The German Loss of U-505
by Jordan Vause
"Lange tried to exit as fast as possible, was severely wounded in the attempt, declined to try to defend a doomed boat, and instead issued the command to abandon ship. It was his penultimate decision and perhaps his most controversial, for once the crew abandoned the boat it was much more vulnerable to being captured. Should he instead have ordered the crew to stay on board and fight back?"
NOTE: This excerpt is from an unedited galley proof of the forthcoming book Hunt and Kill: U-505 and the U-boat War in the Atlantic, Theodore P. Savas, ed. (Savas Beatie, June 2004). This excerpt is copyrighted to the full extent of the law, and may not be duplicated or shared without the permission of the publisher. End notes follow this chapter.
The capture of U-505 was as surprising to the United States Navy as it was to the crew of the boat. Only Daniel Gallery believed such a thing truly possible. His superiors were skeptical and the U-Bootwaffe considered the seizure of a U-boat at sea so difficult as to be impossible and not worthy of serious consideration. 1
How, exactly, did it take place? How did Gallery's task group and Albert David's boarding party pull off such a high risk maneuver when all the odds for success were against them? Why wasn't the boat blown up or sunk? Was it Gallery's careful planning and audacious execution, as widely advertised in most popular histories, or was there a complete breakdown of discipline and morale inside the boat, as was whispered in the U-boat community?
Most of what has been written about the capture of U-505 is from an uncritical American point of view. This essay examines the dramatic event from the overlooked German perspective. It concentrates not on the timeline of events (which is hazy at best), or the exact sequence of events (which is even hazier), but on the chain of desperate decisions made within the boat during the last minutes of her existence: the decisions themselves, why they were made, how they could have been made differently, and if the end result in each case would have changed had a different option been followed. The question for historians and leaders is whether any of the decisions made aboard the boat made a real difference, and whether any of them was significant enough to deliver the boat to Task Group 22.3.
Good and bad decision making wasn't all of it. There was indeed bravery and skill on one side and cowardice and incompetence on the other-some of it breathtaking. Substantial credit for the capture of U-505 must be given to TG 22.3 and especially to Albert David, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the bravery he exhibited that day. When David and the members of his boarding party left USS Pillsbury and headed toward U-505, they had no idea what to expect when they reached the stricken boat. They had every reason to believe German crewmen were still on board, waiting in ambush or preparing for hand-to-hand combat. Even if there was no resistance and they were able to enter the boat, the danger of blasting charges set to destroy it was a very real possibility. David suspected as much and knew that if one or more explosives went off, some in his party would die outright or the boat would carry them all on a fatal plunge to the sea floor. Even without resistance or explosives the situation was perilous. The boat was steadily taking on water, and she would drop like a stone as soon as buoyancy was lost. This could happen quickly and without warning, and if it did there might not be time to get everyone (or anyone) out. These dangers were further complicated because not a single member of the boarding party had ever been inside a U-boat. The sailors were utterly unfamiliar with the narrow passageways, small compartments, and numerous hiding places. David and his men faced a terrible risk.
Some blame for the loss of U-505 must be placed on the boat's crew. The men had experienced a wide array of successes and failures over the previous two years. The Peter Zschech era ended with his suicide in the boat in October 1943, and the repeated sabotage attempts afterwards had taken a toll on the spirit of the crew (though not as much as some observers believe). Many were young, ill-trained, or inexperienced, and some of the officers suspect. Harald Lange, who captained the boat on her last war patrol, will never be confused with the likes of an Erich Topp or Otto Kretschmer. Simply put, Lange was not very successful as a commanding officer, and his colleagues generally view him with some suspicion for having allowed his boat to be captured. Most of the crew, including Lange, did the best they could under extremely trying circumstances. In the end they were unprepared for the event and their reactions only serve to highlight that fact.
And of course there was the element of luck. Fortune is always a factor in daily life and so it was during the Battle of the Atlantic. Gallery and David enjoyed stunning amounts of good luck-more than they had a right to expect. Harald Lange, on the other hand, had the very bad luck to find himself the target of a hunter-killer group led by a man determined to sink or capture his boat. From the first moment of contact American luck held while Lange's slipped from bad to worse, and his options vanished one, by one, by one.
