MEASURED BY THE NUMBER of ships he sank, the awards he won or the days he spent on patrol, Victor Otto Oehrn does not favorably compare with many other World War II U-boat aces. Oehrn is never placed in the same category as U-Bootwaffe superstars
Otto Kretschmer or Günther Prien, for example, nor in the company of the “gray wolves”
as a group. Strictly speaking, Oehrn was a staff officer, a member of a much-derided class
of shore-bound U-boat officers. He commanded a U-boat in combat for less than six months, and as he admitted, he was for most of the war “a man with no name,” who labored behind a desk for the greater glory of his superiors. Thus he has little if any reputation outside either the historical community or the parochial confines of the U-Bootwaffe. Many people have never heard of him at all.1
Oehrn always displayed the virtues that marked the real German military—the
organization behind the facade of National Socialism. He represents the lineage of the Prussian military system and the naval tradition that Kriegsmarine commander-in-chief Erich Raeder always wanted for Germany. He is a dignified man, sell-effacing, loyal to his
country and to his military superiors—but aware of their shortcomings. Oehrn makes no
effort to defend the system he fought for, but he will defend Germany—a distinction that
escapes many of his peers. He listens to criticism of his service without rancor, and responds politely. He is a gentleman and a professional. He is, perhaps, the ideal U-boat
officer, eagerly sought after by apologists of the service—and the one so often ignored in
favor of the meteoric Prien or the tenacious Kretschmer.
And yet Oehrn is a remarkable man who deserves recognition for his stellar—and unique
—service. He was anything but a common desk lackey and in fact was Karl Dönitz’s A1
—his Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations—for most of the war. In this role Oehrn was
responsible for planning many of the special operations and most of the (relatively) routine patrol activity that made the U-Bootwaffe such a terrible weapon in its time and such a captivating entity in the public imagination then and today. Günther Prien’s sinking of the Royal Oak in 1939 and the U-boat offensive of 1940 are two conspicuous examples of Oehrn’s influence. During the brief time he was a commander at sea, Oehrn sank enough tonnage during his three patrols to win the Knight’s Cross. In addition, he is given considerable credit for restoring U-Bootwaffe morale after the disastrous torpedo failures
of the spring of 1940. Finally, he achieved a personal victory during the war unique in his branch of service: he was gravely wounded in a land battle, captured by the enemy, imprisoned, repatriated and restored to his position—all within eighteen months.
* * *
Victor Otto Oehrn was born in Kedabeg in the southern part of Russia on October 21, 1907. His place of birth set him apart, along with a very small percentage of his fellow commanders, as an Auslandsdeutscher, a German national born and raised outside
Germany. His father, a director in the Siemens Corporation, was stationed in the Caucasus,
and the young Victor grew up comfortably in a country that was at once foreign and intimately familiar to him. “Many nationalities, races, and religions lived together peaceably in my parents’ house,” he wrote. “My first teacher…was a Frenchwoman: Mile.
Glere. Our servant and our cook were Armenians, the driver and many of the female help
were Russian, and so was the washerwoman. The gardener, the grounds keepers, and the
guards were Tartars.” 2 As a result of this mix his life was forever colored by the images of devout Muslims, fierce Tartars and sturdy Slavs, for all of whom he harbors lasting affection. Oehrn speaks perfect Russian, and his philosophy of life reflects both the fatalism of Islam and the resilience of Christianity. His love of the old Russia, however, did not translate into an equal love for the new Soviet Union. In 1921, the Bolsheviks drove his family out of the country under threat of death, and he developed an intense hatred of Communism and a strong nationalism that is the mark of the Auslandsdeutscher.
The concept of a Greater Germany, in whose borders all ethnic Germans might safely live,
appealed to many people in Oehrn’s situation. It was something that Adolf Hitler would later find easy to manipulate.
Oehrn finished his education in the more conventional setting of Berlin before joining the
Reichsmarine at the age of nineteen. He be came a member of Crew 27, one of the small
band of officer candidates who survived the rigorous selection process conducted annually
to ensure the “suitability” of officers in a postwar navy. His basic training was conducted in April 1927 on the Dänholm, a desolate island on the Baltic coast.
Oehrn’s reason for joining the Reichsmarine was less common than most. When asked why they joined the naval service, many U-boat veterans will give adventure, prestige, travel or perhaps family history as their first motivation. 3 For Oehrn, it was a desire to correct the wrongs he believed had been inflicted upon Germany by her former enemies.
“One often reads in modem history that the decisive point in our development was the Treaty of Versailles,” he explained. “Germany considered this ‘treaty,’ which had the effect of strangling her, to be stupid, short-sighted, unjust, and discriminatory. This is the reason I decided to enter the German military.” Even his place of birth played a role in his decision. “I am an Auslandsdeutscher. I knew from experience what it was like to be unprotected and I wanted to do what I could to change that.” 4
U-boats could not have affected his decision to join the navy, for there weren’t any in the Reichsmarine when he joined the service. Submarines had been banned by the Treaty of
Versailles, and although a great deal of secret research in submarines and submarine warfare was being carried out with a view toward eventual return of the U-boats, Oehrn
had no reasonable knowledge of it. In any case he had become rather comfortable in the
surface fleet. After basic training and the Marineschule Mürwik (the German Naval Academy) had come his first junior officer assignment in the light cruiser Königsberg, followed by shore duty as a company officer on the Dänholm and the light cruiser Karlsruhe. The last billet was a prestigious position in the woefully small Reichsmarine.
The Karlsruhe, Germany’s showcase warship, often circled the globe as a training platform for new officer candidates. At that time U-boats must have seemed very small and damp to Oehrn—relics of the old navy and a futile pursuit for the ambitious officer of
the New Order.
Oehrn was initially approached about possible assignment to the U-boat service in 1934
while serving on the Karlsruhe. “My old Seekadett training officer Fritz Bonte, who [in 1940] commanded the German destroyers at Narvik, was Chief of Personnel for Naval Station East at that time,” recalled Oehrn. “When I left for the 1934 world cruise in Karlsruhe as a training officer he asked me what I would like to do when I returned. ‘If there are U-boats,’ he said, “would you like to be assigned to them?’ I said no. ‘If I did that…I would have to spend my life looking through a periscope.’” 5
Despite his firm initial refusal, Oehrn joined the U-Bootwaffe just one year later. He never explained why. It is difficult to believe his earlier ambivalence vanished so quickly. The young officer had never set foot on a U-boat, nor had he yet met the charismatic Kapitän
zur See Karl Dönitz, commander of the first new U-boat flotilla “Weddigen.” When the two finally did meet, however, Oehrn found a man he respected and admired, an officer he
wanted to follow for the rest of his life. From that day forward he took to the U-Bootwaffe as a fish to water.
