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Sea Wolves: Savage Submarine Commanders of WW2 (Tony Matthews, Pen & Sword Books, ISBN 978 1 39906 461 3, £25)

04 Apr 23

Sea Wolves, with its sub-title of Savage Submarine Commanders of WW2, tells the harrowing stories of the atrocities perpetrated by four of the most dangerous submarine commanders of the Second World War – two Japanese, one German and one from the Soviet Union.

The first action described is the sinking of the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur in May 1943, just 30 miles off the East coast of Australia. Whilst a significant number of the passengers entered the water alive, just 64 of the 332 souls on board were saved when assistance arrived on the scene some 36 hours later. The ship was clearly identifiable as a well-lit hospital ship, when it was struck by a single torpedo fired from I-177, captained by Hajime Nakagawa. He subsequently denied that it had been his submarine which committed this particular outrage, but he later pleaded guilty to the three further atrocities and was subsequently sentenced to eight years of hard labour.

The second chapter describes the sinking of the SS Peleus in March 1944 by U-852. Heinz Eck, the U-boat’s captain, had been ordered to patrol an area of the South Atlantic. This was a particularly dangerous assignment (the previous four U-boats sent to the area had all been sunk), and he had been directed to take steps to ensure that his presence was not discovered. His actions over the following months were to result in the sinking of two Allied ships and the loss of his own submarine, driven ashore on the coast of Somalia in East Africa. However, it was for the sinking of the first vessel, the SSPeleus, that Eck and two of his officers were subsequently to be executed. The protracted attempt to kill the ship’s survivors, utilising machine guns and hand grenades, shocked the Allies into making a determined effort to track him down. The conduct of the associated war crimes trial is explored in considerable depth, with evidence recovered from the beached submarine and its crew proving crucial in confirming the details of the atrocity. The death sentences passed were not without controversy, and several hundred German naval officers were present at Eck’s funeral.

The third captain singled out by the author is Tatsunosuke Ariizumi of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Nobody knows how many people he murdered as, unusually, there were no survivors from many of the ships that he sunk; the assumption is that they suffered brutal deaths.  It was, however, on assuming command of I-8 that his barbaric role in the war began. The atrocities perpetrated on two of the I-8’s victims, the SS Tjisalak and the SS Jean Nicolet, are described in some detail, not least because, despite the violence, there were miraculously a few survivors from both ships. The fate of Tatsunosuke Ariizumi is not known, although he is believed to have committed suicide at the end of the war.

The final incident described is that of the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster. At 25,000 tons and built as a liner in 1936, the ship was tasked with evacuating personnel from Gdynia to Kiel in the closing months of the war. At the time that she was sunk by the Russian S-13, captained by Alexander Marinesko, she was possibly carrying 10,000 passengers, some 8,000 of them civilians.  Unaccompanied and sunk at night in atrocious conditions, there were few survivors of this action. Marinesko went on to sink another ship, the German transport Steuben; she, too, was carrying a large number of passengers, and he ended the war with the dubious distinction of killing more people than any other submarine commander in World War Two.

Tony Matthews is an experienced author and historian with more than 30 books published.  Whilst the book is an engaging, even exciting, read, the dramatised narrative rather detracts from the facts of the atrocities, with a loss of authenticity and gravity. The book does not, however, purport to be a work of detailed research, but rather it concentrates on the experiences of the passengers caught up in these tragedies and the heart-rending accounts of the survivors.