This is a story about men, ships and a U-boat sent to sink them. It unfolded on the early evening of April 16, 1945 on a war-weary coast between the Forth and the Tyne. A small, Southbound convoy of seven ships in two columns (consisting of three ships in the port column and the other four in the starboard) had left Methil earlier that day. The weather was calm, wind light and visibility good (up ten miles). The convoy was making eight knots. Zig-Zagging one mile ahead of the merchant vessels was the old destroyer HMS Viceroy, steaming at twelve knots. HMS Woolston, also zig-zagging, guarded the vulnerable seaward flank.
The crews were closed up at action stations while passing the rearing red cliffs of St Abbs Head. After all, a few weeks earlier a U-boat had struck here, sending Magne, to the bottom (See ‘Beginner Luck ? The Destruction of U-714’). Off Berwick the convoy adopted a course of 166 degrees to pass seaward of the Farne Islands, a favourite U-boat ambush point. Shortly after Longstone slid off to starboard, a double explosion shook the convoy. Two torpedoes slammed into the stern of the massive tanker, Athelduke. What follows is the story of these events seen from the perspectives of both hunter and hunted. In order to understand what transpired it is first necessary to view the episode against the larger canvas, in particular, the U-boat campaign launched between the November 1944 and May 1945 – Donitz’s East coast ‘Endgame’.
Nazi Germany was finished. Enemies were closing in on every side and the only response from the hierarchy was to play for time.
The Biscay ports had largely fallen to the allies, who now held unchallenged mastery of the skies. The U-boats had gradually fallen back on Norway which was to be the base for the coastal campaign. Initially the U-boat inshore campaign was launched against the South and West coasts of Britain.
It was a vicious campaign. There was no room for chivalry, no possibility of compromise on either side. U-boats and warships fought to oblivion. The U-boats were armed with the T5 Zaukonig (Wren) acoustic torpedo designed to home in on the fast screws of a warship and blow it apart. Warships were lost to the T5 but the combination of new technology in the form of improved ASDIC sets and a judicious mine-laying policy caused significant losses to the U-boats too. In late November 1944, recognising that efforts on the West coast of Britain had not brought about the required results, BdU [Befehlshaber der U-boote U-boat command] decided to open up a new front by turning its attention to the East coast of Britain.
U-boats had operated off the East coast between 1939 and early 1940 (See ‘Terror off the Tyne I – A Tale of Two U-boats’ and ‘The Blooding of Joachim Schepke’). The shallow nature of the North Sea and the growing reality of an East coast mine ribbon had prompted the decision to concentrate upon the Atlantic once the Type VIIc boats became available in suitable numbers. The East coast convoys were thus spared the attentions of U-boats from 1940 until the first quarter of 1945.
From January 1945 it was planned that Norway based, schnorchel-equipped Type VIIc/41 boats would make attacks in British coastal waters, thus buying time until the long-range Type XXI Electrik boats entered service in significant numbers. While it was considered unlikely that the Type XXI boats could change the course of the War on their own, they did hand BdU a useful bargaining chip in any future peace negotiations. It was far from clear how many of these revolutionary submarines would be available and when they would be available for long range patrol. Allied bombing and technical issues had delayed the introduction of the Type XXI U-boats but Type XXIII Electrik boats were available in small numbers. They were largely untested but considered ideal for operations on the East coast of Britain.
When Churchill spoke of the dark lights of perverted science back in 1940, he had German technical advances in mind. The Type XXIII U-boats were wonder weapons, in effect schnorchel-equipped, hydrogen peroxide powered submarines, capable of carrying out an entire patrol submerged without surfacing. With a displacement of just 232 tons on the surface the boats were tiny, even smaller than 300 ton, Type II canoes which had ravaged the East coast in 1939-40. The Type XXIII boats had a maximum surface speed of twelve knots but once underwater they came into their own, with a speed of thirteen knots sustainable for one hour and a half or a speed of five knots for a thirty hour period. Moreover, the boat were quiet while powering underwater, even at highest speeds. They were very difficult to detect using passive ASDIC sets. To improve these qualities further, the schnorchel and in some cases the periscopes were treated with rubbery Tarnematte coating designed to baffle radar. Pre-fabricated experimental craft, they were often assembled well away from the much-bombed yards of Hamburg and Kiel. The most experienced U-crews were siphoned off to man these Electrik boats to the detriment of conventional U-boats.
Study of Type XXIII performance would offer an insight into the operational capabilities of their larger counterparts as well as providing useful training opportunities. The boats had been rushed into service with the result that no-one was certain of their capabilities. For instance in deep diving tests on U-2324, the boat reached a depth of 150 metres. In real world conditions the type could only safely dive to 80 metres (as a post war accident involving U-2326, lost off Toulon with all hands, demonstrated). Due to their tiny reserve buoyancy he Type XXIII was capable of diving within sixteen seconds. However in post war debriefings several commanders reported that if the boat operated on the surface with a four man watch on the conning tower, the narrow hatch aperture resulted in a much slower evacuation of personnel during an emergency dive.
Each boat had been designed to carry a crew of fourteen but quite how crews (even the most experienced U-boot men) would fare in the cramped conditions of these boats was difficult to predict. Apart from these spatial challenges, the boats were armed with only two torpedo tubes and no reloads were carried. The electric long-range torpedoes were loaded from outside the boat. One further serious handicap was the consistent failure of radio transmitting and receiving equipment due to the fragile nature of the exposed antennae heads. This was to have distressing consequences as we shall see.
U-2324 (Oblt. zS H. Haas) and U-2322 (Oblt. Heckel) carried out basic trials between October 1944 and mid January 1945. U-2324 crossed to Horten in Norway on January 18, prior to arriving at her base at Kristiansand.
The unknown factor was how long these tiny craft could remain on patrol.
It was decided that the first patrols of the Type XXIII boats should be launched against the East coast of Britain. For U-2324 BdU had in mind a patrol from Aberdeen to the Blyth/Tyne sector.
