U-Boats of World War II, Murderers or Honorable Foes?

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A Brief History

On May 12, 1942, the German Kriegsmarine submarine, U-507, a Type IXC boat, sank an American tanker, the SS Virginia, with one of its deadly torpedoes while the tanker was in the mouth of the Mississippi River, an affront to the United States bringing deadly danger to shipping right to America’s doorstep.  During World War II the submarine fleets of each navy of the major powers played an outsized role in effective naval warfare, and also put the crews of those submarines in more peril than any other naval duty.  We have dealt with the subject of submarine warfare in the past, and today we look at the morality of submarine warfare, particularly through the history of U057.

Digging Deeper

How critical was the submarine war by the Germans against Allied shipping during World War II? No less an authority than British wartime Prime Minister and former First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill said, ‘The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.’  The chilling reality, or at least possibility, that had the Germans concentrated on building a massive U-boat force instead of dallying with building massive battleships (notably the Bismarck and Tirpitz) and giant cannons, the Germans may have strangled shipping to the island nation of the United Kingdom so much so that a negotiated peace may have been necessary.  As it was, the German U-boat fleet sank about 3500 Allied ships and killed over 70,000 Allied sailors (naval and merchant marine) between September of 1939 and the end of the war in Europe in May of 1945, against the loss of 783 U-boats and 30,000 U-boat submariners killed.  While German submarine technology outstripped that of the Allies (mainly the United States and Britain) during World War II, the Allied advances in anti-submarine warfare so greatly outstripped German defensive and counter-measures that ultimately the Allies won the Battle of the Atlantic, basically a war against the U-boats.  Massive numbers of sub hunting destroyers and other small ships (corvettes, frigates) and massive numbers of anti-submarine aircraft, especially ones equipped with high tech radars to detect submarines on the surface at night took a terrible toll on the U-boats, as did surface ship radars and advances in Sonar/Asdic submarine detection systems.  Improved versions of depth charges and the creation of small “escort” aircraft carriers to protect shipping convoys all played a part in defeating the “U-boat menace,” and the code breaking of German encryption machines also played a significant role in winning the war against the subs. Of the total of just over 1100 U-boats built by Germany immediately prior to and during World War II, about 70% were sunk, usually with the loss of the entire crew.

Submarines had long been derided by surface warfare types, men who had delusions of some sort of chivalrous warfare fought between gentlemen.  Subs represented a sneaky sort of warfare, kind of like the land based equivalent of sniping.  World War I showed that the German use of submarine warfare could be highly effective against both enemy combatants and enemy cargo shipping, and that success achieved at a minimum cost compared to the results, although submarine warfare would prove to be highly dangerous duty, with the sea itself representing as much danger as the enemy above.  The use of submarines by the Germans during World War I was controversial, especially when the use of “unrestricted” submarine warfare was instituted, where subs could sink enemy shipping, either combat or merchant vessels, without warning.  Previously, subs would routinely surface and demand the helpless cargo ship to stop and the crew to abandon ship, and then sink the ship with gunfire, saving the valuable torpedoes for other contingencies.  When Allied cargo ships started being armed and firing on German subs, the Germans had little choice but to shoot first without warning.

As things turned out, the German navy had only 56 or 57 U-boats on hand for submarine warfare when World War II started, and considering the havoc those submarines wrought, the Allies were darn lucky the Germans did not listen to Admiral Karl Dönitz and start the war with a much larger submarine fleet.

Which brings us back to U-507.  Commanded by Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht during the boat’s entire combat career, the Type IXC sub was almost 252 feet long with a beam of just over 22 feet.  She displaced 1213 tons (submerged) and could make a top speed of over 18 knots on the surface, plenty fast enough to catch any Allied cargo ships.  Submerged, the sub could make 7.7 knots, and could spend 12 hours under the surface, traveling about 64 nautical miles while submerged.  Test depth was an excellent 750 feet, deep enough to fool most Allied anti-submarine hunters since American subs (Gato class) had a test depth of only 300 feet, an enormous difference.  A main armament of 4 torpedo tubes forward and another pair of torpedo tubes aft were fed by a load of 22 torpedoes.  A deck gun of 105mm caliber could take care of any enemy surface targets of the cargo type or up to destroyer size, and anti-aircraft chores were assigned to the single 37mm auto-cannon and twin 20mm auto-cannons.  A crew of 4 officers and 44-50 men could travel with their deadly craft for over 13,000 nautical miles on internal fuel.  U-507 entered service in October of 1941, a new and modern submarine intended to take an enormous toll of Allied shipping, entering service in time to be on the American coast when the United States entered World War II.  The Type IXC was much larger and deadlier than the Type VII boats that preceded them, faster, with a longer range, similar diving depth, and 50% more torpedoes carried.

