for an interview. Sure enough, when I stepped onto
the platform in Garmisch alter a lovely train ride south from Munich through the foothills
of the Bavarian Alps under a lazy summer sky, there he was in his jeans, just as tall, lanky and athletic as I remembered him from the old pictures snapped almost half a century before. As he waved at me and we shook hands, I still could hardly believe that this was
the same man, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, who had undertaken no fewer than fifteen war patrols in German submarines during the war, and on one of them
had sent the British fleet carrier Ark Royal to the bottom of the Mediterranean; the commander who had barely gotten away with his own life when his last boat, U-513, went
down near Rio de Janeiro; the man who had helped organize the largest POW escape on
American soil from his camp in Arizona, and later risen in rank to Rear Admiral in the new West German Navy and a high NATO command position before retiring to this
breathtakingly beautiful spot in the German Alps, an hour’s drive from where he had been
born. What a life, what a story!
That was in 1982, and the recollections of my meeting with Fritz Guggenberger have remained vividly with me ever since. Still in his jeans, he took me to lunch in a first-class restaurant on the Eibsee, in elevation the highest German lake in the shadow of the snow-covered Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain, where we dined on trout and began a wide-ranging talk which we later continued at his comfortable home in town. There he introduced me to his charming wife Liselotte, and after coffee, cake and a long conversation covering Guggenberger’s rich experiences and career I took leave of him later that night to return to Munich. On the train ride back I recall asking myself why the German Navy had traditionally hired so few Bavarians. If all were only a little like Guggenberger, the country would have been splendidly served. 1
Friedrich Karl Guggenberger, “Fritz” or “Fiedje” to his friends and comrades, was born in
Munich on March 6, 1915, the posthumous son of Friedrich Guggenberger, an Imperial naval officer, and his wife Marie, née Brug. His father, a lieutenant commander, had died
on August 28, 1914, at the very outset of the First World War in the Battle of Heligoland
Bay when British forces under Admiral Beatty surprised and sank the German light cruisers Mainz, Köln and Ariadne in the North Sea. His mother, two months pregnant when her husband died, moved back to Munich to give birth to her son and eventually was
remarried to a physician, Dr. Karl Oehrl, who practiced family medicine in the small town
of Weikersheim some 30 miles south of Würzburg on the Tauber River. Here
Guggenberger, along with his three siblings, spent his childhood and adolescence in an orderly, sheltered and thoroughly bourgeois household and atmosphere.
Those were the years when Germany’s Weimar Republic tried to get off the ground despite its many birth defects. Guggenberger’s family rejected the Versailles Treaty as a historical injustice and also noticed how the advancing Industrial Revolution threatened the traditional life style of the region’s many small and independent wine growers, causing noticeable social tensions. While attending third grade, Guggenberger experienced the terrible hyper-inflation that almost wrecked Germany’s economy in 1923. Later he
remembered many frank and open discussions in his stepfather’s house centering on political and intellectual issues of the day. As so many other youths in the 1920s, Guggenberger joined the Wandervogel movement, with its emphasis on community
activities, nature worship, rebellion against stuffy bourgeois norms and appeal to a mystical-romantic and profoundly nationalist view of German history.
By 1925 Guggenberger qualified for the Gymnasium, Germany’s elite secondary schools
which still today prepare their graduates for advanced university studies as well as military and other professional careers. Since Weikersheim with its 1200 inhabitants was too small
to have its own Gymnasium, Guggenberger commuted first to Bad Mergentheim (1925-
1930) and then to Tauberbischofsheim (1930-1934) in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg. Here he found students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, several of them Jewish, and teachers whom he would remember as open-minded, deeply interested
in developing the minds of their charges, and politically close the Catholic Center Party.
While excelling in most subjects, Guggenberger had some trouble with foreign languages,
and despite a lifetime spent far away from his native Bavaria, he never much sought nor
ever quite managed to lose his distinct southern accent.
Guggenberger never doubted that one day he would become a naval officer like his father.
His mother encouraged him in this pursuit, especially since the Great Depression made a
secure and respected naval career all the more alluring. If rejected by the Navy, Guggenberger might possibly have studied forestry or medicine like his stepfather, but joining the Army never occurred to him as an alternative to service in the Navy—even though his grandfather had been a general. He easily passed his physical exam in Würzburg and the so-called “psycho-technical” test in Munich, thus qualifying for a career
as a regular naval officer ( Seeoffizier) rather than as a specialist with officer rank such as naval engineers or weapons, administrative, and medical officers. This meant he could advance to command ships, squadrons and fleets and even attain flag rank if his career should be a successful one. Conversely the Navy must have been delighted to gain someone of Guggenberger’s caliber—bright, enthusiastic, politically reliable, physically fit, and already part of a military and naval dynasty. Moreover, as a Bavarian and Catholic, Guggenberger added desirable variety to an officer corps in which six out of every seven
members were Protestant and came from regions north of the Main River. 2
On April 8, 1934, having just graduated from his Gymnasium (Oberrealschule) in
Tauberbischofsheim and celebrated his nineteenth birthday the previous month, Fritz Guggenberger began his basic military training along with 317 other naval officer cadets
on Dänholm Island near Stralsund on the Baltic coast. He and his comrades became known forever after as “Crew 34,” the class of naval officers who had entered the service
in that year. Crew 34 would eventually contain some of Germany’s most successful and highly decorated U-boat aces of World War II, including Erich Topp, Jochen Mohr; Engelbert Endrass, Carl Emmermann, Helmut Witte, Adi Schnee, Günther Müller-Stöckheim, among many others. They knew each other not merely from their common experiences in the U-boat branch but from the very outset of their naval careers.
Boot camp is rarely a pleasant experience. Guggenberger recalled his three months of basic infantry training as “hard,” but he was also fortunate in that his drill sergeant seemed more lenient and under standing than those in charge of other groups who made their men
suffer to the point of utter mental and physical exhaustion. By June 1934 Guggenberger and his friends transferred to the Gorch Fock for three months of hands-on nautical apprenticeship on a working sailing vessel, a three-master that took the cadets on an extended tour of the Baltic Sea. Guggenberger later thought of those days as his “most miserable command” because of the insulting and frequently dangerous chicanery he and
others had to endure constantly from their superiors, officers and petty officers alike. It was also aboard the Gorch Fock that Guggenberger, like everyone else in his Crew, took a new service oath on August 2, 1934, when Adolf Hitler assumed the office of Reich President upon Hindenburg’s death. The new service oath bound the German Armed
Forces in personal loyalty to Hitler. 3
A highlight of every cadet’s course of instruction is the midship men’s cruise, which carried Guggenberger’s hail of Crew 34 for nine months in the light cruiser Emden around Africa into the Indian Ocean as far east as Trincomalee in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before returning through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. Even though Guggenberger fell
ill with malaria and later typhus while in Africa, a twin punch that knocked him out for six weeks with high fever, he did enjoy learning about life and responsibilities on a warship.
On this cruise the Emden’s commanding officer was none other than Karl Dönitz, the future creator and leader of Germany’s submarine force. Perhaps not surprisingly, a relatively high percentage of Crew 34’s officers would later serve and excel under Dönitz
in World War II as submarine commanders and chief engineers.