When Karl Dönitz took command of Flotilla Weddigen, he had already conceived a
mission, a strategy, an order of battle, a set of tactics and a support organization for a future U-boat fleet of 300 boats. Such a comprehensive vision as Dönitz’s also required a
large and efficient officer corps, which had to be built from scratch. Veterans from the first war were not a part of Dönitz’s plan: they had their own ideas and might be reluctant to
conform to the new tactics he envisioned employing. He preferred men he could train himself and upon whose loyalty he could always rely. As a result, Flotilla Weddigen’s first twelve commanders were surface fleet officers, men relatively young and unfamiliar with
submarine warfare but eager to learn and willing to follow Dönitz into hell if that was what it took to please him. Although few of these “apostles” of the new fleet would go on
to become successful in war, they laid the groundwork and set the standards for those who
One of the twelve apostles in January 1936 was Victor Oehrn, who was given command of
U-14, a small 250-ton Type II boat known within the service as an Einbaum, or “canoe.”
He led his crew for almost two years in a grinding schedule of drills in Mecklenburg Bight
and extended exercises at sea. The U-Bootwaffe grew steadily during this period. Another
flotilla was added in 1936, and Dönitz was bumped up to become Führer der U-Boote (Commander, U-Boats, or FdU). Despite his high rank Dönitz never forgot a face, lost touch with one of his officers, or flagged in his efforts to forge his men into the best submariners in the world. When they went to war, he told his crews, it would never be as
bad as it was at home in Mecklenburg Bight. Along with the basic tools and tactics of submarine warfare, many of which had not been used for almost twenty years, Dönitz ran
his boats through newer and more sophisticated exercises. His crews, for example, were trained to operate at night on the surface, with both air and surface support. More significantly, his U-boats learned to operate in groups controlled from a central point by means of radio communications. This last development, which was to become Dönitz’s most potent tactic of the war was called Rudeltaktik, later known as “wolfpack.” Victor Oehrn spent months absorbing these new principles in a rigorous and stressful training program which was to prove very useful to him in ways that he could not have imagined.
While Oehrn enjoyed U-boat command and was very good in that role, other talents also
began to display themselves. One of these was in the thankless domain of staff work.
Dönitz recognized Oehrn’s organizational abilities early on and began to groom him as a
staff officer. After he left U-14, Oehrn was sent back to the Marineschule for a tour as a
company commander, attended formal U-boat school in Neustadt, and completed a course
and subsequent training cruise as an admiralty staff officer. In August 1939 he was assigned to the staff of Kapitän zur See Oskar Schomburg, who would soon direct U-boat
operations in the Baltic during the Polish Campaign. When the war began Oehrn was reassigned to FdU as first admiralty staff officer (First Asto, or simply A1). Stationed at Dönitz’s headquarters in Sengwarden, Oehrn suddenly found himself responsible for
planning U-boat operations. He would hold that important position, in one capacity or another and with only two interruptions, from that day until the end of the war. He was standing at Karl Dönitz’s side on September 3, 1939, the day Great Britain declared war
on Germany, and he would be there on May 5, 1945, the day Dönitz sent a final signal to
his boats calling them back from six exhausting years of combat. And it was in this position that he would make his first major contribution to the war effort.
The best known U-boat operation of the war was the penetration of the Royal Navy anchorage at Scapa Flow by Günther Prien in October 1939, and his subsequent sinking of
the battleship Royal Oak. The Scapa Flow operation returned the threatening image of the U-boat to the public mind, and allowed Dönitz to solidify his rather tenuous grasp on the
resources and prestige he felt his service needed to survive and prosper. The attack also made a hero out of Prien, who primarily be cause of that exploit is today perhaps the most
renowned U-boat ace of World War II. Victor Oehrn, who was laboring in the bowels of
the wooden huts at Sengwarden before, during and after the operation, is rarely mentioned
in connection with Scapa Flow. Yet, it was Oehrn who recognized that a penetration of the
British anchorage was possible, and he planned the operation from start to finish.
Scapa Flow was a heavily-guarded body of water surrounded by seven large clumps of windswept Scottish dirt that make up most of the Orkney Islands. During the First World
War U-boats had twice attempted to enter Scapa Flow; both boats were lost. In 1919, the
Imperial German Navy had suffered the additional ignominy of having to scuttle its own
ships in Scapa Flow to prevent them from being distributed between the winners of the war. The thought of slipping a U-boat into the sacred naval anchorage was therefore doubly appealing to Dönitz, who realized that a successful penetration was an almost impossible proposition. Reconnaissance by both submarines and aircraft revealed that two
of the entrances to Scapa Flow were open in 1939 but heavily patrolled, while the rest were obstructed by sunken ships held in place with large chains or cables anchored on land. Carefully sifting through the evidence, Oehrn discerned that despite its obstructions, Kirk Sound—one of a half-dozen entrances into Scapa Flow—might be accessible on the
surface at high tide. His excruciatingly detailed planning managed to convince first Dönitz and then Prien, a daredevil by nature, that the operation was indeed possible.
The hazardous undertaking was a major success. Following Oehrn’s operational plan, Prien guided U-47 into Scapa Flow on the evening of October 13, 1939, and after some
amount of agitated searching in an almost empty anchorage, found and attacked Royal Oak. After two salvoes the aging battleship turned turtle and sank, taking with her to the cold bottom of Scapa Flow almost 900 men. Prien escaped and returned to a hero’s welcome in Germany, where he was greeted in Wilhelmshaven by Dönitz and Erich
Raeder. Prien and his entire crew were flown to Berlin and trooped through the streets and
into the Chancellery where U-47’s commander was personally decorated by Adolf Hitler
with one of the first Knight’s Crosses. For Prien, Scapa Flow was the beginning of a new
career as a media star. For Dönitz, who now held the title of Befehlshaber der U-Boote (Commander-in-Chief, U-Boats, or BdU), Scapa Flow meant a promotion to flag rank and
a much-needed infusion of money and resources for the tiny U-Bootwaffe. Oehrn,
however, was never publicly recognized for Prien’s success, and to this day has not sought
the recognition he deserves for the operation. “The staff officer,” he wrote, quoting the nineteenth-century German field marshal von Moltke, “has no name. ”6
While Oehrn was an excellent staff officer, he was keenly aware of the distinction between
officers like him, who did most of their work in the relatively safe confines of an office, and the commanders at sea, who risked their lives in frontline boats. He also knew that everyone else drew the same distinction. As a result, the desk-bound Oehrn envied his fellow officers in the boats. This was especially so when he found himself in close contact with them, such as when he delivered his pier-side briefings to departing commanders and
handed them their orders. (This ritual was called the “last rites,” for reasons that became increasingly obvious as the war went on.) He refused to wear the Iron Cross (Second Class) that Dönitz awarded him for his role in Scapa Flow, believing that staff officers had no right to wear what he regarded to be an award for valor. Despite his discomfort with his situation, Oehrn continued to perform his duties well and never openly complained. But the perceptive Dönitz could not have missed Oehrn’s desire for service on the amorphous
and ever changing line in the sea that U-boat sailors simply called “the front.”
