U-995: War at Sea
Eric Dietrich Berryman, Ph.D.
Some warships have a special appeal and none more than German Navy U-Boats. Their power to compel attention spans almost a century, and continues unabated. Just this past summer, the book Shadow Divers made the American best-seller list. The story is about a couple of divers who want badly to identify a U-Boat 200 feet down and 60 miles off the New Jersey shore. The men seek to pay their respects to the bravery of the sailors who perished when the submarine was lost, and to provide the next of kin an accurate account of how the crew met its end. An undiscovered U-Boat, they say, is the "holy grail" of wreck divers. Closer to home, U-85 near Oregon Inlet and U-352 off Morehead City have been raked clean of artifacts. Most recently, U-701, 22 miles off Cape Hatteras was plundered including the radio antenna, sky periscope and the housing around the attack periscope. U-701's CO (Kptlt Horst Degen) survived and years later became a friend and supporter of the Old Coast Guard Station Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where his filmed oral history is one of the exhibits available to visitors.
Of the two great wars of the 20th century, only two German combat submarines survive, each of a different class and both from the Second World War: U-505, a Type IXC on display in Chicago, and U-995, a Type VIIC/41 now a museum display in the small seaside community of Laboe across the Kieler fjord, in northern Germany. This paper is about U-995, but a brief historical context is useful because it may help to explain the attraction these boats have for the public.
On September 5, 1914, U-21 sank the first warship in World War I, the British light cruiser HMS Pathfinder. A few days later, on September 13, the British submarine E-9 sank the German cruiser Hela. With that, the 20th century came on stage with the deadliest warship yet devised. The Kaiser's submarines, which reached a peak of 147 on patrol in 1917, accounted for 4,800 Allied ships lost to the Central Powers in the Great War. Today, no 1914-18 era combat submarine survives among the principal adversaries: Austro-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany and the United States. Approximately representative of the time are Holland I (built 1901) raised from the seabed, preserved and on display in Gosport, England; and U-1, built in 1906 and used mostly for tests and training and retired in 1919, now on view in Munich.
As for the Second World War, the fact that any U-Boat survives is truly remarkable. Every physical trace of them was erased by a combination of catastrophic battle casualties followed by postwar systematic and deliberate destruction.
At the end of World War II, U-Boats at sea in their operational areas were ordered to surface, signal their position, and flying a black flag, make for whatever port the Allies indicated. Nicholas Monsarratt's apostrophe at the conclusion of his 1951 novel, The Cruel Sea, describes the scene with bitter anger and fear. Many U-Boats were deliberately sent to the bottom by their captains. On April 30, 1945, the German Navy ordered all warships to be scuttled on receipt of the codeword, Regenbogen (Rainbow). In fact, the codeword was never transmitted. Scuttling began spontaneously on the assumption that higher authority could not communicate due to Germany's capitulation, and also because of straightforward defiance by captains who balked at handing over their commands to the enemy.
On May 4, 1945, in the port of Kiel U-4712 became the 782nd U-Boat lost to hostile action in the Second World War. On the same day, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz ordered his fleet of submarines to cease hostilities, unwilling to hazard his crews any longer. A British postwar intelligence report concludes, "not without justice, Doenitz paid tribute to the tenacity shown by his men who were laying down their arms after an heroic fight which knows no equal."
Disposition of the fleet of surrendered U-Boats was decided at the Potsdam Conference of Allied leaders in 1945. Forty-nine hulls went to various countries, leaving the remainder under construction or operational to be destroyed, one way or another. Several U-boats were commissioned into the US Navy after the war - but not given a new name - among them USS exU-505, and quite a few officers and ratings actually qualified for their dolphins on board one of these former Kriegsmarine submarines. * (See endnote on US Navy use of captured U-Boats.)
Norway was allocated four U-Boats as war reparations, including U-995. In the same year, a Tripartite Naval Commission meeting in Berlin remanded all unallocated U-Boats to destruction by scuttling. This decision became Operation Deadlight, carried out by Britain's Royal Navy.
