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U-852 and the Only U Boat Commander executed by Firing Squad in December 1945

An air warrior, MG has a checkered and also wields the pen forcefully with two novels and over 100 short stories

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Background

Just 75 years back World War II came to an end. This war competes in savagery with the exploits of Attila the Hun and Timur Lang. There is a silver lining to the dark cloud and that was the German navy also known as the Kriegsmarine.Except for one incident the navy generally followed the rules of war. On the other hand the German army which was supposed to be more professional carried out untold atrocities on the orders of Adolf Hitler. The German generals from Von Rundestdt, Von Manstein, and others carried out reprehensible orders of execution of the Jews, prisoners of war, and civilians. In contrast, a German navy rarely carried out any such order. Only one incident has come to light and the commander of the submarine U852, Heinz-Wilhelm Eck Was executed in 1946 after facing trial Nuremberg.

The commander of the German U-boat fleet was Admiral Donitz. .He had issued an order to his submarine commanders to not pick up any survivors of merchant ships that had been sunk. The reason for this was the lack of space and food. After sinking a merchant ship, the submarines were expected to move away from the scene leaving the survivors to fend for themselves but in one case the U-boat commanded by lieutenant commander Eck, carried out a mass execution of survivors in the waters of the South Atlantic.

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War crime

The story begins with the role of the U-boats. The Admiralty had prepared a plan to disrupt the supply lines from the British colonies to England. The submarines were ordered to operate in the South Atlantic and as far off as the Indian Ocean and even close to the Gulf of Aden. It is a tribute to the submarines that they could operate thousands of miles away from their bases in Germany, France, and Italy. The U-boats operating in the Indian Ocean and south Atlantic were part of the 'Wolfpack.' These were the most modern submarines which could remain submerged for long periods and also larger with more powerful engines to allow them to operate thousands of miles away from their bases.

The submarines were carefully monitored by the General Navy headquarters and Admiral Donitz in the war room kept track of each submarine. The submarines were also instructed to maintain radio silence except while sending a message to Naval headquarters. The purpose was to evade detection by the British Navy which was operating in these waters.

India was part of the British Empire and goods from India were transported to England via the Cape of Good Hope. The Suez canal could not be used as the entire Mediterranean at one time had become a backwater for Germany. One of the U-boats U- 852 was instructed by the Admiralty to proceed to the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and destroy as many merchant ships as possible proceeding from India to England. In early 1944, U- 852 was instructed to proceed to the South Atlantic as part of the Wolfpack. It was commanded by Lt Commander Heinz Eck.

The commander

Heinz-Wilhelm Eck was born in Berlin on March 27, 1916. He had his early schooling in Berlin. He joined the Kriegsmarine and in 1937 and completed his training. After completing his training he spent five years working on minesweepers and even commanded one of them in 1939. Command of a U- boat had the greatest prestige and Heinz Eck applied to join the U-boat fleet in 1942. He was accepted and sent for training to Pilau on 8 June, 42.

He won his spurs on the famous U-124 which was commanded by his classmate Johann Mohr. U-124 had carried out many sinkings in the Atlantic of convoys coming from America to England but nemesis caught up with U-124 and it was sunk off the coast of Portugal on 2 April 1943 with all hands on board.

Shocking order

On June 15, 1943, Eck took command of the new Type IXD-852 submarine. After months of training, he left the port of Kiel for the South Atlantic. He was proceeding to join the Wolfpack in the Indian Ocean. On March 13, 1944, he attacked the Greek merchant vessel SS Peleus. U-852 fired two torpedoes and the merchant ship was hit and began to burn. As the ship sank the survivors jumped into the waters or clung to debris and lifeboats.

Eck now gave a shocking command. Fearing that the survivors of his torpedo attack would be rescued and give away his presence, Eck ordered for all the survivors to be machine-gunned. His leading Technical officer protested but Eck would not listen. He was supported by the ship's Medic. The crew began to fire on the men in the waters and also threw hand grenades to kill them. After he was satisfied that all had been killed he sailed away.

As it turned out, not all the survivors were killed. One survivor managed to escape and was eventually rescued by allied ships. He lived to relate the story which had led to the indictment of the four U-boat officers and a seaman.

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The end

U-852 now proceeded into the Indian Ocean. It did not have a long life, as on 8 May 1944, the submarine was attacked by British aircraft off the coast of Somalia and sunk. 58 out of the crew of 60 were able to escape and land on the coast where they were captured including the captain. All of them were interned in POW camp and brought to trial at the end of the war.

