Treatment of Merchant Ship Survivors by U-boat Crews 1939 - 1945

by Ken Dunn

In general the treatment of merchant ship survivors by U-boat crews was very good. It was perhaps even better than the treatment of enemy merchant ship survivors by American submarines.

It has been a common misconception by many including some in Germany that during World War II U-boats machine-gunned survivors of the ships they sunk. There have been allegations that they machine-gunned the lifeboats to make them unusable to escape in, that they machine-gunned lifeboats as the men were getting in them and as they were being lowered, and that men were machine-gunned while in the water. These stories were however, rarely reported for the record at the time by the crews of ships sunk or damaged by U-boats. The questions were asked when the survivors were debriefed though and the answers were over and over again, "No we were not fired on in the lifeboats or in the water". On the contrary, the official records are full of stories about U-boat crews giving survivors directions to land or giving them medical care etc. The machine-gunning stories have however crept into a large number of books, magazines, movies and newspaper articles, etc.

As recently as April 21, 2000 a U-boat machine-gunning men in a lifeboat was depicted in the movie U-571. The movie wasn't true and neither was the scene containing the machine-gunning but many still believed it.

It is quite easy to see why so many still believe those stories. The Third Reich committed some horrendous atrocities during that war and as a result way too many folks are willing to believe any story about the German war machine without the slightest question and without any investigation at all.

However, the stories of U-boats machine-gunning survivors are simply not accurate. There was only one proven case of a U-boat intentionally machine-gunning survivors during the whole war. It was never the policy of the U-boat service to shoot men in the water or in lifeboats. On the contrary, they routinely helped the men in the water and in lifeboats when they could even after they were ordered by Dönitz not to do so.

There is however some truth to the stories and this makes getting to the bottom of what happened just that much more difficult. Men were killed by gunfire while on the decks of merchant ships, while getting into lifeboats, and perhaps while helpless in the water. They were not however targeted and their deaths were tragic but were not crimes.

My father Robert Edison Dunn was Third Engineer on the SS Cardonia on March 7, 1942 when she was shelled, torpedoed and sunk by U-126 (Bauer). He survived but has since passed away.

When the SS Cardonia was attacked with gunfire from U-126 my father (like so many other Allied merchant seamen) assumed he would be killed in the water if he managed to get off of the ship. The ship was traveling alone and was unarmed. When the abandon ship signal was sounded, the U-boat immediately stopped firing in order to give the men time to get into the lifeboats and get it into the water safely. My father was at his post in the engine room and that ceasefire gave him the time he needed to get out of the engine room and get away. It saved his life.

In addition to the ship being torn apart by 40 to 50 hits from the U-boat's 105mm deck gun there were three raging fires, the steering was disabled, and the ship was sinking. My father told me he would thank the commander of that U-boat for stopping the shelling when he heard the abandon ship signal from the Cardonia if he could. He had heard all of the stories passed around by men he had shipped with over the years. He was both very surprised and very thankful that he was allowed to get away. I was too, but after studying the treatment of survivors by U-boat crews over the last few years now I am no longer surprised.

Most of the stories of U-boats shooting men in the water and in lifeboats etc. simply stem from wartime propaganda. They never actually happened. The propaganda worked both ways too. U-boat crews also thought they might be treated poorly if they fell into our hands (and some were).

Our merchant seamen were led to believe that these things would happen to them by propaganda and rumors. The Japanese did commit this type of atrocity on numerous occasions so there was some truth in the rumors and propaganda, it just didn't apply to U-boats.

The origins of some of these atrocity stories can be traced to a number of things in addition to the propaganda though. For example if a live round comes close to you, the natural thing to think is that you are the target.

It gets a little easier to understand what really happened when you look at how a U-boat attacked with gunfire.

First, the participants. Every member of the crew on a U-boat had a battle station just like in any other nation's submarine service. Almost all of them were below deck. These men didn't have a clue what was going on above deck. They could hear gunfire and perhaps some shouted orders and that's about it. Even if some wrongdoing would have been going on above decks these men certainly couldn't be held accountable for it. Right away it is obvious 80 to 90% of the entire U-boat service that went to sea could not have been guilty of any atrocities. Not to mention all of the naval support staff that never went to war on a U-boat.

U-boats were very vulnerable to enemy aircraft. Germany almost never controlled the air space above its U-boats. Sometimes nobody did because the attacks happened too far from land for a plane to get there and back. Later the Allies almost completely controlled the air. First planes were carried on especially converted merchant ships and some convoy escorts. The planes could be launched from the merchant ship but the plane had to be able to land in the water or the pilot had to ditch after his mission. Long-range aircraft became available as the war went on and eventually escort aircraft carriers were deployed against the U-boats. The reason I bring this up here is that the U-boat had to be ready to dive at a moments notice and that involved getting everyone on deck inside and getting the hatch closed before the U-boat could submerge. Just getting under the surface wasn't enough either; they had to get down deep enough that the bombs wouldn't destroy them. All of this took time. There was only one hatch that everybody on deck had to get through before the U-boat could dive and that meant that the number of people on the bridge and deck had to be limited to just those necessary for the task at hand.

The anti-aircraft gun(s) had to be manned as well as the deck gun. Type IX U-boats also had a 37mm cannon mounted on the deck aft of the conning tower that would be manned too. The commander had to be on the bridge as well as the Second Watch Officer (IIWO). The rest of the watch (perhaps 4 or 5 more people) would have been there too. The IIWO was in command of the guns while the commander was in charge of the whole operation including the IIWO and the rest of the watch. Watch had to be kept in all directions even while the guns were firing in order not to be surprised by the enemy from any direction including the air.

