Silent Otto Kretschmer

By John Dudek 05 Jan 2015 0

On a cold, moonless mid March night in the North Atlantic, just south of Iceland, the menacing low silhouette of a surfaced German U-boat submarine darted nimbly in and out among the long, silent columns of darkened Allied supply ships of Convoy HX-112.  The ships plodded along at low speed like a massive herd of whales because every convoy's maximum speed was governed by that of its slowest ship.  Meanwhile, the men aboard the tankers and cargo ships remained completely oblivious as to the enemy presence right in their very midst.  Lining up on one of the ships in the convoy, a hushed command was heard from the bridge of the U-boat and the submarine shuddered with the launching of a single torpedo.  As the submarine darted away into the darkness, a massive explosion rocked the steamship Ventia carrying a 7,000 ton cargo of maize to London. The ship soon began to sink and her crew took to the life boats.  Minutes later, the U-boat lined up and fired another torpedo at a different ship.  This time, the Canadian merchant steamer J.B. White, carrying 2,500 tons of steel and 4,500 tons of newsprint was hit.  She too began to settle as her crew took to the boats.  As blinding magnesium flares were launched aloft from the all too few convoy escorts in search of the marauding German submarine, once again the U-Boat broke contact to sprint away through the darkness into a different column of convoy ships.  The U-boat Captain now lined up for a shot on what he judged to be a tanker.  A single torpedo hit proved his guess to be correct and the Norwegian 6,500 ton tanker Ferm, carrying nearly 9,000 tons of fuel oil caught fire and began to settle.  It sank the next day while under tow.  Once again, the U-boat skipper caught sight of a much larger tanker in column and lined up for yet another shot.  The 8,100 ton Norwegian tanker Bedouin carrying 11,000 tons of high octane gasoline was hit, blowing up in a blinding explosion and broke in two. Once again, the U-boat broke contact to flee to the opposing side of the convoy while the escorts searched in vain for them on the convoy's other side.  The U-boat Captain carefully chose yet another victim and a single torpedo soon struck the 7,000 ton Swedish steamer Korsham, carrying 8,000 tons of general cargo. Using his final torpedo, the U-boat captain fired at yet another tanker.  The 9,000 ton British tanker Franche Comte was hit, but this time, the tanker stayed afloat.  With his torpedoes gone and fuel running low, top scoring U-boat ace Captain Otto "Silent Otto" Kretschmer and the U-99 broke final contact with the Allied convoy and fled on the surface towards home leaving six ships either sinking or badly damaged in his wake.

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Otto Kretschmer was without a doubt the greatest and most gifted U-boat Captain ever to serve in the German Navy in WWII.  He was known as "Silent Otto", not only for his reluctance to make small talk, but also his reluctance towards making regular radio contact with the U-boat headquarters.  In addition he was also a firm believer in the "silent running" of his U-boat if being searched for by Allied destroyers while submerged. Kretschmer was something of an anomaly during the age of the cold hearted Nazi "supermen," in that he believed in the traditional values of sea warfare: those of chivalry, fair play and doing all possible to relieve the suffering of a vanquished foe.  During his career in WWII, it was common for Kretschmer upon encountering a life boat filled with the men he'd tried to sink and kill only hours earlier, to surface his submarine alongside to give them food, water, blankets and a compass heading towards dry land.  On one such occasion he encountered a single British sailor in a life raft who was suffering from the advanced stages of hypothermia exposure.  He had the man brought aboard, taken below, bundled in hot blankets and given a hot mug of tea.  As the man gradually came out of shock, he thought he'd been taken aboard a British submarine and marveled at his good fortune. Given how many of Kreschmer's crew were fluent in English and that the German submariners wore no insignia while wearing basic overhauls in lieu of uniforms, it took quite a bit of convincing to get the sailor to believe he was actually aboard a German U-boat.  The survivor was eventually placed upon another life boat they encountered, one filled with other Allied sailors and a single extremely haughty British officer.  When Kretschmer called down to the life boat, asking if they had provisions aboard, the British officer offered up an unprintable and less than desirable response.  Undeterred, Kretschmer ordered food and water to be placed aboard the life boat.  After giving the survivors a compass heading for the nearby coast of Ireland, Kretschmer saluted the officer and bid him "Good luck!"  The British officer, upon realizing the extremely generous nature of the gifts of food and water, returned the salute and wished the Germans "Good Luck!" in return as the U-boat sailed away.

