The defendants in the U-852 trial. From left to right: Eck, August Hoffmann, Walter Weisspfennig, Hans Lenz, Wolfgang Schwender. The leftmost three were executed.
On March 13, 1944, in the South Atlantic en route to the Indian Ocean, U-852 torpedoed the Greek-flagged Peleus.
The submarine commander Eck feared the steamer’s debris would be observed by a passing airplane, and give enough information to Allied reconnaissance to enable it to find his ship. He therefore surfaced and attempted to have the debris field eliminated by machine-gunning and grenading it into the watery deep.
This seems a rather curious expedient, but evidently it was a common one.
U-Boat ace Adalbert Schnee was called (German link) to testify that blasting away at ship wreckage actually was an effective practice. But on prosecution’s cross-examination, Schnee was deftly trapped — lest he incriminate himself in a potential war crime — into disavowing (pdf) the killing of survivors who happened to be clinging to that debris.*
Q. What would you have done if you had been in Eck’s position?
A. I would under all circumstances have tried my best to save lives, as that is a measure which was taken by all U-boat commanders; but when I hear of this case, then I can only explain it as this, that Captain Eck, through the terrific experience he had been through, lost his nerve.
Q. Does that mean that you would not have done what Captain Eck did if you had kept your nerve?
A. I would not have done it.
Survivors of torpedo attacks usually had problems enough without the sub crew taking pains to attack them. Eck claimed that he worried that the survivors’ rafts might have communications equipment that would call out the sub-hunters tout de suite, but a standing German directive forbade U-boat captains assisting their prey.
No attempt of any kind should be made at rescuing members of ships sunk, and this includes picking up persons in the water and putting them in lifeboats, righting capsized lifeboats and handing over food and water. Rescue runs counter to the rudimentary demands of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews … Be harsh, having in mind that the enemy takes no regard of women and children in his bombing attacks of German cities.
An unpleasant reality of sub warfare, as depicted in the classic submarine film Das Boot:
But in this case, some of the Peleus crew managed to survive the mop-up operation, and then the open ocean, long enough to tell their tale.
The British military tribunal sentenced Eck to death, his plea of “operational necessity” (i.e., “I had to shoot the survivors to sink the debris to save my ship”) rejected; also condemned were the ship’s doctor Walter Weisspfennig, who wasn’t supposed to be involved in gunplay at all, and August Hoffmann. Both of them had taken the “only following [Eck’s] orders” line.
Hans Lenz, who had opposed Eck’s order but ultimately complied with it, drew a life sentence. Wolfgang Schwender, who seems to have shot generally at debris but not (he said) at human beings, and then got bumped off his gun by the reluctant Lenz, got off the easiest at 15 years.
Despite the predictable “victor’s justice” dynamic — American and British sub personnel, and even Japanese I-boat officers, evidently skated on similar conduct — Eck was the only U-boat commander in World War II to draw a war crimes conviction. That was surely due in part to the overwhelming majority of them having simply failed to survive the perilous undersea campaign long enough to see the inside of a war crimes court.
* Part of the past-is-prologue contest for this case was the World War I sinking of the Llandovery Castle by a German submarine, which had then proceeded to hunt down the lifeboats. It resulted in (non-death penalty) war crimes convictions for some of the U-boat officers involved. The existence of this precedent helped to defeat the “superior orders” defense of the junior officers, since they could be held to have known that Eck’s command was illegal.
Part of the Daily Double: Lesser War Criminals.