U-Boat Commander; A Perisoope View of” the Battle ot the Atlantio by Peter Cremer in collaboration with Fritz Brustat-Haval: Annapolis 1984; Naval Institute Press; 244 pp.
“Ali is as good as life insurance.” That was the boast of the crew of U-333 commanded by Peter “Ali” Cremer. They boasted with good reason. To quote the translator’s preface to “U-Boat Commanders: “Towards the end or 1943 the British Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre produced a breakdown of German U-Boat commanders aocording to the length of time they bad served. The list then comprised 168 officers. Fifty bad served for less than three months. All but sixteen for less than sixteen months, and only one for more than twenty-five months. That one was Peter Cremer . By the time of the Allied Invasion in June, 1944, among all the officers who had served with him since his first patrol in May, 1941, only one survived. Cremer himself was the only U-Boat Commander to have sailed from German bases in western France since that year and lived to tell of it. Such were the casualties suffered by the men or the German 0-Boats, such the toughness or their war.”
For that reason alone we are fortunate to have in this book his account or bow he did it. We are even more fortunate that the book appears to be thoroughly researched. Cremer and his collaborator studied extensively in logs and battle reports and quote them throughout the book as well as quotes from many or the adversaries he met during his patrols. Anyone who has written or critically examined logs, patrol reports, war diaries and action reports realizes that they are written with a view to putting the best possible interpretation on the facts as the author saw them. None the less, they are the best and most objective sources that we have at this late date and Cremer’s extensive use of them lends authenticity to his remarkable story.
The story is really two stories which run in parallel veins throughout the book. The first is the story of “Ali” Cremer and his adventures in 0333; the second is his interpretation of the strategic and tactical conduct, by both sides, or the Battle of the Atlantic. Peter Cremer is well qualified in both areas.
Peter Cremer entered naval officer training in 1932 at age 18, graduating six years later. He was of mixed ancestry, born in Lorraine to a German lawYer and a French mother. His rather’s mother was the daughter of a Royal Navy Officer, but over his bed as a child was the motto, “Never forget that you are a German.” Following graduation he served for two years in the DD Theodor Reidel as a deck watch and gunnery officer, participating in combat operations and the invasion of Norway. In June, 1940, he was personally selected by Cine, Submarines, Captain/Commodore Donitz for submarine duty. There followed six months of submarine training after which he went as the Commanding Officer of a new coastal submarine U-152. His training to this point parallels that of a u.s. Navy submariner except that he went directly from school to command and did not serve an apprenticeship as a watch officer and department head. In July, 1941, he was ordered to command the new construction, Type VIIC submarine U-333.
Between July, 1941, and June, 1944, Cremer made 8 patrols in command of U-333. On his first patrol off Newfoundland he sank three unescorted merchantmen. However. he also sank the German blockade runner, “Spreewald” my mistake. Tried by court martial he was acquitted when Hessler, Donitz•s son-in-law, proved that “Spreewald” was at fault. On the second patrol he was bombed and severely damaged by a radar-equipped aircraft and then rammed by an AVGAS tanker on which he was making a periscope depth night attack. Despite the damage he continued to the Florida coast and patrolled close inshore off Vero Beach. He sank two tankers and a freighter, all singles, but the ASW forces caught him in shallow water and gave him a thorough pasting. After return to France the boat required a 77 day refit. On the third patrol, carrying the Biscay Cross radar intercept set, he was assigned as wing man in a 7-boat Wolf Pack. Attacking a convoy, he was unable to penetrate the screen and was hounded and damaged by HF/DF equipped escorts. With engine and shaft trouble be aborted the patrol after less than two weeks. On the fourth patrol, orr Sierra Leone, he was jumped by a corvette which rammed him twice and he was severely wounded by gunfire. Rendezvous with a Milch Cow submarine with a doctor saved his life and provided a relief skipper to bring the boat home.
