Siegerjustiz and the Peleus Affair
by Dwight R. Messimer
Left: Heinz-Wilhelm Eck as a cadet of Crew 1934.
Kapitänleutnant Heinz Eck of U-852 holds the distinction of being the only U- boat captain tried, convicted and executed for war crimes at the end of World War II. But was he really a war criminal? Both World Wars were fought against a backdrop of good versus evil. It did not matter which side you were on-yours was good and the enemy was evil; your soldiers heroes, enemy soldiers criminals.
But the reality of both wars differed considerably from the rhetoric. After World War II, the Allies-still under the influence of their wartime rhetoric-conducted a series of showcase war crimes trials. Many of the Axis leaders convicted during those trials deserved to be punished. But others, notably soldiers whose conduct was no different than that of their Allied equivalents, were treated much more harshly than they deserved. Heinz Eck was one of them.
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Heinz-Wilhelm Eck was born in Hamburg on March 27, 1916, and was raised in Berlin. He joined the Reichmarine on April 8, 1934, as a member of Crew 34, passed through a series of training programs and specialty schools, and was commissioned Leutnant z.S. on April 1, 1937. He spent the next five years aboard mine sweepers, commanding one from 1939 to 1942.
In February 1942, Eck volunteered for U-boat assignment, was quickly accepted and reported for training at Pillau on June 8, 1942. From October 28, 1942 until February 21, 1943, he was the captain-in-training aboard the U-124,commanded by a fellow Crew 34 classmate, Kapitänleutnant Johann Mohr. A few months later on June 15, Eck assumed command and commissioned the newly-constructed U-852. Early the following year, January 18, 1944, her sea trials completed and fully provisioned, Eck took U-852 out of Kiel en route to the German U-boat base at Penang in Malaya. Before he departed, the young Kapitänleutnant was briefed by a Crew 34 classmate, Kapitänleutnant Adalbert Schnee. Schnee, a veteran U-boat commander and holder of the Knight's Cross with Oak leaves, ranked number 22 among Germany's most successful U-boat captains. Eck listened very carefully to what his friend told him about the dangers that lay ahead.
Schnee reminded Eck that U-852 was among the largest, slowest and most easily hit U-boats then in service. He particularly warned him about the strong air cover in the Atlantic Narrows, especially between Freetown and Ascension Island. "Be very careful in this region," the veteran classmate cautioned him, pointing out that traces of wreckage from a torpedoed ship could be recognized from the air for "the next few days." Schnee underscored his warning with the ominous news that all four type IXD2 boats that had preceded U-852 had been lost, either in the South Atlantic or near Ascension Island. The South Atlantic zone was, in Schnee's understated words, "very difficult for us." That Eck took Schnee's warnings seriously was evidenced by what happened fifty-four days later.
Eck was also briefed by KrvKpt. Günter Hessler, who like Schnee was a Knight's Cross holder and a U-boat ace. Hessler, who was Admiral Dönitz's son-in-law, was also the chief-of-staff to Konteradmiral Eberhardt Godt, who directed the day-to-day conduct of the U-boat war. Hessler underscored the warnings Eck had received from Schnee, emphasizing that Eck should avoid anything that would attract the enemy's attention.
Back in Kiel, Eck received another briefing from KrvKpt. Karl-Heinz Moehle. Moehle discussed the Laconia incident with Eck, reminding him of what had happened to KrvKpt. Werner Hartenstein. Whether or not Moehle also talked with Eck about the so-called Laconia order is not known. But the September 17, 1942 order had been read by all U-boat captains and was included in U-852's standing orders. (The Laconia incident and its ramifications are discussed later in this essay when the issues surfaced during Eck's trial.) Eck's operational orders were direct. He was to take U-852 south, pass through the Atlantic by way of the Cape of Good Hope and operate in the Indian Ocean. He was then to join Gruppe Monsun at Penang. U-852 sailed from Kiel on January 18, 1944, taking the "north-about" route around Scotland and into the North Atlantic. Eck ran down the globe toward the African west coast, running on the surface only at night to recharge his batteries. Clearly, he heeded the warnings about staying out of sight as much as possible. It took nearly two months before U-852 reached the Equator, in the middle of the most dangerous area about which he had been warned.
