Buck Cummings is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant Colonel. He has been a military and commercial pilot for 44 years and flew the A-4 Skyhawk, AV-8 Harrier, and other types of jet and prop aircraft. He flew 87 missions in Vietnam combat but admits his real interest is in writing living history from World War ll, as told by the veterans themselves. Buck lives in Norfolk, Virginia with his wife Sharon and has two grown daughters.
The record of the U.S. Navy’s aviation force in the Pacific in World War II is voluminous and well-documented, while the Navy’s aviation effort in the European side of the global conflict is much less heralded. It became, in its last and most effective stage, an intense fight over a two-year period against the Germany U-boats, using Very Long Range (VLR) B-24 aircraft, designated PB4 Y-1 ‘s, operating from southern England over the Bay of Biscay. In 1940, the fall of France had allowed the Germany Navy to gain use of the ports of western France for their highly effective war against Atlantic shipping bound for England. Continuous patrols by Allied aircraft, many of them U.S. Navy patrol aircraft of Fleet Air Wing 7, kept the U-boat on the defensive from early 1943 on, and destroyed many of them. As I studied the intriguing aspects of this U.S. Naval Aviation effort, knowing that my father had served with Fleet Air Wing 7 in 1943 and 1944, this entry in his war diary, of a desperate battle long ago in the Bay of Biscay, caught my attention:
“10 November 1943/Time 0910/U-boat near Cape Ferrol, Spain under attack by Liberators from VB-I 03, VB-I 05, and VB-110. Flak from U-boat intense. One liberator hit and returning to Dunkeswell air base with one engine out. U-boat remaining on surface and fighting back.”
I had found my father’s diary, lost for years under a bookcase in our summer cottage in New Hampshire. As Senior Air Combat Intelligence Officer (ACI) for Fleet Air Wing 7 in Plymouth, England, he had kept detailed records in this diary. There were entries about German Ju-88 fighter attacks against the U.S. Navy PB4Y-l’s in the Bay of Biscay and the western approaches to France and England in late 1943 and 1944. There were many mundane entries also about the common wartime problems of poor flying weather and mud that bogged down the planes on the southern England airfields. The U.S. Navy’s Fleet Air Wing 7, attached for patrol operations to the 19th Group of the Royal Air Force, Coastal Command, was doing its best to cope with the frustrating and dangerous conditions presented to it by the elements, the British, and the Germans- all at the same time.
The diary entries of 10 November 1943 made it clear that this particular U-boat wasn’t dying in the usual way. If they were caught at all, the U-boats usually went down with all their crew and left little evidence on the surface that brave men had fought and lost the final battle in their young lives. There were many entries in my father’s diary also about the losses of Navy aircraft, to weather, enemy fighters, fuel exhaustion, and engagements with the U-boats, which had a surprisingly effective anti-aircraft defensive armament arrays by that time in the war. The diary entry of l 0 November indicated that this battle took place over nine hours with seven different aircraft- three U.S. Navy and two Royal Air Force PB4Y-l Liberators, one Wellington bomber, and one Sunderland flying boat. All the returning U.S. Navy Liberator crews reported “U-boat still on the surface, fighting back.” Not one crew claimed a definite kill. Their depth charges dropped close to, but didn’t kill, a U-boat that was evidently maneuvering hard and shooting back with everything it had. Aircraft were returning to their bases with damage to engines and airframes. The last aircraft to see the U-boat, a British Sunderland flying boat from 228 Squadron, reported it to be approaching Spanish territorial waters near Cape Ferrol, Spain. Just after sending this message back to Coastal Command, the Sunderland made two low passes over the damaged U-boat and dropped a life raft but was shot down by three Ju-88 fighters. This German aerial victory was witnessed by the struggling survivors who were swimming for their own lives to the rocky shoreline about 300 yards from where the U-boat had grounded on a reef. It was damaged extensively from the long fight but was still afloat as the crewmen jumped into the frigid water for their desperate swim. The survivors took little joy in watching this crash of the Sunderland, which had passed over them in a non-aggressive way and appeared to be investigating the U-boat’ s condition. The crashing surf, oi I ingestion, and exposure were taking a heavy toll on the German crewmen but they had fought ferociously on the surface and had apparently all but escaped the sting of the potent aircraft arsenal arrayed against it.
As I continued to read the diary I came to an entry of 15 November 1943 which jumped off the yellowed page:
“From Headquarters 19 Group: It is now known that the U-boat attacked 011 I 0 November by five Liberators of VB-103, 105, 110, and 612 and 311 Squadrons sank off Punta De La Estaca, Spain. 39 unwounded, 3 wounded, and 3 dead of the crew got ashore.”
