U-Boat Aces: Wolfgang Lüth

Ardent Nazi and Anti-Semite: U-Boat Kommandant Wolfgang Lüth

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Lüth – the Nazi fanatic. He was known for his constant interference in the lives of his men and authored a tract on how to command the crew of a U-Boat according to the principles of National Socialism titled, “Problems of Leadership.” In what would be laughable if it weren’t so serious, Lüth cautioned readers of his book against listening to jazz, a form of music condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate Negro Jungle Music.” Wrote Lüth, “a German must not like jazz. It has nothing to do with whether or not he really likes it. He simply must not like it, just as a German man must not like a Jewess.”

Grand Admiral Dönitz ordered a copy be given to every U-Boat Kommandant. Lüth felt all men should be married and constantly encouraged his crewmen to get married and lectured them against patronizing brothels and getting drunk while on leave. They ignored these lectures. He was something of a prude and would not allow any “naughty” photographs of beautiful girls in the crew quarters.

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He served on two U-Boats (U-27 and U-38) before being promoted to command his own U-Boat. Over the course of the war, he commanded five separate U-Boats (U-9, U-13, U-43, U-138, and U-181) the last of which, on U-181, was the second longest war patrol of any U-Boat in World War Two. In September of 1944, at age thirty, he was promoted to the rank Kapitan zur See, becoming the youngest man in the Kriegsmarine to hold that rank which is equivalent to full Captain or “four stripper” in the Royal Navy or US Navy.

Curiously, he almost ruined his career before his greatest achievements came to him. In October of 1940, Lüth was appointed Kommandant of U-43, a large type IXA boat. After one war patrol, he returned to Lorient and the boat underwent required maintenance. On 21 February 1941, a few hours before the boat was to leave on its second war patrol, U-43 sank at its moorings due to a series of small mishaps which went unnoticed by the six man harbor watch. Lüth was not aboard at the time but a captain is responsible for his ship and he was lucky Dönitz did not relieve him of command especially because Dönitz happened to be on an inspection tour of Lorient at the time.

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Eventually, Lüth sank forty-six merchant ships making him the second most successful U-Boat Kommandant after Kretschmer. In recognition of the Allied ships he was sinking, Lüth was successively decorated with the various levels of the Knight’s Cross, ultimately receiving the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. He was the first of only two U-Boat Kommandants to receive this honor and one of only twenty-seven men to receive the award during the entire war. That he received this distinction while Kretschmer did not is odd. Perhaps it was Lüth’s constant promotion of National Socialism which was being rewarded as well. Kretschmer followed the old German Navy tradition of staying out of politics and never discussed National Socialism or any other political doctrine with his crew. In fact, Kretschmer rarely spoke at all about anything. “Silent Otto” was his nickname.

Lüth came ashore in January of 1944 after fifteen war patrols, an astonishing number not only to make but to survive, and commanded the 22nd U-Boat Training Flotilla in Gdynia (Gotenhafen to the Germans). He ended the war as Kommandant of the Marineschule Mürwik – the German Naval Academy in Flensburg/Murwik. This was the last official seat of the government of the Third Reich. In his political testament, dictated before he committed suicide on 30 April 1945, Hitler appointed Dönitz as Reichspräsident and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The Naval Academy was the logical place to house the government since that’s where Dönitz had fled, it hadn’t been blown to bits, and there was room in the gymnasium for the government to set up operations.

On 8 May 1945, the German High Command signed an instrument of unconditional surrender. That document stated:

“The German High Command will at once issue orders to all German military, naval, and air authorities and to all forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May and to remain in the positions occupied at that time. No ship, vessel, or aircraft is to be scuttled, or any damage done to their hull, machinery, or equipment.”
(Central European Time is Greenwich Mean Time plus one hour). Dönitz issued such orders in radio broadcasts and other media to all German military units. Although Germany had surrendered, the Dönitz government continued on at the Marineschule for another twelve days.

