A report had come in that a British steamer, possibly a tanker, was disabled and awaiting aid from a sea-going tugboat. U-boat headquarters, or BdU, suggested Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Kleinschmidt put the stricken vessel out of its misery.
Kleinschmidt, 34, already had two merchant ships to his credit on this, his second war patrol. He figured on adding a third victim, which would bring the skipper’s total to five ships. Not bad hunting for a former cruiser lieutenant.
“He was described as having been a most careful U-Boat Captain,” said an interrogation report filed to the British admiralty by naval intelligence about six weeks later. “His petty officers considered him to have been too old for his job.”
Funkobergefreiter (radio corporal) Kurt Schönthier was the wireless operator, stationed at this stage in the forward torpedo room where he would listen through headphones for the telltale sounds of ships’ propellors once the sub submerged.
The U-boat’s forward sound-detecting system, a set of receivers arrayed on the bow, could inform an educated ear of the position of a ship or convoy, whether it was coming or going, and how far away it was.
His petty officers considered him to have been too old for his job.
A few hours into their hunt, the call came from topside: “Mastheads in sight!”
“Again, this call electrified every soul on board,” Schönthier wrote in his self-published memoir, The German Immigrant. “The chase began. Is it the 10,000 tonner or the tugboat….”
It was neither. It was, in fact, the anti-submarine trawler Lady Shirley—an actual fishing vessel requisitioned and armed by the Royal Navy in 1940—and the ship’s crew was already aware that something was present on the horizon 30 degrees to starboard.
It was 8:40 a.m. on Oct. 4, 1941. They were southwest of Tenerife, Spain.
“The officer on watch went to the crow’s nest to examine this object and thought that it might be a merchant ship’s funnel from behind the horizon,” said the British report. “But as it was considered possible that the object might be a U-Boat’s conning tower at a distance of about ten miles, course was altered from 270° to 360° to close and investigate.”
Kleinschmidt apparently became convinced he was looking at the disabled ship, or its rescue tug. He ordered the sub to dive and, while he peered through the periscope, Schönthier went to work. What the 21-year-old wireless operator soon found was disconcerting.
“As soon as I had scanned the 360 degrees, the pounding sound of the ship was immediately audible, and was rapidly closing in,” he wrote. “’Something is wrong here, drastically wrong! We are approaching each other!’”
Schönthier asked the skipper for his estimate of the ship’s distance from their boat. Kleinschmidt pegged it at 5,000 metres. Schönthier had calculated it was less than 600. He asked the wireless operator at Schönthier’s usual station in the middle of the boat for his opinion. His reply: the vessel was 500 metres away.
Kleinschmidt was insistent: “Distance 3,300 metres,” he said.
“This was almost an angry reply, I thought,” Schönthier recalled. “‘What is the matter, Captain?’ I became rather desperate.”
Mechanikersmaat Hans Plambeck, the torpedo man, was standing next to Schönthier, who offered him the headphones so he could hear for himself.
“Leave them on,” Plambeck told him. “I can hear the noise with my bare ears. She is running right over top of us!”
“Something is wrong here, drastically wrong! We are approaching each other!”
The intelligence report said surviving crew “emphatically stated” that Kleinschmidt looked through the periscope before his defiant reply. “Prisoners assumed that either something was wrong with the periscope or Kleinschmidt clung to his conviction that his adversary was a much larger ship at a much greater distance than was actually the case.”
Moments later, they heard the ominous sound of splashes in the water: depth charges—two set to explode at 100 metres and two at 45. A third pair, set at 74 metres, jammed in the rails and was never fired.
The explosions were deafening, particularly for Schönthier through his headphones, and they tossed the predominantly young U-boat crew violently.
“My eardrums!” Schönthier wrote. “I swung the wheel 180 degrees to follow our adversary’s course, but the resonance of the explosions was still so strong in my ears that I could not perceive any other noise…or had they stopped?”
Survivors told interrogators that damage aboard the unterseeboot was light. They had been at a depth of only about 13 metres when Lady Shirley’s TNT-laden drums exploded. Lighting aboard the sub was unaffected, though water had begun to enter aft.
“Kleinschmidt appears to have lost his head,” said the report, “and first to have ordered the U-Boat to surface, and the guns’ crews to man their guns.
“The Diesels were started, but almost immediately ceased to function and the engine room filled with dense smoke; this was attributed to the rise of the water entering aft. Kleinschmidt was informed that the Diesels were out of action.”
The skipper didn’t confirm the report, and instead ordered the boat to dive again. But it was too late. U-111’s conning tower had already broken the surface.
“So Kleinschmidt threw open the conning tower hatch, and hastily clambered out, followed by Rösing, Fuchs, the petty officer who was to man the 20mm machine gun on the bridge, and the crew of the forward 10.5cm gun.”
The British vessel was firing on them with its half-inch gun and Hotchkiss 13.2mm from about 450 metres. The ship then opened up with its four-inch gun. The first rounds from Lady Shirley fell 40-50 metres short of their target, the U-boat crew testified.
Prisoners stated that Kleinschmidt underestimated Lady Shirley’s “prowess.” He intended to keep the vessel at a respectful distance while his crew repaired the engines. Then, if he couldn’t sink his foe, he planned to make an escape on the surface.
