Saturday, March 7, 2020

Sea Wolves

U-96 arriving at St. Nazaire (WWII)

World War I began on the 28th of July, 1914. A little over a month later, a warship of the Royal Navy was struck and sunk by a self-propelled torpedo fired from a German submarine. HMS Pathfinder had the dubious distinction of being the first ship of any type to be sunk by a self-propelled torpedo fired by a submarine in wartime. She would not be the last.

HMS Pathfinder
At the beginning of September 1914, Otto Hersing, Commanding Officer of U-21, ventured to the Firth of Forth, home to the major British naval base at Rosyth. Hersing is known to have penetrated the Firth of Forth as far as the Carlingnose Battery beneath the Forth Bridge. At one point the periscope was spotted and the battery opened fire but without success. Overnight Hersing withdrew from the Forth, patrolling the coast from the Isle of May southwards. On the morning of 5 September, he observed HMS Pathfinder on a SSE course, followed by elements of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla. At midday, the destroyers altered course back towards the Isle of May while Pathfinder continued her patrol. Shortly thereafter, Hersing spotted Pathfinder on her return journey through his periscope and resolved to make an attack.
At 1543 U-21 fired a single 50 cm Type G/6 torpedo at a range of 2,000 yards. At 1545 lookouts spotted a torpedo wake heading towards the starboard bow and the officer of the watch, Lieutenant-Commander Favell, attempted to take evasive action by ordering the starboard engine be put astern and the port engine at full ahead while the wheel was turned hard a port. Since the vessel was traveling at a mere five knots, however (due to a shortage of coal throughout the Royal Navy at the time), the manoeuvre was not in time and the torpedo struck the ship beneath the bridge. The detonation apparently set off cordite bags in the forward magazine which caused a second, more massive explosion within the fore section of the ship, essentially destroying everything forward of the bridge. Broken in two, Pathfinder instantly began sinking, dragging most of her crew down with her and leaving a massive pall of smoke to mark her grave. The vessel sank so quickly, in fact, that there was insufficient time to launch lifeboats. (Indeed, the remains of a lifeboat davit and rope can still be seen on the wreck, demonstrating the speed with which the vessel sank.) (Source)
Loss of HMS Pathfinder, September 5th 1914
William Lionel Wyllie

Slightly over two weeks later the Royal Navy lost three more ships to a U-Boat attack.

HMS Cressy
HMS Aboukir
HMS Hogue
At 06:00 on 22 September, the weather had calmed and the ships were patrolling at 10 knots, line abreast, 2 nautical miles apart. Lookouts were posted for submarine periscopes or ships and one gun either side of each ship was manned. U-9 had been ordered to attack British transports at Ostend but had been forced to dive and shelter from the storm. On surfacing, she spotted the British ships and moved to attack. At 06:20, U-9 fired a torpedo at the middle ship from a range of 550 yd and struck HMS Aboukir on the starboard side, flooding the engine room and causing the ship to stop immediately. No submarines had been sighted, so Drummond assumed that the ship had hit a mine and ordered the other two cruisers to close in to help. After 25 minutes, Aboukir capsized and then sank five minutes later. Only one lifeboat could be launched, because of damage from the explosion and the failure of steam-powered winches needed to launch them.
U-9 rose to periscope depth from her dive after firing the torpedo, to observe two British cruisers engaged in the rescue of men from the sinking ship. Weddigen fired two more torpedoes at HMS Hogue, from 300 yards. As the torpedoes left the submarine, her bows rose out of the water and she was spotted by Hogue, whose gunners opened fire before the submarine dived. The two torpedoes struck Hogue and within five minutes Captain Wilmot Nicholson gave the order to abandon ship; after ten minutes she capsized before sinking at 07:15. Watchers on HMS Cressy had seen the submarine, opened fire and made a failed attempt to ram, then turned to pick up survivors. At 07:20, U-9 fired two torpedoes toward Cressy from her stern torpedo tubes at a range of 1,000 yards. One torpedo missed and the submarine turned and fired her remaining bow torpedo at 550 yards. The first torpedo struck the starboard side at around 07:25, the second the port beam at 07:30. The ship capsized to starboard and floated upside down until 07:55.
Two Dutch sailing trawlers in the vicinity declined to close with Cressy for fear of mines. Distress calls had been received by Commodore Tyrwhitt, who, with the destroyer squadron, was already at sea returning to the cruisers, now that the weather had improved. At 08:30, the Dutch steamship Flora approached the scene (having seen the sinkings) and rescued 286 men. A second steamer—Titan—picked up another 147. More were rescued by two Lowestoft sailing trawlers, Coriander and J.G.C., before the destroyers arrived at 10:45, 837 men were rescued while 1,397 men and 62 officers—mostly part-timers from the Royal Naval Reserve, including Robert Johnson, the Captain of Cressy had been killed. The destroyers began a search for the submarine, which had little electrical power remaining to travel underwater and could only make 14 knots on the surface. The submarine submerged for the night before returning home the next day. (Source)
HMS Aboukir sinking.