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Virtually everything that occurred on June 4, 1944, centered around one man: Harald Lange. As a commanding officer he was ill-matched for the situation. "U-505," mused Jürgen Oesten, captain of three boats during the war (U-61, U-106, and U-861) and a holder of the Knight's Cross. "Not what I would call a lucky boat." He went on to reflect briefly on the various broken careers left behind by U-505: Axel-Olaf Löwe, her first captain, who sank six ships, then got appendicitis and never went to sea again; Peter Zschech, who sank one ship and committed suicide in the boat; and finally Lange himself. "A reserve officer," concluded Oesten, as though it explained everything. "No sinkings." 2
Peter Hansen, a former Kriegsmarine officer and sometime member of the Abwehr, does not dismiss the reserve officers as easily as Oesten. "There were some very good ones, particularly those that had been merchant marine officers before the war. On the other hand, there were likewise a number of total flops among the active officers who turned into complete failures. One must look first and foremost at the officers involved." Hansen points out that Harald Lange was chosen personally by Karl Dönitz to command U-505. It was not something Dönitz often did. A very busy man, he usually allowed U-Boat Personnel Command in Kiel to do their jobs without interference. In this case, he was looking for a man of stability to take over U-505, "mainly, one must assume, as he wanted U-505 to have a dependable commander in view of her history, the suicide of Peter Zschech, and the many technical shipyard problems that had developed," explained Hansen. 3
Lange was not inexperienced. He received his commission before the war and had served in the U-Bootwaffe for almost three years. One year of service was as first watch officer on U-180 under Werner Musenberg, then a brief stint as the boat's captain, and finally command of U-505 for ten months before its capture by Gallery. Lange was forty at the time of his capture-which was old for the captain of a frontline U-boat. As Oesten pointed out, Lange had no sinkings to his credit. This was not unusual in 1944, however, when the yardstick for success was measured not by the tonnage sunk but by how long a man could keep his crew alive. In better times he might have done well, if not spectacularly well. But at the bitter end, in the last minutes of his command, Harald Lange made all the right decisions.
The end came late on the morning of Tuesday, June 4, 1944. Located by units of Gallery's Task Group 22.3 and attacked repeatedly by depth charges, U-505 suffered major damage. There was no reasonable hope of escape. At about 1115 Lange made the decision to surface. It was the first of four decisions he made in approximately ten minutes. Each was made under heavy pressure, and each had far-reaching consequences.
The first question is whether his decision to surface the boat was the correct one. The after torpedo room was taking water. The main rudder was jammed hard over to starboard. The diving planes were stuck in a downward position. Electricity had been knocked out. In other circumstances there might have been a very slim chance he could have circled slowly below his pursuers, waiting them out. However, in addition to everything else mentioned his batteries were drained, which meant he could not keep moving and thus could no longer maintain his depth. "When the batteries became empty," wrote ace Siegfried Koitschka about the sinking of his own U-616, "there were only two possibilities: up or down. Up," he added as though explaining it to a child, "is much better."4 German U-boat crews had a deserved reputation for being loyal, dogged, even heroic in many cases, but they did not have corporate death wishes and very few would have accepted the idea that mass suicide was preferable to capture. The decision to come to the surface was the only reasonable choice Lange could make.
His second decision involved what to do when he surfaced. Lange had two choices: (1) he could make up his mind while coming up to abandon ship immediately upon surfacing; or (2) he could decide to come up, see how bad things looked on the surface, and make a decision at that time whether to leave the boat or to fight. The second choice is essentially a non-decision-a decision to decide later. Either course of action made the other course impossible. Once he committed himself and his crew, Lange would not have an opportunity to change his mind.
