It is 23 January 1940, 07:30hrs. U-19 has just dived, lest the imminent first light of dawn should bring a Coastal Command sweep. Men in foul smelling oilskins clamber down the conning tower ladder then pick their way through the Zentrale [control room] to the fore-ends, trying not to bump into anything. An unkempt flaxen haired U-boat commander makes a periscope sweep. The captain sees nothing but grey wastes and a glowering sky through the periscope lens. As the boat progresses ahead, dead slow on its near silent motors, the tension within the Zentrale increases. The kaleunt [captain] grunts that there is a stationary ‘Sperrebrecher‘ [auxiliary patrol vessel] dead ahead. The kaleunt orders a stopped trim, then ‘Silent Running’. ‘
Below: Posed propaganda image. This kaleunt is wearing his best uniform. When at sea German and British submarine commanders looked like a cross between an oily tramp and a fisherman who had spent too long at sea.
The IWO [First Lieutenant] nods towards the LI [Engineer Officer] standing ready by the tank valves. The motors stop. The crew has carried out this action in practice a thousand times – but this is no practice. There is no evidence that the auxiliary patrol vessel is aware of the U-boat’s presence, though an ASDIC sweep at this point would surely lead to the detection of U-19. Yes, she is armed. The trawler will be in radio contact with destroyers at Rosyth, the Tyne and probably Blyth but for the moment these enemies are far away. After a while the trawler starts her engine and shapes a south westerly course. Before U-19 departed Kiel, Kriegsmarine intelligence warned that the British had completed a coastal minefield. U-19 is now on the fringe of that minefield. On the kaleunt’s reckoning the trawler is heading directly towards that minefield. That can only mean a gap exists at this point. Once the trawler alters course, U-19 will follow it into the Swept Channel.
The BdU [Befehlshaber des Unterseebootes] knows that Blyth submarines on passage routinely use a minefield gap off St Mary’s Light but the existence of this second gap is unknown. The U-boat motors are started once more and she pursues the trawler at dead slow speed. Fast enough to keep the trawler in sight, slow enough to prevent the British ASDIC operator from detecting the noise of U-19’s screws. The ship’s engines are loud underwater and they reverberate through the boat. The kaleunt watches intently as the red and white bands of the Longstone Light slowly emerge through the coastal haar away on his port side. The charts are checked and rechecked. Lindisfarne must lie off to starboard. The crew of the auxiliary patrol trawler is oblivious to the fact that it is inadvertently leading a hunter directly towards its prey – and it could never comprehend just how ravenous for success that hunter actually is.
Kplt. Joachim Schepke was one of the most promising of the early wartime U-boat kaleunts. Articulate, highly intelligent and ambitious, he was also an arch opportunist. Although membership of the Nazi party was compulsory, most of the Kriegsmarine including U-boat commanders, sniffed national socialism with patrician disdain. Schepke on the other hand was a convinced and enthusiastic supporter. By January 1940 Joachim Schepke was determined to be noticed by the Nazi hierarchy. True, his boat U-3 had sunk two vessels, Vendia and Gun by scuttling charges, off the South coast of Norway back on 30 September, however all but one of these sinkings had been in the course of stop and search policing operations against neutral vessels. Hardly a demonstration of his seamanship. Schepke had attempted and failed to torpedo the Rosyth based submarine HMS Thistle later that night. At this stage in the war, as far as the Kriegsmarine was concerned, Schepke remained promising but as yet, unproven.
Below: U–19 alongside depot ship
At the beginning of January 1940 Schepke was appointed to another ‘canoe’, U-19 based with 1. Flotille at Kiel. The new Type VII U-boats were becoming available in significant numbers now and the 29 year old Captain recognised that if he could make a name for himself in the old submarine, he stood an excellent chance of obtaining command of one of these modern boats. In his first patrol in U-19, Schepke went hunting for ships sailing between Scandinavia and the Scottish coast. These ships routinely sailed in groups but were unarmed and unescorted. On January 9 the 1,343 tons Norwegian Manx was sunk without warning. Only four of her nineteen strong crew survived.
The Kriegsmarine was well aware of the timing of British coastal convoy movements. For his next patrol Schepke was ordered to mount a patrol off the Firth of Forth in the hope of attacking more Scandinavian traffic sailing between Bergen and Methil in Fife. On 18 January 1940, U-19 chugged through the Kiel Canal heading for Brunsbuttel. The boat was duly provisioned and left on patrol at 09:20hrs on 20 January. The Helgoland Bight was icebound and an icebreaker had to clear a channel for the small U-boat.
Below: Schepke drew this image of a UII boat leaving on patrol. U-19 had no gun however.