On the afternoon of March 13, 1944, U-852 was patrolling about 300 miles east of the Freetown-Ascension Island line, approximately 500 miles north of Ascension Island and 700 miles south of Freetown. The U-boat was cruising on the surface when at 500 p.m. a lookout spotted a freighter ahead and off the starboard bow. The ship in the distance turned out to be the SS Peleus, a Greek-registered freighter of 6,659 BRT built by William Gray & Company in 1928. Under charter to the British War Transportation Ministry, Peleus had left Freetown in ballast five days earlier bound for South America and the River Plate. She carried a crew of thirty-five.
Eck ordered U-852 to full speed and laid a course to put the U-boat ahead of the target. The chase lasted two and a half hours, and it was dark by the time U-852 was in position to attack. At 1940 Eck made a night surface attack, firing two torpedoes from the bow tubes. The torpedoes slammed into the freighter just moments apart, the first exploding in the number two hold, the second just aft in the number three hold. From U-852's bridge, Kapitänleutnant Eck observed that the "detonation was very impressive." The doomed Peleus went down like a rock.
It is impossible to know how many of the thirty-five man crew got off the ship before she was swallowed by the sea, but there could not have been many. Chief Officer Antonios Liossis was knocked unconscious and blown off the bridge into the water. Rocco Said, an off-watch greaser, was on deck when the torpedoes struck. To Said, who had been at sea since his youth, "it was clear the ship would sink immediately." He and other crewmen who were on deck at the time determined to take their chances in the ocean.6 The freighter went down so quickly that almost none of the survivors had time to don life vests or life belts. Those who jumped overboard clung to hatch covers, timbers, and any other piece of wreckage that floated. Rafts that had been stowed on deck bobbed clear as the freighter went down, and some of the survivors made for them. Chief Officer Liossis and a seaman, Dimitrios Konstantinides, swam toward a raft. While they were still in the water U-852 moved slowly among the flotsam. After the U-boat passed, Liossis and Konstantinides climbed aboard the raft.
The only officers on U-852's bridge at this time were Kapitänleutnant Eck and his first watch officer, Oberleutnant z.S. Gerhard Colditz. The other occupants consisted of two enlisted lookouts. As the U-boat cruised slowly among the debris, Eck and his crewmen on the bridge could hear whistles and shouting. They also saw lights on some of the rafts. At about this time the ship's doctor, Oberstabsarzt Walter Weispfennig, came on the bridge. His sole purpose for going topside was to see what was transpiring, and he stood behind a periscope about fifteen feet away from Eck and Colditz.
Whenever possible, U-boat captains were supposed to question survivors about the ship, its cargo and destination. Eck called down and ordered his chief engineer, Kapitänleutnant (Ing.) Hans Lenz, on deck. Because Lenz spoke English, he sent the engineer forward to the bow to question a survivor. Lenz was joined in the trek forward by the second watch officer, Lieutnant z.S. August Hoffmann.
Hoffmann had come off watch at 400 p.m., an hour before the Peleus was sighted. He had been below deck during the attack and was not scheduled to go back on watch until midnight. Hoffmann also spoke some English, but he had not been specifically ordered to accompany Lenz to the bow. Apparently he, like Weispfennig, was there to see what was going on.
As the two officers reached the bow, Eck maneuvered U-852 alongside one of the life rafts. The raft he picked was occupied by the Peleus' third officer, Agis Kephalas, a greaser named Stavros Sogias, a Russian seaman named Pierre Neuman, and a Chinese fireman whose name no one recalled. Kapitänleutnant (Ing.) Lenz beckoned the third officer to come aboard the U-boat. Lenz and Hoffmann questioned the man about the ship. They learned that she was in ballast and that she was sailing from Freetown and bound for the River Plate. Third officer Kephalas also told them that another, slower ship was following them to the same destination. With the questioning concluded, Hoffmann told the Greek officer that he and the other survivors would be picked up the next day by the British. He helped the man back onto his raft and both officers started back toward the conning tower to report what they had learned. After the Greek sailor returned to his raft, Eck ordered U-852 to proceed slowly while he listened to Lenz's report. When Lenz told him about the Greek officer's account of the approaching, slow moving freighter, Eck discounted the claim as "too much of a good thing."
