U 2511 and the myths around the feint attack on HMS Norfolk
Beginning in the 1950ies and 1960ies in popular-science books about the U-boat war 1939-1945, written by German authors such as Wolfgang Frank, Harald Busch, Jochen Brenneke or Cajus Bekker as well as in articles in periodicals and newspapers, almost identical reports were published about an alleged simulated attack of the Kriegsmarine type XXI U-boat U 2511 under Commander Adalbert Schnee at the British cruiser HMS Norfolk as command ship of a Royal Navy task group at the end of the war 1945, probably in the early morning of the 05 May 1945 in sea areas north or northwest of the Shetland Islands. Even well respected Naval historic publications such as Roskill´s “The War at Sea” or Rohwer/ Hümmelchen´s “Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-45” repeated the report almost unchanged.
The term “feint attack” is used, because the German Naval High Command had given order shortly before, i.e. at the afternoon of the 04 May, to all U-boats at sea to seize hostilities, to which U 2511 complied with as soon as the order was received via R/T. Since, the simulated attack has been repeatedly used as a proof for the combat effectiveness of the new type XXI U-boat, and given room to speculation about a late but nevertheless still possible “turning point” in the war at sea, that was already in its 6th year.
When researching it makes very much sense to look at the timeline of the genesis of this simulated attack. First stories of the simulated attack can be found in popular science literature of the 1950ies. Why did they come up, they have to come from some testimonies? One of the authors (Wolfgang Frank in: Die Wölfe und der Admiral) is said to have been even an eyewitness. Presentation of the simulated attack provided by more serious Naval historic writing starts in 1961 through an essay by the former U-boat officer, Commander (rtd.) Günter Hessler, who served as Staff Officer 1 at the Operations Division of the U-boat High Command (BdU) at the end of the war.
Although, the study was classified for some time and not released to the public before 1989. Also, serious writing can be found in Roskill´s British standard work “The War at Sea” (see Volume III, part II, pg. 302) from 1961, and in 1968 at the German side in Rohwer/ Hümmelchen´s “Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-1945” (see pg. 554). Still in 1981, Günter Böddeker repeats the story of the simulated attack in his book “Die Boote im Netz” (see pg. 363). It seems, that in both, popular science books and serious historic publications, all stories written about the simulated attack have taken on the early claim of the attack rather uncritical, as it were a clear fact. The decisive eye witness of the attack, the Commanding Officer of U 2511, published his memories not before 1964.
It was 1998, when a thorough analysis of the alleged simulated attack by U 2511 at HMS Norfolk was published by the Naval historian Axel Niestlé. For a first time, he was able to study files, records and documents, many of those being released to the public after the usual ban as classified material. Therefore, he was in a much better position to produce a comprehensive presentation and evaluation of the encounter of a German type XXI U-boat with a British task group around a cruiser in early May 1945, an event, that has been taken for granted until then. Based on good evidence, Niestlé challenges all statements given with regard to the events and concludes, that, to rather certainty, there has never been such a simulated attack by U 2511 at HMS Norfolk. In particular, since the provable positions of both vessels, as well as the once more recalculated movements of the U-boat and the cruiser described by eye witnesses and authors of popular science books, would exclude any probability of such encounter. Niestlé further says, that even other formations or individual units of the Royal Navy apart from the HMS Norfolk task group could never have been in the sea areas of the alleged simulated attack.
An additional argument by Niestlé to question the statements of Schnee and others is the proven “generosity” of the Knight´s Cross recipient Schnee with regard to his accounts of his sinkings as Commanding Officer during more than 10 combat patrols with U 6, U 60 and U 201, which had to be corrected later by more than 50 % down. Hence, over decades and largely unchallenged myths have lasted, not only about a alleged simulated attack at a British cruiser by a novel German U-boat during the last days of war, but also, deduced from that, a “turning point” in the U-boat war by means of the new type XXIs, although at last moment, but still possible. And, at least the story of the simulated attack has never been challenged seriously. Niestlé´s findings led to some letters to the editor. In January 1999, Rear Admiral (rtd.) Erich Topp, refused to talk bad about Schnee. He was not only a fellow crew member (= joined the Navy at the same time) of Schnee, but also headed the Kriegsmarine U-boat Test and Evaluation Command and commanded the type XXI U-boat U 2513.