After the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, Germany quickly declared war on the United States, since the US was blatantly helping the British and Soviets anyway, the road would be cleared for submarine warfare against American shipping right on America’s doorstep.  A woefully unprepared Untied States at first allowed coastal cities to remain lit up at night, providing patrolling U-boats with an excellent backdrop of light to silhouette prey vessels against the coast they were hugging for “protection.”  German submariners experienced a “Happy Time” of enormous success in sinking Allied shipping near the American coast, and U-507 became part of that success.  Starting on April 8, 1942, U-507 began a stellar career in sinking American vessels, downing 8 ships including the Virginia by May 12, 1942, all victims along the Southeast part of the American mainland. (One of their victims was Honduran and another was Norwegian).  After sinking the Virginia, the U-507 damaged another American vessel and then sank another Honduran ship on May 16, 1942, completing her first combat patrol by destroying 9 Allied ships.  (The first “patrol” of the U-507 was merely a transport to her wartime base in Lorient, France from Germany.)

While the first blood drawn by U-507 shocked  and concerned the Americans, the second combat patrol brought the U-boat across the Atlantic without finding any targets on the passage, arriving off the coast of Brazil to seek ships making their way to the US.  From August 16 to August 19, 1942, U-507 sank 6 Brazilian ships, enraging the Brazilians and leading to a declaration of war against Germany and her allies.  Even before war was formally declared, alarmed Brazilians were already mounting aerial patrols against German U-boats as Brazilian ships were being sunk.  On August 22, 1942, U-507 sank another ship, this time one that belonged to neutral Sweden.  The involvement of Brazil in the war against Germany (and the Axis) meant the U-boats no longer had safe waters in the Brazilian coast.

Venturing into the open ocean between South America and Africa to hunt Allied shipping, U-507 had no luck finding prey, but on September 12, 1942, quickly responded to a distress call from another U-boat that had sunk a British ship, the RMS Laconia, carrying 1800 Italian POW’s plus about 400 Allied troops.  The U-boat that sunk the POW carrying ship called other U-boats to assist with rescue operations.  U-507 and other U-boats picked up as many survivors as possible until attacks from American bomber aircraft forced the rescue effort to end abruptly.  The Germans had radioed to the Allies about the rescue effort, and all subs engaged in rescue efforts flew the Red Cross flag to signify a humanitarian operation underway. An American local commander was unaware of the radio message from the Germans that the rescue was underway and ordered bombers to attack the surfaced U-boats.  The outraged U-boat skippers were forced to crash dive and German naval authorities were so incensed by the episode that strict orders were given to all U-boats (called the “Laconia Order”) that under no circumstances would U-boats be allowed to rescue people from ships that had been sunk.  A new dark page in the U-boat war had turned, hardening feelings on both sides.

After U-507 returned to port with its cargo of rescued men, she went on her fourth and final patrol, returning to the coast of Brazil where she sank another 3 Allied ships in December of 1942 and January of 1943, earning her skipper a Knight’s Cross.  On January 13, 1943, only 4 days after receiving word of his decoration, Captain Schacht and his U-boat were spotted by an American Navy PBY Catalina, a twin engine maritime patrol and bomber aircraft used in anti-submarine patrols.  The US Navy plane attacked the sub, which had submerged, dropping several depth charges, sinking the U-507 and taking her entire crew to the bottom, thus ending another of the many heroic and successful U-boats and crews of the Kriegsmarine during World War II.  Along with the crew of U-507, the captains from the 3 Brazilian ships that had been sunk had been captured and were also lost with the U-boat.  Additionally, a new skipper, Heinz Radau, was on board to observe in preparation for taking over the ship on the next patrol, and of course he too was lost with the sub.

In the typical manner of the hypocrisy that is human nature, the Allies portrayed the German U-boat submariners and their skippers as bestial sub-human killers lusting after the blood of innocent Allied sailors, although in the Pacific Allied (mostly American) submarines took a tremendous toll of Japanese shipping, even small sailing vessels, killing thousands and thousands of Japanese sailors.  Our submariners were heroes, not murderers!  The nature of submarine warfare had become by necessity one of ambush, with torpedoes fired without warning, as early humanitarian efforts to allow ships to be evacuated prior to their sinking backfired on those submarine captains that tried to minimize the number of lives taken could well result in the loss of his submarine and his crew if the target ship was an armed “Q-ship,” a merchant vessel heavily armed with covert weapons to surprise submarines that tried to take them on the surface.  Or just a plain old cargo ship that happened to be armed.  Or escorting ships or planes that happened to be in the area, which made stealth of utmost importance to the U-boats.  The age of chivalry, especially at sea, was long gone by 1942 and had no place in the submarine war of World War II, and most probably will never come back.

As a side note, another sad circumstance that underscores the tragic nature of sinking enemy ships without warning by submarines were those cases where Allied subs sank German or Japanese ships carrying large numbers of civilians being evacuated or Allied Prisoners of War (POW’s), notably the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German passenger ship sunk by a Soviet submarine in 1945, taking as many as 10,000 people to their watery grave, the most fatalities of any maritime incident ever.  Sadly, half of the people killed on the Gustloff were children.  War, indeed, is hell.

Question for students (and subscribers): Would you ever consider serving on board a submarine? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bishop, Chris. Kriegsmarine U-Boats 1939-45. Amber Books, 2017.

Dimlebly, Jonathan. The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War. Oxford University Press, 2016.

The featured image in this article, a picture taken by Oblt. z. S. Leopold Schuhmacher of shuttle service for shipwrecked persons from the Laconia between U156 (foreground) and U507 (background), is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.