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Teddy Suhren’s Last Patrol

By Ronald H. Bailey
11/29/2017 • World War II Magazine

Long-lost photographs document the final mission of a U-boat rebel.

At 9:30 p.m. on July 9, 1942, the German submarine U-564 slipped out of the harbor at Brest, on the northwest coast of France. It was based there in a cavernous bunker that could accommodate as many as 20 U-boats under a protective roof of reinforced concrete, which was up to 20 feet thick and impregnable to the enemy bombs of the day. For the next 70 days the U-564 would have to make its way unprotected in a treacherous maritime arena vulnerable to enemy bombers and ships armed with lethal depth charges.

Painted on the U-564’s conning tower was a caricature of a large black cat, its tail held proudly upright and its back arched over the symbol 3X, signifying three black cats. One black cat was considered bad luck but three black cats supposedly brought good fortune. Thus far in the war the U-564 had enjoyed more than its share of good fortune, thanks largely to its 26-year-old skipper, Reinhard “Teddy” Suhren.

Already a legend in the U-boat service, Suhren was a highly decorated hero renowned as much for his irreverent wit and rebellious attitude as for his skills as a torpedo marksman and his bold and compassionate leadership.

“He was an original,” observed one of his own former skippers, Hans Rudolf Rösing. “There was but one Teddy Suhren.”

The U-564 was one of 10 U-boats heading out on this patrol to the Caribbean, thousands of miles to the west. Most of them, like the U-564, were Type VIICs, the 221-feet-long workhorses of the German undersea fleet. But before joining the other U-boats in the Atlantic, the U-564 made a side trip down the French coast. Escorted by a minesweeper and two surface vessels armed with antiaircraft guns, it maneuvered through the German minefields that guarded the coast, stopped at the U-boat base at Lorient, and took aboard a special guest.

Maat Haring was a photographer sent from the German propaganda ministry, and his presence would bedevil Teddy Suhren, who hated publicity and found Haring constantly underfoot in the boat’s cramped quarters.

There was a distinct plus to the uncomfortable arrangement, however. At a time when U-boats still prowled the Atlantic and Caribbean with relative impunity, but when glimpses of the end were increasingly in view, Haring and his Leica camera would capture in unprecedented detail the daily drama of undersea warfare—both the everyday tedium and its heart-stopping successes and failures.

Standing only five feet four inches tall, Teddy Suhren had been given his nickname in secondary school because he was so conspicuously inept in marching drills during cadet training. Someone in the rank behind him called out, “My goodness, Reinhard, your marching makes you look like a teddy bear!”

The name stuck. Suhren, feeling alien in the surface navy, transferred to U-boats. There, among the individualists of the elite U-boat service, he found a home for his diminutive stature, incipient talents, and maverick tendencies. “In this other world,” he wrote in his memoir, “I found waiting for me a whole set of better moral values, such as understanding, human sympathy and even warmth.”

He also found success. In 1939 and 1940, on the U-48, he served with unusual distinction on 12 war patrols, during which the submarine sank 300,000 tons of enemy ships. Each of his three captains won the Knight’s Cross, in no small part due to Suhren’s marksmanship. As first watch officer, his primary duty when attacking a ship while surfaced was to calculate the complex geometry—speed, bearing, distance, angle—of the attack and then fire the torpedoes. In fact, his third skipper refused to accept his own Knight’s Cross until a similar medal was awarded to Suhren, whose torpedoes had accounted for more than half the damage wrought by the U-48.

It was a decoration virtually unheard of for anyone under the skipper’s rank, though his older brother received the award as a U-boat engineer. By October 1940, when Suhren left the U-48, he had fired 65 of the 119 torpedoes discharged in action—and 30 had hit the target. He would end the war credited with personally firing more successful torpedoes, whether surfaced or submerged, than any U-boat officer. “We need success in the same way as a performer needs applause,” he wrote. “Without this sort of affirmation it would no longer be possible to overcome the occasional moments of terror.”

His command of the newly commissioned U-564, beginning in April 1941, did nothing to diminish his marksmanship. On one occasion he hit three big ships—two freighters and a tanker—with a single salvo of torpedoes. Such feats brought him Oak Leaves for his Knight’s Cross, personally awarded by Adolf Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair, the führer’s operational headquarters in East Prussia. Suhren, infamous for his drinking prowess, watched impatiently while others at the ceremonial dinner toasted with decorous sips of their schnapps, and then he downed his glass in one gulp. He playfully entitled his postwar memoirs Nasses Eichenlaub—“Wet Oak Leaves.”

