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excerpt from BITTER OCEAN

An Ace is Captured...U-99 is sunk in the North Atlantic

He was, too, "The Wolf of the Atlantic," a virtuoso who accounted for 238,327 tons of Allied shipping, the most dangerous foe the Nazis put forth. Now he roved on, ranging across the sea, hustling fast, driving across the empty Atlantic in search of Convoy HX 112. The submarine hurried on, leaving a trail of wake behind her, sluicing through the ocean, the waves coming across her bow. Up they hailed, on to the reported location of the convoy, Kretschmer keeping a vigil on the bridge when he came above. On March 16, they found HX 112; bingo, right on the mark, forty-one ships headed for Liverpool.

Kretschmer followed the convoy through the day. After dark, he began to move in. He headed up the side of HX 112, sneaked forward, and slipped into the convoy between two escort warships. Silently he crept forward. He selected a large tanker on the outward left column of the convoy, moved into attack position, gave torpedo settings for the shot, then he watched, calculated-and fired!

A torpedo shot out of the bow tube, sped through the waves, and slammed into the tanker, the Norwegian Ferm, which exploded into flames roaring high into the air. The blaze lit up the whole night sky. Kretschmer scuttled away, out of the light revealing him, retreated. Later he entered the middle of the convoy. He picked out another large tanker, the Bedouin, also Norwegian-and shot. The torpedo socked into the Bedouin and she, too, erupted in flames as the torpedo exploded against her hull.

"Self-control. His capacity. He had judgment of the situation. Brave. He was always clear in attacking," said Elfe of Kretschmer. "He was very sober in his decisions. And he had a good crew. He had trained his crew very thoroughly in the Baltic before we went into the Atlantic. Very good training. Hard training. But always fair, and correct. Quiet. Real quiet. Absolute quiet. Decisive in his decision. Perfectly clear in his orders. No trouble and no discussion. In action, his highest quality was that he was quiet, sober, and never got excited or out of his mind."4

This was Kretschmer, calculated boldness carried to that narrow, thin zone that exists in the maximum extent just short of doom.

Now, with the flames from the two torpedoed tankers lighting up the sky, Kretschmer stole into another lane of the convoy. He ran along amid the ships for a time, covered by the thick black of the night. He picked a third target-a large tanker. He prepared, made calculations, pulled all the elements of the attack together-and fired. The torpedo slammed into the British Franche Comte and she went up in billows of black smoke and orange flames. Time passed. Kretschmer kept dogging the convoy. In time he entered another lane, and picked a fourth target. He moved slowly ahead into the attack position, gave torpedo settings, depth, speed, waited and fired at a large freighter. In a column of smoke and water, the 5,728-ton Venetia blew up as the torpedo found its mark. Kretschmer's fifth attack was as precise, deadly, but difficult. He lined up the 7,375-ton Canadian steamer J. B. White in his sights, plotted the attack, set, and fired again. The torpedo went speeding through the water and smacked into the White; she settled, but did not sink. Kretschmer fired again; he missed. It took a third shot to send the big Canadian breakbulker down. Slowly she settled beneath the surface of the waves. Now Lieutenant Commander Kretschmer was well behind the convoy and he surged ahead to catch up. He hunted, searched, in time he came upon a fourth tanker, his sixth target of the night, the Korsham. This time a shot from his stern tube broke the steamer in two, and slowly she settled beneath the waves to an agonized death. She had carried her last cargo. HX 112 moved along, shoving ahead through the ocean, pushing through the inky blackness of the sea at night.

In a matter of hours, "Silent Otto" had accounted for six more ships. His fuel was low, he had expended all his torpedoes, his crew was exhausted from some forty-eight hours at action stations. He set a course north and disappeared.

U-99 passed Lousy Bank late, running ahead, surging forward, sliding through the satiny waves, leaving the miles behind. Kretschmer went below to talk, to count tonnage, to debrief. A watch officer and two lookouts remained on the bridge. Then it was night, and the enormous frame of the surrounding darkness, and the sub sliding through the sea with nothing else around her. She was clipping through the waves and had much to report back to BdU in Lorient when she arrived. Then later, the watch officer spotted a destroyer, suddenly, unexpectedly; and here, at this sighting, the watch officer made a mistake. Ignoring Kretschmer's standing orders to remain surfaced in the event of a possible attack, he dove. Half a minute, and U-99 was gone from the surface. She reached a comfortable depth, and then she evened up, crawling through the dark fathoms of the sea, invisible, deadly, creeping through the gloom below the surface.