U-995's fate would have been destruction also, except for the intervention of the Royal Norwegian Navy who recommissioned the boat as Kaura on December 6, 1952. Probably the last U-Boat to go to the breakers in the non-Communist west was U-573, which was interned by Spain in 1944 and operated until 1970 as S-01 in the Spanish Navy. Preservation and display as historic naval vessels was unthinkable in the immediate years following the war.
Despite a personnel loss rate approaching 70%, U-Boats kept fighting. Allied predictions of mutinies and early surrender had got it wrong. There was more grit, more elan in the crews than even traumatic military reversal could crush. American Civil War history provides an early - perhaps the earliest -- instance of submariner courage in the face of almost certain death. The Confederate submarine Hunley never lacked for volunteers despite its reputation as a killer of men and LT George E. Dixon easily got his crew for the successful night attack on USS Housatonic. It was Hunley's third crew and famously not a man wavered when asked to volunteer (and not a man lived to tell the story.) In WWII, submarine losses were highest in the navy of Imperial Japan, which suffered a loss rate of 72% (130 of 181). Italy lost 59% of its submarine fleet - 85 of 144. Among Allied navies, Britain lost 76 of 216 (35%) and the US lost 52 of 288 (18%), including accidental loss - the highest casualty rate of any US naval service. But in sheer numbers, Germany's losses are in a class by themselves.
Of about 1,160 submarines the Kriegsmarine commissioned that went to sea, 462 boats (321, by one estimate) succeeded in damaging or sinking at least one ship. Most of the rest were lost to Allied attack very early on in their seagoing career before any torpedoes were ever launched. Breaking the Enigma code, air superiority, radar and effective anti-submarine tactics decisively turned the Battle of the Atlantic in the Allies' favor, after late 1942. U-Boats in the Second World War sank about 2,778 ships worldwide -- 2,450 of them in the Atlantic -- (the German estimate of Allied ship losses is 3,500) accounting for the death of over 30,200 Allied merchant seamen. ** (See endnote on U-Boat statistics.)
Of about 39,000 men who entered U-Boat service, most of them volunteers, 27,491 perished. They were on average about 20 years old. Their names are on bronze tablets affixed to the wall of the U-Boat Memorial shaped not unlike a Greek omega letter below ground level, in the village of Moeltenort, near Laboe. (As a point of curiosity, official NATO navy visitors are allowed to enter the German Sea Services-cum-generic international maritime memorial in Laboe, but not the U-Boat Memorial in Moeltenort.)
The Laboe site, built in the 1920s like a giant brick prow with spectacular views of the Baltic, greets the visitor with the words, in German, "They died for you." On the interior walls etched in black are the silhouettes of all the German Navy's lost warships; a staggering number to contemplate by any yardstick, friend or foe. By contrast, the U-Boat Memorial is hardly signposted at all and not easily found by a visitor who is unfamiliar with local geography. U-995 can reasonably be expected to add dramatic emphasis to the U-Boat Memorial. Instead, the boat now rests at the Laboe site in concrete cradles displayed parallel to the shore where it is identified as a "Technical Museum."
However ill at ease German officialdom may be about a unique and significant combat relic of World War II, the public is unabashed in its keenness to pay a few euros to enter the interior. U-995 welcomed aboard 385,000 paying visitors last year. That is a healthy count but substantially down from the 765,000 visitors in 1992. The WWII generation, friends and foes alike, is quickly passing over the horizon as is the memory of the war at sea in which they featured. (Here in the United States, the world's only other surviving U-Boat -- U-505 -- got 325,000 visitors in 2003.) As such, U-995 is an important revenue producer for the German Navy League (Deutscher Marinebund), founded in 1890, which administers both the Sea Services Memorial and U-995 (entered with a small fee), and the U-Boat Memorial which is free of charge.