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Lüth was charged with securing the grounds of the Marineschule because of the unsettled conditions – to put it mildly – in the vicinity with released POWs, slave workers, refugees from the Soviets, and desperate humanity of all kinds milling about. With the permission of the British Army, which had just moved into the area on Eisenhower’s orders to keep it out of the hands of the Soviets, the German sentries were armed. Everyone was tense, everything was uncertain, no one had slept more than a few hours a day for weeks. Lüth and the officers responsible to him in the guard unit took their duties very seriously.

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While inspecting the sentries on the night of 13/14 May 1945, Lüth was challenged by a sentry. No response. The sentry, who was only supposed to challenge once then shoot according to Lüth’s written orders, nonetheless challenged twice more. Receiving no response either the second or the third time, the sentry fired into the darkness and killed Lüth with a shot to the head.

A Board of Inquiry met almost immediately and quickly determined it was an accident. The idea, postulated by some, that Lüth committed suicide by allowing the sentry to shoot him is dismissed by his biographer, Jordan Vause, in his outstanding work: U-Boat Ace: The Story of Wolfgang Lüth. I give this biography five stars and recommend it without reservation.

In what I personally find sickening and inexplicable, Kapitan zur See Wolfgang Lüth was then given a full state funeral, conducted by Dönitz in his uniform of Grand Admiral, with an honor guard of six U-Boat commanders – five days after the Germans surrendered to the Allies. This last state funeral of the Third Reich was carried out with the permission of the local British commander. With swastikas abounding, the last tawdry spectacle of this criminal régime was conducted. On 23 May 1945, Dönitz and all members of his government, including the reptilian Albert Speer, were arrested by the British and the Dönitz government dissolved.

To look at the photographs of Lüth’s funeral is to wonder if the local British commander knew about the death camps and the other heinous crimes committed by the Nazis. By that point in time, the Holocaust had been front page news for days. Why did the British give their permission? Why? I find the entire charade despicable.

Lüth was the most vocally pro-Nazi of any of the famous U-Boat aces. This put him at odds with the custom of the officer corps of the German Navy. Officers had traditionally stayed out of politics and were not allowed to vote or belong to any political party including the Nazi Party. And while many sympathized with Hitler’s aims, many did not.

There is justice in the accidental death of Wolfgang Lüth. As the scripture reminds us, “for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

In July 1945, the German state was dissolved by an inter-Allied declaration. It would not be until 15 March 1991 that the four victorious Allied powers: Russia, France, Great Britain, and the United States would renounce all rights they had in Germany by virtue of the original armistice and of edicts issued by the Allied Control Commission after victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two. Only then, was the German state finally able to be fully sovereign on their own territory.

Luth funeral

 Lüth’s funeral.

Nemesis: Admiral Sir Max Horton and the Defeat of the U-Bootwaffe

Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz lost the most critical battle of World War Two: the Battle of the Atlantic. As an admiral he was second-rate at best, incompetent at worst. As a strategist and a tactician he was uninformed and tunnel minded. Morally, he was a weak man of the lowest character. Why? As one of the top leaders of Nazi Germany, he was well aware of the foul deeds being committed by the Third Reich including the cold blooded murder of European Jewry. At Nuremberg, he perjured himself almost every time he spoke.

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Admiral Sir Max Horton RN

Today Dönitz continues to be well known, even admired by some, while the man who bested him, his nemesis in the Battle of the Atlantic, is hardly known at all. That man was an English admiral, Sir Max Horton, perhaps the greatest fighting admiral produced by Great Britain in the 20th Century and one of the most important Allied commanders in the entire Second World War.

He wasn’t the nicest man in the world, Sir Max. Ruthless, indifferent to anyone’s feelings, “as hard as nails and close as a clam.” A man so self absorbed he barely knew the names of his staff officers. A know it all. A driver. Aloof. Vain. Blunt to the point of rudeness. “…a staff officer reported that a certain cruiser had been lost, and that his son was on board. Horton instinctively replied, ‘Yes, but what happened to the ship?” If he had any friends, inside of the Royal Navy or out, no one knew who they were. Yet as a fighting admiral he was one of the best — bold and daring, inspiring those who served under him with his confidence, his knowledge, and his unshakeable belief in victory.

