Experience counted for a lot as a U-boat commander. Teddy Suhren was to become famous as a U-boat Ace, yet even he experienced some narrow escapes and frustrating episodes. In the summer of 1942 he took U-564 on a long 72 day cruise around the Caribbean – it was hoped that they could capitalise on the rich pickings of weakly defended ships that had been experienced since the USA had entered the war.
Yet the US Navy was rapidly developing its response to the U-boats – and a long patrol was of itself not necessarily an advantage. They resupplied from a ‘milch cow’ U boat whilst at sea, even transferring new torpedoes from boat to boat in a difficult operation. But the strain of such a long patrol took its toll – they narrowly missed being bombed when his crew failed to spot an aircraft. There were more difficulties still to be faced:
I decide to remain submerged during the day. Otherwise the watch on the bridge have to remain alert to everything and the demands on them are too great. It is too much for the men.
The grilling sun, the brightness on the sea, the blistering heat, all combine to make the concentration seize up. Conditions in the Caribbean are quite different to those in the Atlantic. I shall avoid taking any risks, and dive by day.
In the safety ofthe deep I can rely on the listening-room, which can let me know of any propeller noise, and the crew can relax. And even if the sweat does trickle from every pore, at least the water isn’t too cold!
At night we surface, and my place is on the bridge. I am in the middle of a watch one night, when the same thing happens again. Another boat reports a contact: convoy in quadrant so- and-so, speed 10 knots, course northeast.
According to the Nav. Officer the convoy should bein sight round about 05.00 local time, so I go below and have a lie down. The radio operator is supposed to wake me at the right time.
Later, around 03.00, I wake up, turn over and try to go back to sleep. But I begin to wonder why I am so wide awake if nothing is up? On the bridge a cool wind blows in my face and freshens me up as we cruise.
‘Have you seen anything? ‘No, not a thing? There’s still a bit of time to go. I take a look through the glasses, as a matter of routine since nothing is happening. A glance behind us and I am thunderstruck. That has to be … ‘Look, you lot the entire convoy is steaming along behind us; it’s just about on top of us! What the devil’s happened to your eyes?’
The WO and the look-outs gaze in the direction I mean, but they can’t make anything out. I give orders to turn in that direction, and after a while the silhouettes appear over the horizon; I can clearly see the escorts. Either my crew have gone blind, or they are not used to the tropics! But now isn’t the time to discuss it.
The sky’s just beginning to turn grey, and with the short dawn in the tropics it will soon be light. So I give orders to dive, and settle down again. The convoy steams on as though pulled on a string.
It’s day- light now. The torpedoes are ready, the four tubes are trained on the freighters. Range 1,200m. We send off the first. We clearly hear a loud bang – but no detonation. The other eels don’t work either.
One ofthe freighters stops and I see through the periscope the crew bending over the rails amidships. There doesn’t seem to be any damage, otherwise the ship wouldn’t still be hanging about as a target. They must be looking at the place where the torpedo has hit them: but it’s not gone off.
The four torpedoes that we went to all that trouble to get on board in the Atlantic are duds. The complicated mechanics of a torpedo – control system, rudder mechanism and detonator – simply couldn’t stand jolts as hard as those inflicted by the bombs dropped from the aeroplane.