While the Emden had made her way to the Orient and back, the other half of Crew 34
visited both coasts of the Americas in the light cruiser Karlsruhe. In June 1936 the two vessels delivered their charges to the Marineschule Mürwik, Germany’s naval academy on
Flensburg Bay just south of the Danish border, where they experienced nine months of theoretical training in the classroom. Guggenberger, bright and academically well
prepared, had a “great time” at the venerable institution, whereas many others in his class struggled to master the sixteen demanding subjects in their curriculum. Predictably, while
he did extremely well in such areas as navigation, seamanship, tactics and naval history,
Guggenberger received his weakest grades in the required foreign languages—English and
French in his case—and did certainly not volunteer to tackle a third modern language as
several others in his class chose to do. Even with his language handicap, Guggenberger ranked thirteenth in his class out of the 165 new second lieutenants in the regular naval officer branch ( Seeoffiziere), a distinction he could take much pride in and which traditionally meant choice commands and more rapid promotion in the future. 4
Already at the Marineschule and during the subsequent short practical courses for junior
officers covering applied navigation, communications, shipboard and coastal artillery, infantry, torpedoes and mines, Guggenberger expressed his desire to join the rapidly expanding submarine force as his future field of expertise. Besides the popularity and public esteem the U-boat branch enjoyed since its spectacular successes in World War I,
Guggenberger felt attracted by the spirit of camaraderie among submariners that he could
not expect if posted, say, to a battleship, cruiser or a destroyer, let alone an assignment ashore. There was also the prospect of an independent command early in his career. But
the Navy’s personnel managers, at least at first, had other plans for this promising young
man from Bavaria. Half a year after graduating from the Naval Academy, in September 1936, Guggenberger found himself back aboard the cruiser Emden, this time not as a green midshipman but as one of several cadet officers in charge of training the next batch of officer aspirants, those of Crews 35 and 36. While this assignment gave Guggenberger two additional and generally exciting cruises to the Far East as well as valuable experience in mastering challenges in such diverse areas as diplomatic representation, weaponry and
navigation in unfamiliar waters, it did not seem to advance his dream of real, “front line”
naval service. Even upon returning from his third voyage on the Emden in April 1938, Guggenberger received a further instructor assignment as a group officer at the
Marineschule Mürwik—undoubtedly a prestigious posting for a young officer, but again essentially a desk job rather than a shipboard command on an “active duty” man-of-war.
One can imagine how frustrated and envious he became toward his Crew comrades who
had foregone exotic adventures in the Orient in favor of years of practical service in the
fleet or the naval air arm.
Still at the Naval Academy and by now a first lieutenant, Guggenberger experienced the
outbreak of World War II. The mood on September 3, 1939, when England and France declared war on Germany, was somber and fatalistic, very different from the joyful exuberance that had marked the beginning of World War I in 1914. Most seemed to feel
that this war had been started without much concern for its consequences, a charge that could be leveled against Hitler as well as against the other players in this drama, such as Stalin, Mussolini, Daladier and Chamberlain. Whatever the war’s deeper causes and implications, one thing was certain for Guggenberger: his service was needed at the front
as soon as possible. Within a month of the outbreak of war, by October 2, 1939, he found
himself posted to the U-boat Training Command in Neustadt to enter a world very different from the one he had known since joining the Navy five years before.
In retrospect Guggenberger himself seemed amazed how brief his introduction to the submarine service was before he was entrusted with the responsibilities of an I.W.O. (First Watch Officer) the No. 2 man in charge of a frontline boat. In fact, he spent merely eight
weeks in Neustadt to familiarize himself with the new weapon and another month at the
Naval Conmunications School in Flensburg-Mürwik next to the Naval Academy in a
special course for U-boat watch officers. On January 2, 1940, he assumed his new assignment as I.W.O. aboard U-28 of the 2nd U-Boat Flotilla. Guggenberger’s solid experience in seamanship, navigation, supervising subordinates and excellent performance
in his previous positions much facilitated this rapid and successful transition.
U-28 belonged to the class of ten so-called Type VIIA U-boats. They had been built in 1936 and 1937 to serve as forerunners for the popular and slightly larger Type VIIB and
VIIC “Atlantic” boats, of which Germany would construct well over 600 during the course of the war. A “medium-size high-seas boat” originally developed from the UB III
design of World War I, U-28 and her nine sisters (U-27, U-29 to U-36) displaced 626 tons
on the surface and 745 tons submerged. Their maximum surface speed reached 16 knots,
thanks to two diesels with 2310 HP combined, while their electrical engines for underwater propulsion produced 750 HP and speeds up to 8 knots. The boats were 215
feet long, a little over 19 feet wide and had a draft of 45 feet at periscope depth.
Armament consisted of five torpedo tubes as well as the standard 8.8-cm deck gun and one 2-cm automatic anti-aircraft gun. The boats could carry a total of 11 torpedoes, and while the size of the crew at 44 was the same as that in subsequent Type VII versions, Type A had a more limited range of only 4,300 nautical miles at an economical speed of
When Guggenberger joined the crew of U-28, the boat had already sunk four allied merchantmen totaling almost 25,000 tons in two regular patrols around the British Isles and one mine-laying mission between September and December 1939. Her early successes
were conducted under the leadership of a veteran skipper, Lieutenant Commander Günter
Kuhnke of Crew 31. In fact, all indications are that Kubnke and Guggenberger
complemented each other well as a team, with Kuhnke supplying experience and perhaps
a certain hesitancy to run unnecessary risks in this early phase of the war, while Guggenberger added youthful energy and a somewhat more aggressive spirit when it came
to seeking out the enemy. Guggenberger would later comment that in his experience early
skippers like Kuhnke were sometimes overly “cautious” perhaps because their training had been so intense and their knowledge of details too intimate for them to appreciate opportunities rather than dangers and limitations. Later in the war, according to Guggenberger, commanding officers tended to be more at ease in calculating and taking risks and also showed superior resistance to the physical and mental stresses that naturally came with the job.
As part of the 2nd (Saltzwedel) Flotilla, U-28 was based in the port of Wilhelmshaven on
the North Sea before the entire squadron and its staff transferred to Lorient on the Bay of Biscay after the defeat of France in 1940. In fact, U-boat Command Headquarters itself at
this point was just outside Wilhelmshaven in the countryside at Sengwarden. As if U-boat
warfare with fewer than expected operational units was not challenging enough, the winter
of 1939-1940 turned out to be extremely harsh, demanding on materiel and men alike and
rendering navigation hazardous, especially in coastal waters. Even the Kiel Canal connecting the North Sea with the Baltic remained virtually impassable for a time.
Nevertheless, on February 18, 1940, U-28 was ready to sail on another minelaying and combat mission, Guggenberger’s first active patrol.
After laying twelve mines in the Firth of Forth outside Edinburgh, U-28 proceeded around
Scotland to waters southwest of the British Isles. There, on March 9, she encountered, torpedoed and sank the freighter P. Margaronis (4,979 tons) of Greek registry in a night attack. While the merchantman was not part of a regular convoy, Kuhnke and
Guggenberger must have suspected her of carrying contraband so close to the enemy shore
of Cornwall, possibly even with a distant Allied escort and air cover. At any rate, they never positively ascertained the ship’s identity and reported her size as approximately 6,000 tons. Two nights later a similar fate befell the Dutch vessel Eulota (6,236 tons) near the southwest entrance to the English Channel. This time U-28 reported its victim as a tanker of about 10,000 tons. Given poor visibility in bad weather and long, dark winter nights, such overestimation of one’s actual successes was neither uncommon nor usually
intentional among submariners. After this encounter U-28 returned home to
Wilhelmshaven, reaching her base safely on March 23, 1940.6
The year 1940 was generally a good one for German submarines in the Eastern Atlantic
and its adjacent waters. Allied countermeasures had not yet attained the level of organization and sophistication they would reach later in the war. Many Allied and neutral
vessels still sailed singly and unescorted between ports and thus became easy prey for Germany’s hunters of the sea. Between April and June Germany vastly improved her geostrategic situation by defeating Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France in a
campaign to which her Navy contributed significantly—especially in making possible the
conquest of Norway through sea-lift capabilities. Even though a considerable number of German surface units were sunk in the course of these operations, and the U-boats were
temporarily crippled by a technical defect in their torpedo firing mechanism, the net result of Hitler’s bold move was to gain operational bases both in Norway and France with direct
access to the Atlantic shipping lanes. No longer would German submarines waste valuable
time traversing the North Sea en route to their patrol areas north and west of the British
Isles. At the same time Hitler’s spring campaign of 1940 virtually made the Baltic Sea a
German lake, thus giving U-Boat Training Command an ideal and undisturbed place to test and prepare new boats for frontline duty.