There might also be a non-crewmember on the bridge on occasions. Sometimes a war correspondent was attached to a U-boat for one patrol. They were really not part of the crew although they sometimes did stand watches. Also a prospective U-boat commander might be aboard for one final patrol under an experienced commander before being given his own U-boat. Again, he was not exactly part of the regular crew. In one case I have researched, an American merchant seaman who had been fished out of the water and kept onboard the U-boat because there was no lifeboat to put him was allowed to stay on the bridge for over an hour while the U-boat finished off his ship with gunfire and finally torpedoes.

The whole attack was carefully managed by trained naval officers. Nobody dared fire a gun at anything until assigned a specific target and given permission to fire. It wasn't like it was in the infantry where a company is in the field and armed men are spread out away from their officers. On a U-boat an officer was only a few feet away from the guns. Additionally German U-boat men were very well trained and very disciplined. The German military was not an organization to ignore a sailor's disobeying orders. Punishment for a member of a gun crew that did not follow orders was certain.

Typically the order would be given to man the guns. The gun crews would scramble up the ladder and out of the hatch and go to their guns. The guns would be made ready to fire. This entailed removing the plug from the barrel (to keep salt water out), attaching the optics used to aim the gun, and loading the gun from the ready ammo locker close to the gun while others formed a line so that additional ammo could be passed up from inside the U-boat if necessary. The gun would also be brought to bear on the merchant ship. When the gun was ready to fire, the gun crew reported that the gun was manned and ready. The officer would then identify the target and sometimes even announce the number of rounds that could be fired. The commander then gave the IIWO permission to fire and he ordered firing to commence. When the officers had determined firing was to be stopped they gave the order to cease-fire. Nobody dared to fire a round after the order to cease-fire was given and heard. No cowboys here, just professional military conduct. When the action was completed, the order to secure the gun was given. The plug was placed back in the barrel, the optics were removed, all of the empties (for the deck gun anyway) were passed back up the conning tower and into the boat, and the gun crews went below deck.

The point I am making here is that unlike the infantry, there was almost no chance for a member of the gun crew to fire on a target other than the one assigned. In the infantry a weapon like a machine gun was rarely commanded by an officer and that left the gunner with much more discretion than a gunner on a U-boat. Gunfire that came from a U-boat was directed by an officer who was right there and who in turn was under the command of the U-boat commander who was also right there. Accidents may have happened though and only the man aiming the gun knew for sure what he was actually aiming at.

U-boats were really pretty poor gun platforms. Unless the water was completely calm you had to fire at a target that was moving with the motion of the sea from a platform that was also moving but not in sync with the target. An automatic weapon is not a precision weapon. It is more like a fire hose and when you fire at a target at a distance some rounds are going to go over the target, and some are going to fall short. Add to this that most U-boat attacks occurred in poor light (mostly at night) and many times in poor weather and it's easy to see how gunfire ended up hitting something or someone or landing close to something or someone that wasn't targeted.

In one case that I researched, the men in the water found rounds hitting very close to them however the merchant marine officer in charge of them realized that they were just short rounds. They were in a shadow and the U-boat couldn't have seen them to target them. However, when you are in the water and rounds land close to you, especially automatic weapon fire, why wouldn't you think you were the target? Not only that but men may very well have been killed in the water by short rounds in other cases. This is certainly the source of some of the stories. In this particular case a reputable historian interpreted the sentence: "A machine gun sprayed the sea near us several times, but we were not hit." to mean that the lifeboat was being machine-gunned. It wasn't, they were just short rounds but he published his conclusion and it was picked up and repeated by other writers years later.

The deck guns were generally just used to fire at the ship to stop it (engine room) or to sink it (water line - bow or stern) or to set it on fire (deck cargo or tanks on a tanker, or bunkers). Sometimes it was fired at the bridge or the radio room. These were all legitimate military targets. Men anywhere in the vicinity of the target were frequently killed but were not the targets. Also rounds frequently missed the target they were aimed at and men were killed there too because of the visibility and weather conditions etc. cited above. This is very sad but wasn't intentional nor was it a war crime.

Also it should be noted that anyone still resisting on the merchant ship was a legitimate target. That means anyone fighting a fire, carrying ammunition, manning a gun, using the radio, manning the helm, attempting to set up an emergency radio transmitter, or any other activity contributing to further resistance to the sinking. Anyone in the vicinity of them might be hit as well.

War is a dangerous business. When the rounds start flying you are not safe anywhere and there are no foxholes on a merchant ship. When you were below deck you could be killed by rounds coming through the hull and if you were anywhere on deck you could be killed by shrapnel from anything from the 20mm AA guns on up. Not to mention by exploding cargo. Anyone in the water could be hit by short rounds or shrapnel from the side of the ship and some were. These were not atrocities they were just collateral damage. It sounds heartless but that's because war is heartless.

Also note that the lifeboats were almost completely unprotected while they were still onboard. Anything exploding close to them left them full of shrapnel holes that were sometimes reported as being machinegun holes. This just fueled the rumors that lifeboats were machine-gunned. On my father's ship only one lifeboat could be used when they abandoned ship. All of the others were shredded by shrapnel. My father's ship was unarmed and no machine gun of any kind was fired at it.

One exceptionally well documented case I researched where there were claims that the crew was machine-gunned while getting into the lifeboats illustrates this quite well. I was able to get my hands on the medical report of those injured. Every wound was attributed to shrapnel except two. One was a burn and the other was through and through and the medical report said so rather than call it a gunshot wound. That same man was seen by an eyewitness standing close to him to be hit by shrapnel from a 105mm round that killed the man next to him so that wound too was from shrapnel. They were all hit while the U-boat was too far away to use their light guns. Very few cases are documented that well though and that is a big part of the problem.

