Battle of Atlantic , October - December 1941 , U-Boat campaign fizzles out in North Atlantic

By the beginning of October 1941 in North Atlantic , the luckless Brandenburg U-Boat pack had dissolved and a new pack, Mordbrenner, was in process of formation. Four new boats arriving from Germany were to serve as the cadre. They were to be augmented by four veteran boats sailing from France, including Ernst Mengersen in the VIIB U-101, which was to be retired to the Training Command. But Mengersen’s radio failed two days out from France and he was forced to abort to Lorient. Four boats returning to France in early October came upon single merchant ships and sank three.

• Horst Hamm in the new VIIC U-562 found the 7,500-ton British freighter Empire Wave, which had been fitted with a catapult and fighter. She had sailed westward in the storm-scattered convoy Outbound North 19. Hamm hit and sank her with two torpedoes. The crew launched two fifty-foot lifeboats; the port boat held sixteen men. Fifteen days later, an Iceland-based American Catalina flying boat found the port boat and later that day a British trawler rescued the sixteen men. The starboard boat was never found.

• Günther Heydemann in the new VIIC U-575 found a cluster of four ships, apparently stragglers from a storm-tossed convoy. He shot three torpedoes into the cluster, sinking the 4,700-ton Dutch freighter Tuva.

• Wilhelm Dommes in the U-431 sank the 3,200-ton British freighter Hatasu. While en route to join group Mordbrenner off Greenland, one of the four new U-boats from Germany, the IXC U-502, commanded by Jürgen von Rosenstiel, age twenty-eight, ran into a fat target sailing alone. She was the 15,000-ton Norwegian whale-factory ship Svend Foyn, converted to a tanker. Massively laden with 20,000 tons of oil and ten(!) dismantled B-24 Liberator bombers on her main deck, and 220 passengers, she had sailed with convoy Halifax 152, escorted by an American group. When the convoy ran into heavy weather on October 1, Svend Foyn’s cargo shifted, forcing her to heave to for several hours, and during that pause the convoy proceeded without her.

When von Rosenstiel in U-502 spotted Svend Foyn on the afternoon of October 7, he fired two torpedoes. One missed but the other hit the starboard side of the ship, blowing a hole in her plates seventy feet long and forty feet wide. When he surfaced U-502 three-quarters of a mile astern to assess the damage, Svend Foyn opened fire with her 4″ gun and machine guns, forcing the U-boat to dive and evade and forgo a second attack. Although the whale-factory ship was badly smashed up internally, the crew dumped 7,500 tons of oil and in a fine display of seamanship nursed the stricken vessel into Iceland six days later.

Upon learning that Svend Foyn had been torpedoed, the American escort commander commenced zigzagging the convoy, Halifax HX152, toward the MOMP, where a British escort group awaited. While so maneuvering at dusk, some ships of the convoy missed turn signals. As a result, the “convoy [became] completely broken up,” the escort commander wrote later. The ragtag group he turned over to the waiting British was not a pretty sight; however, all eventually reached their destinations.

At the same time, a British group likewise fouled up. It was the escort for the fast convoy Outbound North ON22. Sailing in heavy gale weather, the British had not been able to get a navigational fix on stars or the sun for three days. Relying only on dead reckoning, they arrived on October 7, but they were fifteen miles north of the rendezvous and the Americans could not find them. Most ships in this convoy sailed onward and dispersed, fortunately with no losses.

In the meantime, the German group Mordbrenner formed up on a line in the “Air Gap,” running southeasterly from Greenland. First came three of the four new boats from Germany. They were soon joined by Ritterkreuz holder Heinrich Bleichrodt in the IXB U-109 from France, who had yet to sink a ship in his four months in this new command. The next boats from France assigned to the pack, Karl Thurmann in U-553 and Joachim Preuss in U-568, lagged by four days. Another six boats from France, including Mengersen’s resailing U-101, were to join Mordbrenner at mid-month, bringing the total to thirteen boats.

The North Atlantic was crowded with convoys: three inbound to the British Isles and two outbound. Aware from Ultra that Mordbrenner was forming southeasterly from Greenland, Royal Navy Western Approaches Command in Derby Huse Liverpool , diverted all five convoys well to the south of the three boats of the cadre already on station. But the codebreakers at Bletchley Park “lost” naval Enigma on October 12 and 13 temporarily (though Bletchley Park continued to read German naval Enigma on 15th October), and the Admiralty’s U-boat Tracking Room was reduced to educated guesswork about the exact positions of the lagging fourth U-boat from Germany, U-502, and the eight boats en route from France to join the pack.