Kuhnke, Guggenberger, II.W.O. Ernst-Ullrich Brüller (Crew 36) and the rest of U-28’s men played only a marginal role in these momentous events. Their late return from their
minelaying mission precluded participation in the Norwegian venture and the boat did not
put to sea again until May 5, bound once more for its familiar hunting grounds southwest
of the British Isles. After weeks of idle patrolling, U-28 finally encountered and sank the 40-year-old unescorted Finnish steamship Sarmatia (2,417 tons) in a daylight attack on June 18 south of Ireland. Most likely Guggenberger as I.W.O. carried out this attack himself since traditionally nighttime and submerged attacks remained the skipper’s prerogative. At any rate, this time U-28 did ascertain and report its victim by name. Over
the next three days U-28 struck two more blows against the enemy in those very same waters: on June 19 a dusk attack against the old Greek steamer Adamandios Georgiandis
(3,443 tons), and an early morning strike two days later against the Prunella (4,443 tons) then sailing in charter for the Royal Navy. By July 6, U-28 was back home in Wilhelmshaven. While Kuhnke’s U-28 had not been quite as successful as others, like Engelbert Endrass’ U-46, Victor Oehrn’s U-37, Heinrich Liebe’s U-38 or Hans Rösing’s U-48, all of which were then stationed in the same general vicinity it at least had made a
solid contribution of its own.
Kuhnke as commanding officer and Guggenberger as his First Watch Officer would
undertake two more patrols together. The first lasted from August 11 to September 17, and
the second from October 10 to November 15, 1940, each averaging some five to six weeks
in length. This meant two weeks en route to and from their operational areas and about a
month on actual patrol in their assigned positions. The latter shifted now to the Northern
Approaches, i.e. the waters to the west of Scotland and northwest of Ireland, where convoy traffic to and from North America was picking up in intensity. In fact, on his third patrol Guggenberger got his first taste of what it was like to attack entire convoys with concentrated U-boat wolfpacks.
U-28 drew first blood in the afternoon hours of August 27 when she sank the small Norwegian steamer Eva (1,599 tons). The steamer’s cargo of timber kept her afloat, and U-28 was forced to utilize both torpedoes and her 8.8-cm deck gun to send her to the bottom. The ship belonged to Convoy SC.1, which had assembled in Sydney, Nova Scotia,
before sailing for the United Kingdom. By the time U-28 made contact, Lieutenant Commander Victor Oehrn in U-37 had already taken two vessels out of this convoy and
the Eva appears to have been a straggler without the benefit of an immediate escort. This would explain why Kuhnke was able to report his victim by name and safely surface to use his deck gun. It is again likely that Guggenberger as I.W.O. was in charge of both the
boat’s artillery and torpedoes in this encounter. U-28 also took proper care of the freighter’s survivors until Allied air attacks forced the submarine to dive. The very next evening, still in the North Channel, U-28 picked the British steamer Kyno (3,946 tons) out of another convoy, HX.66, which had originated in Halifax, Nova Scotia.8
Before heading for its new base in Lorient, France, U-28 ran into two more convoys in those crowded waters west of the British Isles. Early on September 9, in a coordinated action with Lieutenant Commander Gunther Prien’s U-47 of Scapa Flow fame, Kuhnke attacked SC.2 and destroyed the British vessel Mardinian (2,434 tons). Two nights later U-28 sent a spread of torpedoes into Convoy OA.210, outbound from the North Channel
to the New World. She managed to sink the 20-year-old Dutch steamship Maas (1,966
tons) and damage the British vessel Harpenden (4,678 tons). While all previous victims of U-28 appear to have carried a full cargo, these last two were likely sailing in ballast. At any rate, this third of Kuhnke’s and Guggenberger’s missions in U-28 was their most successful to date, even though once again reported sinkings and tonnages ran somewhat
higher than actual totals.
U-28’s last patrol as a frontline boat turned out to be a disappointment. The flotilla’s transfer from Wilhelmshaven to Lorient appeared poorly organized, one result being that
shipment of the crews’ personal belongings was delayed so that the men had to wear captured British uniforms before their regular ones arrived. Ship repair facilities in Lorient were still so limited that U-28 had to put into St. Nazaire to be fully prepared and equipped for her next mission. Apparently U-28 was the first German submarine to take
advantage of St. Nazaire’s excellent facilities. 9
U-Boat Command again assigned Kuhnke and his crew to the patrol lines of U-boats guarding the Northwest Approaches, a promising area since virtually all inbound and outbound convoys had to pass through those waters on their way to or from Britain.
Indeed, during the second half of October Germany’s emerging U-boat aces, Otto
Kretschmer (U-99), Günther Prien (U-47), Joachim Schepke (U-100), Engelbert Endrass (U-46) and Georg Schulz (U-124) among them, did frightful damage to Allied shipping, disposing of no fewer than fourteen ships on October 19 alone, with only slightly lower totals on the days before and after. These were indeed the “Happy Times” German sub mariners would later recall with sweet nostalgia. U-28 managed to torpedo only a single
vessel—the relatively large and modern British steamship Matina (5,389 tons) in a dawn attack on October 26. Yet, despite U-28’s efforts to send the Matina to the bottom, the vessel refused to go down. Three days later the hulk was still afloat before a coup-de-grace torpedo from U-32 finally sealed her fate.10
Part of U-28’s poor luck on this patrol was the result of her involuntary role as a decoy.
While enemy aircraft and surface escorts kept locating the boat, forcing her again and again below water and minimizing or eliminating any chances of scoring hits against the
convoys, the other German boats could pounce on the enemy without significant
interference. Fierce autumn storms and ferocious seas followed, making meaningful
contact with the enemy nearly impossible. Indeed these storms crippled U-28 so much that
it was decided to recall her to Germany and use her up as a training boat in the calmer and safer waters of the Baltic Sea. Still, while crossing the North Sea on her way home to Wilhelmshaven, U-28 survived a surprise attack by an enemy submarine whose torpedoes
fortunately missed thanks to emergency turns and Kuhnke’s expert handling of his boat.
After a quick stay and repairs in Wilhelmshaven U-28 transferred through the Kiel Canal
to Stettin on the Baltic for further repair work and eventual incorporation into the 24th Flotilla of the U-Boat Training Division.
With Kuhnke leaving his boat for a shore command, Guggenberger officially took over as
U-28’s commanding officer on November 10, 1940, and retained that position for three months until February 11, 1941. With U-28 in the dock and the Baltic badly iced over, there was little, however, to sweeten Guggenberger’s first taste of being in charge of a boat of his own. During these weeks he took a well-deserved vacation in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart where his family now lived, and completed the mandatory introductory course for new U-boat skippers.
During these winter months of relative idleness Guggenberger had a good opportunity to
reflect on the turns his career had taken in recent times. He had at last achieved what he
could only dream about in all those years on the Emden, namely, becoming part of Germany’s U-boat branch. Moreover, as his decoration with the Iron Cross (First Class) bore witness, his apprenticeship as First Watch Officer under Kuhnke in U-28 had been both instructive, successful and duly rewarded. In the meantime, the submarine campaign
against Britain appeared to proceed well without losses and glitches that could not somehow be made good in the future. Guggenberger had proved that he could handle a boat under routine conditions as well as in combat situations, that he was a fine and respected leader of men, and that the time had come for U-Boat Command to entrust him
with a frontline boat of his own. It was thus more with a sense of excitement and satisfaction than surprise that Guggenberger received orders to report to the Vulkan Shipyard in Bremen-Vegesack, where a brand-new boat, U-81, awaited completion and commissioning.
