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Reinhard Hardegen dies at the age of 105

The at this time oldest still living U-boat commander of the Kriegsmarine Reinhard Hardegen passed away peacefully on 9 June 2018 in his home in Bremen. The naval officer, merchant and politician became 105 years old. His big family, his circle of friends, political companions, former enemies and/or their relatives and submarine enthusiasts in the whole world mourn as well as the German U-boat Museum for this deserved and always cheerful man.

The Gorch Fock 1934 in the sea lock Wilhelmshaven

Reinhard Hardegen was born on 18 March 1913 in Bremen. His father was a teacher and died in World War I in 1915. After primary school he attended the Bremer Bremer Secondary School Am Barkhof. When Hardegen left school in March 1933, he not only had his Abitur in his pocket, but also his notice of conscription to the navy, which he entered only one month later. In Strahlsund he became a naval cadet on the sailing training ship Gorch Fock. If he hadn’t had to repeat a year at school once, he probably would have sailed on the Niobe that sank in 1932 in the Fehmarnbelt in a white squall and possibly would have even died. Of the then 109 crew – mainly sea cadets – of the Niobe only 40 could be rescued. After further practical on-board training on the world voyage of the light cruiser Karlsruhe, the obligatory officer training courses at the naval school in Flensburg-Mürwik followed.

When he completed his officer training and was promoted to Sub Lieutenant at the beginning of October 1935, Hardegen was commanded to the Luftwaffe seaplane training. At the flying schools Warnemünde and Parow he received first the observer and later the pilot training. In 1936 he was seriously injured in a crash, suffering a shortened leg and certain stomach problems as late consequences. After his recovery Hardegen resumed his service as a naval aviator and carried it out until he had himself transferred to the U-boat force at the beginning of November 1939. At this time Hardegen also married his great love Bärbel. After training courses at different U-boat schools and a short service period at the Torpedo Test Command in Kiel Hardegen received the six-week commander training at the 25th U-Flottille in Gdansk. Afterwards he became I WO and commander in training on the successful U 124 under KptLt. Georg-Wilhelm Schulz, with whom he undertook two successful war patrols. On 2 December 1940 Hardegen received a promotion to Lieutenant commander and his first own command, U 147 of type II D, with which he undertook a war patrol from Bergen into the sea area north of the British Isles, on which he could sink a ship from a convoy.

U 147 in a Kiel dry dock during the UAK acceptance trials in December 1940

On 16 May 1941, Hardegen was given command of the considerably larger U 123 of type IX B. His time as commander of this boat has been described many times, is a story in its own right and should therefore not be extended any further here. On five war patrols with 213 days at sea Hardegen sank 22 ships with 115.656 GRT and damaged five more according to the current figures. U 123 belonged to the first wave of German U-boats which operated on the US East Coast at the beginning of the year 1942 after the declaration of war of Germany to the USA and sank numerous ships. After this war patrol Hardegen was awarded the Knight’s Cross, for which he later was to receive the oak leaves from the hands of Adolf Hitler.

In mid 1942 Hardegen could no longer hide his health condition, which was still caused by the airplane crash in 1936 and which was supposed to make him unfit for service on board, and was transferred as a training officer to the 27th U-Flottille in Gotenhafen. The transfer from his U-boat obviously happened just in time. After he could perform his new duty only briefly, Hardegen had to be hospitalized with dangerous stomach bleedings, which probably could not have been treated properly on board his U-boat.

Reinhard Hardegen as Commander in 1944

With his promotion to Commander Hardegen became director of the U-boat training at the Torpedoschule in Flensburg-Mürwik on 1st March 1943. From October 1944 to February 1945, he held the post of a consultant at the Torpedo Weapons Office of the High Command of the Navy in Berlin. As Germany´s military situation became more and more critical at the beginning of 1945, Hardegen was transferred from his desk to the front. He became commander of a battalion of the Marine Grenadier Regiment 6 of the newly established 2nd Naval Infantry Division in Northern Germany. The unit, hastily assembled from available naval personnel, had practically no heavy weapons at all, but was equipped only with rifles and RPGs. From 5 April 1945 it was thrown into battle against advancing units of the 2nd British Army in the Weser-Aller area between Bremen and Hanover. By 21 April, after heavy fighting involving heavy losses, the unit had withdrawn to an area immediately south of Bremen and lost 10,000 of its original 13,000 men. Most of the officers in Hardegen’s battalion also were killed during these heavy battles, while according to his own accounts he only survived because he had to be taken to a hospital with diphtheria and was tied to his bed for several weeks. Two months after the surrender, the meanwhile recovered Hardegen was arrested and interned by the British. Because his last name was identical, he was considered to be Paul Hardegen, a member of the Waffen SS, and put in a camp for former SS members. 15 months later, with the help of newspaper articles sent by his wife Barbara, Hardegen succeeded in convincing his guards of his true identity. In November 1946, he was released from captivity.