In the early hours of October 15, Thurmann in U-553 ran right into one of the five convoys. This was Slow Convoy SC48, which had sailed with fifty ships and a Canadian escort group composed of the ex-American four-stack destroyer HMCS Columbia and seven corvettes (five Canadian, one British, one Free French). Several days after sailing, the convoy had run into a storm; about eleven merchant ships were straggling. One Canadian corvette, HMCS Shediac, whose radio was not properly tuned, had separated and was lost. HMCS Columbia and two other corvettes were attempting to round up the stragglers, leaving only four corvettes with the main body of the convoy.

Thurmann in U-553 got off a contact report and attacked. He missed his main targets, but claimed his torpedoes sank two ships for 11,000 tons and possibly a third of 4,000 tons. He was credited in postwar records with sinking two ships for 6,000 tons. Upon receiving Thurmann’s report, Dönitz directed him to shadow and brought up nine other boats—the new U-502 from Germany and the eight veteran boats en route to Greenland from France—to expand Mordbrenner.

While Thurmann shadowed during October 15 and the nine other boats homed on his beacon, British codebreakers recovered naval Enigma. They saw that a major U-boat attack against Slow Convoy SC48 was developing. In reaction, RAF Coastal Command launched Catalina flying boats from Iceland and directed numerous American and British surface ships nearby—including escorts of other nonthreatened convoys—to reinforce the Canadian escort group. Meanwhile, the destroyer HMCS Columbia and the two corvettes with her returned to the convoy. In the late afternoon, HMCS Columbia saw and attacked U-553. Thurmann responded by shooting torpedoes at HMCS Columbia, but he missed.

That night several boats closed on Thurmann’s beacon signals. On the way in, Günther Krech in U-558, a onetime Luftwaffe pilot who had served as first watch officer on Schepke’s famous U-100, found and sank the 9,500-ton Canadian freighter Vancouver Island (ex-German Weser), which was sailing alone. Joachim Preuss in U-568, making contact with the convoy itself, sank a 6,000-ton British freighter. The crack British corvette HMS Gladiolus, credited with full or part credit for two U-boat kills (U-26, U-556), counterattacked and drove Preuss off. The surface reinforcements arrived on October 16. First came five American destroyers which had escorted Halifax 151 to the MOMP and were returning to Canada with the fast convoy Outbound North ON24. Next came two British destroyers from eastbound Troop Convoy 14. Last came two of six British corvettes from the slow convoy Outbound North ON25, and a Free French corvette from Iceland. Total escorts, including the scattered Canadian group: eighteen (eight destroyers, ten corvettes), by far the strongest protection ever provided a North Atlantic convoy.

The senior officer in the escort force, the US Navy captain Leo H. Thebaud, commander of Destroyer Squadron 13, assumed tactical control. He was not overly pleased with some of the American skippers and vessels in his outfit. Of the five new destroyers that had so far reported for duty, he wrote later, only one had been properly worked up, only one had ever fired her main battery, and some had not even fired machine guns. Four of his skippers had considerable seniority and rank but no destroyer experience and according to Captain Thebaud “their ship handling and confidence in command were certainly far from an inspiration to ships companies. These were being sent to sea in that condition on escort duty in North Atlantic winter to pit their ignorance and lack of skill against enemy submarines experienced from two years of warfare”

The gathering U-Boats struck at SC48 after darkness set in , on the night of October 16-17. Thurmann on U-553 expanded all ogf his torpedoes managed to sink only one 6.600 ton freighter. Gunther Kerch on U-553 sank two tankers and freighter. Heinz Otto Schulze in U-432 sank 9.700 ton Norwegian tanker Barfonn (which blew apart with a collossal explosion) and a Greek freighter. In this chaos , inexperienced US escorts ran back and forth , hurling depth charges and firing star shells. A torpedo from U-432 hit gallant British corvette HMS Gladious which sank with all hands. Meanwhile U-568 deliberately fired a torpedo and hit a hostile destroyer which had stopped near dead to prevent a collision with another ship.

This destroyer was new American destroyer USS Kearny. The torpedo hit starboard side , killing eleven men and injuring twenty two more-first US casaulties of the war-causing immense damage. Her crew was able to control the damage and USS Greer managed to escort damaged USS Kearny to Iceland where she was repaired.