U-boats carried three types of automatic weapons, a roughly .30 cal light machine gun, one or more 20mm or greater AA guns, and a few machine pistols. Generally only the first two types were fired in combat. The machine pistols would sometimes be trained on lifeboats approaching the U-boat. All of the survivors I have found that actually approached a U-boat said that small arms were at least pointed in their direction. I think a U-boat commander would have been remiss to allow the enemy to approach his boat without covering them though and Allied submarines did the same thing. I know of two occasions where a handgun was taken onboard a lifeboat by a survivor and one occasion where a Lewis gun (a machine gun) was brought aboard a lifeboat by a member of the ship's gun crew.

There were a number of legitimate reasons for shooting at a merchant ship with an automatic weapon. First it was normal to fire on the radio room if the ship was using its radio. They sent "SSS" instead of "SOS" and gave their position. The "SSS" (later in the war "SSSS") indicated they were under attack by a U-boat. The radio had to be silenced and that made it a legitimate target and anything close to it was likely to get hit too. Many Allied radio operators displayed extreme heroism by staying at their post and continuing to transmit until they were killed. Some even went down with their ship still trying to transmit. The 20mm fully automatic (i.e., a machine gun) AA gun was frequently used to silence the radio. Sometimes it could be done by taking out the antenna and at first merchant ships didn't have emergency radios or a way to repair the antenna quickly. As the war went on it could take even more gunfire to stop the transmissions. In the case of my father's ship, the radio was silenced when the antenna was blown away by the 105mm deck gun.

Most merchant ships later in the war were armed and many British merchant ships were armed almost from the beginning. Their guns and gun crews were legitimate targets. It was customary to keep an enemy gun under fire to keep it from being manned and anyone close to it had to be considered fair game. Also note that they were almost always armed with more than one gun. It was customary to arm them with at least one big gun that was roughly equivalent to the main deck gun on a U-boat and some number of machine guns and AA guns. These guns were positioned in several places around the ship, not just at one place. The large gun was usually on the stern and there was sometimes another large gun on the bow. The machine guns and AA guns were usually amidships. All of them were legitimate targets and needed to be suppressed and the men manning them or close enough to man them were legitimate targets. This wasn't just true for the U-boats it was equally true for the submarines of all nations during the war.

U-boats were very vulnerable to enemy gunfire. Their hulls weren't armored and just one hole could keep them from being able to dive. A trip home on the surface was pretty much a death sentence for them. This made their commanders very leery of approaching too close and kept them very aware that they needed to suppress enemy guns to keep them from firing. It wasn't enough to just return fire. These factors combined to keep the U-boat at a distance thus making it even harder to accurately hit the merchant ship with their automatic weapons and even more difficult for the U-boat commander to see what was happening on the deck of the merchant ship.

If the merchant ship was in range of the U-boat's smaller machine guns then the U-boat was also in range of any machine guns on the merchant ship and the U-boat's gun crews were exposed to them with little to hide behind and to a lesser degree so were the men on the bridge. Getting that close was very dangerous and the U-boat commander was responsible for the lives of his men. The fact that a U-boat was a small, narrow target for the merchant ship is all that the U-boat gun crews had protecting them.

Trying to kill the crew while they were on the ship would have just been a waste of ammo if that had been the intention. They made way too small a target and they were prone to be moving as fast as they could or hiding behind something. If you intended to murder the crew it would be much easier to kill them in the water after the ship was sunk. That way there would be no danger from any guns that might be on the ship while you carried out your murders. However there is only one proven case of a U-boat doing that (U-852) and its commander (Eck) was caught, tried, and executed for it. Actually that commander was trying to sink the wreckage so allied planes would not know a U-boat was in the area. He went way too far though. He stayed in the area and used machine guns and hand grenades on the wreckage with men clinging to it. Of course the men were killed. He was given a trial though and that's more than the men in the water got. Ironically enough the crew of U-852 had to abandon their U-boat when it was attacked later and reported that they were fired on while in the water by the planes that attacked their boat. This may very well be a case of men being killed in the water (but this time it was the crew of the U-boat) by a plane that was shooting at the U-boat not the men. Shooting these U-boat men in the water could also have been an atrocity, but if you want to know which you will have to dig deep to find out. They call it the fog of war.

In cases like this we (the Allies) tend to give the plane the benefit of the doubt. After all the Allies didn't have a history of routinely shooting helpless men in the water. In the reverse case we didn't tend to give the U-boat the benefit of the doubt because the propaganda led us to believe (incorrectly) that U-boats did have a history of doing that. Just ask one of the U-boat men that were in the water if the plane committed an atrocity and you will begin to see how difficult it is to sort these things out. Keep in mind that wartime propaganda led the U-boat men to believe they might be machine-gunned in the water too and some may have been. My point here is that it is very easy to form the wrong opinion when you are on the wrong end of the gunfire and the fog of war makes it extremely difficult to get to the truth even when eyewitnesses are available.

Like the men that manned the U-boats, merchant seamen also had their assigned duty stations during an attack and like the U-boat men, many were not in a position to see what was happening. When it was time to abandon ship they frequently had been assigned a specific lifeboats to escape in. However when they got to the lifeboat they frequently found it had been rendered unusable during the attack. That usually left them scrambling for a raft or another lifeboat. With the U-boat firing on them the natural choice was to abandon ship in a lifeboat on the opposite side from the U-boat if there was a way to do it and to jump over that side if there wasn't. That made it very difficult for the U-boat commander to tell that the ship was being abandoned. The fire continued and men who were not targeted were killed. A lifeboat lowered on the other side of the ship could still be in real danger from the U-boat's main gun. Shells from the U-boat's main deck gun sometimes went all of the way through the ship and they were frequently aimed at the waterline. If your lifeboat was in the water on the other side of the ship it could be in real danger. That is exactly what happened in the case of my father's ship. A 105mm round went all of the way through the ship and went off just before the lifeboat hit the water. It hit a fuel tank on the way through and when it exploded it sprayed the men with flaming oil and turned the lifeboat over. The citation that went with the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal awarded to the captain of the ship included:

"The only usable lifeboat had been punctured by shell fragments, and while engaged in lowering away, a shell hit the fuel tank and showered the crew with burning oil…".

