U-27 Schwertfish: September 1939

I recently acquired ConSim Press’ The Hunters. Ranked 5 in Boardgame Geek’s list of best solitaire games, The Hunters simulates in very broad strokes a U-Boat captain’s experience in the Atlantic Ocean. You can start your campaign at different stages. For this experiment, I will start the campaign in 1939. I will make a blog entry of each mission played.  Where easily available and relevant, I will try to provide some historical information about the missions, targets, people actually involved or general theatre of operations. 

Let’s see if I survive the war and how I rank among historical captains, assuming I do not meet a watery death….

INTRODUCTION

The young ensign moved speedily from his post. He reached the door to the captain’s quarters and knocked twice, ever so subtly. Before the captain had opened the door halfway, the ensign handed him a folded paper and hurried back to his station.

Oberleutnant zur See Karl Adolf Von Steffens unfolded the note and read the hurried but elegant German handwriting, “To all Kriegsmarine ships, U-Boats and shore stations. Hostilities with England effective immediately. Oberkommando der Marine.”

Olt zS Von Steffens opened the captain’s log, “3 Sept. 1939, 1256 hrs.: Encoded message from OKM received. The hunt begins.”

Type VII u-boats

Two type VII u-boats back to home port.

The young Lieutenant Junior Grade was in charge of U-27 Schwertfish, a Type VIIA German submarine. Although a marked improvement over Type II U-Boats, the Swordfish was Germany’s first and most outdated U-Boat of WWII. With a length of 211 feet, a crew of 44 and a range of 4,300 nautical miles, only ten Type VIIA U-Boats would be built before Germany switched to the more advanced Type VIIB. However, what the crew of the Swordfish lacked in technology and experience, they exceeded in training, will to fight and love for the Fatherland!

September 1939

The Swordfish’s first mission was to patrol the British Isles looking for targets of opportunity. Olt sZ Von Steffens set off in what was expected to be a 28-day mission armed with six G7a steam torpedoes and five G7e electric torpedoes. The steam torpedoes ran faster and were a bit more accurate than the electric torpedoes. The electric ones ran slower and were, thus, less likely to hit at longer ranges. However, they left no telltale wake of steam bubbles to lead the escorts back to the U-Boat. Therefore, the plan was to use electric torpedoes during daylight hours and steam ones at night.

Shortly after heading out to sea, the Swordfish received an encoded message. Its patrol mission was changed and the boat assigned to weather reporting duties. The next eight days would be spent travelling to the reporting station and sending reports. While an important mission, Olt sZ Von Steffens knew that, in the end, his performance and that of his crew would be measured by one thing only: tonnage sunk while on patrol. Therefore, the weather reporting mission was more of a bother and distraction for the young Captain.

With weather reporting duties fulfilled and just a few weeks remaining before he had to return to port, Olt sZ Von Steffens headed back to the British Isles looking for allied shipping and hoping for a target rich environment that would allow him to make up for the opportunities lost during the 8-day weather reporting mission.

Early in the evening of the ninth day of patrol, Von Steffens noticed a discreet silhouette while in the conning tower. Sure enough, it was the British steam merchant Reedpool – a small freighter of approximately 4,800 tons. Luck seemed to be on the young Oberleutnant’s side: the allied ship was unescorted!

On the Oberleutnant’s order, the Swordfish remained surfaced and approached the Reedpool until it was at close range. Excited at his first hostile encounter, Von Steffens gave the signal to the expectant second watch officer, who commanded the 4-man deck gun crew. Brief flashes of light and muffled detonations pierced the silent night as the Swordfish attempted to send the Reedpool to a watery grave.

The Reedpool’s steel was no match for the approximately 50 rounds 14kg ammunition fired by the 8.8cm deck gun. Within minutes, the British steamer had found a new home at the bottom of the sea. Assuming that the Reedpool was able to place an S.O.S. call before going down, Oberleutnant Von Steffens did not tarry long before changing course to continue his patrol of the British Isles.

Five days later and approaching midnight, an ensign knocked on the young Oberleutnant’s door. A ship had been spotted. It was the small British tanker Casanare of approximately 5,400 tons… and it was unescorted.

The Captain hurried to the conning tower. He would use the same strategy that worked so well against the Reedpool. However, the Casanare was a bigger ship and could withstand more damage than the Reedpool before it became mortally wounded. Therefore, as he climbed the conning tower, he ordered the front torpedo tubes to be readied for firing.

