Created: July 2001

"The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U Boat peril" - Winston Churchill

an account of the U Boat war written by Karl Doenitz

When war began, Britain saw Germany's big ships as the main threat to her sea trade, as did the German's.  It was intended that Germany's surface raiders would savage the merchant fleet on which Britain depended for much of her food, most of her raw material and all of her oil. Germany's U Boats were to operate in coastal waters, sweeping up anything left by the battleships.  Both Britain and Germany were wrong, the real naval menace to Britain's survival was to be the U Boat.

At least one man knew this, Admiral Doenitz, Chief of the U Boat Arm.  He could have been wrong too if Hitler had delayed his war with Britain until all the battleships planned for the German Navy had been built.  As it was, Doenitz was certain that, with enough submarines, he could win the war at sea.  He had proved it to himself 29 years before.

"In October 1918, I was Captain of a submarine in the Mediterranean, near Malta.  On a dark night I met a British convoy, with cruisers and destroyers. I attacked and I sank a ship. But the chance would have been very much greater if there had been a lot of submarines. That's why the idea of a wolf pack, to put the submarines together, to attack together.  In all the years from 1918 until 1935, when we had submarines again, I never forgot this idea"  - Admiral Doenitz. Left: The Admiral at Chateau Kerevel, Lorient.

Under water, the 1939 U Boat was slow, on the surface it was faster than any convoy of merchant ships.  With its low silhouette, it could not be seen easily, especially at night, but its targets were outlined clearly against the sky, and with radio, the U Boats could assemble quickly into a hunting pack.  Doenitz knew that Britain would try to protect her essential Atlantic trade by a system of convoys escorted by warships. To attack these convoys Doenitz wanted 300 U Boats, when the war started he had only 27, and these boats had long dangerous voyages from their base before they could reach their targets. When France fell, Doenitz gained new bases much nearer the shipping routes.

Lorient U Boat Base

Doenitz addressing crews

Doenitz HQ

U Boat pens


In fact, when en route to Lorient, just after the capitulation of France, Karl Doenitz and his Adjutant were asked to provide a lift to two refugees travelling west. They turned out to be 2 German Jews escaping Germany.  Doenitz said to them when he dropped them off in Le Mans, "Give my regards to England"!

His sea wolves were to return to these French ports as heroes.  One special hero was Otto Kreschmer; in all he sank over 250,000 tons of British shipping.  In October 1940 he joined the first real wolf pack.

"I remember that there was a signal that there was a convoy coming in from America to England, and that its position was not known.  Doenitz ordered all submarines to the west of Ireland to form a sort of recce line to let the convoy pass through.  When the first submarine was sighted, the convoy made a signal of contact, this regular line was dissolved automatically, every boat was free to move into the attack" - Otto Kreschmer.

Gunther Prien, with Otto Kreschmer ** behind him

Grand Admiral Raeder demonstrated a touching faith in his Fuhrer when he addressed a U Boat crew on Gunnery exercises in Spring 1939. The Fuhrer, Raeder said, had promised him that under no circumstances would there be a war against Britain, for that would mean “Finis Germaniae”. Doenitz, always open with his crews, admitted that given the circumstances, he could not believe it and as a commander he had to be prepared.  All he could do was demand a U Boat Arm of 300 boats, only this number would be able to enforce a blockade of England.  Within 6 weeks the unthinkable had happened, Poland was invaded and Britain and France had declared war on Germany. Doenitz had made no secret of his foreboding, but it still came as a shock to him and his men.  Propaganda fed it to the people that Germany had been forced into this war. The Kriegsmarine were unprepared. Britain and France had more than 10 times the amount of warships.  The Kriegsmarine could not see how they could win a war at sea, the situation, to their eyes, was desperate. The 3000 men of the U Boat Arm were well trained but only had 57 boats and most were small 250 ton “ducks”. These were coastal vessels. Only 27 boats were capable of going into the Atlantic.