A highly respected historian picked it up and concluded that the lifeboat had been machine-gunned while being lowered. An obvious conclusion to reach from that one sentence if you are pre-disposed to think that the enemy would intentionally do something like that but it simply isn't true. The lifeboat was lowered on the opposite side of the ship and the U-boat commander didn't know it was there. The 105mm round was aimed at the waterline in order to sink the ship, not kill men on the other side they didn't even know were there. This is however a real example of how some of those stories got started. I know this because I have the KTB (Kriegstagebuch - war diary / logbook) for the U-boat and my father was in that lifeboat as was Captain Darnell the captain of the SS Cardonia. Captain Darnell also documented it in detail in a letter to his family that I have.

The book containing this mistake was copyrighted shortly after the war (1947) when few writers and historians were giving the enemy the benefit of the doubt and it has been available for people to read for over 50 years. It has since been included without challenge in three books that I know of. Some of these stories may be impossible to disprove this long after the event and it is sad that few if any have even tried. Once a story like that gets in print no matter where it comes from it is very difficult to disprove. Many writers are comfortable accepting a quote from a reputable source and it is hard to blame them because it is just not practical to research every single statement in a book but that doesn't help the families of these men. That includes the families that have to think that their loved ones were murdered when they weren't as well as those who have to live with a cloud over their loved one's conduct during the war. Writing about history is a very demanding profession and a lot of bad can be done along with the good. Sometimes the fog of war is so thick you can't see through it at all.

A lifeboat found drifting with a body or bodies with puncture wounds is easy to mistake for a lifeboat that had been machine-gunned and its men killed. You would have to at least remove whatever caused the puncture wounds to determine if they were caused by bullets or shrapnel and that wasn't necessarily done. The bodies were normally just buried at sea and those that were returned to land were rarely autopsied. It was easier to assume the worst.

Those that had to abandon ship on the side of the ship where the U-boat was (perhaps because that's where their assigned lifeboat was or perhaps that's where the only usable lifeboat left was or perhaps the ship was listing too far to lower the boats on the safer side) were forced to abandon the ship right into the gunfire. If the U-boat commander or another officer saw that this was happening the order to stop firing was generally given very quickly. Again the available light, the weather, the amount of smoke, and the distance from the target all combined to make this easier said than done. However baring any other distractions like a destroyer bearing down on them or a plane attacking them the U-boat commander was generally looking to see if they were abandoning the ship so he could give the order to stop firing or so he could redirect the fire to a more urgent target like a radio that started transmitting or a gun that was being manned on the merchant ship.

In the case of my father's ship the signal to abandon ship was given by a certain number of blasts on the horn that could also be heard by the commander of the U-boat and as a result he stopped firing immediately even though he didn't see any lifeboats being lowered. In the case of other ships I have researched that wasn't what happened. The order was given verbally and there was no way for the U-boat commander to know to stop firing until he saw lifeboats being lowered. Given the conditions of visibility at the time, the distance between the ship and the U-boat and which side of the ship the lifeboats were lowered on, the U-boat commander many times could not tell that the ship was being abandoned. The fire continued and sometimes men were hit.

Just to confuse things a bit more, sometimes some men abandoned ship too early due to the general confusion, the fact that their officers were already dead, panic, or whatever. Some men jumped over the side prematurely and as a result, a few men jumping over the side didn't necessarily mean that the order to abandon ship had been given and that the ship was actually being abandoned. If the ship was still moving then that had to be interpreted as it was still trying to get away and that made it a legitimate target. A lifeboat full of men dropped over the side while the ship was still moving forward generally turned over upon hitting the water leaving the men in it in the water far behind the ship without a usable lifeboat and the officers on the merchant ships knew that and stopped the ship before giving the order to abandon it.

The standards for training and physical fitness within the Allied merchant services were nothing like those of their respective navies. There were many American merchant seamen that went right from being declared physically unfit for military service to join the merchant marine. Men served gallantly who were missing a limb or an eye, or were way too old to qualify for service in the other services. Many couldn't swim. Many were too young. Many merchant seamen during the war were not even from the country that they sailed for and didn't speak the language well and some didn't speak it at all. Most of the lowest ranking men learned their trade on the job without any significant formal training. Their discipline came from years at sea. However others were just getting started or had a language problem or were new to the ship and didn't know who to follow or had a physical problem or some other problem and just weren't up to keeping it all together when their ship was on fire and sinking and they were dodging bullets and shrapnel. The vast majority of these men performed admirably in the face of these extreme difficulties with only a very few being totally consumed with panic. There were also many, many cases of extreme heroism by these men.

These were brave men and when they had a ship torpedoed out from under them the ones who survived went right back to sea with very few exceptions. I am bringing this up because the confusion during battle was made even worse for men without the rigid training given to men in their countries' navies. It was easier for some of them to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and that accounted for a good number of injuries and deaths and contributed just that much more to the overall confusion and the fog of war.

These men knew that they might die by being burned alive or that they might die of thirst alone on a raft in the middle of the ocean or be eaten alive by sharks but their country needed them and to their everlasting honor they went to sea anyway and many of them didn't come back.