Our Polish correspondent Paweł reminded me the other day that  "the enemy gets their own fullbore." (No doubt a reference to CDR Salamander's excellent Fullbore Friday feature at his place. An example of which is here.) Is there any honor involved in fighting against an incompetent enemy? Isn't that akin to clubbing baby seals?

In both World Wars the enemy was anything but incompetent. Especially those sailors who served in Germany's Ubootwaffe 1. In both wars they nearly brought Britain to her knees. It was, to paraphrase the Duke of Wellington, a damned near run thing. 2

When you mention "U-Boats 3" most people think of World War II, while some might remember that the sinking of RMS Lusitania was a proximate cause of the United States entering World War I. (Though not really, Lusitania went down in May of 1915, the U.S. entered the war in April of 1917. Though the sinking did shift public opinion in the U.S. against the Germans 4.) Of Germany's top five submarine captains (based on tonnage sunk), four are from World War I.

World War I U-Boat Aces:

Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière (1886–1941) was the most successful U-boat commander of World War I and of any submarine commander in history. Between 1915–18, he made 14 patrols in command of U-35, sinking 189 merchant vessels and two gunboats. He transferred to U-139 in May 1918 and sank a further five merchant ships, making 194 ships sunk totalling 453,716 GRT 5. After serving as an instructor in the Turkish Navy between 1932–38, he returned to the Kriegsmarine and during World War II served as naval commandant for western France with the rank of Vizeadmiral. He was killed in February 1941 when his aircraft crashed on take off at Le Bourget Airport, Paris.

Walther Forstmann (1883–1973) commanded U-12 and U-39 on 47 patrols and sank 146 ships for a total of 384,304 GRT. In 1921 he qualified as an attorney and worked in the steel and coal industries, as well as being active in the German People's Party. Forstmann served on the staff of the Kriegsmarine during World War II.

Max Valentiner (1883–1949) commanded U-38 and U-157, and sank 150 ships for a total of 299,300 GRT. Listed as a war criminal by the Allies for a series of incidents, including the sinking of SS Persia, Valentiner went into hiding for a while at the end of the war. During World War II, Valentiner was commander of a unit inspecting new U-boats before commissioning.

Otto Steinbrinck (1888–1949) commanded several submarines during World War I, sinking a total of 231,614 GRT of shipping. After the war he worked in the iron and steel industry. Steinbrinck joined the Nazi Party in 1933, and became a member of the SS, rising to the rank of Brigadeführer, while remaining active in industry. In 1945, he was arrested and faced charges at the Flick Trial. In December 1947, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment in Landsberg Prison, but died two years into his sentence.

Hans Rose (1885–1969) commanded U-53 between 1916–18, sinking 79 merchant ships for a total of 213,987 GRT, as well as USS Jacob Jones, the first American destroyer to be lost during the war. Rose commanded a U-boat training unit in 1940.