They sailed mainly from Baltic and North Sea ports, their crews enthusiastic but had little experience.  For the first 18 months U Boat activity against British supply lines was small. During the invasion of Norway by the Germans there were no U Boats in the Atlantic at all. In the summer of 1940, France fell and the U Boat gained the use of the ports in the Bay of Biscay.  British destroyers relied on ASDIC, which could give the range and bearing of submerged U Boats by using sound.  Lack of escorts for the convoys meant the U Boats could attack convoys at will. However Britain placed too much importance to ASDIC which only worked properly in ideal conditions, not what the Atlantic Ocean is exactly famous for.  Too few escorts were running right over U Boats and not detecting them. Tactics were none existent in the Royal Navy for dealing with convoys and convoy attacks.  Ships, when attacked, would steam off in all directions, scattering across the ocean, the escorts spent much of the time in attempts to round them up. Belligerent Captains of merchantmen would disobey instructions and one ship was noted as displaying a "bright white light" on its stern by an escort returning to catch up with the convoy following an attack.  This was a Greek freighter in convoy SC7. The stated aim of National Socialism - "to serve the people and to do all you can to improve their lot" was also reflected in a small way aboard a submarine. The Commanders were single-handedly responsible for whatever happened on board and he had a close link with his men. 50 strong and everyone knew each other very well, everyone knew precisely what he had to do.



Type VII

The main attack boat favoured by Doenitz was the Type 7, differed little from its WW1 counterpart. Powered by 2 large diesel engines capable of 17 knots.  Air for the engines was channelled through a pipe within the conning tower to ensure maximum distance from the sea.  A U boat spent 90% of its time on the surface. Once the order was given to dive, the engines were shut down, power being drawn from the boat’s batteries.  Undersea, the U boat was capable of little more than 7 knots, and this only for an hour. A 2 knots it could stay submerged for a maximum of 36 hours. It was then obliged to surface to replenish air and batteries. On the surface a U boat had the necessary speed to overtake a slow moving convoy, but underneath it was almost impossible.  Here to, it was almost blind. In the Spring of ’40, Jurgen Oesten was the commander of U-61. “All the boats we had during the war were basically surface craft that had the ability to dive. Out of the 20 ships I sank, 19 were sunk on the surface. At night, if you were closer to your target than 3000 to 4000 meters, then from the bridge of a normal merchantman, the conning tower does not appear above the horizon.  You offer only a small silhouette to your target, almost invisible."

By 1935 the Admiralty knew a great deal about the nuts and bolts of the U boat, but very little about tactics. This was quite surprising as Doenitz had published a book, Die U-Bootswaffe, in 1939, in which he made no secret of his methods and tactics.  In this he noted the importance of night attack and the thoroughness at which his crews had been trained.  The Admiralty might have also consulted its own submarine service that had practised night attacks of its own. Life on a U Boat was a 220 foot home to 43 men.  Young and fit, the crew were aged between 20 – 23; the commander was about 28.  Almost half the crew lived in the bow compartment, the main arsenal.  There were 4 tubes and about 10 torpedoes. A further 2 torpedoes could be fired from the stern and 2 more carried in pressure proof containers in the upper deck.  Life became more comfortable with each torpedo fired! Sharing a bunk with a crewman on the opposite watch, each man turned into a still warm bunk. Beside each bunk was a small locker for a handful of personal possessions. There was no need for clean clothes or razors and precious little for soap. Within days of leaving port, the appearance of the crew changed, marked by a life without sunlight.  Faces were pasty white and bearded, eyes black rimmed. Clothing soon became thick with diesel and brine.  Water was for drinking only, and whilst it was possible to wash with seawater soap, no such effort was made.  Two toilets on board, one was filled with food, more than 40 men sharing the other.  The smell was unique to U Boats, the smell of diesel was prominent, then you had the smell of the food and of men.  Put all this into a pot and stir and you had the U Boat smell. Some of the men used 4711 Cologne to try and mask the smell, but most of the men took it for granted.

Beyond the bow compartment was the officers and chief petty officers quarters.  Life was a little less bleak for the 9 men who ate and slept here. The Captain had his own bunk and a little writing desk next to the radio room.  The officers ate on a little table in the middle of the passageway, meals being constantly interrupted by traffic to and from the bow compartment. At the heart of the submarine was the Control Room, packed with an array of equipment, valves, dials and gauges. This was the battle HQ of the submarine.  Here were the ballast tank controls, and diving plane controls.  One of the U Boats 2 periscopes were operated from here, the other, a longer attack periscope, was housed in the coming tower above. Next came the petty officers compartment and the tiny galley.  The cook had a 3 ring range, two small ovens and a 40 litre boiling pot. Meals were surprisingly good, this quality helping to relieve the hardship of being on board.  The food did not last of course, there was a constant dripping in a U Boat, leaky valves and condensation. Everywhere was damp and in this close atmosphere food began to gather a thin film of green mould within days. After the fresh food either spoiled or ran out, they resorted to tinned food.

