THE U-BOAT COMMANDERS: KNIGHT’S CROSS HOLDERS 1939-1945

Reviewed by: Richard Sharpe

In this books review series on German submarines in WWII, the latest edition is about their commanding officers.  If you visited the U-boat museum in Kiel you may be surprised (and even repelled) by the glorification of those COs who, as a reward for sinking and killing unarmed merchant ships and their crews had been awarded the German armed forces’ equivalent of the DSO.

Accepting that the disruption of the ocean lifeline of food and equipment from America to Britain was a legitimate act of war, there was something distasteful about measuring courage and valour by the amount of merchant tonnage sunk and the killing of men who could not fight back.  Of course, there were also lists of allied surface warships destroyed in actions involving conspicuous courage by the submarine commanders, but somehow the museum failed to make that distinction in its presentation of success, mostly defined by total tonnage sunk.  Many actions involving unescorted merchant ships are included.

In all there were 122 recipients of the Knight’s Cross amongst U-boat commanders, a total which included 28 higher awards of the same medal.  The highlights of each recipient’s career is described in a roughly two to three-page format (four for Gunther Prien of Scapa Flow fame) headlining the number of ships sunk or damaged and their combined tonnage. Most of the listed officers had more than one command and many were ultimately lost at sea. It is a form of presentation which allows a concentrated career format while retaining the key historical features. Photographs of each recipient are also included as are some of the targets.

The obvious shortcomings of this method is that they rarely reveal the character of the man, or how he interacted with his ship’s company, although it is suggested that most sailors took pride in their CO’s reward. As a history of U-boat Commanders from 1939-45, the book has its limits.  Those who failed to impress at sea are not included.  But the author might reasonably have set out just to record success as defined only by the presentation of awards for ‘gallantry in action’. For readers who consider there is nothing gallant about sinking unescorted merchant ships, there is an unhappy comparison with our own end-of-war carpet bombing of Germany’s undefended towns and cities.