World War II U-Boat Aces:

Otto Kretschmer (1912–1998) was the most successful of the World War II Aces of the Deep. As commander of U-35, U-23 and U-99 he sank 47 merchant ships totalling 272,043 tons in a remarkably short period of time, being captured in March 1941 and spending the rest of the war in the Bowmanville POW camp, Canada. After the war, he rejoined the Bundesmarine, and became the Chief of Staff of the NATO Command COMNAVBALTAP in May 1965. He retired in September 1970 with a rank of Flottillenadmiral. During his time as a U-boat commander, he was given the nickname "The Tonnage King" because of his high GRT record.

Wolfgang Lüth (1913–1945) was given command of U-9 in December 1939, going on to command U-13, U-138, U-43, and U-181, and sinking 46 merchant ships for a total 225,204 tons in 15 patrols, including one of 205 days, the second longest of the war. In January 1944 Lüth took command of the 22nd U-boat Flotilla, before being appointed commander of the Naval Academy Mürwik in July. Lüth was mistakenly shot and killed by a German sentry on 13 May 1945.

Erich Topp (1914–2005) commanded U-57 and U-552 in 1940–41, and sank 35 merchant ships for a total of 197,460 tons. He commanded the tactical training unit 27th U-boat Flotilla from late 1942, and served briefly as commander of the Type XXI Elektroboote U-3010 and U-2513 just before the end of the war. He rejoined the Bundesmarine in 1956, reaching the rank of Konteradmiral before retiring in 1969.

Heinrich Liebe (1908–1997) commanded U-38 between 1938–41, sinking 34 ships for a total of 187,267 GRT. In 1941 Liebe was assigned to the staff of Oberkommando der Marine, and from August 1944 was on the staff of the BdU. After the war Liebe returned to his hometown in the Soviet sector. As he refused to train Soviet submariners, he was allowed only a series of menial occupations.

Viktor Schütze (1906–1950) commanded U-25 and U-103, sinking 35 merchant ships totalling 180,073 tons, before being appointed commander of the 2nd U-boat Flotilla in August 1941. He became the FdU Ausbildungsflottillen ("Commander of the Training Flotillas") in the Baltic Sea in March 1943. He spent a year in Allied captivity after the war.

Two other WWII U-Boat commanders who were in the top ten I will mention because -
  1. Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (#6 in GRT in WWII, BTW that's his boat in the opening photo) was the technical advisor for the movie Das Boot (one of my favorite movies) and
  2. Günther Prien, who gained lasting fame for sneaking his boat into Scapa Flow and sinking HMS Royal Oak at anchor.

Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (1911–1986) commanded the U-8, U-5, and U-96, sinking 25 merchant ships for a total of 179,125 tons. In May 1942 Willenbrock took command of the 9th U-boat Flotilla, transferring to the 11th U-boat Flotilla in December 1944. After spending a year in captivity after the German surrender, Willenbrock served as captain on merchant ships, and from 1964 commanded the German nuclear-powered freighter Otto Hahn. Willenbrock acted as advisor to the film Das Boot, based on an account of one of his own war patrols in U-96.

Günther Prien (1908–1941) was given command of U-47 in December 1938, and sank over 30 Allied merchant ships for a total of 162,769 GRT. His most famous exploit was infiltrating the British Home Fleet's base at Scapa Flow in October 1939 and sinking the battleship HMS Royal Oak - which won him the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, the first U-boat commander to do so. Prien was lost when U-47 went missing on 7 March 1941 during an attack on Convoy OB 293 south of Iceland. He was given the nickname "The Ace of Aces".

HMS Royal Oak, capsized in Scapa Flow

Both sides paid a heavy price in the World Wars -

World War I Losses:

Allied -
  • 5,000 merchant ships sunk
  • 15,000 merchant sailors killed
  • 104 warships sunk
  • 42 warships damaged
  • 61 Q-ships sunk
German -
  • Total operational boats: 351
  • Total sunk in combat: 178 (41 by mines, 30 by depth charges and 13 by Q-ships)
  • Other losses: 39
  • Completed after Armistice: 45
  • Surrendered to Allies: 179
  • Men lost in U-boats: 515 officers and 4894 enlisted men
World War II Losses:

Allied -
  • 36,200 sailors killed
  • 36,000 merchant seamen killed
  • 3,500 merchant vessels
  • 175 warships
  • 741 RAF Coastal Command Aircraft lost in anti-submarine sorties
German -
  • 28,000 German U-boat crew of the total 40,900 men recruited into the service lost their lives and 5,000 became POWs
  • 783 submarines lost
  • 47 other warships lost
To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill 6 -
The U-Boat men, warriors who will hold their place in military annals ... daring and skillful opponents ...

