The history of one of World War II’s most successful submarines, U-124, is chronicled in Grey Wolf, Grey Sea, from its few defeats to a legion of victories. Kapitanleutnant Jochen Mohr commanded his German submarine and navigated it through the treacherous waters of one of the most destructive, savage wars the world has known.
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About the Author
Gasaway has three grown children and four grandchildren. An avid animal lover, Gasaway has worked with Rottweiler rescue and owns a Pekingese dog.
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Grey Wolf, Grey Sea
By E. B. Gasaway
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 E. Blanchard Gasaway
All rights reserved.
It was April 2, 1943. And at last, Commander Rodney Thomson of the Royal Navy reflected, the war news had taken a definitely brighter turn. The German thrust deep into Russia had dissolved into the debacle at Stalingrad; and in North Africa, American and British forces had the Desert Fox Rommel between them. The German army that had seemed so nearly invincible was suffering major setbacks and the land war on all fronts now looked hopeful.
But at sea, he knew, U-boats still prowled, and struck, and killed.
Commander Thomson stared anxiously into the blackness that surrounded his ship, the HMS Black Swan. It was a clear night, but quite dark, and he could not see any of the merchant ships that lumbered along in ragged rows behind him. A feeling of great anxiety, mingled with helplessness, hung over the convoy. The sense of lurking menace was so strong that it was almost a tangible thing.
The two freighters, Gogra and Katha, had been sunk since midnight, and the U-boat that had torpedoed them was still somewhere out there. Thomson knew he was waiting in the dark for another chance to attack.
Black Swan swept on in wide zig-zags ahead of the convoy, as the twenty-odd merchantmen behind her struggled to keep station in the dark. Convoy OS 45, now even with the Portuguese coast, had covered roughly a quarter of its long voyage from England to Freetown. As always, the U-boat Command would have known the approximate size and position of the convoy, and would have ordered a scouting line of U-boats to intercept. At least one boat had already found them. Thomson knew that other sleek grey hulls would be silently converging on them as the wolf pack gathered.
Strange how long a man could fight these predators without ever getting a glimpse of one. A U-boat could leave a convoy riddled with sinking and burning ships and not once be actually seen.
Survivors of sunk ships saw them sometimes. Thomson remembered stories about surfaced U-boats with odd emblems painted on their scarred conning towers—a playful dolphin, red devils, a fox's mask, and one with a flower—the edelweiss.
He glanced impatiently at his watch. Not too much longer until dawn.
"Radar reports a stray echo, sir."
Thomson was instantly all attention. "Give me the range and bearing."
The answer came back immediately. The radar operator was Able Seaman D. Hutson, clear-headed and competent. He had plotted the position of the convoy ships, and this contact now was ahead and to starboard. Hutson had recognized it for what it was—a surfaced U-boat.
"Hard starboard!" called Thomson, and braced himself as the sloop heeled over sharply to take the turn. Her engines hummed with a higher pitch and her hull shuddered with the increased vibrations as Black Swan headed toward the stray echo on a closing bearing. Her sharp prow sliced through the black water which foamed up in white and sparkling bow waves on either side, and her curving wake trailed out behind her.
HMS Black Swan was the first of the "Black Swan" class of anti-submarine sloops, a tough and fast 2,000-tonner, designed specifically for ocean escort duty. She was fitted with the latest in radar gear, eyes that could penetrate the blackest night to see a U-boat riding low on the surface. Black Swan also carried a formidable array of guns, including 6.4" high-angle/low-angle guns in twin mountings. There were two of these forward and one aft, and they had radar incorporated in their aft control. She also carried a number of Oerlicon and Bofors guns, as well as other anti-submarine weapons. She was designed and built for just one purpose—to kill U-boats.
Making her best speed of about 20.5 knots, Black Swan passed close ahead of the starboard wing ship which had loomed up suddenly in the dark. And with every man ready at his post, and every eye straining to penetrate the inky darkness, Black Swan raced toward the ominous echo.
The minutes dragged by. Perhaps the U-boat had already spotted them. Low in the water, she would have a ship in sight long before she was herself seen—unless the ship, like Black Swan, carried radar to see through the dark, and for distances far beyond the sharpest U-boat lookout's capabilities.
Thomson wondered what kind of hand the U-boat skipper was playing. It was highly possible (if not likely), that he had already seen the sloop bearing down on him. Then why had he not sheared off his own course to get out of the way? Was the U-boat, after all, holding the trump card? Thomson frowned. It was not comforting to think that his opposite number's glasses might be trained on him now, and a German fist poised over a torpedo firing button.
Perhaps the U-boat skipper was merely holding his own course expecting the sloop to turn off. He was almost into the convoy, and in the most favorable attacking position possible. Running in front of the convoy, Thomson had been patrolling in wide zig-zags. If the German did not know he had radar, he would have no reason to suspect that he was not on a leg of his regular search pattern. If this were the case, he would expect the sloop to turn away before reaching the U-boat.