He did not know exactly what was around him. Standing silent on the bridge of his destroyer, he peered through the dark. He had a pair of binoculars around his neck, and was watching, scanning the surface. It was pitch black, early morning, but what it was exactly, the young Royal Navy officer did not know. He turned, looked at his men, then continued gazing. Commander Donald G. F. W. Macintyre-he had been promoted-the crisp, rulebook escort skipper who had trained as a pilot, had a sonar contact. Macintyre was not sure it was a sub, perhaps a disturbance in the water, a school of fish, who knew what; but then his sonar operator was confirming that it was indeed a sub, and Macintyre knew all he needed to know. He swung his destroyer, HMS Walker-he had transferred from Hesperus-around and drove in for the kill. The ping of the sonar kept sounding. Macintyre closed in, homing in on the contact. Now he dashed in, the sonar pinging regularly; he primed six depth charges-all that could be gotten ready-and, just as the destroyer crossed over the point where the sub should be, Macintyre loosed his six charges in a pattern into the water.

The sub crept through the gloomy fathoms of the ocean deeps. No one could see her; she was lost in the depths. She crawled on. Her motors barely turned over. She was hidden by the silent leagues. U-99 edged ahead. Then, all at once, detonations from the six depth charges crashed through the deep, slamming the submarine's hull. The lights went out. The glass dials on the gauges shattered and the chronometers were broken. The men watched each other, not speaking, silent, horrified. The explosions had jarred the hull. Water began streaming into the sub from a broken pipe; oil poured into the control room. The men said nothing, sat motionless in the smell of bodies and diesel fuel. Suddenly, the sub began to dive toward the bottom of the ocean, plunging out of control. The men, aghast, looked with bulging eyes.

"These depth charges were the end of U-99, these six depth charges. . . . We went down to a depth that normally would destroy a boat, 220 meters, 270 meters," recalls Volkmar König, a midshipman aboard U-99 that night. "Normally at 150 meters, you would say, please, not deeper."5

The crewmen sat in tense silence as U-99 plunged through the gloom. The first watch officer read off the depth as the sub continued sailing down, 150 meters, 160 meters, 170 meters. "He had a pale face. . . . He had a white face," recalls König.

Kretschmer reacted with the cool of a pool hall sharpie. He said gently, "Come on and blow," blow the ballast tanks, blow air into the ballast tanks to clear them of water so the boat would go up on its buoyancy.

The tanks were blown, and gradually the sub responded, 140 meters, 130 meters, 120 meters, 100 meters, 90 meters. At 90 meters, Kretschmer ordered, "Stop blow." The blowing stopped; the submarine stabilized-and then, horribly, U-99 began to dive down again through the fathoms, losing buoyancy. All stared in desperation at the depth meter. Kretschmer had no choice now but to blow to the surface. He used the last air to blow his tanks; U-99 rose through the water, climbed and broke through above water.

Immediately, gunfire poured upon the sub from Walker and HMS Vanoc, another escort. Enter Commander Macintyre. Fierce 4.7-inch gunfire and pompom tracers tore into the wounded sub. Kretschmer, in the black of night, summoned the crew onto the main deck: they would have to abandon ship. König was standing next to the commander on the decks, now slanting; Kretschmer told him, "We are going to die a hero's death." From his bridge, Kretschmer now flashed Macintyre a message across the dark by semaphore: "CAPTAIN TO CAPTAIN. I AM SUNKING [sic]. PLEASE RESCUE MY CREW."

At this point, in the midst of a running convoy battle, Macintyre took the highly unusual step of stopping HMS Walker, so the German crew could be picked up.

One by one, holding on to each other, the crewmen of U-99 jumped into the icy waters and began swimming toward Walker. König recalls the night vividly. "I was already tired. This is the first step to die. The cold creeps up your body. If you're tired, you fall asleep, that's it. But then there was a searchlight glaring in my face. I was wide awake." With König and the others swimming across the distance between U-99 and Walker, Kretschmer suddenly realized that the submarine was still afloat and could be captured. At once, he told the chief engineer to go back and open valves so the sub would fill with water and sink. The chief engineer swam back, got into the sub, opened the valves, and U-99 began to slowly settle by the stern, then plunged below. The chief engineer was never seen again.

