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GORDON WILLIAMSON, illustrated by IAN PALMER
Fortunately, several of the great U-boat aces of the Second World War survived the conflict and many of those have committed their memoirs to print. In the case of those who did not survive, many have had scholarly biographical studies written about them. For those who wish to read further into what life was like on the Type VII U-boat during this momentous period in history, there is a rich vein of material available.
Most photographs of Type II submarines show them in their pre-war pale grey livery. This wartime shot shows a Type IIA and a Type IIB vessel, both tied up alongside their tender. Note the wartime splinter-type disruptive camouflage applied to the tender and the darker grey livery of the Type IIA nearest the camera. The Type IIB seems still to retain its lighter grey colour. By this time, both would most likely have been reserved for training duties.
With the opening of the U-boat campaign in US waters, and into the South Atlantic, the need for a special resupply U-boat became more and more marked. A U-boat returning from a war patrol in far-off waters would occasionally rendezvous with another whose fuel or torpedo load was running out, and would transfer whatever it could of its remaining stock before heading for its home port, an extremely difficult and hazardous task in anything but the calmest of waters. Whilst this certainly helped, the amount of supplies which could be transferred would be extremely limited.
The solution to this problem was seen to be the construction of large supply boats capable of transporting significant amounts of fuel and other essentials to those boats operating on extended patrols in distant waters. The result, designated the Type XIV, was known to the Germans as the Milchkuh, or Milk Cow. A total often such boats were constructed, six by Deutsche Werke in Kiel (U-459, U-460, U-461, U-462, U-463 and U-464) and four by Germaniawerft (U-487, 11-488, 1-489 and U-490).
Initially, these boats were highly successful and played a significant role in keeping more boats than would otherwise have been possible on station in the western and south-western Atlantic. Gradually, however, Allied intercepts of German signals, thanks to the cracking of the Enigma codes, allowed the Allies to set up ambushes in many of the designated rendezvous points, and thus, one by one, the vulnerable Milk Cows were attacked and sunk.
The first to be stink, U-464, was attacked on 21 August 1942 just seven days into her first cruise when she was attacked on the surface by a US Catalina flying boat. Although the boat was lost, her crew was rescued by an Icelandic fishing boat. U-490 was next to be lost when, also on her first cruise, she was attacked en route to the Indian Ocean by a combination of US aircraft and warships. Fortunately, all but one of her crew was rescued by her attackers. U-463 succeeded in earning out four war cruises before being attacked by a British Halifax bomber and sunk with all hands on 10 May 1943 during her fifth cruise. Whilst running on the surface to charge her batteries, U-489 was attacked by an aircraft. She was spotted by a Sunderland firing boat and, although the flying boat was shot down, the submarine was so badly damaged that it had to be abandoned. Most of the crew was rescued. Disaster struck the U-tanker programme in July 1943 when four boats, U-459, U-461, IJ-462 and U-48.7, were all attacked on the surface and sunk by Allied aircraft. Between them, however, they had carried out 21 war cruises, replenishing combat U-boats at sea. Of Germany's two remaining U-tankers, U-460 was sunk on 4 October 1943 when she was caught by enemy aircraft on the surface along with three U-boats she was refuelling. U-488 was detected whilst submerged and attacked by enemy warships west of the Cape Verde Islands on 26 April 1944 and was never seen again.
The Type XIV could carry up to 400 tons of additional fuel as well as four torpedoes, substantial amounts of fresh food, and even had its own bakery so that boats being supplied could be treated to the luxury of freshly baked bread.
Length - 67.1 m
Beam - 7.3 m
Draft - 4.9 m
Displacement - 1,688 tons surfaced, 1,930 tons submerged
Speed - 14.4 knots surfaced, 6.2 knots submerged
Endurance - 9,300 nautical miles surfaced, 67 nautical miles submerged
Powerplant - 2 × 1,400 bhp diesel coupled with 2 × 375 bhp electric motors
Armament - no torpedo tubes, 2 × 3.7 cm guns, one forward and one aft of the tower, 1 × 2 cm gun on the conning tower platform.
Crew - 53
For the first half of the war, the principal armament on most U-boats was the 8.8 cm naval gun, and/or the 2 cm flak gun. As the war progressed and Allied anti-submarine measures became far more effective, U-boats tended to remain submerged wherever possible, surfacing only when safe to do so in order to run the main diesel engines to recharge their batteries. Effectively, the 8.8 cm deck gun was becoming redundant. Being little used, around April 1943 it was removed in order to save some weight and achieve a modest reduction in drag.
Unterseebootsflotille Weddigen at its moorings.
At the same time, the danger from air attack having increased so much, U-boat flak defences were significantly enhanced. Despite the fact that several incidents are known where U-boats successfully fought off Allied air attacks, few U-boat commanders would willingly remain on the surface to engage an aircraft in combat unless diving was impossible or unsafe.
The main deck armament therefore was only effectively used in the early part of the war, usually against lone ships or convoy stragglers in waters where there was relatively little chance of encountering enemy warships. The deck gun would have been used most often to 'finish off' a merchantman that had been damaged by torpedo, but had failed to sink. Expenditure of additional torpedoes would be considered wasteful when much cheaper and plentiful artillery shells could be used.