The hearing was known as the Peleus Trial. The prosecutor was Colonel Halse. Major A. Melford Stevenson presided. Lieutenant commander Eck denied all the charges and claimed that he had not intended to kill any of the seamen and all he was doing was to ensure that the debris of the ship also sank so that no trace was left.

Eck's defense fell flat when many of his crew testified the opposite. Along with Heinz Eck,2 other defendants including August Hoffmann and Walter Weisspfennig Were found guilty and ordered to be executed. On 30 November 1945, all three were shot by a firing squad of the British army. Two other accused namely Hans Richard Lenz and Wolfgang Schwender were given prison sentences but released after eight months and six years respectively. Heinz Eck was only 29 When he was executed but he paid a terrible price for his fanatical loyalty to Hitler and the Reich in 1944 when it was apparent to the German general staff that the war had been lost.

Comments

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 05, 2020:

Thank you Mike for commenting

Readmikenow on September 05, 2020:

MG, fascinating bit of history I had never heard before. I enjoyed reading it.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 05, 2020:

Alan, what always surprises me is that Stalin occupied East Germany and other east European states and yet he allowed Austria to be unified into one country. I wonder why he allowed it but coming to Austria they had more Nazi believers than the Germans maybe because Hitler was Austrian and spent his early years in Vienna as a painter. I don't know whether Austria got over its old Nazi connection but recently I read that some prominent writers who had some connection with the Nazi system were denied entry to the USA.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 05, 2020:

It is an enigma, emge, and even more so as so many of them claim to be socialist with a capital 'S'. When I was there, on May 1st - whatever day it fell - the red flags were hung out in the council blocks, some from the 20s and 30s similar in design to Russian blocks.

When the Russians approached Wiener Neustadt (Vienna Newtown) south of Vienna the mayor and most dignitaries went out from the town to meet them, swearing, "We are socialist, we were never Nazis" they were mown down by machine gun fire. The Russians - especially after the Pact with Germany signed in 1939 - couldn't believe what they'd heard. That was a salutary lesson to any other would-be 'friends' in the country.

The agreed boundary between the Soviet and British occupiers in the east was at Spielfeld Strass in Styria. When Soviet forces overran the border line British ordnance was aimed at them. "Back", they were told by an officer carrying no more than a Webley service revolver. They withdrew to the point indicated on their maps. Wary of starting WWIII, US forces allowed them to stay where they'd got to beyond their agreed line.

A number of the German military and SS/SA hierarchy were Austrians, including Eichmann - a jumped-up transport clerk - including the 'commander' of a camp nearby Auschwitz who failed dismally in his task of cleaning up after 'activities', yet went unpunished because - as the inspectors put it, "he was a fellow Austrian..." Their own newsreels tell the real story of how the majority welcomed the Germans across the border.

There's no way they can wipe that from history.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 04, 2020:

Austria appears to me to be an enigma. I am told there was a lot of support for unification with Germany in 1938. Surprisingly though Austria had only 8% of the German population yet a large number of SS and guards in the concentration camps were Austrians.Thousands of Austrians had taken part in serious Nazi crimes (hundreds of thousands died in Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp alone). Austria is a very small country just about 8 million population and sometimes I wonder how small countries manage to exist. I went to Vienna only once but for me, London is the place to spend time.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 04, 2020:

Cold War fiction, emge. Vienna was an epicentre of Russian activity in the west up to and after the Allies left in 1956. There was still resentment at losing WWII, and there are Nazis still in Austria - witness the Far Right leader Jorg Haider's support until his death a decade or two ago. Being a landlocked country after WWI (their Adriatic bases in Croatia and Trieste being lost to Italy and the newly-created Yugoslavia), they didn't lose too many in the German Kriegsmarine (lack of experience in the generation that preceded WWII).

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 04, 2020:

Nice reading about your experience.It must have given you great pleasure in interacting with a different set of people. I have never interacted with anybody connected with the nazi culture. Your experience could make an extent book of fiction.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 03, 2020:

A lot of the 6th Army were Austrians, recruited into what had been the Kaiser und Koenigliches (K und K) Infantrie Regiment based in Vienna. I worked a while at a garage in Vienna in the mid-60s with a character who'd been taken prisoner by the Russians at Stalingrad. He was a real 'joy', hardly ever smiled. He'd had the stuffing knocked out of him over the next twelve years (February 1943-? 1955). The boss of the machine manufacturing company that the garage was attached to had been a captain or major in the Royal Engineers for the duration of the war, his family business sequestered by the Nazis after 'Anschluss' (1938).

