Werner, Herbert A.
Herbert A. Werner
Excerpt from Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the GermanU-Boat Battles of World War II
First published in 1969; reprinted in 1998
Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, marked the beginning of World War II (1939-45). Great Britain and France had promised to protect Poland if it were attacked and declared war on Germany two days later. On that same day the British passenger ship Athenia, traveling westward across the Atlantic Ocean toward Canada, was sunk by a German submarine. The attack had come without warning. Over one hundred of the ocean liner's thirteen hundred passengers perished. The Battle of the Atlantic—a deadly, six-year-long campaign—had begun.
Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) is surrounded by water: the Atlantic Ocean to the west and north, the North Sea to the east, and the English Channel to the south. Throughout World War II, Great Britain relied on the Atlantic waterways as paths for receiving much-needed food, fuel, manpower, military supplies, and equipment to fight the Germans. German forces sought to cut off these supply lines.
U-boats (German submarines) were the key to Germany's early dominance in the Battle of the Atlantic: they could launch both surface and underwater attacks. (The U-boat takes its name from the word unterseeboot, which is German for "submarine.") British prime minister Winston Churchill asserted that during the war "everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on [the] outcome" of the Battle of the Atlantic.
The convoy system—in which nonmilitary merchant boats sailed together in groups, protected by an armed navy escort—was used to keep war supplies flowing into the British Isles from the United States. It was the job of the submarines and battleships of the Kriegsmarine (the German navy) to destroy the convoys before they reached Great Britain.
The Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing very early in the war. While patrolling the Atlantic for submarines in September of 1939, the British aircraft carrier Courageous was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The Courageous exploded and sank, killing hundreds of British sailors. The next month the German U-boat U-47, commanded by U-boat ace Günther Prien, slipped into a Scottish harbor under the cover of darkness and sank HMS Royal Oak, a huge British battleship. More than eight hundred British sailors died. (HMS stands for "His Majesty's Ship," or "Her Majesty's Ship," referring to the British king or queen.)
In addition to its submarines and standard battleships, the Kriegsmarine had two lightweight, high-speed "pocket battleships" in its arsenal. One of these, the Graf Spee, was sent into the South Atlantic to destroy British ships. It sank nine merchant ships in the fall of 1939. But a punishing encounter with three British cruisers—the Exeter, the Ajax, and the Achilles—proved to be the Graf Spee's undoing. (Cruisers are smaller than battleships and very fast.) After taking shelter in a harbor in Uruguay (a country in south east South America) and assessing his chances for a successful escape, Graf Spee captain Hans Langsdorff destroyed his own ship with massive explosives to avoid capture by the British. The next night he committed suicide.
Around this time, Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of the German U-boat force, formulated a plan to assure German victory in the Atlantic. He felt that the fighting power of the submarines would be unbeatable if the boats traveled in clusters. These so-called "wolf packs"—usually five or six U-boats working together to destroy the same convoy—began traveling together in the summer of 1940 and proved highly effective. U-boats also worked in cooperation with German bomber aircraft, which scouted for enemy ships from the air.
The Allied powers (the countries fighting against Germany and its allies, called the Axis powers) used air power for protection. A U-boat that was above water typically dived for cover whenever an aircraft approached. Once submerged, a U-boat was far less capable of detecting and tracking enemy ships.
German battleships continued to play a key role in the Battle of the Atlantic throughout 1940. The British merchant cruiser Jervis Bay was escorting more than three dozen ships through the North Atlantic in November of 1940 when it encountered the German pocket battleship the Admiral Scheer. The Jervis Bay took on the much larger and more heavily armed Scheer, giving the ships in the British convoy a chance to scatter and reach safety. The Jervis Bay was sunk, but the heroic action of her captain and crew saved thirty-two of the thirty-seven ships in the convoy from a similar fate. By the end of 1940, the Germans had destroyed approximately one thousand British ships.
