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.


Happier times

Here’s a nice mix of seamen for the ladies ashore… The photo shows sailors from the Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy fraternising on the deck of a British battleship, and it inspired me to do some digging. The back of the photo confused me at first, as a note says “England ) Ocktober [sic] 1934 Hipper (4)”. The only reference to as German naval visit to Britain in 1934 I could find was when Köningsberg and Leipzig visited Portsmouth. The Admiral Hipper wasn’t launched until 1937, so that reference was a bit puzzling. Clearly, the info in the back was wrong.

I posted the photo and a question about it in the Axis History Forum, and forum member GregSingh stepped up to the challenge. Further analysis of the photo showed that the Royal Navy cap bands said “HMS Nelson”, while the German caps said “Panzerschiff Deutschland”. GregSingh could convincingly prove that the photo must be from late January/early February 1938, when Nelson, together with sister battleship HMS Rodney, visited Lisbon in Portugal at the same time as the Deutschland. This caused a diplomatic embarrassment for Portugal, as the Portugese had to entertain both rivals with dinners and receptions. As evident, the crews got the opportunity to learn to know each other. A little over 1½ years later, the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine went to war…

The Panzerschiff Deutschland was commissioned in 1933, one of three “pocket battleships” that were built to get the most out of the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty. She was later reclassified as a heavy cruiser, and in 1940 she was renamed “Lützow”, as it was feared that it would look bad if a warship named “Deutschland” was sunk. She saw action until the last days of the war, when she was damaged and scuttled outside Swinemünde (now Świnoujście in Poland). Lützow was raised by the Soviets in 1946, and sunk in weapons experiments in 1947.

HMS Nelson was commissioned in 1927. She was the flag ship of the Home Fleet and saw action in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean, including artillery support of the landings in Normandy on D-Day. After the war, she was decommissioned in 1948, then used as a target ship before sold and scrapped in 1949. There’s a fair chance that the men in the photo survived the war, which was a happier outcome than those of the ships they served on.

Triplets, or the hull truth

This is the German Zerstörer (destroyer) Z9 “Wolfgang Zenker”. Or Z10 “Hans Lody”. Or perhaps Z11 “Bernd von Arnim”. Actually, there’s no way to really know, as all three ships wore the hull number “62” at least once in their respective careers. (“6” stands for “6th division” and “2” for the second ship.) All were of the Zerstörer 1934A class, laid down at Germaniawerft in Kiel in 1935, and launched the following year. A total of twelve were built, measuring 119 meters and capable of 36 knots. The main armament was five 12.7 cm guns, plus AA guns, torpedoes, mines and depth charges. Each was crewed by ten officers and 315 enlisted men.

“Wolfgang Zenker” and “Bernd von Arnim” were both involved in the Second naval Battle of Narvik on 13 April, 1940, where the Royal Navy dealt the Kriegsmarine a serious blow. By the end of the day, the two warships were sunk together with six other destroyers. The surviving crews were formed into a temporary unit, the Gebirgsmarine (“mountain navy”), and while it wasn’t trained for land combat, it still contributed to the German effort in the ensuing battle.

“Hans Lody” survived the war, and was taken over by the Royal Navy. She was scrapped in 1949.


Thanks to Axis History Forum member Polar bear for ID’ing the destroyer(s).

In port

Fischerischutzboot Weser, or her sister ship Elbe, in port 1933-35. The two ships were built in Wilhelmshafen in 1931, and served as support vessels for German fishing boats on the North Sea. They were based at Marinestation der Nordsee in Wilhelmshafen. The ships were armed with a 8.8 cm deck gun and machinegun. In 1939, both ships were rebuilt and had their sterns extended in order to improve their seaworthiness. They were transferred to the Kriegsmarine (Navy), and fitted with 2 cm AA guns and depth charge racks. The Weser and Elbe now served as minesweeper escorts. Weser ended up in the 7. Minesweeping Flotilla in northern Norway, and fell into British hands at the end of the war. She was used for post-war minesweeping, and was scrapped in 1954. The Elbe served in the Baltic Sea before going to the 5. Minesweeping Flotilla in northern Norway. Like her sister, she was captured by the British in 1945, but was handed over to the Soviets in December, 1945, and renamed Terek. She was scrapped in 1962.