Oehrn’s role in the expanding war changed dramatically shortly after the Norwegian campaign, which in spite of Oehrn’s usual planning genius, was a debacle for the U-boats.
The disaster was largely due to the failure of the new electric torpedo systems. Morale among the U-boat crews plunged, and commanders were openly upset at having to fight
with torpedoes that routinely failed to detonate. The situation was so desperate that Dönitz had little choice but to recall his boats into port to address the matter and reassure his crews. After this dismal state of affairs had dragged on for several weeks, Dönitz called Oehrn into his office. How long, the admiral wanted to know, would it take a veteran commander to prepare an unfamiliar boat for sea? Five days, Oehrn replied. To the staff
officer’s utter shock, Dönitz informed him that he had five days to prepare U-37, a 750-
ton Type IX boat, for patrol. Oehrn, Dönitz continued, was U-37’s new commander, and
would be the first man to go back to sea on a new offensive. The date was May 10, 1940,
the day Germany invaded the low countries. A grateful Oehrn left BdU at once for his new
command and somehow managed to take his new boat out of Wilhelmshaven in just under
his own prescribed time.7
If there was any point in Victor Oehrn’s career when he shed his cloak of anonymity and
became, at least temporarily, a well-known figure in Germany, it was upon his return from
his first war patrol as commander of U-37. Traditionally, this is because Oehm—by being
the first commander to complete a patrol after the resounding collapse of U-Bootwaffe morale in April—helped redeem the German torpedo and thus restored the spirit of the service. His patrol also initiated the highly successful U-boat campaign of late 1940 that
would come to be known as the “happy times” of the U-Bootwaffe. But in this case tradition is not entirely correct. Oehrn was not the first commander out after the Norwegian debacle; that distinction belongs to Wolfgang Lüth, commander of the tiny Type II einbaum U-9. Lüth, working in the North Sea and the English Channel, sank four ships in two patrols with the same torpedos Oehrn used, and he returned from his second
outing before Oehrn returned from his first. As for the torpedos, Oehrn seems to have had
no fewer problems than anyone else, and had to resort in many cases to sinking his targets
with his deck gun. It is difficult to picture an entire officer corps hoisting itself back on its feet because one of their number enjoyed a successful patrol. U-boat morale was boosted
less by Victor Oehrn than by the triumph of the Wehrmacht in Europe, the occupation of
France, and by the fact that the men who crewed the boats were an incredibly resilient bunch to start with. 8
Nonetheless Oehrn deserves recognition for conducting an extremely successful maiden combat patrol. Though it lasted just 26 days, he sank ten ships for a total of 41,000 gross registered tons (GRT). 9 Like all commanders he made some mistakes, was lucky enough to survive them, and went on to learn from them. As Dönitz’ A1, for example, he had routinely told commanders to use the Fair Island Gap when exiting the North Sea into the
Atlantic. After being attacked from the air while following his own advice, however, he realized that the route was ill-advised. He also had no idea how to act with survivors, which led to at least one awkward situation after a sinking in which he attempted to engage enemy crewmen in lifeboats with cheerful conversation. Despite these troubles, however, the patrol was a superb undertaking—especially when one considers that it was
launched on just five days notice by a man who had not commanded a U-boat in three years and never in wartime. Oehrn had every reason to be pleased when he sailed into Wilhelmshaven on June 9 with the aplomb of a well-fed schoolmaster amidst a crowd of
Hungry for heroes, the Gennan media was waiting to pounce on U-37. Oehrn’s exploits were celebrated with front page stories and pictures of him and his crew. Dönitz, whose gamble in choosing Oehm had obviously paid off, basked in the glory as well. “The spell
had been broken,” the admiral wrote in his memoirs. “The fighting powers of the U-boat
had once again been proved. My convictions had not played me false. It will be readily appreciated that I was particularly grateful to the commander of U-37 for what he had achieved,” Dönitz wrote, “for he, too, understood how much depended upon the success or
otherwise of his patrol. Now, however, the other U-boats put to sea convinced that what
U-37 had done, they, too, could do.” For the time being Oehrn was a bona fide U-boat hero, much as Prien had been when he returned from Scapa Flow. Given the difficult circumstances under which Oehrn operated and the success he achieved, the award of a mere Iron Cross (First Class) the day after his return seems rather unimaginative.10
But fame is usually fleeting, and Oehrn’s case was no exception. His second war patrol,
which began August 1 in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, and ended 29 days later in Lorient, France, drew almost no notice from the German propaganda machine. The oversight is difficult to understand, especially since Oehrn was able to sink eight ships for about 33,000 GRT The lack of attention was probably for the best, for although the cruise was
almost as successful as his first patrol, Oehrn and his crew came within a hair’s breadth of returning as war criminals instead of U-boat heroes. The fast pace of the war at sea often
made the distinction between hero and criminal a thin one, as postwar trials would prove,
and the events that played out during Oehrn’s second combat patrol demonstrated how easy—and quickly—it was to swing from one extreme to the other. 11
On August 23, three weeks into his second patrol, Oehrn sighted the British steamer Severn Leigh and sank her with gunfire. During the barrage a wayward shell struck the side of the ship and a lifeboat that had been lowered took the full force of the blast and much of the resulting shrapnel. The boat tumbled down the hull of the sinking ship, dumping its human contents into the sea. Even from a distance Oehrn could see that the
damage to the boat and its occupants was serious. The incident so unnerved Oehrn that he
considered sinking the remaining lifeboats with gunfire so no survivors would be left to tell the tale. He went so far as to order his guns trained on the boats—but could not give
the command to fire. As he describes the tense moment in his memoirs, the standoff lasted
for several breathless minutes before common sense prevailed and he guided his boat into
the field of flotsam to offer assistance to the survivors instead of death.
