U-Boot Aces II

Kapitänleutnant Prien. From Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

With Norway conquered and the torpedoes running true and exploding when they were supposed to again, Doenitz sent his U-boats back to the North Atlantic. He divided them into two battle groups: Prien and Roesing. Prien was given the task of attacking a Halifax convoy, which was returning home. June 1940 was one of Germany’s best months in the naval war. The navy and Luftwaffe combined to sink 140 merchant ships—a total of 585,496 tons. Prien alone accounted for more than 10 percent of the total. He fired all his torpedoes and sank 66,587 tons of shipping, including the 15,501-ton Amndom Stat. The second-leading U-boat ace that month was Lieutenant Engelbert Endrass, who sank 54,000 tons of enemy shipping. Endrass had been Prien’s second-in-command at Scapa Flow.

June to October 1940 was the period of the U-boat aces—Prien, Kretschmer, Endrass, and others. Prien was the first to be credited with sinking more than 200,000 tons of Allied shipping and was the fifth German officer to be decorated with the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross. (After the war, when it was possible to calculate actual instead of estimated totals, Prien’s figures were reduced to 160,939 tons.) He was soon surpassed by Otto Kretschmer of U-99, who would go on to become the leading U-boat ace of the war, sinking 44 ships (266,629 tons). It was the era of “wolf pack” tactics—of concentrated attacks by entire groups of U-boats. On the night of October 17–18, Prien led three other boats in a wolf pack strike against a British convoy. The joint effort, conducted at close range, resulted in the sinking of eight more Allied ships. There were no U-boat losses. Prien’s patrols in the winter of 1940–1941 were less successful due to the normal North Atlantic gales, storms, and poor visibility. Even when a target was sighted it was difficult to get off a shot. Meanwhile, the British gradually forged ahead in the field of technological warfare at sea. They developed ASV radar and began systematically training escort commanders and equipping Coastal Command’s bombers with depth charges, instead of the heretofore ineffective bombs. Also, the strain of this intensive type of warfare was beginning to tell on the U-boat crews and commanders. No one, however, ever reported detecting any evidence of strain or pressure on the face of Guenther Prien. Now operating out of Lorient, he looked forward to each new mission, although he still enjoyed partying and beer-drinking with comrades. In late January 1941, he took Lieutenant Wolfgang Frank, his officers, and two midshipmen with him on one of his excursions into the interior of France, where they dined in a small village at an inn run by an old Breton woman famous for her cuisine. The submariners consumed bottle after bottle, while Prien regaled them with humorous tales about adventures on yachts, merchant ships, and submarines. Frank recalled that he was “filled with a passionate eagerness to be in action again.” The next day, just before he departed, he shook hands with Frank. “This time it is going to be a good trip,” he said. “I can feel it in my bones.”

After being given flowers by a French female admirer, Guenther Prien began his tenth wartime patrol. It was not like old times, however. On March 8, six weeks after putting to sea, Prien led an attack on Convoy OB-293, outward bound from Liverpool to Halifax. The battle took place south of Iceland. The U-boats sank two merchant ships, but their own losses were devastating. Hans Eckermann’s U-boat was so badly damaged that he was forced to drop out of the battle and limp back to Lorient, which he was able to do in the general confusion. Then U-70 was brought to the surface by depth charges from two corvettes, where it was scuttled by its captain, Lieutenant Commander Joachim Matz. Even U-99 under Otto Kretschmer was driven off by OB-293’s strong escort, which was led by Commander James Rowland in the World War I destroyer Wolverine. But the redoubtable Guenther Prien persisted in the attack, sinking his 28th merchantman in the process. In heavy seas and thick weather he struck again at dusk on March 8, penetrating the escort screen in a rain squall. Then, all of a sudden, Prien’s luck deserted him. Before he could fire, the squall dissipated, the overcast broke, and U-47 found itself in the fading sunlight, in full view of the Wolverine. Prien crash-dived immediately, but the Wolverine reacted with equal swiftness by hurling a pattern of depth charges. At that range, with U-47 already picked up by Rowland’s asdic (sonar), they could hardly miss. U-47 was badly damaged, and the Wolverine picked up the rattle of propeller shafts out of alignment. Prien stayed under water until nightfall, when he surfaced again, about a mile from the point of Rowland’s original attack. The Wolverine was on him immediately. Prien crash-dived again—for the last time. This time the depth charges blew U-47 apart. A few minutes later bits and pieces of debris came to the surface—the sure sign of a “kill.” There were no survivors.

