Knight of the North Atlantic: Baron Siegfried Von Forstner and the War Patrols of U-402, 1941-1943

24 Feb 23

The Battle of the Atlantic has received a lot of attention from historians, and the campaign is still providing a source of new books almost 80 years later. This new book offers a different perspective, seeing the battle through the actions of one German submarine and its crew. The author has selected his subject well, as Baron Siegfried von Forstner was a highly successful commander who took part in some of the key convoy battles.

This is a human story, which focuses on the individuals as well as the strategy and tactics. The author has a personal connection, as his late grandfather served in U-402 early in its service. He also acknowledges the research of Captain John M Waters, a US Coast Guard officer who fought in a number of actions against the U-boat and who later corresponded with von Forstner’s widow.

The story begins with an introduction, which explains the wolfpack tactics which were such an important part of the German plan to attack Allied convoys. We also gain an understanding of the boat’s Commanding Officer, whose intuition, daring and tactical sense were to prove crucial to success. His early career is covered, as well as the construction of the boat and its sea trials. As many histories focus on the convoy battles, it is interesting here to learn about the training of U-boat crews, individually and collectively.

After moving to France, the boat began its first war patrol. There were few early successes, and von Forstner missed out on the rich pickings for other German submarines off the US east coast soon after America’s entry into the war. However, later the boat was involved in some major convoy battles, which are vividly described. The author has produced a gripping and detailed account, which almost reads like a novel. By providing insights into von Forstner’s decision-making, he explains how he achieved success in penetrating convoys which were defended by well-trained escorts.

In addition to accounts of convoy battles, the author covers every aspect of life on board, from dealing with technical faults to enduring depth charge attacks. As the boat’s service continues, we also follow the development of the wider campaign. U-boats return to the US east coast, and the arrival of Allied aircraft increase the dangers to the submarines. Indeed, it was US aircraft which eventually accounted for U-402, which was lost with all hands in 1943.

An important feature of the book is the excellent photographs, of life on board and also of the vessels encountered by the boat, including Allied warships as well as merchantmen. The appendices include details of the boat’s patrols and the crew. Source notes will also be a useful source for future historians.

By seeing the campaign through the career of one U-boat, its commander and its crew, the author has provided an important insight into the Battle of the Atlantic. It is a story of strategy and tactics and of changing fortunes. Most of all, it is about enduring themes such as the leadership and teamwork essential for success in battle, and of the price paid by the participants. This book is highly recommended.