Anyone who knows Victor Oehrn finds such an incident hard to believe, but there are at
least three reasons that account for his balancing act on the thin line between successful commander and war criminal. First, as A1 Oehrn was well aware of the adverse
consequences of any act that could conceivably inflame the enemy and its media outlets.
He knew of the Athenia incident, for example, in which a British passenger liner was sunk without warning in September 1939, and Dönitz’s subsequent attempts to cover it up.
Second, Oehrn knew also that Adolf Hitler had declared unrestricted submarine warfare around the British Isles just days before he sank the Severn Leigh. With his blunder coming so soon afterward, there was little doubt the enemy press would magnify and distort the account to suit their needs. Lastly, Oehrn’s reaction was in part based on instinct—the tendency to hide one’s errors is human nature. It is to Oehrn’s everlasting credit that he overcame this tendency. 12
Oehrn completed his third and final war patrol on October 22, 1940, after four weeks at
sea. Like his previous pair of patrols, his third outing was also successful, netting him six ships for approximately 30,000 GRT. His total for three patrols was 24 ships for 104,000
GRT. 13 His numbers were impressive and compared favorably to many of the aces—
especially since it had only taken him three patrols to eclipse the 100,000 GRT mark, which qualified a commander for the Knight’s Cross. Despite passing the 100,000 ton plateau, Oehrn did not do as well on his third patrol as many of the boats then at sea.
Several circumstances contributed to Germany’s significant victories in the North Atlantic
in October 1940, including Dönitz’s wolfpack tactics, the forward basing of U-boats in France and the critical lack of resources on the part of the enemy. Two running engagements in which German wolfpacks tore up Allied convoys SC 7 and HX 79, for example—the “Night of the Long Knives”—are legends in naval warfare and often used
to describe both the ferocity of the U-boat in general and the performance of the great aces (Otto Kretschmer, Günther Prien, Heinrich Liebe, Heinrich Bleichrodt, Joachim Schepke,
Fritz Frauenheim, and Herbert Schütze, to name but a few), in particular Oehrn was not considered on the same level as these men, and whether he had the luck—or the innate ferocity—to survive for long in the unforgiving arena of the North Atlantic is an open question. For reasons known only to Dönitz, the admiral made an unexpected decision at
the end of October and relieved Oehrn of command, turning over U-37 to her first watch
officer, Nicolai Clausen. The blow was softened by the award of the Knight’s Cross, and
with a promise that he would be given a second boat at a later date. But Victor Oehrn never get another boat, and as a result never enjoyed the opportunity to achieve the heights of a Prien or a Kretschmer. 14
In assessing Oehrn’s performance as a U-boat commander, three accomplishments mark him as an officer of special merit. First, the fact that a staff officer with no wartime experience could take command of a boat, and with but five days notice succeed as he did,
is in itself extraordinary. BdU and OKM staff officers occasionally received U-boat commands, but their performances were usually unexceptional and sometimes tragic.
Second, his ratio of GRT to days at sea was very high: i.e., he managed to find and sink
ships quickly. Oehrn claims to have won his Knight’s Cross after fewer days on patrol (85)
than any other commander. Although his claim is difficult to verify it seems to be contradicted in any case by Günther Prien’s award in 1939. Third, Oehrn played a role and
deserves some credit—however qualified—for initiating the highly successful U-boat
offensive of 1940.15
Though there may have been other reasons that contributed to Oehrn’s reassignment, the
primary motive behind Dönitz’s decision seems to have been his own lack of a good staff.
With the Battle of the Atlantic heating up, Dönitz badly needed Oehrn back at his old desk
directing operational planning. With combat experience beneath his belt Oehrn was even
more valuable to Dönitz than before. In addition, Oehrn had jettisoned some dangerous preconceptions about U-boat warfare (and Dönitz may have privately hoped that Oehrn’s
constant yearning for sea duty was behind him). On October 27, 1940, he re ported to Dönitz’s new headquarters at Kerneval, a large villa built by a sardine merchant on the outskirts of Lorient, France. He held the post of A1 for thirteen months, during which time the fortunes of the U-Bootwaffe would take a rather drastic turn for the worse.
The U-Bootwaffe lost three of its best and high profile commanders the following March
when Günther Prien and Joachim Schepke were killed at sea, and Otto Kretschmer was captured and sent to Britain (and eventually Canada) as a prisoner of war. Two months later the battleship Bismarck was lost, having failed in her bid to draw her pursuers across a line of U-boats that Oehrn had set up as a trap in the North Atlantic. Two significant events transpired in June: one was of epic proportions but of little immediate import for the U-boats, while the other held greater significance for U-boat operations but was unappreciated (because it was unknown to the Germans) at the time. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Six weeks earlier on May 10, U-110, commanded by
Fritz-Julius Lemp (who had torpedoed the Athenia earlier in the war), was sunk and Lemp was killed under mysterious circumstances. More importantly for the Germans, the boat was not properly scuttled. British sailors were able to board the submarine and recover an
enigma machine and other valuable code books and intelligence information that would soon enable them to decipher U-boat radio signals. Another stunning command lapse followed two months later when the commander of U-570, Hans-Joachim Rahmlow,
surrendered his U-boat at sea. Rahmlow allowed the Royal Navy to capture and tow his
boat back to Britain, where she was thoroughly tested before being put into service as the
HMS Graph. And all during that fateful summer the warships of the United States Navy had begun to make their presence felt in the convoy lanes. Although not officially at war
with Germany, the actions of the American ships were becoming increasingly provocative
as the end of the year approached.16
Neither Oehrn nor anyone at BdU had any idea of the loss they had suffered with U-110.
