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GORDON WILLIAMSON, illustrated by IAN PALMER
Another of the great Type VIIC tonnage aces was Fregattenkapitän Erich Topp, whose conning tower emblem of a prancing devil painted in red earned U-552 the nickname of the 'Red Devil Boat'. Topp was decorated with the Knight's Cross on 20 June 1941, the Oakleaves on 11 April 1942 and the Swords on 17 August 1942. His eventual total of enemy ships sunk was 35, for a total of 192,600 tons. Amongst his kills was the destroyer USS Reuben James. Like Schnee, Erich Topp was given command of one of the latest Type XXI boats in the closing stages of the war. Schnee also joined the re-formed German Navy after the war and eventually retired with the rank of Konteradmiral. In 2000, this highly respected sailor, who over the years had made innumerable historians and researchers welcome to his home, was dismayed to discover that one 'guest' had stolen many of his decorations as well as his bejewelled naval Honour Dagger.
Several of the great Type VIIC aces earned their Knight's Cross, not by sinking huge tonnages of enemy merchant ships, but by spectacular sinkings of major enemy warships. Amongst these was Kapitänleutnant Hans Diedrich von Tiesenhausen, commander of U-331. Although this commander, operating in the Mediterranean sank but two ships, his total tonnage score was 40,435. The reason for the high tonnage with just two ships was that one of these was the battleship HMS Barham, torpedoed and sunk by von Tiesenhausen on 25 November 1941. His other sinking was a 9,000-ton freighter, the Leeds town. He was awarded the Knight's Cross for his sinking of the Barham on 27 January 1942. On 17 November 1942, U-331 was attacked and sunk by Swordfish torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable. Von Tiesenhausen and 15 of his crew were rescued and spent the remainder of the war in captivity.
A Type VIIC moored alongside her tender. The crew has taken the opportunity to hang out all their blankets, damp from the boat's interior conditions after a war cruise, to air and dry. Obvious here also is the dark grey finish to the saddle tanks, in contrast to the lighter grey of the hull.
Other warship killers included Kapitänleutnant Klaus Bargsten, commander of U-521, whose sinkings, though totalling only six ships, included the famous Tribal class destroyer HMS Cossack and the US sub-chaser Bredon, and Korvettenkapitän Helmut Rosenbaum, commander of U-753, whose similar total of six ships sunk included the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle.
A Type VII U-boat was also responsible for sinking one of the Royal Navy's most famous ships, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. On 13 November 1941, the 26-year-old Kapitänleutnant Friedrich Guggenberger, having just reached the Mediterranean in command of U-81, torpedoed the Ark just 25 miles from Gibraltar. It was a propaganda triumph for Germany, which had in fact been prematurely claiming the sinking of the Ark Royal for some time, and a disaster for the Royal Navy, especially in light of the result of subsequent enquiries, which established that she might have been saved had she not been prematurely abandoned.
One of the most interesting of U-boat commanders was Korvettenkapitän Peter Erich 'Ali' Cremer. Cremer was decorated with the Knight's Gross of the Iron Gross on 5 June 1942 as commander of the Type VII U-333, the boat's first commander having served previously on the destroyer Theodor Riedel Cremer sank a modest seven enemy ships totalling some 36,000 tons, and was eventually given a shore posting where he commanded the 'Wachbattailon Dönitz'. Thrown into combat around Hamburg in the last few days of the war, Cremer led a highly successful 'tank-hunting' unit that knocked out a significant number of British tanks during the defensive battles around the port.
Not all of the most highly decorated Type VII aces were tonnage or warship killers. Only two men in the entire Kriegsmarine were decorated with the coveted Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds to the Knight's Gross. One, Wolfgang Lütli, was a Type IX commander, and the other, Albrecht Brandi, commanded a Type VII.
Albrecht Brandi had begun his naval career with the minesweeping branch and only came to the U-Bootwaffe in April 1941. Having completed his conversion training, he took command of U-617 in September 1942. On his first war cruise he sank four ships totalling 15,163 tons. On his next war cruise, Brandi entered the Mediterranean, where he made attacks on a destroyer, a cruiser and a battleship, but without success. His next cruise saw him sink a seagoing naval tug and damage a destroyer before sinking two medium-sized freighters. On 21 January 1943, he was decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. On Brandi's fourth war cruise, he sank the minelayer HMS
The U-boat escort/tender Saar. Moored alongside, next to the Saar, is a Type IA and, outboard of this boat, two Type VIIAs. The dark grey decking, contrasting with the light grey hull, is clearly seen. Note that all three boats have had the net cutters removed.
Welshman and two merchant ships. His fifth cruise saw U-617 attacking a British cruiser and two destroyers. Hits were claimed, but it has not been possible to verify these. Brandi was awarded the Oakleaves on 11 April 1943. On his eighth war cruise, Branch attacked and sank the destroyer Puckeridge and also claimed the sinking of two unidentified warships. U-617 was herself attacked on 11 August 1943 and severely damaged by British aircraft. Pursued by British warships, she entered Spanish territorial waters and beached herself near Sidi Amar in Spanish Morocco. The crew was initially interned but eventually repatriated to Germany.
Brandi was given command of another Type VIIC, U-967, in March 1944. This boat operated briefly in the North Atlantic before being transferred to the Mediterranean in January 1944. Here Brandi once again attacked a number of warships, sinking the destroyer escort USS Feehteler on 4 May 1944. Brandi was decorated with the Swords on 9 May 1944. Whilst still in command of U-967, Brandi received the Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds on 24 November 1944. He was subsequently posted to command the Kleinkampfmittelverbände (midget submarines, one man torpedoes and other special weapons) and survived the war. He did not re-enter the post-war navy and died in retirement in Dortmund in 1966.
Brandi is a prime example of a U-boat captain whose actual, verified sinkings are rather modest in terms of tonnage sunk, yet who received the highest military decorations. What becomes rapidly apparent about Brandies record is his fearless aggression in attacking enemy warships. The substantial British Navy presence in the Mediterranean, the tight control exercised over the Straits of Gibraltar and the relatively shallow nature of these waters, giving the U-boats less chance to manoeuvre, made operating here much more dangerous than in any other waters. Despite this, Brandi rarely let the opportunity to attack enemy warships pass, and in a time when U-boat losses were escalating rapidly such determination to take the battle to the enemy was highly valued by Grossadmiral Dönitz.