All except three of the fourteen Royal Navy submariners who won the Victoria Cross were commanding officers: their stories have been told in previous issues of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.’ Was there something ineffably godlike about these submarine captains, or about holders of the highest awards in the United States and German wartime submarine services?
Happily, it seems that there was not. The great majority lived on the same planetary plane as the rest of us sinners, and they consistently exhibited a strong affinity with the human race. Of course, every winning captain was keenly aware that he represented the gallantry of an entire well-trained submarine’s crew-including unsung heroes who coaxed recalcitrant diesels and distillers; irrepressible cooks and stewards who contributed so much to morale; electricians and radiomen and radarmen and underwater sound experts who somehow kept motors and sets functioning efficiently when damp and boredom threatened to extinguish a vital spark; tormented navigators who (usually) found the way; surface lookouts who kept searching an assigned but unrewarding sector despite temptations to look elsewhere for excitement; torpedomen and gunners who checked and double-checked the weapons. But gaining the unfailing support of these men, to say nothing of the equally important girls they left behind, was an art in itself.
When, during the last war, cadets joined the Royal Naval College at the tender age of thirteen-and-a-half they were greeted by a gnarled Lieutenant Commander who insisted that they henceforth follow principles of leadership represented by the initial letters QA TOUS. Not one of the officers who subsequent! y found himself in boats has yet remembered what the mnemonic stood for. A gunnery specialist, or a communicator maybe, might recall which officer-like qualities (OLQs) were so highly recommended long ago; but taking a submarine crew on prolonged patrol and in to battle was evidently not one of the scenarios which the good Commander had in mind.
Our finest submarine leaders have not conformed to any particular characteristics-or OLQs. On the contrary, holders of the highest awards have differed, sometimes widely, within their respective underwater fleets. In the U.S. Navy Ramage was not a lot like Morton; U-boat ace Prien did not resemble Kretschmer; and, amongst British holders of the Victoria Cross, Cameron was a mile apart from Miers. Personalities, although reassuringly normal in the main, have ranged from bombastically bellicose to quietly modest.
All the same, we ask, did they not share an identifiable quality that marked them out as potential heroes? Wanklyn of HMS UPHOLDER thought, under media questioning, that his special strength was imperturbability; and certainly it helps if the skipper is not prone to panic. But that alone would not account for valor over days, weeks or months: it is duration (in practically all instances) that distinguishes exceptionally bold submarine epics from the unquestionably brave but usually, by comparison, short-actioned deeds rewarded with top honors on land, in the air and on the surface of the sea.
Given professional skill, a submarine commanding officer needed (and still needs, as demonstrated by cold war operations) something more than guts: and for each one who wore the Knight’s Grand Cross, or the Congressional Medal of Honor, or the Victoria Cross, one factor dominated all the rest-determination, sheer unflagging determination.
There is no evidence, anywhere, of a crew faltering while the captain remained determined. However, there were a few-a very few-bad commanding officers who somehow slipped through the selection process, and they were less than resolute. In any boat the slightest sign of hesitation by the command was damaging to morale and to performance.
Crews did not necessarily look for social niceties in their captains, and knightly virtues such as chastity were not regarded as obligatory; but there was a limit to what behaviour a crew would tolerate in officers.
A rare example of failed leadership and command was sununarized for British Intelligence following the interrogation of survivors from U-606 sunk on 22 February 1943. The dark story deserves retelling if only to highlight the vastly more numerous accounts of submariners, in all the warring navies, who did their duty so supremely well. It is a lasting reminder of how not to run a submarine. U-606, a workhorse Type VIIC displacing 865 tons submerged and with a complement of 44, was armed with fourteen torpedoes for four bow tubes and one stern tube.
The U-boat sailed for her first patrol on 22 August 1942, but she had not gone far when her captain was smitten with a disorder of the stomach which persuaded him to put back to Bergen where he was duly despatched to hospital. The other officers decided to devote their unexpected harbor-time to entertaining the nurses: all the wardroom’s liquor was consumed in rather less than a week.
When the captain’s health improved a little he sent for a bottle from his private store. Unfortunately, that too had been ransacked. The officers went to see him-reckoning honesty to be the best policy-and, amidst some foot-shuffling, confessed. But the interview thereupon became so heated that they fled the hospital and told the rest of the crew that the doctors had forbidden any more visitors.