In my father's case they had an excellent captain (Gus Warren Darnell) and he saw to it that all manner of lifeboat drills were regularly carried out and that each man knew exactly what to do. Many on that ship had sailed with Captain Darnell in the past and knew they could trust his seamanship, his judgment and his leadership. When the time came his men were prepared and they remained calm and abandoning ship was carried out in an orderly manner. Afterwards his men praised Captain Darnell for it. However not all the other merchant ships were lucky enough to be commanded by an experienced man like Captain Darnell.

The gun crews on the armed merchant ships were military men with weapons and they tended to want to stay and fight as long as there was a chance to damage the enemy (many times the gun crews were supplemented by merchant seamen especially at the beginning of the war when there weren't enough trained gun crews to go around). That meant that they stayed at their guns until the very last minute making it more difficult for the U-boat commanders to order the firing to be stopped while the ship was being abandoned. They also sometimes hid out on the ship while the ship was being abandoned in the hope that the U-boat would come in close and they could get off a good shot before the ship sunk. The U-boat commanders knew this and sometimes started firing again after they thought the ship had been abandoned just in case. I have read of more than one case where a U-boat commander who had gotten close to a merchant ship that had been abandoned fired on it as he left with even his machine guns when he suddenly had to leave in a hurry.

Sometimes the guns of armed merchant ships kept firing while the ship was being abandoned perhaps with the thought of covering the abandon ship operation. When this happened the U-boat continued firing too and men were killed some of whom were just trying to abandon ship.

In one case a U-boat was criticized for "not giving the crew time to abandon ship". This case occurred long after the prize rules (rules America never followed) had been abandoned. It is one thing if the crew is seen to be abandoning the ship but it is quite another if the ship doesn't signal "abandon ship" so that the U-boat can hear it and it is not seen that the crew is abandoning ship. Some U-boat commanders may have occasionally paused their fire to see if the crew would abandon ship but there was no rule in any navy that required them to do so that I know of.

In addition to the above U-boats used their smaller guns to sink or start fires on merchant ships. The 20mm and .30 cal could be used to stop or sink sailing ships and other small vessels and were used to save torpedoes and ammo for the larger deck guns. Anyone in the vicinity while that was going on was likely to get hit but that is not the same as being targeted.

As I mentioned above there are a great many cases of U-boats helping the men in the water. Men were fished out of the water, questioned and placed in lifeboats or put on rafts. They were frequently told their position and given directions to shore; sometimes they were given food, water, and even a compass. They frequently offered medical assistance and sometimes medical supplies were given. Cigarettes were sometimes handed out too.

A quick look through A Careless Word… A Needless Sinking by Captain Arthur R. Moore will yield dozens of cases of a U-boat commander aiding survivors in the water in some way and that just covers the cases of crews from American ships that the author (a merchant seaman himself) found. There is something else striking in that book too - the absence of any charges of U-boats machine-gunning men in the water. There are however cases of Japanese submarines machine-gunning men in the water in the book.

The job of the U-boats was to sink enemy ships and they did this with the minimum loss of life possible under the circumstances. The definition of a successful war patrol for a U-boat was measured in tonnage sunk by U-boat command, not the number of Allied merchant seamen killed. That number was not even reported (or even known) by the U-boat commanders.

The conduct of the U-boat war by Germany was one of the facets of the war carefully examined at Nuremburg. Dönitz was initially indicted on charges that included ordering the killing of survivors. When the evidence was presented and the defense was concluded, those charges against Dönitz were dropped.

Admiral Karl Dönitz appears to be one of the major factors in the decent treatment given to survivors by the U-boat service. Not only did he set high personal standards for his men, he was able to stand up to Hitler when faced with a direct order to kill survivors and get away with it. Hitler was absolutely convinced that he knew far more about running a war than his generals however he wasn't as sure of himself when it came to the navy but Dönitz still took a real risk opposing Hitler.

Thank God we will never know what would have happened to the U-boat service and our merchant seamen if Hitler had interfered with the U-boat service to the same extent he interfered with the other branches of the military. When he did interfere it was usually not to the advantage of the U-boat service. Unlike the other services, the German salute (hand held up and out accompanied by the words "Heil Hitler") was not even mandatory in the German navy until after the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler. After that Dönitz couldn't keep political officers off his U-boats either but he did see to it that they had no authority over any operational matters. The U-boat war was fought by the German navy, not the Nazi party.

Hitler made his desires concerning the killing of survivors clear on more than one occasion.

From Neither Sharks nor Wolves The Men of Nazi Germany's U-Boat Arm 1939-1945 by Timothy P. Mulligan:

On 3 January 1942 Adolf Hitler met with Japanese ambassador Hiroshi Oshima in Berlin to discuss the war situation in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. With regard to the Battle of the Atlantic, Hitler emphasized the importance of killing as many American merchant marine crewmen as possible to discourage enlistment: "I must give the order that since foreign seamen cannot be taken prisoner, and in most cases this is not possible on the open sea, the U-boats are to surface after torpedoing and shoot up the lifeboats." In fact no such order followed, but Hitler had revealed his own position in a characteristically ruthless manner.

The subject next arose in a joint discussion among Hitler, Raeder, and Dönitz on 14 May 1942 at Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia. There Hitler asked his submarine commander-in-chief if something might be done to reduce the number of survivors from sunken merchant ships; Dönitz responded only that newer, more powerful torpedoes would increase personnel losses by sinking ships faster. Hitler accepted this answer, and the issue subsided. Possibly this conference prompted the SKL (Seekriegsleitung German Supreme Naval Command) directive the next month regarding the capture of ships' officers.

It is clear that Dönitz realized that the merchant crews needed to be killed in order to stop the flow of supplies to his enemy but he drew the line at murdering them. I am sure that if he had a weapon guaranteed to kill the entire crew and sink the ship at the same time he would have used it. So would we.