Although British minefields had taken a toll of U-boats patrolling the West coast of Britain, BdU tended to be dismissive of the British East coast mine barrage. It was rightly presumed that most of the mines had been laid in 1940 and would therefore have automatically de-activated by 1945. The BS series of minefields laid off Northumberland were indeed all of 1940 vintage but records indicate that the SN fields off the Tay and the Forth had been laid in 1942. The East coast barrage might have received more respect from BdU had it appreciated that U-1020 had been sunk by mine in the SN17 minefield off the Tay on or around January 9, 1945. Once through the minefield the U-boats would be free to attack FS/FN and EN/WN convoys as well as molesting naval traffic in transit from Dundee Rosyth and Blyth. Unlike their larger counterparts, the Type XXIIIs could operate in shallow water where warships could not enter without damaging their keels. It was a promising sector. There was widespread Kriegsmarine interest in the forthcoming patrols. Hitler himself asked to be kept informed of the mission progress.
The risk was considerable. Not only were the British minefields an unknown factor, the area was certain to be heavily patrolled. Although three Arado 234 jets would be available in the Spring, there could been no preparatory Luftwaffe reconnaissance in advance of the patrols and in planning the patrols BdU was forced to dust off intelligence reports dating back to 1940. However U-1199 had carried out a probe off Aberdeen in the Autumn of 1944 and U-245 had patrolled off the Thames in January 1945 (Operation Brutus). Both U-boats had reported the British defences to be ‘weak’. It is worth following the first of these U-boat probes in detail because they set the pattern of patrols that would follow.
U-2324 left Horten, Norway on January 31. The boat crossed the North Sea via the Long Forties at a depth of forty metres, speed four to six knots. The batteries were recharged by schnorchel throughout. U-2324 passed through the East coast minefield at depth of fifty metres to arrive in Swept Channel off Lunan Bay. Haas took the submerged boat North of Aberdeen, searching for EN/WN convoys but finding only fishing boats. Next U-2324 sailed down the Swept Channel to loiter off May Island in the Forth approaches. The Forth either side of May Island was protected by a series of indicator loops. The set of loops to the North of the island was controlled from the Fixed Defence Station while the set on the South was administered from a unit in Canty Bay. U-2324 was making forays with abandon but the loop operators did not register the resultant impulses as a submarine. The operators had been drilled into anticipating U-boat targets of 217′ rather than the 111′ length of the Type XXIII.
On February 7 an escorted freighter was spotted by periscope but no attack was made because Haas considered the situation to be ‘unfavourable’. Next day a unit of warships was encountered dropping depth charges and sound buoys (the British warships were almost certainly deploying ‘Foxer’ a precaution against acoustic torpedoes, specifically the T5. Haas noted that the maritime traffic in this was ‘weak’ but records reveal significant ship movements in and out of the convoy hub of Methil during this time period, suggesting there may have been problems with the hydrophones. When it came to charging the batteries Haas decided to run his boat out beyond the minefield ribbon rather than raising the Schnorchel inshore. This was on the shrewd grounds that if the U-boat was detected, British naval units might think twice about charging in pursuit into their own minefields.
With visibility deteriorating, U-2324 moved South within the Swept Channel first to St Abb’s Head, then on to Northumberland. Hampered by fog (800 metre visibility) the tiny U-boat bottomed off Cresswell on the morning of February 18. Weak HE was heard fifteen miles offshore in Square AN 5438. U-2324 came to periscope depth and set off to investigate. It seems likely that the vessel was the escorted FN 35 straggler Empire Strait. The convoy had left Southend on February 16. U-2324 sped in at her top underwater speed of 8 knots. The ship was spotted at 500 metres range. At 10:29 when range had closed to 400 metres, Haas fired a torpedo, the target’s course 330 degrees. The torpedo ran wide of its target.
At 11:33 Haas manouevred into position again and fired his last torpedo.
Due to an issue with the manual gyro- angling gear this torpedo also missed. Haas ran out into the minefield but noted there was no reaction from the escorts. The attack had not even been noticed. However by this stage the tiny U-boat was suffering from hydroplane failures and the schnorchel was leaking. U-2324 returned to Farsund, Norway on February 24. The boat had not destroyed a single ship but it had carried out a probe into the heart of British seaspace and not once had it been detected. It remained to be seen what U-2322 could achieve in the same sector.
On February 5 it was the turn of Oblt. Heckel’s U-2322 to leave Horten on her maiden patrol. In common with Haas, Fridjof Heckel (25) was assigned a billet on the East coast of Britain, concentrating upon the Swept Channel. Signals relating to the departure of the boat were detected by Ultra decryptions. Although British naval intelligence was aware this revolutionary craft was at sea, they could only guess at the patrol sector. East coast indicator loop units do not appear to have been informed of this new enemy. In fact U-2322 used the same outward route as her predecessor, U-2324. By February 11, Heckel was off May Island, noting;
‘Small convoys 1-2 escorts leaving Forth before twilight. Independents by night, lights set, sparse traffic by day’
Due to the absence of targets, Heckel took U-2322 South down the Swept Channel to adopt a station first off AN 5153 then off St Abb’s Head in Square AN 5154. Having obtained permission to operate as for South as Scarborough, Heckel decided to probe the Tyne approaches. Assuming a billet off St Mary’s Island he watched and waited. Still there were no suitable ships until February 15 when U-2322 fired a torpedo at a 5,000 ton ship. The range was too short with the result that the torpedo missed. On February 25, with the tiny U-boat off Berwick, a Southbound convoy was spotted. The seven ship strong convoy FS 1739 had put out of Methil earlier that day. Heckel ran towards the approaching convoy to execute a high speed, periscope depth attack at what he recorded as a 6,000 ton vessel.
The ship was the 1,307 ton Egholm (Captain K. Kristensen) bound for Southend with a general cargo. The detonation against the port side of Egholm killed three members of a Royal Navy DEMS gun crew, Peter Darby, Charles Flynn and Arthur Storey. Fireman/Trimmer Pedersen (25) and AB Krog (25) both later died of wounds. All told, Egholm sank within seven minutes at 55°36’40″N 01°24’30″W (off Marshall Meadows Bay and just three nautical miles from the wreck of U-714) . The Egholm survivors were landed at North Shields. Meanwhile U-2322 returned to Stavanger on March 3.