The U-boat must surely have seen him by now. They had to be close, and he was still on the surface. Whatever else her stepper might be, he was cool—and determined. And only Black Swan stood between him and the convoy.
"Radar says he's lost contact, sir."
Thomson nodded briefly at the report. "Very well," he said. The U-boat might be lost in the "clutter," or he might have dived. If the latter were the case, they should soon pick him up on asdic.
"Tell Hutson to keep watching," he said unnecessarily, knowing the radar operator did not have to be told to do his best.
"There!" the lookout above him yelled. "Just off the starboard bow! U-boat, diving!"
Thomson could see the conning tower as it submerged, and he watched as it passed directly in front of the sloop, under water but still visible, some twenty meters ahead.
"Put depth charges on shallow setting!" he shouted.
There was not time to make a planned attack, but the advantage of surprise was on his side. Even if none of the depth charges hit the boat, they might be close enough to shake him up a bit and make it harder for him to evade the next attack.
The water was still boiling with exploding depth charges as Black Swan turned to make another run. The two asdic operators. Lieutenant W. A. Fuller and Able Seaman C. Rushton, reported a contact. Calling out the range and bearing at steady intervals, they guided the sloop precisely to where the U-boat was still desperately plunging downward.
When the explosions had died away, Fuller reported that he had lost contact.
They were now in danger of colliding with the merchant ships and Thomson called for a change of course. The corvette Stonecrop was arriving on the scene and she would finish the attack. Black Swan's place was now back in her position at the head of the convoy. They could not afford to leave the front unguarded for long.
Coming in at full speed, the Stonecrop, commanded by Captain Patrick Smythe, dropped a pattern of depth charges over the estimated position of the U-boat. When the corvette turned to make another attack, her asdic operator reported that he was unable to make contact.
As Stonecrop slowly recrossed the area, now quiet after the violence of exploding depth charges, a shout from a lookout electrified the men on the bridge. "Oil slick ahead!"
The corvette moved slowly through the large and spreading patch of diesel oil, carefully searching for proof of a kill, while her asdic probed in vain for a contact. Only the oil was to be found—the lifeblood of a U-boat, now spreading slowly over the surface of her last battlefield.
At last Stonecrop turned and sped away. This battle was over, and now her duties lay with the slow and vulnerable cargo ships which must be protected. Smythe knew other grey wolves were lying in wait for his charges, and he swung his tough little ship back into her station.
Toward the east, the first rosy light was breaking through the darkness. Soon the sun would turn the leaden sea to sparkling blue and green, and pick up rainbows in the dull patch of oil.CHAPTER 2
On November 25, 1942, a dark grey U-boat slipped her moorings at a pier assigned to the Second U-Flotilla in Lorient, and turned her prow toward the ocean. A few German navy men stood in the late fall chill to watch as she swung confidently away from the French shore, her own special insignia, the edelweiss, gleaming dully on her conning tower.
This was the U-124, veteran of ten hard war cruises all over the bloody Atlantic. She had come home bearing the scars of savage fights, visible on her grey hull, and invisible on the minds and souls of her men. But along with the scars, some of which would always remain, she had worn the little flags representing ships she had sunk—red for warship, white for freighter, and white with red border for tanker—which told her victories to those watching on the quay when she returned. Now she was going back to the scene of some of her most devastating raids, the western Atlantic. "Grey wolves on a grey sea," a phrase from the U-boat song blaring over the boat's record player, seemed especially appropriate.
A thorough overhauling had put her in first-rate condition and she ran like new, purring smoothly through the heavy Biscay waves. Caution ruled the day as she passed through these waters, so heavily patrolled by British aircraft and anti-submarine vessels that the area was known as Toten Allee—Death Row.
The long shore leave had been as beneficial to her men as it had to the boat, and the intolerable strain of hard months of desperate fighting was gone. Now they felt only the excitement and familiar tightening of nerves that accompanied going back into action, and it was a good feeling.
U-124 was under the command of Kapitänleutnant Jochen Mohr. It was his seventh war cruise on this boat, his fourth as commander. To his crew, there was always a special feeling about going on a war cruise with Mohr. An exceptional leader, he had the subtle intuition and infallibly sure touch they called "Finger-spitzengefühl."
His wit and easy-going manner, his boyish charm, and ringing laughter were irresistible to the men who served under him and who felt that he could not make a mistake.
As one young crewman wrote to his mother when she complained about his having to make yet another war cruise, "You must not worry. Always we will sail with our Mohr." Unser Mohr—our Mohr.
Besides Mohr, there were other men who had cast their lots and their lives with this boat for one or two or more war cruises. Some were still on board, some had left to tread other decks. U-124 had echoed their footsteps, laughter, jokes, prayers, and curses during the weeks and months when this steel hull was their only shelter from the dangers of the ocean and the enemy, and the shipmates who shared this boat were their only friends.
The always present danger made the closeness of friends more precious and moments of pleasure and triumph sharper and more intensely felt. Their camaraderie was real and strong, but for each of them there were moments of darkness when fear was an overpowering force against which he must struggle alone.