Like his crew, his commander—Karl Dönitz, the chief of the U-boat service and known to his submariners as “the Lion”— held Suhren in great esteem despite his on-shore antics. Dönitz overlooked reports from the Abwehr intelligence service that Suhren had dated a young Jewish woman and had been seen drinking with a black man in a Hamburg bar. He also looked the other way when Suhren and other submarine officers spent shore leave in the company of attractive European starlets at the Scheherazade, a high-class nightclub in Paris operated by Russian émigrés. Once, when Suhren was broke, Dönitz sent him 400 marks—$160 U.S.—from his own pocket.

As the U-564 sailed across the Bay of Biscay and westward into the North Atlantic in the summer of 1942, its 44- man crew maintained great faith in their captain. The crew ranged in age from an 18-year-old seaman to the 43-year-old navigator, a veteran of naval service in World War I and the only man permitted to carry aboard a ration of rum (to ease his aching joints).

Their loyalty to Teddy Suhren helped mitigate the prospect of danger and the everyday discomfort. The boat’s interior was scarcely more than 15 feet in diameter at its widest point. Crewmen had to share their cramped quarters with 14 torpedoes and the stores of canned and fresh food that were stashed everywhere, even in the latrine in the tiny galley, which was situated next to the room that housed the diesel engines. “On the whole our provisions were very good,” wrote Suhren. “In fact we had everything—except it all tasted of diesel oil.”

Dönitz was hoping Suhren and the other skippers on this mission to the Caribbean would continue to successfully interdict merchant shipping between the Western Hemisphere and Great Britain. On a previous patrol there in the spring, the U-564 had sunk four ships confirmed—including a Mexican tanker off Florida that occasioned Mexico’s entry into the war—and damaged two others. That June, just before this new mission, all U-boats everywhere had claimed the destruction of 130 ships amounting to 613,682 tons—a monthly toll that would be bettered only once more during the war.

It appeared to Suhren and others that the outcome of the U-boat war hung in the balance that summer.

Enemy aircraft were a growing threat to the continued success of the U-boats. Allied planes were increasing in number and range; they now carried searchlights and newly effective depth charges, and some had radar. The appearance of an enemy plane typically forced the U-564 to submerge, drastically slowing its progress. The lookouts on the bridge would sound the alert for a crash dive, then slam the main hatch shut behind them and drop to the steel plates of the control room floor while the claxon shrilled its warning. Crewmen would close the exhaust vents, shut down the diesel engines, and engage the electric motors for underwater propulsion.

This meant a sharp reduction in speed. On the surface, the U-boat’s two six-cylinder diesel engines generating 3,000 hp could propel it at nearly 18 knots, or nautical miles, per hour. When submerged, electric motors propelled the boat at only seven knots, a speed that could soon discharge the batteries that powered them. Suhren liked to point out that his U-boat was a submersible, not a true submarine, which by definition could travel underwater for hours on end with ample batteries to power the engines and circulate plenty of fresh air.

In the first six days at sea, the U-564 was forced to make repeated emergency dives because of the threat of air attack. Of the first 430 nautical miles, which took her into the central Atlantic, 60 were spent submerged. On July 17, the danger of surface travel was starkly illustrated by the fate of one of the 10 westbound boats, the U-751. Depth charges dropped by a British Whitley aircraft sent the boat and its entire 48-man crew to the bottom of the Atlantic.

That same evening a radio alert came from Karl Dönitz’s new operational headquarters in Paris. A U-boat returning from a mission along the U.S. eastern seaboard, during which it landed four German saboteurs, had spotted an enemy convoy. Dönitz ordered Suhren’s boat and others within striking range of the target convoy to move in for the kill.

Had the alert come a few months earlier, Allied radio monitors would have been able to read it. The Allies had broken the highly sophisticated German Enigma code by seizing codebooks and an intact three-rotor cryptographic machine resembling a small portable typewriter from a captured U-boat in May 1941. But the Germans had now introduced a new four-rotor Enigma machine that rendered the U-boat ciphers impenetrable for the remainder of 1942.

Suhren prepared for battle. The five electric torpedoes were pulled from their tubes—four in the bow and one in the stern. Their batteries were checked and topped up with electrolyte solution, and the heating elements within were switched on to preheat the cells before firing, which would extend the torpedoes’ range by 60 percent.