British naval intelligence quickly interviewed survivors of Egholm to ascertain that she had, indeed, been sunk by a torpedo. U-2322 had been the only U-boat known to have been operating in this section of the North Sea . The unpleasant shock to admiralty was that the sinking of Egholm could only mean that the Type XXIII was capable of remaining a staggering twenty-six days at sea. Admiralty intelligence had estimated a maximum limit of sixteen days at sea for the minute Type XXIII boats. As more of the Type XXIII boats made their way to Norway, so they were thrown into the inshore battle in the Spring of 1945. In March a series of twin jet-engined Arado 234 aircraft made reconnaissance flights along the East coast between the Moray Firth and the Humber.
U-2321 (Oblt. H. Barschkis) left Kristiansand on March 11 for an East coast patrol. Her predecessors had been armed with long range electric torpedoes but U-2321 was armed with two Type IIIa FAT (Fluecher Absuchunder) 2 torpedoes. These electric torpedoes were designed to be fired at long range, prior to automatically adopting a pre-programmed looping or zig-zag course so that if it failed to detonate against a target in its initial course, it would follow the target’s forward course until it either struck or ran out of battery power. On March 30, Barschkis fruitlessly fired one of these torpedoes against a 5,000 ton ship off Sunderland. By April 4,
U-2321 had returned up the Swept Channel to lie in wait off Berwick, however the patrol was plagued by fog, hydrophone problems and poor sound reception off the Farne Islands.
At 18.59 on April 5, Barschkis encountered the unescorted, 1,406 ton old engines-aft collier Gasray (Master R.E. Baker) two miles North of St. Abb’s Head. Gasray was in ballast and sailing between Grangemouth and Blyth at the time of the attack. Onboard was 61 year old Sunderland man Richard Hopper. Mr. Hopper had been shipwrecked before when the SS Tyneholme was run down in the Humber in January 1940.
His family had implored him to seek a job in a factory. Richard had given it a chance but ultimately gave it up as a bad job, declaring, ‘That’s it. I’m back off to sea again’. Disregarding the pleading of medics and family alike, Richard obtained work as a stoker on SS Gasray a regular on the East coast convoy run. Yet on setting eyes upon Gasray, the veteran had a premonition that this was the ship that would ‘get him’. The torpedo struck Gasray on the port side. The subsequent explosion rent the ship in two. The stern rolled over and sank, taking Richard Hopper and the three other men in the engine room, with her.
Twelve crew members and four gunners were rescued, six by the St. Abb’s Lifeboat and ten by the British coaster Clova and landed at St. Abb’s village. Six crew members and two DEMS gunners were lost. The broken wreck has been confirmed to lie at 55° 57, 064′ N 02° 08, 627’W
Barschkis offered the following in his later radio report, transmitted while on his return journey:
‘Sank in AN 5164 one fast single ship. Situation: Unregulated North/ South traffic (3-5 steamers, 2-3 destroyers). Good operational area, middling defence. Boat was at no stage detected by ASDIC or hydrophones’
U-2321 reached the comparative safety of Stavanger on April 13. The British response was to despatch the experienced 30th Escort Group from Londonderry to bolster the Rosyth Escort Force.
U-2324 and U-2329 both probed the East coast but made no sinkings.
U-2324 now under the command of Kplt. von Rappard (Haas was suffering from diptheria) made a return visit the the East coast, having departed Stavanger on April 2. This was not a happy patrol. Between April 14 and April 28 while the boat operated off Dundee and the Forth, the raising of the schnorchel revealed near constant radar impulses. There was every evidence that Royal Navy units were out hunting for the U-boat. On April 23 with U-2324 hunting off Arbroath, Rosyth based Royal Navy units carried out an exercise in which they depth charged a simulated contact, quite unaware that an enemy lay bottomed nearby. Over three hundred depth charges exploded, shaking U-2324 . The boat suffered minor damage as a result of these indirect explosions. The delicate external radio antenna had been damaged with the result that the crew did not receive a signal ordering the boat to return to Stavanger on May 4. As
U-2324 approached the Norwegian coast submerged on May 7, she was detected by allied destroyers which pinned the boat with ASDIC transmissions and treated her to twenty depth charges.
U-2324 was able to escape by ejecting a bold decoy. This was the only time a Type XXIII U-boat was deliberately attacked.
U-2329 (Oblt. Heinrich Schlott) left Stavanger on the evening of April 11. Most of the nine day patrol was spent between Aberdeen and Dundee but the boat fired a torpedo at a ship off Tynemouth on April 20. The torpedo ran wide. Such was the experience of the Type XXIII boats but conventional Type VIIc/41 Atlantiker boats were also involved. It will be recalled that U-714 was destroyed off St, Abb’s Head in March 1945 (see ‘Beginner’s Luck ?’). BdU had detailed the Type VIIc, U-309 to patrol off the East coast in March following a stint off the Moray Firth.
The conventional U-boats sent to patrol the East coast, or at least the Northern section of it, had met with disaster. U-309 was depth-charged to destruction off Northern Scotland, U-1020 was mined off the Tay, U-714 was destroyed by Squid following an attack in March 1945. On April 14, U-1206 was lost following grounding off Buchan Ness, Aberdeenshire. Later that month it was the turn of U-1274, a new U-boat with an untested crew and commander.
