Who Were Better? American or U-Boat Aces?

by Mike Croteau

I can think of no more inflammatory question among submarine armchair historians than the title of this essay. Most people reading this have some opinion on who they believe is the greatest submarine skipper of all time is. Kretschmer? Schepke? Prien? Endrass? Luth? Fluckey? O'Kane? Morton? (Don't forget de la Perière from World War I, THE tonnage king!) What about the British Wanklyn or the Japanese Kinashi? Others will say that you cannot compare submarine captains from different navies and different theaters. Are German captains apples and Americans oranges? In this article I will discuss what makes a great submarine captain, and how most mechanisms people use to compare skippers falls short.

Most people look at tonnage as the ultimate arbiter of who was the best captain. There is some truth to this indicator. Tonnage is an indication of results, and one could argue that the greatest skipper is the one who produced the greatest results. But what about captains who started late in the war (or were sunk after a short time)? Should we penalize them? Should we use tonnage per month on patrol? (Joseph Enright might win for his one sinking-the 59,000 ton [some sources say over 70,000 ton] Japanese carrier Shinano!) Using tonnage or tonnage per patrol would be a good indicator if tonnage sunk were directly related to the effectiveness of the captain. Unfortunately, this is not true. There are many factors influencing tonnage sunk that are not under the control of the captain at all. I believe tonnage is only useful as one means of comparison between captains working in the same theater for the same side at the same time.

The effectiveness of a particular submarine is dependent on many factors. Here are a few categories that are under control of the submarine navy:

Here are a few categories under control of the opposition navy: There are a few factors not under control of either the submarine navy or the opposing navy: What makes our comparison job more difficult is that most of these factors are not static, but continually change during the war. Each combatant has a limited number of resources, and spends them depending on the overall war situation, not just based on how well submarine warfare is going. Also, success is rewarded with more resources and failure penalized.

For instance, why don't we talk about British sub skippers in the same breath with American and U-boat aces? Is it an issue of publicity? Have outstanding aces like Wanklyn, Tompkinson, Miers, et al been slighted compared to their more publicized American allies and German opponents? There were some noted British successes in the Pacific but during the Battle for North Africa British submarines dealt severe blows to Axis Mediterranean resupply convoys while suffering terrible losses in a difficult environment for submarines.

The Japanese were under different but more degrading constraints. The warship mentality pervaded their submarine fleet. Japan did not have enough resources to field sufficient numbers of submarines to make an effective showing in the Pacific. Japanese submarine designs were many and varied but were not efficient in construction. The Japanese sub fleet was frittered away on resupply missions and barrier patrols that made them vulnerable to being "rolled up" by roving ASW forces. Army interference with defense priorities (they even built their own submarines) worsened the already critical situation. Despite bravery and a devastating torpedo (Japanese torpedoes were, in my opinion, the best of the war) the Japanese only had a few moments of glory mainly against warships (Yorktown, Wasp, Indianapolis, etc.). The I-19 (under Kinashi) scored perhaps the best salvo of the war when a single spread of long-ranged, large warhead torpedoes put the American carrier Wasp and a destroyer on the bottom and damaged a battleship!

American skippers had the advantage of working against an enemy who was reliant upon merchant traffic and who moved supplies across a far-flung empire that was difficult to cover with the available escorts. Early German captains had a similar opportunity until the material advantages of the Allies put adequate escort forces into the Atlantic.

How effective was Ultra in the Atlantic (and breaking of Japanese codes in the Pacific) in impeding the success of Axis, while helping Allied, naval efforts? As the war wore on, the intelligence (Allies)/communications security (Axis) battles went the Allies way, enabling Axis targets to be sunk while Allied vessels sailed safely. Yet even this crucial aspect ebbed and flowed depending on captures of Enigma keys and German coding changes. Similar activities occurred in the Pacific, where the breaking on Japanese naval code JN-25 (along with merchant codes) enabled submarines to be routed to where targets were likely to be found.

The American (and German) torpedo problems affected submarine effectiveness during the entire war. When the bugs were finally worked out of the Mark XIV torpedo, American sub captains started racking up big scores. (Of course, then the U.S. Navy started issuing circular running Mark XVIII torpedoes that sank at least two U.S. subs.) While good captains insisted on meticulous maintenance of torpedoes, the root problems with the torpedoes were not under the control of the captain or crew.

The submarines themselves were a major factor in submarine effectiveness (and another factor not under the control of the captain). At the beginning of the war, the German type VII and IX U-boats were more than adequate. However, the standard German submarine designs lacked the ability to be upgraded to counter the increasingly effective Allied escorts. Limited torpedo tubes and reloads, poor habitability, limited range, poor electronic countermeasures, lack of radar, late addition of snorkels, slow speed, and relatively high noise levels (compared to later Allied subs) put German sub skippers at a disadvantage. German boats did have incredible depth capability and ruggedness, but these factors could only delay the inevitable.

