The Life of Germany's Highest Scoring U-boat Commander
2018, Naval Institute Press
Hardcover, 288 pages
Anyone who has so much as glanced in the direction of the Battle of the Atlantic knows of Otto Kretschmer. The top German U-boat ace ruled the waves during the early months of the war, scored an astonishing string of victories, and, about eighteen months later, vanished from the scene almost as quickly as he entered it. What is equally surprising is that, until now, no credibly researched and written study of the influential U-boat commander had appeared. Thankfully, the yawning gap in that historiography is now capably filled with veteran author Lawrence Paterson’s outstanding Otto Kretschmer: The Life of the Third Reich’s Highest Scoring U-boat Commander.
Paterson covers his subject’s early years in just a handful of pages, but the extent of primary information available to do more simply does not exist. Kretschmer was born in 1912 in what is today Poland, the son of a schoolmaster. Before he joined the Reichsmarine at 18, he studied English and literature at Exeter University in England. During the prewar years in the early 1930s he finished his officer training and served aboard the light cruiser Emden, transferred at the end of 1934 to the light cruiser Köln, and in early 1936 joined the U-boat arm, which at that time had just a handful of boats but offered better opportunities for advancement.
Kretschmer’s wartime career is well-known and easily discovered, so there is no reason for this review to go into extensive depth in that regard. His first operational posting was aboard the 2nd U-Flotilla’s U-35, a Type VII that would become the workhorse of the Kriegsmarine. His fledgling career nearly ended during a rigorous training event when, while inspecting the deck gun, the boat submerged and left him in the frigid waters. Fortunately, the commander realized there was a man in the water and resurfaced to save him. Command of his own boat arrived relatively quickly when, in September 1937, he took of U-23, a small Type II boat he took out on eight separate patrols in the North Sea off the English and Scottish east coasts after the war broke out in early September 1939.
In April of 1940 he commissioned U-99, the Type VII boat he would make famous as one of the most successful in history. Just as General Robert E. Lee imposed his will during the American Civil War on the Army of Northern Virginia, whose audacious actions thereafter matched the personality of its commander, so too did Kretschmer stamp his strong character on his U-boat and its crew. He was bold and daring, but not overly reckless with the lives of his crew. His audacious tactics were soon on full display when he made famous his proclivity for penetrating a convoy on the surface at night, using the boat’s high speed and small silhouette to avoid detection and retaliation. His motto that has outlived him — “One torpedo, one ship” — was coined during this period of his career, and he was also famously tagged with the nickname “Silent Otto” for his ability to operate his boat silently and remain undetected, and his unwillingness to transmit radio many messages during patrols.
“Silent Otto’s” career lasted only about eighteen months—from the outbreak of the war in early September 1939 until March 17, 1941—but during that time he conducted sixteen war patrols, became Germany’s highest-scoring U-boat commander, and sank 47 ships, amassing a total tonnage of 274,333. The next closest was Wolfgang Luth, who also conducted sixteen war patrols and sank 46 ships sunk (for 225,204 tons).
Kretschmer’s last patrol ended on March 17, 1941, off the southeast coast of Iceland after a successful attack against Convoy OB293. It is not known who was in charge of the watch that night, but when the destroyer HMS Walker was sighted, someone ordered U-99 to dive — which was not Kretschmer’s standard operating procedure. Once underwater he was quickly detected on sonar and the boat with the upside-down horseshoe emblem ran out of luck. U-99 was heavily depth-charged and nearly sank, but Kretschmer succeeded in bringing the heavily damaged boat to the surface. Forty members of his crew took to the water before U-99 slid beneath the waves. Three men went down with her, including the boat’s chief engineer who had gone back inside to make sure she sank before the enemy could capture her.
Kretchmer spent six and one-half years in captivity, which Paterson describes in significant and fascinating detail. The coverage of his postwar years, unfortunately brief though interesting, touches on how Kretschmer (and other U-boat commanders like Erich Topp, who had also survived the war) were used as propaganda tools by “a pseudo-historical research organization” based in America to bring in new members and profit off their wartime fame. One wishes Paterson had named the group (most who read in this genre know which group he is referring to), and gone into even more detail.
The author steady workmanlike telling of Kretschmer’s life crafts both a biography of the legendary commander and an operational history of his combat record. Paterson’s prose is smooth, easy to read, and never dull. His deep research necessarily produced a book “heavy on detail,” and the meticulous recreation of his war patrols corrects “major inaccuracies,” which readers of this genre will enthusiastically welcome. Left undiscovered is Kretschmer’s view of National Socialism in general, and Adolf Hitler in particular. The primary record is largely a blank slate in that regard, but the death of the subject in 1998 makes it impossible to now fully answer. The book includes a well-produced full gallery of photos, detailed footnotes, and an appendix of his ranks, war patrols, and successes. Unfortunately, more often than not the detail on the numerous sketch maps reproduced from actual war diaries is too small to be readable.
That small caveat aside, Otto Kretschmer: The Life of the Third Reich’s Highest Scoring U-boat Commander is one of the finest biographies of any U-boat ace ever written, and is highly recommended.
Review written by Theodore P. Savas.
Published on 25 Oct 2018.
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