U-995 is a Type VIIC/41, indicating that it belonged to a modified Type VIIB design that came into being in response to British anti-submarine successes in 1940/41. The design changes allowed greater surface speed by shaving off 11 tons, lengthening bow and widening foredeck for better seakeeping, and increasing the dive depth by thickening the pressure hull to allow for an operating depth of about 400 feet. Crush depth was around 800 feet. (U-995 achieved a career record of 240 meters - a scant 6 meters shy of oblivion.) These changes were not considered definitive enough to justify a new type number, and the class remained Type VII. The suffix 41 indicates the year the change decision was made.
709 Type VIIs of all types were built between 1936 (U-27) and 1945 (U-1308) and they constitute the workhorse of the U-Boat arm.
U-995 was built by Blohm and Voss and commissioned on September 9, 1943. The first commander was relieved for his apparent reluctance to engage the enemy. His operational cruises became increasingly shorter, sometimes not more than a few days. Oberleutnant zur See (LTjg, in US equivalent rank) Hans Georg Hess is the second and last commanding officer. At age 21 (b. May 6, 1923), he was the youngest permanently assigned commanding officer of an active combat submarine in the German Navy, and likely of any navy in any country in the 20th century. *** (See endnote on CO of U-155.)
By personality, training and instinct, his character transcends nationality, politics and battleground. Like the best kind of military leader, Hess loved his men and they answered him in kind. These are the focal human traits that allowed his command to go in harm's way and come home again, undefeated. After the war, Hess found his career as an attorney and maintained steadfast contact with his former crew meeting with them annually, usually at the U-995 site. They call themselves "The Sports Fans." All of them suffer from hearing loss.
U-995 was known in the fleet as 'U-Catch-the-Hat' after its unofficial identification badge of two boys chasing one another - the logo of a children's board game. Most U-Boats had some kind of a signature emblem, often cartoon images. Hess adopted U-995's design after polling the crew for ideas. The most junior officer, an ensign, got the prize: "Catch the Hat" was his favorite childhood tabletop game. The logo also incorporates U-995 's principal geographic patrol references, outlines of pertinent landmarks: Spitzbergen, Barents Island, and Norway's North Cape. The boat's signature tune is a popular song of the day, "Das Karussell."
Hess was loosed in extreme northern waters with particular emphasis on the Murmansk Run. Between reporting aboard on October 8, 1944 and February 14, 1945 when he took U-995 to the yards at Trondheim, Norway, to be retrofitted with a snorkel, he fired 35 torpedoes. The historic context is a scant five-month period but it was enough for captain, crew and boat to notch a place in naval history. Hess's tally is 10 ships sunk or damaged including two destroyers, 5 freighters, an escort of the Atherstone class, a fishcutter where he rescued two young Russian seamen from quick death in frigid winter waters, and an American Liberty ship, the 7,000 ton Horace Bushnell. His tactic was to stay close to shore, accepting the added risk of underwater obstacles and grounding. Allied surface ship numbers and air patrols were heavily stacked against him. US submarine ace "Mush" Morton in Wahoo used the same gutsy inshore tactic in the Soya Strait when his luck ran out and he was spotted and sunk by a Japanese shore battery, October 11, 1943. Hess drew a better hand.
On February 9, 1945, Hess navigated U-995 safely through a minefield laid by retreating German forces to the entrance of the northern Norwegian port of Kirkenes, recently occupied by the Russians. Unseen, he transited the 35km long fjord and fired his torpedo into a merchant ship at the pier. Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance confirmed the hit.
Kirkenes was an audacious act and brings to mind Gunther Prien's exploit in the heart of the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow, in 1939. Soon afterwards, taking into account his previous successes, Hess was notified by radio of the award of the Knights Cross - becoming the youngest recipient of the nation's highest award in the German Navy. Following a year as POWs under British control in Norway, Hess and his men were returned to Germany and released.
Norway employed U-995 - Kaura -- for over 10 years and then made a gift of the boat to Germany. In 1970, the boat went into the yards at Kiel to be rebuilt to conform as much as possible to 1945 specifications. The boat opened to the public a year later, in March, 1972, under the auspices of the German Navy League after Kiel, Wilhelmshaven and Munich had turned it down.