The German navy dominated the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941. The sinking of HMS Hood (see box) in May of 1941 was a stunning blow for the British. By midsummer 1941 American ships had joined in efforts to convoy merchant ships bound for Britain. Up until this point the United States had allowed its navy to serve only as a patroller of neutral waters. But in September U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that American naval convoys could and would attack German war vessels. On October 30, 1941, a German submarine sank the American destroyer Reuben James. This event marked America's first real loss in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Things to remember while reading the Iron Coffins excerpt:
- After conquering Norway and France in the spring of 1940, the Germans were able to use the Atlantic coastal waters of these nations for U-boat bases. The bases gave the German navy a distinct advantage over the Allies on the high seas throughout 1941 and 1942. In 1942 alone, U-boats sank more than twelve hundred Allied ships.
- In the early phases of the battle it was next to impossible to detect German submarines lurking in the Atlantic Ocean. The Allied forces realized that the war against the U-boats could be won only with advanced tracking methods. Technological breakthroughs such as radar and sonar gave the Allies the upper hand in the later stages of the battle. (Radar is short for "RAdio Detection And Ranging," and sonar is short for "SOund NAvigation Ranging." Radar and sonar made use of reflected radio and sound waves, respectively, to pinpoint the location of enemy subs.)
- Between 1941 and 1945 the author, Herbert A. Werner, served on five different German submarines. He used his wartime notes and letters to compose Iron Coffins.
- In his introduction to Iron Coffins, Werner wrote: "Because I was one of the few U-boat commanders who fought through most of the war and who managed to survive, I felt it was my duty to my fallen comrades to set the record straight… This book belongs to my dead comrades, stricken down wholesale in the prime of youth. I hope it pays them the honor they deserve. If I have succeeded in handing down to the reader the ancient lesson that each generation seems to forget—that war is evil … then I consider this my most constructive deed."
- Werner took part in his first U-boat battle in May 1941, when he was just twenty-one years old. The following excerpt describes a grueling two-day clash that occurred in May of 1943, after the Allies had gained superiority in the Battle of the Atlantic. Werner was then the executive officer of U-230, second in command to the captain.
- The four-digit numbers in the paragraphs below are times— the first two digits represent hours and the last two represent minutes. Military time is measured on a twenty-four-hour scale. The first twelve hours in a day are recorded as "0100" (for the first hour after midnight) through "1200" hours. The afternoon and evening hours are recorded as "1300" (for 1:00 P.M.) through "2400" hours (for midnight).
Excerpt from Iron Coffins
May 12. 0716: … Before we could risk resurfacing to race into a new attack position, we had to put distance between us and theconvoy … For almost two hours we traveled diagonally away from the giants of steel.
0915: U-230 surfaced. Mounting the bridge while the deck was stillawash, I took a hurried look in a circle. Far to the northeast, mastheads and funnels moved along the sharp line which divided the ocean from the sky. U-230 forged through the sea, parallel to the convoy's track, in an attempt to reach a forward position before dusk.…
0955: … I saw a twin-engined plane dropping out of the sun. The moment of surprise was total.
"Alarrrmmm! " We plunged head over heels into theconning tower . The boat reacted at once and shot below the surface.…
Four short, ferocious explosions shattered the water above and around us. The boat trembled and fell at a 60-degree angle. Water splashed, steel shrieked, ribs moaned, valves blew, deck-plates jumped, and the boat was thrown into darkness. As the lights flickered on, I saw astonishment in the … eyes of the men. They had every right to be astounded: the attack out of the sun was a completemystery. Where had the small plane come from? It did not have the range to fly a round-trip between the nearest point of land and the middle of the Atlantic. The conclusion was inescapable that the con voy launched its own airplanes… The idea of a convoy with its own air defense smashed our basic concept of U-boat warfare. No longer could we mount a surprise attack or escape without meeting savage counterattacks.…
1035: U-230 came up to periscope depth. A careful check with our "sky scope," an instrument similar to the periscope, revealed no aircraft. We surfaced at high speed.