For some time OKM withheld the news from the nation and the next of kin on the faint hope that Prien’s prolonged silence was due to the failure of his wireless transmitter. By early April, however, Doenitz and his staff gave up all hope. Doenitz and Raeder then pressed for a public announcement of Prien’s death, but Fuehrer Headquarters would not release the news until May 23. Prien was then posthumously promoted to full commander for gallantry in action.

Prien was such a hero to the German people that a number of incredible rumors began to circulate about his death. Prien and his crew had mutinied and been sent to a penal labor battalion on the Russian Front; Prien and his men were sent to a penal battalion for making false and exaggerated claims of tonnage sunk; Prien had refused to put to sea in an unseaworthy boat, so Doenitz court-martialed him and he was sent to a concentration camp at Esterwegen. Here, according to one story, he starved to death. According to another version, he was executed by a firing squad shortly before the Allies arrived. Most incredibly, Prien had had an accident and drowned—in his bathtub! When it comes to such bizarre and weird stories, Prien’s case is not unique. Similar stories were heard about other U-boat commanders, generals, and Luftwaffe aces who were missing in action. Similarly imaginative tales gain currency even today, especially those about deceased rock and roll singers and other pop culture idols. The Bull of Scapa Flow was killed in action against his enemy in the North Atlantic on March 8, 1941. He died exactly as he had lived.

Joachim Schepke

Prien was not the only U-boat ace lost in March 1941. On March 17, U-100 under Lieutenant Joachim Schepke was damaged during an attack on Convoy HX-112. As it limped away, the surfaced U-boat was sighted by a newly developed British radar set and rammed by the destroyer Vanoc. Schepke, who had sunk 39 Allied ships (159,130 tons), was on the conning tower when the Vanoc struck and was crushed to death by the destroyer’s bow. There were few survivors. Schepke, who had been born in Flensburg on March 8, 1912, was a holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves.

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Kapitänleutnant Kretschmer wurde nach Versenkung von über 200.000 BRT feindlichen und dem Feinde nutzbaren Schiffsraumes als 6. U-Boots-Kommandant vom Führer mit dem Eichenlaub zum Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes ausgezeichnet. Die Aufnahme entstand nach der Rückkehr von der erfolgreichen Feindfahrt auf der die 200.000 Tonnengrenze überschritten wurde.
Nov[ember] 1940

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Otto Kretschmer

Later on March 17, 1941, the same night on which Joachim Schepke was killed, the British destroyer Walker sighted U-99 with his asdic device. The escort brought the submarine to the surface with depth charges and, with the help of the Vanoc, sank the German vessel with gunfire. Among the prisoners fished out of the ocean was Lieutenant Commander Otto Kretschmer, the leading U-boat ace of World War II. He is credited with sinking 47 ships, which displaced 274,333 tons, including a British destroyer. Otto Kretschmer had been born in Heidau, Silesia, near Liegnitz (now Legnica, Poland) on May 1, 1902. As a 17-year-old, he spent almost a year in the United Kingdom, where he became fluent in English. He entered the service as a sea cadet in April 1930, and served aboard the light cruisers Emden and Koeln, before transferring to the U-boat branch in January 1936. He assumed command of U-35 in 1937 and operated off the Spanish coast, although he sank no vessels in the Spanish Civil War. Later he commanded U-23 (a coastal U-boat) and U-99.