In the stealth of the night, the Schwertfish approached to within close range of the Casanare. At the Captain’s signal, the deck gun crew opened fire. Approximately 50 rounds of ammunition found its target with ease. Listing and slowed, however, the Casanare commenced evasive maneuvers. It surely would not be long before escorts arrived to succor the Casanare. The captain gave the order and a G7a steam torpedo swiftly left the front torpedo tubes.

The young Captain listened to the sonar officer as he followed the pings of the Casanare and the steam torpedo. “Torpedo 1 approaching the target…  Contact…  No detonation, Captain.” A dud! Von Steffens ordered a second G7a to be fired and again listened to sonar officer’s description of the events. “Torpedo 2 approaching the target…” A loud explosion and a flash of light interrupted the sonar officer’s communications. The torpedo had found its target. The Casanare was on its way to joining Poseidon’s ship yard at the bottom of the sea. The Swordfish changed headings and resumed its patrol of the British Isles. Having run out of G7a reloads, the Swordfish’s front torpedo tubes were now loaded with a mix of electric and steam torpedoes.

Patrol day 19, 3:00 p.m., the sonar officer reported a pair of screws. Long range reconnaissance showed the vessel to be the American steam merchant Thomas McKean, of approximately 7,200 tons. The T. McKean, however, was accompanied by an escort.

At 7.2 tons, the T. McKean was a hefty prize. However, attacking an escorted ship during daylight hours from short range while surfaced was tantamount to suicide. Von Steffens could follow the ship until night fell and attempt a submerged night attack from medium range. However, this course of action risked losing the contact and, thus, the opportunity for attack.

He could also attempt a long or medium range attack during daylight hours but this required that he approach the steam merchant. Approaching an escorted vessel carried with it the very real risk of being detected and intercepted by the escort before having the opportunity to fire a single torpedo.

The Captain’s decision was complicated by the fact that he would have to commence his return to port within the next 24 hours. There was a much lower probability of encountering allied shipping while in transit to port than while patrolling the waters of the British Isles. Just this ship could increase his tonnage for the mission by almost 70%. However, just this escort could send the Schwertfish to the bottom of the North Sea, permanently.

The Captain chose caution over recklessness. He decided to follow the escorted ship until night fell and then make a night attack. The weather, however, did not cooperate. Between angry high seas and diminished light conditions, the young crew of the Schwertfish lost contact with the T. McKean. A wasted opportunity that would weigh heavily on Olt sZ Von Steffens’ mind during the next eight days that it would take the Schwertfish to reach port.

At the end of September 1939, the Schwertfish reached its assigned port after sending 10,200 tons of allied shipping to the bottom of the North Sea. It would take a month to refit the U-Boat. The Schwertfish’s next patrol would be in December 1939.

Historical Notes

 The Reedpool was a 4,838 tons British steam merchant. It was completed in September 1924 at the Ropner Shipbuilding & Repairing co. Ltd., in Stockton-on-Tyne. It was in transit from Massowah, Ethiopia to Capetown when it was intercepted by U-515. According to the historical note:

At 08.15 hours on 20 September 1942 the unescorted Reedpool (Master William James Downs) was torpedoed by U-515 about 240 miles southeast of Trinidad and sank after being hit by a coup de grâce at 08.38 hours. Six crew members were lost. The master was taken prisoner, landed at Lorient on 14 October and taken to the POW camp Marlag und Milag Nord. 30 crew members, four gunners and 16 survivors from Medon were picked up by the British schooner Millie M. Masher(Master F. Barnes) on 21 September and landed at Georgetown, British Guiana.

On 13 September the Reedpool had picked up the second officer and 15 survivors from the British motor merchant Medon, which had been sunk by the Italian submarine Reginaldo Giuliani (Bruno) northeast of Para on 10 August.