While the Germans occasionally raised suspicions about the security of their
communications, the U-boat high command never realized that U-boat radio traffic was being intercepted and read on a daily basis. Rahmlow’s decision to blithely deliver his boat to the enemy made him an outcast in the U-Bootwaffe community, but according to
Oehrn, Dönitz did not leap to any conclusions and made no judgment of him until after the
war. The invasion of the Soviet Union Oehrn greeted with mixed feelings. After all, he had been raised in Russia and knew the people well. It was not long before he realized that Germany was mishandling the offensive. In the early months, he wrote, the German forces
were welcomed in many parts of the Soviet Union as saviors. Had they accepted this role,
instead of instituting a regime that was in many ways worse than Stalin’s, they would have
succeeded and kept the moral advantage as well. As for the Americans, Oehrn was as frustrated as anyone at BdU by Hitler’s decision to avoid confrontation for as long as possible. He knew it was only a matter of time before formal hostilities would begin and
BdU would be able to plan offensive operations against the United States. What he did not
know was that he would not be available to assist the U-Bootwaffe when that time arrived. 17
In October 1941, Hitler ordered several U-boats out of the North Atlantic and sent them
into the Mediterranean Sea to support Erwin Rommel’s embattled land forces in North Africa. Dönitz, who voiced disagreement over this strategic shift of U-boats, realized that the posting of German submarines to the Mediterranean required a competent staff in the
theater to oversee their operational direction. In November the new post of Führer der U-
Boote—-Italien (Commander of U-boats, Italy, or FdU—Italy) was created in Rome. This
position would ordinarily have been filled by an officer with prior flotilla command experience and a rank of Kapitän zur See. Dönitz, with typical disregard for the rules and
niceties of the Kriegsmarine, assigned his A1, Victor Oehrn, to fill the position. A delighted Oehrn packed his bags and left immediately. 18
It was a dream assignment. Rome during the war was still Rome, and Oehrn quickly warmed to the haunting scenery and swirling social life of the city, a life he was expected, as a representative of his country, to take part in. U-boat operations in the Mediterranean were going reasonably well, although the work was less than he expected. It was during
this time that he met his future wife, Renate von Winterfeld, secretary to the senior Kriegsmarine officer in Rome, Eberhard Weichhold. But Oehrn’s dream turned to dust just
weeks after his arrival. In February 1942, Erich Raeder, displeased that the new position
had been given to an officer of Oehrn’s rank (he was a KorvettenKapitän at the time), overruled Dönitz and directed him to replace Oehrn with a more senior officer. Oehm was
to become the A1 for FdU—Italy, a position lower than the one he had left in Kerneval.
The blow was devastating. Bitterly disappointed, Oehrn decided to request sea duty again
—after all, he had been promised another boat and the U-boat offensive against the United
States was reaching a crescendo. Before he could request a transfer to a frontline boat, however, Dönitz called him to apologize and asked him to stay in Rome until his replacement arrived. Always the courteous subordinate, Oehrn agreed, not knowing that his decision would have fateful consequences.19
In May 1942, after chasing the British Army back and forth across the North African desert for over a year, Erwin Rommel was preparing to attack the fortified city of Tobruk
Still in charge at FdU—Italy and with no replacement in sight, Oehrn decided to transfer
his small staff operation across the Mediterranean Sea to Libya, where he could better supervise U-boat attacks against the expected Allied evacuation convoys. He expected to
be back in Rome within days, and the night before he was due to leave, over dinner at the
Casino Valadier, he asked Renate von Winterfeld to many him. She accepted his proposal
and they agreed to announce their engagement as soon as he returned from Africa. Oehrn
arrived in Derna the following morning and watched with awe the collapse of Tobruk over
the next few days. The fall of the city, however, had been expected. What Oehrn did not
anticipate was an order from his titular commander in Rome, Weichhold, naming him Kriegsmarine liaison officer to the staff of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who was responsible for all land operations in the Mediterranean Theater. The order was effective
immediately. His planned ten-day stay in Libya had been extended indefinitely. Any connection he had with FdU—Italy (or, for that matter, with BdU) was severed by his assignment to Kesselring’s staff, and his engagement to Renate was placed on an indefinite hold. 20
Under the circumstances Oehrn handled the transfer well. He soon became fond of Kesselring, whose staff meetings he attended and with whom he dined periodically. He also began to develop an admiration for Rommel that matched his devotion to Dönitz.
Much like Dönitz, Rommel was a charismatic and dynamic leader, and Oehrn’s
association with the head of the Afrika Korps filled a void in his life that had been empty since his transfer to Rome.
After the capture of Tobruk Rommel began his advance across the desert towards El Alamein so quickly that Kesselring, ostensibly in charge, could only follow in his wake.
As the Germans drove east, Oehrn, in a small truck with a couple of radio operators, had
all he could do to keep up with Kesselring. Oehrn became swept up in the excitement that
swirled in Rommel’s wake (quite the opposite of Kesselring, who regularly predicted that
the lightening advance would falter) and began to send optimistic reports of his progress
back to Berlin. When Rommel’s exhausted forces stalled just short of El Alamein in July
1942, many Germans believed that it was only a matter of time before the “Desert Fox”
would regroup his men and push into Egypt and across the Nile. The British forces in Cairo believed it as well and began to burn their classified papers. Weichhold, in an attempt to bolster Rommel’s chances for success, detached Oehrn from Kesselring’s staff
and ordered him to report to Rommel and offer the resources of the Kriegsmarine to assist
in his final attack. In retrospect it was a ridiculous mission, for the only assistance Oehrn had to offer Rommel was a single Schnellboot squadron, and there was no reason for him
to see him in person to make such an offer. But, Oehrn’s enthusiasm for the man made the
assignment rather appealing, and he looked forward to joining Rommel. 21
Oehrn set out for the “Desert Fox’s” headquarters on the morning of July 13, 1942. He was dressed in his best uniform, desert khaki modified to look something like what a naval
officer would wear, his medals, including his Knight’s Cross and the U-boat badge, topped
with a blue garrison cap. He was able to locate a kübelwagen and a driver, since any officer of importance had both, and a last photograph was taken before they set off into the desert. Oehrn had only the vaguest notion where they were going and even less of an idea
where Rommel actually was, and within a very short time they were lost. Oehrn brought
the kübelwagen to a stop at the top of a sand dune to survey the area, and they were spotted by an Australian scouting unit, a forward element of the British Eighth Army. The
Australians opened fire on the fleeing Oehrn and five bullets ripped into his shoulder, hip and leg. The force of the blows knocked him to the ground, where he soon lost consciousness. When he awoke several hours later, it was dark and the Australians were
standing over him. “Are we good soldiers?” they asked. 22
Victor Oehrn was a most unlikely prisoner of war, and his captors must have realized it,
for they immediately tossed him into a field ambulance and rushed him over several hundred miles of bone-clattering roads to a temporary hospital in Egypt. After surgery he
drifted in and out of consciousness for several weeks, and recalls gaining the full use of
his senses only on August 28, 1942. The first thing he remembers was the realization that
he was in a full plaster body cast. The bullets had broken his shoulder, hip and leg, and caused a host of serious internal injuries. The hospital, he learned, was deep in Allied territory and the prospect of his being rescued or making it back to Germany by any means was dim. His injuries and plaster body armor made it impossible for him to move
even as far as the hospital door. For Oehrn, it appeared the war was over.
