In one 28-day cruise in February 1944 in the North Atlantic, a British anti-submarine group of hunter-killer ships sank five German U-boats.
One by one, Hitler's snipers of the sea and their 50-man crews died in the deep. There were no survivors. They joined thousands of comrades who had been drowned, blown to bits, machine-gunned, crushed, left on the surface to freeze or just vanished.
When a sixth U-boat, U-264, was forced to surface, HMS Wild Goose and other sloops fired away. Capt. Hartwig Looks and crew scuttled and abandoned the submarine and were rescued.
Talkative prisoners revealed much about the U-264's new snorkel underwater breathing device.
The cruise was described by group leader Johnny Walker as a "sock in the jaw for [German Adm. Karl] Doenitz." It highlighted the disintegration of the dreaded U-boats from what historian Clay Blair termed "the hunters" to "the hunted" on virtual suicide missions.
The picture of Hitler's U-boat men that is emerging in updated examinations, after the opening of many records, is not of enemies paralyzing the overall Allied war effort, as has sometimes been portrayed. After a fast start, German subs sank fewer and fewer vessels, and when spotted they were usually relentlessly hunted down, strafed, depth-charged, bombed and torpedoed.
After 1942, although always capable of terrorizing and killing, U-boats were largely ineffectual in trying to stop the shipments of arms, materiel and food to Europe.
According to Blair, a veteran American submariner in the Pacific and author of "Silent Victory: The U.S. War Against Japan" (J. B. Lippincott Co., 1975), they were actually doomed by their leader Doenitz's rigid obedience.
"The U-boat war," he contends, was "one more suicidal enterprise foisted on the Germans by Adolf Hitler."
Blair died late last year as Random House published the second book of his exhaustive two-volume, 1,700-page study, "Hitler's U-Boat War." For three decades, records on U-boats and code-breaking were closed. When Blair got hold of them, he spent 11 years going over them boat by boat, patrol by patrol, tactic by tactic.
The first volume, "The Hunters, 1939-1942" (1996), chronicled Allied disasters as the German Operation Drumbeat sank 609 vessels in or approaching U.S. waters in eight months in 1941 and 1942. The Murmansk-bound PQ17 lost 24 ships to Nazi subs and airplanes.
Volume two, "The Hunted, 1942-1945," chronicled the downfall of the German submarine force and the increasing success of the convoys.
From September 1942 to May 1945, Blair writes, "99.4 percent of Allied merchant ships sailing in North American convoys reached their destinations intact." During this time, the Allied sailed 953 convoys east and west on the North Atlantic and Middle Atlantic runs. Of 43,526 merchant ships in these convoys, 272 were sunk.
It was the German subs that were in perilous waters. Blair attributes to the German historian Axel Niestle the conclusion that of 859 U-boats that set off on war patrols, 648 were lost -- 75 percent. Of these, 429 yielded no survivors.
What Blair finds "most shocking of all, 215 U-boats (33 percent) were lost on first patrols, usually before the green crews had learned the ropes or inflicted any damage on Allied shipping."
Herbert Werner, a U-boat captain, called his 1969 book "Iron Coffins" and wrote that Allied air power made some missions suicidal. Paul Kemp's 288-page book, "U-Boats Destroyed" (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1997) reinforces the impression of lemmings diving over the cliff.
The Allies gained the upper hand by organizing their convoy system, breaking the Enigma code, developing coordinated and deadly air and ship attacks, closing unprotected areas in the Atlantic and building about 4,700 new ships, including 2,700 Liberty ships -- more of them built in Baltimore than anywhere else.
The Germans were outnumbered, their new crews less experienced, their weapons troubled, their ships aborting missions for different reasons, their snorkels problematic, their refueling chancy.
Many historians and Allied submariners give Doenitz credit for fighting "a clean, hard war," and so does Blair. Doenitz, who succeeded Hitler briefly after the Fuehrer's suicide and spent 10 years in prison after the Nuremburg trials, lost two sons in naval action, one in a submarine sinking.
But Blair also concludes that Doenitz "knowingly and willingly sent tens of thousands of German sailors to absolutely certain death. While not a war crime per se, the fact that he aided and abetted Hitler in this suicidal naval enterprise demands a re-evaluation of his unusually high standing in the Hall of Warriors."
In the 1983 movie, "The Boat," viewers were told that 40,000 German sailors served on submarines and 30,000 "never returned." Kemp put the number of lost Germans at 27,491.
Blair used a 1942-1945 figure of 32,085, minus those rescued by other Germans, and said 5,004 were captured. The rate of U-boat lives lost, generally put at about 70 percent, was the highest of any military group in the war.
The toll of Allied personnel killed by U-boats was also high. Different sources put the dead at between 30,000 and 40,000 or even higher -- merchant seamen, naval personnel and airmen. The dead included about 6,100 merchant marine civilians on American-flag ships, out of 290,000 who served, according to Sherod Cooper, in his 1997 book "Liberty Ship."
New information on U-boats keeps popping up, fueling a growing interest in their history.
Canadian authorities in 1981 found an automated weather station at the remote Martin Bay, on the coast of Labrador. It had been set up by a U-boat crew.
It was thought that a particular U-boat had been sunk off Gibraltar Feb. 26, 1945. But in 1991 divers found and confirmed the wreck 60 miles east of Point Pleasant, N.J.
It had gone there in a communication foul-up and died there of an undetermined cause. Some speculated that one of its torpedoes had circled and destroyed it.
The U-boat war was largely a tonnage war, the Allies trying to move as much as possible to the war effort, the Germans trying to stop as much as possible.
To the end of World War II, most German submariners remained disciplined, dedicated warriors sinking ships in the Arctic, Mediterranean, Atlantic and other waters.
The week the war ended, on May 5, 1945, off Block Island, U-853 torpedoed and sank the 5,400-ton Boston-bound collier Black Point, killing 12 crewmen; the other 34 were rescued.
The Navy and Coast Guard hunted down the sub and killed it and the entire crew. Among items surfacing was the distinctive white cap that only U-boat commanders wore.
The U-boats, Blair concludes, "never even came close at any time" to cutting the important lifeline to the British Isles.
Further, even if the Germans had developed a more successful snorkel and the new electro boats had come earlier, "it would have made no major difference in cargo shipments or the outcome of the longest battle of the war."
Pub Date: 6/02/99