However, a sceptical petty officer disregarded the instruction and went to call on his captain who exploded when he heard what had been said: he ordered that no officer should attempt to see him again while he was sick. Significantly, the boat’s enlisted men started to walk up to the hospital regularly, and they were welcomed.
When the captain failed to make much further progress Admiral Donitz had him temporarily relieved by the captain of U-586 which was undergoing repairs; but, after an entirely unsuccessful patrol, Obit Hans D. (who had briefly commanded the small, coastal 250-ton U-21 for training) was appointed as the new captain.
Hans D. was aloofly Nazi, weak, and dominated by the first watch officer (Eins Veeoh, the exec) Weiner B. who lacked professional competence and was reportedly little short of an un sublimated sadist. It was he, apparently, who encouraged the captain to punish minor offences, such as purloining a packet of cigarettes, with a term in prison or consignment to the Russian front.
The ensuing patrol was promising although, early on, D. erred in signalling HQ to the effect that he had torpedoed the same ship twice and disposed of two merchantmen totalling 90,800 tons. A few days later U-606 sighted a convoy which she followed for three days in such foul weather that the captain and I WO reckoned conditions were too bad for attacking.
Nonetheless, the waves were not too high for convoy escorts. When a destroyer threatened U-606 the officer on the bridge attempted to dive, but the quartennaster neglected to order tanks to
be flooded. A seaman opened the vents on his own initiative and the boat escaped, albeit with damage from wallowing during a slow submergence. Soon after Christmas, and after 50 days at sea, U606 limped into Brest with a number of serious defects. The crew was accommodated ashore.
On New Year’s Eve the Petty Officers trooped down to the boat and along the passageway to the wardroom to wish their captain a Happy New Year. It is extremely unlikely that they did not know what was going on; but their story was that, on opening the door, they were confronted by a vast collection of bottles on the table surrounded by dishevelled officers and several partly or entirely naked women. After a few moments of shocked amazement, one of the intruders spat out a shon but vulgar word and slammed the door.
The Petty Officers wanted to publicize their finding, but the captain had prudently invited the flotilla commander to the party and the affair was hushed up. Morale was not high when U-606 next put to sea on 3 January for an intended seven long weeks of winter weather in the North Atlantic. In due course, in company with ten other U-boats, she was directed to convoy ON166.
Obit D. fired four torpedoes and claimed three hits; but a swift and savage counter-attack by the Polish destroyer BURZA forced the boat down to more than 200 metres. Amidst creaking and groaning as the submarine passed her design depth the engineer discovered a weak spot near the after diving tank where a crack was beginning to show in the pressure hull. He informed the captain that the boat could not last more than half-an-hour.
All main ballast was immediately blown and U-606 shot to the surface at a steep angle. The first watch officer’s nerve now gave way. Completely losing control of himself he ran through the boat and tried to get out of the after hatch: the captain, personally, had to restrain him.
A few hours later, at about 2000 on 22 February, the U.S. coastguard cutter CAMPBELL came upon the U-boat running, seemingly blind, through the darkness. The American vessel closed and, despite a bizarre collision with another U-boat en route, attacked U~ with depth-charges and gunfire in which the Polish BURZA joined.
Obit D. and some of the crew managed to reach the casing under heavy fire. The captain disappeared, struck by a shell, leaving a Chief Petty Officer in charge topside. The Chief found the responsibility too much for him: he ordered abandon ship, and every man jumped overboard-never to be seen again.
Meanwhile, the IWO, engineer and a junior officer had sheltered below together with three Petty Officers and six seamen. When the gunfire eventually died away they cautiously came up on deck where they kept out the cold with an improvised meal of sausages and champagne laced with rum.
They did not have long to wait. Boats from the American and Polish ships were soon alongside the hulk in a moderating sea. All but one of the Germans were glad to scramble into the boats as prisoners. but a Petty Officer could not resist the opportunity to pay off old scores. He marched up to the first watch officer on the U-boat’s slatted wooden deck snarling: “I have waited a long time to do this”. He then hit the IWO hard in the face, and jumped over the side.
When the remaining men climbed on board the rescuing vessels one of them, seeing the conning tower of U-606 still above water. demanded bitterly: What sins have I committed in my life that I should have been sent to such a boat?”
It is a tragic tale. But perhaps it is no bad thing to hear the B-side of a record occasionally. Otherwise-how does the old song go?-“O Lord it is hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way … ”