As a Type VIIC boat, U-81 was a slightly larger and in several ways more sophisticated
version of the older U-28. Its chief improvements over the VIIA design were its operational range of up to 6,500 nautical miles and two stronger diesel engines that could
produce a top surface speed of 17 knots. Armament, crew size, pressure hull, diving characteristics as well as underwater speed and endurance remained unchanged.
Guggenberger presided over the boat’s festive commissioning ceremony on April 26, 1941, before taking U- 81 through the Kiel Canal into the Baltic for shake-down exercises
and the painstaking training of his officers and crew. He was very fortunate in receiving
high-quality subordinates in First Lieutenants Claus von Trotha (Crew 36) and later Johann-Otto Krieg (Crew X/37), who would become his First Watch Officers, along with
Second Lieutenant Horst Renner as chief engineer Von Trotha would eventually move on
to become the skipper of U-306, while Krieg took over U-8 1 when Guggenberger left in
December 1942 to command U-513. 12
Administratively U-81 was attached to Germany’s 1st U-Boat Flotilla, formerly based in
Kiel but lately transferred to Brest, still today France’s major naval base on the Atlantic coast. Appropriately enough, the unique emblem on U-81’s conning tower was a sword or
dagger thrust through a ring-like opening, somewhat reminiscent of a torpedo hitting its target.13
After a two-week vacation in late May and early June at his parents’ home in
Ludwigsburg, Guggenberger, now 26 years old and a seven-year veteran, completed U-81’s final training exercises and proceeded to the Baltic base at Kiel for the outfitting of his boat for its maiden mission in the North Atlantic. Guggenberger’s first patrol as a commanding officer stood very much in the shadow of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. U-81 received orders to proceed north from Kiel through the
Danish Straits and Norwegian coastal waters to Trondheim, about halfway up German-occupied Norway’s Atlantic coast. From there on July 17, 1941, some four weeks after Germany and the Soviet Union had commenced hostilities, Guggenberger departed to be
among the first German boats to threaten Russia’s northern flank. Specifically he was instructed to look for enemy ship traffic bound for Murmansk and Archangel along the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic Sea. Unfortunately for Guggenberger and his men, the long
days of an Arctic summer were not ideal for U-boat operations and the Russians failed to
cooperate. On August 7, U-81 ended its first patrol by entering Kirkenes near the North Cape in northernmost Norway. While they yielded no measurable accomplishments, the three weeks at sea gave Guggenberger and his crew valuable experience. Two days later
U-81 moved on to Trondheim, where she arrived for a two-week layover on August 13.
If this first mission had lacked excitement, U-81’s second operation, beginning in Trondheim on August 27 and ending in Brest, France, on September 19, was hardly routine. Once again Guggenberger became involved in a transformation of German
strategy at sea. During this phase in the Battle of the Atlantic, England tightened her defenses around the British Isles considerably and the United States became more directly
involved in the conflict by occupying Iceland as both a forward base and as a precaution
against a German landing there. U-Boat Command consequently decided to shift its boats
farther west. This change brought with it at least two advantages and two disadvantages from the German perspective. While the boats had less to fear from land-based aerial surveillance and gained additional time and space to attack Allied convoys, they took longer to reach their operational areas and also ran an increasing risk of a confrontation with the United States Navy. Indeed long before Pearl Harbor German U-boats and American naval units in the central and western Atlantic played a deliberate and dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with many close calls and at least one major tragedy On Halloween 1941, Erich Topp’s U-552 sank the U.S. destroyer Reuben James with a great loss of life while the latter was escorting a British convoy in violation of President Roosevelt’s ostensible neutrality
Guggenberger’s U-81 was one of these boats ordered far out into the Atlantic. In a position just east of Cape Farewell, Greenland’s southern most tip, Guggenberger picked
up the scent of convoy SC.42. Over the next week, from the 9th of September through the
16th, an epic battle ranged over 30 degrees of longitude from Greenland to the Irish Sea,
as U-boat wolfpacks clung to the convoy and decimated it. No fewer than 18 Allied ships
went down and two others were damaged as ten different U-boats scored hits on the enemy, while others assisted by keeping the overworked and desperate Allied escorts occupied. In the process two U-boats were destroyed. One was U-207, commanded by Guggenberger’s Crew 34 comrade Fritz Meyer, who is credited with sinking three Allied
ships before his own boat went down.
Guggenberger’s U-81 inflicted the first kill in this veritable orgy of destruction. Before dawn on September 9, the Bavarian commander sighted the British freighter Empire Springbuck (5,591 tons) which during the night had lost contact with the convoy’s main body and become a straggler. Two torpedo hits exploded the vessel and she disappeared beneath the waves. The battle had opened. Over the next 24 hours Guggenberger twice managed to maneuver his boat into favorable attack positions and fired two separate torpedo spreads into the convoy. In the din of battle—with other boats making
simultaneous attacks, Allied escorts dropping depth charges that could only too easily be
mistaken for torpedo hits, and vessels breaking up noisily as they went down—
Guggenberger and his men became convinced they had sunk at the least two additional ships and damaged two more. Careful post-war analysis has since revealed that in reality
only the British Sally Maersk (3,252 tons) fell victim to U-8 l’s exertions. Guggenberger’s example and experience show how innocently and easily submarine commanders could
exaggerate their claims of enemy tonnage sunk and thus mislead U-Boat Command into assuming that England’s situation looked much grimmer than was actually the case. At any rate, these attacks on the night of September 10 exhausted Guggenberger’s torpedo supply and he was recalled to Brest, where he arrived nine days later Docking in western
Brittany, Guggenberger and his men were in a much more jubilant mood than after their
abortive foray into Arctic waters. Good news followed his safe arrival in port when he learned that he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander, effective September 1, 1941.
The battle for SC.42 gave Guggenberger and his crew not only a dramatic baptism of fire
but the kind of shared teamwork experience without which no submarine can successfully
function in the long run. Those tough days out in the Atlantic instilled pride in the men’s accomplishments and confidence in their ability to go out and face the enemy again in similar situations. As their commanding officer, Guggenberger gained something even more crucial but ultimately intangible—his men’s respect and affection. They knew now
that their skipper was not only experienced, bright, capable, successful, and a leader who
genuinely cared for his men, but also someone who could weigh risks and, above all, bring
his men home again. This heartfelt dedication and respect made Guggenberger’s
leadership easier and more rewarding with every mission he and his men subsequently undertook. These same qualities also gained him an honored place among fellow U-boat
commanders and garnered the attention of Admiral Dönitz. That, as a transplanted Bavarian, he always retained his native humor, joviality, and precious unpretentiousness at a time when so many others around him could not resist a certain ego inflation, must have
seemed to his friends like icing on the cake.