Thanks to member Polar bear on Axis History Forum for help with identifying the ship.

No land in sight…

The view from the conning tower towards the stern of a Type VIIC U-boat, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The photographer has taken a break from watching for ships and enemy airplanes. Three or four other members of the crew are scanning the horizon. The rest of the crew, some 45 men, are down in the narrow hull, savoring any whiff of fresh sea air. A patrol could consist of weeks of boredom, and then frantic action as a ship or even a whole convoy was encountered. At the same time, enemy warships scoured the ocean, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the U-boats.

The name “Battle of the Atlantic” was coined by Winston Churchill in February 1941. It has been called the “longest, largest and most complex” naval battle in history. The campaign started immediately after the British and French declaration of war on Germany in September 1939, and lasted until the German surrender in May 1945. It involved thousands of ships in more than 100 convoy battles and perhaps 1,000 single-ship encounters, in a theatre of war covering millions of square kilometers of ocean. The situation changed constantly, with one side or the other gaining the advantage, as new weapons, tactics, counter-measures and equipment were developed by both sides. The Allies gradually gained the upper hand, though losses due to U-boats continued until war’s end.

While the loss of life was relatively small compared to the land war, it still claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. Between 1939 and 1945, 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 Allied warships were sunk, and some 72,200 Allied naval and merchant seamen lost their lives. The Germans lost 783 U-boats and approximately 30,000 sailors killed, 75 % of Germany’s 40,000-man U-boat fleet. The German plan to starve Great Britain and stop the flow of supplies to the UK and the Soviet Union failed.

In icy waters

A U-boat Type VIIA, heavily caked with ice, as seen from another vessel. It’s one of ten built of that type, which were U-27 to U-36. The submarines were built at the Deschimag AG Weser and Krupp Germaniawerft shipyards in Bremen and Kiel, respectively. These boats, designed in 1933-1934 and built in 1935-37, were the first of a new generation of German attack U-boats known as Type VII. They were popular with their crews and very agile on the surface. The Type VII also had much more striking power than the smaller Type II’s. They had 5 torpedo tubes (4 at the bow) and would carry 11 torpedoes onboard or 22 mines. They also had the effective 88mm fast-firing deck gun with 220 rounds of ammunition. The deck gun was prefferred if conditions allowed, as it saved valuable torpedoes. With a total length of 64.5 meters, its surface speed was 17 knots, and 8 knots submerged. It was crewed by 42-46 men, and was capable of reaching a depth of 220 meters. All but two of the Type VIIA’s were lost in combat or accidents during the war, while U-29 and U-30 were scuttled in Kupfermühlen Bay on 5 May, 1945.

The most successful of the Type VIIA’s was U-32, commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Hans Jenisch. 17 of the 20 ships sunk by U-32 was under his command. His first victim was the neutral Swedish merchantman M/S Lagaholm, which was sunk on 2 March 1940. After sinking 16 more ships, U-32 was sunk on 30 October 1940 in the North Atlantic north-west of Ireland, by depth charges from the British destroyers HMS Harvester and HMS Highlander. Of the 42-man crew, nine were killed and the rest, including Jenisch, went into captivity and didn’t return to Germany until 1947.

Patrolling the waterways

A small patrol craft on a Dutch channel, summer of 1940. Operated by the Kriegsmarine (Navy), rivers, channels, and other bodies of water were patrolled by small boats armed with a machinegun or two. Many of the boats were captured from the navies of the conquered countries, or civilian craft confiscated by the Germans. Very little can be found about this “brown water navy” online, but it appears like it performed police duties, looking for smugglers, members of the resistance, etc, in conjunction with the Marineküstenpolizei (navy coastal police).

The photo appears to have been taken before the policing had become more organized. The Luftwaffe Feldwebel (sergeant) onboard the boat might be a friend of the guy behind the camera, as his presence is hard to explain otherwise.

If anyone has more information on this subject, I will be happy to add it to this post.