Oblt. Hans-Herman Fitting, aged 24, took U-1274 out of Horten in Norway on April 1, 1945. His orders have not survived, nor have any other specific directives relating to his first and last patrol, although it is likely he was ordered to focus on the Forth approaches. Current Order 45 issued on December 7, 1944 allowing U-boats to move at the discretion of the captain to any other patrol area believed to offer a better chance of success. An order issued by BdU on December 14, 1944, permitted a significant level of freedom of movement:
‘Remain at periscope depth during the day and to refrain from going deeper unless they find a water layer in which hydrophone range is likely to exceed optical visibility. Further, commanders are now at liberty to carry out searches for targets beyond the limits of their allotted areas and into bays and inlets without informing U-boat command. In fact U-boat command will no longer strictly enforce requirements for regular radio status reports as all radio traffic is to be kept to an absolute minimum less the enemy’s detection equipment use it to locate and destroy you’
U-1274 had originally been commanded by Oblt. Feodor Kuscher but in July 1944 Kuscher and his crew were transferred to the Type XXI training programme. Oblt. Hans-Herman Fitting and his LI Ernst Berek and three experienced officers, Lts. Barlowen, Barnick and Miede were appointed to the boat in the second half of 1944. The Obersteuermann Fritz Ludwig was also a seasoned navigator. If U-1274 did not lack experienced officers and petty officers, the same could not be said of the ordinary crewmen. For both seamen and engine room staff the average age was just twenty. Although they were young inexperienced conscripts what bound them was an indelible pride in being part of the U-bootwaffe family. At a time when the German war machine was falling apart, this factor played a major role in keeping them obediently at their posts when reason might otherwise have persuaded them that the Nazi regime was finished and further deaths, pointless.
We can construct the outward journey of U-1274 from information gleaned from the patrols of the Type XXIII boats, notably U-2324 and U-2322. It is highly probable that Fitting navigated U-1274 through the Long Forties, obtaining a succession of fixes on the red cliffs North of Arbroath followed by Bell Rock Light. U-1274 may well have spent this patrol entirely at periscope depth, raising the schnorchel when required to charge the batteries.
This track would have allowed the boat to transit the route known to Admiralty as ‘Gap A’ through the minefield belt. It is quite possible that U-1274 may have ventured North beyond Aberdeen, hunting for EN/WN convoys before turning her attentions to the Forth roads. The boat is certain to have hunted off May Island at the entrance to the Forth but without success. We know for certain that on the evening of April 16, 1945, U-1274 lay in wait in the Swept Channel off the Farne Islands, ahead of a Southbound convoy. Sweeping ahead of convoy FS 1784 was HMS Viceroy. On the seaward flank, facing the direction of danger, was the second escort, HMS Woolston (Lt. J. Cox) also zig-zagging.
The largest ship in the convoy was the 8,966 ton tanker, Athelduke (Master: Joseph Errett) an irresistible target for the U-boat. Athelduke was a transatlantic convoy veteran, having crossed from Halifax Nova Scotia to Loch Ewe in convoy CS 171 on March 27 with a cargo of molasses loaded earlier at Miami. From Loch Ewe the vessel had joined a second convoy, WN 685 around the North coast of Scotland to Methil in Fife. Athelduke was on the final leg of her journey to Salt End on Humberside (molasses being a component used in the production of industrial acids).
It appears that Fitting was able to manoeuvre U-1274 between the oncoming convoy and HMS Woolston while the latter was carrying out the outward leg of her zig-zag, a classic U-boat tactic and a shrewd move from an inexperienced Kaleunt.
At 19:30, with U-1274 bows on to Athelduke, the last seconds ticked away. To the crew of U-1274, it must have seemed like a lifetime before the order to ‘Fire !’ was given. Once the torpedoes had left the tubes, unteroffiziere stood poised to flood compensatory tanks to prevent the bows from broaching the surface.
At 19:33 a torpedo struck Athelduke on the port side aft, in the cross bunker tank, igniting a fire in the bunkers. Moments later, the second torpedo detonated against No. Ten cargo tank. Captain Errett knew the ship was finished and he issued the order to ‘Abandon Ship’. Athelduke was already settling by the stern by the time the crew reached the deck. Evacuation was carried out in an orderly fashion. The poop deck was noted to be awash. Not everyone was able to escape so easily. William McKenzie the senior Fourth Engineer was missing. The Second Engineer, who had been at his station at the middle platform in the engine room, escaped with serious scalds and burns. He could shed no light on the fate of William McKenzie.
As Mr Speed, the Third Engineer, was making his way to the boat deck he heard a faint cry. Upon looking over the side he spotted the head of the mess room boy, Tom Wilson, protruding from a stern cabin porthole, obviously trapped. Harry Speed leaned over, the poop deck below him awash, seized Wilson under the arms, then hauled him up, out of the port hole and onto the deck. This action undoubtedly saved the boy’s life. This was recognised by the award of the Lloyds Medal for Bravery to Mr Speed. The boats were lowered and the survivors rowed towards King Neptune which had been instructed to leave the convoy to rescue the men in the boats. All told, forty-two crew and four DEMS gunners were saved. Three minutes later the stern of Athelduke sank but the bow section remained on the surface like a sloping tombstone. Lt. Manners (31), commander of HMS Viceroy wrote in his subsequent report that this section of the coast had been free of U-boat attacks to date but as we know this was emphatically not the case (See ‘A Tale of Two U-boats’ and ‘Terror off the Tyne’. U-714 had been sunk a few miles to the North in March and British naval intelligence was well aware that Type XXIII boats had sunk Egholm and Gasray). This intelligence was evidently not being passed on to the captains of the Rosyth Escort force. Nevertheless, John Manners did not require an intelligence report to confirm that a U-boat had just torpedoed Athelduke.
HMS Woolston (Lt. Cox) was close to the U-boat. It appears that Fitting had executed a sharp turn, running the U-boat parallel to the track of the oncoming convoy but travelling in the opposite direction. In this way U-1274 might reasonably benefit from both the element of surprise caused by the explosions and by the baffling noise generated by the screws of the merchant ships currently overtaking the stricken tanker. The U-boat was of course able to turn far quicker than the convoy escort. The Type VIIc/41 was equipped with the T5 and Lt. Manners was acutely aware that the U-boat was likely observing Viceroy from periscope depth nearby. Critically the position of the stricken Athelduke enabled Viceroy‘s ASDIC team to establish a datum line for the U-boat position.