What would have happened had the snorkel or type XXI submarine been available earlier? The outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic may have been the same, but the tonnage numbers of the U-Boat aces would have undoubtedly been higher, especially later in the war.

Numbers is another issue that often gets ignored. Germany started the war with way too few submarines for the war that was unfolding. Despite promises to Dönitz and Raeder that the war would not start in 1939, Hitler plunged Germany into a war she may have been ready to fight on land (a point which is open to debate) but which she was not yet ready to win at sea. How much better would the U-boat aces have been if there had been more of them to gang up against convoys?

In the Pacific the Japanese lacked the numbers to conduct wolfpack warfare or to stretch American ASW resources to the breaking point. Initially American (and Allied boats such as Dutch and British) numbers were inadequate to make a significant impact early in the war, but once more and better submarines came into play, the (underfunded) Japanese ASW system was stretched to the breaking point. Late in the war the Americans had adequate numbers for wolfpacks and adapted the German system to fit the Pacific conditions and achieved excellent results.

Tactics played another part that was not necessarily under the control of the sub captain. German early war night surface tactics neutralized Allied sonar advances and allowed early U-boat aces to rack up phenomenal tonnage in a target rich, escort poor environment. Early U.S. skippers had been trained to use submerged sound approaches and were limited in periscope use during attacks. When the American submarine command realized the need to change, early U.S. skippers had to be replaced with more flexible, innovative, aggressive (and younger) officers.

German strategies involving central control of submarine assets forced U-boats to transmit more than they should have and enabled the most underrated Allied ASW weapon, HF/DF (direction finding of the sub's high frequency radio signals) to become more effective in evading and engaging U-boat patrols. Night surface tactics became obsolete when surface ships started carrying radar, and there was no other attack option available that maintained submarine effectiveness.

Allied navies put far more resources into anti-submarine warfare (ASW) than the Japanese did. The Japanese realized their peril too late (perhaps made overconfident by early U.S. submarine failures caused by faulty weapons and tactics), and while they had some pretty sharp ASW operators (as the many sunken and damaged U.S. subs will attest to), they lacked the ability to put effective escorts into the ocean the way the Allies did. Good U.S. intelligence also revealed the location of fixed defenses (such as minefields) and technology provided tools (such as FM sonar) to counter them.

Later German U-boat captains put to sea bravely in submarines growing more obsolescent by the day, against a well-funded enemy whose well-coordinated (at least later in the war) escorts turned from convoy defenders to submarine hunter-killers after mid-1943. Before a U-boat could reach the convoy lanes, she had to make it through the Bay of Biscay (whose skies were filled with radar and Leigh light equipped aircraft), evade hunter-killer groups, sneak by well-trained escorts, and then pop a few torpedoes at the convoy while bracing for the counterattack that they knew would come. Many brave U-boat skippers who would have racked up big tallies during the "Happy Time" early in the war (when escorts were few and inexperienced) instead became an integral part of the Atlantic Ocean bottom.

These factors make evaluating submarine captains on the basis of objective criteria difficult. While comparisons could be made between late war U.S. submarine wolfpacks against the few big Japanese convoys and early war German U-boats operating against inexperienced Allied convoys, I believe there are enough differences to make head to head comparisons virtually impossible.

However, I believe that what makes a submarine skipper great is indeed universal and can be examined rationally. Unfortunately, because the criteria are subjective, others will undoubtedly disagree and come up with lists of their own. Here are my criteria on what makes a great submarine captain stand out from the rest:

Leadership, the ability to inspire the crew to perform above what they think they can do, is (to me) the key element in a great submarine captain. I have only had the privilege of meeting one great submarine captain in person (Eugene Fluckey of the Barb, Medal of Honor winner and U.S. tonnage leader), but I was amazed by the charisma this elderly man still exerted. Great captains did not need to discipline their crews, because they were caught up in the vision the captain put forth. Submarine crews longed for a skipper that would lead them heroically into battle, and the lucky few who served under great leaders did great deeds.

A classic example of change in leadership happened on board U.S.S. Wahoo between her second and third war patrols. When the command changed from timid LCDR Kennedy to dynamic LCDR "Mush" Morton the boat changed from a lackluster performer to a stellar killing machine. All the other pieces were there, but the change of leadership made the difference between obscurity and stardom.

Great submarine skippers were not born that way, but learned from other effective captains. "Mush" Morton trained several officers who went on to do great things on their own (including Medal of Honor winner Dick O'Kane). Dönitz did a great job early in the war of training U-boat captains. Some great skippers brought significant surface ship experience with them. Others learned their trade exclusively in submarines.