On 12 September 1942 the Laconia incident occurred. There is already a good description of it here on so I won't go into it in detail here (see The Laconia Incident). Basically an American bomber attacked U-156 with her deck covered in rescued survivors, a number of lifeboats full of survivors in tow and her guns covered with a white sheet containing a red cross. Dönitz had given his personal permission to conduct the rescue and was so furious at the Allies (Americans) that he issued what became known as the Laconia order. Here is a slightly different English translation of it (not different in substance though):

1. No attempt of any kind must be made at rescuing members of ships sunk, and this includes picking up persons in the water and putting them in lifeboats, righting capsized lifeboats, and handing out food and water. Rescue runs counter to the most primitive demands of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews.

2. Orders on taking prisoner captains and chief engineers remain in force.

3. Shipwrecked are only to be rescued in case their information is important to the boat.

4. Be hard, remember that the enemy has no regard for women and children when he bombs German cities.

From Neither Sharks nor Wolves The Men of Nazi Germany's U-Boat Arm 1939-1945 by Timothy P. Mulligan:

Up to this point he had conceded discretionary powers for humanitarian measures to his commanders, who had reciprocated by not endangering their boats when they had aided survivors. Now as the increasing threat of Allied aircraft reduced a U-boat commander's ability to gauge the safety factor, Dönitz eliminated his discretionary powers altogether: "I did not want to give [a U-boat commander] a chance to act independently, to make his own decision," Dönitz later explained.

The Laconia order would later be interpreted by the Allies at Nuremburg as being an order to kill survivors. It is also another source of the rumors that U-boats machine-gunned survivors. However it wasn't interpreted by the U-boat service that way at all nor did Dönitz intend it to be. It means exactly what it says and it does not say to kill survivors. Eck's attorney even attempted to get him to say he interpreted it that way in order to save his life but to Eck's credit he refused.

From Neither Sharks nor Wolves The Men of Nazi Germany's U-Boat Arm 1939-1945 by Timothy P. Mulligan:

That Dönitz's message fell far short of an order to murder became a subject of discussion among Hitler, Raeder, and Dönitz in a conference at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin on 28 September (1942 KD). Hitler seized upon the Laconia incident to advocate the outright killing of survivors: "It is nonsense to offer provisions to survivors in their lifeboats, or provide sailing instructions for their return home. I hereby order that ships and their crews are to be destroyed, even if the crews are in lifeboats." An eyewitness recorded Dönitz's reaction as follows:

"No, mein Führer. It goes against the honor of a seaman to shoot at shipwrecked survivors. I cannot issue such an order. My U-boat men are volunteers, waging a costly struggle in the belief they are fighting honorably for a good cause. Their combat morale would be undermined by this order. I must request that you withdraw it."

Hitler, lapsing into a Viennese dialect, backed down: "Do what you want, but no more offering assistance and sailing instructions." Few stood up to Hitler in such a manner; fewer still won their point. For this, Dönitz deserves due credit, but perhaps it is ultimately attributable to his understanding of what his submariners would and would not do (emphasis added by KD).

What's more, some in the U-boat service failed to follow the "no helping survivors" part of the order. The Laconia order had been transmitted to the U-boats at sea on September 17th and again on September 20th. It was also added to the operational orders of U-boats going out on patrol. Here are just a few of the cases of U-boat crews helping survivors after the order not to:

SS Benjamin Smith
U-175 Bruns Bruns
Offered medical attention, medical supplies, food, water, American cigarettes and course and distance to land. Bruns also told them that they were in the shipping lanes and should be picked up soon before wishing them "good luck" and departing.

MS East Indian
U-181 Lüth
Water & course to land.

SS Julia Ward Howe
U-442 Hesse
Course to land.

SS Richard Caswell
U-513 Guggenberger
Cigarettes & matches.

SS Richard D. Spaight
U-182 Clausen
Offered water, provisions, & medical treatment.

SS Robert Bacon
U-178 Dommes
Distance to land.

SS Roumanie
U-617 Brandi
Rescued survivor.

SV Star of Scotland
U-159 Witte
Took captain prisoner but set him free when he told Witte he was the only one that could navigate the lifeboat to land. U-boat gave them food, cigarettes and a bandage for an injured crewman.

Numerous other U-boat commanders would continue to assist survivors whenever they could for the rest of the war just as they always had. In my opinion, Dönitz had to know survivors were still being helped and he turned a blind eye to it. However as the war progressed helping survivors became almost impossible. More and more ships were traveling in escorted convoys and the Allies controlled the air. It was too dangerous for a U-boat to surface anywhere around a targeted ship for any length of time. At the end of the war it was frequently even too dangerous to come to periscope depth after an attack. They dived immediately after firing their torpedoes, took evasive action, and hoped they would hear the sound of their torpedoes hitting their targets before they heard the sound of depth charges hitting the water over them. Needless to say they didn't surface, and hang around and machinegun the survivors either.

War is a bloody business. It always has been and it always will be. The U-boat men's restraint is particularly amazing when you consider that those merchant ships were carrying the men and weapons that were being used to kill their families back home.

Sadly the U-boat men are easy targets for this kind of rumor. Just one rumor or just one guy saying that he was shot at because a round came close to him and you have an almost impossible job to prove it wasn't an atrocity. Especially with so many willing to accept it as fact without question. It is easy to determine what was hit but much more difficult to determine what was aimed at. The only way I know to get a handle on it is to look at the bigger picture. If the U-boat service had wanted to kill the crews they would have. Few would have survived. It is that simple. There was no mass killing of merchant crews. Exactly the opposite happened. There were a great many cases of U-boat crews helping the men in the water and I have personally researched a number of them. What's more if you study the men that served in the U-boat service you will find that they were decent, honorable men that served their country with distinction, just like Allied submarine men and the merchant seamen that they all attacked.