When Hardegen was released and returned to Bremen, which had been destroyed to a great extent, he was completely destitute. But he had to take care of his wife Barbara and his two sons and one daughter, so that he had to find a job as soon as possible. He found his first job as a distributor in an office of the American aid organization CARE. Later he completed an apprenticeship as a wholesale agent and sold ship paints for a Danish company. In 1948 the Hardegen family grew again by one son. In 1952 Hardegen quit his secure position and founded his own company for mineral oils almost without financial means but with an unconditional will to perform. Hardegen then managed this flourishing company until he retired from business at the age of 70 in 1983.

Already in 1949 he was a founding member of the Bremen CDU and later from 1959-79 only with a short interruption a member of the Bremen parliament, the Bürgerschaft. Even before his time as a Member of Parliament, Hardegen was a member of the Deputation for Ports, Shipping and Transport, where he was particularly committed to the expansion of the quays in Bremerhaven. Hardegen was a member of this administrative committee that usually meets in public, for more than 30 years – an all-time record.

In the 1950s Hardegen was able to acquire a plot of land at a reasonable price in the village of Oberneuland and build a house on it. The cul-de-sac in which it was located was named Kapitän-König-Weg at his instigation to honour the commander of the merchant U-boat Deutschland in World War I, after a school originally named after him was renamed in the village.

Hardegen was a passionate golfer. He played a lot and regularly and was even able to win some trophies. He also kept fit by swimming and devoted himself to gardening.

After ending his active political career in 1982, Hardegen also retired from business at the age of 70. The retiree then had wanderlust. He navigated the infamous Northwest Passage by ship, travelled to over 100 countries and the North and South Poles. There he had to find out that he was only the second oldest person to visit the South Pole. An Englishman had previously been only a few months older during his visit. Through reports in marine and maritime newspapers Hardegen then shared his experiences with the general public.

Reinhard Hardegen on his 103rd birthday

Only with over 100 years Hardegen could finally bring himself to quit driving a car, his likewise age-old Mercedes with automatic transmission, which carried the number of his boat on the license plate. In his late years, Hardegen didn’t give any more interviews about U-boats, his pride was his family and his house anyway, as well as his entrepreneurial achievements. Although he admitted that as a successful and well-known U-boat commander he was probably more easily being introduced to important persons than normal people, nobody would have bought anything from him just because of his decorations.

If the schedule of Hardegen allowed it, he gladly took part together with his wife in the crew meetings of his U-boat U 123. Significantly by initiative of the former chief helmsman Walter Kaeding and Horst von Schroeter, Hardegen’s successor as commander of U 123, many crew members of the U-boat had reunited for the first time in Hamburg in November 1979. After their first meeting the crew met again together with the crews of U 2506, the type XXI boat, which von Schröter had taken over with a large part of the crew of U 123 in 1944 and from U 4713 of type XXIII, whose commander became Kaeding, almost in annual succession. Since the crew members came not only from whole Germany, but also from Austria, the meetings were held alternately in the north at the coast and rather more south in the inland. The seventh crew meeting in September 1991 was the first meeting that took place in Altenbruch at the U-boat Archive. Hardegen could not participate, since he was on a Greenland trip with his wife and was stuck in the pack ice. After in 1993 the crew of U 123 had met rotationally once in southern climes – in Kassel – they met again in Altenbruch in July 1995 for the ninth time. This time Hardegen was just at the North Pole. Only at the third meeting at the U-boat Archive – the meanwhile 13th of the Crew Community U 123U 2508U 4713 – in September 2002 the Hardegens could then participate. When the crews met again two years later in Altenbruch for their 15th meeting, Hardegen appeared for the first time alone for a crew meeting. His wife Bärbel had been seriously ill a few weeks earlier. About a month after this crew meeting, Hardegen’s beloved wife Bärbel died at the age of 89. They were married for 67 years.

Reinhard Hardegen at the U-Boat Archive in 1996

Hardegen visited the U-boat Archive not only in the course of crew meetings. In his almost legendary Mercedes he had it not far from Oberneuland to Altenbruch. After the death of Horst Bredow his wife Annemarie kept up the contact.