The Condors Arrive
In the North Atlantic, Dönitz’s son-in-law Günter Hessler in the new IXB U-107 found convoy Outbound 279 on February 3, 1941. After flashing an alert, Hessler attacked, sinking a 4,700-ton freighter, then shadowed during the day. Dönitz relayed the report and ordered six other boats to converge on the convoy. Still shadowing, on the following evening Hessler sank a second ship of 5,000 tons. No other boats found the convoy, but while searching for it, Salmann in U-52 and Moehle in U-123 came across the inbound Slow Convoy 20, from which they sank one ship each, as did Hessler in U-107, responding to their reports. Korth in U-93 polished off another ship from this convoy with his deck gun, a 2,700-tonner which had been damaged by a Condor.
The Admiralty got wind of the breakout of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst from the North Sea and positioned powerful Home Fleet forces (Nelson, Rodney, Repulse, etc.) south of Iceland to intercept them. A British cruiser, Naiad, got a fleeting glimpse of the German vessels southbound in the Denmark Strait, but the British disbelieved—or discounted—the report. Equipped with primitive radar, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst evaded Naiad at high speed and withdrew northward into the strait to prepare for a second try on February 3-4.
The Gneisenau and Scharnhorst had orders to attack Halifax convoys in the area west of Iceland. Assuming the attack would again draw out the Home Fleet, the OKM directed Dönitz to lay a submarine trap south of Iceland to ambush its ships. On February 8, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst intercepted convoy Halifax 106, but upon seeing that the convoy was escorted by the battleship Ramillies, the Germans, who were under orders to avoid battles with capital ships, broke off the attack. As anticipated, the Home Fleet sailed west in pursuit of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Dönitz, meanwhile, had positioned eight German U-boats to the submarine trap south of Iceland. One of these, Herbert Schultze in U-48, sighted—and reported—a “battle cruiser and a light cruiser,” but he was unable to get into shooting position. On February 10, a Whitley of Coastal Command Squadron 502, piloted by J. A. Walker, caught Korth in U-93 on the surface and bombed the boat, hastening her return to Lorient. The repairs to U-93 were to take three months. No other boats intercepted Home Fleet units. The submarine trap was thus a failure.
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk VII – 502 Sqn
Dönitz was not displeased by this diversion. He believed the Condor reconnaissance flights near Rockall Bank had forced the British to divert convoys well to the north to avoid aerial detection. Later, when the OKM released the boats of the submarine trap, he left six boats on patrol lines due south of Iceland. Since this area was beyond range of the Bordeaux-based Condors, Dönitz requested that Condor flights be staged to that area from Norway.
Southbound to African waters, on the morning of February 9, Nikolaus Clausen in U-37 ran into convoy Home Gibraltar 53. Comprised of twenty-one ships, the convoy was thinly escorted by one destroyer and one sloop. Clausen gave the alarm, then attacked, claiming three ships for 13,500 tons sunk, but again he inflated the tonnage. His confirmed score was two ships for 3,300 tons.
There were no other German U-boats in Iberian waters, but the heavy cruiser Hipper, southbound from Brest to join Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, was within easy reach, as were the Condors basing at Bordeaux. Sensing a “historic” opportunity to mount a combined U-boat, aircraft, and surface-ship attack on the same convoy, Dönitz directed Clausen to shadow the convoy and to send beacon signals. Meanwhile, Dönitz instructed Gruppe 40 to fly as many Condors as possible to the scene and invited the OKM to bring up Hipper. Five Condors took off. The OKM initially refused to commit Hipper but, on second
Homing on U-37’s beacon signals, audible at 150 miles, the Condors reached the convoy late in the afternoon of February 9. In this first successful joint aircraft/submarine operation, the Condor pilots reported damage to nine ships for 45,000 tons. The confirmed score was five ships sunk. One Condor was damaged and crash-landed in Spain, but the crew survived and eventually returned to Bordeaux.
Still shadowing the shattered convoy for Hipper’s benefit, in the early hours of February 10, Clausen in U-37 struck again. His targets this time were two “big tankers.” His six torpedoes missed the tankers but, Clausen believed, struck and sank two ships behind the tankers for 7,500 tons. Actually, he hit only one ship, a 1,473-ton freighter, which sank, making his total confirmed score three ships sunk for 4,773 tons.
The riddled convoy Home Gibraltar 53 was scheduled to merge with an inbound unescorted convoy of nineteen ships from Sierra Leone. Racing up from the southwest, Hipper came upon this convoy on February 12 and sank seven ships for 32,800 tons, her first clear success in the Atlantic. She then found another freighter which had separated from the Gibraltar convoy. She took off the crew and sank the freighter, but was then compelled to abort to Brest with engine problems for the second time. Condors escorted her into port.