In his outstanding memoir, Escort, Commander D.A. Rayner, RNVR, a very successful escort captain in Western Approaches Command and one of Horton’s favorites, writes:

…Max Horton’s own staff regarded him as something less than God but more than Man. If they had not done so they would have found themselves relieved. He had more personal charm than any man I ever met, but he could be unbelievably cruel to those who fell by the wayside.

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Western Approaches Plaque in Liverpool

From 17 November 1942 to 15 August 1945, Admiral Sir Max Horton was known by the innocent sounding acronym: CINCWA (sinkwa), Commander in Chief, Western Approaches — the largest operational command in the entire Royal Navy — over 121,000 men and women with over 300 escort ships. So why had Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself put Sir Max at the head of the most important command in the Royal Navy? Because CINCWA commanded all British forces contesting German U-Boats for control of the North Atlantic — the most critical battle of the war.

And the British were losing. Ship after ship being sunk by U-Boats — an average of four merchant ships each and every day by the winter of 1942/1943. By March, the United Kingdom had only a three week supply of food. Unless they could receive the goods being sent over the seas from America, Great Britain would be forced to surrender.

In a gray month, in a gray time, Sir Max came to Derby House in Liverpool, to a top secret command bunker built several years before on Churchill’s orders. It is now a museum. In the beginning, few liked the man — and that was the high point of his popularity. Not that Max cared. Desperate times call for ruthless men. You had served with him in the past? Perhaps as a young officer in the Great War? That mattered for nothing. If you weren’t up to snuff, Sir Max sent you packing. He rid Western Approaches Command of “incompetents – of whom there were plenty…”said one of his best seagoing escort captains, Commander Peter Gretton.

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Wrens in Training

Just a few days after he walked through the guarded steel door of the bunker, everyone throughout the command began to feel the dragon’s breath. Sir Max inspected, asked questions. Lots of questions. If you didn’t know the answer, you were out. Dockyard superintendents slow getting work done; supply officers who could not get organized; escort captains not aggressive enough; training officers who didn’t know enough? They were dismissed. All of them. Immediately. On the spot. This did not happen gradually. It happened in the first few months and kept on happening if anyone slacked off.

No matter what one’s assignment, Sir Max impressed on each and every man and woman in his command that they had but one goal: bring the convoys safely through the wolf-packs in the North Atlantic by sinking U-Boats. Sir Max focused everyone on this goal. Nothing else mattered. And one of the best ways to sink U-Boats was by ceaselessly training the men and the women who comprised Western Approaches Command. No matter what task you performed, you could perform it better. Escort captains went to a special school. Anti-aircraft gunners trained in realistic simulation booths created by the British motion picture industry. Individuals were sent to one course after another. Entire escort groups were pulled out of the battle and trained and trained till they could not only execute every command, but correctly anticipate every command. Training, training, and more training. Realistic training. Everyone one cursed him for it.

Officers and ratings began to call him “Der Fuhrer.” And they came up with a slogan, parroted by all, “Max knows everything. Max knows everything.” And he did — or most of it anyway. He was the most competent, most informed, most knowledgeable, and most experienced officer in the Royal Navy. He knew it and so did everyone else.

If you commanded an escort ship, don’t tell Sir Max that a U-Boat got away from you because of some surprise maneuver. Sir Max knew everything about submarines — more than anyone in the Royal Navy and more than most in the German Navy. Max had begun his career in the Royal Navy in submarines, at a time when they were just curiosities. In 1914, the beginning of World War One, a young Max Horton had sunk the first capital ship ever sent to the bottom by a submarine.

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Admiral Sir Max Horton (left) while serving in the Baltic

Don’t tell Sir Max that when your engine broke down in the North Atlantic it took eight hours to fix. Max knew how long it took to repair a ship’s engine. Unlike any other deck officer in the Royal Navy, Max knew all about engines. Mechanical things fascinated him. He could take an engine apart himself. He inspected engine rooms on ships and gave lessons to Royal Navy engineers.