What U-boat was this that had fought so gallantly? Might some veterans of it still be found alive in Germany in 1996? U-boat sailors were young men, like the crews of the Liberators who hunted them. I supposed that a good number of this German fighting crew of 1943 would still be alive and eager to talk about their struggle to survive. A search at the Armed Forces Staff College library in Norfolk found the definitive German U-boat history of the Second World War, German Naval History: The U-Boat War in the Atlantic. 1939-45. It confirmed that the U-boat in question was U-966, a Type VIIC Atlantic Class submarine of 712-ton displacement. German records also confirmed a near match on their casualties with the British Admiralty figures-42 survivors, three of these wounded, and 8 dead.
An exchange of letters with the founder and curator of the U-boat Archive in Cuxhaven, Germany followed in the months after my discovery. Horst Bredow, the meticulous caretaker of German Uboat histories and memorabilia kept at the U-boat Archive, became an enthusiastic help and put me in touch with Herbert Korner, the reunion coordinator for U-966 and its wartime chief engineer on board at the time of the battle. Shortly after my introductory letter
to Komer I received an invitation to attend the 2 I st annual reunion of the U-966 crew in Dresden-Pirna, Germany, on the Elbe River. In the years that have followed my first reunion with the surviving veterans of U-966 I have attended three more of their reunions. My hope is that this summary of their story will do justice to the gallantry of the men who served on both sides of this naval battle.
U-966 was launched at Kiel, Germany in March, 1943. The newly designated commander, Oberleutnant Ekkehard Wolf, was not yet 25 years old, but already he was a veteran with experience on two previous U-boats. The crew gradually came up to a full strength of 50 men and the boat cruised initially for training in the Baltic Sea and then north into Norwegian waters. Wolf drove his men hard in countless diving and torpedo attack drills, often telling them, “at this rate you will never be the sailors you can be-maybe lumber for bowling pins, but not good sailors!” This cry of the Commander inspired the creation of the U-966 emblem: a ball knocking down a wooden bowling pin and the words “Gut Holz” (Good Timber).
The crewmen rose to Wolfs challenge and loved him all the more for his drive and determination. They knew his pressure in training would be the key to survival on the unforgiving Atlantic patrols. Wolf cared deeply for his crew, frequently taking men aside and asking about their families and helping in small ways to dispel the stress and apprehension of their circumstances. This affection for Wolf, and for his wife Ali, is a common sentiment expressed even today by the veterans. Wolf was a hard driving but compassionate commander. Like him, the entire crew was young. They ranged in age from I 8 to 30 years old, with the majority being between 19-22. The oldest man in the crew, Karl Grauthe, who would celebrate his 30th birthday in August, 1943, had already survived 7 Atlantic patrols on two other U-boats, a career that had already beaten the survival odds by a wide margin. The crew was a close-knit group. There was no privacy in the cramped U-boat and everyone was cross-trained in many critical jobs. They had a special affection, expressed frequently even today at their reunion, for the cook, Helmut Thronicke, age 20, who worked so hard under impossible conditions to make excellent meals for them.
On September 24, 1943 U-966 began its North Atlantic patrol from Trondheim, Norway. It made the passage through the heavily patrolled Iceland/Faeroe Islands choke point undetected in a heavy storm but was soon thereafter attacked by British destroyers. An emergency dive to 150 meters saved U-966 from the depth charges exploding around and above it. 87 detonations were recorded by the fearful crew during this attack. When U-966 surfaced the destroyers were gone but the crew soon realized that their radio was damaged. There was no capability to transmit messages or respond to inquiries. U-boat Command in Germany apparently gave up the boat as lost after several days of not hearing from it. This was indeed a frustrating and dangerous development. Orders to rendezvous with other boats or to stay clear of dangerous areas or enemy antisubmarine patrols could not be received. U-966 was deaf and blind but it continued its patrol, hoping to somehow fix the problem or run across its prey by sheer luck. After this initial attack the crew fully realized how desperate their patrol would be. The Captain drilled them daily on diving and battle station drills but soon realized the boat urgently needed repairs if it was to survive and be effective later. He ordered “Course toward home!” and made the decision to make best speed for the west coast of France, through the Bay of Biscay, a dangerous killing ground of U-boats. It was the only possible salvation for U-966.
In the early morning of 10 November 1943,just after the U-966 on-deck watch had changed at 4AM, a British Wellington bomber from 612 Squadron, Royal Air Force, detected the boat on the surface, using its high-power Leigh Light illumination. The bomber’s pilot in command, Warrant Officer I.D. Gunn, soon realized that the bright moon and phosphorescent wake created by the U-boat made it possible to begin his attack run with the light turned off, making him less of a target to the now alerted deck gunners. The first indication of the attack to most of the U-boat crew was the exploding depth charges. The detonations were heard and felt by everyone. Years later Herbert Komer wrote of the attack that day. “It was as if an invisible hand grabbed and shook the boat. Complete darkness came over us and in a moment the emergency lights came on. There was total chaos! Everything not tied down went flying and broken glass was everywhere.” The boat’s antiaircraft guns began firing rapidly and soon there was evidence, from smoke and electrical odor, that the right side electrical engines were shorting out. Two men on deck had been wounded in the gunfire exchange and as soon as they were brought inside, the Captain ordered an emergency dive to 150 meters.
