Kriegsmarine U-boats and their part in the evacuation of refugees from East Prussia in 1945
There is a chapter in the history of German U-boats which probably never will be cleared up entirely: It is their role in the great escape of German inhabitants from their homes in East Prussia during the first months of 1945. As significant differences are in portraying the actual development of the drama around the rescue of the refugees from East Prussia across the Baltic Sea between January 1945 and May 1945, including the figures connected to it, as much the role of U-boats in rescue operations can be determined approximately only.
Above all, in popular-science literature it appears to be a fact that the Kriegsmarine alone has rescued some 2,5 Million refugees from East Prussia across the Baltic Sea by own transports or escorting other transport vessels, allegedly around 400 warships and another 670 merchant vessel were part of the rescue fleet. Whatever these figures might have actually been in the end, this rescue operation truly can be called one of the greatest eva-cuation operation across the sea in history. However, a mere crosscheck of the figures and the various accounts of escape routes may relativize that picture, shedding a somewhat different light on the role of the Kriegsmarine and its then leadership. Taking a look at literature shows some deviations with regard to figures between 1.54 million (Brustat Naval, this author even claims up to 3 million in other books), to 1.97 million (Dincklage, Witthöft), up to 2.20 million (Rahn´s recent findings in 2006).
Also, one has to differentiate between refugees which really were brought to the safe West and those which were subject to just intermediate transports between the habours of Pillau and elsewhere to Danzig. Moreover, one has to distinguish between civil refugees, wounded soldiers and active soldiers, which often is mixed up in numerical data. And, one should not forget that a major evacuation operation for some 170,000 soldiers and civil refugees from the Baltic States and Memel to East Prussia was carried out between end of July and end of October 1944.
Therefore, if one takes the term “rescue across the sea” verbatim and if one understands that as transport of people from East Prussia to safe habours in Pomme-rania, Mecklenburg, Schleswig-Holstein and the German occupied Denmark, then the figures of soldiers, wounded and refugees on board warships or vessels escorted by the Kriegsmarine are being reduced to about 1,4 million (see the article by Schwendemann) at best, which, however, still constitutes an enormous logistic achievement unmatched in history yet.
Thus, many myths about these evacuation operations have started to gain momentum, ranging from an almost heroic role of the Kriegsmarine and its leadership (above all: Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as the alleged “savior of millions”) on the one hand side, to the accusation of severe failures on the other side, that is to say to just not have saved hundreds of thousands of civil refugees from East Prussia due to other priorities.
If one studies the standing and special orders of the Kriegsmarine one finds that the transport of civil refugees from East Prussia in the early months of 1945 was given a much lower priority than other tasks. There was a clear priority set by the Naval High Command for military support of the Armed Forces fighting in the Kurland pocket and defending East Prussia.
At best, civil refugee were allowed to be taken on board during return legs when vessels were empty, and this only after the requirements were met of taking along evacuated soldiers, wounded and material. A change in policy, i.e. giving highest priority to the rescue of refugees, can be traced in documents of the last days of the war only, beginning with the address of 01 May 1945 of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz to the German people after he was appointed President of the German Reich following the suicide of Hitler, and further directives such as on 04 May 1945 (The Navy High Command directs “to remove as many German citizens from the grip
of Bolschevism”) and on 06 May 1945 (Fuel to be re-directed in support of rescue vessels). Nevertheless, transports of civil refugees were carried out. Essentially, these were the result of admirable organization by many of the Kriegsmarine commanders having responsibilities there (above all: The German Armed Forces Sealift Agency under Rear Admiral Conrad Engelhardt), often acting not only in very own interpretation of existing standing orders, but also through the remarkable behavior of commanding officers and masters plus their crews of warships and merchant vessels involved.
Viewing that situation one also has to include U-boats which were still in the Baltic Sea in early 1945. By their very nature they were obviously no vessels suitable for evacuation operations. Therefore, they were not part of any respective plans or execution orders by the responsible Kriegsmarine commands. On the contrary, the further execution of the U-boat war, now with the increasingly introduced “Electro U-boats”, has been explicit intention until May 1945. Consequently, with some urgency those establishments and vessels in the Eastern Baltic Sea assigned to train U-boat crews and their newly commissioned boats had to be evacuated to the West allowing to continue combat training there. As an example: The entire 2 U-boat Training Division with some 900 personal had been taken on board the famous passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff on its fatal voyage from Gotenhafen to the West, which was sunk by a Soviet submarine on 30 January 1945, carrying about 10,000 passengers.
