3/8/1941 - In what will be a huge blow to German war morale, while patrolling the waters west of Ireland, Captain Gunther Prien and his sub, U-47, victors of over 30 encounters with Allied shipping, vanish after attacking Convoy OB-293 and are never seen again.
Born in Osterfeld, Germany, the son of a judge, Prien somehow gets salt water in his veins at an early age, joins the Handelsmarine (the German Merchant Navy) and takes to the ocean in 1923 as a cabin boy on the three-masted sailing ship, Hamburg. From his initial journey over the waves, Prien steadily advances in rank, but the Depression puts him ashore, and seeking a door to open on any kind of employment, he joins the National Socialist Party (the Nazis for those not up to speed on your WWII history) in 1932, and finding out the Navy is trying to fill its ranks with Merchant Navy officers, he enlists in the Reichsmarine in 1933 at the rank of ordinary sailor ... he does not stay there long. Putting in for submarine duty, Prien goes to the underwater school for submariners in Kiel, Germany (a candidate goes through 66 simulated surface and 66 simulated underwater attacks before firing their first live torpedo). During the Spanish Civil War he is aboard U-26 for two patrols. Experience readied (Prien also finds time to fall in love, get married to his sweetheart Ingeborg, and have two daughters, Birgit and Dagmar) he is made the commander of the new Type VIIB submarine, U-47, in 1938.
Model Of The U-47
Model From Above
The Real Thing - 1939 - The Battleship Scharnhorst Behind
Built in Kiel, Germany, the U-47 has its keel laid in 1937, is launched in October of 1938, and is commissioned on 12/17/1938. The submarine displaces 741 tons on the surface (and 843 tons submerged), her length is 218 feet and 2 inches (within is a pressure hull 160 feet and 1 inch in length), at her beam she is 20 feet and 4 inches, her draught is 15 feet and 7 inches, she can be powered by two diesel engines or a system of electric batteries, her range is 8,700 nautical miles, her speed is 17.7 knots surfaced and 7.6 knots submerged, and she can dive to 750 feet below the Atlantic. Aboard, the submarine has 4 officers and from 40 to 56 enlisted crew to fight the ship ... fighting with 14 torpedoes fired from 5 tubes (4 in the bow and 1 in the stern), a 3.46 inch deck gun, and one anti-aircraft gun. Gunther Prien will be the only commander the U-47 will ever know.
Conning Tower & Deck Gun
More Prien Artwork
Already at sea when WWII starts on 9/1/1939 with the German invasion of Poland, Prien becomes the second German captain to send a British ship to the bottom when he sinks the "Bosnia" on 9/5/1939. Intelligent and aggressive, on his return to Germany he is asked to personally volunteer himself, his men, and his boat for a dangerous mission to England by the commander of Germany's U-boat forces, Commodore Karl Donitz. The mission, Special Operation P, will be an attempt to penetrate the seemingly impregnable British naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. Which is exactly what Prien does on his second cruise of the war! Braving shallow water, unknown shoals, tricky currents, blocking vessels, anti-submarine booms, and thousands of British seamen, under the play of the Northern Lights above, the U-47 is able to get into the harbor (cables are brushed several times, and for a brief time the sub is caught on a sand bar) and line up on the best target available, a large shadow that is the silhouette of the battleship, HMS Royal Oak (a huge WWI dreadnought left in port because she can not keep up with a patrol of quicker, newer ships ... her crew of 909 sailors is headed by Rear Admiral Henry Blagrove). Firing twice at the ship. four torpedoes score hits that put the battleship on the bottom of the harbor in less than 15 minutes ... and take the lives of 833 men, including Rear Admiral Blagrove's. Mission accomplished (returning to base, Watch Officer Engelbert Endrass will paint a snorting bull on the conning tower of the U-47, and Prien will henceforth be known in the German navy as "The Bull of Scapa Flow"), Prien and his men are then amazed that they are able to slip back out of the base without being seen (unaware of the cause of the explosions, believing no enemy ship could enter the area undetected, the British do not go submarine searching until the U-47 is already back in the open seas of the Atlantic). The sinking is a major black eye for the British that almost costs Churchill his new job as First Lord of the Admiralty!
Men Of The HMS Royal Oak
Sinking Of The HMS Royal Oak
Artist's Depiction - On The Bottom
Celebrating U-47's Success & Return To Kiel
Hitler Rewarding Prien
Heroes upon their return to Germany, Prien is the first U-boat commander to receive the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves of the war, and in what will be known as the "Happy Times" of submarine warfare (before the superiority of the Allies' sonar, radar, long range bombers, Liberty ships, and convoy tactics kick in), in the first 18 months of the war, he and his men will sink 30 commercial ships and one war ship (the doomed HMS Royal Oak), while damaging 9 other vessels. In the North Atlantic in 1941, Prien's death signals the end of Germany's "Happy Times" under the sea ("die gluckliche Zeit").
U-47 Crew After Scapa Flow
With 45 men aboard, in March of 1941, the U-47 leaves Lorient, France on its 10th, and last, patrol of the war. Aggressive as ever, Prien soon sights convoy OB-293 in the North Atlantic, 37 west-bound ships out of Liverpool, protected by two destroyers, HMS Wolverine and HMS Verity, and two corvettes, HMS Arbutus and HMS Camellia. More ships than his 14 torpedoes can handle, Prien calls for wolfpack help, and is soon joined by three other U-boats ... on the evening of 3/6-3/7 the wolfpack attacks and three Allied ships are sunk (Prien receives partial credit for putting the whale factory ship Terje Viken on the bottom) and another two are severely damaged. The response of the escorts however prevents further victories ... working in concert with each other, the convoy defenders in the next five hours drop over 100 depth charges on the German subs, forcing U-99 out of the area, sinking U-70, and wounding the U-A ... only Prien avoids the attacks ... at first. Stalking the convoy, seeking an advantageous firing point from behind a screen of wind and rain, Prien suddenly goes from hunter to prey when the wind unexpectedly shifts and the U-47 is exposed to the four defenders of OB-293. Crash dive immediate, the U-47 is soon tag-team depth charged by the Wolverine and Verity ... for over 4 hours. Finally, at 5:43 in the morning Prien's and the U-47's luck runs out ... after a sonar contact directly below and a full salvo of explosives launched, British sailors see a large orange flash underwater that is followed by a massive explosion that sends up a huge column of water. Gone ... the U-47 and her crew vanishes ... never to be heard from or seen again (and no wreckage is ever found).
Horrified when the U-47 fails to report in, Hitler and his military command will keep the loss of Prien a secret from the German public for 10 weeks (even his wife is not told of Prien's supposed death) ... only letting out the news after British bombers drop leaflets over the country asking, "Wo ist Prien?" ("Where is Prien?") and Churchill announces the death in a speech to the House of Commons. Happy Times over (in the week that follows Prien's death, the Germany submarine force also loses U-boat aces Otto Kretschmer <47 ships sunk> and Joachim Schepke <36 ships sunk> ... both 29-years-old, Kretschmer is captured and Schepke is killed), by war's end, 793 U-boats will be sunk by the Allies, a disaster for the German military that costs the lives of 28,000 submariners (a casualty rate of 75%, the highest of any German service during WWII).
Kretschmer & Schepke
3/8/1941 ... German war hero Gunther Prien dies a submariner's death, going to Davy Jones' Locker with the men of his command at the age of only 33.
U-Boat By Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau
U-47 Conning Tower Bull & Prien
The U-47 Goes On Patrol