German Kriegsmarine Naval Ensign Flag, 1939.Imperial War Museum (UK), Catalogue number FLA 5343. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30017938
"U-333, Cremer, he sank the Spreewald and reported that he had sunk an 18,000-tonne ship."
I wanted to join the navy. You know the old saying, “Join the navy and see the world.” Well, seeing the world, that was secondary seeing, as far as the upper echelons in the government were concerned. However, joining the navy was my ambition. My father had served in the Kaiser's* navy in the First World War, so it sort of came naturally to me, even though we lived deep inland.
The fighting unit, that I went to, was the 7th Submarine Flotilla, in Saint-Nazaire [France]. There I waited [for] U-575. As a matter of fact, the flotilla commander, of the 7th U[-boat] Flotilla, had all of us ensigns lined up alphabetically, and, then when a boat came in, two fähnrich [ensigns] were assigned to it, and the line got shorter and shorter and shorter, and finally it was Karash, Ketelhodt, and Kimmerman, and Karash and Kimmelman went with Erishstopp, and I had to wait for Captain Werkman Heidelmann.
Well, these torpedoes were, I can't give you a precise lengths of the thing now, but they weigh over a tonne, no doubt. And, of course, on the Type VII boat, like I had travelled on, and were in command of later on, four torpedo tubes out front and one out back. So, you carried the tubes loaded, five torpedoes there, then in the front torpedo room, another four torpedoes in the bilge and one spare in the back of the bilge, also. And, initially in the war, we also had some spare torpedoes outside of the pressure hull, under the deck – one in the back and two at the front – but, reloading them into the boat was a rather tricky manoeuvre that you could only do when the sea was really calm and when you were undisturbed by airplanes or other enemy action. So, they hardly ever played any decisive part.
Günther Heydemann, he was the commanding officer of [U-]575, but for the two patrols that I was with him, nothing much happened. The one time, as I say, we were to operate on this tanker convoy. We didn't see it, although we did at one time find a tanker, we were ready to give it a wad of four torpedoes. It was about 15 or 18,000 tonnes, so it would have been worthwhile, but he had the US flag painted on the side – a neutral. And that was about two days before Pearl Harbor,** so we had to let him go.
The second patrol with him [Heydemann], we were to pick up a German blockade breaker, the [MV] Spreewald, and the Spreewald had been described in great detail to us by two SKL [officers], the Seekriegsleitung,*** that is, from Berlin, or from the upper command of the submarines. We were told what the Spreewald looks like, and that they would have laundry on the poop deck, and an anchor ball out front on the front stack. But, somebody else, who had the desire to become Ritterkreuzträger, [awarded] the Knight's Cross [German military decoration], shot her torpedoes to the boat. U-333, [Peter-Erich] Cremer, he sank the Spreewald and reported that he had sunk an 18,000-tonne ship.+ Well!
Friendly fire, yes. “Friendly fire” is such a stupid expression. So we were looking for survivors of the Spreewald, but again, we didn't find any, and eventually, had to return to St. Nazaire.
Sure, we knew that there were other routes, and the convoys took crisscross routes, in order to avoid the [U-boat] wolfpacks, the much talked about wolfpacks. But, these wolfpacks oftentimes were very meagre, very thin. The aim was to be ahead of a convoy, and submerge, if a night attack was planned, then you would stay on the surface, or surface in time, to have the convoy run over you and around you, as Cremer did, who was the tonnage king, and went inside a convoy, but that was in the early stages of the war, only when it was possible. When you were inside the convoy, you could pick off your targets one after the other, because they could not see you, unless they used these frightening lights that blinded you, really.
*Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany
**7 December 1941 Japanese attack on United States naval base in Hawaii
***German naval high command
+On 31 January 1942, U-333 commander Peter-Erich Cremer sank the German blockade runner MV Spreewald, camouflaged as another country’s ship, ahead of schedule, and unescorted. U-575 had been tasked to escort the Spreewald to France