Guenther Prien, the son of a judge, was born in Luebeck, an ancient city on the Baltic, in 1908 and spent his formative years there, developing a fervent love for the sea, which remained with him for the rest of his life. Later his parents separated, and his mother moved to Leipzig with her three children. Apparently Judge Prien made no further financial contribution to his estranged family, because Frau Prien was barely able to make a living selling peasant-lace and pictures she painted. Frequently, she was afraid to open bills because she had no money to pay them. At the age of 15, the stocky, friendly Guenther, who had chubby cheeks and a ready smile, left home so that his mother would have one less burden. It was the era of high inflation, when the value of the German mark fell from 12 per U.S. dollar to more than 4.2 trillion marks per dollar. Using foreign exchange he earned working as a guide during the Leipzig Industrial Fair, young Guenther paid for his admission to the Hamburg-Finkenwaerder Seaman’s School (called the Seaman’s Factory), where he learned the rudiments of seamanship. He then obtained a job on the SS Hamburg as a cabin boy.
The Hamburg was lost in a winter gale, but Prien was fortunate enough to reach the coast of Ireland, where he was rescued. Not unduly upset by this shipwreck, young Prien spent the next several years on other ships, learning his trade. By hard labor and concentration he earned his master’s ticket but could not find a ship, as the German merchant marine had been overwhelmed by the Great Depression. At age 24, the unemployed sea captain was forced to enlist in the Voluntary Labor Service in order to feed himself. He was very unhappy at this occupation (for which he received room and board, but no money), and when he learned that the German Navy was recruiting merchant officers for a naval reserve, he was quick to sign up. Guenther Prien enlisted at Stralsund as an ordinary seaman in January 1933, beginning his career in the Kriegsmarine.
Prien again worked his way up from the bottom and eventually managed to wangle an appointment to the U-boat school, where he was befriended by Werner Hartmann, the commander of U-26. At Hartmann’s request Prien was assigned to his submarine, which served in the Spanish Civil War. In 1938, Prien attended the U-boat commanders’ course and was given his first command in 1938. His boat was U-47. By now Prien was married and had a young daughter. Even so, his love for the sea had not diminished. He once astonished his messmates by announcing, “I would rather have a decent month’s maneuvers in the Atlantic than any leave.” He distinguished himself in the Bay of Biscay maneuvers and impressed Captain Karl Doenitz, the head of the U-boat arm.
Prien was out on patrol in the North Sea on September 3, 1939, when France and England declared war on Nazi Germany. Two days later Prien sank his first ship, a French steamer, which was followed to the bottom by the British cargo ships Rio Claro and Gartavon. When he returned to base in mid-September, Admiral Raeder decorated him with the Iron Cross, Second Class, and gave the entire crew of U-47 a two-week leave. On Sunday, October 1, shortly after he returned to duty, Prien was summoned to the depot ship Weichsel, at anchor at Kiel, where he met with Captain Doenitz. The future grand admiral quickly came to the point: “Do you think that a determined commander could get his U-boat inside Scapa Flow and attack the enemy naval forces lying there?” After a short pause, he added, “I don’t want you to give me an answer now. Think it over. Report back on Tuesday and let me have your considered opinion then. Whichever way you decide, it will not be a black mark against you. It will not affect the high opinion we have of you.”
Prien was temporarily stunned. Scapa Flow was the principal base of the British Home Fleet and a port hitherto considered impenetrable to submarines. This Orkney Islands base also had a special place in German naval history. It was here that the officers of the Kaiser’s navy had scuttled the Imperial High Seas Fleet after World War I. A victory here would have a tremendous psychological effect on the German Kriegsmarine. On the other hand, two U-boats had tried to sneak through its defenses during World War I, and neither had come back. But Doenitz had received a communication from a merchant captain who had been to the port of Kirkwall, just north of Scapa Flow, a few weeks before, and he reported having heard that the eastern entrances to the Flow had been neglected. A Luftwaffe photo reconnaissance flight confirmed this fact: there was a 17-meter gap between sunken blockships in Kirk Sound, the northernmost of the eastern passages, by which a bold commander might enter the great basin of Scapa Flow.
Lieutenant Prien reported back to Doenitz the next day: he would do it. They set the time of the attack for the night of October 13–14. U-47 left Kiel on October 8. On the morning of October 13, Prien submerged outside the British home port and told his crew of their mission. They were enthusiastically in favor of it despite the obvious dangers. Prien surfaced at 7:15 p.m. that evening to find the entire sky illuminated by a brilliant display of the northern lights, which made it almost as bright as day. After suppressing an oath, Prien decided to try it anyway. Slowly the U-boat moved into Scapa Flow, working its way against the current, only just avoiding collision with the blockships. British security, however, was lax, and the German submarine was not sighted. At 12:58 a.m. Prien lined up on what he thought were the battleships Royal Oak and Repulse. (Actually, what he thought was the Repulse was the old seaplane-carrier Pegasus.) At a range of 4,000 yards he fired four torpedoes; however, one tube misfired and only one of the other three detonated—on the anchor cable of the Royal Oak.