However, he raised some doubts about some of Schnee´s memories on the details of the simulated attack, and he negated any last moment “turning point” in the war at sea through the introduction of the type XXIs. There is not very much more, that could be observed in response of Niestlé´s arcticle until now, except at later times some relating comments on U 2511 in a few chat fora in internet domains with Naval or military history focus. After Lawrence Paterson in his book about the fate of German U-boats at the and post the end of war in May 1945 even in 2009 takes on the story of the simulated attack by U 2511 obviously without any new research, it is only Dieter Hartwig in 2010 in his book about Grand Admiral Dönitz, who refers to Niestlé´s findings, to then examine the thesis of the late “turning point” in the U-boat war (Hartwig´s chapter on that: “Illusions about a final victory with new boats”).
By and large, the traditional early claims with regard to the simulated attack by “U-2511” still stand opposing to the more recent findings of Niestlé, and further Naval historical scientific research has not been initiated since. Whereas the myth about the late, but still possible “turning point” by the introduction of the type XXI U-boats has been cleared and negated once and for all through serious examinations of the war at sea, the myth about the simulated attack seems to enjoy a healthy life, and there are hardly any corrections to be observed since 1998 as to the allegation in those early publications.
Where are we now with our knowledge more than 10 years after Niestlé? As we see, apart from a few excep-tions there have been no serious attempts since 1998 to put new light on the events around U 2511 during the last days of the war at sea. Possible eye witnesses cannot be asked any longer (also Schnee died in 1982), and the interviews of the last veterans, like Niestlé did during his research, did not lead to anything different to the original statements by Schnee and others. Often, they raised additional irritations with regard to exact dates and hours and details in the run of events around the simulated attack. Even the U-boat archive hasn´t got any newer documents, which might support Niestlé´s conclusions – or simply defeat it through clear evidence.
The latest document we hold contains the memories of the former second engineering officer of U 2511, Heinrich Knappmann, from February 1999. He at least states, that according to his memory the alleged eye witness Wolfgang Frank (allegedly, he has been on board U 2511 during the last combat patrol as military war correspondent) disembarked prior the last departure of U 2511, which puts some typical light at the credibility of Wolfgang Frank with regard to his story in his book, where he narrates the events during the simulated attack in such detail, as if he has been present on board himself. On the other hand, Knappmann confirms the simulated attack, but contradicts Schnee´s statement from 1964 about the presence of HMS Norfolk at Bergen when U 2511 entered after its return from the last patrol with the simulated attack. Besides, he rates Schnee as being a credible, responsible and unselfish officer, why he refuses to let pass any general doubts.
Since there is no war diary from U 2511 at hand for further research, same as offi-cial British documents do not make anything of value, such as subsequent evaluations of operations at sea or the war diary of HMS Norfolk and other units of the accompanying task group, also, obviously no minutes of the interrogation of Schnee on board HMS Norfolk after his return with U 2511 exist, the last resort is laborious reconstruction of events, as Niestlé did so thoroughly. Naturally, the key eye witness is Adalbert Schnee himself. However, as we know better from today´s findings (Niestlé and others) his article of 1964 based on his personal memories becomes so incorrect with regard to dates and hours, that doubts could well be raised about the other details of his story.
For example, Schnee dates the departure from Bergen on the 30 April 1945 and the return on the 05 May 1945, both inexact as we know today. It becomes even more difficult to believe in Schnee, when he claims, that HMS Norfolk was in harbor at Bergen at his arrival with U 2511 on the 05 May 1945, and that he was taken on board HMS Norfolk for interrogation straight away. On the 05 May 1945, HMS Norfolk has been at sea north and west of the Shetland Islands bound for the Royal Navy´s base at Scapa Flow, as can be proven. The cruiser entered Bergen not earlier than the 15 May 1945, which is documented by the logs of HMS Norfolk and the units in company, also by media reports and many photographs. On the other hand, Schnee clearly had brought along some experiences about an encounter with HMS Norfolk, as he thought, and other units of the formation, when he entered Bergen. Certainly, he could not have dreamed it up on the basis of free imagination, maybe there was simply a sighting of a different kind of vessel erroneously identified as being HMS Norfolk.