At this point there were five officers on the bridge Eck, his first officer (Colditz), the second officer (Hoffmann), the chief engineer (Lenz), and the doctor (Weispfennig). The doctor was still standing away from the others and did not participate in the conversation that followed. Apparently Hoffmann also remained far enough away from the group that he could not clearly understand what the other three men were discussing.
The conversion had taken an ominous turn. Eck told Colditz and Lenz that he was concerned about the amount and size of the wreckage. He believed that the morning air patrols out of Freetown or Ascension Island would spot the wreckage and recognize it as the result of a U-boat attack. The discovery would trigger an immediate search for the U-boat, and given the number of U- boats lost during the previous six months, Eck felt his boat did not stand a chance if discovered by enemy aircraft.
His choices, however, were limited. He could leave the area and run on the surface at maximum speed until dawn, but by the time the sun rose, U-852 would still be less than 200 miles from the scene of the sinking-well within range of aircraft. In the time it took U-852 to travel about a half mile from the scene of the sinking, Eck decided that in order to protect his boat and his crew, he had to destroy all traces of the Peleus.
Eck ordered two machine guns brought up on the bridge. While the weapons were being retrieved from below, both Colditz and Lenz protested the captain's decision. Eck listened to both officers but dismissed their objections. According to Eck, it was necessary to destroy all traces of the sinking, and he justified the destruction of the wreckage as an operational necessity to protect his boat from discovery and destruction.
As the U-boat turned back toward the rafts Lenz went below, leaving four officers on the bridge Eck, Colditz, Hoffmann and Weispfennig. Both machine guns were brought up and mounted on the railing on the after part of the conning tower-one to port and one to starboard. Exactly what was said and happened next is not entirely clear. Apparently Eck made it known to the officers on the bridge that he wanted the rafts sunk. He made no mention of shooting at anyone in the water, nor did he ever give an order to kill any of the survivors. It was accepted, however, that by sinking the rafts the survivors would lose any hope for survival. Eck had chosen to use machine guns because he believed the rafts were mounted on hollow floats, and thus piercing the floats with bullets would cause the the rafts would sink. In fact, the rafts' floats were filled with buoyant material.
It was now about 800 p.m., and the night was very dark and moonless. The rafts appeared as dark shapes on the water, their lights having been extinguished by the occupants when the U-boat first approached. Eck apparently turned to Weispfennig, who was standing near the starboard machine gun, and ordered him to fire at the wreckage. The doctor complied with the order, directing his fire at a raft he estimated was about 200 yards away.
Weispfennig's gun jammed after he had fired just a few bursts, and he could not make it operate again. Hoffmann, still off watch, went to Weispfennig and cleared the jam. The second officer then took over on the gun and opened fire on the raft that had been Weispfennig's target. The doctor took no further part in the attempt to destroy the rafts, although he remained on the bridge. Despite the machine gun fire directed at it, the raft refused to sink. Eck ordered the signal light turned on in order to examine the craft to determine why it was still afloat. The examination, conducted at considerable distance and in poor light, proved inconclusive. The U-boat continued to move slowly through the wreckage, firing intermittently at the rafts. Apparently all the firing was being done from the starboard side, and at this point only Hoffmann was shooting. Weispfennig did not shoot again, and neither Eck nor Colditz ever fired.
Nor was the firing continuous. In fact there were long periods when there was no firing at all. In part the pauses were the result of poor visibility due to the dark, moonless night. The other reason for the interruptions was the ineffectiveness of the machine gun fire on the rafts. They were not sinking, despite the rounds being pumped into them. Eck's goal of eliminating surface wreckage was not being achieved.
At about this time Hoffmann suggested using the 37mm gun, reasoning that its explosive rounds would destroy the rafts. Some consideration was also given to using the 105mm deck gun, but Eck rejected both suggestions because he did not think the guns could be brought to bear at such close range. He did, however, tell Hoffmann to try the twin 20mm anti-aircraft guns.
The attempt to sink the rafts with the 20mm guns was also a failure, prompting someone to suggest placing demolition charges aboard the rafts. Eck rejected that idea because he did not want any of his crew to leave the U-boat. Instead, he ordered hand grenades brought up, and maneuvered U-852 within thirty yards of a raft.