Interesting experiences you get when you work amongst people in a country that fought against us twice in the same half century.

At another firm I worked for there, film distributors Universal Columbia, the warehouse & distribution manager had been in the Hitler Youth, his deputy in the German army was taken prisoner by the British Army. He was a wise fellow who'd put up with his boss for many years and was made redundant at the same time I was. I kept up a correspondence with him for a while after I got back.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 03, 2020:

This is very good news that the captured Italian POWs after release married the local women. I was not aware of it. The German POWs were released in 1955 and went to East Germany but I don't think they married Russian women, probably the scars of the Nazi-Communist conflict were too deep.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on September 03, 2020:

[Thought I'd first do some looking-up of figures in my copy of "Chronicle of the Second World War"]:

After losing 120,000 of his German Sixth Army, von Paulus (not Paulos, he wasn't Greek) surrendered 91,000 men. Also, on the German flanks, the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies and Italian 8th Army were shattered. I daresay the Romanian and Italian POWs numbered more than two thousand, only a fraction of which returned home. A lot of Italians stayed put and married Russian women after release (something I saw elsewhere, in a TV documentary on the 'Yesterday' channel) just as many Italians captured by British forces stayed here, married and opened businesses or took up work around the UK.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 02, 2020:

Thank you, Tom, for the information provided by you.

tom jose on September 02, 2020:

there is movie about laconia, leading submarine commander was otto von krestchmer -44 ships sunk

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 31, 2020:

Alan, First a big thank you for pointing out the Bloomer. You are right Paulos was promoted Field Marshal only with the idea that he should commit suicide, which he didn't and surrendered 93,000 soldiers to the Russians.

There was however one design as far as submarines are concerned and that was the electro Submarine. Towards the end of the war these new U-boats, based on a completely new concept, saw action. Had they arrived earlier, they might have changed the outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic. The concept itself inspired the submarine design for the next two decades. Even more, the hull design of one of the Electroboats was adopted and used in the development of the first nuclear. submarine. However, the ability of the Germans to operate their submarines in the south Atlantic and the Indian Ocean is itself a wonder.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 31, 2020:

You are right. RMS Laconia, carrying 2,732 crew, passengers, soldiers, and prisoners of war, was torpedoed and sunk by U-156, a German U-boat, off the West African coast. After the ship sank U-boat commander, Werner Hartenstein, immediately commenced rescue operations. But this was an isolated case

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 31, 2020:

Pamela, your comment is so welcome

laconias crew was rescued by u boat captain on August 31, 2020:

laconias crew was saved by u boat captain

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 31, 2020:

Another masterful narrative, emge, although you nearly had me going with the sentence, "...Heinz-Wilhelm Eck was born in Hamburg on March 27, 1916, in Barlin..."

There were numerous cases of U-Boat commanders giving the order to kill survivors of sinkings. The crews were certainly - mostly - brave men, as were submariners in both World Wars, held up as heroic examples to their comrades in all three forces.

There were technological developments, such as the diesel engines being replaced by electric, 'schnorkel' technology allowed them to remain submerged during their entire tour of duty and 'Alberich' made them 'invisible' to radar and sonar, their hulls covered in an adhesive rubber matting with different sized perforations to confuse detectors. The last to be sunk, in the Bristol Channel off the coast of Devon/Somerset, had lost some of its matting and was located. Another was 'lured' into a minefield their own side was not aware of (Royal Naval vessels were ordered to change the channels whilst recording the locations of new ones on Admiralty charts).

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 31, 2020:

This hisotory of Eck's horrible actions are new to me. As usual, you have written another excellent historical article, which I really enjoyed, MG

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 31, 2020:

Devika, thank you for sparing time and commenting

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 31, 2020:

Liz, thank you. This is indeed a sad tale but true.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on August 31, 2020:

This is interesting, and you enlightened me about a lot of history and just to imagine how it was.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 31, 2020:

The role of the U-boats was a frightening one in World War 2. This is an especially horrific tale, but justice won in the end.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 30, 2020:

Dear Flourish, thank you, smiling face, for sparing time and commenting

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 30, 2020:

How brutal. At that point they were zero danger.