Report of Lt. John Manners, HMS Viceroy:
‘Speed was increased to 18 knots and course altered to port. Three minutes later a good echo was picked up at 2,200 yards, bearing 350 degrees. Speed was reduced…’
‘The contact was classified as ‘submarine’ with moderate to high
which indicated a moving target with some hydrophone effect from the U-boat propellers and at 19:42 an attack was carried out using 100‘ [depth-charge] settings…’
It is not clear whether Oblt. Fitting intended to follow the advice given by BdU to Type XXIII commanders by risking a submerged run into the coastal minefield to escape the imminent depth charge onslaught but he does appear to have ordered a turn to seaward, followed by a second turn back towards the Northumbrian coast. The position of U-1274 was unenviable to put it mildly, trapped in sixty-three metres of water, hemmed in by the rocky East coast on one side, an enemy warship to seaward and a second warship racing in behind. Lt. Manners again:
‘ Speed was then increased to twenty knots and an attack was carried out with an amount of aim off to allow for the movement of the submarine from a range of 150 yards when the set lost contact making allowance for the length of the ship and for the pattern of five depth charges dropped over the stern [Mk VII Heavy] The first one was followed by a second one shortly afterwards, at the same time firing a charge each side from the throwers, which catapulted the charges some fifteen yards outwards, and finally a fifth charge. A few seconds later with the ship about 100 yards away, the charges exploded. The ship did a big shudder, leaped a foot or two in the sea and blacked out as all the electric switches were thrown off leaving everything in darkness.
The plot, which tracked our movements and the ASDIC went dead but shortly the switches were re-fixed and we were back in action. Range was opened and a second attack carried out ten minutes later using the same settings. This produced traces of oil.
‘…At 20:17, forty minutes after the first attack, the third attack was carried out, speed fifteen knots, depth charges set to 250 feet. The first charge produced a distinctly prolonged explosion and some more oil. I signalled to Woolston who was stationed at the stern of the convoy that I thought this was it, but he went off chasing something else – probably a wreck on the bottom. At 21:13 a fourth and last attack was carried out. In the meantime the SS Athelduke sank slowly and darkness set in.
The 30th Escort Group from the Western Approaches then arrived on the scene headed by HMS Launceston Castle who carried out a squid attack on the contact. We then rejoined the convoy’.
It is interesting to observe that there is no evidence that U-1274 fired either a Bold decoy or a T5 stern torpedo. This suggests that Fitting had dived well below periscope depth in his attempts to throw off his pursuer. It also indicates that perhaps the coup de grace came from an unexpected quarter. It is known from a forensic examination of the wreck carried out in the early 1990’s that Fitting had succeeded in turning U-1274 once again. At the time of the fatal depth charge explosion, the bows were pointing South West (ie towards the British coast). This may be regarded as evidence of a frantic but ultimately doomed, fight for survival with U-1274 twisting and turning in the hope of throwing the hunters off the scent. Significant damage was seen at the stern but this was due to the subsequent ‘can opener’ probably long after the last crew member had breathed his last. However there is evidence to suggest that U-1274 was lost due to a depth-charge exploding close to the stern. A distinct rupture through the pressure hull was visible on the starboard side of the wreck level with the engine room. With the engine room flooded the boat would have sunk sixty metres to the seabed. Howsoever the crew of U-1274 met their end, Lt. John Manners had unfinished business.
Lt. Manners, post war account:
‘On the next convoy north I was going to investigate the supposed submarine but to my great frustration I was diverted into Immingham, joining the southbound convoy the next day. This meant it was another five days before I was in the submarine area again. I then nipped ahead of the small convoy and found the contact was still there. I think I dropped a depth charge on it.
On arrival at Rosyth I spoke to Captain D, who was Ruck-Keene and told him the supposed submarine was still there and I was fairly convinced it was a submarine. He was rather bored with the office life and said “Bugger the office, I will go and have a look at it.” He boarded us and in company with HMS Vivien we proceeded to the scene at a good speed.
On arrival in the vicinity of the fateful spot [April 24] it was slightly foggy and we had difficulty in locating the buoy marks. All was well in the end however and we carried out an attack and shortly afterwards a grey cylinder popped to the surface. I hoped and prayed it contained a dinghy, as it was similar to one from a German submarine that I had once seen on the quayside. Captain Ruck-Keene said I had better go aft and hoist it aboard myself, which I did. On opening it up there was no dinghy but instead there was a case containing seventy two bottles of brandy!
The AUD report lists the following items ‘liberated’ from the wrecked U-boat during the can opener;
‘German uniform jacket, trousers, pulped body parts, one crate of German brandy (Heilbron), leather wallet containing German currency, passes, pages from book in German, German badge‘.
One bottle of brandy was famously presented to Winston Churchill. Lt. John Manners was later awarded a DSC, his ASDIC operator, PO Mardin was also promoted. The crew of U-1274 meanwhile joined their counterparts in U-714, UB-115 and UC-32 amid the long list of U-boat casualties remembered on panels at Laboe near Kiel.