Kretschmer was known as Silent Otto because of his use of “silent running” tactics (including slow approaches, which minimized propeller noise) and because he did not like to transmit radio dispatches while on patrol. He was also known for his motto “One torpedo, one ship.”

Silent Otto was a chivalrous opponent and, in the days before the convoys and the wolf packs, forced lone merchant ships to surrender. He put the crews in lifeboats, provided them with blankets and alcoholic beverages, and gave them a compass and the heading to the nearest land.

A U-boat commander from the beginning of the war, he sank eight ships, totaling 50,000 tons, on a single patrol in the summer of 1940 and was awarded his Knight’s Cross by Grand Admiral Raeder in the harbor of Lorient. Ironically, his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords was presented to him by the commandant of the prison camp at Bowmanville, Canada. On March 17, 1941, he was forced to surface after repeated depth charges damaged his boat. He found himself in the middle of a British convoy and was forced to scuttle U-99. He spent the rest of the war in POW camps.

After the war, he married Dr. Luise-Charlotte Mohnsen-Hinrich (nee Bruns), a war widow. He joined the West German Navy in 1955 and retired in 1970 as a rear admiral, junior grade (Flotillenadmiral). He and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 by taking a cruise on the Danube. Here Kretschmer attempted to climb a ladder, as he had done thousands of times before. This time, however, he slipped, fell, and struck his head. Silent Otto never regained consciousness. He died in a hospital in Straubing, Bavaria, on August 5, 1998.

Wolfgang Lueth

The most highly decorated member of the U-boat arm was Captain Wolfgang Lueth, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. Born near Rita in Estonia on October 15, 1913, he joined the German Navy in the mid-1930s, received command of his first submarine (U-138) in January 1940, and, as an Oberleutnant zur See, was awarded his Knight’s Cross on October 24, 1940, for sinking 49,000 tons of enemy shipping in 27 days.50 Later, he commanded U-43 and U-181. By the time he left his last undersea command in November 1943, he had sunk 43 ships, totaling 225,712 tons, making him the number two U-boat ace of World War II. He had also sunk an Allied submarine. In August 1944, Lueth was promoted to Kapitaen zur See and named commander of the Naval School at Muerwik/Flensburg, which became Nazi Germany’s last seat of government, under Doenitz. He was shot and killed by a German sentry on May 14, 1945, after the war was over but before the rump Doenitz government was disbanded. Captain Lueth was buried at Flensburg on May 16, with full military honors—the last such funeral in the history of the Third Reich. The subsequent court-martial acquitted the sentry: after being challenged, Lueth had given him the wrong password.

Erich Topp [left]

The third leading U-boat ace was Commander Erich Topp, captain of U-57, U-552, and U-2513. A native of Hanover, he was born on July 2, 1914, and joined the navy in 1934. He was commander of U-57 from June 5 to September 3, 1940, when it was sunk in a collision with a Norwegian ship. In the meantime, he had sunk six enemy ships. In December 1940, Topp was given a second command: U-552. Between July 1940, and August 1942, he sank another 29 Allied merchant ships and brought his total to 197,460 tons. He was awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves on August 17, 1942.

Topp sparked an international incident on October 31, 1941, when he sank the U.S. destroyer Reuben James, the first American naval vessel sunk in World War II. He was promptly verbally attacked by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous “rattlesnakes of the sea” speech. Some observers thought Roosevelt was about to use the incident to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, but he did not. The reasons were simple: Roosevelt “forgot” to mention that the Reuben James was escorting a British convoy at the time, was not flying the American flag, and was on a depth-charge run against another U-boat when it sailed in front of Topp’s periscope. One of the torpedoes blew off the entire bow and detonated the magazine. It sank instantly. Many of the 115 American sailors who died were killed when their own depth charges detonated. Only 44 survived. It is significant that Topp was never even indicted as a war criminal for the incident, much less convicted.