The hunt went on. We pressed forward obstinately… I glanced only occasionally at the …horizon and concentrated on the sky.…
1110: I detected a glint of metal between the clouds. It was a small aircraft, and it was diving into the attack.
Fifty seconds later, four explosions nearby taught us that the pilot was a well-trainedbombardier …
1125: U-230 surfaced. We drove forward and clung to the fringes of the convoy with grim determination …
1217: "Aircraft deadastern, alarrrmmm!"
U-230 dived once more and descended rapidly. I bit my lip and waited for the final blast. At forty-five seconds, four booms whipped the boat with violent force. Every second we were able to snatch from the pursuing aircraft brought us closer to the convoy and success. But if we dived a second too late, bombs would end our hunt with sudden death.…
1323: Our radio mate delivered an urgent message to the Captain: ATTACKED BY AIRCRAFT. UNABLE TO DIVE. SINKING… HELP. U-456.
"HavePrager check position,"Siegmann shouted back. "Maybe we can save the crew."
The captain's impulse to rescue our comrades might well result in suicide. We were closer to death than to life ourselves. But help wasimperative —we would have expected the same. Moments later, Prager reported that U-456 was only twelve miles ahead… Immediately, the Captain changed course.
1350: We spotted a plane circling four miles ahead. Then myglasses picked up thebow of U-456 poking out of the rough sea. The men clung to the slippery deck and to the steel cable strung from bow to bridge. Most of them stood in the water up to their chests. The aircraft kept circling above the sinking boat, making itfoolhardy for us to approach. Another danger prevented rescue: astern, acorvette crept over the horizon, evidently summoned by the plane. Now our own lives were in jeopardy. We turned away from the aircraft, theescort, and U-456, and fled in the direction of the convoy.
1422: "Aircraft astern!"
… It was too late to dive. The single-engined plane came in low in a straight line [over us]. I fingered the trigger of my gun… [It] was jammed. I kicked itsmagazine, clearing the jam. Then Iemptied the gun at the menace . The mate's automatic bellowed. Our boat veered tostarboard, spoiling the plane's bomb run. The pilot revved up his engine, circled, then roared toward us from dead ahead. As the plane dived very low, its engine sputtered, then stopped. Wing first, the plane crashed into the surging ocean, smashing its other wing on our superstructure as we raced by. The pilot, thrown out of his cockpit, lifted his arm and waved for help, but then I saw him disintegrate in the explosion of the four bombs which were meant to destroy us. Four violent shocks kicked into our starboard side astern, but we left the horrible scene unharmed.…
1545: A report from the radio room put our small victory into proper perspective:DEPTH CHARGES BY THREEDESTROYERS . SINKING. U-186. This new loss was the 11th we had heard of since our patrol began.…
1600: U-230 cut into theprojected path of the convoy. I saw four columns of ships creep over the sharp horizon in the southwest, headed in our direction. We had to halt them.…
1638: … Siegmann … cried, "Down with the boat, Chief, take her down for God's sake, destroyer inramming position … "
… As the boat swiftly descended, the harrowing sound of the destroyer's engines and propellers hit the steel of ourhull . It grew sofast, and echoed so deafeningly, that we were all unable to move. Only our boat was moving, and she went downward much too slowly to escape the blow.
An earshattering boom ruptured the sea. Aspread of six depth charges lifted the boat, tossed her out of the water, and left her on the surface at the mercy of four British destroyers. The screws of U-230 rotated in highest revolutions, driving us ahead. For seconds there was silence. For seconds the British were baffled and stunned. After a whole eternity, our bow dipped and the boat sank—and sank.
A new series of exploding charges lifted our stern with a mighty force. Our boat, entirely out of control, was catapulted toward the bottom five miles below.… U-230 tumbled to 250 meters before [we were] able to reverse her fall.…
1716: A new spread deafened us and took our breath away… The steel knocked and shrieked and valves were thrown into open position… Water everywhere. Its weight forced the boat deeper into the depths. In the meantime, the convoy crawled in a thunderous procession over our boat.