The only person who can be identified as having thrown any grenades is Hoffmann. How many he threw at the raft, or if he threw grenades at more than one raft, is not known. It appears that two or three grenades were thrown, and that perhaps two of the rafts were targets. The grenades also proved to be useless in sinking the rafts. Throughout the grisly operation it was not Eck's intent to kill any of the survivors. That they might be hit by gunfire, and would certainly die if their rafts were destroyed, was obvious to him. But he assumed that whoever was on the rafts had jumped into the water when the shooting started. His assumption was incorrect.
Instead of diving into the sea, Chief Officer Antonios Liossis threw himself down on the floorboards of the raft and squirmed head first under a bench when the machine gun opened fire. Behind him he heard Dimitrios Kostantinidis cry out in pain as he was hit several times. The seaman collapsed on the floor of the raft and died. Later, when the U-boat made another pass and grenades were thrown, Liossis was wounded in the back and shoulder by shrapnel.
Aboard another raft were the third officer, Agis Kephalas, and two seamen. Both of the latter were killed and Kephalas was badly injured in the arm. It is unclear whether these men were killed or wounded by grenade fragments or machine gun fire. Despite his wound, Kephalas managed to roll off the raft and swim toward the boat occupied by Liossis.
Seaman Rocco Said dived over the side when the firing started and was in the water near his raft when the shooting was turned in his direction. Around him other swimmers "threw their hands up" as they were machine-gunned, and sank below the surface.
Below decks in U-852 the crew was unaware of exactly what was happening topside. Some of the men heard the firing and everyone was aware that the boat was maneuvering slowly. Obviously they were still in the area of the sinking and many wondered why. Some of the men knew that two machine guns had been taken up to the bridge and that hand grenades had also been requested. They could only guess at what it all meant.
Chief Engineer Lenz, who had vacated the bridge and had spent the last four hours writing the report of his conversation with the Greek officer, supervised the reloading of the forward torpedo tubes and passed the time checking on the boat's trim. He had to see that the boat was, as he later put it, "ready to submerge at any time." Lenz heard the intermittent firing and the explosions of the hand grenades. He was the only man below deck during that time who knew for a certainty what the sounds meant.
By this time it was midnight and the watch was changed. Colditz was relieved by Hoffmann and went below. The enlisted lookouts were also relieved, one of the reliefs being Matrosenobergefreiter Wolfgang Schwender. As soon as Schwender took his place on the bridge, Eck ordered him to man the port side machine gun and fire at the large pieces of wreckage. Schwender complied with the order and opened fire on a raft that was about thirty-five yards away.
After firing one burst Schwender's gun jammed. He was clearing the jam when Lenz came up on the bridge. Schwender had just cleared the jam and was preparing to fire again when Lenz shoved him roughly aside, took control of the gun, and opened fire on the raft. Schwender assumed his duties as a lookout and did not fire again.
How long Kapitänleutnant (Ing.) Lenz manned the port side machine gun is not clear. But it appears that he fired only at one raft and then quit firing. The question that bears asking is why was he firing at all? The captain had given the assignment to Schwender, not Lenz. The answer to that question is hard for many people to comprehend. According to Lenz, he took the gun from Schwender because he thought the Greek officer he had questioned might be on that raft. He didn't want him "hit and killed by bullets which had been fired by a soldier who in my view was bad." To Lenz it was a matter of honor, consideration and duty to insure that if anyone was killed, he was killed by a bullet fired by an honorable man.
By 100 a.m. on March 14, 1944, Eck had tried to sink the rafts with machine guns, 20mm anti-aircraft guns, hand grenades and ramming. His attempts to destroy all traces of the sinking had failed utterly. Worse, U-852 had spent nearly five hours on the scene and dawn was only six hours away. It was long past time to go. Realizing the precariousness of his situation, Eck took U-852 out of the area at maximum speed shortly thereafter, leaving behind four survivors on two rafts. Three lived to be rescued thirty-five days later. While U-852 was steaming through the night, news of the attack on the wreckage spread through the boat and seriously affected morale. "I was under the impression that the mood on board was rather a depressing one," Eck later said. "I myself was in the same mood." In view of the crew's sullen attitude, Eck felt obligated to explain why he had made the decision to destroy the wreckage.
