Archives For German Shipwrecks


Kickstarter, the wildly successful crowdfunding website, is currently hosting two nautical themed projects. The first is “Twice Forgotten,” a documentary about the USS R-12, a training submarine that sank off the coast of Key West, Florida seventy years ago today. Forty US sailors and officers as well as two Brazilian officers went down with the sub and it was not until 2010 that she was re-discovered. Funding will allow the team to return to the site and conduct filming this summer to complete the documentary.


Instead of seeking to tell a true story from the past, the second project aims to produce a fictional film about a World War II submarine and its mysterious disappearance during the war. The film team has partnered with Battleship Cove, the home of the battleship USS Massachusetts and submarine USS Lionfish, to provide a filming location. If the project is funded, then the remaining half of the project’s expenses will be covered and the filming will be able to proceed as planned.

Dornier 17

A joint team from salvage company SeaTech and the Royal Air Force Museum have successfully recovered an intact Dornier 17 medium range bomber from the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel. The plane was first located in 2008 and in the intervening years efforts have been made to bring together a team to recover and restore the aircraft.

Dornier 17s were medium range bombers developed for the Nazi Luftwaffe and put into service 1937. The plane is one of the lesser known Luftwaffe designs as it was largely obsolete by 1942. Powered by two 1,000hp 9-cylinder engines, the plane could reach speeds of 265mph while delivering a 2,200 lb. bomb load. There are currently no surviving examples of a Dornier 17 as most were melted down after they were shot down or confiscated after the war.

The Hunt for Hitler's Warship

Regnery History, a relatively new imprint of Regnery Publishing, has brought readers yet another fantastic offering in Patrick Bishop’s The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship. Previous books from Regnery History reviewed here include Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron and Fatal Dive. Over the span of ~400 pages, Bishop familiarizes readers with the epic saga of the Nazi battleship Tirpitz from her gestation in Wilhelmshaven to her cataclysmic death at the hands of British bombers in November 1944.

Bishop brings to life the tireless efforts of the Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Air Force and Norwegian Resistance to reduce Nazi Germany’s last remaining battleship Tirpitz to a worthless heap of scrap iron. The reader is also introduced to life aboard the Tirpitz through Bishop’s interviews with surviving crew and archival research. This aspect helps round out the work and present readers with a better understanding of both the dread struck in British military planners’ minds by the Tirpitz as well as the fear and trepidation experienced within the ranks of the Kriegsmarine at the prospect of the loss of the Tirpitz in a surface action.  Unlike Hunting Tirpitz, which I reviewed earlier last year and is essentially a compendium of after-action reports by the British Admiralty, The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship, is an engaging work designed to bring the story of the sacrifices of British and Norwegian sailors and airmen to life for modern audiences.

Death in the Baltic

In Death in the Baltic, Cathryn Prince relates the tragic tale of the greatest maritime disaster in recorded human history – the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Prince has written previously about World War Two as well as the American Civil War and her latest volume is an excellent work of vernacular history. The Wilhelm Gustloff was among the numerous vessels pressed into service for Operation Hannibal – the Nazi seaborne evacuation of East Prussia in early 1945. Prince’s work especially shines in her weaving together various first-hand survivor accounts to paint a picture of what civilian life was like in the waning days of the Third Reich. Her description of the sinking as well as the story of the Soviet sub commander who led the attack are superb and make for highly engaging reading.

The only hiccup in Death in the Balticis Prince’s misuse of some nautical and military terms throughout the book. This is a minor quibble though and on the whole the work is a compact and very readable account of an often forgotten story. For several reasons which Prince highlights in the closing chapters of the book, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff has largely been overlooked in pop history even though its death toll was several orders of magnitude than even the RMS Titanic. Death in the Baltic is a wonderful blend of vernacular, maritime and military history and as such will appeal to a broad cross-section of readers.

voyage of the damned

SS St. Louis in Havana Harbor
Photo: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

On May 13, 1939, the Hamburg-Amerika Line ocean liner SS St. Louis departed Hamburg, Germany for Havana, Cuba. Aboard the St. Louis were more than 930 Jewish refugees seeking refuge in Cuba from Nazi oppression. The refugees had secured legitimate landing certificates for Cuba, however, upon their arrival the refugees learned that the pro-fascist Cuban government had invalidated the visas and all but 27 of the refugees were denied entry. Much like White Russians after the 1917 Revolution, the refugees were now a people without a country. The refugees sought entry into the United States, but in a shameful and cowardly act, the US government denied them access.