Beyond the galley was the engine room, with its clattering thumping diesels and then last of all, the electrical compartment with the two 375 horsepower electric motors. For most of the war patrol, a 4 man watch was maintained upon the coming tower. Horst Elfe, second officer on board U-99, “We had to endure some pretty massive Atlantic storms. It could not have been worse. No U Boat could be controlled at periscope depth in this, it had to be well under or on top. Surface attacks were unthinkable because nobody could see, move, aim or anything.  People only thought of their own survival in these seas”.


Convoy under watchful eyes

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham observed that although it took 3 years to build a ship, it took 300 years to build a tradition.  The first losses at sea, especially of the Royal Oak, delivered a jolt to the public, nevertheless belief in final victory remained unshaken. At first the Royal Navy attacked everything that appeared to be moving. Reports of sighting of U Boats were everywhere.  One lookout on an Isle of Man Lighthouse reported a periscope 6 miles away! Even on a clear day it would be a lucky observer who spotted a periscope at 1000 yards! Yet HMS Walker was sent out from Liverpool to chase a contact that was a waste of time before it began.  At 25 knots Walker could be there in 2 hours, given a U Boat speed, it could have been anywhere within a 10 mile circle which is a lot of sea to cover, with one ship and ASDIC with a range of 2000 yards.

Convoys could only be escorted from Britain to a line 300 miles west of Ireland. The rest of the Atlantic could be reached by the U Boat.  From July to October 1940, 144 unescorted ships were sunk and 73 badly escorted convoy ships were sunk. U Boat commanders discovered a flaw in the ASDIC - It could NOT detect a submarine on the surface!  Doenitz developed the wolf pack attack system, whereby several U Boats, operating together, attacked convoys.  On the night of September 21st 1940, Convoy HX72, a fast convoy, consisting of 41 merchantmen, was attacked and 11 were sunk. The commodore of the convoy was sure at least 2 U Boats had taken part in the attack. The senior officer of the escorts agreed. There was a suggestion that U Boats were beginning to co-ordinate their attacks.  It was altogether unexpected and some influential voices in Naval Intelligence were “sceptical”. (The same “stuck in the mud, old sweats” that thought aircraft unnecessary no doubt) Slow convoy SC7 was to put the matter beyond doubt. The Canadian port of Sydney saw the motley collection of convoy SC7 get underway in the first week of October 1940. SC7 was not expected to make more than 8 knots. Many of its 35 ships would struggle to make half that! The oldest, Norwegian tanker Thoroy, was 47 years at sea.  Most of the ships had spent the past 2 weeks at various ports loading cargo, others had already sailed the St Lawrence Seaway to arrive here. The SS Fiscus was loaded with 5 ton steel ingots, a floating brick!  Frank Holding, a Liverpudlian, recalled how apprehensive the crew were about the forthcoming 2 weeks at sea with this cargo “If you had that sort of cargo you had no chance”. Once a ship like that got hit, it went down like a stone. Holding counted himself lucky to be aboard the SS Beatus, she was a “dirty old tramp steamer – she had the smell of sugar and oil on her. The cooks were Chinese and the engine room crowd Indian. So there was only me and another Liverpool lad”.  As Asst Steward, Holdings lot was slightly easier. “ We had privileges over the deck crowd and the engine room. They lived in the Forecastle, maybe 8 to 10 bunks to a room. But I was in a room with just the galley boy”.