Perhaps things might have gone better if Lange had made the decision to abandon ship before he came up. It was often done that way, and there is good evidence it might have prevented the boat's capture. Oesten offers a possible scenario for a type IX boat:
By means of compressed air remove remaining water from the diving tanks in order to give the boat as much buoyancy as possible, distribute the crew to the four hatches: torpedo hatches fore and aft, galley hatch and conning tower. Open all the hatches at the same time, crew gets out quickly. Open the air-valves of diving tanks. The period of grace of about two minutes should be sufficient in order to get the crew out of the boat through the four hatches, before the boat has sunk. This, I guess, might work with a good and experienced crew. 5
If Lange had followed something along the lines of the scenario outlined by Oesten (which of course would have ruled out any defense of the boat), he would have exited from the conning tower hatch while the boat's other officers made their way out of the secondary hatches. Each officer would then have assisted the crew out of the boat. An escape conducted in this manner would have made it impossible for the enemy to concentrate fire against the conning tower alone, and would instead have divided it amongst four separate targets. Lange and Meyer might not have been shot.
This option may not have been available to Lange, however, because there was not enough time for him to prepare for such an intricate maneuver. Oesten's scenario (or any variation thereof) required planning and coordination well in advance of the event. It would have been more practical after a prolonged siege. The time between the first attack by American surface ships and the point at which the boat broke the surface, however, was several minutes at most-and for most of that time everyone was fully occupied trying to keep the heavily damaged boat under control. Even if time had not been a factor, the coordination and split-second timing required to pull off a synchronized four-hatch escape was probably beyond the capabilities of Lange's crew.
Regardless, Lange decided not to immediately abandon ship. No matter what the physical condition of the boat (and she was severely injured) he evidently believed there was some hope she could be defended. Nobody will criticize a captain for not wanting to give up his ship without firing a shot. Having made this decision, however, Lange simultaneously ruled out any quick scuttling along the lines described above. And that may have given Gallery the extra time he needed to move into position to board U-505.
The next decision Lange made was the order in which the men exited the boat. Once U-505 was on the surface Lange hurried up the conning tower ladder and exited first. Was that the right thing to do? Yes. There was a recognized order involved in leaving a U-boat that differed from a surface warship. The captain was the first to leave for several reasons. "The speed of leaving the boat was very important," explained Koitschka, "It was very possible that shells could hit the tower. There should be no chance that somebody was killed in the tower and blocked the passage through. The crew was trained very well to leave the boat within seconds. The captain took care of the crew jumping very fast out of the bridge."6 If someone was shooting at the boat the captain would take the bullet. If he were still standing, he would direct traffic as the rest of his men poured out behind him. Finally, the captain sometimes had to move first simply because everyone else was too frightened. He had to lead so they would follow. U-505 was already under fire from several ships in the task unit and everyone in the boat could hear the enemy shells ricocheting off the control tower or passing through it. Leaving under such circumstances took a lot of courage, and Lange is given scant credit for having done so. "When the boat surfaced," explained Lange after he was captured, "I was first on the bridge and saw now four destroyers around me, shooting at my boat with .50 caliber and anti-aircraft. The nearest one, in now by 110 degrees, was shooting with shrapnel into the conning tower. I got wounded by numerous shots and shrapnel in both knees and legs and fell down. At once I gave the order to leave the boat and to sink her." 7
Lange tried to exit as fast as possible, was severely wounded in the attempt, declined to try to defend a doomed boat, and instead issued the command to abandon and scuttle. It was his last decision and perhaps his most controversial, for once the crew abandoned the boat it was much more vulnerable to being captured. Should he instead have ordered the crew to stay on board and fight back?
The decision seems not to have been hastily made, nor was it a foregone conclusion. Before he surfaced Lange must have considered putting up a defense of some type because he rejected a quick evacuation and scuttling. After he saw the forces arrayed against him, however, he opted against waging a defense and decided instead to scuttle his boat. Some believe it was a dishonorable decision because the idea of offering no defense at all is contrary to the traditions of most navies. Perhaps it was the duty of the crew to fight for the boat, to defend each hatch and each space, to repel her boarders or to die in the attempt. The image of the German soldier, at least the image held in the West, was consistent with this idea, and it was what would have been expected of any American sailor-including those serving aboard Pillsbury and Guadalcanal. "Don't give up the ship" is the most famous single phrase in the history of the United States Navy.
This question separates itself neatly into two parts. The first involves those cases when the odds are good that such a defense will be successful. In Lange's case this was clearly impossible and he knew it. There was no way he was going to escape from Task Group 22.3. The second involves mounting a last-ditch defense when the odds are stacked against survival-a defense mounted from within the boat and one that would probably lead to the death of most or all of the crew members. Lange elected not to do this either, and this decision deserves further discussion.