One of the many difficulties late war U-boats faced was a hemorrhage of experience. Captains were sailing with fewer and fewer patrols under their belt. The wartime expansion of the U-boat arm also diluted the opportunities to train under experienced U-boat aces. American sub skippers benefited from an aggressive rotation system which got junior officers time on war patrols before sending them back to command. The Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) system allowed a prospective (but relatively inexperienced) captain just before his first command tour an opportunity to go to sea under an experienced skipper who could coach him on the fine points of leading a submarine at war.

Ingenuity is an asset that could not always be completely demonstrated. All submarine captains worked under orders and regulations, but great ones found unique ways to succeed within the structure their navy put them in. The U.S.S. Barb's Eugene Fluckey mounted a rocket launcher on his boat and used it to shell shore installations in Japan. He also landed a raiding party that blew up a train. The Barb sank vessels by every means possible including ramming. Great submarine commanders found ways of turning difficult situations into scoring opportunities.

Initiative can also be described as aggressiveness, courage, and daring. Another dramatic contrast between mediocre and superb skippers is their willingness to take the war to the enemy. Poor commanders made excuses why targets slipped from their grasp. Great skippers took advantage of every opportunity to fire torpedoes at the enemy. Another dramatic contrast between Wahoo's first and second skippers is initiative. LCDR Kennedy chastised his officers for wanting to expose more periscope during daytime cruising. LCDR Morton ran Wahoo on the surface, dove only when necessary, and searched the biggest area possible to find more targets and sink more ships. His attacks were pressed courageously, even putting his fearless executive officer Dick O'Kane on the periscope during the approach so he would be able to think clearly and not be frightened by the tactical situation. Prien's penetration of Scapa Flow may be one of the most daring submarine attacks of all time. U-boat ace bravery was well demonstrated throughout the war.

Persistence is the attribute that presses attacks home even when resisted. "Tenacity, Dick. Stay with them 'til they're on the bottom!" was a famous Mush Morton quote. There are countless examples of U-boat and American submarine kills that were made because the captain refused to give up on the attack. The USS Archer-Fish's attack on the carrier Shinano is a classic example of tenacity. The American skipper, Joe Enright, had relieved himself from an earlier sub command because his actions prevented an attack on a Japanese carrier. When during his second command tour another opportunity arose to put a carrier down, Enright pressed home the attack persistently, refusing to be driven under when an escorting destroyer came near, and running on the surface at maximum speed until an unlucky zig by Shinano put her right in Archer-Fish's sights.

Technical competence is one quality of a good skipper that few would argue. While some control over technical skill was under the control of the captain, frequently the "system" he worked in determined the level of competence the captain had. All navies had schools that tried to give sub skippers the technical tools needed to succeed. Good captains studied relentlessly in formal and informal situations, trying to tap the experience of others and developing skills crucial to successful command.

Attack geometry is a command quality that could be refined but which also rested somewhat on the individual's mathematical and spatial imaging skills. Successful captains were able to look at a given situation and determine where to put their submarine to have the best chance of success. Having had to do this myself in submarine attack trainers, I can tell you this was no easy task especially in the days before digital computers. A good captain could look at the fire control solution his crew produced and confirm it or reject it. Excellence in attack geometry should lead to more torpedo hits. American electromechanical submarine fire control systems helped their skippers score more hits, but the successes of German and British sub captains with rudimentary systems is amazing.

Carefulness is another vital submarine command quality. This is manifested in attention to detail and discretion. I define attention to detail as a rigorous mental process. It is more manifested in what doesn't happen rather than what does. Stuff doesn't get forgotten. Needed activities are performed. Alternatives are rationally examined. >From a rigorous thought process flows discretion. Foolish or rash attacks that imperil the submarine are not made. Risks are thoughtfully considered and the course chosen that inflicts maximum damage to the enemy at minimum risk to the boat. Careful skippers preserved their boat. Reckless ones died.

Physical fitness is often overlooked but can be critical to a commander's success. He needed to know how to take care of himself at sea and ashore and maintain himself available to lead the crew. I feel that USS Wahoo's loss may have been caused in part by a kidney or prostate disorder that racked Mush Morton. Captains that partied hearty ashore or didn't get enough rest underway made decisions under the influence of fatigue which robbed them of the rigorous thought process crucial to submarine effectiveness.

One factor that could adversely impact a captain's physical state was his management ability, especially his ability to delegate. Great captains knew when to turn over the watch to another and get some rest. Mediocre captains tried to do too much by themselves. An example was Mush Morton's predecessor on the Wahoo, LCDR Kennedy, who had a bunk installed in the conning tower so he could be always there in case anything happened. Kennedy also insisted on an overmanned watch rotation that fatigued his senior officers. The tragedy was that Kennedy had a future Medal of Honor winner as executive officer and other future successful sub skippers in his wardroom but refused to listen to them and wasted their talent.