Convoy merchantman is hit


Joachim Schepke on his award of the Knights Cross

We were always told that, if we were sunk by a U Boat, they would leave the rest of us, only taking the Captain or the Engineer.  We feared machine gunning. 2 friends, Eddie and Billy Howard looked him up at Three Rivers; they were on the Creekirk, loaded with iron ore. By 5 October SC7 was assembled and ready for sea. At the pre sailing briefing some Royal Naval Officers complained about some of the “bloody minded skippers” those that considered that they were better off on their own.  For the first eleven days, only 1 sloop was their escort.  Only as it approached home waters could it expect any more protection. Some of the ships had been fitted with a 4 inch gun on the stern, but the sailors considered it of little use. A little after midday, the first ships weighed anchor and set off; it would take most of the rest of the day to get the ships “on station”.  Nine columns with three or four ships in each column.  For merchantmen used to an empty horizon, it was taxing to try to keep station. 4 days out SC7 ran into bad weather and immediately some ships began to fall back.  One of the largest ships, the 6000 ton Empire Miniver, was one of these, with turbine trouble. Captain Robert Smith remarked to the Admiralty that “we were peering into the darkness when, to our amazement, we saw a bright light on our port bow.  When we drew up we found it was a Greek steamer, it had been visible to us for 6 miles!” So much for the warnings given at the conference.

HMS Fowey

In the early hours of 16th October, one of the stragglers emitted a distress call, submarine attack! The convoys lone escort, HMS Scarborough, could do nothing.  Cargo and crew were lost.  Spirits were raised when, on the horizon, two escorts were spotted. HMS Fowey and HMS Bluebell had arrived from Liverpool.  There was no plan for coordinated action in the event of attack.  Late that night, the watch on the bridge of U-48 spotted the moonlit silhouette of a ship.  As the U Boat closed it became clear it was a convoy, a large one, and weak. Lorient received a transmission giving reference and speed.  A group of 5 U Boats were ordered, find, close, attack.  U-48 went in first, instead of waiting for the others and soon spotted the largest ship, the 9500 ton tanker Languedoc, the first torpedo going through the side sending up a column of fire and water into the sky. 2 minutes later a second hit the freighter Scoresby.

Inexperienced, the escorts remained to pick up survivors. The convoy steamed on unescorted.  The following evening another U Boat damaged a ship.  By nightfall on 18 October, three escort vessels were shepherding the remaining 31 ships, just over the horizon waited 6 U Boats in a line across the path of the convoy.  Two of these boats were U-100, commanded by Joachim Schepke and U-99, commanded by Otto Kreschmer, both renowned "aces".

Just before midnight they struck.  All around ships were burning, blowing up, sinking. It was absolute chaos.  The escorts could do nothing but collect survivors. ASDIC was useless, radar not fitted.  Only 12 ships reached port.  The only reason that these 12 reached port was that Otto Kreschmer received word that convoy HX79 was coming into range behind them.  The U Boats turned their attention to this convoy, sinking a further 12 and damaging 2, out of 49. One of the top U Boat aces was Erich Topp, commander of the “red devil” U Boat, U552. In 1936 he was serving aboard the cruiser Karlsruhe. A personal encounter with Admiral Doenitz led him to volunteer for the U Boat Arm. In 1937 he reported to the Neustadt Training School however his first sight of a U Boat was a huge disappointment. Here he experienced the “smell” of a U Boat and the high humidity.  This wore off and he became at home on board U Boats.

Convoy, this has air support

Many of the convoy escorts during this stage of the war were old vintage WW1 destroyers, sloops and corvettes, unsuited for anti submarine warfare.  Kretchmer's U Boat, U-99, using high speed night attack tactics, (all of which anyone could read about in a book published by Admiral Doenitz in 1939, British Intelligence did not have a copy) sank 9 of 17 ships from convoy SC7.  ASDIC, of course, could not find U Boats that attacked ON the surface. The crippling loss of allied shipping during the early years of the war was out of all proportion to the number of submarines at sea.  Rarely more than 12 were at sea at any one time.  It was not until after the war did the allies find out that the German's knew the codes being used by the convoy radio's.  U Boats were accompanied to sea by Condor aircraft of the Luftwaffe. The Condor, a long range reconnaissance bomber, would report shipping movements and sank quite a few themselves.