There would have been some benefits to mounting a defense, although Lange probably did not fully appreciate them in the brief moment he had to make his decision. Gallery's well-planned tactic for seizing a boat depended upon landing his boarding party during the narrow window of time after the crew left the boat and before the boat slips beneath the sea. If the crew did not leave, however, there would not be an opening to exploit. If David and his boarding party had known for certain armed men were waiting below, they would not have climbed down the hatch as quickly as they did. The speedy snatch of U-505 would have evolved into a much longer affair, probably one with casualties on both sides. If the defense held firm, Gallery's only other option to take the boat would have been to wait it out. A heavy chain could have been secured to the bridge railing and tossed down the hatch to prevent its complete closure (it is almost impossible to push a chain up out of a hatch), guards would have been posted on the bridge and weather deck, and a shaky armistice would have ensued while Gallery and his men tried to come up with an option for breaking the stalemate.
During all this Gallery's ships would have dealt with the complicated task of maneuvering out of U-505's way. As far as anyone knew her torpedo tubes were still loaded and the boat may have been carrying the newer Zaunkönig torpedoes, which homed in on the noise of a warship's screws. And while all this was taking place, U-505 would have been slowly but steadily sinking. Photographs taken at the point of capture show she was listing heavily, her weather deck awash. Any standoff lasting more than ten or fifteen minutes would have ended with the disappearance of the boat. 8
On the other hand, defending the boat posed significant tactical problems. The decision to fight would have competed with the primal impulse of survival, an urge not easily overcome by a verbal order on a doomed submarine where drowning is a virtual certainty for those trapped within. In those few minutes before surfacing in a wounded boat, the only consideration in U-505's mad world of darkness and noise was to get up and get out-fast. Planning under such circumstances was virtually impossible; positioning squads of men for defensive purposes unworkable; coordination unachievable. There were technical problems as well. The large weapons on deck were under heavy fire and so could not be manned. In any case, they were unsuited for repelling boarders. The small arms aboard ship were locked up. Beneath the sea the boat was pitching and rolling in darkness (the electricity had been knocked out). Stray bullets discharged in that environment risked hitting fuel or air cells, piercing the boat's hull, and causing collateral damage of every kind.
Finally, there would have been motivational difficulties because any serious defense was nothing more than a kamikaze mission. There was one way into the boat, which was good for anyone planning a defense, but there was also only one way out. Those who fought off boarders would be driven inexorably forward or aft into areas from which there was no escape. And what would a temporary victory achieve? "In our situation," explained Hans Goebeler, a member of Lange's crew, "we were facing a half-dozen enemy warships backed up by air support. Those were impossible odds, even for a U-boat in perfect condition. The piece de resistance, of course, was that we were in far from perfect condition. . . . Only a madman or a butcher of a Skipper would have even considered ordering a crew to fight it out under these conditions."9 As noted above, few German sailors were so driven they would willingly die to keep a boat out of enemy hands. Oesten concurs: the position faced by Lange was hopeless, and "in a hopeless position it would not make sense" to fight back. 10
The ultimate consideration that makes Lange's decision not to fight entirely proper and supportable is that he knew the boat would not have to be defended at all. She was going to sink. He ordered her scuttled at the same time he issued the abandon ship order. Lange knew there were at least three different ways to scuttle a boat, and he knew there were people still in the boat who would carry the order out. His order to scuttle was the last decision he made that fateful morning. But was it the right thing to do? Absolutely.
Within a few seconds after the order to scuttle U-505 Harald Lange was wounded and lost consciousness. He was responsible for four major decisions from the time the attack on his boat began. Each was correct (or at least arguably so) under the circumstances as he knew or believed them to be. His conduct in an awful situation was irreproachable. "I could not have done anything better than Lange did," was Jürgen Oesten's honest assessment. 11
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To read Part II, please click here: www.savasbeatie.com/u-505.html. The first 100 copies of Hunt and Kill: U-505 and the U-boat War in the Atlantic will be signed and personalized by the editor. You may reserve your copy at the previously mentioned web address. Thank you for your interest.