The extent of his injuries, his sense that he had been forgotten by the Kriegsmarine and by his country and his wholly unexpected separation from Renate—which for all he knew might last for years—cast Oehrn into despair. The former U-boat commander grew listless
and did not care whether he lived or died. His mental state concerned the British doctors,
for Oehrn’s apathy was affecting his physical recovery. It was, in fact, his doctors who began to drag him out of this despair. Several of them struck up a friendship with Oehrn,
one a Jew who had emigrated from Germany before the war. They talked freely about the
war and Germany’s role in it—even about the tenets of National Socialism. Oehrn’s willingness to debate soon became common knowledge, and his room became a gathering
point for anyone who wanted to visit a real German officer. Oehrn was able to hold his own in these conversations while remaining gregarious and unfailingly polite. “Really, we
have no quarrel,” he liked to tell anyone who would listen to him, “it is the Bolsheviks who are our common enemy. It’s foolish for us to fight among ourselves when we should
be fighting together against them. ”23
Did Oehrn believe this? Probably he did, for the experiences of his youth had instilled a
loathing for the Soviet Union and communism that went far beyond the official party line.
The real enemies were not the British or the Americans, with whom he seems to have got
on well, but the Soviets. This is not to say that Oehrn did not agree with the general war
aims of the Third Reich, including revenge for past injustices and the need for a Greater
Germany. But as with so many others, the war Hitler started as a calculated grab for power
had become for Oehrn a crusade to save Europe from Bolshevism. It is difficult to judge
his enthusiasm for Hitler, who Oehrn seems to believe was necessary to correct the inequities of the Versailles Treaty. It is equally hard to measure his acceptance of National Socialism; he seems to have held many of its less pleasant aspects (those he knew about)
in complete disdain. But to Oehm these issues were not as important as the fact that his country was fighting a just war The Fatherland was under attack and it was his duty to defend her regardless of its government, its leaders or its noxious behavior at home. If his defense of Germany could only be made in the form of words from a hospital bed, so be
Oehrn proved to be such a persuasive debater that his room was finally declared off-limits
to all but medical personnel. The visits stopped and so did much of the therapeutic conversation. Despair began to creep back into his sedentary life. He still had no idea of
his fate. He had heard disturbing stories about German POWs being sent to Australia for
the duration of the war, and about an Allied interrogation center up the road in Mahdi at
which torture was practiced. He was especially worried about Renate and tried to contact
her by mail, initially to let her know he was alive and safe—and to break off their engagement. He knew it was unfair to make her wait years for him to return to her His attempts to reach her were unsuccessful. In the end it was Renate who found him. One day
as he was lying in bed, a Catholic priest walked in and asked him if he was Victor Oehrn.
Yes, he replied warily, not knowing who the man was or what he wanted. Oehrn was not a
Catholic himself, but a Lutheran, and he had been raised to distrust Catholics. The priest
handed him a letter. “This is from Renate von Winterfeld,” he said. “If you wish to reply
by letter, I will wait. Otherwise you may dictate a reply to me now.”
Oehrn was shocked. After all this, it had not been the German Government who had tracked him down, nor the Kriegsmarine—nor even Dönitz. It had been the Roman
Catholic Church, an organization for which he had little interest and no love. The fact that the Church would take the time during a world war to do this for two people who were, as
he later described it, “as two grains of sand in the desert,” impressed him. The love Renate demonstrated in initiating the search impressed him even more. Clearly she was not interested in breaking off the engagement. 24 As soon as the mysterious priest had left his room with a letter for Renate, he resolved, somehow, to return to her. He began to pray regularly. His appetite returned and he exercised his shattered limbs as best he could. By
the spring of 1943 he was walking again.
The priest’s visit seems to have been a turning point in Oehrn’s life. Before then, though
no longer in danger of death, he was in a state of despair and had given up on almost everything that was dear to him. He had resigned himself to losing Renate, to remaining a
prisoner for the duration of the war, to being a cripple for the rest of his life. Further U-boat service seemed as far away as the stars. After he heard from Renate, however, and realized that she still loved him—even to the point of sending someone to find him in such
a remote location—his despair began to evaporate, his limbs to heal and his resolve to strengthen. The old Oehrn, the one who had stood so proudly in front of his kübelwagen
for a photograph, could not have summoned the inner resources to overcome these difficulties. It had been necessary to him to suffer and heal, to be lost and then found.
Soon after he began hobbling around the camp, Oehrn made a decision. He was, after all,
still a German officer, and one responsibility of an officer in captivity was to make every effort to escape. Buoyed by his new determination and in apparent contradiction to his location and physical state, he resolved to do so. Oddly enough, an opportunity for escape
soon presented itself, though not in a way Oehrn might have expected.
One day he heard through the hospital grapevine that a committee from the International
Red Cross planning a visit for the purpose of determining candidates for repatriation. He
knew that their standards were very strict, and he also knew—doubtless with some sense
of irony—that he had recovered from his physical wounds to the point that he would probably not qualify. He determined there was only one solution to the problem, and immediately began to starve himself. It was a dangerous move, and something which, under the circumstances, demonstrates an astonishing measure of self-discipline—
especially after what he had already been made to endure. After a couple of weeks his weight began to drop precipitously, and by the time the Red Cross committee arrived, he
was little more than a walking skeleton. He had not expected the strategy to work, but after his medical examination the committee recommended him for repatriation without much debate. The odds of his being able to make it back to Germany before the war ended
had been infinitesimal, but with courage and self-discipline (and a bit of luck) it looked as though he was going to make it. It appeared that he would be able to fulfill the promise he made to himself after Renate had found him.