Operating in the North Sea in late 1939, faulty torpedoes had seen U-23, under the command of Kretschmer, take three torpedoes to finish off a small freighter.  Leaving 1 torpedo, Kretschmer entered the Orkney waters near Kirkwall. Inside the bay sat a neutral tanker, the Danmark, 10,500 tons. The U Boat crew could see men on deck smoking cigarettes and the neutral tanker made no effort to hide herself.  When the torpedo exploded, all eyes went skyward thinking it was the Luftwaffe. Nobody thought a submarine would penetrate the bay. Sailing right past the look outs, U-23 slipped away as gunfire was directed into the air.  The sinking of the Danmark marked a new phase in the war. She had flown the flag of a neutral country. By January 1940, the Prize Regulations governing Conduct of Nations at War at sea, were being deliberately ignored. To disguise this, U boats were told to choose their targets with care, hoping the Allies might think that the unlucky ship had hit a mine. The Admiralty did assume mines and swept the area.  Both of the U-23’s sinkings were attributed to mines. It was not until  U boats were sighted on the surface by aircraft that the Admiralty faced the grim truth.

In December 1940 convoy losses promised to reach such an extent that defeat through starvation threatened Britain.  What was needed was more escorts guarding more closely controlled convoys, with better detection gear.  In return for bases, the US handed over 50 WW1 vintage destroyers. Old, it was true, but they filled the gap.  Also fast escort destroyers were released from invasion duty when it became apparent that the danger had passed.  Ship building increased too.  More significantly, British scientists invented a small "resonant cavity magnetron", which would soon provide the essential radar system to catch U Boats on the surface.  What was known to the U Boat commanders as the "happy time" was to come to an end.  But the U Boat menace continued, bitter battles were to be fought on the Atlantic during 1941.

After America's entry into the war, the U Boats had a second "happy time", 'Die Glückliche Zeit'. The USA did not enforce blackout on its eastern coastline and, as a consequence, the coast of Florida was lit up with miles of lighting.  Ships passing by were silhouetted against the lights, making it easy for the 21 U Boats that Doenitz had sent there. By June 1942 they had sunk no less than 505 ships, many of which within sight of the Florida beaches.  Apart from shortage of technology, training and escort vessels, the shortage of long endurance aircraft to cover convoys didn't help. The Americans wanted their Liberators for the Pacific, the British wanted the Lancaster for Bomber Command.  It was the Germans who first demonstrated the value of air supremacy.  In late 1940 they had  established Focke Wolf Condor Squadrons along the Biscay coast which could operate out to 800 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.  In the first two months of 1941 they alone sank 46 ships = 167,822 tons.  The U Boats sank only 60 in the same period. In spite of warnings from England, via enigma, an anglophobic Admiral King C in C Eastern Seaboard, refused to act.

1941. Ships sunk by U Boat, 432 = 2,171,754 tons. Ships sunk by aircraft, 371 = 1,017,422 tons. With others to a total, in 1941, of 1299 ships.  Britain nor her allies could build ships that fast to replace them.  1942 was far worse. 1644 ships were sunk and U Boat strength rose from 91 boats in January to 212 by December.

Tanker burns off the coast of America during the U Boat "Happy Time"

Image taken in National Maritime Museum Liverpool

Even so, the tide was turning, imperceptibly.  By the end of 1942 Britain had small escort carriers in the convoys and Liberators could on occasion, be spared.  Or Sunderland flying boats operating from Iceland, could help on the northern route.  A British invention, the hedgehog, a multi-barrelled mortar, which threw a pattern of 24 depth charges ahead of the attacking ship, and the Squid, which did the same with 3 depth charges, removed the problem of attacking a U Boat with depth charges over the stern.  The new RADAR could detect a submarine on the surface, it was also small enough to be fitted, in time, to Coastal Command aircraft.  New tactics were also learnt.  The formation of Hunter/Killer groups of destroyers. Escort commanders were now freed from the task of deciding whether to chase submarines or remain with the convoy.  

September 1942, the first group, under Commander Johnny Walker, were at sea, ready to race to any convoy judged to be sailing into danger. Firstly, to strengthen the convoy's defences, then to drive off the U Boats and chase them to their destruction, leaving the escorts to continue on with their job.

January 1943, losses reached 203.000 tons, In February losses reached 359,000 tons. In March 1943, Convoy HX229 left Halifax. On March 13 it was found, accidentally, by U-653.  Dropping back it sent a report off and Doenitz sent 12 U Boats which wreaked havoc amid the convoy's 11 columns.  8 ships were sank in the first attack, 2 more the next night. In the meantime, another group came across convoy SC122, even larger than HX229. SC122 was a slow convoy, HX229 was fast. By the night of 18/19 March, the two convoys had practically amalgamated. But so had their attackers, between them they had 25 U Boats. By the morning of 19 March, 21 ships of the two convoys had been sunk. If the convoy had not arrived within range of aircraft on the morning of 20 March more would have been lost.  In fact, an arriving Liberator sank 1 U Boat.  In that one encounter 140,842 tons of allied shipping was sunk, bring the March 1943 total to 627,000 tons, one of the worst months of the war!