Could there have been a case or two where something like that happened and they got away with it? For it to have been ordered by an officer that officer would have had to be certain it could be hidden from Dönitz because Dönitz had no desire to see his men murder helpless men in the water. He had probably put his life on the line when he stood up to Hitler on that issue. That means every man on deck at the time would have to be agreeable to covering it up and that simply wasn't the kind of thing those men would have done. On top of that it would have been reported by the Allied media and the families of the men on that U-boat would have known what they did. Most importantly though is the character of the officers and their men themselves. These were professional soldiers that were well trained. They had a very high standard of honor and killing men in the water was not part of it. It was very difficult to become a naval officer and it took a lot of training and discipline. These men were not just men off the street that could easily allow their hatred for an enemy that was killing their families back home to cause them to commit murder. They were also held strictly accountable by U-boat command.

Could a member of one of the gun crews have fired on someone in the water or in a lifeboat? I think anyone that ever served in the military of any country would have to honestly answer that with "well, perhaps". Give a young man a gun and put him in harm's way and anyone that thinks they can predict the outcome with 100% certainly 100% of the time is a fool. Did it happen? The only case proven against the U-boat service was the Eck case and that wasn't just one man that aimed low or snuck in a few rounds a little off his assigned target. It was deliberate.

Given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the fact that other than the Eck case none of the U-boat men were ever charged with any wrongdoing, I think we have to give these men the benefit of the doubt and assume the stories are incorrect. As I mentioned, if they had wanted to kill merchant seamen they would have killed a very large number of them and that just didn't happen.

Hollywood has made millions keeping those stories alive. If you pay attention to much of the media even now there were no Germans in WWII, only Nazis. There wasn't a German army, just a Nazi army. No German U-boats either, just Nazi U-boats, etc. This level of propaganda was necessary at the time and it was rendered easy to believe by crimes committed by the Nazi government and some other branches of the German military. You almost have to demonize the enemy during a war. How else are you going to get an otherwise decent 19-year old kid to hack someone to death with an entrenching tool? But that war is long over.

It is time to look at each reported incident very carefully and report what is found instead of just assuming the worst. What was the visibility? What were the sea conditions? What was the weather? How far away from the ship was the U-boat? Was the ship armed? Were the guns manned? If so, was it firing its guns? Was anyone attempting to man them? Was it using its radio? Was the ship attempting to escape? What side of the ship were the lifeboats lowered on relative to the U-boat? Was it possible for the U-boat to determine that the ship was being abandoned? Which guns were actually used against the ship? Were the lifeboats lowered into the gunfire before the gunfire could be stopped? In short, what were the circumstances? Where did the story of the atrocity come from (a crewman or somebody who heard it from somebody else etc.)? Did the source describe the circumstances? Is the story actually in the official records? This later question is perhaps the most telling. If it had actually happened, it would have been reported and included in the official records. That's not to say that anything in the official records is therefore true. It just says that the men making the report thought it was true.

I also found two cases of very sloppy reporting by (probably a research assistant of) a very reputable writer. There was a lot of creative reporting too. If there were holes in a lifeboat they had to be machine gun holes even if the U-boat never came close enough to fire its machine guns. In one case a U-boat was accused by one writer of firing at the lifeboats as they were being lowered and another writer described the same incident as the crew being machine-gunned in the water. It seems the crime got worse as it went from writer to writer. Additionally when you track these stories down you invariably find the U-boat commanders reported to have been involved had an absolutely clean record for all of the other ships they attacked. Some even had proven track records of helping men in the water.

Out of the thousands of ships attacked only a very tiny number actually reported any wrongdoing and I am certain most all of them could be explained if the circumstances were known. I can't say with 100% certainty that the Eck case was the only case but if there was another one it was definitely an aberration. Anyone that has ever seen a military brig (jail) knows that sometimes an individual breaks the rules but the act of a single individual can't be attributed to all of the men in a whole service.

Many writers today (and there are many of them on the forum here from time-to-time) are doing what they can to tell it like it really happened but we still have to deal with garbage like the recent U-571 movie from other writers and I guess we will have to keep on dealing with stuff like that for a long time to come. It makes money for someone at the expense of men and their families that have no way to defend themselves. Now that's an atrocity we can all work on. Men that fight wars have to live with what they did do and that is tough enough. It is obscene to make them and their families have to live with something they didn't do.

From The Trial of the Germans by Eugene Davidson:

The testimony that undoubtedly saved Dönitz's life at Nuremberg came from Admiral Nimitz and from the British Admiralty. Both sources admitted that from the beginning of the war they (the United States in the Pacific and the British in the Skagerrak) had ordered their submarines to sink any ship on sight without regard to visit and search (The British orders were to sink any German ship by day and any ship by night sailing in the Skagerrak). The lawyers representing Raeder and Dönitz sent a questionnaire to Admiral Nimitz, and in his answers Nirnitz affirmed that the entire Pacific Ocean had been declared a theater of operations where American submarines were ordered to attack without warning - an order that went far beyond the German one that at the start of the war limited such attacks to the so-called immediate blockade zone about the British Isles.

In the American orders the only exceptions to the unrestricted submarine war were hospital ships and vessels that had been provided with a safe conduct. Furthermore, these orders had gone into effect on the first day of the war, December 7, 1941; they did not arise, as did the German measures, as a result of developments of the war.

Nimitz also testified that it was not the practice of American submarines to rescue survivors if such a rescue would be an undue or additional hazard to the submarine, which was limited both by its small passenger-carrying facilities and by the suicidal and homicidal tendencies of Japanese who were taken prisoner. It was, Nimitz testified, unsafe to rescue many survivors, although they were frequently given rubber boats and provisions. Almost invariably, Nimitz wrote, any prisoners had to be brought aboard a submarine by force.