Next day British Escort Group with four destroyers and three corvettes arrived to accompany the convoy and several RAF Catalina flying boats from Iceland arrived to provide aircover as well. The U-Boats hung on , trying to dodge aircraft but couldn’t penetrate escort screen anymore and eventually had to retreat. Though before puling out Ernst Mengersen’s U-101 torpedoed and damaged ex-American four stack destroyer HMS Broadwater and sunk her. Total damage to Slow Convoy SC 48 had been : nine of the fifty one merchant ships for 51.000 ton was definetely sunk. Plus corvette HMS Gladious and destroyer HMS Broadwater were sunk and American destroyer USS Kearny damaged.

President Roosevelt seized upon USS Kearny incident to build public support for his decision to escortt North Atlantic convoys and for repeal of Netrality Act. On a bellicose Navy Day speech on 27th October he said “shooting has started” and “history recorded who fired first shot”

In the days following the attack on Slow Convoy SC 48 , Donitz formed three U-Boat pack groups with 20 submarines in North Atlantic during rest of October 1941. All three of them failed though

MORDBRENNER : Never fully formed , this pack of four new U-Boats placed south of Greenland and it achieved very little. Eventually Donitz decided to shift this U-Boat pack towards west to scout and attack convoys from Newfoundland. British codebreakers reading German naval Enigma traffic though , figurted out shift of Mordbenner pack towards Canadian waters and British Admiralty warned Royal Canadian Navy in time to reroute their convoys away from German U-Boat patrol zones and to increase antisubmarine naval and air patrols. On 3rd November 1941 three U-Boats (U-202 , U-203 , U-569) from this pack formed a new group Raubritter that intercepted Slow Convoy SC 52 off Newfoundland and sunk five merchant ships totalling 20.500 tons and then convoy was aborted and retreated back to Newfoundland to join up other Slow Convoys. Remaining convoys in the region were rerouted by Royal Canadian Navy thanks ULTRA intelligence provided by Royal Navy. U-boats in this group sunk five more single sailing ships in the area , then returned back to France in mid November.

REISSWOLF : Composed of eight U-Boats , this group replaced Mordbrenner pack patrol line in south of Greenland. However British codebreakers again decrypting German naval Enigma radio traffic rerouted the convoys away from their patrol area so they came back to France empty handed.

SCHLAGETOD : Composed of nine U-Boats sailing from France , this U-Boat pack ordered to extend Reisswolf patrol line to 200 miles south. On 20th October , one of the submarines from this pack U-84 discovered a group of five ships and two escorts and began to follow them and reported their location to BdU headquarters in Kerneval. U-84 tried a night attack but none of her torpedoes hit the targets. According to her reports , Reinhardt Hardegen’s U-123 caught this group of ships , torpedoed and damaged 14.000 ton White Star liner SS Aurania. Hardegen reported to have her sunk but SS Aurania was actualy non fatally damaged but managed to escape.

Hardegen’s U-123 returned to his original patrol area south of Greenland and on 21st October , she discovered convoy Sierra Leone SL 89 , consisted 20 big merchant vessels , escorted by three destroyers and three corvettes as well as covered by RAF Coastal Command Catalina flying boats. While Hardegen was sending a contact report via radio , a RAF Catalina flying boat spotted U-123 , atacked her by dropping four depth charges. These missed and did not damage U-Boat seriously but three escort vessels from convoy came up and forced U-123 to submerge and lose the convoy. Based upon his report U-82 from Schlagedot pack caught up with convoy and sunk two freighters. But next day on 22 October , RAF Coastal Command saturated the area with aircraft. The presence of very heavy air cover and naval escorts persuaded U-Boat captains and Donitz to call off the pursuit.


The new group Stosstrupp, which was to patrol southeast of Greenland replacing Reisswolf, was to consist initially of eight U-boats : three on maiden patrols from Germany; two left over from Reisswolf group and three U-Boats newly sailed from France. Group Strosstrupp was stillborn. Upon arriving at his assigned gridzone on 31 October 1941 , Erich Topp’s U-552 sighted a fast eastbound HX156 convoy composed of fourty four merchant ships escorted by five US destroyers. Topp simulteniously attacked one of the destroyers and got off a contact report.

