(March 12, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, U-99, skippered by Otto Kretschmer, one of Germany’s most famous U-boat commanders, had just fired the last of her torpedoes, when she was spotted by British destroyers southeast of Iceland in the North Atlantic.
U-99 was attacked and, after being damaged, Kretschmer decided to scuttle his boat and gave the order to abandon ship. By this time Kretschmer, on his 16th patrol, had sunk 47 ships of about 274,000 tons and captured one for another 2,136 tons.
All of this happened during his 224 days at sea. For his feats, the 29-year-old lieutenant commander had earned the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves and Swords, and the number-one spot on the “Aces of the Deep” honor list. Adolf Hitler personally invited Kretschmer to Berlin for the award ceremony and asked him to stay for lunch.
Kretschmer was not the top scoring U-boat ace of all time. That distinction goes to Lother von Arnold de la Periere in World War I.
He was of a German-French background, and by the end of the war he had sunk an incredible 194 ships with total tonnage of 453,716 tons.
Most of his sinkings occurred in the Mediterranean. No one, ever, in any navy in the world, would come even remotely close to those figures.
Kretschmer was born in Heidau über Niesse in Prussian Silesia, ( now part of Poland) the son of a schoolmaster. Prior to joining the Reichsmarine as an officer-candidate at the age of 18, he studied English and literature at Exeter University in England for eight months.
After officer training, he spent three months on the sailing school ship Niobe and more than a year on the light cruiser Emden.
After serving on the pocket battleship Deutschland and the light cruiser Köln in 1934-35, he transferred to the U-boat force in January 1936. He thus received solid pre-war training as a U-boat officer.
He joined U-35 as 1st Watch Officer in Nov. 1936, and commanded her as Commandant Substitute on one patrol in Spanish waters during the Spanish Civil War.
In September, 1937 he took over command of the small Type II U-boat, U-23. Following the outbreak of the war, he won his first successes on patrols in the North Sea off the English and Scottish east coasts.
In November 1939, he laid nine mines in Moray Firth, Scotland. The first great success for Otto Kretschmer was the sinking of the Danish tanker Danmark (10,517 tons) on Jan. 12, 1940. Just over a month later, he sank the British destroyer HMS Daring (1,375 tons).
Kretschmer left U-23 in April 1940 and in the same month he was commissioned to U-99, a new Type VIIB U-boat. While commanding U-99, he became famous for night-time surface attacks against convoys, and it was at this time he adopted his famous motto “One torpedo, one ship”.
In November 1940, Kretschmer, in U-99, achieved an incredible feat by sinking three large British Armed Merchant Cruisers; the Laurentic (18,724 tons), Patroclus (11,314 tons) and the Forfar (16,402 tons) with a total of more than 46,000 tons.
By that time he was the “Tonnage King” of U-boat commanders, and none were able to exceed him for the rest of the war.
His last patrol also began successfully, but after attacking 10 ships, his luck ran out. When he saw British destroyers coming towards him at full speed, he decided to submerge. U-99 was quickly detected by the early submarine detection system known as ASDIC.
Under attack by destroyers Walker and Vanoc, U-99 was driven down to 700 feet, and was severely damaged by depth charges that smashed air, fuel, and ballast tanks. Kretschmer had no choice but to blow all ballast tanks and shoot to the surface.
Both British destroyers opened fire on the U-99 with their 4-in guns, though after two minutes neither had found their target. Kretschmer ordered his crew to abandon ship and scuttle the boat, and then he sent off a final radio message to Kriegsmarine Adm. Karl Dönitz at U-boat headquarters in Kerneval, outside Lorient, in occupied France, announcing that he and 39 of his crew had to abandon their boat.
Three U-99 crewmen lost their lives, including the Chief Engineer. Kretschmer and the rest of the crew were rescued by the British destroyers and became POWs.
The capture of Kretschmer and crew, on March 17, 1941, came quickly after the loss at sea of two U-boat captains who were Iron Cross winners: Guenther Prien (U-47) – the Bull of Scapaflow — and Joachim Schepke (U-100), both of whom were top scoring U-boat aces. Their naval careers were ended by the same two British destroyers that ended Kretschmer’s career.
Kretschmer spent the remainder of the war briefly in Grizedale Hall, Britain’s main POW camp for German officers, nicknamed “U-boat Hotel” for the number of Kriegsmarine prisoners held there, and then in Canada’s Bowmansville POW camp, a former boys school 40 miles east of Toronto, Ontario.
In September 1943, Canadian military intelligence and police thwarted a German plan to rescue Kretschmer and three other high-ranking naval officers from Bowmansville. Otto Kretschmer would remain as a POW until his release from captivity on Dec. 31, 1947 and return to Germany.
After the war, Kretschmer joined the West German Navy and in May 1965 became the chief of staff of the NATO Naval Command, retiring in 1970 with a rank of Flottillenadmiral (rear admiral).
Kretschmer was a loyal German patriot. He was apolitical, serving his country, rather than the Nazi party. He was also a daring and worthy enemy, something the British rarely resist.
After the war he became good friends with Capt. Donald Macintyre, the Royal Navy captain who sank his sub.
While on holiday in Bavaria in the summer of 1998, during a cruise from Regensburg to Budapest, on the Danube to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary, he attempted to climb some almost vertical steps, but fell causing fatal injuries. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea. He was 86.
I was part of the Shark Hunters Group – 17 in total - that went to Germany in August of 1998 to meet with Kretschmer to interview him and listen to his stories about his achievements, the life of U-boat crews at sea, and his life at the detention center in Canada. Unfortunately, that meeting never happened.
Next week: Axis Forces Capture El Aghiela, Libya