Seamanship? Don’t tell Sir Max anything about that. He had been at sea since he was thirteen, served on vessels of every sort, and commanded vessels of every size in numbers ranging from one ship to a squadron. Max was one of the few men in the Royal Navy to command the battleship squadron of the British Home Fleet — ships he routinely trained to perform the most complex maneuvers — at full speed. At night. Radar had not yet been invented.

Torpedoes? When commanding the British submarine fleet before his tenure at Western Approaches, one of his submarine captains described a torpedo attack on a German ship. The attack had failed, the man said, because the torpedo had a faulty detonator and did not explode. Wrong. Max knew everything about torpedoes. Admit that what you said was rubbish he told the captain who brought him this story and the captain admitted it was rubbish. Sir Max had the torpedo blueprints brought to him. With the young captain, he worked through them to establish why the torpedo had failed to explode. And there was a fault, but not in the detonator. Orders went to the submarine fleet the next morning instructing them on what changes to make.

Radar? Gunnery? Aircraft? Unlike most officers of his generation, Max had realized their importance long before the war. He invited 15 Group of RAF Coastal Command — responsible for patrolling Western Approaches — to share his headquarters — and they did. Wanting to learn their job, Max spent many long and boring hours flying in Coastal Command aircraft to best understand how to deploy them. Attention like this from a senior officer was unusual. Coastal Command was the red-headed step-child of the RAF — the ‘Cinderella Service’ those within called it. While a part of the Royal Air Force, they were under the tactical command of the Royal Navy. It could have been a bureaucratic nightmare. It wasn’t because men like Max Horton made it work.

For many hours of the day and night, Sir Max stared at a plotting map which took up an entire wall of the very large operations room in his bunker and the map told him with up to the minute accuracy the location of every ship, every plane, and every convoy in his vast part of the ocean. All of this was kept up to date by several dozen Wrens (women in the Royal Navy) who climbed long ladders and moved the magnetic markers to their new positions. The ladders were so tall that one Wren slipped and fell to her death.

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Operations Room at Derby House

Alongside those markers were placed the presumed location of every U-Boat, this last information clattering in unceasingly from the U-Boat tracking room in London which kept the plot of their best estimate of the location of every German U-Boat and information from the “Trade Plot” in London where a handful of retired Merchant Navy captains using index cards kept the plot with the position of every merchant ship in the world. Dönitz hadn’t anything remotely close to this type of organization. Could never even have dreamed the British and later the Americans would have this. But we did. It required immense effort, money, and a huge number of people. But it was done.

Convoy battles usually took place at night. After dinner, Sir Max would come into the plotting room and watch the action develop. Wrote one of his officers:

His words were always direct. ‘Where is…?’ ‘What is…?’ ‘Why is…?’ ‘Why the hell not?’ Then having grasped the situation, his decision would come in a flash…He seemed to have an uncanny prevision of what the enemy would do next, which came of course from his long experience in submarines.

If you were competent, if you knew your business, if you did it to your utmost, and if you would admit your mistakes and learn from them, then you could do no wrong with Sir Max. He would back you to the hilt. He brought men to the fore who had an instinctive feel for how to kill a U-Boat and they became famous for their exploits.

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Sir Peter Gretton RN

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Donald Macintyre RN

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Frederick John “Johnnie” Walker RN

There was Sir Peter Gretton, one of the best escort commanders of the war, likewise ruthless, intolerant of the smallest error, and dismissive of most officers in the Royal Navy. But Sir Max knew his man. Gretton won the Battle of Convoy ONS 5 in May 1943, inflicting such damage on the U-Bootwaffe that Dönitz was forced to recall all U-Boats from the North Atlantic. True, Gretton lost ten merchant ships out of Convoy ONS 5, but his escorts sank five U-Boats, an unacceptable loss ratio for the Germans. (ONS 5: Outward Bound North Slow. The 5th convoy using this routing.)