There followed a six months period or hospitalization and service on Admiral Donitz• starr, during which another commander took over U333 and Cremer was given an opportunity to observe how the submarine battle was run rrom headquarters. At Donitz• personal request he resumed command or U-333 in June, 1943. He was one of three “experienced” skippers chosen to find what had happened during the disastrous “black May” 1943 when 49 U-Boats were lost. He was the only one of the three to survive. His 5th (U333’s 7th) patrol lasted ninety days and was conducted south or the Azores. During the patrol he was resupplied three times by Milch Cow or operational submarines and at the end of the patrol seven U-Boats were immobile in the Atlantic waiting for refueling. The patrol was not productive.
On the sixth patrol he carried the NAXOS radar intercept set which was effective against 10 em radar, and 4 GNAT acoustic-homing anti-escort torpedoes. He fired a GNAT at a destroyer and claimed a hit but it was determined that the torpedo exploded prematurely in the wake. Finding himself directly in front or a heavily escorted 66 ship convoy he attempted to penetrate at periscope depth. He was bombed and rammed by a frigate and was severely damaged again without getting off a shot. The seventh patrol, in which he furnished target services for a H/K group off the Western Approaches, and the Bth patrol opposing the landings in Normandy were also non~productive.
Following the 8th patrol, Cremer, with “more than half of his people”, was transferred to the new-construction, Type XXI, “electro boat” U-2519. The new c.o. of U-333 brought his “own people” also but the U-333 was lost on the next patrol. Before it could get out on patrol 0~2519 was damaged in dry dock. Cremer and his crew were then pressed into service as infantrymen in the defense of Hamburg. Still in Army uniform, they were designated as Donitz’ personal bodyguard at his headquarters, first CinC Navy and later, surrogate Chief of State after Hitler and throughout the surrender negotiations. Cremer managed to avoid becoming a prisoner of war and became a private citizen.
It is remarkable bow Cremer seems to have been able to observe so many notable events in WW II. His close association with Donitz provided background for his observations on German strategy and the conduct of the war. He mentions Hitler’s early emphasis on surface ships, his decision to cut off R&D effort after the fall of France and his earlier chasing of scientists over to the enemy side for either racial or political reasons. Cremer’s sinking of a blockade runner calls up a discussion of the plight of overseas German shipping early in the war. He claims that U-333 was shot at by the HHS GRAPH, a German Type VIIC submarine captured by the British and recommissioned in the Royal Navy, and discusses the conduct of German prisoners of war. He mentions sighting a Japanese submarine off La Pallice and then comments on Japanese reluctance to alienate the Russians. The patrol off the Florida coast produces a chapter on the unpreparedness of the u.s. in 1942. There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of these encounters and the book is enriched by Cremer’s observations on them.
As far as U-Boat tactics are concerned Cremer gives very little detail. His attacks were on singles which he closed to very short ranges. Although Cremer mentions dif~iculties with the magnetic exploder and torpedo depth control early in the war, except ~or the GNAT, his torpedoes per~ormed properly and his ~ire control was adequate. The Wol~ Pack tactics consisted of massing submarines in specified grid positions along a convoy track and then turning them loose to attack individually. He mentions no communications between boats and no Pack commander. This contrasts with the U.S. submarine coordinated attack units in the latter stages of the war in the Pacific. The Germans were not very successful, and Cremer infers that many boats were reluctant to penetrate the screen. The boats were on the surface much of the time and in ~requent communication with headquarters. The Allies’ escort forces with airborne radar and HF/DF murdered them. Cremer’s attempt to penetrate a screen from ahead at periscope depth was disastrous. He seems to have put little weight on sonar information and sonar is rarely mentioned except in depth charge attacks. Although the boat was deep-diving (250 meters) be does not mention the use o~ thermal layers to foil sonar detection.
Cremer’s discussion o~ the efficiency of airborne radar and HF/DF runs through the book. The Germans first thought airborne radar was not possible. When proved wrong, a search receiver was developed covering the 1.4 to 1.8 meter band. The equipment had to be disassembled before the UBoat could dive and was considered by the skippers as useless. When the Allies changed to 10 em radar the Germans were slow to counter as they were to a further shift to 3 em. The Germans did not believe until after the war that HF/DF was tactically effective and continued high volume radio traf~ic from the boats at sea. Cremer notes sadly that many boats were lost because of these deficiencies. In the latter stages of the war, boats were not permitted on the surface in the Bay of Biscay at night because of the Allies’ A/C radar and search lights. They charged their submarine batteries in daylight. The need for the snorkel is obvious. The U-Boats carried a 3.7cm and 20mm guns and shot down a number of ASW aircraft. The decision whether to dive or fight back is a tricky one and Cremer indicates that he usually gave the order to dive. (At one point he says he opened the vents and closed the hatch.) A reluctance to dive or a hesitant decision may also account for many of the losses.