Otto Kretschmer was born in Heidau, Liegnitz East Prussia, now Poland on 1 May 1912.  While in his late teens, he spent nearly a year in England where he learned to speak English fluently.  He joined the German Navy in 1930 as a naval cadet.  He soon became an officer and served aboard a number of light cruisers in the new and expanding Reichsmarine throughout the 1930's.  He transferred to the U-Boat force in 1936 where he underwent training and soon was seen as a gifted, up and coming young officer by no less than future Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz himself.  Doenitz later wrote of him in a fitness report:

"For his age he is of unusually quiet but inwardly strong and definite character.  Very sympathetic, modest and  well bred in manners and appearance.  Never tries to make much of himself...Mentally alert, varied interest, well read, interesting to talk to, once he has gotten over a certain shyness and reserve.  Inclined to be a lone wolf and make up his mind on all things for himself, but in spite of this, popular with his colleagues, through his basically cheerful and comradely manner, as well as his dry humor."

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Kretschmer's first command was the U-23, a cramped, single hull Type II b coastal U-boat and one not meant for long patrols He took command of her in September 1937.  These small coastal submarines of the "Weddigen Flotilla" were derisively referred to by their men as "dugout canoes". However, they could dive far more quickly than larger submarines, a decided plus in the no holds barred nature of the coming submarine warfare to be fought in the Atlantic.  On the negative side, they were of short range duration, while having a shallow maximum operating depth.  They carried but five torpedoes fired from three bow torpedo tubes.  The 24 man crew lived in harsh, Spartan-like conditions and their war patrols lasted only about an average of 13 days.  Kretschemer's first success in WWII came while he was on patrol north of Scotland.  He stopped and torpedoed the small 900 ton British steam ship Glen Farg on 4 October 1939.  After sinking two additional steam ships, he torpedoed the Danish 10,000 ton tanker Danmark in the Moray Firth on 12 January 1940.  Considering the distance from the normal German submarine operating waters of the day, the British Admiralty thought the culprit was a German launched sea mine and not a submarine launched torpedo.  The following month he sank the British fleet destroyer Daring off Pentland Firth.  By April 1940 Kretschmer had 8 successful war patrols under his belt and he was given command of the newly built U-99.  After spending three years aboard the cramped U-23, this new Type VII-B U-boat was a marked improvement in technology, size and living conditions, not to mention attack capability.  The double hulled submarine carried more torpedoes both fore and aft.  In addition it was armed with an 88mm. gun for surface targets plus a 20mm. flak gun to be used against aircraft.  The new submarine could operate at greater depths and could also remain on patrol for much longer periods of time.

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For the next two months, Kretschmer's crew underwent intensive and rigorous training maneuvers in the Baltic Sea during their "shake-down cruise" aboard their new submarine.  U-99's first successful war patrol began in late June 1940 scoring its first kill with the sinking of the 2,000 ton Canadian steam ship Magog, soon followed by six other Allied merchant ships.  During this time Kretschmer began making his torpedo attacks at night while on the surface.  He plotted and set up the torpedo shots himself while standing on the U-boat's bridge and soon became known not only for his phenomenal accuracy but also for using only one torpedo for each ship attacked.  The quote ?one torpedo...one ship? is attributed to Kretschmer around this time.  Kretschmer's revolutionary tactics were soon tried throughout the U-boat fleet, but failed to achieve the same results.  Perhaps this was because the other U-boat skippers lacked Kretschmer's unfailing "game-eye" of the hunter in leading their game. U-99's tonnage score of Allied ships sunk skyrocketed during this time and he soon became the highest scoring U-Boat ace in the German Navy.  Close behind him were Gunter Prien, the U-boat captain credited with sinking the battleship HMS Royal Oak while inside the British naval base of Scapa Flow.  Joachim Schepke was next.  Both he and his crew of the U-100 who would go on to sink 37 Allied ships before being depth charged and sunk in March 1941.

Kretschmer's most fruitful war patrol was a 16 day voyage between 27 November and 12 December 1940.  During that time he and U-99 sank three British armed merchant cruisers, HMS Laurentic, HMS Forfar and HMS Patroclus. Armed merchant cruisers were converted, well armed former ocean liners, huge ships capable of carrying both large cargos and if need be, putting up a fight against German surface raiders or submarines.  They were seen as a "poor man's warship" that could hold the line and lend their aid in escorting convoys until newer, purpose built warships could come on line.   With the additional sinking of the British 5,000 ton freighter Cesanare during the same patrol, Kretschmer's total of ship tonnage sunk during the single patrol came to over 46,000 tons, earning him the number one position on the list of U-boat aces and one that was never equaled, let alone surpassed. "Silent Otto" became the tonnage king among U-boat men, never to be dethroned.  His actions during this patrol earned him a summons from Adolf Hitler who awarded him Germany's highest medal, the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves and Crossed Swords.  After lunching with Germany's leader in Berlin, Kretschmer attended a performance of the Wagner opera Tannhausser from the Fuhrer's private box.  For the next few weeks, while his U-boat was being refitted, Kretschmer lived the good life and was able to enjoy a celebratory meal along with his friends and fellow U-boat aces Gunter Prien and Joachim Schepke.  He soon returned to action.

 

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