- A pair of other U-boats had been captured by the time of Gallery's exploit. The details of their seizure, however, were kept secret and BdU (German submarine command headquarters) never knew anything about them. Kptlt. Fritz Julius Lemp's U-110 was temporarily captured by British forces after several depth-charge attacks (even her crew did not realize the boat was boarded by enemy forces) but sank while under tow. Unfortunately for the Germans, records found aboard included a top secret Enigma machine and secret documents relating to it. On August 27, 1941, U-570 was damaged by a British Hudson aircraft and her commander, Kptlt. Hans Rahmlow, surrendered to the plane without any surface ships in the vicinity. The British towed her to Thorlakshafn, Iceland, and converted her into the HMS Graph on September 19, 1941.
- Jürgen Oesten, E-mail, 27 July 1998. Oesten, a recipient of the Knight's Cross, was the commander of U-61, a Type II boat, and U-106 and U-861, both Type IX boats. U-106 was very similar to U-505. Oesten is an outspoken man who will not hesitate to share his views on anything, including the U-505 affair. His input is always helpful.
- Peter Hansen, Letter, September 12, 1998. Hansen was a Kriegsmarine officer who worked for the Abwehr during the war. For that reason he seems to know a lot more about the men and the affairs of the U-Bootwaffe than most people would suspect. When U-505 was hit with sabotage in Lorient, Hansen was part of the investigative team and had the opportunity to speak with several of her crew.
- Siegfried Koitschka, Letter, September 6, 1991. Koitschka, another Knight's Cross holder, was the captain of two boats, U-7 (a Type II U-Bootschulflottille, or school boat) and U-616 (a type VIIC). He was captured two weeks before the U-505 incident when his U-616 was hunted to exhaustion for three days east of Spain in May of 1944. He surfaced, saved everyone in his crew, and his U-boat sank. Koitschka passed away in 2002.
- Oesten, E-mail, October 13, 1999.
- Koitschka Letter.
- Statement of Commanding Officer, U-505. This can be found online at: http://uboat.net/allies/ships/uss_guadalcanal-5.htm.
- Taking U-505 in tow with some or all of her crewmen still aboard would have been foolhardy. If the boat went down while attached to a towing hawser, major complications would have ensued for the towing ship. If the boat fired a torpedo up the hawser at the towing ship, it could not miss.
- Hans Jacob Goebeler and John Vanzo, Steel Boats, Iron Hearts: The Wartime Saga of Hans Goebeler and the U-505 (Wagnerian Publications, 1999). Goebeler was a Maschinengefreiter (fireman) who had served in the crew since the days of the boat's first skipper, Axel-Olaf Löwe. On the morning U-505 was bombed to the surface he was in the control room, one of the team who tried so hard to pull the boat out of its uncontrolled dive just before she surfaced. Some controversy surrounded Goebeler in his later years (he died shortly after his book was published). To put it bluntly, he was not entirely trusted by certain elements of the U-Bootwaffe community who thought he exaggerated his role during the final minutes of U-505. Goebeler's firsthand version is the most complete German account we have of the events of June 4, 1944. Many of the concerns about Goebeler can be traced to the political squabbles within the U-Bootwaffe community (and to some of those outside this exclusive community who think fancifully they are part of it). Like several other U-Boat veterans, Goebeler has become a symbol of a greater struggle.
- Oesten, E-mail, July 27, 1998. As a follow-up to this comment, Oesten was asked whether it was more important to save the crew or to prevent the boat's capture. His response was interesting and reflects the cynicism he began to experience as the war progressed. "My answer is bound to be pure speculation-to be or not to be a hero . . . and the answer might differ whether it concerns my first, second, or third boat. As I knew that the war was definitely lost since the beginning of 1942, I guess I would not have taken an unnecessary risk on the third boat and would have tried to save my crew."
- Oesten, E-mail.
- Information on members of U-505's crew was taken from Naval Archives Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Office of Naval Intelligence (OP 16-Z), 1942-45.
This article was published on 27 Mar 2004.
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Books dealing with this subject include
Admiral Dan Gallery. Gilliland, C. Herbert and Shenk, Robert, 1999.