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Günther Prien

Back to the Boat: The Norway Campaign

Fted by Goebbels' propaganda ministry and with his star ascending by the day, Prien was soon back on his boat, part of a growing elite group of U-boat commanders who continued to cause havoc for the Allied transporters, not to say the Allied leadership, with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself highlighting the threat of the U-boats on many an occasion. Among this number were names such as Otto Kretschmer (U-99), Herbert Schultze (U-48), and Joachim Schepke (U-100). Fresh from the receipt of his Ritterkreuz, Germany's most famous "Kaleun" and his crew set off once again for the familiar waters of the North Atlantic, putting out to sea on 16 November. On what was to be a gruelling patrol lasting just over a month, U-47 sunk three enemy vessels between 5 and 7 December - the British freighter Navasota, the Norwegian tanker M/S Britta, and the Netherlands-based Tajandoen. The latter two vessels were sunk mere miles off the English coast.

Earlier in this patrol on 28 November, Prien had attacked the British "London" class heavy cruiser Norfolk, following a signal from U-35 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Werner Lott. Prien carefully closed in on the Norfolk, firing a single torpedo which apparently struck the British vessel. The respective sides offered different views on what had happened: while the German propaganda ministry credited Prien with the Norfolk's destruction, the British claimed that no damage had been done. Prien returned to Kiel on 18 December, once again to a hero's welcome. The crew of Lott's U-35, however, were not so lucky, finding themselves on the receiving end of destroyer attacks on 29 November. All of the crew were successfully picked up, and were to spend a time incarcerated in the Tower of London before being transported to other POW camps in Britain and Canada.

A change in fortune: Disaster in Norway

1940 was to be a topsy-turvy year for Kapitänleutnant Prien and his crew, mainly due to the constant problems he and other U-boat skippers were experiencing with their torpedoes, in what soon became known as the Torpedo Crisis. Things began poorly, with U-47's first patrol of the year, its fourth in all, yielding only one victim during its nineteen days at sea, the Danish steamer Britta. Days went by with nary an enemy vessel to be seen, with the boredom only being broken by the periods in which U-47 found itself dodging enemy destroyers and their deadly depth charges. Having spent nineteen unproductive days at sea, Prien returned to base disappointed and disenchanted.

As far as the torpedo problem was concerned, things were to come to a head during the next (fifth) patrol during the Norwegian campaign, codenamed Operation Weserübung, where Prien and his colleagues were more often than not left watching salvo after salvo either explode prematurely or trickle harmlessly away from their intended targets. The misery felt by Prien and his crew was broken only by the good news that Prien's wife Ingeborg had given birth to a healthy baby girl on 7 April; with a dose of typically nautical humour, Dönitz had telegraphed Prien, announcing the arrival of a new "U-boat without a periscope" ("Ein U-boote ohne Sehrohr ist heute angekomen").

The Prien Family

Probably the brightest moment for Günther Prien during the disappointing campaign in Norway was the news of his wife Ingeborg giving birth to a daughter. This photograph of the happy family, signed by Prien, was probably taken during his period of home leave between U-47's fifth and sixth patrols.

Even with this wonderful news from back home, the happy father could only dwell on it for so long: the ongoing problems with the torpedoes, the incessant boredom and the constant threat of enemy vessels could not be placed at the back of his mind for long, and the reality of the situation bit hard. Ordered to take up a waiting position, the entire day was spent waiting in the depths as more than two dozen depth charges exploded above.

What was probably the most significant "incident" concerning the torpedoes took place late in the evening on 16 April at the Bydgenfjord near the port of Narvik; after having launched four torpedoes at short range at what was effectively a wall of stationary vessels, Prien witnessed all four devices fail to achieve any results. Undeterred, he reloaded the four bow tubes and ran in for a second attack, with the results almost identical. Worse still, one of the four "eels" strayed away and exploded harmlessly against the base of a cliff. If this were not bad enough, the U-boat ran aground on an unchartered sand bar and damaged an engine in freeing itself, a situation that could well have ended in disaster had the enemy vessels - among them two battle cruisers - been alerted to U-47's presence. In order to free the boat from the sand bank, a number of the crew found themselves having to charge up and down the length of the vessel to create enough movement to engineer an escape:

The whirring propellor churned a wake of froth astern. Still the U boat stuck fast.

Tramp-tramp to starboard - back again - and again! Doggedly the men pounded backwards and forwards on the exposed casing. Very gradually the boat began to rock. With each new effort the propellors thrashed deep whirlpools in the limpid fjord water astern, for'ard on either side of the boat the compressed air seethed and bubbled. At last, after minutes, with a scrunching groan and a heave the boat sprang free.

(Wolfgang Frank, Enemy Submarine)

As well as the not so simple matter of the dud torpedoes, the additional problem of the weapons exploding prematurely was to result in the loss of a number of U-boats, with Prien himself lucky to escape such a fate after a run-in with the British battleship Warspite a couple of days after the debacle at Bydgenfjord. At a range of around nine hundred yards, U-47 had fired twice at the battleship, with neither torpedo finding its mark - although one fired prematurely, alerting the circling enemy destroyers. Finding himself surrounded, Prien escaped by the skin of his teeth. By 19 April Prien had totally given up on his weapons - with a dismal record of ten duds from ten shots, he refrained from using his remaining four torpedoes on what would otherwise have been an inviting convoy on his homeward journey. With his engine already damaged, the risk of misfire and alerting the enemy to his position was far too great. Explaining his decision to Dönitz afterwards, Prien flatly commented the following day that he "could hardly be expected to fight with a dummy rifle". Prien was not one to mince his words - even when addressing a Konteradmiral.

The disastrous fourth and fifth patrols in early 1940 were without doubt the most unproductive part of Prien's highly successful career - U-47 had spent a total of forty-three days at sea, expending most of its torpedoes with the net return of a single enemy vessel. It was clear that something had to be done; had even half the torpedoes fired at Bydgenfjord worked properly, the victory in Norway would have been achieved far sooner, and Prien would have achieved a feat that might even have surpassed his exploits at Scapa Flow six months previously. This fact was not lost on Dönitz, who acknowledged the effort made by the man who had become one of his most respected U-boat commanders.

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