Oehrn’s elation ended suddenly when he was told he would have to go through the dreaded interrogation center at Mahdi on his way home. He was terrified of Mahdi, and not without reason. The desire of his captors to send him there in the fall of 1943 suggests that they finally realized who he was and what he might have to offer in the way of useful
information. Since the beginning of the war, captured U-boat crewmen, especially
commanders, had been taken directly to London for extensive interrogation. These
sessions were not physically painful, but they were rigorous, and new prisoners were often
sent to their camps having given up more information than they would have liked. The British knew Victor Oehrn by name and were aware of his professional relationship to Admiral Dönitz. The fact that he was left alone for months while recovering in Egypt seems to indicate that they did not know for some time that he was in their captivity; otherwise, he would have been sent to London as soon as he was able to walk. He would
certainly not have been allowed to return to Germany, which by this time was losing the
Battle of the Atlantic. Yet, it was not until the paperwork was completed and Oehrn’s name appeared on the repatriation list that someone finally seems to have noticed who was
occupying one of their hospital beds. By that time, however, the best anyone could do was
detour him through the nearest local interrogation facility. Obviously the British lost a major opportunity to obtain valuable intelligence information.
Oehrn’s fears proved unfounded. His sojourn at Mahdi turned out to be far less unpleasant
than he was led to believe, and not once was he questioned by experts from London. His
principal interrogator was a commander in the United States Navy and the questioning seems to have been relatively low-key and courteous. From Oehrn’s description of the questioning, one may surmise that it was geared less towards information-gathering and more towards lowering his morale. By late 1943 the U-boat was less of a threat than it had
been when he was captured. Since Oehrn was going back to Germany, however, he might
as well be returned with a defeatist attitude. Unhappily for Oehrn and his country this was best accomplished by telling him the truth (which he stead fastly refused to accept): the war at sea was over. In addition, German forces were being driven out of the Soviet Union, the Allies controlled Europe’s skies and Germany’s cities were desolate ruins. It is doubtful whether this patent attempt to demoralize Oehrn succeeded—especially since the
overall military situation as presented was so at odds with what he knew it to be at the time of his capture. In any case he told his interrogator that it didn’t matter at all. Germany was his country and she needed him. The process ended with little accomplished on either
side, but Oehrn believes that he and his interrogator parted as friends.
Victor Oehrn was released from the camp at Mahdi in October 1943 and began his tortuous journey back home, first by sea from Egypt to Marseille via Barcelona, and then
by land from Marseille to Germany. He arrived in Berlin in November, a physical wreck in
a city of wreckage—the American’s information had been correct after all. A photograph
of Oehrn was taken shortly after his return which shows the ravages of his injuries and the effects of months in captivity. Earlier in the war he had been a stocky man, full in the face and cheerful-looking. After his return from Egypt, he was thin and gaunt, with deep lines
in his face. His cheerful visage had been replaced with a wistful, almost sad, expression,
as though his entire outlook on life had changed. This photograph calls to mind Erich Topp’s description of Wolfgang Lüth: “I can see him during a last conversation shortly before his death, ‘with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes,’ like one of the figures in Rodin’s
‘Burgesses of Calais,’ exhausted after years of siege, a rope already at his neck, delivered unconditionally into the hands of a merciless victor.
Some semblance of stability once again entered Victor Oehrn’s life. On November 15, 1943, Oehrn limped back into the service of Karl Dönitz, who was now based outside Berlin at Lager Koralle as the Commander-in-Chief of the entire Kriegsmarine. 27 The following month he married Renate von Winterfeld in Berlin. Although over the next several months he was assigned to various “special duties” at BdU and its surrounding commands, the truth is that he spent most of his time in painful rehabilitation. For several weeks he was so frail that a worried Dönitz arranged for the two of them to have breakfast
together every day to make sure that he was eating properly. Finally, in August 1944, Oehrn assumed his old position as Dönitz’s A1—this time with a larger staff and with the
responsibility for larger and more complex operations. Despite his capture, severe injuries, the loss of any real prospect for another U-boat command (a condition of his repatriation
was that he stay within the borders of prewar Germany), and the clear fact that Germany
was losing the war, Victor Oehrn was probably as happy as he had ever been. He was in
love and together again with Renate, and he was working side by side with Karl Dönitz. 28
Oehm’s talents as an operational planner were needed less and less as the final year of the war dragged on. He was now responsible for operations within the German surface fleet as
well as the U-Bootwaffe, but the fleet was shattered and could no longer function effectively, and the Battle of the Atlantic was, for all practical purposes, at an end. Allied control of the skies and the effective use of radar had brought about the end of Rudeltaktik, and U-boats had been operating alone since January 1944. The last
opportunity to perform as an organization came during the first days of the Allied
invasion of Normandy (before Oehrn resumed his duties), but the German response was ill-planned and ineffective. In the following months U-boat strategy became a simple exercise of sending boats out to sea, hoping that they would come back, and praying that
the long-promised “miracle boats” would arrive. The predictable result was a bloodbath of
enormous dimensions, and nothing Oehrn did could change that.
Happily, though, Oehrn was able to contribute a service of a different kind. In the closing months of the war he witnessed firsthand the increasing isolation of Dönitz from his men.
The transfer of U-boat headquarters, first to Paris and later to Berlin, meant that the admiral no longer visited returning boats at the docks in France. Instead, commanders traveled to Dönitz in Berlin—if possible. In addition, his once trusted staff of U-boat officers, who formerly offered comment and criticism, was now composed of sycophantic
OKM staff officers, self-absorbed service chiefs and sundry party hangers-on. When Oehrn arrived at Dönitz’s new headquarters at Lager Koralle, he could not help but notice
that his predecessor was anxious to get away. He soon realized why: the place was rapidly
drifting from reality and Dönitz’s former A1 seemed to be one of the few reasonable voices left to counsel the admiral. He resolved to use it as often as he could.
Two examples of this are especially striking. In the autumn of 1944 Dönitz and his senior
staff gathered to discuss the fate of the giant battleship Tirpitz. The sister ship to the tragic Bismarck had never ventured far to sea, and had in fact spent most of her time in a Norwegian fjord. Her potential to escape and raid enemy shipping lanes posed a constant
threat to the enemy until September 1943, when Allied bombing and mines made it all but
impossible to effectively utilize her. Dönitz, however, judged that it was time to bring her home. The question being debated was the mechanics of the move itself. Despite his relative influence, Oehrn was the junior officer in the room. He sat quietly as ideas were
discussed, and for one reason or another, rejected. As he continued to listen, the ideas became increasingly unrealistic, even delusional. Oehrn finally spoke up and declared that
any attempt to return Tirpitz to Germany was a bad idea. Why do the enemies’ work for them by bringing her out into the open sea? Oehrn’s declaration was the last thing Dönitz
wanted to hear, and the Grand Admiral flew into such a towering rage that Oehrn was forced to leave the gathering. Later that evening Dönitz phoned and thanked Oehrn for his
candor, asking that he always give his honest opinion—whatever the reaction.