The Crew of U-1274
|Balcke, Hans, Masch. Mt. 27||Lankamp, Heinz, Mts. 23|
|Barlowen von Alexander Lt. z.S. 26||Leschke, Walter, Mts. 20|
|Barnick, Klaus, Oblt.zS. 27||Ludwig, Fritz, Ob.Stm.Mt. 24|
|Bellman, Werner, Masch. Gfr. 20||Lutjen, Heinrich, Masch.Gfr. 20|
|Berek, Ernst, Lt. Ing. 23||Miede, Heinrich, Lt.s.Z. 30|
|Bier, Gerhardt, Mech. Gfr. 20||Persicke, Reinhard, Fk.Ob.Gfr. 23|
|Blank, Harry, Masch.Mt. 24||Pillkowski, Rudi, Mts. 19|
|Bojahr, Helmut, Bt. Mt. 28||Potten, Hans, Masch.Gfr. 20|
|Brehmer, Martin, Masch. Mt. 24||Schneider, Gottfried, Masch.Gfr.20|
|Briese, Otto, Ob. Masch.Mt. 29||Reisinger, Anton, Gfr. 20|
|Eborn, Friedrich, Fk.Ob.Gfr. 20||Schennegge, Heinz, Mts. 20|
|Ettinger, Jakob, Fk.Ob.Gfr. 20||Schwarzbach, Martin, Masch.Gfr.|
|Fitting, Hans, Oblt.s.Z. 24||Schweiselsen, Fritz,Flk.Ob.Gfr. 24|
|Fuchs, Werner, Mech.Mt. 21||Stadele, Georg,Mts.Gfr. 20|
|Goldner, Erich, Masch. Gfr. 20||Stenker,Gottfried, Masch.Gfr. 20|
|Grube, Ludwig, Mts.Gfr. 20||Stroble, Peter, Mts.Gfr. 20|
|Gurtler, Heinrich, Masch.Gfr.20||Tanzmann, Richard, Ob.Masch. 26|
|Holz, Bruno, Bts. Mt. 26||Tober, Kurt, Masch. Gfr. 22|
|Kirchenhuber, Rdph. Flk.Ob.Gfr.||Warnicke, Karl, Masch.Mt. 23|
|Kirchmeier, Helmut, Flk.Ob.Gfr. 20||Weizenegger, Ernst, Gfr. 19|
|Koppenhagen, Heinz, Masch. Gfr. 20||Weiss, Richard, San.Mt. 22|
|Langheinrich, Karl, Masch. Gfr 20||Wende, Waldemar, Flk.Mt.23|
|Zielke, Fritz, Mech.Gfr. 20|
U-1274 was one of the last U-boats sunk in the Second World War. It was certainly the last one sunk in British coastal waters. She was not the last U-boat to operate against the East coast however. It is known that the Type XXIII boat U-2326 (Jobst) sailed from Stavanger for operations off Aberdeen between April 19 and 27. Meanwhile U-637 (Kplt. Wolfgang Riekeberg) was handed the task of laying mines in the Swept Channel and Tyne roads. No U-boat mining operations had been carried out since 1939-40 (See ‘A Tale of Two U-boats). The boat left Stavanger on April 23 but a battery fire two days later forced the operation to be be aborted. As the damaged boat approached Utsira Island it was attacked by Norwegian MTBs. The U-boat was not sunk but several of the crew including Riekeberg died in the savage fire fight in the dark which followed.
At 15:14 on May 4, Donitz ordered all U-boats to cease hostilities and return to base. Next day the Grossadmiral made his famous surrender address. The War in Europe was due to end at midnight on May 7 and that was that, or at least it should have been. The convoy system was still in operation but it was universally known that the Germans were about to make a formal unconditional surrender. Churchill was due to speak shortly after midnight The escort trawler, Leicester City had been fitted with a speaker on deck so that none would miss the announcement. The Captain of Avondale Park, James Cushnie, told his crew that the War would end at midnight but they must stay vigilant. The Ship was en route between Hull and Belfast. Convoy EN 91 duly sailed from Methil at 22:30 that night.
The five ship convoy was escorted by three armed trawlers, Leicester City (FY 223) on the starboard wing, Valse (T 151) to port and Angle (FY 201) out on the van. At 22:50 the small convoy was in the outward Swept Channel, course 070 degrees. The convoy was some two miles South of May Island when the 2,878 ton Avondale Park, leading ship in the starboard column, was struck by a torpedo on the starboard side between the engine room and No. three hold. Three minutes later, as the ships steered to avoid the sinking Avondale Park, another torpedo struck 1,791 ton collier Sneland 1, the second ship in the starboard column. Sneland I had loaded with coal in Blyth, her ultimate destination was Belfast. Both ships sank within two minutes.
Syd Rapley was a seventeen year old cabin boy on Avondale Park:
“ On the evening of May 7 I took the helmsman a cup of cocoa and biscuits. They always let me take the wheel whilst they had a few minutes’ break. I went back to my cabin to sleep. I was reading the Readers’ Digest when the torpedo hit. I got blown up out of my bunk. I was on the top so hit the roof. I only had my underwear on! I grabbed my oil skin bag that had my ID and stuff in it and went on deck to get the lifeboat.
I looked over the side and there was a massive hole with water gushing into the engine room. There was smoke and steam everywhere. I thought no one could survive that but the stokers got out.
We got to the lifeboat and I always remember an able seaman appearing at a large port hole that was about to go under. He swam through it like a porpoise!”
Avondale Park carried a crew of twenty-eight and four DEMS gunners. Thankfully most of these men were picked up by the escorts but Chief Engineer George Anderson (36) of Tudhoe, Spennymoor and Greaser William Harvey of South Shields had both been in the engine room at the time of the torpedo strike. Neither of these men made it up to the boat deck and both are remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial. Sneland I had a crew of twenty-six and three gunners. The ship turned over within a few minutes of the torpedo detonation, hurling men into the sea.
Six of the crew including the Captain, Johannes Laegland, drowned. While Leicester City ineffectively hunted for the U-boat and dropped depth charges, Valse and Angle slowly approached the life rafts, their red lights twinkling though the darkness. The Norwegian destroyer Stord joined Leicester City in the hunt. Wisely the surviving ships of the convoy turned back to Methil. The Third Engineer, Otto Skaugen died before he could be brought ashore. The survivors, including a Norwegian stewardess who had a near miraculous escape, were later landed at Methil.
Both ships had been torpedoed by Kplt. Emil Klusmeier’s U-2336. Naturally the allied authorities wanted to get to the bottom of Klusmeier’s actions and in October 1945 he was subjected to close interrogation on the matter.
Klusmeier had been a little known back house strategist. He was not known as an ardent Nazi but Kplt. Klusmeier was a passionate proponent of the Elektrikboote programme. He had taken charge of U-2336 when her commander, Oblt. Vockel had been fatally injured in an air raid on Hamburg on March 30. It transpired that the Type XXIII, U-2336 had left Kristiansand on May 1. U-2336 failed to receive the order to cease hostilities broadcast on May 4 because of the defective radio receiver. As has been previously pointed out this was a known problem with the Type XXIII detailed in patrol reports. Oblt. Jobst, Commander of U-2326 reported serious reception issues with the radio antenna in his patrol report handed to the Royal Navy following his boat’s surrender at Dundee. The Norwegian authorities were not alone in disbelieving Klusmeier’s version of events but Admiralty technicians gave him the benefit of the doubt. The attack had been made before the end of hostilities, in keeping with the letter of surrender if not quite the spirit.