Recommended reading:

1 - Ubootwaffe, the submarine branch of the German Navy, Kriegsmarine.
2 - The actual quote was "It has been a damned serious business... Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. ... By God! I don't think it would have been done if I had not been there." (Source)
3 - English for the German abbreviation "U-Boot" which stands for Unterseeboot, the German word for submarine.
4 - See this article.
5 - GRT = Gross Register Tonnage
6 - Today Churchill pays a tribute to the man who smashed the British Desert flank in 1941, with dire consequences for Greece. That man was Erwin Rommel, "a German warrior who will hold his place in their military annals ... a daring and skilful opponent ... a great general." (Source)
Editor's Note - I don't mention the Japanese submarine force in this post as during the war, Japan managed to sink about 1 million tons of merchant shipping (184 ships), compared to 1.5 million tons for Great Britain (493 ships), 4.65 million tons for the U.S. (1,079 ships) and 14.3 million tons for Germany (2,840 ships). The Americans and the Germans were the heavy hitters in WWII submarine warfare. (Source)


  1. The North Atlantic is enough of a enemy by itself, especially in winter, for it to become a theater of war makes it become even more daunting. You did your homework Sarge, over 700 RAF Coastal Command planes lost in WWII, wonder what the percentage of loss was in that arm?

    1. Coastal Command's losses in WWII were over 2,000 aircraft to all causes, the 700 is just for the anti-submarine mission. Finding information as to Coastal Command strength is rather catch as catch can, some sources list how many aircraft they had at the start (about 300 operational aircraft) but don't show the strength over time. I have a book (somewhere) with all sorts of data on WWII, I need to dig that out.

    2. Being born at around the same time as you were WW2 was a fairly recent memory as I grew up. My grandfather used to work for an ex RAF Coastal Command pilot who flew Sunderland flying boats. He never said much about his war experience other than to say it was a combination of extreme boredom/routine whilst being very dangerous at the same time. Planes set out and never returned and no one knew why they never came back. Coastal command flew many missions where nothing happened as far as they were concerned but what we don't know is how many U-boats did they deter?

    3. I knew a lot of WWII vets growing up, some in my family. Flying an aircraft for long stretches of time out over the North Sea and the North Atlantic had to be dangerous when the weather got nasty.

      As a friend of mine once said, "Hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of sheer terror."

    4. (Don McCollor) Daniel Gallery in "Clear The Decks" notes other hazard along with weather and the enemy. One PBY out of Iceland flew a couple hundred miles out in solid cloud, found her convoy on radar, and descended on instruments. The convoy had been previously escorted by the Luftwaffe, and as soon as the PBY appeared every gun opened fire, shooting out one engine, half the tail, and wounding three of the crew. They didn't even get a Purple Heart, because they were awarded only for wounds "inflicted by the enemy", and the Board of Awards maintained that the convoy was friendly. The British Admiral did concede that the convoy behavior had been "most disagreeable"...

    5. Dang! Friendly fire ain't!

      But I can see the convoy's side of it too. Get attacked from the air enough and soon enough you'll shoot at anything that flies!

  2. Great post on a bit of history that should never be forgotten.

    1. Thanks c w. We should never forget those who lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic, it was a very important campaign. In both wars.

    2. (Don McCollor) [I may have posted about this before] Lothar-Gunther Buchheim (author of "The Boat" [Das Boot] published another book "U-Boat War" (1978). He served as an artist and cameraman aboard U-Boats. The book tells about his own experiences, and includes 200 war photographs he took during that time.

    3. I need to track that one down.

    4. (Don McCollor)...if ever you want to see (and survive) the effects of a depth charging from inside a boat...