On the other hand, the Type VIIC, U-333, was a remarkably capable fighting submarine, sturdy, seaworthy, reasonably fast and deep diving. She carried 14 torpedoes and was designed to operate in the approaches to the British Isles. When forced to operate in more distant areas, resort had to be made to replenishment at sea even though fresh water tanks were converted to fuel and stores were carried in the bunks and in the head. U-333 was bombed and heavily depth charged and rammed on three separate patrols. That her damage control parties were able to patch her up and bring her home testifies to the toughness of the boat and the capability of the crew. The original crew, trained in mid-1941, remained with U-333 as long as Cremer did, This contrasts with the U.S. practice of taking trained men (up to one third of the crew) from the operating boats to form the nucleus of new construction crews. One wonders how many of the boats in the tremendously expanded U-Boat force after 1941 bad crews as good as U333. Cremer, himself, admits that the newer commanders were partially trained. “Ali” Cremer was as “good as life insurance” but he can probably thank tbe personnel policy that permitted him to keep his well-trained crew with him. more than his undoubted good luck in surviving.
Cremer is high in his praise of the Type XXI “electro boat” and believes that if it could have been brought into operation earlier it would have turned the tide or the Atlantic battle and prolonged the war. The U.S. operated the Type XXI, U-2513, (“Jug” Casler C.O.) for more than a year after the war. There is no doubt that it was a quantum improvement over the submarines, u.s. or German, which fought in World War II and it sparked the u.s. •Guppy” conversions in the late 40’s.
“U-Boat Commander” is a truly engrossing book and should be interesting to all naval officers, particularly to those who fought the Battle of the Atlantic on the ASW side. After his second patrol, Cremer sank no allied shipping but his battle with the ASW forces is of epic stature. There is very little technical detail and where it appears it should not be scrutinized too closely. For example Cremer fired a spread of steam torpedoes at a tanker from 400 meters. He says that the tanker saw the tracks, turned towards and combed the spread. With a 44 knot torpedo at 400 meters the running time is less that half a minute and the tanker reaction is most unlikely. On the same patrol he sank a ship 85 miles from· New Foundland on 24 January and seven days later sank the “Spreewald” in the Bay of Biscay with no discussion of how be got there. However, since he quotes survivors of the first sinking and was courtmartialed for the second, it is obvious that they did occur. This patrol report leaves 4 or his 14 torpedoes not aocounted for. No doubt much else would not stand meticulous scrutiny.
However, it must be remembered that Cremer is writing for the general public and the book is not intended as a technical treatise on submarining for submariners. He writes 40 years after the events with a German collaborator and an English translator, both or whom are interested in telling a good story that the public will buy. It is bard, sometimes, to determine bow muob of the book is Cremer and how muob is fashioned from extensive research in old reports. We must also keep in mind that Peter Cremer was trained as a U-Boat Commander, not a submarine officer. But “Ali” Cremer, himself, is real. He is a lone survivor of a cataclysmic battle that virtually wiped out the German submarine service and he tells a fantastic story.
Years ago there was a radio comedian called Baron Munchausen unbelievable stories. incredulous listeners dare, Sharlie?” Peter who told outrageously When questioned by his he would reply, “Vas you “Ali” Cremer “vas dere”.
Frank Walker, Jr .
PIGBOAT 39: All AMERICAN SUB GOES TO WAR by Bobette Gugliotta, the University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 40506 (1984)
The title tells you that this is the story of the 5-39. But this excellent and well-researched book is much more than that; it lets you see that long-vanished, colorful Navy institution, the Asiatic Fleet Submarine Force. And throughout, it gives perceptive insights into the social structure of the Navy of that now far-off day — a society that today•s Navy only superficially resembles. You even get a look at prewar Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Tsingtao through the eyes of the s-39 wives as they, in the words of the old song, “–all go up to China in the springtime.”
