U-Boat Commander Complains of His Treatment by USA as POW

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Jürgen Wattenberg, Kapitan zur See

During my research for my first novel, An Honorable German, I corresponded in 1980 with Jürgen Wattenberg because he had served as the Senior Navigation Officer of the German “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee. He was not an easy man to correspond with and he held to the view that Germans were more victims of World War Two than instigators. (A common view among many German war veterans and the older generation in the decades after the war).

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Panzerschiff (translated means ‘armored ship’) Admiral Graf Spee (photo courtesy German Federal Archives) in 1936

There is no evidence that Wattenberg was an an active supporter of the Nazi Party and as a member of the military he could not have been a member of the Nazi Party since neither officers nor men in the German armed forces–known as the Wehrmacht (defense forces)— were allowed to join political parties.  This seems odd, I know.

However, exceptions were made and many high ranking officers were given party membership as an “honor.” The Nazi leadership had a contentious relationship with the German Army which was by far the largest of the armed services and commanded a very high prestige in German life. Had several stronger and more honorable men been Chief of the German Army General Staff in the first year when the Nazis came to power they could easily have executed a coup d’tat and simply shot Hitler and his gang.

Unfortunately, they did not. However, deep opposition to Hitler remained in the General Staff and to their credit conspirators in the German Army (as well as the Abwehr—sort of the German CIA), made numerous attempts on Hitler’s life, the most famous being the bomb set off at Hitler’s field headquarters in Prussia on 20 July 1944.

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Caption and photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum:  17 May 1937 WARSHIPS AT THE SPITHEAD FLEET REVIEW OF 1937. (Held in honor of the coronation King George VI). The German heavy cruiser ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE anchored off Spithead for the 1937 Fleet Review. In the background are the battleship HMS RESOLUTION and the battlecruiser HMS HOOD.

As recounted in my novel, An Honorable German, the “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee was badly damaged in December of 1939 in the Battle of the Rio Plata. The Captain later blew up the ship.

As to Wattenberg, like many of Graf Spee’s officers, he had effected his escape from internment in Argentina and returned to Germany whence he was given command of U-162. About 45 years old at that time, he was a little old to hold command of a U-Boat but there was a shortage of trained and experienced sea officers in the German Navy and Wattenberg was certainly an experience sea officer (offizer zur see).  Jürgen Wattenberg,

Wattenberg was in the Caribbean, a dangerous assignment because the water is shallow and even when the u-boats were underwater they were visible. But there was “good hunting” in the Caribbean, particularly tankers proceeding to the United States and other countries from oil refineries in Trinidad. (Oil was discovered in Trinidad in 1857 with commercial production beginning in 1913 according to the report “100 Years of Petroleum in Trinidad and Tobago” issued by the government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago).

(the steel drum music originated from people playing on the empty 55 gallon barrels left after the war was over).

Although this would usually be something a U-Boat commander would have avoided unless he had no other choice, in September of 1942 off the Bahamas, Wattenberg fired torpedoes at a British destroyer which wasn’t the smartest thing to do.   U-162 was quickly sunk by three Royal Navy destroyers.  Most of the crew including Wattenberg survived.

Like all captured U-Boat officers he was first taken to an interrogation facility known as Ft. Hunt just outside of Washington DC. There, German speaking US navy officers interrogated the German officers over a series of days. I’ve read transcripts of many of the interviews and they are boring. The men were treated to the letter of the Geneva Convention of 1929 on Treatment of Prisoners of War.

From the minute he arrived at Ft. Hunt, in late September of 1942, he started to complain and complain. In 1980, when I first began to research my novel, I corresponded with him. He was a jerk. His main complaint: while being repatriated after the war ended, American GIs stole his scrapbook. Aw, too bad. The Nazis had just murdered millions including most of European Jewry and he was pissed because some American soldiers took his scrapbook? Yes, he was.

I was able to get his declassified information from the time in which he was a POW from the National Archives and one of the items in the stack was a letter of complaint in English he had sent to the Swiss. As something of a cottage industry, the Swiss government was appointed as the protecting power by the Germans, the Americans and the British and representatives of the Swiss Red Cross inspected all POW camps. Wattenberg, like many German naval officers of the time, was fluent in English. (I sent copies of all his POW records to him.)

Wattenberg wrote in a complaint to the Swiss:

…daily officers and men were subjected to the grossest acts of despotism on the part of their American guards. One sentry demanded of me on the first day that I clean up my own room and shoved at my feet a pail and mop for the purpose. When I refused, with reference to the Geneva Convention, and demanded an officer I received this reply, ‘Do you like this room?’ by which he obviously meant to imply that I would get a worse room at further complaints.

Wattenberg was within his rights under the Geneva Convention. Officers retained their authority and could not be compelled to do anything such as clean their rooms. This was for their orderly to do.

Nonetheless, this seems a harsh complaint to make that on his first day of being a POW or PW as they were known at the time. Many of the men who served as sentries in POW camps in the US were often men who were extremely young or much older and didn’t meet the physical or IQ requirements to be sent into the US Army fighting overseas.