At any rate U-2326 succeeded in breaching the defences around May Island.
Klusmeier followed a sound contact which brought convoy EN 91 into his periscope lens. He misinterpreted the escort as four destroyers when it was just three armed trawlers. Once distance had closed to 1,500 metres, U-2326 executed a high speed attack against Avondale Park, racing in at eight knots, firing the FAT torpedo just 450 metres from its target. The boat was turned and the second torpedo was fired at Sneland I. Klusmeier was able to sneak past the trawler, Leicester City which was bombarding a stationary target, probably a wreck, with depth charges. U-2326 took refuge in the shallow waters off Kinghorn. Later analysis demonstrated that the U-boat had been detected by the indicator loop unit next morning. The records of the Fixed Defence Station on May Island showed an ‘interference’ over No. 4 Loop at 04:52 and a second anomaly over No. 13 Loop at 05:15 on May 8. Four days later U-2326 surfaced off the coast of Norway. Garbled signals were received indicating that the War was over. On May 14, Klusmeier reached Kiel unscathed. Avondale Park holds the grim notoriety of being the last British ship to be sunk by torpedo in the Second World War.
The people of Anstruther (who revere their maritime history – there is also a Memorial to the Battle of May Island) erected a Memorial to the sinking of Avondale Park and Sneland I in 2015. There are no other tangible memorials to Grossadmiral Donitz’s Endgame. Of course the wrecks are still there but time has taken its toll. Avondale Park lies at 56° 09, 279’N 02°30, 215’W. She is broken in two but upright. Her bows are said to be eight metres high. The stern lists heavily to port, the forward section to starboard. Ten years ago divers reported the armament to be intact, including the bridge guns. Syd Rapley used to wonder whether his coveted record player still remained on a shelf in his cabin. Sneland I has received much less attention than Avondale Park but she is believed to lie upright at 56°09,692’N 02°30,858’W.
Athelduke, known to local divers as ‘The Big Tanker’ is broken in two and lies upright at 55°36, 355′ N 01°28,302’W. In 1999 she rose between ten and eleven metres from the seabed. Athelduke was easily the largest victim of the 1945 inshore campaign on the East coast. Her scale is still a source of amazement for those who have the skills and the courage to dive on her. The vessel is breaking up and the deck has collapsed in on itself. It is not clear what this means for the cargo of molasses. Now for the reckoning.
The inshore U-boat campaign on the East coast failed just as the West coast U-boat campaign had failed before it. Twenty two patrols were made by U-boats to the East coast between January and May 1944. The East coast in this context is defined as the area between the Moray Firth and the Thames. Nine of these patrols had been made by the Type XXIII U-boats.
The only bright light in an otherwise dismal picture for the Kriegsmarine was the performance of the Type XXIII boats. These craft had evaded British warships and the defences of the outer Forth to inflict losses, then escape without detection let alone harassment. The Type XXIIIs sank four merchant vessels at 7,392 tons. More than half of this tonnage was accounted for by Klusmeier in the dubious circumstances described above.
They were the future and it is hardly surprising that the allies raced to obtain Elektrik boats following the surrender. On the other hand it must be observed that outcomes may have been skewed because East coast convoy escorts were severely under resourced, usually clapped out destroyers of Great War vintage fitted with second rate equipment. Destroyers of the seasoned, 147b ASDIC, squid-equipped 30th Escort Group might have offered more of a challenge to the Type XXIII U-boats. Often the only escort available to East coast convoys was two or three trawlers. Viceroy came close to knocking out her own ASDIC set while attacking U-1274. The Trawler Leicester City only succeeded in short circuiting her elderly set during her depth charge attack. Nevertheless there were never sufficient Type XXIII U-boats to interdict the convoy lines.
The relative success of the Elektro boats should be set against the abject failure of the conventional Type VIIc/41 U-boats. Thirteen patrols had been made by conventional Type VIIc or Type VIIc/41 Atlantiker U-boats. Despite the confidence of Nollmann, Commander of U-1199 that the British defences were weak, the U-boats met with disaster on the East coast. U-1020, U-309, U-714, U-1206 and U-1274 had all been lost. By the beginning of April 1945 it must have been obvious that the campaign against the West coast of Britain had failed with unsustainable losses. Indeed fifty-four percent of U-boats in all theatres had been lost that month. It would have been equally clear to Donitz and BdU that the Type XXI U-boats would never enter service.
The lives of the half-trained, conscript U-boat crews were being wantonly wasted. In a famous episode of L.G. Bucheim’s ‘Das Boot’, the Kaleunt forbids the propaganda journalist from taking photographs of his crew because they have not yet had time to grow beards. He does not want the folks back home to see how young the U-boat men are and he describes the War as ‘a children’s crusade’. This was not the case in 1941 (when the novel is actually set) but it was emphatically the case in the Spring of 1945. U-1274 lies just over a nautical mile North East of Athelduke at 55° 37, 028’N 01°25, 573’W. U-1274 was one of the last U-boats sunk in the Second World War, she was certainly the last one destroyed in British coastal waters. The sacrifice of these young Germans achieved absolutely nothing. They fought for a monstrous cause, arguably the most evil regime the world has yet known but despite their youth and inexperience, they were also brave men – as any British wartime submariner would readily concede.
The last description of the U-1274 wreck dates to 1999. The U-boat was said to be intact with propellers in place but the boat was wreathed in fishing nets. The damage described above was evident at the stern. All hatches were closed indicating there had been no escape attempts from U-1274. The absence of any video of U-1274 in an area as popular with divers as the Farne Islands may be an ominous sign that the wreck has fallen victim to criminal commercial salvagers.
The old apolitical air ‘Der gute Kamerad‘ is traditionally played to commemorate German War Dead. It seems an appropriate way to close the U-1274 story.
© P Armstrong
Primary Sources Kew: ADM 199/232, AUD 810/45, Post Surrender Interrogation Reports: ADM 1/17617, ADM 199/139, ADM 1/17661. Weekly Ultra Summaries: ADM 223/21, Ultra B transcripts in DEFE3
Royal Naval Historical Branch: SKL War Diary PG31752, PG34425 (Jan 1945), PG34426 (Feb 1945), PG31739 (March 1945), PG31740 (1-20 April 1945), Various U-boat KTBs.
