August 8, U-boat Headquarters, Kapitän zur See Bauer’s office, 0930 hours
The U-39 had transitted the canal under tow and Forstmann finally got her tied up at the repair pier. Forstmann had to report, so he left eins and the chief to haggle with the MAN (See Note) people and the yard men.
MAN is short for Machinenfabrik Augsburg und Nurnberg – one of the manufacturers of the U-boat engines.
Forstmann was ushered in. He saluted and clicked his heels. Then he handed his report to the leader of the U-boats.
Bauer skimmed over the summary.
“You sank HOW much shipping?”
“By my estimate, about 94,000 registered tons.”
“Most of my U-boats are pressed to sink 8,000 tons a cruise. (See Note 1) How did you do it.”
“Sir, my cruise could be divided into two very productive phases. After I took up my assigned station in the south channel of the Englisch Channel, I had simply wandered into a high traffic area. I could barely get one ship sunk before another showed up. For six days, I was sinking six ships a day. No outbound fishing boats. All but a couple over 2,500 registered tons and all but four were eastbound. A couple of neutral ships proceeded on with over a hundred men on their decks. Once I determined they were neutral I simply directed them to where I thought the boats from my last victims were. Maybe I let some neutrals with contraband go, but the Red Duster ships were coming so fast I just let the neutrals go.”
“Then the hunting turned cold.dead cold. I don’t think my victims warned them off. I boarded several ships and never found a wireless. The sea simply went empty. For days and days I lurked off the Lizard and … nothing.”
“Wandering around, my machinery began
to deteriorate, so when you sent the recall order, I was not sorry.
But then on the way around Ireland, we encountered a strange ship. She was a roughly 2,000 ton freighter outbound but she was rolling like a log. After our dry spell I went to stop her, but she dropped screens covering 7.5 cm guns and began shooting at us. I had my gun crew on deck but only had four shells left. The crew had been well-practiced on the cruise and managed to sink her with four hits. Truth be told, she was so top-heavy she needed little prodding to turn turtle. Her gunnery was slovenly. They never got a round within two hundred meters of us.”
“We have reports of such craft, and a couple of U-boats have disappeared without a trace. Go on.”
“Well, we rounded Ireland and crossed the North Channel shipping lane when we encountered an escorted convoy.”
“A convoy you say? …and escorted? By what”
“Ja – a convoy. About seventy ships in seven columns escorted by what appeared to be an armed merchant cruiser. There may have been more, but we didn’t see any. Once I saw a cruiser, it was time to submerge.”
“Where was this?”
“In the approach to the North Channel, less than 200 kilometers from Belfast.”
“Did you attack the merchant cruiser?”
“Nein. We had by pure chance managed to be right in front of the convoy, almost at the center. The cruiser was three or four kilometers to the north and east, we could not maneuver for a decent shot. Besides a warship has a lot of lookouts and might see a torpedo trail coming in and dodge it. Merchants simply are not that alert, nor as maneuverable. We had only five torpedoes and I wanted to get five big ships.”
“So we worked our way between two of the center columns and let the lead ships pass. Then it was a simple matter of lining up two of the biggest ships in the passing columns, one with a forward tube and one with an aft tube at nearly point-blank range. Thus we gave the enemy no chance even if he was alert. The second ship must have been loaded with ammunition because she blew up so violently we lost control of the U-boat for a few minutes. A little later we did it again, but at longer range with better results – we sunk the ships without being tossed all over the ocean. A little later we got another one. It looked like maybe the convoy had scattered as the previous order was gone.”
“I would recommend that U-boat Kommandants attack such ships at ranges of between 500 and 800 meters. The one ship was very close and the other, while farther away blew up violently. The shock of these explosions made us momentarily lose control of the U-39”
“From there, we limped home. In fact the second engine failed and we had to be towed to Kiel for repairs.”
“How long will the U-39 need for repairs?”
“My engineer thinks two to three weeks but it looks like we may have to wait for repairs. It looks like the High Seas Fleet took quite the beating.”
“Actually, they won two victories while you were on patrol, but victory usually comes at a steep price.”
“Clearly so, sir.”
“Very well, Forstmann. Get back to your boat and give your crew two weeks’ leave. Take some leave yourself. I’ll see if I can expedite your repairs. I will call you back for further briefings after I read your entire report.”
“Thank you, sir.”
August 8, Channel Fleet Headquarters, 1000 Hours
“Gentlemen, let us get started. What is going on in the Channel?”
“Its seems the focus of enemy submarine action has shifted to the west. The French did report finding and destroying a floating German mine. Whether this was part of a concerted action or just a drifter, we don’t know.”
“Two thirds of the wreck at Honfleur has been removed. The French tell us it will be cleared within a couple of days. They have sent minesweepers up river to sweep every inch of it all the way to Rouen. Once the wreck and mines are cleared, they estimate it will take another two days to get all the shipping trapped at Rouen out to allow incoming traffic to move.”
“So, if everything goes as the French think it will – which it hasn’t done yet – their biggest port will have been shut down for a solid month with almost no losses for the Germans?”
“That’s about the size of it, sir. The good news is there have been no attacks in the roadstead since we met last. The French have flooded the area with patrol boats. These patrol boats are usually nothing more than a trawler with a Hotchkiss gun and a superannuated reserve gun crew. One of our men at Le Havre is a bit of a wag and commented that he has never seen so many fifty-year-old Frenchmen at sea at the same time in his entire life.”
That brought a chuckle in the room.
“A fishing boat with a Hotchkiss is hardly a Queen Elizabeth, but it appears the Germans are sufficiently bluffed for now.”
“Have they attacked any more of our little convoys?”
“None have been attacked since the disaster on the Third, sir.”
“This convoy massacre, following after the big one off Belfast, has the Admiralty at odds about convoys. The Germans seem to find our convoys easily enough and without some means of striking back, we are simply concentrating targets for them and simultaneously relieving them of the Cruiser Rules.
“Speaking of which, do the intensive French patrols at the Seine roadstead constitute a stationary convoy?”
“We don’t know, sir. We have discreetly inquired at the Foreign Office’s Legal bureau but have gotten no answer so far.”
“Two big issues. One is out of our purview, but the German submarines are molesting the mine removal effort at Harwich. Of much greater interest is that there is a vigorous German submarine campaign off the Mouth of the Thames. In a single twenty-four hour period, five merchants have been sunk between Sheerness and Shoeburyness. In one instance the crew was confronted by the U-boat and its gun. As they took to their boats, another ship rammed their and both ships sank.”
“Good Lord! We are beginning to sound like the French. I heard that a shore battery sank one of our own vessels off Harwich.”
“We had heard that, too sir, but Harwich is beyond our purview.”
“From our standpoint, you are correct, but I doubt this Letters fellow makes much of that fine point. Is there still talk that Letters may be coming to the Channel?”
“Just rumor, sir.”
“How did the Revenge’s bombardment of Zeebrugge go?”
“First reports indicate great success. We had a photo reconnaissance plane up this morning and should get some pictures by tomorrow. The Revenge reports that the base was burning furiously.”
“How about the South Channel?” (See Note 2)
“U-boat activity is down, sir”
“Then the Thames is our main problem today. I must report to the Admiralty, but we will re-convene this afternoon and I want a plan of action. Any questions? Dismissed.”
1.Ships in 1915 were much smaller than in 1939-1945. A 3,000 ton ship was bigger than
average in 1915. So sinking 50,000 tons of shipping meant sinking at least twenty
2. The passage between Britanny and Ireland/Cornwall.