Thus, on June 6 the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe where the refugees were eventually divvied up among several European countries – 287 to the United Kingdom, 214 to Belgium, 224 to France and 181 to the Netherlands. As the Nazi juggernaut flattened Europe over the next 18 months many of the refugees once again found themselves under the heel of the Nazi jackboot. Many of the refugees perished in the Holocaust, however, a majority were able to survive the war.

In the subsequent years, the plight of the refugees aboard the St. Louis has been highlighted in print (Refuge Denied & Voyage of the Damned) and the big screen (Voyage of the Damned). As the great statesman Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Sadly, good men chose to do nothing when the refugees aboard the St. Louis came calling in Cuba and the United States.

norway naval battle

Wreck of German Destroyer in Narvik Fjord
CC Image Courtesy of Eugene van Grinsven on Flickr

On the morning of April 9, 1940, the quiet tranquillity of Narvik Fjord was shattered by the arrival of a flotilla of 10 Kriegsmarine destroyers with orders to capture the strategically significant port of Narvik. Despite only possessing the two obsolete coastal defence ships HNoMS Norge and HNoMS Eidsvold, Norwegian naval commander Odd Isaachsen Willoch refused to surrender and the fjord soon echoed with the sound of screaming shells and whooshing torpedoes. Unfortunately for the Norwegians, their outclassed ships were sunk in a battle lasting a mere 20 minutes with the loss of more than 300 sailors. The victorious Kriegsmarine force quickly took possession of the port and the multitude of ships riding at anchor in the harbor.

The next day, though, saw the arrival of a flotilla of Royal Navy destroyers. Among the flotilla was HMS Hotspur which unfortunately was not captained by Commander Hornblower. Engaging the German force, the Royal Navy’s destroyers acquitted themselves well trading the loss of 2 destroyers and 1 heavily damaged for 2 German destroyers sunk, 4 damaged and 7 cargo vessels destroyed. Three days following this engagement, a Royal Navy task force consisting of the battleship HMS Warspite, 9 destroyers and aircraft from HMS Furious unleashed their fury on the remaining German destroyers. Running low on fuel and ammunition, the German flotilla was at the mercy of the British task force and all 8 destroyers along with 2 u-boats were sent to the bottom of Narvik Fjord. Despite their overwhelming victory, the Allies were unable to follow up for lack of ground forces and Narvik remained in German hands.

battle of narvik

Battle of Narvik
CC Image Courtesy of Arkiv i Nordland on Flickr

battle of the atlantic

Blackett’s War documents the application of science to the Battle of the Atlantic and the outsized impact a small collection of British scientists had on its outcome. Author Stephen Budiansky charts the life of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Blackett, a British naval officer turned scientist, from his service in World War I to his 1930s academic life and conversion from civilian scientist to architect of a scientific method of fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. In the first section of the book, Budiansky follows Blackett’s World War I and inter-war experiences as well as those of the United Kingdom as a whole. In particular, Budiansky focuses on the deployment of the submarine as an unconventional offensive weapon and how it nearly brought Britain to her knees in World War I.

As the tale progresses, other scientists and historical events are woven into the story to add context and depth to the fascinating melding of ruthless warfare with statistical analysis, cryptography and electronic detection and countermeasures. While this often helps advance the storyline, at times it becomes difficult to keep track of the countless characters and events. If there is any flaw in the book, it is that the inclusion of these characters renders the title slightly misleading. The book is less about Patrick Blackett than it is about the scientific teams on both sides of the Atlantic that fought both their own civilian and military bureaucracy and the Kriegsmarine to win the naval war. Overall Blackett’s War is an intriguing read that provides a unique blend of scientific and military history.

SMS Adler

SMS Adler

During the last three decades of the 19th century, various Western nations carved up not just Africa, and the Near and Far East, but also various Pacific islands. In many cases, the smaller European powers sought to do empire on the cheap by not governing the islands but encouraging the installation of puppet governments. Thus, the nation could merely secure resources and coaling stations for its naval fleet. In the case of the Samoan Islands in the late 1880s, the German Empire encouraged a civil war between several tribes in order to weaken the tribes’ hold on the island and secure German concessions. Recognizing the strategic importance of the islands, the British and Americans shipped military assistance to opponents of the tribes aligned with Germany.