When they reached Brest on September 19, Guggenberger and his crew had not the slightest inkling that their next mission would earn them a permanent place in the history
books. With the war in Russia proceeding more or less according to expectations, with German forces in control of the entire Balkan Peninsula, and in the face of recurring Italian setbacks on land as well as at sea, Hitler and his advisers decided in August 1941 to force a speedier resolution of the Mediterranean situation. An important part of this new
Axis strategy was to dispatch a number of German submarines from the Atlantic through
the Strait of Gibraltar. The infusion of additional submarines was designed to help isolate Malta, protect Axis convoys on their way from Italy and Greece to North Africa, and generally reduce British naval strength in the Mediterranean. Hitler insisted on this decision, even though both Dönitz and Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, the Navy’s
Commander-in-Chief, repeatedly argued that U-boats as a strategic weapon represented a
much more valuable asset in the Atlantic than in the restricted and peripheral waters of the Mediterranean. This was especially true at a time when the Atlantic convoy battles were
going so well that Britain might be brought to her knees before the United States entered
the war. Raeder lost the argument (and eventually his job), and Guggenberger and U-81
ended up heading for the Mediterranean.14
Raeder and Dönitz were right in their assessment of the strategic situation. Hitler made essentially the same mistake Churchill committed in both World Wars by believing that the war could be decided in the Mediterranean theater. In the end this miscalculation created a tragedy for Germany’s U-boat force inasmuch as over the next three years no fewer than 64 precious boats, all of them of the Type VIIC design, moved into the Mediterranean. Not a single one of them would ever ply Atlantic waters again. As skippers like Guggenberger soon found out, the Mediterranean was very different from the
Atlantic and far less suited for submarine warfare. From their bases in Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt, British aircraft flew deadly aerial surveillance. Unlike the Atlantic, the Mediterranean did not offer the maneuvering room to concentrate large wolfpacks. The nature of the region also posed other significant problems. The weather was for the most
part subtropical and the waters more transparent, thus allowing for easier detection of U-
boats on the surface or running shallow at periscope depth. Cooperation with the Italians
turned out to be more difficult than anyone anticipated, with recurrent problems of friend-
foe identification. Logistical considerations also dogged the Axis boats. The German bases
at La Spezia (near Genoa), Pola (on Croatia’s Adriatic coast), Salamis (near Athens) and
later Toulon (near Marseille) were few, under-equipped, understaffed and relatively remote from the scene of action. The narrows at Gibraltar after November 1941 tightly patrolled by the British, could normally only be negotiated on moonless nights and with the greatest skill, courage and patience on part of the U-boat skippers. In fact, over the course of the war no fewer than 21 German boats had to abandon their attempts to break
through the strait, while nine others were sunk in the process. No wonder that by December 1941 even U-Boat Command in its war diary would characterize the
Mediterranean as a “mouse-trap.” Moreover, mine-fields covered wide stretches of the Mediterranean and rendered navigation hazardous. But most important of all was the fact
that there were few targets to attack, since enemy ship traffic was restricted to heavily guarded supply convoys along the African shoreline and to Malta. Post-war statistics reveal that over the entire span of the war, submarines in the Mediterranean on average sank only 7,300 tons of enemy shipping before they themselves went down, while the corresponding figure for Atlantic boats was 28,700 tons, four times higher. In short, the U-boat was clearly the wrong kind of weapon to dispatch to the Mediterranean.15
But orders were orders. Guggenberger and his crew prepared themselves to be among the
first German boats to break through the Strait of Gibraltar as part of “Group Arnauld,”
named after Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, Germany’s top U-boat ace of World War I.
Arnauld had achieved most of his spectacular triumphs in the Mediterranean, albeit under
far more favorable conditions than could be expected in the 1940s. On Wednesday, October 29, 1941, after a layover of some six weeks, U-81 sailed from Brest and headed
on southwesterly courses into the Bay of Biscay. These waters were close enough to England to be constantly threatened by enemy aircraft, and on the next day, despite having
placed his lookouts on heightened alert, Guggenberger was caught on the surface by a long-range flying boat. The plane managed to drop several bombs before U-81 could dive,
and although none hit directly, near-misses caused enough damage for Guggenberger to break off his mission and return to Brest for repairs. After four days of refitting U-81 was ready to sail again on November 4. This time she passed through the Bay of Biscay without incident and one week later stood before Gibraltar, the eighth German submarine
to attempt the passage. 16
The African coastline rose over the horizon as U-81 slowly moved along toward Tangier
and Tarifa. Guggenberger had to be careful not to betray his presence to a Spanish freighter and several fishing boats in the vicinity as he angled silently toward the strait.
The weather was partly cloudy with light westerly winds and occasional rain showers. By
nightfall navigational lights along both the Spanish and African coast were clearly visible.
Still on the surface, even though the moon peeked through the clouds from time to time,
Guggenberger reached Cape Tarifa, Europe’s southernmost tip, at 0150. Forty-five
minutes later U-81 passed Gibraltar itself. As his war diary bears out, Guggenberger was
both surprised and delighted over the absence of British patrol vessels, although he found
the abundance of small fishing boats with their nets attached to lighted buoys an annoyance he had to sidestep as he carefully proceeded eastward. Shortly after 0600 on November 12, with U-81 safely through the danger zone, Guggenberger received a radio
message ordering him and Reschke’s U-205 to occupy a patrol position east of Gibraltar.
The boats were to observe radio silence except to warn other boats of unexpected dangers
or to report enemy vessels. Early the next morning, a Friday, having spent most of the intervening hours submerged, U-81 picked up a follow-up message advising that Italian reconnaissance planes had located a British task force of a battleship, an aircraft carrier and cruisers and destroyers heading in his direction from Malta. “Force K” was composed
of the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Argus, the battleship Malaya, the light cruiser Hermione and seven destroyers. They had delivered urgently needed aircraft to the British island bastion of Malta and were now homebound for Gibraltar. Shortly after
Guggenberger received notice of the approaching naval vessels, U-205 reported contact with the enemy force, which was steering west at an estimated 16 knots.17
Guggenberger saw to it that U-81 got ready for what now seemed an inevitable encounter.
He deliberately closed to within 25 miles of Gibraltar “to improve our chances of scoring
hits,” since the restricted waters would require the enemy to steer predictable courses. He also ordered a test dive to ascertain that the boat functioned properly in every respect. A minor problem with the diesel engines and their exhaust systems restricted his surface speed somewhat but not enough to cause concern. During the afternoon a destroyer and several distant aircraft forced Guggenberger to submerge, but U- 81 remained undetected
by the enemy. At 1530 “Force K” itself steamed in sight in good visibility. Maneuvering
carefully at periscope depth and estimating enemy speed at 16 knots, Guggenberger prepared to launch a spread of four torpedoes running 150 meters apart and set to hit their targets five meters below the waterline. At 1636, when the enemy had closed to within 4,000 yards, he gave the order to fire. The sudden weight loss of four torpedoes almost forced the boat to the surface, but by sending all hands into the forward compartment and
by quickly adjusting the bal last tanks, Guggenberger and his chief engineer managed to
keep the submarine’s bow beneath the waves. With the torpedoes on their way,
Guggenberger took U-81 down to 120 feet to await developments.
For a long time nothing happened. Then, six minutes and six seconds after launching the
torpedoes, a loud detonation echoed through the boat. Guggenberger, who had taken aim
at the battleship, thought the explosion signified a hit against her. A second explosion followed some 90 seconds later. The delay between the explosions caused Guggenberger
and his crew to assume that they had scored a hit on a large destroyer or even an aircraft
carrier farther off to starboard. At any rate, there was little time for speculation. Acting quickly, enemy destroyers moved out and caught U-81 in their sonar and counterattacked.
Over the next five hours, from 1725 to 2220, while Guggenberger slowly moved off to the
northeast and frequently changed speed, course and diving depth to throw off his pursuers,
the British destroyers dropped some 160 depth charges around U-81. Fortunately for the
boat’s occupants, none of them detonated too closely. Shortly before midnight, after the enemy had given up the chase, Guggenberger brought his boat to the surface and ventilated U-81 with the clear air of a peaceful Mediterranean night. After recharging his
boat’s batteries, he moved U-81 closer to the African continent and spent most of November 14 resting on the sea floor four miles off the coast. Not until 0553 on Sunday
morning, November 15, did he go on the air to report to Admiral Dönitz at U-Boat Command: “13 Nov 1636. Spread of 4 torpedoes against battleship, Ark Royal, Furious.
First hit against battleship, second target uncertain. Square CH 7645.” Later that day, after listening to Wehrmacht reports and other news, Guggenberger noted in his war diary that
the first torpedo apparently had left the Malaya afloat but dead in the water, while with the second he had hit and sunk the Ark Royal. 18
In actually Guggenberger had missed the Malaya altogether. At 1541(1641 German time) one of his torpedoes had exploded under the bottom of the Ark Royal (22,600 tons) between her keel and starboard side. The detonation opened the carrier’s starboard boiler
room to the sea, and within a quarter hour the massive warship was listing 18 degrees.
