FROM Iron Coffins by Herbert A Werner
There are no roses on a sailor’s grave,
No lilies on an ocean wave.
The only tribute is the seagulls’ sweeps,
And the teardrops that a sweetheart weeps.
An Appreciation by an American Contemporary
IT IS UNUSUAL fore someone to have the opportunity, as I have, to write an introduction to a book by a member of a foreign and once enemy service whose personal history is so nearly a carbon copy of his own. Both of us were members of our naval academy classes of 1939; both of us finished submarine training and reported to our first submarines in 1941. Both of us served on board submarines throughout World War II, beginning in subordinate capacities and finally concluding the war in command of our own boats. Each of us has heard depth charges detonate alongside our boats, but not so successfully as others aimed at some of our good friends; and it is evident that depth charges sound surprisingly similar whether they be British, American, or Japanese. We have both participated in attacks on warships and merchantmen, and we have each seen great ships sink, sometimes gracefully and sometimes ignominiously, after the bottom-ripping burst of our warheads. The German submariners employed what I now recognize as nearly identical tactics to our own and both Werner and I have hurled futile imprecations upon our enemy for only doing his duty as well as he was able. So Herbert Werner and I have a close bond in common, even though I had never heard of him until I read his story. But granting all this, there are two traps to be avoided in any objective evaluation. The first is the trap of shared professionalism which may obscure important differences stemming from contrasting environment and objectives. The second is that the inevitable intrusion of feelings and attitudes from the war could, if unrecognized, influence the objective attitude we should seek today. A fine line of demarcation ensues, for we can admire the men who fought for Germany even as we must condemn Hitler and his Nazis. It is important for the proper appreciation of this book that this divergence of feelings be kept in mind and maintained in its proper place on both counts.
In his own preface, Werner tells why he felt impelled to write Iron Coffins. It has been an obligation of long standing, he says, and he wants to honor the thousands of his comrades who lie forever entombed in their steel graves at the bottom of the sea. The political passions of the war have no place in either his narrative or his professed objective; he does not indulge in invective against his enemies, even thought it is clear that he, like all of us, had his moments of vituperation. What he does say, however, merely by the telling of it, carries deep dramatic force, and the brutalization of all life touched by the war stands out in his book. It may sound strange, but ponder on this: the periods at sea—cramped in mold-ridden, diesel-hammering, oxygen-lacking, urine-reeking, excrement-laden, food-rotting, salt encrusted steel cockleshells, firing torpedoes in exultation, searching for convoys in frustration or receiving depth charges in stoic fear—these periods were the wholly admirable ones, regardless of who received the torpedoes or the depth charges, our side or theirs.
On the other hand, the times ashore were the times of degradation, and Werner does not spare us these. The picture of Germany in the spasm of defeat, infected with the moral destruction produced by war, appears ever more starkly as the ruin wrought by Hitler and his crew is played out to an inescapable and bitter end. Indeed, not the least contribution that Werner makes to the history of the second world-wide war is the personal picture of what war—total war—must inevitably mean to the decent men and women caught up in it.
None of this was totally unknown to the Allied side, even though we won the war and they lost it; but it was heightened in Germany. Through Werner we see lovely girls giving freely because men might soon die; we see civilians cowering in bunkers, afraid and hesitant to extend the hand of help to persons in worse condition than they; we see the profiteers—whatever the commodity, be it sex or food—and the hierarchy of superior staff echelons, protected from battles, having the best food and the prettiest girls, and giving desperate, unrealistic orders to an ever-dwindling cadre of fighting men.
But the war on the home front is not wnat this book is about. Its theme is a life of incredible hardships, terrifying warfare, absolutely fantastic determination, and unceasing dedication on the part of the German submariners. At the end of the book one can only survey their losses —fully ninety percent of those actively at sea (as compared to the usual count which included those in shore billets)—and one must lift one’s hat in tribute. One thing stands out clearly; toward the close of the war, when only two out of ten submarines leaving port were expected to return, they still went out in accordance with orders, and with high morale, knowing that most of them would not return.
It is the sad, terribly ironic truth, movingly faced by Werner, that toward the end most of them knew that their cause was lost. The heroism of the warrior, who is generally naïve, young, honorable and incorruptible, can never make up for a bad cause. Yet, in reviewing the post-war decades, it is manifest that this indomitability has been one of the assets upon which Germany has rebuilt her national honor.