1740: The uproar was at its peak. A sudden splash told us that we had 10 or 15 seconds to brace against another barrage. The charges went off just beyond lethal range… Perhaps we should risk going deeper. I did not know where our limit was, where the hull would finally crack. No one knew. Those who had found outtook their knowledge into the depths . For hours we suffered the punishment and sank gradually deeper. In a constant pattern, spreads of twenty-four charges battered our boat every twenty minutes.…
2000: [A] new group [of escorts] launched its first attack, then another, and another. We sat helpless 265 meters below… Our bodies were stiff from cold, stress, and fear… Thebilges were flooded with water, oil, and urine. Our washrooms were under lock and key; to use them then would have meant instant death, for the tremendous outside pressure would have acted in reverse… Added to the stench of waste, sweat, and oil was the stink of the battery gases. The increasing humidity condensed on the cold steel, dropped into the bilges, dripped from pipes, and soaked our clothes. By midnight, the Captain realized that the British would not let up in their bombardment, and he ordered the distribution ofpotash cartridges to supplement breathing. Soon every man was equipped with a large metal box attached to his chest, a rubber hose leading to his mouth, and a clamp on his nose.…
May 13… [As of] 0400 … we had been under assault for 12 hours and there was no sign of relief. This day was my birthday and I wondered whether it would be my last.…
May 14. By midnight, we had approached the limit for boat and crew. We had reached a depth of 280 meters and the boat was still sinking. I dragged myself through the aisle, pushing and tossing men around, forcing them to stay awake. Whoever fell asleep might never be awakened.
0310: A thunderous spread rattled down, but without effect. We were closer to being crushed by the mounting pressure than by the exploding canisters. As the echo of the last blast slowly subsided, something else attracted our attention. It was the thrashing of retreating propellers. For a long time we listened to the fading sound, unable to believe that theTommies had given up the hunt.
0430: … U-230 broke through to air and life. We pushed ourselves up to the bridge. Around us spread the infinite beauty of night, sky, and ocean… We could not believe that death had kept his finger on us for thirty-five gruesome hours.
Abruptly I felt the impact of the oxygen-rich air upon my system. Almost losing consciousness, I sagged to my knees and slumped over the rim of the bridge.…
The diesels coughed to life. Since the convoy had disappeared long ago, we traveled south, toward our last position. The engines muttered reassuringly… The bilges were emptied, the foul air expelled, and the accumulatedrefuse thrown overboard. When the darkness dissolved and a new day dawned, U-230 was again ready for combat. (Werner, pp. 119-26)
What happened next …
Werner was promoted to commander in December of 1943 and began his training in January 1944. By that time the Germans were losing the Battle of the Atlantic. British, American, and Canadian bombers were working together to provide air cover over the Atlantic from North America to Europe.
In April of 1944 Werner took command of his own U-boat, U-415. He and his crew successfully evaded heavy bombing raids that spring, only to sink in July while docked at Brest Harbor, a seaport off France's northwestern coast. (The submarine activated a mine that had been laid in the port by the British.) In August Werner assumed command of U-953, a dilapidated boat with an inexperienced crew. They managed to survive until war's end.
Did you know …
- British prime minister Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, "The only thing that really frightened me during [World War II] was the U-boat peril."
- In the first half of 1942 German U-boats sank more than two hundred merchant ships in the western part of the Atlantic, bringing the war closer to American shores than ever before.
- By the time World War II was over some twenty-eight thousand of the thirty-nine thousand men in Germany's U-boat force had died in battle. In addition, about eight hundred U-boats were lost by the end of the war. "One by one, our crews sailed out obediently, even optimistically, on ludicrous missions that ended in death," wrote Werner in his introduction to Iron Coffins. "When hostilities finally ceased in May 1945, the ocean floor was littered with the wreckage of the U-boat war." Of all the subs that had seen battle duty, only three remained afloat when Germany surrendered in 1945. One of these three, U-953, was under Werner's command. Werner attributes his survival, in large part, to luck.