Ammunition Ship Goes Up

During April Hunter/Killer groups were released from the Mediterranean and Roosevelt ordered more Liberators for over the Atlantic.  In May there were 41 Liberators operational.  In the middle of that month a large convoy was scattered by a storm south of Greenland. 12 U Boats took advantage, soon sinking 9 ships.  But 2 support groups arrived from Nova Scotia, the gales dropped, the returning U Boats were driven off, then chased, some being sunk.  4 were destroyed by depth charges the first night, 2 sunk by bombers the next day and 2 collided in the darkness and sank.  The next convoy lost 3 ships, but the Germans lost also 3 U Boats.  The next convoy lost 2 ships for the loss of 2 U Boats and 2 damaged.  The next two convoys arrived unscathed, leaving 6 U Boats sunk in their wake. April total of shipping sunk was 245,000 lost for the tally of 15 U Boats. May saw 165,000 tons lost for 40 U Boats sunk and in June 18,000 tons were lost and 17 U Boats sank.

Doenitz kept his remaining boats in port whilst he tried to find new tactics.  During June 1944 Doenitz tried to use his U Boats to undermine the invasion effort, but they were beaten off with the help of Captain Johnnie Walker. However, the Battle of the Atlantic was effectively over.  It had been a very close run thing and the U Boat was never to be a deterrent again. As Hitler always thought of the U Boats as a "defensive" organisation, to keep the Allies busy whilst he waged his war in the east, Doenitz continued to send his men out on suicidal missions; knowing that their probability of returning to base was virtually zero.  U Boat Commanders told Doenitz that the Allies were listening to them to which he replied "Impossible, the code machines cannot be broken".  They were broken and we were listening! However great the U Boat threat was, they actually only sank about 1% of shipping crossing the Atlantic Ocean! Unfortunately, the Admiralty's own code had been broken by B-Dienst, the German Intelligence Service and they fed convoy details, when known, to Doenitz. Its amazing that the Germans never saw Enigma information contained within Admiralty signals!

U110 meets its death at the hands of HMS Bulldog and HMS Aubrietia (from which this picture was taken) An enigma machine was recovered from U110 (9 May 1941). Taken under tow, but later lost off Iceland.

Erich Topp, U552

A speech by Erich Topp to an English audience in 1970,79956,79956

Type 7C U Boat Returns Home

SAGA OF THE U-166   (July 30, 1942)  Reportedly sunk by a US Coast Guard plane which dropped a depth charge on the submarine. An oil slick was the only evidence that a hit had taken place. The aircrew were decorated for the sinking. Sixty years later a sonar device detected a wreck on the sea floor. This turned out to be the wreck of the liner Robert E. Lee. A short distance away lay the wreck of the U-166. The Robert E. Lee had been sailing from Trinidad to the Gulf of Mexico with 400 people on board when spotted by the U-166 which fired a torpedo and scored a hit in the engine room causing the ship to sink soon after. Fortunately most of the passengers survived. In 1942, U-boats were sent from their base at Lorient in France to the Gulf of Mexico with orders to sink as many US ships as possible. In the first half of 1942, the 18 U-boats operating in the Gulf sunk a total of 62 ships.  The US was totally unprepared for enemy submarines operating so close to home and virtually unopposed. (Admiral King USN, CinC Eastern Seaboard, refused to read British signals about U Boat deployments, being a british hater - mk) They wrought havoc amongst tankers and merchant ships. Hundreds died while swimming in a sea of oil and flame. The U-166 was last seen by the crew of the U-171 which was sunk weeks later after hitting a British mine near its base at Lorient, 22 of her crew were killed. After the sinking of the Robert E. Lee, the escorting destroyer dropped depth charges where the U-166 was believed to be. Cut in two by the explosion, the U-166 sank with her 52 crew trapped inside in almost the same position as her last victim, the Robert E Lee.