Allied records for the submarine war in the Atlantic state that the turning point came about March 1943; the full weight of the escort aircraft carrier, improved radar, and new weapons were then thrown against the U-boats. Nowhere have I read a more dramatic account of how this all-out effort must have seemed to the men who were on the receiving end of it than in Werner’s story. The story is told without heroics. It can be fully appreciated only by another submariner of the war, but anyone can get the message. Take this passage: “Despite the dye marking our submergence, the Captain ordered an attack on the convoy before the escort could attack us. Chirping Asdic pings, bellowing detonations (of depth charges) and the grinding roar of a hundred engines provided grim background music for our assault.”
Tenacity was the strong point of these men, perhaps tenacity beyond logic or reasonable return for the risks taken—not that they individually had much choice in the matter—and the book ends, as it had to, on a note of demoralization and despair. But we have seen Werner grow into a tough-minded, cool, confident skipper. His was the last submarine to leave France during the retreat after the Allied invasion of 1944. Half a dozen predecessors died in the attempt, but he dared the gauntlet and brought his boat out safely with a load of people and equipment saved for a Germany which was too far gone to know or care. With his world cracking all around him, he was no longer the boy who went to sea five years before. He was now a man, although only twenty-five years old, able to see and record the breakdown all about him, note and yet stay above the danse macabre; recognize what had happened when the only reality left to him and his crew at the end was the reality of the leaky, obsolescent, damaged submarine to which they returned in relief from a shore leave too tragic to bear.
“Madness!” cries Werner from every page of the latter part of this book where he begins to question his country’s policies. He still records his amorous affairs between patrols, but it is worthy of remark that as the danse macabre became worse, the amours became less important to him. It was not that there was greater reticence, nor that the demands of a young fighting man were any the less compelling. He was simply drained far more than he is able to tell, drained soul and body, nearing the limit of his life-force. There was no more Germany as he had known it—it had vanished long before, something he had begun to understand when his father was imprisoned for befriending a Jewish girl. There was no more German Navy; that part of it, the sea-going part, which had held value for him was all destroyed. Only a gargoyle remained, a façade around headquarters by day, drinking and womanizing at night.
“Madness!” cries Werner, and it was madness. But there were heroes, too, who deserve admiration even though their cause was wrong and, therefore, their sacrifice was worthless. No one can fault the warrior who believes in his country so strongly that he dies for it.
This ought to permit these brave spirits to lie in peace, secure in the world’s regard for them and their memory. Madness though it was, these were the flower of young German manhood, unfortunately—but not to thek own discredit—early imbued with a warped ideal of how to achieve German destiny. They ought not to bear too harsh criticism, considering that the Treaty of Versailles is now hardly considered an ideal document. Furthermore, they were as a group unsullied by the cancer which afflicted the leading body politic. Because thek leaders told them so, they believed that if they fought desperately, they might save their country from the disaster plainly grinding in from every side. They expected death, and most of them found it; but they fought hard all the same, and they carpeted the ocean floor with thek bodies.
Edward L. Beach
Captain, U. S. Navy (Ret.)
U. S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island
15 February, 1969
THIS BOOK, which tells of my personal experiences in the German U-boat Force in World War II, fulfills an obligation of long standing. Since the end of that destructive war, the role of the U-boat Force has at times been distorted and underestimated, even by military historians who should have known better. Because I was one of the few U-boat commanders who fought through most of the war and who managed to survive, I felt it was my duty to my fallen comrades to set the record straight. Very much to the point, duty was the first and last word in the lexicon of the U-boat men; and, remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, we did our duty with a correct gallantry unsurpassed in any branch of service on either side. We were soldiers and patriots, no more and no less, and in our dedication to our lost cause we died in appalling numbers. But the great tragedy of the U-boat Force was not merely that so many good men perished; it was also that so many of our lives were squandered on inadequate equipment and by the unconscionable policies of U-boat Headquarters.
In retrospect, the crucial importance of the U-boat Force is unmistakably clear. Whether or not Germany could have won the war, she was certain to lose it if the gigantic production of American factories reached England in sufficient quantity. On this proposition the lines were drawn for the epic “Battle of the Atlantic,” in which the U-boats served as the vanguards of Germany’s defense. No less an authority than Winston Churchill declared, “The battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome, and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with apprehension.” It is significant that Churchill, who knew all too well the ravages of the Luftwaffe and of Germany’s V-l and V-2 rockets, also wrote: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” As viewed from the other side, Germany’s fortunes in the war closely paralleled the rise and fall of the U-boat Force. The connection grew ever more obvious to me each time I came ashore after a long patrol.
The outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 surprised the German Navy; the U-boat Force in particular was caught fully unprepared. This state of affairs was dictated by a treaty, entered into between Germany and Great Britain in 1935, which limited German naval strength to 35 per cent of Britain’s in order to maintain the tenuous balance of power that existed at the time. Germany in 1939 had just 57 commissioned U-boats, of which 52 were of small displacement and capable of only short coastal missions. The other five U-boats were larger craft designed for long-range patrols lasting eight weeks. Out of the total of 57, however, 18 U-boats were set aside for the training of new crews. Thus only 39 operational U-boats were available to take on the mighty British Navy, the huge British merchant fleet, the navies and merchant fleets of England’s Allies, and an inexhaustible number of neutral ships that sailed under contract to the Allies.
Nonetheless, the first year of the U-boat war was extremely rewarding for Germany. Though the Force lost 28 boats, it destroyed one British aircraft carrier, one battleship, five cruisers, three destroyers, two submarines and 438 merchant vessels totaling 2.3 million gross-weight tons. Moreover, in the summer of 1940, after the surrender of France, our U-boats were gradually relocated southward to French ports on the Bay of Biscay. This move shortened our routes to and from the Atlantic and signaled a new phase of the war at sea—the great battles of the convoys.
Simultaneously Admiral Karl Doenitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U-boat Force as of 1935, launched an ambitious program to construct the largest fleet of submersibles that the world had even seen. The most advanced U-boat of that time, Type VII, became the standard Atlantic U-boat; it had a displacement of 770 tons and a cruising range of 9,000 nautical miles. In the course of the war, 694 boats of this type were built and up-dated periodically with new improvements; they accounted for some 90 per cent of Allied shipping losses. In addition, more than 200 larger U-boats were constructed to lay mines, to transport critical war materials and, most important, to resupply the combat U-boats at sea with fuel oil, torpedoes, and provisions.
Great Britain soon felt the sting of this stepped-up building program. Unrestricted U-boat warfare against the North Atlantic convoy routes resulted in the destruction of 310,000 tons of shipping in one four-week period in the fall of 1940. Allied losses rose to 142 vessels totaling 815,000 tons in a two-month period in the spring of 1941, and a year and a half of U-boat warfare cost the Allies more than 700 ships totaling 3.4 million tons. Churchill wrote of England’s darkest hour: “The pressure grew increasingly, and our shipping losses were fearfully above our construction. . . . Meanwhile the new ‘wolf-pack’ tactics . . . were rigorously applied by the redoubtable Prien and other tip-top U-boat commanders.”
In May 1941, when I saw the first of my U-boat battles, our attacks on the shipping lanes were one-sided triumphs; Allied countermeasures—the use of radar, aircraft surveillance and new-type destroyers and convoy escorts— were still in their infancy and posed no serious threat to our raiders. This situation was not changed by the addition of 50 U.S. destroyers to the British fleet as part of the Anglo-American lend-lease agreement. By the end of 1941, our confident assumption of total victory seemed to lie within easy reach: Allied losses that year alone amounted to 750 merchant vessels totaling almost 3 million tons.
Shortly after the United States entered the war, the U-boats extended their activities to the American east coast and raided shipping there with devastating results. During the first six months of hostilities against the United States, our boats sank 495 vessels totaling 2.5 million tons. Besides patrolling our North Atlantic and Caribbean hunting grounds, U-boats prowled the South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, and a few even showed up in the Pacific. In 1942, the most successful year in U-boat history, more than 1,200 Allied ships—nearly 7 million tons—were sent to the bottom.
But March of 1943, which brought the U-boat war to the peak of success, also heralded disaster. That month the U-boat Force sank over 750,000 tons of Allied shipping—and suffered a sharp and puzzling increase in losses. This unexpected turn of events was the opening gun of a carefully prepared Allied counteroffensive. The Allies had developed many new weapons, including fast escort vessels, small aircraft carriers, and a much-improved radar device. They had produced and assembled great numbers of escorts, carrier-based attack aircraft, and long-range land-based bombers. Bringing all of these elements into conjunction in April, the Allies struck back with such overwhelming numerical and technical superiority that fully 40 per cent of our U-boat force was destroyed within a few weeks. The Allied counteroffensive permanently reversed the tide of battle. Almost overnight, the hunters had become the hunted, and through the rest of the war our boats were slaughtered at a fearful rate.
The U-boat Force tried desperately to counter the counteroffensive, but to no avail. In 1943, when I was Executive Officer of U-230, we were losing boats faster than we could replace them. By the summer of 1943, our toll of Allied shipping had fallen to a monthly average of 150,000 tons—this at a tune when the Allies’ shipbuilding capacity reached 1 million tons per month.