us gunboat samoa

USS Vandalia

As the conflict escalated, each Western nation dispatched naval vessels to Samoa and the three nations confronted one another in Apia Harbor during 1889. Britain sought to remain a peaceful arbitrator while America and Germany faced each other with the threat of belligerent action. The need for negotiations or military action between the American and German vessels, though, was swept away by the March 15/16th Apia Cyclone. Unbeknownst to either side, a cyclone had been bearing down on Samoa as each side scowled at one another across the harbor. Samoans awoke on the morning of the 16th to discover both the American and the German squadrons beached, sunk or wrecked in the harbor. The loss of the naval squadrons effectively defused the situation and the dispute was resolved by the Tripartite Convention of 1889 by which Samoa was divided between America and Germany.

wrecked german ships

SMS Eber’s Bow

nazi passenger ship

SS General von Steuben

By January 1945, Soviet forces were beginning to cut off German civilians and military personnel in East Prussia, the Polish Corridor and the Baltic States. Adolf Hitler stubbornly refused naval units to be utilized for an evacuation, instead insisting on no retreat, even in the face of overwhelming Soviet forces. Admiral Karl Donitz, one-time U-boat captain and commander of the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat forces until January 1943, finally convinced Hitler to relent and on January 23, 1945, Operation Hannibal, the largest seaborne evacuation in history began. From January 23 until early May, German Kriegsmarine units, merchant and fishing vessels and passenger liners were pressed into service to rescue approximately 1.3 million Germans from the Soviet juggernaut.

Former Norddeutscher passenger liner turned hospital ship SS General von Steuben was among those ships pressed into service. Incidentally the General von Steuben had been named after the Polish/German Revolutionary War office who had done so much to train General Washington’s ragtag army. On the night of February 10, the Soviet submarine S-13 spied the General von Steuben steaming in the Baltic with a load of 4,267 civilians, crew and soldiers. Struck by two torpedoes fired by the S-13, the General von Steuben disappeared beneath the waves of the Baltic along with 3,608 souls.

This was not S-13s first taste of blood during Operation Hannibal as the sub had sunk the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff only ten nights earlier with the loss of nearly 10,000 lives. The wreck of the General von Steuben was located in 2004 by a Polish naval vessel and lies in waters reachable by technical divers.

sunk nazi ship

SS General von Steuben on the Baltic Sea Floor

The Hunt for U-864

February 9, 2013 — Leave a comment

As hope for victory faded with each passing day, the Japanese and Nazis increasingly turned to miracle weapons to deliver them from Allied domination. As a result, in the waning months of World War II, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan began to increase their technical cooperation. Due to logistical issues, much of this cooperation flowed through transfers by submarine of engineers, blueprints and specialized material and parts between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

In early December 1944, Korvettenkapitan Marko Ramius Ralf-Reimar Wolfram and U-864 was ordered to proceed to Japan with a secret cargo of 74 tons of mercury, aircraft blueprints and two engineers. Soon after departing Germany, the U-864 developed engine troubles and Wolfram ordered the ship to put in to Bergen, Norway for repairs. After repairs were completed, the U-864 left Bergen for Japan in early February 1945. Thanks to the dedicated codebreakers of Bletchley Park, the Royal Navy was aware of U-864’s presence in the area and vectored HMS Venturer, a V-class submarine, to intercept U-864.

After arriving on scene, Venturer, commanded by Lt. James Launders with the assistance of Jack Ryan, began its hunt for Red October the U-864 and on February 9 located what it believed to be the sub. Lt. Launders was no stranger to hunting Nazi submarines, as he had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for sinking the surfaced U-771 off the Norwegian coast. Carefully stalking his prey, Lt. Launders waited for the U-864 to surface as a submerged submarine had never been sunk by another submerged submarine. U-864 had been equipped with a snorkel, though, which enabled it to operate underwater for prolonged periods and thus Lt. Launders was faced with a difficult decision – surface to re-charge his batteries and risk discovery by the Nazis or attack the U-864 while submerged. Lt. Launders chose to attack the U-864 and after developing a firing solution, unleashed a spread of four torpedoes. U-864 successfully evaded three of the four torpedoes, but the fourth struck the sub amidships and split the sub in two, instantly killing all 73 of her crew.

Lt. Launders was awarded a bar to his DSO and his action remains the only instance of a submerged submarine successfully killing another submerged submarine. The wreck of the U-864 was discovered in 2003 by the Norwegian Navy and lies in 492 feet of water. The wreck’s 74 tons of mercury makes the site an environmental hazard as approximately 8.8 pounds of mercury leak from the sub every year. In 2008, the Norwegian government awarded a salvage contract for the wreck’s recovery and disposal. The salvage has yet to be completed as the Norwegian government postponed the salvage in 2010 citing technical difficulties.