U-19 progressed through AN 6571, AN 5133 to AN 5298. By 23 January U-19 was approaching Longstone Lighthouse. Schepke spotted an Admiralty trawler. The Germans assumed the trawler was guarding a gap through the recently laid coastal minefield. In fact no such minefield existed. The SN 14 minefield was not laid until August 1940 and the ‘BS’ series of minefields were not actually laid until 1941. Apart from warship patrols and the controlled minefields at the mouths of the Tyne, Blyth and Sunderland, the NE coast was without maritime defences.
Soon after entering the Swept Channel, at 07:43hrs U-19 spotted about 20 merchant ships east of Longstone Island. These were mainly Scandinavian vessels which had arrived at Methil the day before in convoy HN-8. They had left Methil at midnight and were now heading South down the coast. They were unescorted. The armed trawler was nowhere to be seen but that did not mean it was not lurking in the vicinity. Joachim Schepke decided to mount a daring attack – one that would either make his career or break it. First he had to get ahead of the ships. Once clear of the Farnes, Schepke took a massive gamble. He ordered to boat to the surface. He would remain. well to seaward of the ships, keeping U-19 trimmed down so that only the conning tower could be seen above the surface. That way he could benefit from the speed of the engines yet maintain the low profile of the hunter. Engines roaring at top speed, U-19 easily overtook the ships. Then he manouevred into position about a mile to the oncoming vessels and ordered, ‘periscope depth’.
Below: Baltanglia loading in Salford Docks in 1939
U-19 was now in the classic firing position, at right angles to the largest ship. At 08:43hrs (CET) Schepke fired. What happened next is best told in the words of Captain Thomas of Baltanglia.
“There was a Norwegian steamer, the Pluto, ahead of me by about a mile and ahead of him there were several more steamers more or less in line. I heard an explosion then I noticed Pluto start to sink by the stern. [according to U-19’s KTB a torpedo was fired at Pluto at 08:55hrs CET]. I hauled over to port and came full astern, made a starboard cant to get a lee of his boats when I found another steamer in a better position to pick his boats up….at 07:50 (GT) we struck a mine. The force of the explosion knocked me unconscious for perhaps half a minute”.
Below: The doomed Pluto
All told Pluto sank in six minutes. A Finnish vessel picked up survivors which is just as well because the Seahouses lifeboat could not be launched. The Seahouses fishing fleet was able to lend assistance however. Schepke now turned seawards, surfaced then ran to the North with a view to operating off the Forth. This proved too quiet. Having been advised that another convoy was expected, U-19 once again took up position off the Northumberland coast at night on 25 January. As dusk fell on 25 January the German look-outs reported for minesweepers active in the Swept Channel – a sure sign that ships were in the offing. At 20:35 [CET] a gaggle of southbound ships, assumed to be the convoy, was spotted in the Swept Channel off Longstone. At 21:12 hrs U-19 mounted a fast surface attack against the largest ship, the 4,434 ton Latvian Everene.
One torpedo was fired and the ship was hit at the stern. Remaining on the surface and dodging the vessels now speeding up, Schepke, at 21:27 fired another single torpedo at the 1,307 ton Norwegian Gudveig.
Both ships sank. One man from Everene died, the remainder survived after a lengthy ordeal in the water. Eleven men died in Gudveig. U-19 now withdrew on the surface on a course AN 5197 / AN 5195 / AN 5186. At midnight on 27 January, U-19 reached the safety of Helgoland.
Schepke was now a hero of the Third Reich. His reputation was cemented, his future progress assured.
In command of U-100 Schepke went on sinking allied ships. 37 ships sunk (155,882 tons) and 4 ships damaged (17,229 tons) to be precise. In September 1940 Joachim Schepke was awarded the Rittercreuz from the hands of Hitler himself. As one of the ‘big three’ U-boat aces along with Gunther Prien and Otto Kretschmer, ‘gorgeous Jo’ had access to senior regime figures, he pursued the wives of nazi apparatchiks, gave speeches to adoring kids in the Berlin Sportspalast, found time between patrols to write and illustrate a book called ‘U-boat men of Today’. Two of the illustrations are given in this piece. His friends found him charming and inspiring. His enemies regarded Schepke as a ruthless, arrogant parvenu, prone to inflating his tonnage sunk figures.
Either way, nobody ever. questioned his seamanship or his courage. Joachim Schepke played a dangerous game, perhaps the most dangerous of all. It ended in a rendezvous on 17 March 1941 with the Royal Navy. Schepke died uselessly flailing his arms, crushed between his own periscope and the bows of radar- equipped HMS Vannoc which had rammed the U-boat – but it was a journey which really began the year previously in the grey seas of Northumberland.
Sources: T1022-PG30016 KTB of U-19,
Ron Young Ultimate Shipwreck Guide,