U-boat Command War Diary (BdU KTB)
Shipwrecks of the Forth and Tay, Bob Baird
The War at Sea, Vol 3, S. Roskill
Endgame – The U-boat Inshore Campaign, Dr. J. White
Silent Warriors Vol 1, Young and Armstrong
Donitz’s Last Gamble, L Paterson
U-boats in Action 1939-1945, B Herzog
Type: VIIC/41 attack boat. Builders: Vulkan Vegesack Werft Ordered: 13 June 1942 Keel laid: Yard No 69 on 21 June 1943 Launched: 25 January 1944
Commissioned: Oblt. sZ Fedor Kuscher Feldpost No: M50 816
March 1, 1944: Assigned to 8 Flotille. Danzig as a training boat. In July 1944
Kuscher and his crew transferred to the Type XXI boat U-3515. Hans Herman Fitting and a new crew took over U-1274. Upon completion of training in the Baltic on March 1, 1945, U-1274 was assigned to 5.Flotille, Kiel as a front line boat. On March 24, with Fitting in command the boat left Kiel for Horten in Norway, arriving on March 27.
The VIIC boat became the ‘workhorse’ submarine of the Kriegsmarine during the Second World War. The official tonnage of the original design as per 22 March 1941 was 761.89 tons on the surface and 864.69 tons submerged. However the figure changed to a very small degree with later modifications. Usually 769 tons and 871 tons are given as the standard official figures throughout the war. Boats from different yards may also have varied to a certain degree due to small design variations. The overall general dimensions measured 67.1m in length overall, 6.22m in beam, 4.8m draught and 9.60m in height around the conning tower.
Two diesel/oil engines powered the two propellers, originally designed in bronze, but a shortage of non-ferrous metals led to the use of steel propellers during the war. Boats already ordered before the war were fitted either with engines manufactured by Maschinefabrik-Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN) or by the Germaniawerft (GW). After the start of the war, other companies or yards manufactured these two diesel types under licence. Front-line experience soon showed the more rigid GW construction being superior and new constructions were gradually fitted with GW-type diesels only. Both types were fitted with Gebläse (super-chargers) and developed 1,400ps each at 475 revolutions per minute continuous power, or 495 revolutions maximum power for 30 minutes developed 1600ps, which give a maximum surface speed of 17 knots. The boat had a calculated operational range of 9,700-nautical miles at 10 knots, or 6,500-n.miles at 12 knots and carried a maximum fuel/oil capacity of 113 tons. For running submerged, two 62-cell lead/acid batter/accumulators usually manufactured by Accumulatoren-Fabrik-Aktiengesellschaft (AFA) powered the two electric motors that developed 375ps at 295 revolutions and gave her a maximum speed of 7.6 knots. The four electric motors manufacturers were: AEG (Allgemeine Elektricittäts-Gesellschaft) BBC (Brown, Boveri & Cie.) GL u. Co. (Garbe, Lohmeyer & Co.) SSW (Siemens-Schuckert-Werke) These companies all produced more or less very similar designed motors and sometimes under licence (GL). Using battery power the boat had a calculated operational range underwater of 80-n.miles at a steady 4 knots.
Torpedoes The VIIC boat was designed with five torpedo tubes, four at the bow and one at the stern. Initially fourteen torpedoes were carried until summer 1943, with two of them in the upper-deck reserve containers. These were later then removed to save weight and because it became too dangerous to reload them in North Atlantic waters. In 1944 the number was reduced to ten to increase living conditions in the tube space for prolonged submersion. From autumn 1944 onward, on boats operating in the Atlantic, or British coastal waters, the ten torpedoes usually consisted of five T5 and five LuT, often stowed as follows: T5: one in forward tube, three in forward bilges and one in aft tube. Five LuT stowed: three in forward tube, one in forward bilges and one in the aft bilges.
On Atlantic boats the deck gun was removed from the Summer of 1943. The single gun bandstand aft of the bridge (model 0) was modified in early 1943 by adding a second, lower bandstand with another single 20mm gun (this was then called conning tower modification II). The Type I modification (two 13.2mm twin machine-gun mounts on upper bandstand, single 20mm on lower bandstand) was abandoned when test showed that the machine guns were not powerful enough. From May 1943, modification IV was introduced, fitted initially with two single 20mm mounts on the widened upper bandstand and a quadruple 20mm mount on the enlarged, lower bandstand. After 20mm twin mounts became available in July 1943, twin mounts replaced the single mounts.From October 1943 onward, the 37mm mount replaced the quadruple mounts. This represented the final variation of the Type IV conning tower modification. Later in the war 37mm twin mounts were tested experimentally on a few boats, but the schnorchel had already reduced the threat from aircraft, by then. This was a summary of standard AA modifications on Atlantic boats. Other experimental modifications were carried on some boats however, but they never became a standard form. Modifications were done to all front-line or working-up boats regardless of their date of commission and boats were continuously upgraded to the latest version, during refits.
The operational diving depth of a VIIC boat was 100m (328ft), with a maximum depth 165m (541.33ft) and a crush depth of 200m (656ft). A crash-dive to 20m took 30 seconds on average. The VIIC/41 boat was almost the same in all respects as the VIIC, but was designed with a stronger pressure hull, which gave the boat an operational diving depth of 120m (394ft) and a crush depth of 250m (820ft).
Both VIIC and VIIC/41 boats carried between forty-four and fifty-two crewmen. With increased AA-armament in 1943/44, crew numbers were at their highest. Following the introduction of the schnorchel the crews were often reduced to between forty-six and fifty crewmen Each Type VII U-boat carried thirty-six unteroffiziere and ratings, generally two unteroffiziere to every three ratings. Apart from the officers, the crew of a U-boat was divided between technical personnel and seamen. The technical division comprised of specialist personnel: diesel machinists, electricians, radio operators and torpedo mechanics. There were four senior NCOs.