There was Donald Macintyre, who captured Otto Kretschmer, and the greatest of all — Captain Frederick John “Johnnie” Walker — who had been passed over for promotion to captain in 1938, effectively ending his career. He was thought to be a little too keen, Walker was. Talked shop a bit much. And specialized of all things in anti-submarine tactics, hardly something which would be needed when war came — until war did come and it was desperately needed. “Johnnie” Walker sank more U-Boats, 14, than anyone and developed many of the successful anti-U-Boat tactics used by the Royal Navy. He died of a stroke on 9 July 1944 brought on by the intense stress of combat.

It says something of Admiral Horton that for his greatest captain, he arranged a funeral equivalent to the man’s deeds. Sailors drew the coffin, affixed to a gun carriage, through the crowded streets of Liverpool to the Cathedral. The coffin was escorted on foot by six Royal Navy captains, an unprecedented tribute and in another astonishing tribute, Sir Max himself delivered the eulogy.

When the war ended, Sir Max, who already had a long list of decorations, received even more. The one he valued the most? “Chief Commander of the Legion of Merit of the United States of America.” This was the highest decoration the United States could give to non-Americans and few received it.

Yet with all of his honors and awards and victories, dispatches and orders, even a cover story in Life Magazine, Admiral Sir Max Horton remains a mystery. This is a great frustration to those of us who study World War Two, particularly the Battle of the Atlantic. Sir Max never wrote his memoirs or, to my knowledge, wrote anything about himself.

The strain of his immense responsibilities robbed Sir Max of his health and in 1951, just six years after the end of the war, he died. He was sixty-seven. His ill-health precluded his life-long dream of living in the warm climate of Southern France. The only biography of him, from which many of the above quotes are drawn, is Max Horton and the Western Approaches: A Biography of Admiral Sir Max Kennedy Horton by Rear Admiral W.S. Chalmers, RN, a family friend. This is very much an “authorized biography.” Max Horton did have a brother who was married and that family inherited all of his personal papers which, to my knowledge, they have never released. Chalmers only saw what he was shown and was under some very strict ground rules about attribution.

While Sir Max was reputed to not have a friend in the world, he did have friends. We just don’t know who they were. Chalmers quotes from numerous letters Horton wrote to friends but never tells us who the letters were written to. Presumably he was not allowed to disclose that information. I can say this is the only biography I have ever read which never discloses who any of the subject’s personal correspondence was addressed to.

Admiral Horton had an extensive acquaintanceship throughout the British Empire. A man in his position would certainly have known a great many people. He entertained to the degree his rank and social position required it. On several occasions during the war the King and Queen came to luncheon at his formal living quarters in Derby House. A letter he wrote afterwards to a friend clearly indicates he knew them already.

But his background? Parents? His childhood? The source of his inner strength? His heroes? His inner life? Of Sir Max as a man? We have no idea. We do know this: the men and women under his command in Western Approaches never came to love him. They never came to like him. But they came quickly to respect him and even more, have the greatest confidence in him — for Sir Max radiated confidence.

The war ended at last. Slowly people went back to their civilian lives. The hundreds of RN ships that had defeated the U-Boats were broken up and sold for scrap. The HQ bunker in Liverpool sealed up and practically forgotten. Sir Max passed on. And the veterans of Western Approaches Command? To the end of their lives they were proud to have served under Sir Max. Why? They knew something which has only become clear in the last years: in the moment of supreme peril against a deadly and determined foe who was serving a régime of unimaginable depravity, Admiral Sir Max Horton was one of the handful of extraordinary men who led the Allies to victory.