Electric U Boat?

Facts and Footnotes:

At 0116hrs on 14 October 1939 the British Battleship Royal Oak was torpedoed whilst in the "protected" anchorage at Scapa Flow. She took 15 minutes to sink the 13 fathoms to the bottom, drowning 833 crew. The U Boat responsible was U-47, commanded by Günter Prien.

Prior to this, on 3 Sep 1939, at the outbreak of war, Günter Prien sank the Bosnia, a British Merchant ship, two days later he added two more.  Returning from Scapa Flow, he was received by Adolph Hitler and awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. The U-31 mined Loch Ewes, damaging the Battleship HMS Nelson and sinking two minesweepers.

U-21 mined the Firth of Forth, breaking the back of HMS Belfast and sinking two other ships. In June 1940, Prien was given a "group". U-47 plus 6 others. This group accounted for 32 merchant ships = 175,000 tons.

Prien sank 4 of 5 ships lost in convoy SC2 in Aug 1940.  It was Prien who spotted HX79, calling in 5 others that sank 14 ships, 3 of which went to Prien.

On 6 March 1941 Prien spotted convoy OB293, calling in 4 other boats. Initially losing 4 ships, the convoy was stoutly defended. The Germans initially lost 1 U Boat and 1 severely damaged. Keeping the convoy in sight, using surface speed, he neglected to watch his flanks - HMS Wolverine surprised him and sank him with all hands. In some quarters it is alleged that Prien was sunk by one of his own torpedoes, but this is unproven; credit for his "kill" remains with Wolverine.

Priens personal "tally" included 30 ships = 165,000 tons. He was posthumously awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knights Cross.

* Germany's ace (& humane) U Boat Commander, Otto Kreschmer, also known as "The Wolf of the Atlantic"  was captured alive and imprisoned in Canada. Men spoke with awe of the destructive ability of the U Boat that carried a "Golden Horseshoe" upon her conning tower, they also spoke with respect for her commander who fought with honour and humanity. Kretschmer would bring his U Boat alongside ships he had destroyed, toss cigarettes, brandy and medical supplies to the occupants of the lifeboats and set them on the right course for home.

Kretschmer's war did not, however, end with his capture. From his prison camp in Canada, he organised an astonishingly efficient espionage group and kept HQ back in Berlin supplied with an incredible amount of accurate military information. This and more can be found in the book by Terence Robertson "The Golden Horseshoe" but, like Terence Robertson's other masterpiece Walker RN, it quite possibly is now out of print.

Otto Kreschmer survived the war to become a diplomat after reaching the rank of Admiral in NATO. An interview with him, and other U Boat survivors can be seen on an excellent video tape entitled "Battle of the Atlantic" Luther Pendragon Production 1995 (RGI 3037) at £13.99. Narrated by Julia Somerville.  Also included is some extremely rare footage of "ace" U Boat killer Captain Johnnie Walker in action.

Not so long back I bought this stamp off eBay. I am rather pleased
with it, here's a "blow up".

Diesel Room U Boat

U Boat at Sea, from Conning tower

Footnote: Early in the 20th century, the americans built a subterranean power station beneath Grand Central Station in New York. Strangely enough, one of the people who the Americans employed was a german, and a Nazi. When the USA entered the war he told Hitler about this power station which powered 2000 miles of what was now war essential rail track in the american north east. Hitler sent 4 agents, in 2 uboats, to the USA, but they were spotted by a young coastguard person walking the beach and he told the FBI. They actually tracked them as far as the elevator in the station leading to their target. Below armed soldiers were on guard.  The saboteurs did not need explosives etc; all they required was sand to throw into the turbines. They were arrested and 2 were executed. Below is a video link to that story.

In Germany there has been discovered 3 type 21 U boats buried after an air raid on their bunkers. They were found quite a while ago but were buried under a car park and never recovered. The U2505, the U3004 and the U3506 would have caused carnage if they had been allowed to sail into the Atlantic or the Channel. Here are three images and the full story is on the link. Reprinted with permission.

2 Sunderland Flying Boats attack a U boat in Bay of Biscay. This second plane finished it off and sank it. Photo from that 2nd plane

British Summary of the U Boat 1946

Prisoner Interogation u-99

 Compare these boats with this - the amazing USS Pennyslvania

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