Categories 1941

Surviving the sinking of U-76

U-107 returns to the U boat base at Lorient later in 1941, U-76 didn’t make it.

Quartermaster 2nd Class Carl Becker was on board U Boat U-76 when she was depth charged and forced to the surface on 5th April. His letter home recounting the events was intercepted and copied by the Royal Navy:

I am now a prisoner of war on board a British U-boat patrol vessel [HMS Wolverine or Scarborough]. I will tell you what has happened.

We were proceeding in the Atlantic, searching for merchant ships, the weather was bad, strength of the wind 6-7. Shortly after 12 noon on Friday, we sighted a merchant ship and proceeded at utmost speed through the mountainous sea in order to overhaul her. Towards evening we got into a favourable position and sank the ship with one torpedo. Thereupon, we proceeded away submerged, because we calculated that this ship had summoned a destroyer. As soon as it was dark we surfaced, but hardly had we achieved this when we saw a destroyer quite close to us. We immediately submerged. She had not noticed us. After a few hours we surfaced again because we required air and our batteries were almost exhausted. We proceeded for about one minute on the surface, when a destroyer came up again. You can imagine what we felt like. So again we had to submerge.

In a short time it would become daylight and we should be very fortunate to escape. Had our batteries been fully charged, it would perhaps have been possible. Astern of us the whole time was the sound of the destroyer’s searching apparatus – ‘tsst’ – so it continued for quite a long time and then she was above us and dropped three depth charges, which caused comparatively little damage. Then she proceeded away and we breathed again, but after about 40 minutes we heard the noise of the propellers of two destroyers and again this ‘tsst tsst’ which went through us and through us. And it is quite definite that they would find us.

Then things began to happen. Three depth charges on us. The boat shook all over. Ten minutes later there was a hailstorm of depth charges. Everything in the boat was shattered, the depth gauge moved like blazes. The boat assumed a vertical position and all was over. I had my escape apparatus and crawled up the ladder to the conning tower hatch. With the greatest difficulty and using all the remaining air we managed to bring the boat to the surface.

Then came the order ‘Abandon ship’. I was on deck at once. So was the Captain. Two destroyers and one patrol vessel were lying a few hundred metres from us. As we came up on deck, the destroyer opened fire with her machine-gun. However, no one was hit and they immediately ceased fire when we jumped into the water. They probably thought that we intended to man our gun. Most of the crew were swimming about behind the Captain. I made for the patrol vessel, which tried to fish me out of the water, but on account of the heavy seas this did not succeed, nor did a second attempt.

In the meantime, I had been swimming in the icy-cold water for half an hour and I noticed that our boat was still afloat. So I turned round and after much struggling succeeded in getting on board again. In order to put up some defence, I tried to reach the gun, but they immediately opened fire on me with their machine-gun, but only a few rounds. The Captain of the patrol vessel told me that they had at first thought that I intended to open fire with our gun. Then suddenly I was washed overboard again. Then the patrol vessel came alongside again, so close that I could jump across. Very good seamanship on the part of the Captain!

I was immediately taken down below into the engine room, where it was pleasantly warm. Someone helped me off with my wet clothes and rubbed me down with a towel. I was almost stiff with cold. Then someone brought me a thick overcoat and one of the officers took me into his cabin, gave me a good drink of rum and a blanket. Then I had to hand over my personal belongings, and I was given something to eat. They are all very friendly here and ready to help. The Lieutenant gave me some of his gear and a pair of slippers.

Shortly before dinner, the ship stopped, and I was told that they had sighted two boats with shipwrecked sailors. When they came on board I discovered that they were from our ship. Now we sat together in peace. I am feeding with the officers and sleeping on a sofa in the mess. The food is excellent. I was given cigarettes and the wound in my hand was dressed. After the midday meal I slept for two hours, then I was given coffee and cake. In the evening again there was something warm to eat. After that, I felt so poorly that I was sick – all the salt water that I had swallowed was the cause of this.