Over the next fourteen hours rescue efforts to save the carrier continued and an attempt was made to tow her to Gibraltar. While some initial progress was made and power and
steam restored temporarily, the ship continued to take on water and the listing increased.
Uncontrollable fires and explosions in her engine rooms signaled the death knell for the British carrier. Gradually those members of her crew who had remained aboard were taken
off, and at 0613 on November 14, her list now at 45 degrees, the Ark Royal rolled over and sank just a few miles east of Gibraltar. Incredibly and fortunately, only one man lost his
life in the disaster. In the words of an English chronicler, Guggenberger and his crew had
“destroyed the very core of the Royal Navy’s striking power in the Mediterranean” and were entitled to a special sense of satisfaction inasmuch as the Ark Royal had played a key role in the destruction of the German battleship Bismarck earlier that year.19
Nor was this the only bad news for the British from the Mediterranean Theater in late 1941. Ten days after the Ark Royal went down, Guggenberger’s friend and Crew 34
comrade Hans-Diedrich Freiherr von Tiesenhausen in U-331 sank the battleship Barham
(31,100 tons) south of Crete with heavy loss of life. Before the year was out, a third major warship fell victim to German torpedoes. On December 15, 1941, U-557, commanded by
still another member of Crew 34, Ottokar Paulssen, destroyed the cruiser Galatea (5,220
tons) in the eastern Mediterranean. As German U-Boats scored these stunning successes at
sea, Italian commandos made their way into the Royal Navy’s anchorage at Alexandria on
December 19 and disabled the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant in a daring underwater raid. Indeed, by year’s end Hitler must have felt vindicated in his insistence to transfer those boats from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. Unfortunately for the Germans, however, these early successes were flukes, lucky strikes that could not be maintained and repeated in the long run. The British redoubled their efforts to protect their shipping in the Mediterranean and in particular to ensure that the bottle-neck at Gibraltar acted as the kind of “mouse-trap” U-Boat Command had long feared it might become.
After a brief visit to Messina in Sicily, Guggenberger and U-81 moved on into the eastern
Mediterranean. There, during the night from December 5-6 off the North African coast, they encountered and attacked a small British supply convoy. None of the torpedoes found
their targets even though Guggenberger seemed convinced the observed detonations had damaged a destroyer, a tanker and a freighter. Most likely he mistook his torpedoes exploding at the end of their run, together with enemy depth charges, for the hits he reported. After this disappointing episode U-81 turned around and stood for her new base
of La Spezia in Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea, where she arrived on December 10 after one
of the war’s most remarkable U-boat missions. The Bavarian’s success was not lost on U-
Boat Command, and the same day Guggenberger steamed into La Spezia he was awarded
the Knight’s Cross for his distinguished service. Early the following year in March 1942,
the Duke of Aosta decorated both Guggenberger and Tiesenhausen with the Italian Silver
Medal for Bravery to show the appreciation of Germany’s Axis partner.
U-81 now belonged to the 29th U-Boat Flotilla, which comprised all German boats operating in the Mediterranean. The flotilla’s strength would vary as the enemy took a steady toll and new boats were fed in from the Atlantic to replace those lost. In the end 64
U-boats made the perilous passage through Gibraltar, but rarely were more than 20 of them present and active in the Mediterranean at any given moment. Fifty-nine boats were
sunk on patrol, while others fell victim to air attacks against their bases. The last boat, U-596, was destroyed in Salamis on September 24, 1944, before she could fall into enemy
Guggenberger undertook six more missions in U-81 in the Mediterranean and through them all his luck held, at least in the sense of bringing his men safely home after each patrol. Between January 27 and March 4, 1942, he undertook another foray into the eastern Mediterranean to help Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s efforts by frustrating British ship and troop movements along the Egyptian and Libyan coasts. Although U-81
encountered a British cruiser on the night of February 15, Guggenberger was unable to duplicate his earlier success against the Ark Royal. After obtaining a firing position, he loosed a spread of torpedoes at the warship which were heard to explode after a run of a
little over 4 minutes, but no damage resulted. His failure was not unique, for throughout
the entire month of February not a single Allied vessel was destroyed or damaged by Axis
submarines in the Mediterranean—even though seven boats, including U-81, claimed to have inflicted injury upon the enemy.21
A three-week mission to the coast off Lebanon and Palestine in April was considerably more eventful for Guggenberger and his men. In the evening hours of April 16, U-81
managed to sink two vessels out of a small Allied convoy some ten miles south of Beirut,
the French armed steam trawler Viking (1,150 tons) and the larger and more valuable British tanker Caspia (6,018 tons). Not content with these successes, Guggenberger spent the next ten days playing havoc among coastal sailing vessels in the area, destroying or severely damaging eight of them in succession either by artillery fire or ramming. Most of
these vessels displaced around 100 tons and were not worth the expenditure of a precious
torpedo. On April 25 Guggenberger returned to base, this time to historic Salamis near Athens, where the Greeks had defeated a much larger Persian force under King Xerxes in
480 B.C. and saved their independence in one of history’s epic naval encounters. The famous island served as Germany’s principal base for surface and U-boat operations in the
His next two patrols in May and June 1942 must have been especially frustrating for Guggenberger. Despite weeks of patrolling the dangerous Mediterranean waters, the net result was but a single unsuccessful attack against a tanker off the North African coast on the 11th of June. Even though Guggenberger later claimed he “observed a large flash” and
that the “tanker was left burning,” Allied records do not confirm the German skipper’s claim. Again one must suspect that wishful thinking and poor opportunities to observe actual success rather than deliberate exaggeration came into play in this instance. While he enjoyed little success against the enemy during these patrols, Guggenberger managed to save a number of valuable German lives when, on June 2, he rescued and brought home to
Salamis the entire crew of the scuttled U-652. Georg-Werner Fraatz’s boat had been caught on the surface and fatally bombed by Allied aircraft. Fortunately for all involved,
U-8 1 was near enough to render prompt assistance. 22
From June 24 until October 5, 1942, U-81 and her men enjoyed a prolonged break from
the action as the boat underwent long scheduled repairs and standard maintenance at La Spezia. In July and August Guggenberger traveled north for a well-deserved five-week vacation in Passau on the Danube, and in Ludwigsburg with his parents. When
Guggenberger returned to La Spezia and readied his boat for further missions, the overall
situation in the Mediterranean had begun to deteriorate rapidly for the Axis powers. In Egypt Rommel, the legendary “Desert Fox,” finally met his match in Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery who defeated him at El Alamein and pushed him west. Not long afterwards the Allies initiated “Operation Torch,” the American landings in Morocco and
Algeria designed to occupy formerly French-held areas and put pressure on Rommel from
the opposite direction. The Italians and Germans threw everything they had into the region
to hold their positions. For U-81, this meant operations against the Allied invasion fleet off the Algerian coast.
Already underway since October 5 and on stand-by in the western Mediterranean,
Guggenberger received orders on November 7 to close in on enemy units reported off the
coast between Oran and Algiers. In the early morning hours of November 10, U-81 sent a
spread of torpedoes into an Allied formation before diving away to safety. Guggenberger
later claimed to have damaged a freighter and a patrol vessel in this encounter. In reality he sank the British vessel Garlinge (2,012 tons) while his friend Wilhelm Dommes in U-431 sent a British destroyer to the bottom in the same general vicinity. Three days later, in a rare daylight attack on the afternoon of November 13—precisely one year after hitting
the Ark Royal—U-81 destroyed the escorted British motor vessel Maron (6,487 tons) again immediately under the Algerian coast. With these successes in hand, Guggenberger
returned to La Spezia on November 16 to refuel and rearm. Just eight days later he was at
sea again, heading for the U.S. invasion fleet. This time U-81’s luck ran empty. After three frustrating weeks trying to break through the Allied defenses, Guggenberger received orders to return to a different base, Pola, located on the Istrian Peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, which once had been Austria’s main stronghold in World War I.
