A U-boat commander hunts for his first kill

The forward gun crew of U-123 prepare to engage a surface vessel sometime in January 1942.

Admiral Donitz, the German U Boat commander was now adopting new tactics. Following Hitler's declaration of war on the United States, in late December he despatched a number of his most experienced U-boats across the Atlantic to attack shipping on the eastern seaboard. For the Atlantic convoys crossing to Britain there was some respite, as the U-Boats took on the the largely undefended United States merchant traffic passing through ready marked shipping lanes.

Other U-Boat commanders took on their targets wherever they found them.

Peter Cremer was commander of U-333, with no combat experience he had left on his first war patrol in an ocean going boat on the 27th December 1941. Now in the Atlantic he surfaced to find unexpected prey:

Night-time on 2 January we surfaced again. I was standing on the bridge and could not believe my eyes when suddenly through my binoculars I saw a cloud of black smoke which quickly dispersed against the dark night sky Visibility was good. I dried the wet lenses, looked again – and there she was again, my first opponent. (Had the vessel been neutral, her display of lights, and her national colours painted on her hull would have made this clear.) Slowly the outline of a tanker revealed itself still too far away to get in a shot. Behind me the sky was black and overcast, but the air was cold and clear, and by chance the moon came out of the clouds. I turned at maximum speed towards the tanker, offering her a slim silhouette – and then I had her about 400 metres in front of me.

A lot has been written about how a submarine commander feels when he sees his first opponent in the crosswires of his sights. He is compared to a hunter who has his first royal stag before his gun and trembles with excitement. With me it was nothing like that. I was neither excited nor ice-cold. For me it was part of a well-rehearsed routine, culminating in the deadly dialogue:

‘Tubes I to 5, stand by for spreading salvo.’
Factually coolly position, speed and distance are fed into the fire-control apparatus for the torpedoes, as into a computer.
‘Open bow caps’
‘Bow caps open.’
‘Tubes 1, 2 and 5 ready’
‘Ready”
‘Salvo – Fire!”

A shudder runs through the boat as all three ‘eels’ leave their tubes at two-second intervals. Suddenly the boat has become lighter by 4.5 tons and must be counter-trimmed forward at once. Everything goes like clockwork, just as it did on the attacking course in the Baltic. But what is this?

One of us is not playing the game, not sticking to the rules. The tanker has no intention of keeping still and allowing herself to be despatched. She has, to stay with huntsman’s language, smelt powder. Despite the darkness her look-out probably spotted the tell-tale tracks and the captain has enough experience of war to turn towards them at once. All three torpedoes miss by a hair’s breadth.

The tanker meanwhile is so taken aback that she forgets to bring her gun to bear, but radio’s continually for help, giving the signal ‘SSS SSS SSS’ and her position, calling down fire and brimstone on my neck. And so, to cap it all, an aircraft of RAF Coastal Command comes at us at low level and there is nothing more to be done but dive, and creep away from the scene.

The tanker was the Algonquin, an American ship of 10,800 loaded displacement tons. She survived the whole war intact.

See Peter Cremer: U-Boat Commander: A Periscope View of the Battle of the Atlantic

It was the beginning of an eventful career for U-333, details of which can be found at U-Boat.net.

This view from the conning tower of U-123 shows their intended victim in the distance.

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