The story of the U-boat commander, Otto Kretschmer
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Though he served only one and a half of the six years of World War II, the German U-boat commander Otto Kretschmer, popularaly known as Silent Otto, was the most successful Ace of the Deep and no other U-boat commander was able to surpass him in terms of tonnage sunk.
Otto was born in Liegnitz, a city in south-western Poland on May 1 1912. At the age of seventeen he spent eight months living in Exeter, England where he learned to speak English fluently and in 1930 he joined the Reichsmarine where he became an officer and served for 1 year on the light cruiser Emden, the only ship of her class and the first new warship built in Germany after World War I.
By January 1936, he had been promoted to a senior lieutenant and was transferred to the U-boat fleet where he received extensive training and a year later during Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, he was placed in command of the submarine U-35 where he patrolled the Spanish coast but sunk no vessels. However when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 he and U-35 were sent to patrol the British coast in the North Sea.
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Kretschmer’s first success came when he attacked and sunk the Danish 10,517 ton tanker Danmark on January 12, 1940. However the British admiralty at that time thought that the tanker had actually struck a mine as they did not locate any U-boat in the area. A month later, on February 18th, Kretschmer sank the 1,300 ton British fleet destroyer HMS Daring while she was escorting a convoy from Norway. U-Boat crews almost always avoided deliberately engaging enemy destroyers, so the Daring’s destruction was rightly seen as a very skillful attack by Kretschmer.
Then in April 1940, Kretschmer was transferred to command of the newly-completed U-99, one of the new type VII submarines (the most successful submarine of the German fleet) and it was while during this command where, in a sense, he started his legacy.
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During the first four patrols of the U-99, Kretschmer started attacking convoys at night on the surface, taking down merchant ships with highly accurate shots, using only one torpedo per target ship in order to save ammunition, and the quote “One torpedo … one ship” is attributed to Kretschmer. From around this time, he was also given the nickname “Silent Otto”, both for his successful use of the “silent running” capability of the U-boats as well as for his reluctance to make radio broadcasts during patrols.
And on one patrol during November and December 1940, he sank three, and mortally wounded another, British armed merchant cruisers totalling over 46,000 gross tons. These three successes earned Kretschmer the number-one spot on the Aces list, and was never surpassed even though his tactics were widely copied, with mixed results, throughout the U-Boat force.
Kretschmer was also meticulous in his conduct towards the crews of torpedoed ships. When attacking lone merchant ships in the days before wolfpack tactics began in earnest, he had been known to hand down bottles of spirits and blankets into lifeboats and give them the course to the nearest land. On one patrol in September 1940, Kretschmer retrieved a survivor of another torpedo attack who was alone in the Atlantic on a small raft and took him aboard, transferring him later to a lifeboat after his next successful attack.
On a patrol during March 1941, he sunk 10 more vessels, but on the 17th of March U-99 was disabled after repeated depth charge attacks by the British destroyers HMS Walker and HMS Vanoc.
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Kretschmer surfaced and, under fire from the British vessels, scuttled his boat. Three of his men were lost, but Kretschmer and the remainder of U-99’s crew were captured by the British.
Kretschmer’s usual standards of conduct were evident during the sinking of his boat; he signaled HMS Walker asking for rescue for his men, took pains to ensure as many left the submarine as possible, and assisted some of his crew towards the rescue nets hung from the British destroyer. Kretschmer’s strength was evidently failing in the cold water and his own rescue was at the hands of a British sailor who climbed down the nets and plucked him from the water.
Upon his capture, he spent almost seven years as a P.O.W. in the hands of the British. However, Kretschmer was so valuable to the German command that in 1943, the Germans tried to rescue him from Camp 30 in Bowmanville, Ontario during the daring Operation Kiebitz.
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The plan involved sending coded messages sent by mail through the International Committee of the Red Cross to the prisoners. The goal was to tunnel out of the camp, and make their way 870 miles through eastern Canada to northern New Brunswick where they would rendezvous with an awaiting U-boat. However the Canadians had been intercepting the coded messages all along but did not tip off the prisoners as the they were hoping to get a rare chance to seize a German U-boat in Canadian waters; a feat that would have been an intelligence coup for the Allies.
As the date of the escape attempt drew closer, the camp guards moved in and seized the POWs, including Kretschmer, but one officer, Wolfgang Heyda, managed to escape over the camp walls using a crude zip-wire on electrical cables. Heyda eluded search parties and the massive police response and somehow made his way on Canadian National Railways passenger trains from southern Ontario to Pointe de Maisonnette in northern New Brunswick on Chaleur Bay. Heyda arrived at the location at the appointed time only to be arrested by personnel who were waiting to coordinate a surface task force that would attempt to attack and/or seize the awaiting U-boat.
U-536, which had been tasked with picking up the escaping naval officers, arrived off Pointe de Maisonnette and at the appointed time was signaled with a light that the escapees were to have used, however the U-boat commander was suspicious, particularly after his hydrophones picked up the sound of several warships that lay hidden nearby. U-536 opted to remain submerged and began to evade the warships which searched throughout the night and attempted unsuccessfully to attack U-536 with depth charges.
Had the plan been successful, it would have been sensational propaganda material for the Nazi war machine however Kretschmer remained a prisoner and U-536 was sunk the following month before it returned to its German homeport.
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Kretschmer wasn’t returned to Germany until December 1947 where, like several other surviving German naval veterans, he joined the post-WWII German Navy, the Bundesmarine, until he retired in September 1970 as a flotilla admiral. During a vacation in Bavaria on August 5th 1998, this day in history, he died in an accident on a boat on the Danube, while celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary. He was later cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.