That sinking feeling

A merchant ship, with a GRT of perhaps about 5000 tons, lists over as it is sinking. In a minute it will be gone. It could be Allied or from a neutral country. It isn’t apparent if the photo is taken from a Kriegsmarine surface ship or a U-boat. The normal procedure was to give the crew a chance to abandon ship, and then sink it with guns. U-boats carried a limited number of torpedoes, and used the 8.8 cm deck gun whenever possible in order to save the torpedoes for attacks while submerged.

More than 3,000 merchant and military vessels were sunk by the German navy during World War 2, the majority by submarines. The top ten U-boat commanders sank some 320 ships, and, surprisingly, nine of them survived the war. The war took a heavy toll on the U-boat fleet, 28,000 of 40,000 men not returning, ending up in a watery grave instead.

When the British documentary series “The World at War” aired in Sweden in the mid-1970s, I remember that my dad reacted negatively when we watched the part about German submarine warfare. He was a sailor for a few years in the early 1950s, and heard stories from older crewmates who had experienced the U-boat menace during the war. I, on the other hand, found it intersting, and got the Swedish translation of “U-Boat: The Secret Menace” by David Mason (from the Ballantine’s series of books on WW2).

Sweden was cut off from the rest of the world during WW2, the only sea route to the North Sea and the Atlantic patrolled by both the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine, minefields making any excursions outside the safe sea lanes dangerous. Sweden, which was neutral, needed to export goods in order to pay for the necessities needed for building the military forces, as well as the needs of the population. Treading a narrow path between the Allies and the Axis, playing them off each other, Sweden managed to import fuel and goods, even if it was just a fraction of the pre-war imports. Despite all possible precautions, ten of the 79 merchant ships involved were sunk, 166 people losing their lives. German submarines and sea mines were the main culprits. Small wonder my dad hated them.


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