Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds
Introduction. Over WW2, Germany produced a number of outstanding U-Boat commanders, from amongst this elite list, I have used the tonnage of enemy shipping sunk, as my yardstick to select the top ten U-Boat Aces from this conflict. (See "Top Ten US Navy Submarine Captains in WW2")
I will list them in rank order according to their success in sinking Allied ships, and paint a brief pen picture of each of them. A photograph of each of these German U-Boat Captains will round out each entry.
It was also axiomatic that if you sank enough enemy tonnage you could expect to be awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross of Germany.
This award had four distinct levels, in ascending order of importance:
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.
Additional award of Oak Leaves.
Additional award of Swords.
And the higest award for bravery: Additional award of Diamonds.
Some U-Boat statistics.
1. U-Boat Captains, and U-Boat numbers. Over the decade covered by the years 1935/1945, some 1,418 U-Boat officers trained and qualified as Captains.
Of the 1,156 boats that entered service, some 538 of their Captains died at sea, with a further 11 more dying from accidents. During the war, 5 died from natural causes, 2 were shot after being court martialled, and 2 were dismissed from this service.
It appears that 4 were all shot in differing circumstances, and finally 4 committed suicide post war.
2. Award of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and its three superior awards. 125 members of the U-Boat arm received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, 29 had the award with Oak Leaves added, 5 had the awards of both with Oak Leaves and with Swords, and with Diamonds.
3. Ships sunk and tonnages.
2779 ships were sent to the bottom by U-Boats, to toal the staggering figure of 14,119,413 tons.
4. Killed in Action. 30,003 officers and sailors from the U-Boat service paid the supreme penalty, and were killed during WW2.
5. U-Boats lost.
630 were lost at sea, 603 of these to enemy action, 20 sank from unknown causes, and another 7 were lost from accidents, mines claimed a further 81 boats.
He had been born in Heldau, Liegnitz on the 1st. of May in 1912, and
held command of U-boats U-23 and U-99. In all, he sank
56 ships to become the tonnage king of the German U-Boat service, with a
total tonnage of 313,611 tons.
This was a remarkable achievement considering that Otto only spent 18
months at sea in WW2, when on the 17th. of March 1941, his boat U-99 was
attacked and damaged by two British destroyers, HMS Vanoc and HMS
Walker. He was unable to submerge, the U-Boat was scuttled, and along
with all his crew he was taken prisoner.
Many other U-Boat Captains had a longer time fighting the enemy, but
none surpassed his record tonnage sunk.
Awards. The Knight's Cross on the 4th. of August 1940, Oak Leaves added
on the 4th. of November 1940, and Swords added on the 26th. of December
Otto Kreschmer. Captain of U-23
2. Wolfgang Luth Final rank: Kapitan zur See.
Born in Riga on the 15th. of October 1913. Captained four U-Boats, U-9,
U-138, U-43 and U-181. Over his time at sea,
he sank 221,981 tons of shipping made up from the 47 ships he sent to
the bottom. Admiral Donitz sent him off to the Naval Academy in
Flensburg-Murwik to take over command there, he unfortunately was
mistakenly shot by a sentry there, to die on the 14th. of May in 1945.
Wolfgang Luth was given a State funeral two days later, the only
U-Boat Captain to be honoured that way.
Awards. The Knight's Cross on the 24th. of October 1940, Oak Leaves
added on the 13th. of November 1942, Swords added on the 15th. of April
1943, and the final accolade, Diamonds added on the 9th. of August 1943.
Wolfgang was one of two U-Boat commanders to gain the Diamonds
award to his Knight's Cross.
Wolfgang Luth, commanded 4 U-Boats
3. Eric Topp Final rank: Fregattenkapitan.
Hannover was his birth place on the 2nd. of July 1914. Held command
of U-57, U-552, and U-2513. Responsible for
despatching 35 ships, to reach a total of 192,611 tons.
After his last patrol in U-552, Topp was in charge of the
Tactical U-Boat Flotilla in Gotenhafen.
Just before the ware came to an end he commissioned U-2513,
only to scuttle her off Horten on the 8th. of May 1945.
Awards. The Knight's Cross on the 20th. of June 1941, Oak Leaves added
on the 11th. of April 1942 and finally, Swords added on the 17th of
Eric Topp. Scuttled his last command in
4. Gunter Prien Final rank: Korvettenkapitan.
Born in Osterfeld, Thuringia on the 16th of January 1908. His only
U-Boat command was the famous U-47, Prien was selected by
Admiral Donitz to attempt the hazardous penetration of the believedly
safe British Home Fleet Base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. He succeeded
on this mission, sinking the 31,000 ton Battleship HMS Royal Oak
to escape and return in triumph to Germany, and be getted by Hitler in
Guner Prien sank 31 ships to add up to 194,103 tons, and he enjoyed a
relatively short career at sea of but 18 months. U-47 was reported
missing on the 8th. of March 1941 and her entire crew los. For a number
of years HMS Wolverine was given credit for her demise, but
later intelligence suggests tha the Corvettes, HMS Camellia and
HMS Arbutus might have sunk Prien, or even that a mine claimed
his boat and crew.
Awards. The Knight's Cross on the 18th. October 1939, Oak Leaves added,
20th. October 1940.
Gunter Prien who sank HMS Royal Oak
inside the British Home Fleet Base of Scapa Flow.
5. Herbert Schultze. Final rank: KorvettenKapitan.
Born in Kiel on the 24th. July 1909. His one command U-48,
he saw action early in WW2, after sinking 16 ships over his first four
patrols, Schultze became seriously ill, being forced temporarily to give
up his command. He then went back to sea taking over U-48 once
more, in all he sank 28 ships, their tonnage being 183,432 tons, he left
his boat to become Commander of the 3rd. U-Boat Flotilla. Then, in June
of 1942, he was assigned to Schleswig Naval Academy, as an instructor,
to pass on his skills and knowledge to young officers in training for
He died in London on the 3rd. of June 1987.
