An extraordinarily small number of U-Boat captains sank one third of the Allied ships lost to German U-Boats. This small number of men caused absolute havoc and almost won the war for Germany by strangling the allies shipping lanes.
Who were these men? What would their profile be in “People Magazine” — a fitting comparison since these men were lionized in the German press, everyone knew who they were, and youngsters collected photographs of them. What made them so dangerous? What became of them? (The ones who lived eventually became objects of great curiosity. Kretschmer alone received over three hundred pieces of mail a week from the late 1970s onward).
In the following weeks, I’ll delve into the lives and legend of some of the more famous of the U-Boat aces.
Kretschmer: the Ace of Aces — he sank forty merchant ships, three Royal Navy auxiliary escort ships, a Royal Navy destroyer, damaged a half dozen or more ships, and took one ship as a prize of war. No one ever came close to his record of ships and tonnage sunk. And he did this in less than a year and a half. His guiding principle: ‘one torpedo, one ship.’
He rarely spoke — thus his nickname ‘Silent Otto’ and he did not tolerate weakness in any man. He was a distant and intimidating figure to his crew — while being an inspiring leader at the same time.
Kretschmer became famous both throughout the Reich and abroad for his exploits. He and the others were often written about in the New York Times and other papers during the war. He was the only “ace” who was ever captured.
U-99, Kretschmer’s boat, was blown to the surface on 17 March 1941 by HMS Walker, a destroyer under the command of Donald Macintyre, one of the ace U-Boat killers in the RN. (Just as there were ace U-Boat captains, they were ace U-Boat killers). A dripping wet Kretschmer was brought to the bridge of the destroyer so Macintyre could speak to him.
After they spoke (Kretschmer, like most German naval officers, spoke perfect English), Macintyre noticed Kretschmer’s binoculars — which were much better than his own – so he pinched them. Years later, after Kretschmer had become an Admiral in the West German Navy, he met up with Macintyre again and they became friends. Macintyre returned the binoculars.
During the four days of steaming HMS Walker required to make port, Kretschmer was given the captain’s day cabin. As a courtesy, the officers of HMS Walker invited Kretschmer to be a guest of the wardroom and take his meals with them. As a professional German Navy officer, Kretschmer had great social polish. (One can imagine the wardroom stewards serving him without batting an eye. “Proper gent, he is, for a bleedin’ German.”)
On the morning after his capture, while Kretschmer sat quietly eating his breakfast, three of the ship’s officers sat down to play bridge. They needed a fourth. One of the officers turned and inquired of Kretschmer if he played bridge. “Yes”, Kretschmer said, he did. Whereupon he was invited to the game and spent the next four days playing bridge with various of the ship’s officers. After being held in England for some months, he was sent to a POW Camp in Canada. There he organized an intelligence gathering operation which combed the press for information which was summarized and broadcast to Germany.
Kretschmer was thought so valuable to the U-Bootwaffe, that an elaborate plan was put together to rescue him from Canada (Operation Kiebitz). A U-Boat actually went up the St. Lawrence river in dead winter, sailing under the ice to a rendezvous with him but this rendezvous failed because Kretschmer was unable to escape from the camp.
Here is a propaganda video made to honor Kretschmer and his exploits.