    5. The survive part would be great, but I have no desire to experience that!

  3. Hey AFSarge;

    I remembered blogging about the movie "Das Boot" and I recognized the name of the technical advisor from that movie. I recall when the Royal Oak was sunk, it stunned the British, one of their capital ships sunk by a dastardly submarine, wasn't cricket you know. The U-boats capts were not slouches, as I recall the Uboat branch had the highest attrition rate of any branch in the German service losses vs manpower allocations. It wasn't the Lusitania that pushed us into war, it was the Zimmerman Telegram I think that finally pushed the Americans to get involved. Awesome post :)

    1. The Lusitania sinking was spun up by both British and American hawks into an evil attack on an unarmed ship not carrying war materials.

      Conveniently forgotten in the rush to propaganda was the German Consulate publishing, for several days before the Lusitania sailed, a warning that war materials were being loaded aboard the ship and thus it was a legitimate target. Many heeded the warning, too many didn't.

      Lusitania was also designed as a potential merchant 'cruiser' with already built in preparations for mounting guns. Was she armed at the time? Researchers haven't found any. But...

      What researchers and divers have found was the Lusitania was carrying a huge cargo of .303 ammunition and copper and brass ingots.

      Not to mention, the approach, slowing down and circling off the Irish coast of the Lusitania, which was a very fast ship, was suspicious. Was it done because the escort ships weren't on station yet? Or, as some theorize, the British hung her out as a prize in order to push America into the war.

      We really could have gone either way, for the King or for the Kaiser.

      The British and pro-British forces won the propaganda war over the Lusitania.

    2. MrG - You're absolutely right about the Zimmermann telegram.

    3. Beans - Give the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in Belgium (and other places) it is very unlikely that we would have sided with Germany. They attacked France, not vice versa.

      But RMS Lusitania was a legitimate military target, we knew that.

  4. Another good one, Sarge.
    I find it amazing that Germany could find so many to fight two separate wars.
    Even more so for as long as the second lasted.

    1. One of the interesting things that happened in Germany during and after the war was their birthrate actually increased, increased quite significantly.

      Same with England. Yes, many widows, but many many children during and after the war.

      Unlike... France. Which took a much greater hit and didn't repopulate as quickly. France was war-weary after getting thrashed in the Franco-Prussian War and being flogged horribly in WWI. Marshall Petain, leader of the French Army during WWI, tried to warn France about rising German power in the 20's and 30's, but nobody wanted to listen. And he reluctantly entered into the Vichy government during WWII to try to blunt German aggression towards conquered France. For which he received a death sentence by the post-Vichy government, only to die of old age after the sentence was commuted to life. Oh, France... Always willing to cut your head off to spite your face.

    2. Skip - The Germans were very prolific in those days. In WWII German women actually received medals for having more kids.

    3. Beans - Not to mention French losses in the Napoleonic Wars. Waterloo was only 99 years before WWI started.

  5. We can acknowledge our enemies heroes and heroic actions. We can even put those heroes up on a pedestal and make them co-equal to our own. And even remember them more than our own. Nothing wrong with it. It's actually a good thing, as heroic actions should be remembered.

    The Red Baron.


    Admiral Doenitz.

    Michael Wittman.

    Georg Von Trapp (for his war actions.)

    Just as we should remember the criminals and thugs.

    Because we are men. And men tell tales of heroes and villains, of heroic actions. Around the fire, around the bar, on quiet nights, on stormy nights when God's artillery is pounding away. These stories of heroes and villains, from Gilgamesh to David to, well, the men above, and their actions, keep us alive.

    It's one of the signs of a 'good' war, that we know who we are fighting and acknowledge the actions of good men on their side. Yes, we want a sniper to get their good men, or a bomb, or a missile, but... Good men. Heroes. There should be good men and heroes on both sides that both sides can acknowledge.

    Even in Korea and Vietnam there were enemy leaders that were, well, okay, maybe not, but...

    In the Middle East? Heroic actions by the enemy? Not that I can see. And no heroic actions by the enemy makes for a bad war. A war that kills the spirit of the fighting men of the 'good' side. It's partially the difference between the war against the Nazis and Fascists in Europe versus the war against Imperial Japan in the Pacific. Germany's and Italy's heroes and people were much like us. Japan's heroes and people? Not so much. Aliens in many ways.