Dönitz was enormously pleased with this unique operation. The combined German forces had savaged two convoys, sinking sixteen confirmed ships: eight by Hipper, five by the Condors, three by U-37. Foreseeing the possibility of combined submarine and surface-ship operations with Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, he directed that three IXBs (U-105, U-106, U-124) prepare for departure to West African waters to be followed by the U-A, which was sailing from Germany. Having expended all torpedoes, Clausen in U-37 aborted his trip to Africa and returned to Lorient, where he received unstinting praise and the news that the famous but weary U-37 was to patrol home for retirement to the Training Command.
The diversion of Condors to the U-37-Hipper operation and a decision to put Condor crews through a crash course in navigation and communications delayed the staging of these aircraft from Norway. Hence the boats hunting south of Iceland had no help from the Condors for many days.
On the afternoon of February 19, 1941, a lone Condor staging from Norway found a convoy, Outbound 287. Dönitz ordered five boats to converge on the position and Gruppe 40 to send out more Condors at first light the following morning. But the operation was a failure. Three Condors reached the area, but all gave different positions, leading to the belief that a second or perhaps even a third convoy had been detected. Adding further confusion, B-dienst picked up distress calls from a ship reporting a Condor attack in yet another position. One boat, Lehmann-Willenbrock’s U-96, homed on a Condor beacon signal, came upon the convoy in foul weather, and sank a straggler, the 7,000-ton British tanker Scottish Standard. But no other boats could find the convoy.
Several days later, on February 22, a Norway-based Condor reported a convoy near the Orkneys. Dönitz directed two boats, outbound from Germany in the North Sea, to the scene: the VIIB U-46, commanded by Engelbert Endrass, returning from a long overhaul, and a new VIIC, U-552, commanded by Erich Topp, whose duck, U-57, had been rammed and sunk in the Elbe. But, many hours later, the airmen corrected the contact report: The convoy was not near the Orkneys but two hundred miles or more west of the Orkneys, en route to Halifax. It was Outbound 288.
Upon receiving the corrected position report, Dönitz ordered four boats to intercept the convoy and, if possible, three additional, including the weather boat, Moehle’s U-123. The operation was temporarily thrown into confusion when B-dienst reported another distress call from a ship being attacked by a Condor in a position that in no way corresponded to the “corrected” position report. Dönitz rightly dismissed this last report, logging in his diary that B-dienst reports could no longer be relied upon.
A new VIIB from Germany, U-73, commanded by Helmut Rosenbaum, age twenty-seven, from the duck U-2, made contact with the convoy Outbound 288 and flashed a report. Dönitz instructed Rosenbaum to radio beacon signals and hang on “at all costs” while the other boats—and more Condors—attempted to converge. During the night of February 23-24, five German boats and the Italian Bianchi attacked. Lehmann-Willenbrock in U-96 sank three ships for 18,400 tons, including the 11,000-ton auxiliary cruiser Huntingdon. Gerd Schreiber in the VIIC U-95 sank three ships for 13,900 tons. Moehle in U-123 sank one, as did Metzler in U-69, Rosenbaum in U-73, and Adalberto Giovannini in Bianchi. In retaliation, a Sunderland and three corvettes delivered a determined depth-charge attack on the green U-69, but the damage was not serious.
During this melee, the Italian submarine Marcello, commanded by Carlo Alberto Teppati, arrived on the scene. One of the convoy escorts, the ex-American four-stack destroyer Montgomery, merely a month out of her overhaul and upgrade, spotted Marcello and attacked with guns and depth charges. The attack was successful; Marcello sank with all hands. She was the first Axis submarine to fall victim to one of the American warships transferred to the Royal Navy in the “Destroyer Deal.”
Gunther Prien in U-47 sailed directly up the west coast of Ireland. On the afternoon of February 25 he ran into convoy Outbound 290, composed of thirty-nine ships and seven escorts. Prien reported, shadowed, and broadcast beacon signals. Dönitz ordered Kretschmer in U-99 and two boats on first patrols to join: Heilmann in U-97, who was out of torpedoes en route to Lorient, and Rosenbaum in U-73, who was on weather station. He alerted Gruppe 40 to fly Condors on the following day.
Shortly after midnight on February 26, Prien attacked the convoy alone. There was no moon, but the northern lights provided excellent visibility. His first salvo sank a 5,300-ton Belgian freighter and damaged an 8,100-ton British tanker in ballast. After reloading his tubes, he came in and fired a second salvo, sinking two more freighters, a 3,200-ton Swede and a 3,600-ton Norwegian. While again reloading his tubes he continued to track and send beacon signals, adding that he had sunk 20,000 tons. But no other U-boat came up that night.
“Hunter becomes the hunted” A Sea Hurricane chases Focke Wulf Fw 200 Condors from KG 40.
Later that day, February 26, guided by Prien’s beacon signals, the Condors found and attacked the convoy. One Condor appeared at noon; five in late afternoon. Astonishingly, they sank seven ships for 36,250 tons and damaged another one of 20,755 tons. All the while Prien doggedly and bravely tracked and sent beacon signals. In his last message of the day, Prien reported that he had been “beaten off’ by Allied aircraft and had been depth-charged by escorts. He revised his sinking report upward slightly to 22,000 tons. In actuality, Prien had sunk 12,000 tons.