The war was expected and becoming rapidly more imminent when you are introduced ~n 1940 to the 5-39, Manila and Cavite, and the nearly nonexistent Asiatic. Fleet. The most effective part of that fleet, the Asiatic submarines, included a few of the pre-war fleet boats, plus the S-boats. There is no one on active duty today who ever served in an 5-boat. There have been two massive and several minor changes in submarine technology since they were designed in the years following World War I. They were riveted rather than welded, had quite different pressure hull and ballast tank systems than were later used, a test depth of about 200 feet, a relatively inflexible propulsion system, no radar, no fathometer, primitive sonar, and incredible from today’s perspective, given the tropical nature of Asiatic operations, no air conditioning. By 1940 they were (including the 5-39), pretty much worn out and rapidly becoming beyond effective repair.
The life at sea and ashore of the 5-39 officers and men, their wives and girl friends, for this period and thruout the book, is given in living color. Mrs. Gugliotta already knew some of the people involved, then located and interviewed many more, not only from the 5-39, but also from other submarines plus many others that witnessed those times. She has a good eye for the fine details of everyday life and this makes her characters three dimensional and lets the reader see them in full color. There are occasional illuminating off-track insights, such as the glimpse of the u.s. Army on Corregidor, fully prepared with their coast defense guns for a shore bombardment, a la the Spanish-American war, but totally unready for the air bombardment that really came.
When the war starts for them on December 8, 1941, the 5-39 and her officers and men move into the main stream of those terrible events of the early months of 1942, first in the Philippines and then in the Dutch East Indies. We see the officers and crew fighting equally the Japanese and the limitations of the aged submarine. Their life is more like that of the Germans in “Das Boot” than like life in the new American fleet boats that were beginning to come out. There is a glimpse of Java and the Colonial Dutch just before the Japanese sweep through; and that rich and fascinating culture disappears forever.
Mrs. Gugliotta’s description of the war patrols of the S-39, with their triumphs, frustrations and discomforts are as good as anything or this kind that I have read. The bibliography shows that she has read extensively on the subject, but of course the real wellsprings of information were the many, obviously skillful interviews of people who were there, Not the least of these was probably a non-stop interview or her husband.
The most absorbing part of the book begins with the departure of the 5-39 from Australia on tbe cruise that leads to her grounding and final destruction on a reef near Rossell Island, orr the eastern tip of New Guinea. At this point, many or the officers and crew that we met earlier have been transferred, and the boat bas a new skipper.
On August 14, 1942, they are enroute to their new patrol area when at a little after two in the morning they run solidly aground. In the preface of the book Mrs. Gugliotta notes that there are either no heroes on the 5-39 or that they all are. By any reasonable definition of the word, they were all heroes during the terrible hours that followed the grounding. Certainly, in their selflessness and bravery, they could well serve as role models for young officers and men in the Navy today or any other day.
During the late 1940’s I served with Monk Hendrix, who was a young Lieutenant(jg) on the s39 at that time, and heard from him the story of his swim through the seas that were combing past the grounded boat, to carry a line to the reef ahead of them. The establishment of a line from the boat to the reef was the event that probably enabled the survival of the 5-39 crew, who were picked up from the other side of the atoll two days later. Monk died several years ago, before Mrs. Gugliotta had an opportunity to interview him in detail. Had he lived, he might well have been able to add some key details to this and several other parts of the book.
Mrs. Gugliotta bas performed a real service, not only to the reader of this richly detailed book, but also to the community of historians who are beginning to try to assess the events of World War II at the micro-level. A tremendous opportunity still exists to capture the detail of events of that period from the living memories of those who were there. But these men and women are now old and are fast disappearing. I hope that Mrs. Gugliotta will take her tape recorder and notebook to future meetings of the Submarine Veterans of World War II, and that others will follow her lead.
I would recommend PIGBOAT 39 to anyone interested in submarines, but it should be of particular interest to officers and men in today•s submarine Navy who would like to know more of their antecedents and who might be willing to find in the challenges met in those earlier turbulent days, some guidance for themselves.