Another result of effective delegation is the on-the-job learning the junior officers experience. This leads to the quality of teaching ability. Great sub commanders know how to develop talent. They can over time raise the competence of those in their crew. They can effectively convey experience. They can help officers and crew overcome their weaknesses and grow into an effective team.

Along with physical fitness, mental toughness (resilience) was vital to being a successful sub captain. Wartime submarining is incredibly stressful psychologically. Imagine putting yourself in a steel tube with dozens of people and then try to kill others as they are trying to kill you. Like a goalie in a soccer game, good skippers had to be able to shake off failure to be able to make the next play. Many captains could not cope with the stress of the job and came apart during a patrol (stories of captains locking themselves in their stateroom or committing suicide were infrequent but unfortunately did occur). Most successful US captains were married (which helps bring mental balance). There was a certain submarine command understanding and acceptance of the stress involved in wartime, which is why U-boat crews were allowed to let off steam in port and the Royal Hawaiian hotel was set aside for submarine crew use in Pearl Harbor. American staff officers tried to judge when they had to pull a captain off his command before the stress of the job got to him. Four or five war patrols seemed to be the limit of endurance. Being in the middle of the story, it was hard for a captain to rationally evaluate his own mental state and ask for relief when necessary. In some cases submarine force commanders were too late (Mush Morton), while in others (allowing Gene Fluckey's last patrol) their timing was better.

A love and respect for the crew lay at the heart of most successful submarine captains. The crew sensed the respect from the captain and returned it in hard work and good performance. The close and intimate quarters of the submarine favored men who were able to bond with each other. While excessive focus on the crew could make a skipper timid (refusing to put their lives at risk), disdain or disrespect from the captain made it hard for any submarine crew to perform at peak ability. While not all captains had the congeniality of Otto Kretschmer or Mush Morton, respect had to be given before it could be received from the crew.

I don't know of anyone who has done a thorough survey of submarine commander leadership in the Second World War. While I am familiar with many of the American skippers, I am much more unfamiliar with the U-boat aces (not to mention British, Japanese, Dutch, or Soviet captains). The qualities that made a wartime captain great also served them well in post-war service. I am not surprised that veterans like Kretschmer and Fluckey and Ramage (another American Medal of Honor winning skipper) had successful post-war service.

My nominee for best American sub skipper is Gene Fluckey of the Barb. Not only did he lead in tonnage according to the post-war assessment (which in my view does not credit him for several ships he sunk in his Medal of Honor winning harbor attack), but he demonstrated all of the leadership attributes I outlined earlier. (Don't take my word for it, read his book "Thunder Below"!) He demonstrated inspiring leadership (no discipline problems during his command). His experience was more than adequate to prepare him for his command role (he excelled from his first war patrol as captain). His ingenuity and initiative (already discussed earlier) I believe really set him apart from his contemporaries. He demonstrated tenacity and persistence in many difficult attacks. Fluckey knew his business and was very effective in positioning the USS Barb to where she could be most effective. He was methodical without being a martinet, and his daring attacks (such as his late war harbor attack) were models of calculated risk. He was never out of commission due to physical or mental issues, and developed the crew of the Barb into an effective killing machine. Fluckey also had a real affection and respect for his crew (even trying to give up the Medal of Honor to get more awards for them). Gene retired as an admiral and when I met him he was still working with the U.S. Naval Academy to help develop future leaders.

After reading the story of Malcolm David Wanklyn, the British Mediterranean ace, I believe he should be counted with the best American and German skippers. He commanded the Upholder, a small submarine between a German duck and Type VII in size, with only 4 tubes (and 4 reloads of often unreliable weapons), minimal fire control, with very cramped accommodations. Operating out of Malta (maybe the most bombed real estate during World War II) on over 20 (!) patrols he sank or damaged over 100,000 tons of shipping vital to Axis efforts in North Africa. While not an innovator, "Wanks" was known to be imperturbable, a master tactician, quick thinking, detail oriented, brave (he won the Victoria Cross for a nighttime submerged attack without sonar available that sank a liner filled with troops), and was well loved by his crew. He operated in the Med from January 1941 until the Upholder's loss on 14 April 1942. Upholder was lost on her last patrol before returning to Britain. I wonder if his demise was due in part to being physically worn down by a high operational tempo out of a base continually under attack.

I would like to hear from others (especially U-boat experts) on their nominees for the title of best submarine skipper of World War II. I hope this article will lead you to look at the accounts of your favorite submarine captain with new insight!

Mike Croteau
Chattanooga, TN

This article was published on 4 Apr 2002.

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