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GORDON WILLIAMSON, illustrated by IAN PALMER
The capabilities of the Type VII boat in the hands of an expert commander are easily established by a quick review of some of the most successful U-boat commanders of the Second World War, and the types of boats in which they operated.
On 17 September 1939, the Type VIIA U-29 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Schuhart struck the first major blow against the Royal Navy when the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was intercepted and sunk in the waters off the west coast of Ireland. Schuhart went on to accumulate of total of 12 enemy ships totalling some 83,700 tons before being given a shore command. He was decorated with the Knight's Cross and survived the war to serve in the West German Bundesmarine.
The first truly spectacular U-boat success of the Second World War, however, came on 14 October 1939 when Kapitänleutnant Gunther Prien succeeded in penetrating the fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow, and torpedoed and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak. Although this warship was obsolete and its loss to the Royal Navy would have no major effect on the combat capabilities of the British fleet, the mere fact that a U-boat had penetrated what was considered to be a safe anchorage and sunk a major surface warship with considerable loss of life, and had then escaped unscathed, was a major progadanda disaster for Britain, and one which Germany exploited to the full. Coming hard on the heels of the sinking of the Courageous, it was a serious blow to the morale of the Royal Navy. Prien's entire crew was decorated with the Iron Cross and Prien himself with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.
Prien's boat, the U-47, was an early Type VIIB that continued to serve him well. Prien quickly established that his success at Scapa Flow was no fluke as his score of tonnage sunk rapidly rose. Prien sank a total of 31 ships, some 192,000 tons, before U-47 was attacked and sunk by the destroyer HMS Wolverine on 8 March 1941. There were no survivors. Prien had added the Oakleaves to his Knight's Cross on 20 October 1940.
A contemporary of Prien, Kapitänleutnant Joachim Schepke, also commanded a Type VIIB, the U-100. Unlike Prien. there were no spectacular warship sinkings in his tally, but rather a steady and remorseless list of merchantman after merchantman sent to the bottom. He was decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 24 September 1940 and added the Oakleaves on 20 December 1941. His boat was finally forced to the surface and rammed by the destroyer HMS Vanoc on 17 March 1941. Schepke was on the bridge at the time, and was crushed against the periscope mount by the impact and dragged down with the sinking U-boat At the time of his death he had sunk 37 ships totalling over 145,000 tons.
Though the rear flak platform on early Type VIICs looks relatively small, this photo of the assembled crew of U-46 shows just how many crewmen it could accommodate. U-boat crewmen rarely had the opportunity to wear their best blues. Photos such as this were usually taken on the day the boat was commissioned, or to celebrate a special event, as here, with the award of the Knight's Cross to the boat's captain, Kapitanleutnant Engelbert Endrass.
The third and by far the most successful of the Type VIIB 'aces' was Fregattenkapitän Otto Kretschmer. Kretschmer's quiet, serious demeanour earned him the nickname 'Silent Otto'. In command of U-99, however, his combat career was anything but 'quiet'. On his very first war cruise, Kretschmer sank eleven enemy ships. lie was awarded the Knight's Cross on 4 August 1940 and added the Oakleaves on 4 November of that same year. His score continued to rise, reaching 56 ships for a total of 313,600 tons sunk. Kretschmer finally met his match when he succumbed to a joint attack by the destroyers Vanoc and Walker on 17 March 1941, in the same convoy battle in which Schepke was killed. Fortunately, the majority of U-99's crew, including Kretschmer himself, were able to abandon their stricken U-boat safely and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp. Whilst in captivity Kretschmer learned that he had been decorated with the Swords to his Knight's Cross with Oakleaves on 26 December 1941. Kretschmer's total tonnage sunk, which was never surpassed, made him the highest-scoring U-boat ace of the Second World War. This highly respected sailor survived the war and, when the German Navy was re-formed, returned to the sendee and eventually retired with the rank of Flotillenadmiral.
A view from the bows of the same late-war Type VIIC as in the previous photograph. Note the lack of deck gun in Type VIIs from the second half of the war, the emphasis thereafter being on anti-aircraft armament. Unusually, this boat seems to be moving along some narrow inland waterway.
Amongst those who achieved great success with the Type VIIC, there are two main types of ace, the tonnage aces and the warship killers. One of the most famed Type VIICs is undoubtedly U-96, the subject of the acclaimed movie Das Boot. Whilst the film is based on a real boat, the account is fictionalised and not altogether accurate. In the film, the boat's commander dies, but in reality the factual commander, Fregattenkapitän Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, went on to even greater success and survived the war. Like the fictional captain, Lehmann-Willenbrock was decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, receiving his award on 26 February 1941. Lehmann-Willenbrock also received the Oakleaves, on 31 December 1941, and went on to sink a total of 25 enemy ships, for a total tonnage of 183,000 before moving to a shore posting, in command of first the 9th then the 11th U-boat Flotillas.
A Type VIIC on training exercises in the Baltic. Note how narrow is the width of deck available for passing along the side of the tower. The Type IX was, by comparison, far more spacious.
The list of highly successful tonnage aces included Korvettenkapitän Adalbert Schnee, who sank a total of 24 enemy ships totalling 88,995 tons with his Type MIC U-boat, U-201. Schnee was awarded the Knight's Cross on 30 August 1941 and the Oakleaves on 15 July 1942. Schnee (whose name in German means 'snow') was known for the emblem of a snowman on the conning tower of his boat. He was one of the first to be given command of one of the new Type XX U-boats (U-2511). Although lie only put to sea on his first operational cruise in the closing days of the war, and was unable to achieve any contact with the enemy before the order to cease hostilities was transmitted, he did carry out a successful dummy attack run on a group of British warships and escaped totally undetected.