None of the crew’s training had prepared them for the hellish conditions that now prevailed on board. The boat was making strange noises, like a wounded and desperate animal. There were no comforting or familiar smells or sounds of smoothly running machinery or warm glows of lights where they should be. Few of the pressures and temperatures were in normal ranges. There was disorder, noise, and wrong readings on many critical gauges. Fear was an emotion shared by every one, but still the crew functioned as it had been trained to do. This was not the U-boat they knew so well! It would not level in its dive and continued to 200, then 220, then 240 meters before it stabilized. The left main engine bearing began to overheat and the situation became extremely dangerous. Some small comfort came to the crew when the boat began to respond to commands and held together far below its certified depth of 180 meters. Purposeful work to clean up shattered debris and survey what still worked began to put hopeful faces on the men. At 9AM, after nearly 5 hours under water and low on battery power, U-966 surfaced in bright sunlight and fair seas. This fair scene was a very dangerous place and the Captain of the U-966 knew that any U-boat on the surface could expect detection and rough handling there within minutes from the ubiquitous long-range patrol planes. Today would be no exception. Within 30 minutes of breaking the surface, U-966 was again under attack from the air.
Lieutenant Leonard Harmon of the U.S. Navy’s VB-I 05 squadron found U-966 on the surface in the extreme southwest comer of his patrol sector. He had just made the decision to begin his inward patrol track back to the Dunkeswell air base. He maneuvered his PB4Y-I Liberator to attack the U-boat out of the sun but heavy antiaircraft fire from the U-boat damaged the depth charge release doors and the heavy bombs would not drop. He made two strafing runs on the surfaced U-boat and turned back toward base with damage to the airplane. As he departed the scene he called in other aircraft which soon arrived to continue the fight. At 1140AM Lieutenant Ken Wright from VB-103 squadron made radar contact with the U-boat and attacked shortly thereafter. He dropped five depth charges and one homing torpedo in two attacks on U-966, causing some damage to the U-boat. Harmon reported the U-boat to be firing and maneuvering in a highly effective manner.
The U-966 crewmen wrote in later years that they fired almost 12,000 rounds of 20 and 37 millimetre antiaircraft ammunition that day. This fire was definitely getting the respect of the attacking aircraft. In one instance the gunfire destroyed an engine on one aircraft and blew out the Captain’s side window on another. The aircraft crews reported the U-boat would quickly maneuver to face each diving airplane and thereby present the narrowest frontal aspect possible to its attacker. The intense gun tasks on the U-boat took its toll also. One of the overheated guns on the 20-millimetre mount blew up from overheating and struck down the gunner with a mortal head wound. He was quickly replaced on the guns and the firing continued. This was combat seamanship at its finest, but the odds were starting to become overwhelming against U-966.
By I PM U-966 had been under intervals of attack for about 7hours. The crew was as alert as ever and fighting back with every skill and bit of energy they had left. The previous airplanes had been quick to radio exact position reports and each one departing was relieved on the scene by a fresh attacker. Lieutenant William Parish, piloting a Liberator from VB-110 squadron, arrived at about this time and delivered his six depth charges close to the U-boat, inflicting some undetermined damage that slowed the boat’s speed by about 4 knots and caused it to begin leaving a trail of light oil.
Making its erratic course toward the Spanish coast, U-966 was now about 10 miles from the rocky shoreline. Crewmen later wrote about seeing white homes with red tile roofs and a tall church on the cliffs overlooking the sea. It was a vision of hope and salvation. Shortly after Lieutenant Parish delivered his attack, a white Liberator from the Free Czech 311 Squadron, piloted by Flight Sergeant Zanta, arrived and pressed home two attack runs with rockets. The second on these runs did some damage to U-966. It was about this time that U-966, now very close to the shoreline, struck a submerged reef. Since the U-boat was now inside Spanish territorial waters, the circling aircraft stayed off at a safe distance. Captain Wolf, who some time earlier had given the order to bum all secret documents and prepare to abandon ship, now gave his crew the actual order to leave the boat and scuttle it.