Then I sat up with the officers until 10 p.m. Three of them are from the merchant navy … Early this morning we got ham and eggs to eat, and before that porridge and milk. After breakfast they gave a Gillette razor so that I could make myself respectable. I can move around quite freely, except that I am not allowed on the bridge. Just now I am sitting beside an officer in the wardroom. I do not know what has happened to the rest of our crew; some may have been picked up by a destroyer, also the Captain.

I have barely escaped with my life, and all my possessions are at the bottom of the Atlantic. I had hoped to have gone on leave in four to five weeks, but now that is all changed. Perhaps it is all for the best and who knows whether I should have been saved on the next occasion.

The precise sequence of events were pieced together by Naval Intelligence when they interrogated the crew:

During the night “U 76” reloaded her torpedo tubes, and at 0430 on Saturday, 5th April, 1941, she surfaced again to charge her batteries and get fresh air, but had to submerge almost at once on sighting a destroyer.

At 0705 “U 76” again surfaced, but had to dive once more as a destroyer was again seen in sight.

The Germans heard the sounds of the British asdic operating, they thought, astern the U-Boat; they described the hunting vessel coming closer and closer until she seemed directly overhead.  “U 76” cook was told not to grind coffee, as the noise might be heard by the British.

At 0737, twenty minutes after “Wolverine” had ordered a sweep on course 260° at visibility distance, she gained good contact on the starboard side.  On running in to attack the recorder broke down, and only one depth charge was fired, in order not to confuse unduly the water in the target area.

According to prisoners “U 76” was at 70 m. (229 ft.).

This first depth charge, set to explode at 250 ft. put the depth gauge out of action and caused sundry broken instrument glasses, and other minor damage.

At 0745 “Arbutus” was ordered to close to assist.

At 0752 “Wolverine” dropped another single depth charge set at 500 ft.

Prisoners thought this attack was less effective.

At 0810 “Scarborough” was ordered to join and classify contact.

At 0815 “Wolverine” indicated target to “Arbutus,” who confirmed the contact, extent of target 3°, but lost it on running in to attack.

At 0848 “Wolverine” again gained contact, and indicated it to”Scarborough,” who attacked at 0920 with four depth charges set at 150 feet, and four at 300 feet.

It was stated by several men and confirmed fairly conclusively that “U 76” was at a depth of 80 m. (262 ft.) when this last attack was made.

The junior officer expressed the opinion that three of these depth charges might have been set at 80 m. (262 ft.), three at 90 m. (295 ft.), one at 95 m. (311.6 ft.), and one at about 100 m. (328 ft.).  He added that in such circumstances a U-Boat would be doomed.

The Engineer Officer thought that one of the depth charges must have exploded close to and level with the conning tower.

One depth charge which exploded close to the port side caused most of the damage.  Serious leaks started aft by a welded seam giving away, all the instruments were destroyed, a stanchion was bent, and most of the remaining lights were extinguished.  The U-Boat went down by the stern.  It was stated that no water entered the Control Room, of the Diesel compartment, but the Captain considered that the Diesels had been put out of action.

“U 76” was forced to the surface, and the crew scrambled out through the conning tower hatch.

When there were only five men left in the U-Boat the Captain gave the order to open the stern torpedo tube; it could not be ascertained whether this order was carried out.  The last to leave the U-Boat were the Sub-Lieutenant and the Engineer Officer.

“Scarborough” fired several rounds to discourage any attempt on the part of the Germans to man their guns, and “Arbutus” signalled “Am ramming,” but hauled off as the U-Boat’s crew were seen to be abandoning ship.

The entire complement was rescued with the exception of one rating.  The German Captain stated that this man died because he jumped into the sea before putting the mouth-piece of his escape apparatus into his mouth.  He allowed sea water to get into the breathing tube; this acted on the potash cartridge and produce potash lye; he then put the mouth-piece between his teeth, and breathed in acidular gasses from the apparatus; these burnt his lungs.

For the full report see TNA ADM 178/221.

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