Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the German U-Boat Battles of World War II

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The attack had come without warning. Over one hundred of the ocean liner's thirteen hundred passengers perished. The Battle of the Atlantic —a deadly, six-year-long campaign—had begun. Throughout World War II, Great Britain relied on the Atlantic waterways as paths for receiving much-needed food, fuel, manpower, military supplies, and equipment to fight the Germans.

German forces sought to cut off these supply lines. U-boats German submarines were the key to Germany's early dominance in the Battle of the Atlantic : they could launch both surface and underwater attacks. The U-boat takes its name from the word unterseeboot , which is German for "submarine.

The convoy system—in which nonmilitary merchant boats sailed together in groups, protected by an armed navy escort—was used to keep war supplies flowing into the British Isles from the United States. It was the job of the submarines and battleships of the Kriegsmarine the German navy to destroy the convoys before they reached Great Britain. The Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing very early in the war. While patrolling the Atlantic for submarines in September of , the British aircraft carrier Courageous was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The Courageous exploded and sank, killing hundreds of British sailors.

More than eight hundred British sailors died. In addition to its submarines and standard battleships, the Kriegsmarine had two lightweight, high-speed "pocket battleships" in its arsenal. It sank nine merchant ships in the fall of But a punishing encounter with three British cruisers—the Exeter , the Ajax , and the Achilles —proved to be the Graf Spee 's undoing. Cruisers are smaller than battleships and very fast.

After taking shelter in a harbor in Uruguay a country in south east South America and assessing his chances for a successful escape, Graf Spee captain Hans Langsdorff destroyed his own ship with massive explosives to avoid capture by the British. The next night he committed suicide. He felt that the fighting power of the submarines would be unbeatable if the boats traveled in clusters. These so-called "wolf packs"—usually five or six U-boats working together to destroy the same convoy—began traveling together in the summer of and proved highly effective.

U-boats also worked in cooperation with German bomber aircraft, which scouted for enemy ships from the air. The Allied powers the countries fighting against Germany and its allies, called the Axis powers used air power for protection. A U-boat that was above water typically dived for cover whenever an aircraft approached. Once submerged, a U-boat was far less capable of detecting and tracking enemy ships. German battleships continued to play a key role in the Battle of the Atlantic throughout The British merchant cruiser Jervis Bay was escorting more than three dozen ships through the North Atlantic in November of when it encountered the German pocket battleship the Admiral Scheer.

The Jervis Bay took on the much larger and more heavily armed Scheer , giving the ships in the British convoy a chance to scatter and reach safety. The Jervis Bay was sunk, but the heroic action of her captain and crew saved thirty-two of the thirty-seven ships in the convoy from a similar fate. By the end of , the Germans had destroyed approximately one thousand British ships. The German navy dominated the Battle of the Atlantic in By midsummer American ships had joined in efforts to convoy merchant ships bound for Britain.

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Up until this point the United States had allowed its navy to serve only as a patroller of neutral waters. But in September U. Roosevelt declared that American naval convoys could and would attack German war vessels. This event marked America's first real loss in the Battle of the Atlantic.

May Mounting the bridge while the deck was still awash , I took a hurried look in a circle. Far to the northeast , mastheads and funnels moved along the sharp line which divided the ocean from the sky. U forged through the sea, parallel to the convoy's track, in an attempt to reach a forward position before dusk.

The moment of surprise was total. The boat reacted at once and shot below the surface. Four short, ferocious explosions shattered the water above and around us. The boat trembled and fell at a degree angle.

Iron Coffins : A Personal Account Of The German U-boat Battles Of World War II

Water splashed, steel shrieked, ribs moaned, valves blew, deck-plates jumped, and the boat was thrown into darkness. As the lights flickered on, I saw astonishment in the … eyes of the men. They had every right to be astounded: the attack out of the sun was a complete mystery. Where had the small plane come from? It did not have the range to fly a round-trip between the nearest point of land and the middle of the Atlantic. The conclusion was inescapable that the con voy launched its own airplanes… The idea of a convoy with its own air defense smashed our basic concept of U-boat warfare.

No longer could we mount a surprise attack or escape without meeting savage counterattacks.

A careful check with our "sky scope," an instrument similar to the periscope, revealed no aircraft. We surfaced at high speed.


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The hunt went on. We pressed forward obstinately… I glanced only occasionally at the …horizon and concentrated on the sky. It was a small aircraft, and it was diving into the attack. Fifty seconds later, four explosions nearby taught us that the pilot was a well-trained bombardier …. We drove forward and clung to the fringes of the convoy with grim determination ….

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U dived once more and descended rapidly. I bit my lip and waited for the final blast. At forty-five seconds, four booms whipped the boat with violent force. Every second we were able to snatch from the pursuing aircraft brought us closer to the convoy and success. Of U-boats launched were sunk, 'iron-coffins' to 28, men.

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Herbert Werner's graphic account of war waged from beneath the sea, of horror and cold, cruel death, is dedicated to the seamen of all nations who died in the Battle of the Atlantic. Hardcover , pages. Add a Rating. Close Embed Code. Copy and Paste the code below to your website or blog. Embed Code. Close Email to Friend. Free delivery worldwide.

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Popular Features. New Releases. Description The former German U-boat commander Herbert Werner navigates readers through the waters of World War II, recounting four years of the most significant and savage battles. By war's end, 28, out of 39, German sailors had disappeared beneath the waves.