It was 2PM and U-966 had been under attack for over nine hours in the furious fight for its life. Life rafts were deployed but were soon whipped away in the rising wind and pounding surf. Without the life rafts, each man made the decision to swim for the shore about 300 yards away. Eight out of the fifty crewmen did not make it and drowned in the surf or were pounded unconscious by the crashing waves. Of the eight who died, five were recovered to the shore and later buried in a nearby cemetery. One of these dead was the oldest crewman on board, 30 year old Karl Grauthe. As the crew was abandoning their boat, a British Sunderland flying boat arrived on the scene to report, and also film, the action. Some of the surviving crewmen of U-966 later recalled that the Sunderland aircraft flew over the U-boat and dropped a life raft nearby. This aircraft, from 228 Squadron, Royal Air Force, was piloted by Flying Officer Arthur Franklin and had eleven other men in the crew. Three German Ju-88 fighters arrived on the scene about this time and shot the Sunderland down, in full view of the struggling U-966 crewmen. All on the Sunderland were killed as it crashed in flames and continued to bum on the water for ten minutes or more. Only six of the dead crew were found by Spanish fishermen and returned to England.
As the crewmen were swimming toward shore some of them took grim satisfaction when the onboard demolition devices exploded on their sinking U-boat. It isn’t clear today if it was the onboard charges kept for the purpose of self destruction or a depth charge that had been dropped earlier by an attacking airplane. That depth charge had become lodged in the outer hull vent ports. Depth charges were not supposed to hit their targets. They were designed to be dropped near the target and explode so close that hydraulic pressure from the underwater blast would crush the hull. Preset to detonate at a 35 foot depth, this deadly parasite had remained dormant but still attached, waiting for the boat’s next dive. U-966 had fought on the surface all day and only now, in a death ritual administered by its own crew, did it slip below 35 feet.
Spanish fishermen and local citizens had been watching the battle for some time and now came to the aid of the struggling survivors. Two fishing boats from Kap de Bares soon arrived and began rescuing the crew as well as the bodies from the crashed Sunderland. The arrival of the German Navy combatants in Spain caused great excitement and they were given food and clothing by the local inhabitants. They were soon bused to Et Ferrol where they were initially put up in hotels while negotiations continued regarding their status.
Under the rules of the Geneva Convention a judgment of Shipwrecked could have given the crewmen passage back to Germany immediately. The other possibility was designation as Combat Casualty, which meant internment in the neutral country in which refuge had been found. On 12 December 1943 the Spanish foreign ministry ruled that A-Combat Casualty was the status of the U-966 crewmen and they were sent to an interment camp at La Grana. While the crew was awaiting the ruling on their status they had heard British radio read the names of 32 of the crew. They realized that the names of ten survivors among them had not been read. In the middle of the same night that the British radio announcement was heard, five of the crewmen whose names had not been read were put into cars and driven quickly to the French border. The second group of five, to which Heinz Maslock belonged, were picked up on 15 December 1943 by the German consul, declared Shipwrecked, and sent with new passports to Brest, France. Heinz Maslock was subsequently assigned to duty on two other U-boats, U1277 and U-3504. When the war finally ended he wrote, “I didn’t know what the future would bring or how things would continue, but I was alive!” Three other crewmen who left Spain with Heinz Mas lock would die in other U-boats before the end of the war. Fritz-Dietrich Adenstedt would go down with U-709 on 1 March 1944 and Hans Auerbach and Wilhelm Schnier would die when U-1055 was sunk on 30 April 1945, only 8 days before the end of the war. These men were the last combat casualties from the original crew of U-966.
For the remainder of the group interned in Spain life seemed to be pleasant and their strong memories of that time continue to this day. The crew of another interned U-boat, U-760, was also at the same camp and together they held track and field meets and received periodic visits from the German attache in Madrid. An allowance of 240 pesetas a month to each man from the Spanish Consulate, in addition to their normal pay sent from Germany, made life relatively rich for the interned crewmen. At their reunion in May in Pirna, surviving crewmen told me happily that Spanish wine was 2 pesetas a liter and the finest cognac was only 6 pesetas a liter. This fact of life, combined with nightly permission to visit the local town unsupervised until the 10PM curfew and spend their available money, was a formula that formed close bonds of friendship which is still evident today at the reunions.
In 1974, Herbert Korner was on vacation in Spain and decided at the last moment to visit the area near where he had spent almost two years of his young life as an interned crewman. Asking the local people if they remembered a wrecked German U-boat, he found that many of them did recall that event. They also told him that another German gentleman was there at a local hotel asking the same questions. Herbert Korner went quickly to the hotel where he found, to his delight and total surprise, his old Commander Ekkehard Wolf. On that night, plans were made for the U-966 reunions, which began in 1975 and have continued every year since.
Captain Wolf died on 26 March 1978. Following his wishes, his ashes were dropped over the wreck of U-966. The rusting tower of U-966 can still be seen at low tide during rare moments of tranquil sea states off the rocky northwest coast of Spain. The few surviving veterans of U-966 often visit the wreck, a silent tribute to the brave men on both sides who fought on that bright November day 64 years ago.