“As the U-Boat’s periscope was seen rising just clear of the water disturbed by the explosions of the depth charges, Lady Shirley’s wheel was put hard to port to enable her 4in gun to bear, and, if necessary, to enable her to ram the U-Boat,” said the report. “The Telegraphist was ordered to send out an enemy report.”
U-111 opened up with her 20mm machine gun, hitting Lady Shirley’s gunlayer in the stomach with an explosive bullet, killing him instantly. A sub-lieutenant took over his position and the British gun, said the report, “never faltered in its fire.”
“The Captain of U-111’s forward gun’s crew was the first man to jump down off the conning tower on to the deck, with the intention of manning his gun; he was followed by the rest of the gun’s crew.
“Apart from the damage caused by machine-gun bullets, prisoners knew of only two hits by shell-fire. One struck before and below the conning tower, exploded, but did not penetrate the pressure hull. The second shell struck the base of the periscope in the conning tower and twisted the torpedo hatch cover.”
Seven of the 52 U-boat crew were killed by the second strike.
U-111 opened up with her 20mm machine gun, hitting Lady Shirley’s gunlayer in the stomach with an explosive bullet.
Dazed and confused at his station forward, Schönthier didn’t know if they were still submerged or on the surface. The muffled sounds of gunfire and the shuddering of his boat gave him his answer. He turned and realized he was alone.
Making his way back, he found a mortally wounded crewman in the control room. The man, Matrosengefreiter Heinz Steffeck, had been delivering ammunition when the second shell struck the conning tower and knocked him back down the ladder. Bloodied and badly burned, he died in Schönthier’s arms.
A gun battle was raging topside. Schönthier moved toward the ladder and found Bootsmannsmaat der Reserve Hubert Haberstroh leaning on it. He was shaking uncontrollably, his face white.
“Stay down here,” Haberstroh told him. “They’re all dead up there!”
Schönthier started up the ladder, encountering chaos and devastation everywhere. There was a large hole in the conning tower where the shell had struck and all around him were bloody and mutilated remains, including those of Kleinschmidt.
“The Germans passed shells to the forward gun’s crew through the hole torn in the side of the conning tower,” said the report. “But the first round placed in the forward gun could not be rammed home and was jammed.”
Two of the sub’s forward gun crew were badly wounded, one with a leg blown off. He would later die aboard Lady Shirley.
In the smoke-filled engine room, with the water level rising around them, crewmembers managed to restart the diesels, but the engines were only functioning at low revolutions and soon quit. U-111 never recovered level trim, survivors said.
Two of the sub’s forward gun crew were badly wounded, one with a leg blown off.
Many of the Germans criticized their aft gun crew, telling their interrogators its captain “feigned indifference to the entire proceedings, and his attitude was interpreted as cowardice.
“An ominous forecast was made regarding his fate at the hands of the inevitable German court-martial expected after the end of the war.”
Panic ensued, said the report. The crew was ordered to abandon the boat. Some on deck threw up their hands and cried out that they surrendered. The engineer officer was said to have opened the vents to ensure U-111 would sink.
It was going down rapidly by the stern. Lady Shirley ceased fire. It was 10:19.
Schönthier was now at the back of the boat, standing at the rail alongside Maschinengefreiter (machinist’s mate) Hannes Znottka. What was left of the forward gun crew were dragging a wounded boatmate into the water.
Wrote Schönthier: “Hannes Znottka pointed to the water that started flowing over our feet. ‘We’d better be jumping,’ he said.” So, in they went.
Four minutes later, at 10:23 a.m., U-111 slipped below one last time, its bow pointing straight up. It was the first U-boat destroyed in the South Atlantic during the Second World War. The whole action had lasted just 19 minutes from the time Lady Shirley obtained the sub’s echo at 10:04 until the U-boat disappeared.
Eight of U-111’s crew died; 44 survived and were picked up by Lady Shirley; three of the four wounded lived. The crew’s average age was 23; most would end up in Canadian prison camps and wouldn’t see their homes for another six years, if ever. Some no longer had a home left.
Lady Shirley lost one crewman; three were wounded, and the trawler suffered minor damage. With Allied shipping still on its heels in the Battle of the Atlantic, British naval intelligence was less than impressed by the U-boat’s performance under fire.
“The crew of U-111 put up a poor fight and surrendered speedily to their much less powerful adversary,” said the report, based on interrogations conducted in England. Referencing the previous sinking of a U-boat and the capture of another, it said all three crews gave in quickly “when real and obvious determination was encountered.”
“The previous high morale was, in each case, apparently artificial morale based on propaganda assurances and not on real confidence in the reliability of the men themselves. This inability to surmount a crisis is an encouraging fact and of psychological interest in the examination of Nazi education and naval training.”
The U-111 prisoners outnumbered Lady Shirley’s crew nearly 2:1. One of the Germans suggested they storm the vessel’s crew quarters and take the ship. All but one of the captured U-boat men refused and the proposal was abandoned.
The report said the Germans expressed more doubts as to the outcome of the war than previous PoWs. “The bogey of a post-war court-martial seems to occupy the minds of prisoners with greater frequency and increasing menace.
“There are some signs that fear is gradually replacing loyalty in the attitude of the more thoughtful men towards the Nazi régime.”
For more on the epic saga of Kurt Schönthier and his eventual return to Canada for good, see the story “U-boat man” in the March/April issue of Legion Magazine, now available on newsstands or by order from Legion Magazine’s online shop.