All prisoners of war in the United States in World War Two were in the custody of the Provost Marshal of the US Army–that is the general commanding the military police and all prisons and stockades for the US Army in the US. (Military police in the US Army overseas came under the authority of the respective provost marshal in their higher echelon command. Hence they reported outside the chain of command so officers who were not in the military police could not countermand their orders).

Wattenberg was released at the end of the war and returned to Germany. He eventually became the manager of the St. Pauli Girl Brewery in Bremen.

 

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18 December 1939:  Admiral Graf Spee in the Rio Plate off Montevideo after being blown up and scuttled by Captain Hans Langsdorff who shot himself two days later.

“The Navy’s here!” Captain Philip Vian and HMS Cossack Become Famous

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Commander, later Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Philip Vian, in the first years of World War Two. He was one of the Royal Navy’s greatest fighting officers of the war. During his encounter with the Bismarck, Vian commanded his destroyer flotilla from the ship he had made famous during the Altmark incident, HMS Cossack.

In Feb 1940, the German auxiliary ship, Altmark, which had served as supply ship and oiler for the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, had made its way from the South Atlantic to a fjord in what were then the neutral waters of Norway. In addition to her other functions, Altmark served as a floating POW camp for almost three hundred British merchant officers and men whose ships had been captured by the Graf Spee.

Tribal class destroyer HMS Cossack, under the command of Philip Vian, was sent to hunt for the Altmark. While the Germans and Norwegians denied it, the British knew from radio decrypts that a large number of British merchant sailors were being held aboard. Under orders from London, Vian was given discretion to violate Norwegian neutrality and free the British prisoners.

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In a Norwegian fjord, February 1940, German auxiliary supply ship Altmark. Photo taken after she had been boarded by an armed party from HMS Cossack and almost three hundred British prisoners freed. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The biggest problem said Vian in his memoirs, Action this Day: A War Memoir, is that no one actually knew what the Altmark looked like.

Wrote Vian “The best clue we could find was in a wardroom copy of the Illustrated London News. This showed a picture of two vessels, the caption of which read: ‘German raider Altmark examining a neutral merchant ship in the Atlantic.’ Which of the two was Altmark it did not say, and we assumed it was the four-masted ship in the foreground, rather than the tanker-type further away.”
Eventually they found the correct ship. So afraid of the Germans was the Norwegian government that a Norwegian patrol boat was actually guarding the Altmark against an attempt by the Royal Navy to board the Altmark. After positioning HMS Cossack so she could not be torpedoed by the patrol boat, Vian trained his guns on her. This persuaded the Norwegian patrol boat to signal she had no choice but to yield to force majeure and exited the scene.

HMS Cossack headed into the fjord to board the Altmark and get the British prisoners. Altmark trained her searchlight onto the bridge of HMS Cossack to blind the officers then came full speed astern down the channel in the ice she had made going into the fjord intent on ramming the Royal Navy warship.

Both ships maneuvered for advantage and seizing a clear moment, Vian lay Cossack alongside the Altmark and the order, “boarders away,” rang out for one of the few times in World War Two. Lt Bradwell Turner, RN, leader of the boarding party, proceeded to leap onto the Altmark.

In his memoir Vian described the scene: “Petty Officer Atkins, who followed him, fell short, and hung by his hands until Turner heaved him on deck. The two quickly made fast a hemp hawser from Cossack’s forecastle, and the rest of the party scrambled across. Turner, his men at his back stormed onto the bridge of the Altmark and found the engine telegraphs set to full speed in an endeavor to force HMS Cossack ashore. When Turner appeared, the Captain and other officers surrendered and Turner rang the engine telegraphs to ‘stop engines’.”

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Flag-draped coffins containing German dead are brought ashore for burial after the Altmark Incident in Jøssingfjord, Norway. The six Germans died during a gun battle with the British boarding party. 16 February 1940.

But the captain of the Altmark had not told the armed guards placed on his ship by the Graf Spee to surrender. As the boarding party carefully made their way through the German ship, one of the sentries opened fire and hit one of the British sailors, who fortunately was not killed. With that, the German armed guards went over the side fled across the ice toward the shore. Outlined by the white of the snow, they foolishly began firing at the Royal Navy boarders who returned fire, killing six Germans and wounding six more.

Admiral Vian continues the story in his memoirs:
“Resistance overcome, Turner was able to turn to the business of the day. The prisoners were under locked hatches in the holds; when these had been broken open Turner hailed the men below with the words, “Any British down there?” He was greeted with a tremendous yell of: “Yes! We’re all British!”

“Come on up then,” said Turner, “the Navy’s here.”
This last became one of the most famous phrases in Great Britain during the war. HMS Cossack took aboard 13 British merchant ship masters, and 286 officers and men.

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HMS Cossack arrives at Leith, Scotland with her load of British Merchant Captains, Officers and crews, February 17 1940, after their dramatic rescue from the German Altmark.