For every man who served on this boat there were ties which he would always feel and each of them left something of his own spirit to remain with the boat always.
With each new patrol there had been changes in personnel, for it was customary to take some of the men who had had battle experience to go on the new boats. The commanders always fought to hang on to their men who had worked up well, and had to be literally forced into giving them up. But with this practice, there was always a sprinkling of veterans in the crews of the new boats, and their replacements learned quickly among shipmates who were already battle-wise.
The custom also served to make the small U-boat service even more closely knit and it seemed that every man knew at least someone on every boat. They went on liberty together in the U-boat base towns along the Bay of Biscay and they listened in on each other's wireless signals at sea. News of the other boats was discussed in wardrooms and messes at sea, in much the same manner that a family might discuss the goings-on of its relatives. They were, in truth, a Band of Brothers.
U-124, unlike most other boats, had inherited most of her original crew as a unit, and their adventures on board the ill-fated U-64 had been told and retold in wardroom and crew's messes until they had become a very part of the U-124 herself.
The story began on December 15, 1939, when the U-64 was turned over to her commander and crew by Deschimag Shipyards in Bremen and taken to the naval base at Kiel for her shakedown cruise in the Baltic. Bad weather soon forced them to break off exercises, and for weeks the boat lay frozen to her pier by the Blücher Bridge in Kiel.
In early March the boat moved to Wilhelmshaven to await orders to the front. The crew now had frequent opportunities to talk to U-boat men returning from war cruises and to learn their experiences and impressions. Some were encouraging to the U-64's untried crew and some were shocking. They began to realize, perhaps for the first time, that what was going on out there in the Atlantic was a cold and relentless war.
While they waited, the crew spent their off-duty hours drinking beer and talking about what lay ahead of them. They were young and keen, and their morale was high. They were proud of their boat and their service, and they were eager to fight.
They began to learn that the easy-going and relaxed atmosphere of a U-boat (as compared with other warships) was not a lack of discipline, but rather an inner discipline, as opposed to strict rules arbitrarily laid down and followed blindly. In the small, tight community of a U-boat, every man aboard was a key man, and on each one depended the safety and success of them all. This huge awareness of his own importance, plus the well-developed sense of humor that made the dangers and discomforts of his life bearable, was the hallmark of the U-boat man.
The boat had been on alert for sea duty for days, so that when her sailing orders finally came, it was almost an anti-climax.
Her commander had been given three sets of orders: first, to escort the raider Orion, under the command of Fregattenkapitän Kurt Weyher, out past the northern coast of Scotland and into the open Atlantic; second, to sink enemy shipping in the Atlantic; and the third were sealed orders, to be opened on receipt of the code word, "Hartmuth."
"Both diesels ahead slow," the commander called from the bridge. He was answered by the clang of the engine room telegraph as his order was repeated below.
"Take over the watch," he said to the I.WO, Hein Hirsacker. "When you reach the second buoy, come to half speed and course 330 degrees."
"Aye. At the second buoy, come to half speed and course 330 degrees."
The commander nodded and went below.
"Hey, Bootsmann," Hirsacker called down to Leo Raudzis on the deck below him. "Is the upper deck clear to dive?"
"As soon as I tighten these gratings, sir."
The boat plowed smoothly through the gentle swells. "See," Hirsacker remarked, "our little steamer lies in the water like a battleship!"
"Upper deck clear to dive, sir," reported Raudzis, climbing onto the bridge.
"Good. Say, Bootsmann, that was a pretty tired farewell back at the pier, wasn't it?"
"I've seen jollier funerals."
They both laughed.
"Well, let's hope we don't get our feet wet," Hirsacker said.
"Second buoy ... ten degrees to starboard," the lookout interrupted.
"Good. Both engines half ahead. Come to course 330 degrees."
"Both engines half ahead. Come to course 330 degrees," a voice below him echoed, followed by the shrill engine room telegraph and the acknowledgement that his orders had been carried out.
Then he called the commander on the speaking tube. "Bridge here. First watch officer reporting the watch set and ready for action. Second buoy on starboard. Course 330 degrees. Both engines half."
"Thank you," the commander replied. Then he called to Kurt Oehring in the radio room across from his own cabin. "Hi, any signals for us?"
"No, Herr Kaleu," Oehring answered, using the abbreviation for his commander's rank, Kapitänleutnant.
Excerpted from Grey Wolf, Grey Sea by E. B. Gasaway. Copyright © 1970 E. Blanchard Gasaway. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Chapter One
- Chapter Two
- Chapter Three
- Chapter Four
- Chapter Five
- Chapter Six
- Chapter Seven
- Chapter Eight
- Chapter Nine
- Chapter Ten
- Chapter Eleven
- Chapter Twelve
- Chapter Thirteen
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excellent read. Well written and difficult to put down.
An interesting story, unique in that it takes the German side of the Battle of the Atlantic. Also, it follows one boat through the years of warfare.