Heinz-Wilhelm Eck was the only U-boat commander to be tried, convicted and executed for war crimes following the war. The record of the British military tribunal that tried him summarises the facts:
The “Peleus” was a Greek ship chartered by the British Ministry of War Transport. The crew consisted of a variety of nationalities; on board there were 18 Greeks, 8 British seamen, one seaman from Aden, two Egyptians, three Chinese, a Russian, a Chilean and a Pole.
On the 13th March, 1944, the ship was sunk in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean by the German submarine No. 852, commanded by the first accused; Heinz Eck. Apparently the majority of the members of the crew of the “Peleus” got into the water and reached two rafts and wreckage that was floating about. The submarine surfaced, and called over one of the members of the crew who was interrogated as to the name of the ship, where she was bound and other information.
The submarine then proceeded to open fire with a machine-gun or machineguns on the survivors in the water and on the rafts, and also threw hand grenades on the survivors, with the result that all of the crew in the water were killed or died of their wounds, except for three, namely the Greek first officer, a Greek seaman and a British seaman.
These men remained in the water for over 25 days, and were then picked up by a Portuguese steamship and taken into port.
Later in the year, a U-boat was attacked from the air on the East Coast of Africa and was compelled to beach. Her log was found, and in it there was a note that on the 13th March, 1944, she had torpedoed a boat in the approximate position in which the S.S. “Peleus” was torpedoed.
The U-boat was the U-boat No. 852 commanded by the accused Eck and among its crew were the other four accused; three of them being officers; including the medical officer, and one an N.C.O.
Five members of the crew of the U-boat made statements to the effect that they saw the four accused members of the crew firing the machine-gun and throwing grenades in the direction of the rafts which were floating about in the water.
The court report makes no mention of the Peleus crewman who was called over to give an account of the movements of his ship. Clearly the U-boat crew knew he was there but there is no mention of whether he was invited to get back on his raft before being shot. Nor was there any testimony from the three survivors, just their affidavits, so they could not be cross examined. Perhaps the court felt it didn’t need any more evidence of what had happened. Eck openly admitted what he had done, he just claimed it was an ‘operational necessity’.
The court summarised the account of Eck:
His orders were, he said, that when operating in the South Atlantic he was to be concealed as far as possible because great numbers of U-boats had been sunk in that particular region. He manoeuvred the boat to the place of the sinking, and ordered small arms on deck to prevent danger to the boat arising out of the presence of survivors, as he had heard of cases where the loss of the U-boat had actually been caused by the presence of survivors.
He decided to destroy all pieces of wreckage and rafts and gave the order to open fire; on the floating rafts. He thought that the rafts were a danger to him, first because they would show aeroplanes the exact spot ofthe sinking, and secondly because rafts at that time of the war, as was well-known, could be provided with modern signalling communication. When he opened fire there were no human beings to be seen on the rafts.
He also ordered the throwing of hand grenades after he had realised that mere machine gun fire would not sink the rafts. He thought that the survivors had jumped out of the rafts. He further admitted that the Leading Engineer, Lenz, objected to the order. Lenz had said that he did not agree with it, but he,Eck, had told him that, despite everything, he thought it right and. proper to destroy all traces.
It was clear to him, he went on, that all possibility of saving the survivors’ lives had gone. He could not take the survivors on board the U-boat because it was against his orders. He was under the impression that the mood on board was rather depressed. He himself was in the same mood; consequently he said to the crew that with a heavy heart he had finally made the decision to destroy the remainder of the sunken ship.
The firing went on for about five hours.
In his address to the crew, he said: “If we are influenced by too much sympathy, we must also think of our wives and children who at home die also as victims of air attack.”
To the Prosecutor’s question: “Sympathy about the wreckage? “, Eck said it was quite clear to him that the survivors would also die. Eck realised that they would die as a result of his shooting. He gave the order to shoot to Hoffmann, Weisspfennig and Schwender, but not to Lenz.
The full record of the trial can be read at World Courts. there is also a longer exposition of the trial at U-Boat Net. It is argued that the Allies accepted ‘Operational Necessity” when they killed Japanese survivors at sea in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and on other occasions but the court did not take this into account in Eck’s trail.