The following morning, a lookout on the conning tower spotted a smudge of coal smoke. It was OS (Outbound South) 34, a convoy of 35 merchant ships and 5 sloop escorts bound from the United Kingdom to South Africa. The U-564 and two others gave chase, beginning an intricate dance of hunter and hunted, with Suhren proceeding on the surface only when it was safe.

A British Liberator bomber circled the convoy that evening and forced Suhren to crash-dive repeatedly. “Up and down the whole time; it’s like being in a lift!” he wrote. “These fiendish air patrols.” Actually, though Suhren did not realize it, the plane carried no bombs or depth charges. It had been fitted with extra fuel tanks to extend its range. Never before had a Liberator penetrated so far into the Atlantic. This plane was a grim harbinger for the Germans. By the following spring, enough of these long-range craft would be available to close the so-called air gap that now offered U-boats relatively safe sailing on the surface for much of the Atlantic.

Before dawn on July 19, after two nights of pursuit, Suhren raced ahead of the convoy and chose a risky means of attack. Instead of shooting from 45 degrees off to the side, he decided to take his targets by surprise from dead ahead in surface darkness. He maneuvered unseen into position between an outer column of merchant ships, including a munitions-laden freighter, and a pair of escorts flanking it. He ordered torpedoes in all four bow tubes fired in succession, each expelled by compressed air and then powered by electric motors to a maximum speed of 30 knots yards below the surface. Then Suhren immediately had the boat thrown hard to port to bring the stern tube to bear.

“I hear one detonation, two detonations—and at the same moment all hell breaks loose behind us,” Suhren wrote. “Red, green and yellow jets of flame whiz through the air. A fireball of unimaginable size lights up the night…munitions have made the ship literally disintegrate.”

He ordered others on the bridge to go below to escape the falling debris, but he remained, transfixed. Then he remembered Maat Haring, the war photographer, and shouted down to him to come to the bridge and record the awesome pyrotechnic display. Suddenly Suhren heard the hiss of air escaping from the diving cells and, hurrying down through the hatch, felt water cascading onto his head as he pulled the hatch shut. His shout for the photographer had been mistaken for the order to crash-dive. Furious, he vented at the hapless photographer: “You stand around and get under everyone’s feet, but if there is anything out of the ordinary, you’re nowhere to be found!”

His tirade was punctuated by the sounds of enemy propellers approaching overhead, amplified by the U-boat’s hydrophones. Fearing a counterattack, Suhren stopped yelling and ordered the deployment of the newly installed sonar decoy. Known as Bold (short for Kobold, or goblin), it consisted of a small capsule filled with calcium and zinc compound packed in a wire mesh bag and stored inside an aluminum canister. After the canister was ejected from the stern compartment, seawater trickling into the canister produced hydrogen gas. The resulting mass of bubbles fooled enemy sonar by creating the type of echo that usually signaled contact with a submarine. It worked. Suhren heard the detonation of six depth charges launched by the British escort exploding harmlessly around the decoy.

The U-564 surfaced. Pursued by two enemy escorts firing flares to light up the scene, Suhren had the electric motors run in tandem with the diesels and began to pull away. Suddenly, black smoke engulfed the boat, and the starboard diesel stopped. Fire had broken out in the engine room, where carelessly abandoned oily rags had fallen onto the red-hot diesel exhaust. A crash dive took the boat down below the fusillades of depth charges hurled out by the enemy escorts. The boat was severely rocked but undamaged. Suhren had water deliberately leaked into the pressure hull to smother the blaze in the engine room.

When his boat surfaced, the enemy was nowhere in sight. British commanders were certain they had finished off the U-boat that had inflicted the only losses on the enemy convoy.

Though Suhren and his crew were certain they had hit four ships, Allied records showed two sunk—the British merchant vessels Empire Hawksbill and Lavington Court, totaling 11,000 tons—and none damaged. “Never again would I see the like of it at sea,” he wrote later. “Pictures of that night etched themselves indelibly on my mind.” To commemorate their scores and survival, he ordered preparation of a celebration tea for everyone, with baked goods, whipped cream, and preserved fruits.