    1. I have issues with Rommel, though I do respect him. Doenitz, no. Wittman, no. Do I recognize their skills, yes.

      As to Von Richthofen and Von Trapp, absolutely worthy of respect. I agree as to the opposition in Korea and Vietnam, their generals were scum. I do respect the grunts who were on the other side, tough bastards, worthy opponents.

      The Japanese were a mixed bag, aliens in many respects because of the differences in their culture. But having spent nearly a decade in Asia, I understand better than some. There were a number of Japanese generals and admirals who are worthy of recognition. As to the individual Japanese soldier, sailor, and airman? I have nothing but respect for their dedication and sacrifice.

      Watch Letters from Iwo Jima and you will begin to understand.

    2. @OAFS/

      IWO? See also Semper Fi, Mac. by Henry Berry. VERY GOOD. Unfort paper-back is out-of-print & hard-cover is rather pricy iirc.

    3. A good book, read it a while back. I wonder if I still have my copy.

  6. I had to see where the 1st story was happening, shows the Firth of Forth and the Forth Bridge

    1. Yup, Hersing was way up the Firth of Forth. (And yes, I should have provided a map. Mea culpa.)

  7. The 7th Cruiser squadron, otherwise known as the 'Live bait squadron'. Nowadays it is somewhat surprising to see how quickly ships became obsolete at that time. The ships were laid down in 1898, twelve years later they were worn out and unsuited for front line service. Most people don't realise how effective submarine warfare was in WW1. As usual we forget the lessons of the past. The RN used the convoy system to great effect in the Napoleonic wars.. and then forgot how effective it was. In April 1917 860,000 tons of shipping were lost to U Boat attacks and still the Admiralty refused to consider the convoying of merchant shipping. This wiki entry gives a brief explanation of how the convoy system was reintroduced and how having 'boffins' looking at things helps.
    As usual people tend to forget it is grunt work, diligence and drudgery that ensures success. BTW Sir Eric Geddes is an interesting person and worth looking up.

    1. If it's any consolation, we forgot how effective the convoy system was in the beginning of WWII as well.

      Sir Eric Geddes was an interesting fellow. I need to read more about him.

  8. I can't emphasize enough subs as a threat to carriers. Courageous. Ark Royal. Yorktown. Wasp. Taiho. Shinano. ASCM and ASBM might be flashy but heavy torp is a killer.

    1. The submarine is the most effective naval system these days. The biggest threat to a carrier group!

  9. Regarding respect between enemies: there is a book (it might be A Bloody War. I'm not sure I remember correctly) by a British destroyer officer (later a captain who had a destroyer sunk under him) who took Otto Kretschmer prisoner. After the war, Kretschmer visited him in England and stayed with his family. He said words to the effect of " I think we became pretty good friends, but he certainly lived up to the nicknamed "Silent Otto"! About Rommel, you may have more sources than I. I admit to being strongly influenced by my first real reading on him, Rommel The Desert Fox, by Brigadier Desmond Young. Young, who had been taken prisoner in North Africa, was writing only a few years after the war and talked to Rommel's batman, as well as some of his subordinate commanders. Some of his remarks about the different cultures of British and German officers also gave me insight into Von Richtofen.

    1. I think that Rommel was a decent chap, but he got in over his head with the Nazis. He saw the light late in the war, when the Germans when losing, and losing badly.

      He was a soldier, and a good one. But he saw the light far too late.

  10. Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock looks like he starred in Das-Boot! In a maritime war, you could roughly equate submarines to snipers. Silent, stealthy, and incredibly deadly. I worry that we've ceded the defensive middle zone, if not the outer-zone as well, to enemy submarines. We have fewer subs, far less MPA, and no CVN fixed-wing ASW aircraft and we accept risk when we travel in the south Pacific.

    1. Indeed. The sub is the biggest threat out there to other warships. We need to up our ASW game, and fast.

  11. "You have fought like lions, Unbeaten and unblemished, you lay down your arms after a heroic battle without equal."

    Good statement to ponder against the backdrop of the history of that war, and the previous one.


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