The second incident happened much later. At OKM it was Dönitz’s practice to issue
“orders of the day” to the fleet. These were often sprinkled with stale Party slogans, National Socialist buzzwords, and rather hollow (by that late date) exhortations to final victory. Oehrn did not approve of Dönitz’s methods, but said nothing until Dönitz, in March or April of 1945, handed him a draft of his last order and asked him for his comments. Oehrn reviewed it and told Dönitz that neither statements of National
Socialism nor unrealistic promises were appropriate for men who knew the war was over.
Rather, he said, Dönitz should appeal to their love of country, their love of God and their sense of family. After all, Oehrn concluded, those were the things that mattered now. The
war was lost; they must look to the future. Dönitz thought about this and later told Oehrn
he had been correct in his assessment. Although the order went out unchanged—which baffled Oehrn—it is worth noting that Dönitz’s final radio transmission to his boats on May 5, 1945, was much closer to what Oehrn had considered appropriate. Perhaps
Oehrn’s opinion was remembered and taken into account after all.30
So closely, it seems, did Karl Dönitz value ‘Victor Oehrn as a confidant and friend that just before the admiral was captured, the two men shared a conversation that was remarkable in its intimacy. Oehrn was in the hospital, flat on his back after still another operation to relieve the pain of his injuries, and Dönitz, perched on a steel chair had come to visit. The obvious topic of discussion was the end of the war and their own fates, and
Dönitz was sure he would not survive the armistice for long. Oehrn found this impossible
to comprehend, but Dönitz went on to say that he would be the victim of a political process, and that he would ultimately be tried as a war criminal and put to death. His only wish, he told Oehrn, was that his U-boat men would stand by him. Oehrn assured him that
such a trial would never come to pass, but that if anything was to happen, the men of the
U-Bootwaffe would support him to the end. Shortly afterwards Dönitz was arrested and carted off to prison to await the convening of the War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg.
Oehrn, who may have avoided postwar detention because he had already been imprisoned
and repatriated—and because his cell was a hospital bed—was left to pick up the pieces of
* * *
Victor Oehrn’s postwar life followed a path typical for men in his position. For several months he served in the minesweeping service set up by Allied occupation authorities to
clear German and international waterways. Afterward, he found work where he could get
it, as a driver, an interpreter, a farmhand, and finally a businessman in the booming postwar German recovery. Throughout the hard years following the end of the war he remained close to his former commander-in-chief and mentor, Karl Dönitz. He was one of
the first to see Dönitz after his release from Spandau Prison in 1956, and he was present at the Grand Admiral’s funeral in 1981.
The relationship between Oehrn and DOmtz helps to define Oehrn himself. His
accomplishments, while genuine, could not have been made without Dönitz’s support and
intercession. It was Dönitz who trusted Oehrn enough to originally make him his A1, and
who allowed him to formulate operational plans and make decisions at a level normally beyond that of a lowly Kapitänleutnant. It was Dönitz who sent him to sea in U-37 and later to Rome as FdU—Italy. It naturally follows that Oehrn’s virtues of loyalty and obedience shone brightest when directed towards Dönitz, who gave him all he had and called him his friend as well. Dönitz was and had been a large part of his own life. When
Oehrn wrote his memoirs long after the war (two volumes that will not be published until
the end of the century), he could have written about his own life on his own terms; instead, his writings are centered as much on Dönitz—his commander, mentor and comrade—as himself.
For these reasons it is understandable that Oehrn defends Dönitz’s record, perhaps more than Dönitz objectively deserves. When asked for his opinion, Oehrn praises Dönitz as a
man, a leader and a human being. When offered criticism of Dönitz, he is politely silent.
Unlike some in the U-Bootwaffe community for whom any slight of their beloved Grand
Admiral is an invitation to every form of slander, abuse, and eventual ostracization, Oehrn realizes that there are valid arguments for and against the officer and his actions. He is most concerned that the truth about Dönitz prevail, whatever that truth may be: “At my age,” he wrote in 1992, “it is my aim to do what I can to transfer into public opinion the
reality concerning that exceptional man, who is even in Germany very often not seen as he
really was… . Lots of people think that they know D[onitz] very well, but really they know [very little]! Nobody in this world is perfect… . From my point of view it is much
more important to know where a man is perfect…”33
In spite of his encounter with the mysterious priest in Egypt, Victor Oehrn never made a
formal move towards Catholicism, but he still has a high regard for the Church and enjoys
attending Mass with his grand children. Today, three years after their golden wedding anniversary, Victor Oehrn and his wife Renate live quietly outside Bonn.
Although its ranks are thinning with the passing years, the U-boat community is still driven by dissent and discord. Oehrn, however, seems to have remained above the fray and is respected on all sides as a man of integrity and competence. “According to my opinion,” wrote Jürgen Oesten, commander of three boats during the war “[Oehrn] was decent, intelligent, quiet and matter-of-fact…equally qualified as a commander of
submarines as for staff work.” Otto Kretschmer, a man of many different views than Oesten, recently described Oehrn as “not only the man with the highest IQ at BdU, but probably also the one officer who used it effectively.” In this observation Kretschmer presumably meant to include not only Karl Dönitz (whose IQ as measured after the war approached the genius level), but also several capable members of Dönitz’s staff, including Eberhard Godt, Günther Hessler, and Adalbert Schnee.34
The significance of Oehrn’s career can be considered on several levels. He was without question a talented planner at both the operational and tactical levels (the Scapa Flow operation comes immediately to mind), and it was he who provided much of the work behind U-Bootwaffe operations for the first two years of the war. When he returned from
captivity in 1944 he could no longer contribute as much in that capacity but he was nonetheless a valuable stabilizing force in Dönitz’s staff and a voice of reason in an increasingly irrational world. He served as a U-boat commander for only six months, but
in that brief span he accomplished what many were unable to do throughout their careers,
and is widely credited with sparking the fierce and sustained campaign of mid-to-late 1940
known as the U-boat’s “happy times.” Given Oehrn’s remarkable career, the little attention
thrown in his direction is curious—particularly when one considers the numerous books and articles written about lesser feats and less able commanders.
Ultimately, Oehrn overcame the substantial hardships and physical pain that accompanied
wartime capture and serious injury and emerged a better man for it. For Oehrn, at least, this personal victory is the most significant of all.
* * *