Prien now expected the base to become a beehive of activity, but there were no alarms, searchlights, destroyer attacks, or coastal artillery fire. Were the British asleep? With incredible daring, Prien decided to launch a second attack. He calmly turned south and made a wide circle around the anchorage on the surface, while his torpedomen loaded four fresh “fish.”
Prien had no way of knowing that his first attack had caused so little damage that the battleship’s captain and the other officers who went to investigate thought the explosion must have been internal. No general alarm was signaled. At 1:16 a.m. Prien launched his second attack, firing all four torpedoes at the Royal Oak. Two of them hit the huge battleship and exploded, igniting a magazine. A thunderous explosion ripped the 31,200-ton ship apart, filling the air with flying wreckage. The Royal Oak capsized and sank in 13 minutes, taking with her Rear Admiral H. F. C. Blagrove and 832 crewmen. Meanwhile, U-47—which was still surfaced—withdrew at high speed. Prien had a bad moment when a destroyer came straight at him with searchlights blazing but miraculously turned away before sighting the vulnerable U-boat. By 2:15 a.m. Prien had again skirted the blockships and was back in the open sea.
When U-47 returned to friendly waters, it was escorted to dock at Wilhelmshaven by two destroyers. It was met by cheering crowds, a band, and a delegation of VIPs, headed by Doenitz and Grand Admiral Raeder, who came on board and shook hands with every member of the crew: a most unusual gesture for him. He then conferred the Iron Cross, Second Class, on every one of them and announced that Doenitz was promoted to rear admiral. Prien himself was to make a personal report to the Fuehrer. That afternoon Hitler’s personal Wulf-Vogel and a Ju-52 landed at Wilhelmshaven: Hitler wanted to see the entire crew. When they landed at Tempelhof the next day, the entire route from the airfield to the Kaiserhof Hotel was black with people screaming, “We want Prien!” Hitler received them in the Reichschancellery the following day and decorated their captain with the Knight’s Cross. They were Hitler’s guests for lunch and Goebbels’s guests at the Wintergarten Theater that evening. Afterward they went night-clubbing and, in their honor, the ban on dancing was lifted for the evening.
Guenther Prien was now an idol of the Third Reich—a far cry from his days of poverty and unemployment just a few years before. He was, however, the same officer he had always been. Fame embarrassed him. Fan letters, which he received by the mailbag, he handled by simply throwing them away unread, stating that he was not a movie star. He still loved to drink beer and tell stories with his comrades and friends and by all accounts had a wonderful gift for humor. On duty, however, he was a different man. Here there was no room for sentiment. Here Guenther Prien was all business, a man who believed in practice, practice, practice, and both he and his officers were scathing in their rebukes for the slightest mistakes. Discipline aboard U-47 was very strict indeed, but then both morale and pride were quite high. In late 1939 the men painted a bull on the conning tower of U-47, and from then on Prien had a permanent nickname: the Bull of Scapa Flow.
U-47 went out on its third wartime patrol in mid-November 1939, heading for the North Atlantic. Its commander was relieved to escape the limelight that his victory at Scapa Flow had inflicted on him. East of the Shetland Islands he fired a torpedo at the British cruiser Norfolk and thought he had sunk her, but the torpedo had missed and exploded in the ship’s wake. U-47 had no chance for a thorough investigation, as it was instantly forced to dive and was subjected to depth charges dropped by three destroyers for several hours. After escaping this harrowing experience, Prien resumed his patrol and, five days later, torpedoed a large passenger steamer amidships. She was, however, able to limp away, while U-47 was again subjected to depth-charging.
Lieutenant Prien’s next target was a heavily laden tanker, which did not escape: it exploded in a “terrifying tower of flame” and sank in two minutes. The next day he torpedoed a second tanker with the same result. Finally, on the way home, he fired two torpedoes at a 4,000-ton freighter but missed. To Prien’s amusement, the freighter never knew that it had been under U-boat attack.
Due to damage caused by drift ice and depth charges, U-47 was not ready for action again until mid-March 1940. After an unsuccessful patrol, cut short by fuel pump failure and abysmal weather, Prien returned to Wilhelmshaven on March 29. In the first days of April, he went back to sea with a new mission: steal through the heavily mined waters of the Skagerrak and help screen the German naval forces taking part in the invasion of Norway. On April 7—three days before the invasion began—Prien received a signal announcing the birth of his second daughter. This news did not affect his daring one bit. He closed to within 900 yards of the British battleship Warspite and fired two torpedoes, one of which exploded prematurely. The other failed to detonate. He also launched a surprise attack on an Anglo-French convoy of three large transports, two cruisers, and three freighters at anchor in the Bydden fjord—a U-boat commander’s dream. Prien fired eight torpedoes into the transports, but all eight either failed to explode or took wildly erratic courses and missed everything except the rocky beaches of Norway. Then Prien ran aground while taking evasive action, damaging his starboard diesel. He only just managed to free his boat and make for the open sea, from which he headed for home. An angry and depressed Prien reported to Doenitz that “it was useless to send him to fight with a dummy rifle.”
U-47 was not the only submarine with torpedo difficulties, as we have seen. It did not return to sea until June, when the problem was solved.