Topp’s target was four stack American destroyer USS Reubens James , commanded by Captain Heywood Edwards. One of the two torpedoes launched by U-552 split old US destroyer into half. Bow section of USS Reubens James blew apart , aft stayed aloat for ten more minutes. Other US destroyers picked up 45 men from sea leaving Captain Edwards and 115 men unaccounted for. This was the first USN ship deliberately attacked and sunk in WWII.The loss caused a profound shock in US. US Navy Chief of Operatiıns Harold Stark declared : “Whether country knows it or not , we are at war” The folksinger Woodie Guthrie memorialised the sinking with a ballad. President Rossevelt seized upon the loss to build further support for his intervention in Atlantic and Congress passed several amendments to Neutrality Act in November including arming US merchant ships , that satisfied Rossevelt.

Meanwhile on 31 October - 1 November , U-96 and U-576 also intercepted the HX 156 convoy but all of their torpedo atacks missed the targets. On 1st November , a British Escort Group arrived to take over the escort duty from Americans and after that British air patrols and escort vessels thwarted all U-Boat attacks on HX 156 convoy.

In the early days of November 1941 , OKM in Berlin issued orders that in effect shut down U-Boat operations in North Atlantic.

-Eight U-Boats were to support sortie of pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in mid November (which was aborted later due to bitter memoirs of what happened to Bismarck , Hitler assumed German nation couldn’t handle another naval defeat like that and cancelled the sortie)

-Six U-Boats were to escort prize ships , surface merchant raiders or blockade runners

-Six more U-Boats would be transferred to western Mediterranean to thwart a rumored British landing on Algeria (which never happened)

-Eight U-Boats to be transferred to Northern Norway to patrol in Arctic Ocean against Allied covoys to Russia (which they mostly failed , not a single merchant ship to Russian ports was sunkl in Arctic Ocean during 1941 , the region was too vast to patrol with just eight U-Boats)

Donitz objected all these orders but in vain. After sortie of Admiral Scheer was cancelled (she was sent to Norwegian waters since Hitler was also worried an Allied landing there) , all remaining available U-Boats were ordered to Mediterranean Sea and west of Gibraltar and West African coast to support the land warfare in North Africa by a new order from Berlin on 13th November 1941. This order shut down all U-Boat operations in North Atlantic till 1942 summer.



During October 1941 , over 900 Allied merchant ships in 21 convoys crossed North Atlantic east and west. U-Boat were able to mount a serios attack on only one , Slow Convoy SC48 , from which nine ships total of 51.000 tons out of fifty was sunk plus destruction of two British escorts , corvette HMS Gladious and four stack destroyer HMS Broadwater and severely damaged American destroyer USS Kearny. In addition Erich Topp from U-552 sank American destroyer USS Reubens James from convoy HX156. Five other U-Boats sank five more single sailing merchant ships , bringing total sinkings two seventeen ships. That’s it.

In November 1941 , U-Boat campaign in North Atlantic sputtered out complately. About 850 Allied merchant ships crossed east and west. Only one convoy was attacked , Slow Convoy SC52 , U-Boats sunk five ships from this convoy and forced it to abort and return to port but these vessels later sailed with next convoys without encountering any problem. Two stragglers from Slow Convoy SC53 were also sunk , bringing the total merchant losses to seven ships totalling 29.000 tons. In addition two single sailing merchants , totalling 12.000 tons sunk. There were no further Allied losses.

In December 1941 , story of North Atlantic run was much the same in November. About 815 merchant vessels crossed Atlantic east and west in appalling weather. Ernest Kals in U-130 discovered and attacked Slow Convoy SC57 and sunk three merchant ships totalling 15.000 tons close to British isles. Arendt Baumann in U-131 sunk a 4.000 ton freighter from convoy HX166. No other convoys were attacked and no single sailing merchant ships hit.

The U-Boat campaign in North Atlantic during last third of 1941 was a flop , an unheralded victory for Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine and a grim setback for German Navy. During this period , about 3.700 ships in eighty convoys crossed North Atlantic back and forth. U-Boats were able to mount notable attacks only on four of these eighty convoy. All these attacked convoys were Slow , escorted by new , green , ill equipped Canadian or US escort groups : SC42 , 44 , 48 and 52. German U-Boats sunk fourty two merchant ships from these convoys totalling 173.800 tons. Plus twelve independent sailing merchant vessels or stragglers from convoys totalling 60.000 ton was sunk as well as four escort ships HMS Levis , HMS Gladious , HMS Broadwater and USS Reubens James. For all the efforts this was a shockingly low return for U-Boats