None of the American practices, he said, was based on reprisals against Japanese submarine warfare. He had thought the unrestricted submarine warfare fully justified by the tactics of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"We are a respectable firm," Dönitz had said at the start of the war, and he considered himself and Raeder the respectable heads of it.

The overall operation of the U-boat service was exonerated at the war crimes trials after the war. Dönitz was cleared of any wrongdoing by the U-boat service during the war. While it was highly controversial for Dönitz to have been indicted at all he was sent to prison as a result of an even more controversial decision but not for anything to do with the treatment of merchant ship survivors or the manner in which the U-boat war was conducted. Not even all of the judges agreed that Dönitz should have been sent to prison.

Other than the Eck case there is no proven intentional machine-gunning of survivors by a U-boat during the entire war and there was also at least one somewhat similar American case (Wahoo / Buyo Maru ­ a Japanese troop transport filled with Japanese solders ­ January 26, 1943).


Alleyne, Warren. Barbados At War 1939-1945. Barbados: Warren Alleyne, 1999. ISBN: 9-7680-7720-4. Copyright: Warren Alleyne, 1999.

Bennett, G.H & R. Survivors - British Merchant Seamen in the Second World War. London: The Hambledon Press, 1999. ISBN: 1-85285-182-1. Copyright: G.H. and R. Bennett, 1999.

Blair, Clay Jr. Silent Victory The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1975. ISBN: 0-397-01089-3. Copyright: Clay Blair Jr., 1975.

Browning, Robert M. Jr. U.S. Merchant Vessel War Casualties of World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995. ISBN 1-55750-087-8. Copyright: Robert M. Browning Jr., 1996.

Bunker, John. Heroes in Dungarees - The Story of the American Merchant Marine in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-55750-093-2. Copyright: John Bunker, 1995.

Davidson, Eugene. The Trial of the Germans. New York: Collier Books, 1966. First Collier Book Club edition, 1972. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 66-27009. Copyright: Eugene Davidson, 1966.

Doenitz, Karl. Memoirs Ten Years and Twenty Days. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990. ISBN: 0-306-80764-5.

Dupra, Lyle E. We Delivered - The U.S. Nayv Armed Guard in World War II. Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-89745-212-7. Copyright: Lyle E. Dupra, 1997.

Elphick, Peter. Liberty - The Ships That Won the War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997. ISBN 1-55750-535-7. Copyright: Peter Elphick, 2001.

Gibbs, Archie. U-Boat Prisoner The Life Story of a Texas Sailor. New York: Literary Classics, Inc., 1943. Copyright: King Features Syndicate, Inc., 1943

Gibson, Charles Dana. Merchantman? Or Ship of War. Camden, ME: Ensign Press, 1986. ISBN: 0-9608996-1-8. Copyright: Charles Dana Gibson, 1986.

High Command of the German Navy. The U-boat Commanders Handbook. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1998. ISBN: 0-939631-21-0.

Hirschfeld, Wolfgang and Brooks, Geoffrey. The Secret Diary of a U-boat. London: Orion Books Ltd., 1997. ISBN: 0-75281-116-9. Copyright: Geoffrey Brooks, 1996.

Horwood, Andrew. Captain Harry Thomasen - Forty Years at Sea. St. John's: Andrew Horwood (self published), 1973. Copyright: Andrew Horwood, 1973.

Moore, Captain Arthur R. A Careless Word… a Needless Sinking. Kings Point, NY: The American Merchant Marine Museum at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point NY, 1988. Copyright: Captain Arthur R. Moore, 1983.

Morison, Samuel E. The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939 - May 1943. Volume I of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1961. ISBN: 0-31658-301-4. Copyright: Samuel E. Morison, 1947.

Morison, Samuel E. The Atlantic Battle Won. May 1943 - May 1945. Volume X of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1975. ISBN: 0-31658-310-3. Copyright: Samuel E. Morison, 1956.

Mulligan, Timothy P. Neither Sharks nor Wolves The Men of Nazi Germany's U-Boat Arm 1939-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999. ISBN: 1-55750-594-2. Copyright: Timothy P. Mulligan, 1999.

Padfield, Peter. War Beneath The Sea. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1998. ISBN: 0-471-24945-9. Copyright: Peter Padfield, 1995.

Rust, Eric C. Naval Officers Under Hitler - The Story of Crew 34. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991. ISBN: 0-275-93709-7. Copyright: Eric C. Rust, 1991.

Savas, Theodore P. Silent Hunters - German U-boat Commanders of World War II. Campbell, California: Savas Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN: 1-882810-17-1. Copyright: Theodore P. Savas, 1997.

Slader, John. The Fourth Service - Merchantmen at War 1939-45. Wimborne Minster, Dorset: New Era Writer's Guild (UK) Ltd., 1995. ISBN: 1-899694-45-5.

Standard Oil Company (New Jersey). Ships of the Esso Fleet in World War II. New Jersey: Standard Oil Company, 1946. Copyright: Standard Oil Company (New Jersey), 1946.

Taylor, Telford. The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992. ISBN: 0-316-83400-9. Copyright: Telford Taylor, 1992.

Tennent, Alan J. British and Commonwealth Merchant Ship Losses to Axis Submarines 1939-1945. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2001. ISBN: 0-7509-2760-7. Copyright: Alan J. Tennent, 2001.

Deposition by the First Officer of the SS Cardonia.

Letter from Gus Warren Darnell Captain of the SS Cardonia.

Letter from Tom McTaggart Chief Engineer on the MS Esso Bolivar.

U-126 KTB (Kriegstagebuch - war diary / logbook).

National Archives documents too numerous to mention.

Member's area at

My father's account of the sinking of the SS Cardonia.

This article was published on 19 Jun 2003.

Return to Articles main page