"This must have haunted Kretschmer all his life," says König.

The Germans kept swimming across. Walker had rigged scrambling nets down her side and the U-99 crew began hauling themselves up the net. They struggled, and one after another emerged from the frigid sea. Some were so exhausted and drained they could not negotiate the nets, and a British seaman named Prout immediately went fully clothed into the water to help them up. Slowly the Germans were dragged aboard, up the side of the Walker. The last man out was the commander. To the astonishment of all on board the Walker, it was Otto Kretschmer, the Golden Ace.

Commander Peter Sturdee, then a sub-lieutenant aboard Walker, was at the rails when Kretschmer came aboard. "I could see old Kretschmer hanging on. He was going to see all his chaps aboard. He was tired. He had always said, `No enemy will have my boat or have these glasses [the special Zeiss glasses minted for the aces].' We got him over the guardrails, absolutely exhausted."6

All at once, Kretschmer realized he still had the Zeiss binoculars hanging around his neck. He moved to throw them into the sea. "I took the binoculars," recalls Sturdee.

Macintyre, who had watched all this from the bridge, now saw a gilt-edged trophy of the capture. He barked down from the bridge: "Sub. Bring those up. They're mine-a prize of war."

A prize they were, marking a stunning victory. Macintyre, the crisp, polished rulebook officer, had fished out of the North Atlantic Germany's top ace. Otto Kretschmer was now a captive of the British. For a thirty-six-year-old escort leader, the victory was a dazzling triumph. For any officer of any age or station, it was an extraordinary coup. Macintyre, who came to be nicknamed "Bulldog Drummond of the Atlantic," had bagged "Silent Otto."

Overnight and the next day on the trip back to Liverpool, an unusual development unfolded. Enemies in war, the crewmen of U-99 and Walker made friends. They shared bunks, talked, exchanged thoughts. "We got on well with them," recalls Roy Hemmings, a sailor aboard Walker. The Germans said, "If you win the war, you look after me. If we win the war, I'll look after you." Hemmings promised to contact a German sailor, Jupp Kassel, when the war was over, writing his address on a package of cigarettes.

Life proceeded quirkily onboard the Admiralty W Class destroyer, full of odd scenes. The chief engineer of Walker got a bridge game going consisting of himself, Kretschmer, and two officers from the J. B. White, whose crew had been rescued by Walker. Chief Osborne said it was the only decent bridge game he got in during the war.

Elsewhere, other unusual scenes played out through the ship. Sturdee interrogated the German survivors and impounded their personal possessions. Later, after the Germans had left, he noticed a rosary and a medallion of the Virgin Mary on his bunk. Jupp Kassel had remained behind in the cabin; he and Sturdee were talking, when two shy young sailors came down the stairs. Sturdee asked them what they had come for; Kassel intervened. He explained they had come to collect the rosary and the medallion. The two were Catholics, and such was the religious intolerance in Nazi Germany, not simply against Jews, that "if they had taken [the religious articles] in front of the others, they might have been molested or even killed."

Later, Sturdee, a correct officer who spent thirty-one years in the Royal Navy, took up the matter with Kretschmer, and commented that he had had two Catholics aboard U-99. So great was Kretschmer's shock that he snapped out, "I haven't." Walker steamed back to Britain with its motley cargo of a British crew, German prisoners of war, and Canadian merchant seamen from the J. B. White.

On March 18, 1941, Commander Macintyre, sporting his usual broad grin, and Walker proudly sailed into Liverpool harbor and Gladstone Dock, where the escorts tied up, with their celebrated captive. Walker was berthed at Prince's Landing Stage, reserved usually for bigger ships. A cheering crowd, including the commander-in-chief, Western Approaches, Admiral Sir Percy Noble, who oversaw all the Atlantic battle, was waiting at dockside to hail the victors. The crowd celebrated; the Walker men beamed; the day was memorable. The legendary ace Günther Prien had already been sunk on March 7; Joachim Schepke, who had so ravaged SC 11, had been sent below the same night as U-99 had been sunk; the capture alive of Kretschmer marked the elimination of Germany's three top aces, a remarkable achievement. In Germany, the news came as a serious morale setback and marked the end of the "Happy Time." For the British, the event marked a considerable coup. Donald Macintyre was an instant hero. Liverpool hailed its Ajax.