Bibliography

Barnett, Correli. Engage The Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War. USA: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print

Beesly, Patrick. Very Special Intelligence: The Story of the Admirality’s Operational Intelligence Centre 1939-1945. Wales: Greenhill Books, 2000. Print

Chalmers, William Scott. Max Horton and the Western Approaches: A Biography of Admiral Sir Max Kennedy Horton. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1954. Print

Gannon, Michael. Black May. USA: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 1998. Print

Gretton, Peter. Convoy Escort Commander. Bungay, Suffolk, UK: Corgi Books, 1971. Print

Hague, Arnold. The Allied Convoy System 1939-1945: Its Organization, Defence, and Operation. Canada: Vanwell Publishing Limited, 2000. Print

Hendrie, Andrew. The Cinderella Service: RAF Coastal Command 1939-1945. England: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2006. Print

Kaplan, Philip and Jack Currie. Convoy: Merchant Sailors at War 1939-1945. Singapore: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Print

Rayner, Douglas A. Escort: The Battle of the Atlantic. London, UK: William Kimber & Co Ltd., 1955. Print

Wilcox, Richard. “Admiral Sir Max Horton.” Life. 2 August 1943: 73+. Print

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia, Sea Your History, Trip Advisor, Unit Histories, and uboat.net. This article can also be found in my Written Work section.]

The Last 20 Days of the Third Reich Wonderfully Explained. My review of Germania: A Novel by Brendan McNally.

Germania: A Novel, by Brendan McNally (Four stars), is a wonderful farce which skewers the vainglorious pomposity of the last days of the Reich. The murderous Nazi fantasy of “Aryan” Übermensch, made only too real by the willingness of so many Germans to do the Führer’s bloody work, resulted in millions of innocents murdered in cold blood. With the might of what Eisenhower called the “United Nations” brought against it, the Third Reich eventually had to collapse. Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945. In his political testament, he appointed Grand Admiral Dönitz as his successor. The Third Reich thus continued for another twenty days until the principals were arrested and jailed.

In those final twenty days, the Third Reich degenerated into a bizarre fantasy world in which men like Himmler hung around hoping Grand Admiral Dönitz might give them a job in the new government. This while Germany was being pounded into dust by the Allies, furious that the Germans wouldn’t give up. Dönitz, who should have been hanged as a war criminal instead of being sent to prison, set up the last government of the Third Reich in the Gymnasium of the German Naval Academy, located outside of Kiel in the suburb of Flensburg/Mürwik, where it is located to this day.

How to savage this absurdity? Author Brendan McNally does a masterful job by writing a fantastical novel told through the eyes of the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers. And quite the story they tell: the reptilian Albert Speer; the stupid, uncomprehending true believers; the pompous military men; the perpetrators of the foulest crimes of the 20th Century whining in self-justification; and the alcohol and drug fueled fanaticism of those who wanted to bring all of Germany into the abyss with them.

I’m a novelist myself and I don’t like many novels because they don’t hold my attention. This novel did. I enjoyed it immensely and as they say “I couldn’t put it down.” And I couldn’t. Well worth your time.

The Role of Radar

Radar played a huge role in World War 2. Half of all U-Boat sinkings in World War Two were the result of attacks by Allied aircraft. As the war progressed, radar became more sophisticated, more accurate, and more transportable. As aircraft, especially sub-hunters, were equipped with radar, U-Boats could no longer count on the natural protection that weather could afford. Heavy cloud cover and fog protected the U-Boats at the beginning of the war as they spent the majority of their time patrolling the surface but radar destroyed this protection. As mentioned in this video, German high command would not believe that the allies had these kind of capabilities and regularly attributed these loses to bad luck or ineptitude on behalf of the U-Boat commanders. This video is from a snippet of a show on this little known fact.

Over 80% of men who served in the German U-Bootwaffe perished.

Some say this is a sign of bravery. And it is. But it is also a sign of complete denial on the part of the German Navy High Command to recognize that U-boats at they existed in later years of the war were simply obsolete and thousands of men died for nothing. Even though German surface ships and even aircraft had radar later in the war, Admiral Dönitz refused to believe that the Allies could make an effective radar set small enough to put into a convoy escort ship. Even though his commanders told him over and over that the Allied convoy escorts had radar, he refused to believe it. At one point he asked two of his top commanders if the Allied escorts had radar. They affirmed without hesitation that Allied escort ships had radar. Doenitz threw them out of his office. The two officers were Teddy Suhren and Erich Topp and they both recount the story in their individual memoirs.