Type XXI, VII and XXIII U-boats photographed by RAF reconnaissance aircraft in Kristiansand after the war’s end.
Type XXIII submarine leaves U-Boat Pen.
On 16 February Type VIIC U309 was also destroyed. Oberleutnant zur See Herbert Loeder had taken his boat into the Moray Firth, the first U-boat reported by the Allies in that region for five years. After stalking convoy WN74 north-northwest of Kinnairds Head, U309 was found and attacked by the Canadian frigate HMCS St John. The Canadian’s ASDIC detected U309 in fewer than seventy metres of water and the frigate immediately attacked, bringing some oil to the surface. Two further attacks were mounted using the ship’s Hedgehog, which produced more upwelling oil before a fourth attack with depth charges resulted in visible wreckage including charts, signal books and fragments of cork insulation material. Apparently a further attack the following day released a body from the destroyed U-boat after ripping the bow from the wreck.
New VIIC/41 boat U1278 was the next to be destroyed, found and destroyed on 17 February by HMSs Bayntun and Loch Eck north of the Shetlands while outbound from Norway. Sister ship U1276 was also destroyed, although not before it had attacked and sunk an enemy warship minutes earlier. Oberleutnant zur See Karl-Heinz Wendt operated in the Irish Sea from early February before moving into St George’s Channel. There, on 20 February he attacked the 63-ship convoy HX337 south of Waterford, torpedoing and sinking the escorting corvette HMS Vervain, which went down with three officers and forty-six crewmen. U1276’s victory was short lived, however, as its position was betrayed and within thirty minutes the sloop HMS Amethyst depth charged the boat out of existence, apparently blowing the bow off. The identity of the U-boat was established from clothing recovered by Lieutenant Commander David Harries aboard HMS Peacock, which had supported Amethyst during the attack.
On 27 February new Type VIIC U-boat U1208 was sunk by frigates HMSs Duckworth and Rowley southwest of Land’s End. It appears that Korvettenkapitän Georg Hagene had made the boat’s first kill when he torpedoed and sunk the coal-carrying SS Oriskany from convoy BTC78. The ship’s master, convoy commodore (Commander I N Macmillan RNR), twenty-one crew members, seven naval-staff members and four gunners were all lost in the sinking, leaving no survivors. The pair of frigates from the convoy’s escort then located and destroyed Hagene and all of his crew with depth charges. Originally it was thought that this U-boat had been the Alberich-coated U480 commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Hans-Joachim Förster, but it now appears that this boat, which had already survived one patrol in the English Channel during August, was destroyed by minefield ‘Brazier D2’ laid at the beginning of 1945.
The same day that U1208 was destroyed, a Warwick of 179 Squadron detected the schnorchel of new Type VIIC/41 U927 on a fine clear evening south of the Lizard. Radar contact with the small object was made at a range of two miles. Flight Lieutenant A G Brownhill took his aircraft down from the 600-feet altitude at which he was patrolling, until the schnorchel, extended some five feet above the water surface with its exhaust, was plainly visible. Flying up along the schnorchels wake Brownhill released six depth charges on the target, which had sea periodically breaking over its schnorchel, and three depth charges perfectly straddled each side of the submerged U-boat. Front and rear machine gunners also opened fire as the Warwick overflew U927 until the target disappeared in the spume of explosions. Switching on his Leigh Light, Brownhill flew back and saw oil and debris already rising from the shattered boat. Ships of the 3rd Escort Group were homed on to the scene but there were no survivors. This was the sole combat victory achieved by a Warwick aircraft, which were gradually replacing the elderly Wellingtons.
Two more U-boats fell on 27 February. The first, U327, was depth charged in the west part of the English Channel by frigates HMSs Labuan, Loch Fada and the sloop HMS Wild Goose with no survivors, after an unsuccessful maiden voyage from Norway. The second was the fractionally more successful U1018. Kapitänleutnant Walter Burmeister attacked convoy BTC81 southwest of the Lizard, hitting the Norwegian freighter SS Corvus. This 1,317-ton steamer was laden with coal when the torpedo hit during the mid morning. The ship’s starboard side was torn apart and the ship immediately developed a heavy list before capsizing and sinking within a couple of minutes. Because of the speed of the capsizing the crew were unable to launch lifeboats, though a single raft was thrown overboard. Out of twenty-two crewmen and three gunners, six crew and two gunners died with the ship. The escorts immediately began hunting U1018, HMS Loch Fada taking the search’s inshore sector. Heading into Mount’s Bay the frigate obtained ASDIC contact and carried out a Squid attack that destroyed U1018. Fifty-one of its crew including the commander were killed and two were rescued: the boat’s IIWO Leutnant zur See Werner Banck and Engineering Maat Franz Merling.
Additional to those U-boats that had been hunted to destruction, U683 was also lost during February. The final passage report from Kapitänleutnant Günter Keller was received in Berlin on 20 February after which the boat disappeared, lost in the maelstrom of mines and depth charges.
To add to the terrible toll taken on the combat U-boats around the British Isles during February, one of the new Type XXIII boats involved in training, U2344, was rammed and sunk by U2336 on 18 February north of Heiligenhaven. The Type XXIII’s conning tower was damaged and the pressure hull ruptured near the electric motors, causing the boats to sink so quickly that only the commander and two watchmen escaped.
Although BdU in Berlin were unaware of the scale of the disaster beginning to overtake the outdated Type VIIs in British waters, February 1945 marked the beginning of the end for the offensive. Reliant as Berlin had become on U-boats returning from patrol before they were able to gather reliable information, the slaughter remained largely unknown, the first inklings coming during March as boats remained overdue. Thus outbound U-boats – except those aiming for the British east coast – were sent first to a staging area west of Ireland, before receiving the most up-to-date instructions and patrol-area allocations possible.
Germany had experienced difficulties in keeping so many Type VIIC boats operational against Britain. Fuel was in desperately short supply. The Kriegsmarine only received a fraction of its already slim allocation due to the disruption of supply networks. The problem was only overcome once oil was siphoned from laid-up Kriegsmarine surface ships, including the cruisers Admiral Scheer and Lützow, which were languishing in Kiel’s military harbour.
The initial optimistic exchange rate of Allied shipping sunk against U-boats lost had plummeted, as the Royal Navy and its allies began to reap the dividend of adapted tactics. The concentration of U-boats brought a corresponding concentration of escort ships and U-boat hunters attached to their convoys. Though the difficulties of underwater terrain remained an issue throughout the inshore campaign for Allied ASDIC operators, once U-boats had betrayed their presence by mounting an attack, surface ships probing the depths smothered the surrounding sea. Aircraft had been somewhat relegated to the poor relation in terms of the successful destruction of U-boats in comparison to surface escorts, though they could still have successes, as proven by the destruction of U927. Their presence also guaranteed the U-boats’ unwillingness to remain surfaced and operate with true freedom to manoeuvre and the ability to have all round visibility. The battle of attrition was spiralling out of German control once more. The sinking of U-boats was actually of secondary importance to the Allies. Even though it felt less ‘aggressive’, as long as the convoys were escorted safely to their destinations, and the U-boats were prevented from attacking, then the Allies were achieving their objective, while depriving the U-boats of theirs.