He addressed his men over the boat's loudspeaker system, telling them that he had made the decision "with a heavy heart," and that he regretted that some of the survivors may have been killed during the attempt to sink the rafts. He acknowledged that, in any event, without the rafts the survivors would surely die. He warned his crew about being "influenced too much by sympathy," citing that "we must also think of our wives and children who at home die as victims of air attack."
The explanation failed to ameliorate the crew's sinking morale or dispel their distaste for what had transpired. In addition, Eck had failed to explain to them the circumstances that caused him to see the destruction of the rafts as an operational necessity.
Despite having lingered for so long at the scene of the Peleus' destruction, U-852 managed to avoid the enemy and slip away to the south. The two and a half weeks following the sinking were uneventful. U-852 moved steadily south along the west coast of Africa toward the Cape of Good Hope. Although Eck was being very careful, the British knew he was there. Eck had sent a radio message on March 15 regarding the Peleus' sinking, and the transmission had been picked up by radio direction finders.
According to U-boat Headquarters (BdU) records, U-852 maintained radio silence until April 4. On March 30, however, British antisubmarine warfare forces in Capetown were warned that radio traffic from a U-boat had been picked up, indicating a submarine was north-west of Capetown.
Two days later, on April 1, Eck torpedoed the 5,277 ton freighter SS Dahomian ten miles west-south-west from Cape Point. This time he made no attempt to identify the vessel, and the forty-nine survivors were rescued by two South African mine sweepers the next day. Crew members described this successful attack as being "in order." Morale on U-852 improved.
The Dahomian was the first U-boat success in South African waters since August 1, 1943. In response, the British dispatched a strong anti-submarine warfare group to hunt down the U-boat responsible for the sinking. The search, which lasted through April 3, did not find so much as a trace of the offending submarine. On the following day Eck broadcast his success in a lengthy transmission to BdU that was intercepted by the British. They finally found their U-boat, its position fixed only 150 miles east-south-east of Point Agulhas.
U-852 remained in the Capetown area until mid-April, vainly looking for targets. Eck fired a spread of three torpedoes at what he thought was a troopship, but all missed. The area around Capetown offered too many risks and too few vessels to warrant staying there any longer, and Eck started north toward Penang.
Eck's luck, however, was slowly running out. On April 20, 1944, only a few days after Eck headed north, survivors from the Peleus were rescued by the Portuguese steamer SS Alexandre Silva. Three men, chief officer Antonios Liossis, greaser Rocco Said, and seaman Dimitrios Argiros, were still alive. The third officer had died twenty-five days after the attack from gangrene and yellow fever.
When the Alexandre Silva docked in Lobito, Angola, one week later, the British learned for the first time of the events that occurred on the night of March 13-14. At the time there was little they could do since they did not know which U-boat had sunk the Peleus. After caring for the survivors, they filed their reports and passed the information on to the Admiralty.
While the three Peleus survivors were being questioned by British intelligence officers, Eck was moving into very dangerous waters. The defenses in the area had been beefed up with the addition of a hunter-killer group composed of nine frigates and sloops, plus the escort carriers HMS Begum and HMS Shah. The shipping zones were heavily patrolled by aircraft, and air bases were located on both Addu Atoll and Diego Garcia.
On the last day of April, British radio intelligence placed U-852 approaching Cape Guardafui on the southern tip of the Gulf of Aden. RAF Wellingtons were sent out from Aden to hunt the U-boat. On May 2, they found her.
It was just after dawn. U-852 was cruising on the surface and Leutnant Hoffmann was the watch officer when the British bombers caught the U-boat completely by surprise. Coming out of the sun, the British planes strafed and bombed the doomed boat. Six depth charges straddled her, one of them damaging the 37mm antiaircraft gun on platform II. As tons of water crashed down on U-852, Hoffmann frantically ordered the U-boat to dive.
U-852 managed to submerge before the Wellingtons could make a second run, but the situation was serious. In addition to flooding, deadly chlorine gas, caused by burst battery cells, was filling the boat. Fifteen minutes after she went under, U-852 shot to the surface at a 60° angle. The steep slant caused the batteries to spill even more acid, increasing the levels of chlorine gas inside the boat.