It is worth noting here from my research into my novel, An Honorable German, that Captain Langsdorff of the Graf Spee had treated all prisoners with great courtesy and allowed them all they were due under international laws and conventions. Captain Dau of the Altmark was a vicious man, a convinced Nazi and a man who despised the British. Once the British prisoners had been transferred to him from the Graf Spee, his treatment of them was brutal and inhumane. When rescued, all of the British merchant mariners were half starved and malnourished although the Altmark had a huge amount of food in her cargo holds.

Vian had no specific orders about what to do with the German officers. He had rescued all the imprisoned British merchant mariners and since the situation seemed complicated enough as it was and HMS Cossack had violated the neutrality of Norway, he simply left the German officers aboard the Altmark.

He sums up the experience in his memoirs in classic British understatement:
I received many letters from the public after this affair: a number wrote to say that, as I had failed to shoot, or hang, the Captain of the Altmark, I ought to be shot myself.
[Source: Action this Day: A War Memoir by Philip Vian. Images courtesy of the Blitzwalkers, UK Imperial War Museums, Wikipedia, and Ahoy, Mac’s Web Log.]

Absolutely Hilarious Broadcast from the BBC in 1938 Known as “the Fleet’s Lit Up”

At the present moment, the whole fleet is lit up. When I say ‘lit up’, I mean lit up by fairy lamps.

Certainly the commentator was. This still infamous BBC broadcast is known as “the Fleet’s Lit Up.” Seems that naval commentator Thomas Woodrooffe, a Lt. Commander retired from the Royal Navy, went aboard HMS Nelson on the May 20th, 1937. Once darkness fell, his task was to describe the illumination of the several hundred warships assembled for the Coronation Fleet Review for BBC listeners. (The original broadcast does not include the music that the Youtube video plays in the background.)

This traditional event, was held to celebrate the coronation of George VI. Woodrooffe’s reference to the “New York” is to the battleship USS New York, sent to represent the United States. Ironically, the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee represented Nazi Germany.

Woodrooffe, who had once served about the RN battleship HMS Nelson, made the mistake of going aboard the ship in the afternoon and spending three or four hours with his former shipmates in the wardroom having drinks, presumably gin. Lots of gin. By the time Woodrooffe went on the air he was completely “lit up”, smashed, knee-walking drunk.

[Source: Wikipedia.]

HMS Hunter, Sunk During First Battle of Narvik 10 April 1940, Found in One Thousand Feet of Water – Part 18

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Wreck of German Destroyer Anton Schmitt in Narvik Harbor. Seen from the starboard bridge wing towards the bridge.

These new German destroyers which the Third Reich began building in the mid-1930s never fulfilled their promise. One of their major problems plain and simple: bad design. This was confirmed to me in an interview conducted on 22 January 2013 with Timothy Mulligan, PhD, world authority on the Kriegsmarine and U-Bootwaffe.

Neither Sharks Nor Wolves: The Men of Nazi Germany’s U-Boat Arm, 1939-1945 is a five star must read for anyone with an interest in the German U-Bootwaffe. There are a lot of amateur historians out there who have written a lot of nonsense on this subject. You will be enlightened and surprised by this book by professional historian and government archivist Tim Mulligan. The book is meticulously researched with every fact coming from the official records of the German U-Bootwaffe and personal surveys of surviving U-Boat officers undertaken by Mulligan.

Lone Wolf: The Life and Death of U-Boat Ace Werner Henke has just been re-issued in paperback by the US Naval Institute Press, which has the odd habit of constantly letting its books go out of print. This is also a five star must read, both for the absolute meticulous nature of the research and for the fascinating figure of Werner Henke, the only German U-Boot Kommandant killed on American soil.

I had the true pleasure on Tuesday January 22nd of meeting and interviewing one of the two world authorities on the Kriegsmarine/U-Bootwaffe, Timothy P. Mulligan, PhD (the other being Jak P. Mallman-Showell). As a historian, Dr. Mulligan spent his career as an archivist with the US National Archives where he specialized in captured German naval records, German military records, as well as World War Two era US military and naval records. As a fluent German speaker, Dr. Mulligan read a huge volume of these records, including original copies of German war diaries.

Dr. Mulligan confirmed that the German destroyers were badly designed in a number of ways, one of the most egregious flaws being the destroyers were terrible “sea boats.” They took green water over their bows even in moderate weather which would cover the decks and seep below. And when I say ‘cover the decks’ I mean cover the open decks with water as far back as the stern, where men working on the depth charge racks could be up to their waists in swirling water from time to time. (A problem on the Graf Spee and her sister ships as well.) The Kriegsmarine had hoped to use these destroyers in the Atlantic but their inability to proceed in heavy weather made this impossible. (This is especially relevant in the Scharnhorst disaster when her destroyer screen could not steam at even moderate speed in the heavy seas and Scharnhorst just left them behind.)

Senior Kriegsmarine officers were so concerned about this flaw they had the destroyers dry-docked and their bows rebuilt to a new design they called the “Atlantic bow.” This did little to solve the problem according to Dr. Mulligan.

[Image courtesy of Z 22 Anton Schmitt.]