The relatively safe tedium of logistical problems, rather than matters of life and death, occupied the following three weeks. A crewman suffering the agony of rheumatoid arthritis in the damp boat was transferred to the U-203, which was returning home from a successful Caribbean patrol. Like Suhren, Rolf Mützelberg, the captain of U-203, was one of Dönitz’s favorites, a star performer with 21 confirmed sinkings. During their rendezvous, Mützelburg went swimming off his own boat with several crewmen from the U-564.

“They were playing tag when Mützelburg ran up the conning tower and dived in elegantly headfirst off the top of the bridge,” Suhren wrote. “My hair stood on end.” He told Mützelburg it was reckless because of the fuel tanks bulging out on the side of the boat. “But he laughed, and told me he did it quite often, and wouldn’t be put off doing it.” Several weeks later, as Suhren had feared, Mützelburg dived off his U-boat’s bridge, struck one of the fuel tanks, and fatally cracked his skull.

On August 3, the U-564 met up with a new kind of U-boat— the so-called Milchkuh, or milk cow. This vessel, a Type XIV, could refuel U-boats at sea, greatly extending the range of boats like Suhren’s well beyond the usual 8,500 nautical miles. While other U-boats awaiting their turn formed a protective ring around the tanker and kept a sharp lookout for enemy surface vessels (their position lay beyond Allied air patrols), a hose linked it with the U-564 for more than three hours, providing 50 tons of diesel fuel. At the same time, fresh food and water were shuttled over by dinghy. The tanker also carried a physician, a bakery, extra lubricating oil, and a small machine shop for repairs. That summer, it would refuel and resupply 13 different U-boats.

What Suhren wanted as much as fuel was replacements for the four torpedoes he had unleashed against convoy OS 34. He learned of a U-boat that was returning home with all torpedoes intact, the U-154, and arranged a meeting. Meanwhile, he and his resourceful crew improvised a method of transferring fresh torpedoes to the U-564 at sea and practiced it for an entire day.

During the rendezvous with the U-154, a frosty encounter occurred between the two commanders. The other captain had been Suhren’s divisional officer at the naval academy—“the one who had given me the hardest time,” he recalled. That man’s own patrol had been a failure, and he was returning to Brest because of a liver problem. Suhren saw him staring dumbfounded at his former cadet “with decorations up to my chin.” Suhren must have taken satisfaction from the fact that the man—with a liver ailment or, as he suspected, lack of stomach for command—would soon be relieved of his U-boat.

Suhren and half a dozen crewmen stripped to their underwear and swam across to the other boat, where they tied 16 life jackets to each torpedo. One at a time, the 1.5-ton cylinders were lowered into the water with block and tackle; then each one was floated back to the U-564 with the help of rubber dinghies. Three torpedoes made the trip smoothly and were lifted onto the loading cradle and then winched downward into the bow torpedo room. By the time the life jackets were attached to the fourth torpedo, however, they had lost some of their buoyancy. The projectile stood up on end and slipped away to the seabed miles below.

On August 10, 1942, new instructions directed the U-564 southwest toward the island of Grenada and the Caribbean Sea. The assignment was to intercept east-west merchant traffic passing the Lesser Antilles island chain. A few months earlier, crowded shipping lanes here had yielded easy pickings for the U-boats. Now Suhren found no targets and an alarming proliferation of land-based enemy aircraft. On August 13, a four-engine bomber passed nearly directly overhead and dropped a pair of depth charges that fell wide of the mark.

Four days later, the air alert went up again from watchers on the bridge: “Flieger!” The plane in question flew scarcely 25 yards above the water and bracketed the U-564 with three bombs as the boat quickly submerged in a steep crash dive. Then, when the U-boat was 45 yards beneath the surface, the aircraft dropped a depth charge that exploded dangerously nearby. The pressure hull held but the main depth gauge jammed and now gave a false reading. Everyone could hear the creaks and groans that indicated they were plummeting perilously downward into water pressure sufficient to cave in the boat’s pressure hull.

At 175 yards—a dozen yards below the boat’s shipyard-rated test depth—Suhren attempted to stop the descent. He ordered the forward tanks blown clear of ballast with compressed air. Preternaturally calm in a crisis, he saw that a seaman had turned the hand wheels in the wrong direction, which had the opposite effect of his order. Suhren dashed across the control room to spin the controls fully open. The free fall eased and ended at a depth of 220 yards. The boat avoided catastrophe and gradually rose. Suhren kept it submerged while the crew hurriedly repaired the damage. He was relieved that everyone was still alive but worried nonetheless. “On every occasion after serious depth-charge attacks,” he recounted, “either we couldn’t get our torpedoes to run properly or they failed to detonate.”