Today, U-995 is challenged by much the same preservation problems that beset all museum vessels, especially outdoor displays where weather takes a heavy toll. The hull has multiple coats of paint and there has been pilferage of easily removed items. Internal security does not include thick, clear plastic barriers (as in USS Torsk, in Baltimore, for instance) with the consequence that many items have been broken free, been pried loose or just unscrewed. Even large details have been pilfered, like the gyro compass and the torpedo adjusting gear. Topside, the radio direction finder was stolen years ago and a make-shift replacement is the wrong shape. To this visitor at least, the captioning seems unnecessarily dry, understated and lackluster. The concrete cradles supporting the hull have shifted in the sand, twisting and stressing the hull and a fairly ambitious crane-supported re-positioning is not too distant.
German Navy League president, retired Bundesmarine Captain M. Kaempf informed me that his organization "does not intend to present the history and destinies of persons or crews in Laboe because we know and appreciate that views and valuations may differ. We do not want to tell heroic stories. What we intend is to draw the attention of visitors to the great tragic of the dead at sea, to the great numbers of those who never came back and to the fact that we never should forget."
Accepting moral responsibility, however, should not erase memory of acts of nobility and courage. There is more to national history than guilt. Some people are quite blunt that they would rather all of it be done away with: U-995, the Sea Services Memorial and the U-Boat Memorial. Germany's deep ambivalence about display of anything World War II frames the whole issue. My offer to sponsor a DMB official to this conference did not succeed, despite an impassioned plea about networking and fabric preservation pooling.
A contrasting point of view is that the importance of preservation and display of the last Type VIIC U-Boat cannot be overstated. U-995 symbolizes an epic sea battle, and the boat's history is a straightforward record of duties accepted and bravely discharged. A nation can rebuild its self-respect and honor from the performance of a warship like this, and the courage of its captain and crew.
Endnotes: * Among the submarines commissioned into US Naval service are, USS ex-U234, USS ex-U505, USS ex-U858, USS ex-U873, USS ex-U977, USS ex-U1105, USS ex-U1201, USS ex-U2513, USS ex-U3008.
** According to naval historian Peter Sharpe's arithmetic for all areas in World War II: 20 or more ships were attacked and at least damaged by 38 U-Boats; 11 - 19 ships were attacked and at least damaged by 45 U-boats; 6-10 ships . . . by 72 U-Boats;
Sharpe's figures add up to a wartime total of 1,160 commissioned submarines. The U-Boat Archive in Cuxhaven has a tally of 1,171 boats commissioned but some boats never left the shipyard. Juergen Rohwer arrived at different numbers as the following figures show: 25 U-boats attacked and at least damaged 20 or more ships; 36 attacked/damaged . . . between 11 - 19 ships; 70 attacked/damaged . . . between 6 - 10 ships; 190 attacked/damaged. . . between 1 - 5 ships.
2,450 merchant ships were sunk or at least seriously damaged in the Atlantic and the figure rises to 2,775 when other areas are taken into account. German wartime records suggest about 3,500 ships were sunk. Just under 800 of the ships were sunk by the top 30 U-Boat commanders. In other words, about 2% of the U-Boat commanders are responsible for sinking approximately 30% of Allied shipping.
*** Leutnant zur See Ludwig-Ferdinand von Friedeburg (b. May 21, 1924) commanded U-155 from August to November, 1944. At age 20, he was the youngest U-Boat commander but it was an interim appointment that terminated when the assigned captain returned.
Sources: Jak P. Mallmann Showell; U-Boat-Archiv, Cuxhaven; Old Coast Guard Museum, Virginia Beach, Virginia; Uboat.net; U-Boat by David Miller, Brassey's, Washington, DC (2000); Dr. (jur.) Hans Georg Hess, Wunstorf-Idensen; Peter Sharpe, U-Boat Factfile; Prof. Juergen Rohwer, Axis Submarine Successes; Captain Prentice Cushing, Jr., USN, retired.
Eric Dietrich Berryman, Ph.D.