The unpopular U-boat officers from U-581

An interesting view of the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Westcott, pictured in 1943.

Not all U-Boat commanders were as resolved as Reinhard Hardegen of U-123.

U Boat U-581 was attacked and sunk by HMS Westcott, Cdr Ian Hamilton Bockett-Pugh, southwest of the Azores on 2nd February. Once again the German perspective of the attack was pieced together by Naval Intelligence when they interviewed the survivors:

“U 581″ was in the Straits between the islands of Pico and Fayal in the early hours of 2nd February, 1942, steering a north-westerly course, when she became aware of the presence of one or more British destroyers and immediately dived.

She fired one torpedo from her stern tube at the nearer of the two destroyers, but is was admitted that it went wide of its mark. It was not yet daylight, but the moon was full. While “U 581″ was submerged at a depth of about 80 metres (262.47 ft.) a rivet on the flange of her port after exhaust pipe gave way and water entered the engine room compartment. Strenuous efforts were made to control the entry of water, but these were of no avail, owing to the pressure at this depth. The entry of water aft not only made it very difficult to keep trim while submerged, but it also threatened to put the electric motors out of action.

An atmosphere of panic prevailed and “U 581″ submerged to a depth of some 160 metres (524.94 ft.) involuntarily. The Commanding Officer ordered the tanks to be blown and “U 581″ rose to within some 20 metres (65.61 ft.) of the surface, when the sound of the destroyers’ propellers overhead could be distinctly heard. The Engineer Officer accordingly appealed to the Captain to submerge again as he was afraid they were going to collide with the attacking craft. The Captain acceded to this request and the boat once more dived, somewhat out of control, to about 150 metres (492.13 ft.). But this was too much for the Commanding Officer’s nerves and he finally gave the order to surface.

After U-581 surfaced the attacking destroyer, H.M.S. Westcott, managed to ram her.

The crew of the U-Boat had abandoned ship a matter of some five seconds before the impact. No attempt was made to engage “Westcott” with gunfire. H.M.S. “Westcott” now prepared to carry out a second ramming, but before this could be put into effect, “U 581′s” bows rose clear of the water and she sank by the stern in over 400 fathoms.

As well as piecing together the details of attacks on U-Boats, from which they could glean very useful tactical information, Naval Intelligence sought to build up a broad picture of the operations of the U-Boat arm generally. The crew of U-581 were not a happy bunch and apparently were very ready to provide lots of information about many other U-Boats operating from their base, how successful they were and where they had been. The general morale of U-boat crews was of equal interest – and in this case the crew of U-581 proved to be very forthcoming about their pay and conditions – but not least some comments about their own officers:

Kapitänleutnant Werner Pfeifer

He had been on the friendliest terms with his Engineer Officer before the war and there is little doubt that either willingly or perhaps subconsciously he allowed himself to come under the evil influence of this man. Pfeifer gave the impression of being a casual type who had failed to take his U-Boat career very seriously. Though probably glad to have his own command, he does not seem to have been particularly energetic or enthusiastic in the pursuit of enemy shipping.

It was said of him that on one occasion, when a British destroyer had been sighted, he had excused himself with the remark: “I’ve got to go to the lavatory for a moment,” despite the entreaties of his junior officers to take offensive action. When he returned the destroyer was not in a favourable position for attack.

Such lack of enthusiasm had a depressing effect on his crew, who were not slow to show their dislike of returning to port with no pennants flying, whereas other U-Boats would usually fly several, one for each ship claimed sunk. He was stated not even to have wished his crew a merry Christmas or a happy New Year. In sharp contradistinction to some of the more popular commanding officers, he allowed no alcohol on board his boat.

Pfeifer wrote a protest about his capture, claiming that it was all a mistake – he had been in neutral waters at the time of his sinking, had not tried to torpedo anyone, and should not be a prisoner of war but be allowed to go to a neutral country.

The Engineer Officer Helmut Krummel was described as the evil genius of the boat:

If his manner under interrogation is any indication of his behaviour on board his unpopularity is not surprising. Tales were recounted of how he had forbidden the crew to listen to any music, unless he personally issued orders to this effect. Also, there was said not to be a single petty officer or man in “U 581″ who had not received punishment at his hands. On one occasion a chief petty officer had threatened Krummel with personal violence in the presence of other officers. Officers from “U 93″ described him as always trying to pick out the bad points in other people’s characters and to ignore the good.

Read the whole report at U Boat Archive.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

liz green February 24, 2014 at 8:44 am

Commander Bockett-Pugh was my father. He received 3 DSO’s, one for this incident.

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