However, as we know better today, during the first months of the year 1945 there have been actually U-boats which managed to rescue people (soldiers, wounded, children and youth, up to entire families) from East Prussia to the safe West across the Baltic Sea, clearly disre-garding standing orders to take civilian refugees on board.
Since there is only incomplete documentation available, (often not filed due to the obvious disregard of existing orders), the number of such U-boats involved in evacuation measures range from 40 to 47, with a total figure of 1,400 to 1,500 people having been taken along. Only a few cases of evacuation operations are documented more comprehensively. We should mention the cases of U 999 and U 3505.
In 2003, the grandchild of the Commanding Officer of U-boat U 999 (Oberleutnant zur See d.R,/ Lieutenant NR Wolfgang Heibges), Charlotte Segebarth, wrote an essay for a historic writing competition “The Wolf and the 7 little Goats”, describing the rescue of 3 mothers and their 7 children plus 40 more Hitler Youth boys by the crew under Wolfgang Heibges from Hela to Warnemünde on 13/14 of March 1945. The moving story came to light already in 1984/1985, when one of the mothers approached the U-boat Museum to find out about her savior, whom she could remember as “Wolf” only. Help could be provided and a wonderful reunion of the two occurred, the Flensburg newspaper “Flensburger Tageblatt” published the story and its touching end in its issue of 14th of March 1985. However, the story also mentions the reporting of the Commanding Officer to his superior “Commander U-boat Training Flottillas”, where he was reprimanded for disobeying orders as he had taken refugees on board.
A 55 minutes film production with historic footage and scenic re-enactments (“Verbotene Rettung” = “Forbidden Rescue”) had been shown on TV (ARTE on 01st of November 2006 and PHOENIX on 28 and 29 July 2008, can be seen on “Youtube” since) about the breathtaking evacuation operation of U 3505. This brand new Type XXI U-boat under the command of Oberleutnant zur See (= Lieutenant) Horst Willner and its 65 men strong crew carried out a most adventurous rescue of Willner´s young family (24 year old wife and 3 months old daughter), three more young women plus 50 Hitler Youth boys aged 12 to 16 (some reports even tell of 110 Hitler Youth boys) from Danzig (departure on 28 March 1945) via Gotenhafen and Bornholm to Travemünde (arrival 02 April 1945).
The U-boat Archive has several reports from eye witnesses that confirm under what difficult circumstances U-boats had refugees of all kind taken onboard, risking much disciplinary measures while disobeying existing standing orders. These reports prove much personal engagement and bravery of many U-boat men, to take along refugees on their boats to the West clearly disobeying standing orders. We want to tell from two of these stories more en detail, although we should proceed with usual caution vis-á-vis reports from eye witnesses. Walter Kaeding, former U-boat Chief Navigator, now being under training as Commanding Officer and just being promoted to Leutnant zur See (= Sub Lieutenant), was appointed as provisional Commanding Officer of U 56 on 09 January 1945, to prepare the boat for departure from the training base at Pillau. “For some unknown reasons U-boats from our flotilla did not have any authorization to take refugees on board”, Kaeding writes. On 28 January 1945 the departure order came and Kaeding, who had realized the misery of refugees ashore in every aspect, allowed taking 2 mothers with their 4 children on board. The U-boat battled heavy seas and eventually reached Kiel on 30 January 1945, to deliver the refugees to safety.
Nevertheless, he received a reprimand by the Commander 5th U-boat Flottilla, who by the way accidently happened to be his Commanding Officer when he served as Chief Navigator on board U 123, accused of “high-handed approach to orders”. Then, Commander Moehle showed what he really thought of the rescue operation: He considered Kaeding´s action as brilliant, how he had brought along refugees against all orders, and he presented Kaeding a brandy recognizing his decision.
We can read a report from Oberleutnant zur See (= Lieutenant) Otto Nachtigall, the Commanding Officer of the Type XXI U-boat U 3513 (just commissioned on 02 December 1944 at the Schichau shipyard at Danzig, and being given the honorary name “Peter of Danzig”), what he has experienced while planning and executing his transit voyage from Danzig to the Lübeck Bight. In January 1945 the crew decided to take along those friends, acquaintances and next-of-kin which were willing to follow, after its U-boat would have completed its final maintenance at Danzig and would be part of the re-deployments of U 3513 and other U-boats to the West. The crew estimated to have space for about 100 persons. On 17/18 March 1945 U 3513 deployed initially from Danzig to Hela, taking along some 30 refugees, although Nachtigall, when signing off, was reminded by his superior Commander U-boats Baltic Sea not take on board any extraneous persons, let alone women and children. At Hela U 3513 temporarily disembarked its passengers, to pass its final combat readiness check at the “Agru Front” (= Frontal Training Group U-boats). After successfully completing that the U-boat was preparing for the re-deployment transit to Travemünde.