Although he did not know it at the time, Guggenberger had made his last patrol in U-81.
Orders awaited him in Pola to turn his command over to his I.W.O. Johann-Otto-Krieg and
to report to BdU for further instructions. Leaving U-81 was not easy for Guggenberger.
After all, this had been his first command, and he and his men had cobbled together a remarkable record in the Arctic Sea, the Atlantic, and all over the Mediterranean. One consolation was that he left the boat in experienced hands. U-81 continued to excel under
Krieg, who likewise earned a Knight’s Cross for his courage and leadership. U-81’s luck
continued to hold until an American air attack on Pola in January 1944 destroyed the boat
in its base. Two crew members perished in the attack.
If Guggenberger had hoped his seafaring days were over, he was mistaken. But at least he
got a temporary break from frontline duty and a further recognition of his outstanding performance. On January 8, 1943, at Führer Headquarters, Adolf Hitler himself bestowed
upon Guggenberger the Oak Leaves cluster in addition to his Knight’s Cross. The Bavarian commander was only the 18th U-boat officer to be so honored, the third in his
Crew 34 after Engelbert Endrass and Erich Topp, and the first among U-boat commanders
who had served in the Mediterranean. The ceremony lasted about ten minutes and
included a brief address by Hitler, which Guggenberger later remembered as hesitant and
lifeless to the point of incoherence. Afterwards Hitler invited Guggenberger and three
fellow honorees for a more relaxed fireside chat. Hitler seemed profoundly shaken by the
Stalingrad catastrophe, then in its last phase, and placed bitter blame on the Luftwaffe for having failed to keep Paulus’ 6th Army supplied. He actually asked for Guggenberger’s advice as to what to do: to continue to rely on conventional weapons or to hope that new
technology might make the difference. Not surprisingly, the visit to Führer Headquarters
left Guggenberger disappointed and depressed.23
The decorated U-boat ace was recalled soon after the awarding of the Oak Leaves and given command of a new, larger boat, U-847, which was then being completed at the Deschimag shipyard in Bremen. At close to 2,000 tons displacement and with a maximum
range of 23,000 miles, this Type IX D2 boat was designed for long distance patrols as far
away as the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where lucrative hunting grounds remained well away from the dangerous convoy routes of the North Atlantic. Guggenberger oversaw the
completion and commissioning of U-847, but he would never take her into combat. On February 5 he was instructed to turn the boat over to Jost Metzler, a seasoned flotilla commander who wished to return to frontline duty.
Edged out in this manner, Guggenberger instead became an operational staff officer at BdU Headquarters in Paris (and later, Berlin). The Battle of the Atlantic was reaching its
crucial phase, and Grand Admiral Dönitz, who recently had become Commander-in-Chief
of the entire Kriegsmarine, wanted to create a small, intimate “anti-staff” of successful U-boat commanders who might share their valuable expertise and first-hand experience at a
time when the larger regular staff appeared short on new ideas to invigorate Germany’s effort at sea. Between February and May 1943, despite the fiercest convoy battles to date,
U-boats began succumbing in frightfully large numbers to Allied superiority in materiel, manpower, technology air power and—never fully realized by the Germans—
cryptanalysis and intelligence. Even Guggenberger’s ad vice could not prevent the terrible
bloodletting of “Black May” 1943, when no fewer than 41 boats failed to return to their
Despite the general anxiety pervading those months, or perhaps because of it,
Guggenberger obtained leave from March 19 to April 13 for a very special occasion—his
honeymoon. His bride was Brigitte Jenisch, née Steffan, who, according to personnel records, had either been divorced from her first husband or become widowed. Very likely
there was a Navy connection, since at least two officers named Jenisch (Crews 29 and 33)
had been skippers of U-boats early in the war, in U-22 and U-32, respectively. The former
went down with his boat in 1940, while the latter had ended up in Allied captivity. At any
rate, the wedding took place on March 21, 1943, in Saxony, where Guggenberger’s future
wife then resided.24
By mid-May 1943 Dönitz decided to return some of his experienced staff officers, among
them Fritz Guggenberger, back to the front “to find out the cause of our heavy losses.”
The admiral also intended to shift the boats’ operational areas to waters where Allied anti-sub marine measures appeared less threatening than in the North Atlantic and
Mediterranean.25 Guggenberger’s new boat was U-513, a Type IXC attached to the 10th U-Boat Flotilla in Lorient, France. Like U-847, U- 513 was designed for long-distance operations, but her effective range of 11,000 miles limited her to Atlantic waters. With 1,200 tons displacement, she was almost twice as large as U-81 and could carry 22
torpedoes instead of 14. She also mounted a 10.5-cm deck gun in addition to 3.7-cm and
2-cm anti-aircraft weaponry and could run almost 19 knots when surfaced. U-513’s complement of 53 officers and men was also larger than that of a Type VII boat.
Unlike U-847, U-513 was not a new boat. Her record was one of solid but not stellar success, accumulated the previous fall and in the recent spring offensives under her first
skipper, Commander Rolf Rüggeberg of Crew 26. In operations off Newfoundland, in the
Caribbean and in the central Atlantic, U-513 managed to sink two ships and damage a third. On her most recent return to Lorient in April 1943, U-513 barely missed being blown up by a mine but an hour away from her base. Now Guggenberger was to take her
even farther afield into the South Atlantic to test Allied defenses along the coast of South America. 26
On May 18, U-5 13 departed Lorient, negotiated the ever-dangerous Bay of Biscay unharmed, and made her way southwest into the Atlantic. Guggenberger placed special emphasis on diving drills, trying to reduce the interval from the first alarm to the time the boat ran safely below the surface. This precaution was all the more crucial since by mid-1943 Allied aircraft seemed to lurk everywhere, and a single second could make the difference between life and death for boat and crew.
By mid-June U-513 had reached its operational area off the Brazilian coast accompanied
by U-199, commanded by Guggenberger’s friend and Crew 34 comrade Hans-Werner
Kraus. Kraus was also a veteran of the Mediterranean theater of operations, where he had
been in charge of U-83. The fellow Crew member had likewise earned a Knight’s Cross
for his successes in that arena. It did not take long for the German boats to begin scoring successes. On June 21 Guggenberger drew first blood when he sank the small Swedish
vessel Venezia (1,673 tons) in the shipping lanes southeast of Rio de Janeiro. In the same waters four nights later U-513’s torpedoes damaged the larger and more valuable
American tanker Eagle (6,003 tons), which managed to limp into port on her own power.
These were indeed good hunting grounds for the Axis boats, and enemy defenses both at
sea and in the air were much less alert than in the North Atlantic. In the first three days of July Guggenberger added two more victims to his tonnage score, the Brazilian steamer
Tutolia (1,125 tons) and the modern American freighter Elihu B. Washburne (7,176 tons).
Cruising slowly down the coast, U-513 bagged yet another Liberty ship off Florianopolis
on July 16, the Richard Caswell (7,177 tons), which was en route from Buenos Aires to New York. With two torpedoes left, Guggenberger reversed course and moved back up
toward Rio, possibly with the intention of sinking the old Brazilian guard destroyer
patrolling offshore. He also went on the air with a long message home reporting his latest
successes and the ease with which he was able to prey on the largely unescorted ship
traffic along the South American coast. Guggenberger suggested that Dönitz dispatch
additional boats as soon as possible. 27
The events that followed must be reconstructed from Allied records and Guggenberger’s
personal recollections, because U-513’s war diary went down with the boat and
Guggenberger sent no further recorded radio messages. To all appearances his lengthy radio signals enabled Allied interceptors to obtain a fix on his exact position. On July 19, a two-engine U.S. PBM Mariner attached to the nearby seaplane tender Barnegat(AVP-10) and piloted by Lieutenant (j.g.) R. S. Whitcomb took off to look for the reported submarine. Whitcomb located the unsuspecting U-513 on the surface 40 miles off the coast and immediately closed in for a bombing run from an altitude of about 300 feet.
