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Axis Submarine Successes 1939-1945 English Edition by Jurgen Rohwer 1983 Naval Institute Press 386

This thoroughly researched and quite remarkable book deals statistically and exclusively with Axis submarine sinkings. It was first published in German in 1968. The current English edition incorporates considerably more material, made available by Doctor Rohwer’s continuing research and recently released u.s. and British Ultra war files. This edition is no doubt the last word on the statistics of the Axis submarine war. We are beholden to the sponsorship of the Naval Institute which made publication of this edition possible.

This book is an absolute must for inclusion in every submarine library. It records sinkings in complete detail not only by Get’111B.n, Italian and Japanese submarines but in addition the sinkings of Finnish, French (Vichy) and Romanian skippers. The text presents the exact locatlon, name, date, registry and tonnage of ships sunk, as well as the name of the U-boat and skipper responsible, plus additional footnote data. , No significant data pertaining to individual sinkings appears to be left out except the level of attrition imposed upon the U-boat as a result of its attack.

When a long hard look is taken at this statistical history of the Axis submarine war, it is well not to be carried away by the author’s employment of the words “submarine successes”. Did not the Axis submarines lose their war in the end and in the process lose the incredible number of 630 German U-boats at sea (generally with the entire crew)? Some 33,000 officers and men were lost. There seems to be a defect in the Author’s concept of a submarine war in which all sinking& are “successes” without regard to the cost in terms of U-boat net attrition in boats and its effect on morale–or the fact that the German Navy’s war was finally lost.

The German submarine command–in the person of Admiral Doenitz-seemed never to comprehend the ultimate or even immediate tactical meaning of losses. One reads his autobiography in amazement to realize bow he treated every loss, whether of an ace or just an average skipper as a mere statistic, without regard to its effect upon the progress of the war. Be was concerned only whether replacements to maintain the nuaber of U-boats at sea were adequate.

Admiral Doenitz seemed never to have any awareness of the necessity to change tactics. training or submarine design in order to maintain a winning factor based on U-boat losses vs. enemy ship sinkings. The Doenitz bard-beaded, cold-blooded philosophy was to prove fatal to the ultimate success of the campaign. It played into the hands of the dogged and determined allied ASW war of attrition which was based upon leaming from errors and losses.

The mental flaw of considering a merchant ship sinking to always be a “success” was indulged in until the U-boat pool went finally bankrupt. In fact, this bankruptcy was not a sudden thing, but rather the ultimate result of unrecognized tactical defeats along with failure to perceive the need for change. Dr. Rohwer’s tables show that in March 1941, at the cost of sinking five allied merchant ships, Gunther Prien (her~.of Scapa Plow), Otto Kretschmer, Joachim Schepke and Joachim Matz were lost. These skippers bad sunk nearly 700,000 tons of merchantmen and warships and were irreplaceable. To Doenitz, the loss was 111erely a statistic. To Winston Churchill, however, such losses indicated that the 1 the worm was in the apple’. Perusal of the various tables in the book make evident trends which might otherwise go unnoticed. To a history buff, the recognition of these trends is of great importance.

As examples of the above we see:

  • the astonishingly poor performance of the U-boats during the invasion of Norway. Literally dozens of sitting-duck British men-of-war survived because of poor German torpedo performance. Attacks after long submergence had not been practiced; hence the effect of build-up of high pressure in the boast (probably from leakage in the air-operated motor controllers) on torpedo depth control was not understood.
  • a remarkable series of early German successes against aajor and minor warships of the Royal Navy was enjoyed. Then suddenly Doenitz shifted away from the British Fleet to fat •erchantmen, which never posed a threat to the safety of the U-boat. Doeni tz didn 1 t comprehend the necessity of disputing the control of the sea–as advised by Mahan. Doenitz chose rather to concentrate on the sheep before gaining control over the sheep dog. Neglected and permitted to savage the U-boats at will, it was inevitable that Allied ASW forces would fi~ally prevail–and they did. u.s. submarines meanwhile waged relentless war against any and all Japanese ASW units.
  • that it was equally astonishing that Japanese submarines after scoring tremendous successes against the United States surface fleet ~Gring the first year of the war suddenly repeated the German mistake of failing to dispute command of the sea. The book lists practically no Japanese success against U.S. amphibious or carrier task forces which roamed the Pacific after Midway. It is sttll sotDewhat of a mystery, not cleared up by this book, as to what happened to the Japanese submarines after their initial successes in 1942.

An indirect answer may be found in that part of the book which deals with the Indian Ocean. The Japanese achieved outstanding successes in the Indian Ocean against everything British that floated. There were several Japanese skippers who achieved ace status but of whom little has been heard. Perhaps the Japanese submarine effort in these waters exhausted their potential and left them prey to the revitalized U.S. war effort after Midway. In any event, for the history-minded reader, it is most revealing to become aware of the major naval actions which took place in the Indian Ocean early in the war.

It has been said that World War II’s naval war was the equal in effort and combat violence to the next ten (10) wars combined. In submarine warfare every sinking is a combat situation in which ships are lost. The same is true in ASW attacks where ships are sunk and men die. The sheer cataloging of the sinkings by Axis submarines fills this rather large book, yet nothing is said of the 630 U-boats sunk in ASW encounters, whether by air, surface or subsurface units.

I recommend to every naval historian or buff that he study and re-study this book: Axis Submarine Success 1939-45.

Brooks J. Harral

Naval Submarine League

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