- Werner immigrated to the United States in 1957 and later became an American citizen.
For More Information
Buchheim, Lothart-Günther. Das Boot. Originally published in 1975. Published in English translation as The Boat. New York: Dell, 1988.
Burn, A. Fighting Captain: The Story of Frederic John Walker and the Battle of the Atlantic. Philadelphia: Trans-Atlantic Publications, 1993. Reprinted, 1998.
Hirschfeld, Wolfgang. Hirschfeld: The Story of a U-Boat NCO, 1940-1946.U.S. Naval Institute, 1996.
Lane, T. The Merchant Seaman's War. UK/New York: Manchester University Press, 1990.
Thomas, D.A. The Atlantic Star: 1939-45. UK: W.H. Allen, 1990.
Topp, Erich. The Odyssey of a U-Boat Commander: Recollections of Erich Topp.Translated by Eric C. Rust. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.
Vause, Jordan, and Jurgen Oesten. Wolf: U-Boat Commanders in World War II. Osceola, WI: Airlife, 1997.
The Boat. From the book Das Boot by Lothart-Günther Buchheim. Radiant Film, 1982.
The Career of Battle Cruiser Hood [Online] http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Workshop/2966/History/Timeline.html (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Heydt, Bruce. "The Hunt for Bismarck." British Heritage. June/July 1998.[Online] http://www.thehistorynet.com/BritishHeritage/articles/1998/0798_cover.htm (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Allen, Kenneth. Battle of the Atlantic. London: Wayland, 1973.
Ballard, Robert D. Exploring the Bismarck. Toronto: Madison Press, 1991.
Black, Wallace B., and Jean F. Blashfield. Battle of the Atlantic. "World War II 50th Anniversary Series." New York: Crestwood House, 1991.
Heydt, Bruce. "The Hunt for Bismarck." British Heritage (June-July 1998)[Online] http://www.thehistorynet.com/BritishHeritage/articles/1998/0798_cover.htm (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Pitt, Barrie, and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Battle of the Atlantic.Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1977.
Shirer, William L. The Sinking of the Bismarck. New York: Random House,1962.
Skipper, G.C. Battle of the Atlantic. Chicago: Children's Press, 1981.
Werner, Herbert A. Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the German U-Boat Battles of World War II. New York: H. Holt, 1969. Reprinted. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Woodrooffe, T. The Battle of the Atlantic. New York: Faber, 1965.
Hood and Bismarck Sinkings
The Bismarck was a huge German battleship, the most powerful ship in the German naval fleet. In May 1941 it paired up with the German cruiser Prinz Eugen to search the North Atlantic for British convoys. The ships found their target—two patrolling British cruisers— on May 23. The cruisers called for assistance, and the British battleships HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales responded. A short but fierce battle followed between the Bismarck and the Hood. The Hood exploded after being hit by enemy fire in the early morning hours of May 24, 1941. The ship broke into pieces and sank. Only three members of the fourteen-hundred-person crew survived. The incident was a huge defeat for Britain's Royal Navy.
In response, the British sent out battleships, cruisers, destroyers, torpedo planes, aircraft carriers, and flying boats to find the Bismarck. After searching for two days through foggy, dark, wet skies, the Royal Navy finally located the German battleship. On May 27, 1941, after repeated attacks, the Bismarck sank. More than two thousand German sailors on board died.
Three U-boat Aces
Among the leading names in U-boat warfare are Otto Kretschmer, Günther Prien, and Erich Topp. Together, these German commanders sank 106 ships during the Battle of the Atlantic. Admiral Topp's Odyssey of a U-Boat Commander is considered a classic wartime memoir.