The crew re-embarked its 30 passengers from Danzig and surprisingly received another 50 Hitler Youth boys, since these seem to have enjoyed a certain exemption from the ban of taking civil refugees on board. Jointly with two other U-boats, U 3513 left Hela on 23 March 1945 (Danzig was taken by the Red Army on 27th of March 1945!) and reached Travemünde on 25th of March 1945, all passenger being brought safely to the West. Some U-boats have taken on board 50 and more people. U 3507 under Oberleutnant zur See Otto Niethmann embarked 60 Hitler Youth boys on 28 February 1945, U 110 under Oberleutnant zur See Joachim-Werner Bach embarked 60 refugees in March 1945, U 3012 under Kapitänleutnant Friedrich Kloevekorn took 60 AA-Gunners on board, and U 3023 under Oberleutnant zur See Erich Harms embarked even 120 AA-Gunners.
On 31 January 1945 U 903 under Oberleutnant zur See Otto Fränzel took along even 58 survivors from the Wilhelm Gustloff, which just had been sunk the day before. U 1306 under Oberleutnant zur See d.R. Ulrich Kiesling carried out even two voyages with refugees on board, one on 25 January 1945 from Pillau to Kiel with 10 boys and 2 girls, another one on 10th of March 1945 from Hela to Kiel with a mother and her 3 children plus 15 more Hitler Youth boys. It is somewhat remarkable that about 520 Hitler Youth boys were among those roughly 1,500 persons rescued by U-boats, representing, therefore, a very large group of passengers.
For many U-boats the operation “Rescue across the Baltic Sea” during the last months of the war has been a brave and utmost humane decision, as standing orders with regard to taking refugees on board were deliberately ignored. Most probably, the exact details and figures will never be revealed entirely, which can be excused by the troubles and the chaos of the last weeks of war. Also, neat documentation by the U-boats was not advisable, as standing orders were simply disobeyed in many cases.
From today´s point of view the evacuation operations by U-boats across the Baltic Sea are a remarkable chapter in the history of the U-boat force, although small in its dimensions, but great in humanity.
Literature and other sources:
- Brustat-Naval, Fritz: Unternehmen Rettung, Koehlers Verlagsgesellschaft, Herford 1970 (4th Edition 1985) Dinklage, Ludwig and Witthöft,
- Hans-Jürgen: Die deutsche Handelsflotte 1939-45, (2 Volumes), Nikol-Verlagsgesellschaft, Hamburg 2001
- Hartwig, Dieter: Großadmiral Karl Dönitz – Legende und Wirklichkeit, (Chapter IX: “Retter von Millionen” on pg. 125-139. plus 102 annotations on pg.344-349) Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, Paderborn and München, September 2010
- Müller, Wolfgang: Schicksale Ostsee 1945, Koehlers Verlagsgesellschaft, Hamburg 1996 Rahn, Werner and Müller,
- Rolf Dieter: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, (10 Volumes, Vol. 10 by Müller, Rolf Dieter: Das Ende des Dritten Reiches, Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, München 2008)
- Rahn, Werner and Schreiber, Gerhard: Kriegstagebuch der Seekriegsleitung 1939-45 (68 Volumes, Vol. 65/ January 1945, Vol. 66/ y 1945, Vol. 67/ March 1945, Vol. 68/ 1st – 20th April 1945, Verlag Mittler & Sohn, Herford 1996/ 1997
- Salewski, Michael: Die deutsche Seekriegsleitung, Vol. II (1942-1945), Bernhard & Graefe Verlagsgesellschaft, Frankfurt 1970
- Schmidtke, Martin: Rettungsaktion Ostsee 1944/1945, Bernhard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn 2006
- Schwendemann, Heinrich: Article “Schickt Schiffe!” in: Die ZEIT v. 13th of January 2005
- Speckmann, Thomas: Höllenfahrt mit Porzellanfracht, in: FAZ of 24th of December 2003, S. 40ff., identicle article later as: Der Wolf und die sieben Geißlein – U 999 rettet deutsche Flüchtlinge, in: Issue 01/2005 of the museum´s magazine by the foundation “Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland”, Bonn 2005
Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart: List of U-boats which in early 1945 brought refugees across the Baltic Sea contrary to orders, see under www.wlb-stuttgart.de/seekrieg/ksp/ostsee/uboat-people.htm
Text: Peter Monte – Pictures: Deutsches U-Boot-Museum