Moreover, he was never alone on board, of course, why he could not dream up so easily his later story of a simulated attack – and, a conspiracy among the crew relating to the simulated attack would mean a rather incongruous allegation. Nevertheless, the story confirms the well known problem of memories from eye witnes-ses and the use of their narrations as a basis for historic research. With all due respect for Schnee´s uprightness, he is just another of those examples we meet so often, which makes any work of historians and their strive for facts so difficult, as it is a key principle also of the U-boat archive when responding to requests for information. When even historians of high reputation take over wrong statements without challenging them prior or, even worse, simply crib from one another, these statements tend to develop into commonly accepted historic facts, like the alleged simulated attack by U 2511 at HMS Norfolk. Then, it becomes extremely difficult, to come forward with challenging questions. Niestlé deserves much recognition for that. However, not much could be observed yet, that his article has led to some subsequent re-examination of the myth about U 2511´s simulated attack.
Supposedly, it will never be clarified entirely, what happened during the last patrol of U 2511. Obviously, its war diary does not exist any longer, the relevant log books of the Royal Navy, as well as later evaluations of British operations during the war at sea do not reveal any contacts to a German U-boat at the time in question. The statements of German eye witnesses are marked by errors, and are, here and there, contradictory or even unlikely. At best, they might simply be caused by some mistaken identity of a target at sea.
At worst, they can be considered wishful thinking. Any record of an alleged interro-gation of the Commanding Officer of U 2511 by a special team on board HMS Norfolk at Bergen is missing at all, if ever such interrogation has occurred, since usually detailed minutes were taken during such interrogation. Nevertheless: Even eye witnesses should not flatly be refused some due honesty and truthfulness. An assessment obviously striving for attention, which degrades Adalbert Schnee as a Commanding Officer “craving for recognition” (above all: the Chief Historian of the Second German TV, Guido Knopp), should be rejected less than ever.
De facto, a reconstruction of the movements by U 2511 and HMS Norfolk on the basis of documents and statements is possible through many projections and assumptions only. Generally, they rather seem to prove an impossibility of any encounter between U 2511 and HMS Norfolk. Probable motives behind that story of the simulated attack by U 2511 at HMS Norfolk keeping alive so persistent range from the possible will to use the alleged tactical superiority of the type XXI U-boat proven during the last days of war as an argument to support the thesis of generating a “turning point” in the war at sea by means of the new “Electric” U-boats, to the understandable personal pride of a successful U-boat commander of his last masterly achievement with a new boat. Without any doubt, the type XXI U-boats, like U 2511, were a significant technological progress in U-boat design, and they offered an application of combat procedures in U-boat employment not known so far. Since they reached an acceptable combat readiness so late, they have never seen combat action in the war at sea. Consequently, there has never been a substantiated proof in combat of their anticipated new tactical abilities.
In all, the myth about the late, but still possible “turning point” in the war at sea through the type XXIs (and the Type XXIIIs as well) can clearly be rejected. In contrast, the myth about the simulated attack by U 2511 at HMS Norfolk certainly can be challenged by good arguments, but the statements of eye witnesses, on the other hand, should not be done away flatly as “fiction”. Hence, both extremes are wrong in any assessment: Unrestricted maintenance of the myth about the simulated attack same as outright dismissal. Based on all facts available, statements by eye witnesses included with due caution, anyone is advised to decide for himself then, how he wants to classify the alleged simulated attack by U 2511 at HMS Norfolk.
- Bekker; Cajus: Kampf und Untergang der Deutschen Kriegsmarine, Hannover 1953
Busch, Harald: So war der U-Bootkrieg, Gütersloh 1952
Frank, Wolfgang: Die Wölfe und der Admiral, Oldenburg i.H/ Hamburg, 1953
- Hessler, Günter: The German U-boat War in the Atlantic 1939-1945, veröffentlicht durch MoD UK, London, 1989.
- Knopp, Guido: History – Geheimnisse des 20. Jahrhunderts, Gütersloh 2002.
- Niestlé, Axel: Der Fronteinsatz des U-Bootes U-2511, in: Marineforum 12-1998, Schnee, Adalbert: Die erste und letzte Feindfahrt von U-2511, in: MOH-Nachrichten 3-1964
- Paterson, Lawrence: Black Flag – Surrender of Germany´s Uboot Forces, Minneapolis und Barnsley 2009.
Text and Pictures: Deutsches U-Boot-Museum