As U-852 broke the surface her gun crews swarmed out and manned the antiaircraft guns. Even as the crewmen were reaching their battle stations, the Wellingtons were starting their second strafing run. The planes roared overhead and smothered the boat with fire. Oberleutnant Gerhard Colditz and Matrosenobergefreiter Josef Hofer both died on the bridge.
U-852 was down by the stern, unable to dive and under attack. By this time it was clear to Eck that his boat was finished. While he could not save his boat, he was determined to save his crew, and his only hope of accomplishing that was to beach U-852 on the Somaliland coast before the British sank her.
Although doomed the U-boat managed to hold off the British throughout much of the day, her gunners beating off each aerial attack. Several of the crewmen were killed or wounded during the repeated strafing runs, but casualties were surprising light given the circumstances. That afternoon, while still under attack, Eck managed to save the bulk of his crew by beaching his battered boat off the Somaliland coast at Ras Hafun.
After grinding to a halt, Eck ordered the crew to abandon ship and set about to destroy U-852. Exactly what happened next is not clear, but two things are certain. First, Eck's attempt to destroy his boat with demolition charges was only partially successful, and one crewman was killed in the process. Second and more important to the events that would follow, Eck somehow failed to destroy the boat's war diary-the Kriegstagebuch. The oversight would cost him and two of his officers their lives.
Beached, listing heavily to port, her bow a twisted mass of junk, U-852 was obviously finished. But the British aircraft continued to attack, shifting their attention to U-852's crewmen who were coming out of the hatches and leaping into the water. Many were already swimming toward shore, and a few were clinging to rubber rafts filled with wounded that bobbed near the hulk. August Hoffmann was helping a badly wounded sailor into a raft when the Wellington's made their pass. Machine gun bullets frothed the sea around him, hitting men in the water and puncturing the raft. Hoffmann was hit in the leg by one of the rounds. Despite his wound, the young officer continued to help the wounded sailor toward shore. British aircraft continued to strafe the Germans who were struggling through the surf toward the beach.
Exhausted and with several crewmen wounded and some dying, U-852's crew lay on the beach and waited for whatever was going to happen next. It was not long in coming. The following day, a British naval landing party, supported by a unit of the Somaliland Camel Corps, took the surviving members of U-852's crew prisoner.
The wreck of U-852 on the beach of Somaliland
The British boarding party that entered U-852 found more than just a battered hulk. She yielded a wealth of information which, coupled with the capture of the entire crew, proved to be enormously important. But the most significant discovery was the intact Kriegstagebuch (KTB), U-852's war log. The KTB would eventually link Eck and U-852 to the Peleus sinking and the harrowing events described by the three survivors. But that relationship, which was not immediately apparent, would only come about through the joint efforts of two navy intelligence officers, Lieutenant Burnett, RNVR and Lt. J.T. Rugh, USNR. Both officers were assigned to the Naval Section, Combined Special Detachment, Intelligence Collection (CSDIC).
On May 17, two weeks after their capture, thirty-four of U-852's crew arrived on Cairo from Aden, where they had been screened by Lieutenant Burnett. Burnett, who was in charge of the Naval Section, CSDIC, sent orders that twelve of the men, among them the medical officer, Weispfennig, were to be separated and sent to another camp.
Lieutenant Rugh, apparently unaware of why Burnett wanted the twelve separated from the others, "spent two hours with the medical officer as a courtesy to a non-combatant, protected person whose early repatriation was to be expected."
During the two hours Rugh spent with Weispfennig, all the prisoners were processed in Cairo before the twelve special prisoners were taken away. As soon as the twelve were gone, Rugh started questioning each of the remaining twenty-two Germans. He spent two weeks, working until after midnight each night, questioning the prisoners and writing his interrogation reports. It was during those interrogations that stories about the machine-gunning of the Peleus survivors began to leak out.
On May 20, Rugh went to Heliopolis to pick up nine more men from U-852, including Heinz Eck. Rugh escorted Eck back to Cairo, but did not question him. Within two days, Eck and four unnamed crewmen were aboard an airplane bound for England.
Rugh sent a telegram on May 23 to the Admiralty reporting that U-852 was the U-boat that had sunk the Peleus. The information was required in London to assist intelligence officers at the Admiralty who were about to question Eck on routine intelligence matters. Rugh did not mention the alleged shootings because at that time he lacked confirmation of the story.