When Caribbean targets finally came into view—a convoy of 15 merchant ships and 9 escorts en route from Trinidad—Suhren had mixed success with his torpedoes. The unexpected appearance of an escort vessel caused him to misjudge the distance, firing prematurely and missing with all five torpedoes. Two hours later, he sank a tanker and a freighter, though he mistakenly thought his other two shots had hit two additional targets. Hours later, he aimed at two ships less than a half-mile away. The torpedoes struck their targets—he could hear the metallic clicks, then nothing. They turned out to be duds.

Finally, on August 30, northeast of Tobago, he homed in on a solo enemy tanker, the Vardaas, flying the British flag. The first torpedo found its mark, and the Norwegian crew abandoned ship. Attempting to finish off the tanker, Suhren ordered his very last torpedo fired. But it became trapped in the tube, threatening a premature explosion that would have likely destroyed the U-564. Crewmen frantically cranked open the tube doors and the missile burst free, veering erratically off-course.

Suhren surfaced and called his gun crew up to man the deck cannon. In frustration, they fired no fewer than 50 shells at the derelict tanker, which finally went down. “Shot our bolt,” announced the skipper, and ordered his boat to head for home.

Suhren had wished for more, but his boss was happy. “Excellent undertaking by this proven commander,” was Dönitz’s evaluation of the patrol. “The convoy attacks, both in conception and execution, were carried out in an exemplary matter.” On the way home, the crew staged a special ceremony on the stern deck to salute Suhren for two new honors announced over the radio from Paris: he had been promoted and awarded with Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross, but this time with Swords. He was one of only five U-boat men to receive the latter award during the war. For the ceremony, the cook improvised emblems for Suhren’s new rank and award by cutting them from tin cans.

When the U-564 returned to its home base at Brest on September 18, 1942, it marked the end of Suhren’s longest patrol—and his last. He was being reassigned to train other skippers. For the homecoming, the bridge bore nine pennants, representing the number of enemy ships Suhren believed his boat had sunk or damaged. His men stood proudly in clean uniforms, their hair newly trimmed, their beards either carefully groomed or shaved.

Their skipper could not resist a bit of his trademark rebellious humor. Approaching the pier, he spotted an old friend and fellow maverick among the greeting party and called out, “Hein, are the Nazis still at the helm?” When word came back that they were indeed, Suhren made a show of suddenly backing his boat toward open sea.

Despite such gestures and his self-professed surprise the following year at seeing old Jews wearing yellow stars on the streets of Berlin, Suhren remained loyal to the Nazi regime, sometimes even joining its inner circle. He was promoted again, to Korvettenkapitan—a rank equivalent to commander in the U.S. Navy—and named chief of all U-boats stationed in Norway.

Hitler’s deputy, Martin Bormann, invited him to Obersalzberg, a mountainside retreat where he and the führer had homes. There he stayed with Bormann’s large family and boogied with Eva Braun and her sister, despite the wartime ban on American swing dancing.

In the months following Suhren’s last patrol, the tide turned against the U-boats in the Caribbean and in the Atlantic. By the end of May 1943, Dönitz was forced to pull his boats out of the North Atlantic altogether because of new Allied code-breaking capability, increased air patrols aided by improved radar, and shipborne high frequency direction finders—the so-called Huff-Duff. Suhren’s own U-564 was attacked and sunk by enemy aircraft while crossing the Bay of Biscay that year. Twenty-eight men died, many from his old crew.

For many years, scarcely anyone would see the photographs of Suhren’s last patrol: after the U-564 returned home, Maat Haring’s pictures somehow became lost in the labyrinthine interior of the Brest bunker. Toward the end of the war a British Royal Navy diver named Foster Appleyard, assigned to clear away the massive battle debris in the Brest submarine pens, happened upon the photographs. He took them back home to Yorkshire and stowed them away, where they remained for more than 50 years. After his death, the 361 photographs were discovered among his belongings, making the patrol the most thoroughly documented U-boat mission of the entire war.

As for Suhren, he was among the third of all U-boat men who survived the war’s terrible toll. He died in 1984 of stomach cancer and, as he had requested, his ashes were scattered over the precise place where his beloved U-564 had gone down.

 

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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