Blinded by the sun peeking through the cumulus clouds, the lookouts on the bridge had barely enough time to alert Guggenberger, who was resting below, to the rapidly
approaching danger. Before U-513 could even open fire with her automatic weapons or change course and speed, let alone dive, four bombs bracketed the doomed boat. One of
the charges detonated directly on her bow section, and this single hit sealed the U-boat’s
fate. As sea water rushed into the perforated forward compartment, U-513 dropped like a
rock toward the ocean floor. Only the bridge personnel and gun crews, a dozen men, had
an opportunity to jump into the water. Everyone else perished as U-513 took her final plunge.28
The twelve survivors, many of them wounded, found themselves scattered over a radius of
about 1000 feet when the American flying boat dropped a life raft and life vests among them. In the end only seven men had the strength to drag themselves onto the raft. Among
the lucky survivors was the severely wounded and barely conscious Fritz Guggenberger,
whom his fellow survivors managed to pull into the tiny raft by his hair. Sharks attacked
and killed at least two of the others, who disappeared beneath the surface and were not seen again.
The luck of the seven survivors continued to hold when, five hours after U-513 had gone
down, the Barnegat arrived on the scene to pick them up and take them to Rio de Janeiro.
Guggenberger was the most critically injured of the bunch, having partially broken three
vertebrae, several ribs and one of his ankles—among other problems, including blood loss
and shock. After receiving initial medical attention he was flown from a Brazilian military base near Rio to Miami, Florida, and from there to Washington, D.C. At the Bethesda Naval Hospital American surgeons gradually restored his health so that by October he could be transferred to a regular POW camp in Crossville, Tennessee. In January 1944, following routine interrogations by U.S. intelligence personnel at Fort Hunt, Virginia, Guggenberger was transferred to a camp at Papago Park in Phoenix, Arizona.
At Papago Park Guggenberger met up with several fellow U-boat commanders, including
three of his own Crew 34. Hans Werner Kraus’ U-199 had experienced an almost identical
fate as U-513 when she succumbed to an air attack off Rio de Janeiro on July 31, just twelve days after Guggenberger’s debacle. Camp resident U-595’s Jürgen Quaet-Faslem was, like Kraus and Guggenberger, a veteran of the Mediterranean campaign. August Maus of U-185, the fourth member of Crew 34, had been captured in August 1943 in the
central Atlantic after many distinguished combat missions. The Allied authorities did not
realize the danger inherent in throwing together men of such resilience and ability.
Unwilling to sit out the remainder of the war behind barbed wire, the U-boat veterans and
old friends developed a brilliant scheme to escape from the camp with the hope of crossing into nearby Mexico, which they mistakenly supposed to be still neutral. The ultimate goal was to make it home to Germany. The result was the largest POW breakout
from an American camp during the entire war, entertainingly retold by John Hammond Moore in his book, The Faustball Tunnel. 29
Actually there were two attempts. In the first one on Saturday, February 12, 1944, Maus
and Guggenberger—the latter playing the role of a stranded Greek sailor because of his poor English as well as his dark hair and complexion—were smuggled out of the
compound by fellow prisoners in a truck on a work detail. The pair managed to make it by
train to Tucson, where they learned that no buses or trains ran into Nogales, Mexico, until the following Monday. Unsure what to do next, they decided to wait at the bus depot, where an alert police officer ended their excursion and returned them to Papago Park.
Paradoxically, no one in the camp had missed the escapees, even though they were gone
some thirty-six hours. While Maus and Guggenberger were quickly recaptured, a second
group of German officers, including Quaet-Faslem, actually made it 40 miles into Mexico,
sleeping by day and walking at night. Two weeks into their adventure they were finally recognized, arrested and returned to their camp without any great formality—despite efforts to remain in Mexican custody and prolong their outing.
From this earlier experience plans emerged for a more ambitious mass escape. Virtually unmolested, the prisoners used much of the fall of 1944 to dig a 178-foot tunnel underneath the outer fences of their compound to a drainage canal beyond the wire. On a
dark and rainy December 23, 1944, with a weekend approaching and their guards’ minds
diverted by Christmas preparations (as well as deliberate distractions staged by other prisoners), 25 officers and enlisted men slipped out of camp in small groups, among them
Guggenberger and Quaet Faslem. Their idea was to reach the Gila River, since maps indicated that one might be able to raft on it or just follow it practically all the way to Mexico. Unbeknownst to the prisoners, who had no firsthand experience with the Arizona
countryside, the river is actually dry for most of the year. Incredibly, the camp authorities did not learn of the break-out for some twenty-four hours, although a massive manhunt was ordered once the prisoners were found missing. Eventually all escapees were
recaptured. Guggenberger and Quaet-Faslem managed to get within ten miles of the Mexican border and enjoyed two weeks of freedom before a search group caught up with
them on January 6, 1945. Thus ended Fritz Guggenberger’s last wartime adventure.
In May 1946, the 31-year-old Guggenberger returned to Germany to pick up the pieces of
his life. For a time he worked as a bricklayer and later as a civilian employee for the U.S.
occupation forces in southern Germany. Although he would have preferred to enter medical school, the lengthy course requirements caused him to consider other avenues of
study. He eventually settled on architecture, since the curriculum could be completed relatively quickly in eight semesters. But the sea was not done with Guggenberger. By late
1955, shortly after he had opened his own architectural firm, the newly-created West German Navy offered him reactivation at the initial rank of Commander.
Without much hesitation Guggenberger accepted this opportunity to resume his former career. Rising in rank to full Captain by 1961 and Rear Admiral by 1968, he held over the
years a number of challenging appointments both ashore and with the fleet. They included
a year at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and two years as Chief of
Staff to the German representative of the NATO Military Committee in Washington, D.C.,
at the time of the 1961 Berlin Crisis. His last position before retirement to Garmisch in December 1972 was that of Deputy Chief-of-Staff for Planning and Operations at the NATO Command AFNORTH in Oslo, Norway. Guggenberger’s post-war career closely
paralleled that of his good friend and Crew 34 comrade Erich Topp. Topp, who had also
studied architecture after the war, was reactivated in 1958 and served both in Washington,
D.C., and in desk jobs in Bonn. The former enterprising commander of the Red Devil Boat
also rose to the rank of Rear Admiral, and had been slated for the same NATO position in
Oslo that eventually went to Guggenberger.
On a more personal note, Guggenberger’s first marriage did not survive the long separation occasioned by his three years in captivity. In 1949 he married his second wife,
Liselotte, with whom he had five children, including a pair of twins. By all appearances it was a happy and successful union despite the many relocations that necessarily
accompany a military officer’s career. One can imagine how much the two later enjoyed
their retirement years in the Bavarian Alps.
In November 1987 the Guggenbergers moved to a nursing home in the town of Erlenbach
on the Main River. By this time Guggenberger was suffering severely from Alzheimer’s disease. On May 13, 1988, he told his wife he was going out for an extended walk. He never returned. Despite an immediate search he remained missing for more than two years
until his badly decomposed body was accidentally discovered not far from Erlenbach.
Positive identification was only possible thanks to his wedding band. His date of death at
the age of 73 was fixed as the day on which he had wandered away from his home. His
wife died on January 21, 1991, apparently still uncertain about her husband’s fate.
Fritz Guggenberger’s tragic end was indeed a sad conclusion to a remarkable human odyssey.
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