In the meantime, Burnett visited the wreck of U-852 and returned to Cairo with the U-boat's KTB. After conferring with Rugh and comparing notes, Burnett confronted the chief engineer, Hans Lenz, with the incriminating evidence. According to Burnett, his "accusation of murder on the high seas to the engineer officer produced confirmation of that story." Not only did Lenz confirm the sordid tale, he signed an affidavit detailing the event.
Rugh and Burnett next visited Matrosenobergefreiter Johann Coirniak and Obersteuermann Wilhelm Schmidtz. Both men had been lookouts on the bridge during the torpedo attack and during most of the time Eck was trying to destroy the wreckage. Both men signed affidavits as to what had transpired.
Based on the veracity of the information the two intelligence officers gathered from U-852's crewmen, the Admiralty flew the three Peleus survivors to Capetown. There, on June 7, 1944, the three men signed sworn affidavits describing the events. As the Greek sailors were preparing their accounts, Rugh was detailed to escort Dr. Weispfennig, Coirniak and Schmidtz to London. His task was to prevent Weispfennig from suspecting why he was being sent to England, and to "prevent the medical officer from knowing that the witnesses were also going to the United Kingdom."
Eck, Lenz, Hoffmann, Weispfennig and Schwender arrived in England by June 8. By that time they must have suspected that the British were planing to try them as war criminals, though they had not yet been charged with any crimes. The trial, however, was postponed until Germany's defeat, which by June 1944 was a virtual certainty. Until then, the British classified the Eck-Peleus affair as Top Secret.
Five months after the war in Europe ended, Heinz Eck, August Hoffmann, Dr. Walter Weispfennig, Hans Lenz and Wolfgang Schwender were moved to the Altona prison in Hamburg. On October 6, 1945, they were formally charged with war crimes. There were two charges against Eck and his four crewmen. The first count illustrates that the British, even by this late date, had still not accepted the reality of unrestricted submarine warfare. The defendants were accused of sinking the Peleus "in the violation of the laws and usages of war." The phrase "violations of the laws and usages of war," refers to the Prize Rules that were still in effect during the First World War (1914-1918). Under the Prize Rules, torpedoing a merchant vessel without warning was a crime. By 1939, however, the Prize Rules no longer applied, for the usages of war with respect to unrestricted submarine warfare had changed.
The second count accused the Germans of being "concerned in the killing of members of the crew. . .by firing and throwing grenades at them." This charge, of course, was the underlying issue in the whole trial. The defense against this count, at least in Eck's case, hinged on two legalistic arguments. First, there was no specific intent to kill the crew; and second, the usages of war with respect to killing survivors had changed from absolute prohibition to acceptance under conditions of operational necessity. The basic defense for the other four defendants was that they were following Eck's orders.
Judge Helmut Sieber, the only active German navy judge in Hamburg after the war, organized the defense. He selected Fregattenkapitän Hans Meckel to be the special advisor to the defense, and Dr. Harold Todsen, a fifty-one year old Hamburg attorney, to represent Heinz Eck. Two other German attorneys, Dr. Max Pabst, age seventy-four, and Dr. Gerd-Otto Wulf, age forty-six, represented Hoffmann jointly, while Dr. Pabst alone represented Schwender. Lenz selected his own attorney, Major Lermon, Barrister at Law, Headquarters 8th Corps District. Dr. Albrecht Wegner, a sixty-two year old expert on international law, was retained on behalf of all the accused.
Dr. Pabst got his look at the case on October 9, but could not make any preparation because he was sitting as a judge in Cuxhaven. He would not be available to start preparing a defense until after October 12. The other attorneys were not notified of the case until October 13.
This article was published on 28 Mar 1998.
Siegerjustiz and the Peleus Affair
Chapter One - Eck's career, U-852's only patrol and the sinking of SS Peleus and the loss of U-852 and its crew's imprisonment.
Chapter Two - The first day of the trial. The procecution and the defence prepare their cases.
Chapter Three - The second and third days of the trial.
Chapter Four - The fourth day of the trial. The execution of Eck and two of his crew members. Closing words.
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An Operational Necessity. Griffin, Gwyn, 1999. (transl.)