The Quality of Mercy

Posted By October 13, 2008 No Comments

It might seem odd to write a Remembrance Day column that is positive towards an element of the German armed forces from the world wars; one can only ask that you finish the column to see whether it seems justified. War brings out both the worst and the best in us, and perhaps the latter is worth commemorating even in erstwhile enemies. – John Thompson

The quality of mercy is not strain’d

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

–Shakespeare; The Merchant of Venice, Act 4 Scene 1

Back in the late 1990s, there was a computer game about submarine warfare in the Second World War. It was interesting to notice that one of the consultants for the game Aces of the Deep was the German U-Boat ace, Otto Kretschmer. The top scoring submarine commander of the war (in terms of tonnage sunk), he ended up as a POW in Canada. He was repatriated to Germany in 1947, and joined the Kriegsmarine once more when it was re-constituted in 1955. He continued his naval career until his retirement as an admiral and he died after a boating accident in 1998 at 86 years of age.

Kretschmer’s survival was unusual. The Second World War German U-boat crews had a hard service that few of them survived. Of 1,162 U-Boats, 790 were sunk or destroyed in battle. From 1934 until the end of the war, some 40,100 Germans became submariners. Of these, 30,246 died in the war and 5,338 were rescued as POWs from sinking boats. The cause they served was atrocious and submariners are always detested by the mariners they hunt, but it would be a mistake to doubt the valour of the U-Boat crews.

Submarines are hated by other sailors because they are hunters, striking without warning and then slipping away. Psychologically, human beings will tolerate a threat when we have a chance to actively protect ourselves, and hate those threats that appear to deny us the illusion of an opportunity for defence. The lurking submarine, whose torpedoes seemingly strike without warning, seems to fit into the latter category (never mind the reality of submarine casualties). The Japanese loathed American submariners in the Pacific; and all infantrymen hate snipers for a similar reason.

The submariners of Germany in two world wars did not earn a good reputation in Allied eyes, and our propaganda mills were eager to add further infamy when they could. One of the stereotypes of the German submariner — whether fighting for Kaiser or Fuhrer – is of a remorseless cruel commander with a sneer who is only too eager to surface and machinegun the survivors of his attack. However, of the thousands of ships sunk in two wars by German submarines, only two incidents lend any credence to this stereotype.

In June 1918, U-86 torpedoed the SS Llandovery Castle, which was then serving as a hospital ship. No wounded were on board at the time but among the fatalities were 14 Canadian nursing sisters who drowned when their lifeboat overturned as it was launched. There is some suggestion from the 24 survivors in a lone lifeboat that the submarine might have shot at other lifeboats. Allied propagandists made much of this episode and the myth subsequently obscured whatever was the reality of the attack. During the Second World War, there seems to have been one solitary incident of this kind that can be laid against the German U-Boat fleet. The captain and bridge crew of U-852 shot up the life rafts of the SS Peleus off South Africa in March 1944.

By way of comparison, the American submariner ‘Mush’ Morton of the USS Wahoo was awarded the Navy Cross after a January 1943 patrol whose high point included massacring hundreds of Japanese soldiers in the water after he torpedoed their troopship. The Royal Navy, deeply aggrieved by the Luftwaffe’s strafing of seamen who had abandoned their sinking ships off Crete in May 1941, has a similar blot in their logbook. Two months later, the crew of the RN submarine HMS Torbay machine-gunned German soldiers in life rafts after sinking their transports in the Aegean.

The vast majority of submariners in the US and Royal Navies behaved more conventionally, fighting bravely without being any more cruel than their calling demanded. The same is true of the vast majority of U-Boat crews, although the behavior of the crew of U-156 deserve special mention.

They sank the SS Laconia off Africa in September 1942, only to realize the ship was carrying Italian POWs and the families of British servicemen. The U-boat then started transmitting SOS calls for help in clear text and providing aid to all the survivors – giving food, water and medical treatment. U-506 and U-507 then turned up to lend aid and started towing the lifeboats towards land. This ended when an Allied patrol bomber attacked U-156. Even so, 1,370 survivors of the Laconia reached safety while the U-Boats were ordered by Admiral Doenitz to never expose themselves in such a manner again.

The high casualty rate of the U-Boat arm can be illustrated by the fate of these three submarines. U-507 was sunk with all hands in January 1943, as was U-156 two months later. Six of U-506’s crew of 54 survived its sinking in July 1943and were picked up by a Royal Navy destroyer. For that matter, the USS Wahoo was also lost with all hands off Japan on its seventh patrol in November 1943, although HMS Torbay survived six years of war to be broken up for scrap in December 1945.

But perhaps the finest standards of humanity in a submariner were displayed by the German U-boat ace Otto Kretschmer. One of Germany’s greatest aces in the first 18 months of the war, Kretschmer had scored numerous successes – sinking more tonnage (almost 250,000 tons) than any other submariner in the war. On the other hand, after attacking lone unescorted ships; Kretschmer was often solicitous to the welfare of the survivors: He was known to frequently hand bottles of spirits and blankets into lifeboats, and to give them the compass bearings to the nearest land.

Trailing a convoy while submerged in 1940, Kretschmer was using his periscope when he spotted a lone man on a raft adrift far out in the Atlantic, using his shirt on an oar as a sail. He later spent half a day combing his trail to locate and pick up this castaway. This man was later transferred into a lifeboat from another ship the U-Boat ace torpedoed near Ireland.

Kretschmer’s career as a U-Boat commander ended on March 17th 1941 in a wild melee when a submarine wolf pack attacked Convoy HX112. The escort group for the convoy acquitted themselves superbly – sinking both U-100 (commanded by another of the great U-Boat aces Joachim Schepke) and Kretchmer’s U-99. Kretchmer’s boat was forced to the surface; where the crew abandoned her. The RN destroyer HMS Walker was nearby and put rescue nets in the water.

Kretchmer shepherded his men to safety, making sure that all those who had made it off the sinking submarine could swim to the British destroyer and climb up the nets to safety. But by the time the last of his men was rescued and his turn had come to climb up the nets; the chill of the North Atlantic had sapped Kretschmer’s own strength and he could scarcely hold on. Seeing his predicament, a Royal Navy seaman climbed down the nets and pulled him out of the ocean.

To Hitler and the Nazis, Kretschmer was a hero and had been well-decorated for his accomplishments – sinking tens of thousands of tons of Allied shipping, and killing scores of our mariners. But men in the grasp of the sea have no nationality and Kretchmer’s last act of heroism is to the credit of all humanity, as was his rescue. He also perhaps proves the contemporary point that ‘what goes around, comes around’; or as Shakespeare more elegantly put it: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d.