The plain fact of the matter was that the U-boat had become obsolete. Too long she had remained essentially a surface vessel that submerged only occasionally to remain unseen while launching an attack or escaping a pursuer. Headquarters did develop the Schnorkel, a device that permitted the U-boat to gape for air and recharge her batteries while staying submerged throughout her patrol. But the Schnorkel did not come into general use until March 1944, 10 fatal months after the Allied counteroffensive; and five more months passed before the life-preserving device was installed in all older U-boats. It was not until August 1944, when I sailed on my fifth U-boat, the second under my command, that a Schnorkel relieved me of the constant life-or-death game of surfacing for air, only to crash-dive minutes later before sophisticated attacks by Allied airplanes and destroyers. Moreover, the Schnorkel alone was far from an adequate answer to the Allied aircraft and hunter-killer groups. The U-boat was still dangerously slow and highly vulnerable in general, and deaf and defenseless in particular while using the Schnorkel.
The only real solution was a radically new U-boat. Several such types had been on German drawing boards for years: they were designed to sail submerged for hours at higher speeds than a destroyer, to shoot from a safe depth, and to carry twice as many torpedoes as the conventional U-boat. These underwater wonders were constantly promised to the Force. But they were not put into production until the collapse of the U-boat war, and very few of them were commissioned in time to see action.
So the U-boat Force fought with what it had and, in the last year of the war, it accomplished little but self-destruction. One by one, our crews sailed out obediently, even optimistically, on ludicrous missions that ended in death. The few veteran commanders still in action were decimated despite their experience in the arts of survival. New captains, even with veteran crews, stood virtually no chance of returning from their first patrols.
When hostilities finally ceased in May 1945, the ocean floor was littered with the wreckage of the U-boat war. Our boats had destroyed 2,882 merchant vessels totaling 14.4 million grossweight tons; in addition, U-boats had sunk 175 Allied warships and damaged 264 merchant ships totaling 1.9 million tons. In return, we had paid an incredible price. Our total of 1,150 commissioned U-boats met the following fate: 779 were sunk, two were captured, and the rest were either scuttled or surrendered as ordered at war’s end. Out of a total enlistment of 39,000 men, the U-boat Force lost 28,000 men killed and 5,000 taken prisoner. This represents 85 per cent casualties.
Yet even these figures do not reveal the full extent of the U-boat disaster. Since only 842 U-boats saw battle duty, and since 781 of these were lost, 93 per cent of the operational U-boat Force was wiped out. In concrete terms, the toll seems even more shocking. Our tremendous U-boat Force on the Atlantic Front was reduced to a mere 68 operational boats by the time that the Allies invaded France in June 1944, and only three of these boats were still afloat at war’s end. One of the three survivors was U-953, which I commanded as her last captain.
My account of the U-boat struggle was written with the aid of notes I took during the war, along with photographs and letters that I managed to save from the holocaust on the Continent and the disaster at sea. Though I relied heavily on memory, my recollections are still uncomfortably vivid and will remain so, I am afraid, until their pressure is lifted by my demise. In addition, I insured the proper sequence of events by referring to a brochure published by Heidenheimer Druckerei und Verlag GMBH, which lists the fate of every U-boat. All boats are referred to here by the actual U-number. The dates and hours of events are very close to correct and sometimes accurate to the minute. The radio messages, including signals sent by Headquarters as well as by U-boats, have been reconstructed with care. The three lengthy transmissions from Admiral Doenitz are exact translations.
No less authentic are certain startling episodes in the book—episodes which are little known or which have been long suppressed. More than a few American naval officers can attest to the fact that U.S. warships, including the destroyers Greer, Reuben James, and Kearney, made attacks on U-boats as early as the summer of 1941, thus waging an undeclared war on Germany. I have yet to see any published reference to a shocking order issued by U-boat Headquarters just before the Allied invasion of Normandy. It ordered the commanders of 15 U-boats to attack the vast invasion fleet and, after their torpedoes were spent, to destroy a ship by ramming—i.e., by committing suicide.
Every individual mentioned in the book was a real person. The two commanders under whom I was privileged to serve are called by their actual names. So are other U-boat captains and distinguished flotilla officers, many of whom I knew as friends. So, too, are my closest comrades in the battles at sea and the escapades in port; sadly, almost all of them are dead. To protect the living, I have changed a few names; it would have been less than gentlemanly to reveal women I knew who have long since become the faithful wives of other men. But this book belongs to my dead comrades, stricken down wholesale in the prime of youth. I hope it pays them the honor they deserve. If I have succeeded in handing down to the reader the ancient lesson that each generation seems to forget—that war is evil, that it murders men—then I consider this my most constructive deed.
Herbert A. Werner