Kapitänleutnant Werner Henke

Kapitänleutnant Werner Henke

U-515 was commanded by Werner Henke. A Type IXC U-Boat, it was commissioned in 1942 and sunk in 1944. U-515 completed six operational patrols and sank 23 ships, badly damaged 2 ships which later sank, and damaged 2 additional ships. Total tonnage sunk was 157,064. On April 9, 1944, U-515 was attacked north of Madeira by the destroyers USS Pope, Pillsbury, Chatelain and Flaherty. Flooding and loss of depth control forced the U-Boat to the surface, where she was sunk by rockets fired from Avenger and Wildcat aircraft and gunfire from the destroyers. Sixteen of U-515‍ ’​s crew were killed, but 44 survived the attack. The survivors were picked up by the destroyers and later transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal. U-515‍ ’​s commander, Werner Henke, was among the survivors. Later in June 1944, he was shot and killed trying to escape a secret interrogation center known as P.O. Box 1142 in Fort Hunt, Virginia, while being held as a prisoner of war.

Casanare - Photo courtesy of State Library of New South Wales

Casanare – Photo courtesy of State Library of New South Wales

The Casanare was a 5,376 tons British steam merchant. It was completed in December 1924 at Cammell Laird & Co. Ltd. in Birkenhead. It was in transit from Victoria, Cameroons to Garston when it was intercepted by U-99. According to the historical note:

“At 21.40 hours on 3 Nov 1940 the unescorted Casanare (Master John Allan Moore) was hit by one G7e torpedo from U-99 and sank later about 240 miles west-southwest of Bloody Foreland. Nine crew members were lost. The master and 53 crew members were picked up by HMS Beagle (LtCdr R.H. Wright, RN) and landed at Greenock.

Her distress messages brought the armed merchant cruisers HMS Laurentic and HMS Patroclus to the scene and the U-boat began a dramatic battle in which both ships were sunk.”

Otto Kretschmer

Otto Kretschmer

U-99 was commanded by Otto Kretschmer. Kretschmer was the most successful German U-boat commander of World War II and later became and admiral in the Bundesmarine. From September 1939 until being captured in March 1941, he sank 47 ships, a total of 274,333 tons. For this he received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, among other awards. He earned the nickname “Silent Otto” both for his successful use of the “silent running” capability of U-boats as well and for his reluctance to transmit radio messages during patrols. After the war, he served in the German Federal Navy and retired in 1970 with the rank of Flottillenadmiral). While on vacation in Bavaria in the summer of 1998, he died in an accident on a boat on the Danube, while celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary, aged eighty-six. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.

Thomas McKean

Thomas McKean

The Thomas McKean was a 7,191 tons American steam merchant. It was completed in May 1942 at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards, Inc., in Baltimore, MD. When sunk, it was carrying 9000 tons of Lend-Lease war supplies, including tanks, food stuffs and 11 aircraft as deck cargo – some of which can be seen in this rare archival photograph of the Thomas McKean shortly after being torpedoed. According to the historical note:

“At 13.55 hours on 29 June 1942 the unescorted Thomas McKean (Master Mellin Edwin Respess) was hit by two torpedoes from U-505 about 350 miles northeast of Puerto Rico, while steaming on a zigzag course at 10 knots on her maiden voyage. The torpedo struck aft of the #5 hold, destroyed the stern gun and killed three armed guards. Due to the extensive damage, the eight officers, 31 crewmen, 17 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 4in, four 20mm and two .30cal guns) and four passengers abandoned ship in four lifeboats. The U-boat surfaced after 20 minutes and began shelling the ship with 72 rounds that set her on fire until she sank at 15.22 hours. The Germans questioned the survivors and some crewmen even boarded the lifeboats to administer first aid treatment before they left the area.

One crewman and one armed guard later died in the lifeboats. On 4 July, two boats with 29 survivors made landfall at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands and one boat with twelve survivors landed at Antigua on 12 July. On 14 July, the last boat with 14 survivors and one dead arrived at Micheson, Dominican Republic. The master was lost during repatriation as a passenger on Onondaga which was sunk by U-129 (Witt) on 23 July.”

U-505 shortly after being captured.

U-505 shortly after being captured.

U-505 is a Type IXC U-boat. She was captured on 4 June 1944 by the U.S. Navy TaskGroup 22.3 (TG 22.3). Her codebooks, Enigma machine, and other secret materials found on board helped the Allied codebreakers. All but one of U-505‍ ’​s crew were rescued by the Navy task group. The submarine was towed to Bermuda in secret and her crew was interned at a US prisoner-of-war camp where they were denied access to International Red Cross visits. The Navy classified the capture as top secret and prevented its discovery by the Germans.

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