Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Figure 1: A German submarine, probably U-47, photographed from or near the battleship Scharnhorst circa late 1939 or early 1940. The original caption states that this submarine was returning to Kiel, Germany, from a war patrol. Note insignia on the conning tower, which looks very much like U-47's "Bull of Scapa Flow" emblem. Copied from the contemporary German photo album "Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst," page 19. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: U-47 arrives at Kiel, Germany, on 23 October 1939, with her crew at quarters. The battleship Scharnhorst is in the background. U-47 was returning from the mission in which she sank the British battleship Royal Oak inside Scapa Flow on 14 October. This is a halftone image, copied from a contemporary publication. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: U-47 returning to port after sinking the battleship HMS Royal Oak. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien, commanding officer of U-47. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: Günther Prien welcomes a U-boat back to base. Behind him is another famous U-boat commander, Otto Kretschmer. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: Günther Prien standing on U-47’s conning tower at the end of his sixth and most successful patrol. Note the tonnage pennants and the figure of 66,587, which represents the estimated total tonnage sunk. Also note the “Snorting Bull” emblem on the conning tower. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: Battleship HMS Royal Oak, sunk by Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien and U-47 on 14 October 1939, with the loss of 833 officers and men killed out of a crew of 1,219. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: Another view of HMS Royal Oak. When attacked by Günther Prien’s U-47 in Scapa Flow, the 22-year-old Royal Oak was the flagship of the 2nd Battle Squadron of the British Home Fleet. Click on photograph for larger image.

U-47 was a 753-ton Type VIIB submarine built by Krupp Germaniawerft at Kiel, Germany, and was commissioned on 17 December 1938. U-47 was approximately 218 feet long and 20 feet wide, had a top speed of 17 knots while surfaced and 7.6 knots submerged, and had a crew of 47 officers and men. U-47 was armed with four bow torpedo tubes and one stern tube, all firing 21-inch torpedoes. The ship also was armed with one 88-mm gun forward of the conning tower and a 20-mm antiaircraft gun on the deck behind it. The Type VIIB was destined to become the most famous class of U-boats during World War II and also had an excellent range of 8,700 nautical miles at 10 knots, making her a very effective weapon against Allied shipping.

The captain of U-47 was the remarkable Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien, one of the best submarine officers ever produced by Germany. Prien was born on 16 January 1908 and joined the German Merchant Navy in the summer of 1923. He transferred to the German Reichsmarine (or Navy) in 1933 and served on board the light cruiser Konigsberg before entering the U-boat service in 1935. At the end of his training, he was assigned First Officer of the Watch to U-26. The talented Prien rose steadily in the ranks until he was given command of the new Type VIIB submarine, U-47, when she was commissioned on 17 December 1938 and was promoted to the rank of Kapitänleutnant on 1 February 1939.

Shortly after the start of World War II in Europe on 1 September 1939, then Commodore Karl Donitz, commander of the German U-boat service, promoted a plan for a single U-boat to slip into and attack the Royal Navy’s heavily protected naval base at Scapa Flow, located in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland. Although two U-boats tried doing this during World War I (U-18 and UB-116), the British managed to sink both ships before they were able to do any damage. But after collecting an impressive amount of intelligence and aerial reconnaissance photographs of Scapa Flow, Donitz firmly believed that a successful attack could be made if the job was given to the right captain and crew. He chose Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien and U-47. Although Prien had commanded U-47 for less than a year, Donitz knew that the talented and fearless young submariner was the right man for the job.

Prien accepted the assignment almost immediately. Donitz, though, wanted him to think about it for 48 hours before accepting. In less than 48 hours, Prien informed Donitz that he was going to take the job. After pouring over the charts and intelligence Donitz had collected, Prien set sail from Kiel Canal and headed for Scapa Flow on 8 October 1939. Shortly after midnight on 14 October, U-47 crept silently into the anchorage of Scapa Flow, dodging several submerged wrecks in the process. Although most of the British fleet was at sea at the time, Prien spotted the large 29,000-ton World War I-era battleship HMS Royal Oak. U-47 fired a large number of torpedoes at the British battleship and at least four of them hit. Royal Oak sustained catastrophic damage and sank in less than 29 minutes, taking 833 officers and men with her. Approximately 386 men were rescued from the water. After the Royal Oak went down, U-47 left the same way that she had come, exiting Scapa Flow without a scratch.

It was a tremendous blow to the Royal Navy. The war had just begun and the Germans had sunk one of its finest battleships. When Prien returned to Germany, he was given a hero’s welcome. Prien was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, the first sailor of the U-boat service and the second member of the Kriegsmarine to receive this award. Prien also went on to become one of the most famous U-boat “aces” of the war, with U-47 sinking an amazing 30 merchant ships totaling 162,769 gross register tons (GRT) and damaging eight merchant ships totaling 62,751 GRT. In 1940, a grateful Germany awarded Prien Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross, another major honor.

But Prien’s luck ran out on 8 March 1941, when U-47 attacked the British Convoy OB-293 just south of Iceland. While escorting the convoy, the British destroyer HMS Wolverine depth-charged a sonar contact and, after several major explosions, U-47 and its young 33-year-old captain were never heard from again. There is some debate today as to whether or not U-47 was actually sunk by Wolverine or by a mine or even by one of its own torpedoes that turned back and stuck the submarine. Whatever the reason, Germany had lost one of its greatest U-boat captains and a remarkable warship.

Although Günther Prien and U-47 fought for less than two years during World War II, they achieved a remarkable record, sinking one battleship, 30 merchant ships, and damaging eight additional merchant ships. Great Britain was almost brought to its knees by the U-boat war, and U-47 and ships like her were some of the major reasons why. The Allies, who were certainly unprepared for a major submarine war, were just lucky that Germany had only a handful of ships like U-47.