Years later, at a banquet, Admiral Topp met a survivor, who described the awfulness of the incident to him, and what is was like to be left floating in the burning oil, struggling for his life. Erich Topp was so appalled and horrified by this conversation that he refused to ever discuss the affair again.

Topp commanded U-552 until October 1942, when he assumed command of the 27th U-boat Flotilla at Gotenhafen, East Prussia (now Gdynia, Poland). Here he helped develop the XXI Elektro submarine, which came too late to help the Third Reich. Topp took personal command of U-2513 in the last days of the war and sailed it to Horten, Norway, where he surrendered it to the Western Allies.

After the war, Topp became a fisherman and had a second career as an architect in Remegen. He joined the West German Navy when it was formed in 1955 and retired as a Konteradmiral (two-star admiral) in 1969. For many years thereafter, he visited Texas every Christmas, to visit his daughter and grandchildren. He died in Suessen on December 26, 2005. He was 91 years old.

Engelbert Endrass

Engelbert Endrass, who was born in Bamberg on March 2, 1911, was Prien’s watch officer and second-in-command at Scapa Flow. Shortly thereafter, he was given command of his own submarine (U-46) and became a leading U-boat ace himself, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander and sinking 22 ships (128,879 tons). As commander of U-567 he was killed in action on December 26, 1941, while he was attempting to sink the British aircraft carrier Audacity. Depth-charged by escort vessels, U-567 vanished northeast of the Azores. There were no survivors.

Lothar Von Arnauld De La Periere

The leading U-boat ace of all time was Lothar Von Arnauld De La Periere. His family was French until 1757, when his great-grandfather, a 26-year-old artillery lieutenant, cut down a prince of the House of Bourbon in a duel and fled the country one step ahead of the police. Jean-Gabriel Arnauld de la Periere then joined Frederick the Great’s army and rose to the rank of full general. The Arnaulds served Prussia and Germany from then on.

Lothar was born in Posen, Prussia (now Poznan, Poland), on March 18, 1886. He attended the cadet schools at Wahlstatt and Gross-Lichterfelde, and joined the Imperial Navy in 1903. After eight years service on three different battleships, Arnault became a torpedo officer aboard the light cruiser Emden in 1911. After that, he was adjutant to Admiral Hugo von Pohl, the chief of the Admiralty Staff and an early advocate of U-boat development and unrestricted submarine warfare. Arnauld transferred to the U-boat branch in 1915, and assumed command of U-35 in November. He sank a record 194 ships (453,716 Gross Registered Tons) during World War I, and received the Pour le Merite in 1916.

Most of Arnauld’s “kills” were undramatic. He would stop a merchant vessel, inspect its papers, allow the crew to board lifeboats, and then sink it with his 88mm deck gun. Sometimes this procedure was not practical. Arnauld fired a total of 74 torpedoes during the war and scored 39 hits.

Arnauld remained in the navy during the Weimar era, where he served as a navigation officer on old pre-dreadnoughts and as commander of the Emden (1928–1930). Promoted to captain, he retired in 1931, and then taught at the Turkish Naval Academy from 1932 to 1938. He also briefly joined an anti-Nazi political party in the early 1930s.

Captain von Arnauld was recalled to active duty when World War II began. Promoted to rear admiral on June 1, 1940, he was naval plenipotentiary for Danzig and the Polish Corridor (September 1939–March 1940). He became Naval Commander, Belgium-Netherlands (May–June 1940); Naval Commander, Brittany (June–December 1940); and Naval Commander, Western France (December 1940–February 1941). He was promoted to vice admiral on February 1, 1941.

Admiral von Arnauld was named naval commander south on February 19, 1941. He was en route to his new command when he was killed in an airplane accident at the Paris-Le Bourget Airport on February 24. He is buried at the Invalidenfriedhof (the German national cemetery) in Berlin.