Awards. The Knight's Cross on the 1st. of March 1940, with Oak Leaves
added on the 12th. of June 1941.
Herbert Schultze, Captain of U-48
U-48, the most successful German boat in WW2. The tonnage sunk is reproduced on her conning tower
6. Heinrich Lehmann - Willenbrock.
Final rank: Fregattenkapitan.
His birthday, the 11th. of December 1911. Captained U-96
over eight atrols, commissioning her on the 14th. of September 1940.
Sailing out of Kiel for his first patrol on the 5th. of December that
year, Heinrich sank five ships, and put a torpedo into the British
10,746 ton ship Pendrecht. On the following patrol, over two days, the
16th. and 17th. of January in 1941, U-96 sank two British
ships, Oropesa and Almeda Star, both of whom were 14,000 ton vessels.
All up, this Captain, and his command, sank 25 ships with a total
tonnage of 183,253 tons.
Awards. The Knight's Cross on the 26th. of February, Oak Leaves added
on the 31st. of December 1941.
Captain of U-96
7. Karl - Friedrich Merten.
Final rank: Kapitan zur See.
Born in Posen on the 15th. of August 1908. Served in the cruiser
Konigsberg, as a Leutenant zur See, he was her Gunnery Offic, time was
served in T157, then he commanded the escort vessel F7,
and was Cadet Training Officer in the training cruiser Schleswig -
Joined the U-Boat service as a volunteer in early 1940, and sailed in
U-38, as a trainee Captain with the experienced Liebe. On the 11th. of
February 1941, Merten commissioned U-68, and made five
successful patrols. He was part of the rescue team to collect survivors
from Python and the Armed Merchant Raider Atlantis.
Mertens sank 29 ships in all, to run up a total of 180,869
When returning to his homeland, Merten's commanded the 26th. U-Boat
Flotilla at Pillau, and then later he took command of the 24th. U-Boat
Flotilla at Memel.
From there, Mertens was involved in evacuating an incredible number
of Memel residents, 6,000 Hitler Youth, and 50,000 locals.
October 1948 found him arrested to come before the Frimaire Trial in
France, but the case could not be sustained, and he was released in
March of 1949.
Awards. The Knight's Cross on the 13th. of June 1942, and Oak Leaves
added on the 16th. of November 1942.
Wartime picture of Karl-Friedrich Merten. Captain U-68.
Karl at the funeral of Gross Admiral Donitz in 1981 , walking behind him, Otto Westphalen from U-968.
8. Victor Schutze.
Final rank: Kapitan zur See.
Born in Kiel, on the 16th. of February 1906, making him the oldest of
the top 10 Aces. Commanded two U-Boats, U-25 and U-103.
Victor was at sea early in the Battle of the Atlantic, taking U-25
on his first patrol in October 1939, and achieving success on the last
day of that month when he sank the French 5,874 ton ship Baoule.
Over the period of the 12th. of January to the 13th. of February 1940
he sanksix ships to add to 27,000 tons.
In October of that year he took the new boat, U-103 to sea, and on
the 9th, fired off four torpedoes to sink three ships and damage a
On a patrol over April/May 1942, Otto had great
success, he returned home with 13 pennants fluttering from his
periscope mast to record the 13 ships he had sunk, they made
a record of 65,172 tons sunk.
He died on the 23rd. of September 1950, at the relatively young age
Awards. The Knight's Cross on the 13th. of June 1942, with Oak Leaves added
on the 16th. of November 1942.
Victor Schutze. Captained U-25 and U-103. On one patrol in April/May 1942 sank 13 ships.
9. Heinrich Liebe. Final rank: Korvettenkapitan.
His birth place Gotha, born on the 19th. of January 1908. Commanded U-38.
Prior to WW2, Liebe was Captain of U-2, and was an instructor for
students at the first U- Boat school in Kiel. It was here they learned
the art of becoming a submarine Captain. In 1938, on the 24th. of October, Liebe commissioned U-38 at Kiel,
and he was actually at sea on the 3rd. of September when war was declared.
His best effort was over May/June in 1941, after replenishing at sea, Liebe sank eight ships to total 47,279 tons. He was off the port of Freetown, situated on the west coast of Africa. It was here, that ships joined a convoy for the run home to England, or chanced it alone.
In all, Heinrich sank 32 ships to total 168,506 tons.
When he was awarded his Knight's Cross, his boss, Admiral Donitz led the "The Three Cheers."
Awards. The Knight's Cross on the 14th. of August 1940, Oak Leaves added on the 10th. of June in 1941.
10. Heinrich Bleichrodt.
Final rank: Korvettenkapitan.
Born on the 21st. of October 1909 in Berga, Kyffhausser. Was Captain of two U-Boats, U-48 and U-109. He became the third to captain the most successful of all WW2 German submarines, U-48. On his first venture at sea, Heinrich sank eight ships which included the 11,081 ton City of Benares. He followed this up with another successful patrol, accounting for a further seven ships, this time the largest, the 10,000 ton Port Gisborn.
He now moved his command to U-109, but had an uneventful first time out with her. His second patrol with this boat was better, he came into port flying five pennants for his five victims. Continued success followed off the east coast of the United States, and on his fifth patrol in U-109, he accounted for the Blue Star ship Tuscan Star, which was the ship I returned in sailing from Liverpool via the Panama Canal to Melbourne, Australia.
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