The sinking of U 47 and the end of Günter Prien
The Second World War was just in his first weeks, when U 47 under Kapitänleutnant (=Lieutenant) Günter Prien in a daring operation managed to sneak into the British Naval Base of Scapa Flow at the Orkney Islands, to sink there on 14 October 1939 the Royal Navy´s battleship Royal Oak at anchor. This event has been subject of many books, articles, even a movie picture (1958), and the reception for the crew of U 47 a few days later at the Chancellery in Berlin filled the front pages of the newspapers at that time.
As the first member of the Kriegsmarine, Günter Prien was awarded the Knights Cross, and he became with his crew one of the most successful Commanding Officer of an U-boat during the first years of the war.
In the end, he sunk with U 47 during 10 combat patrols and a total of 238 days at sea some 30 vessel with a total tonnage of about 160,000 GRT and damaged 8 more vessels with a total tonnage of about 60,000 GRT. This made Prien one of the U-boat aces of the Kriegsmarine. Consequently, the National Socialist leadership of Germany made him one of the great war heroes during those first years of the war.
Nevertheless, he and his 44 men strong crew were to suffer from the same fate as so many of their comrades, namely that of a deadly sinking. The exact circumstances of the sinking could not be solved until today and it is likely not to be more exact ever. Generally, the date of sinking of U 47 is assumed to be the night from 07 to 08 March 1941, and the area of sinking is assumed to be some 30 nm sou Iceland. Most probably, it occurred while U 47 was engaged against the westbound convoy OB 293, after it has been part of a barrier operation against convoy OB 292 on 05 March 1941, together with 6 other U-boats (U A/ U 70/ U 95/ U 98/ U 108/ U 562). The last message sent from U 47 was at 04.54 hrs German time on 08 March 1941, and there was no mentioning of any harassing or damage experienced.
Recently, our friend Jak Mallmann-Showell has provided new research on the probable end of U 47 in his latest publication U-boats Attack!, and has questioned conclusively the largely accepted version of a sinking by the British destroyer HMS Wolverine, especially since the positions of all U-boats being present at that time in that sea area can be re-determined yet. On 06 March 1941, U 47, together with a few other German U-boats (U 37, U 70, U 99 and U A) chased the Allied convoy OB 293. While hampered by bad visibility, the convoy escorts HMS Wolverine and another destroyer (HMS Verity) plus two corvettes (HMS Camellia and HMS Arbutus) commenced the defence against the U-boats. In the end, it was to be ascertained only partially, which of the escort actually attacked which U-boat and who exactly was successful against U 47. The Royal Navy was quick in publicly announcing that HMS Wolverine had sunk the much feared U 47, most probably induced by own intelligence and the longer than usually kept public announcement of the German Radio Broadcast of the status “missing” for U 47. It was as late as the 23 May 1941, when the Supreme Command of the German Armed Forces (OKW) publicly announced the probable total loss of U 47. Mallmann-Showell concludes, that HMS Wolverine most likely chased U A under Kapitänleutnant (= Lieutenant) Hans Eckermann for a longer period of time, since he managed to still reach its base at Lorient severely damaged on 18 March 1941. If HMS Wolverine does not come into question and no other escort achieved any observed hits at the estimated position of U 47, there might be another cause for the sinking of U 47: Sunk by own torpedoes. As in many other cases, some of the types of torpedoes carried by U 47 had the unpleasant property under unfortunate circumstances to aim in the end for the launching U-boat itself after they had passed their search patterns unsuccessful.
The unusual long uncertainty about the true events leading to the sinking of U 47 gained new momentum after the war, above all in the 1960ies. A myth developed around this famous Commanding Officer and his crew claiming that they did not fall during their en-gagement against a convoy off Iceland, rather they were arrested and later killed in a concentration camp, because, as can be pro-ven, they complained about the reliability of U-boat torpedoes and called the further detachments of U-boats irresponsible under these conditions. Moreover, Prien is said to have extended his criticism to the leadership, including Adolf Hitler. There are also myths that Prien has been spotted alive after the war. As often in cases like this, there are several alleged “witnesses”, which have seen Prien and members of his crew after the reported sinking of U 47. Indeed, even statement of “witnesses” exist claiming to have seen a file of the German Ministry of Justice being seized by the allies soon after, which supports by documentary evidence a court martial for Prien, followed by a detention of him and some of his crew at the Torgau concentration camp (allegedly, he has been seen there in the spring of 1942), later at the Ersterwegen con-centration camp near Papenburg at the German-Dutch Border, which again allegedly has been confirmed by testimonies of witnesses.
The myths were further nurtured by reports actually transmitted by BBC London during the war (the famous propagandist Sefton Delmer from the German service of the BBC is known to have done this), that Prien and his crew were court-martialed on grounds of refusing to obey an order (the alleged refusal to deploy on combat patrol with a badly equipped U-boat), to be followed by detention in a concentration camp, all were to have been demoted and dishonorably dismissed from service.
While the factual sinking of U 47 under Günter Prien can be proven with some certainty, although circumstantial evidence and assumptions still need to form the basis for that, the myths around the alleged sentencing of Prien and his men on grounds of refusing to obey an order as well as anti- National Socialistic remarks to be followed by detention in a concentration camp, can be clearly qualified as nonsense, since the evidence of the sinking is solid enough, nevertheless. On the other hand, one has to accept, that some honest motives might lay behind such myths: Similar as in such cases, e.g. Field Marshal Rommel, interests can be identified also with regard to the Prien case, namely to use the sinking of U 47, which is based on circum-stantial evidence and assumptions only, to let its Commanding Officer and war hero Günter Prien live on, and to convert him within a short period of time to being a bitter opponent of the political and military leadership of the National Socialist Germany, who had to end in a concentration camp disgraceful under the vengeance of a brutal regime.
- Letters to the editor in Preussische Allgemeine Zeitung
- Jak Mallmann-Showell: U-boats Attack!, Spellmount, Strout 2011
- Rohwer/ Hümmelchen: Chronik des Seekrieges 1939-1945, Stalling, Hamburg 1968