Aces low

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Man in uniform on ship's gangplank

Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

A submarine is the last vessel I would choose to go to sea in – the idea of being unable to escape in an emergency would be terrifying.

Submarine crews have played a vital role in warfare for nearly a century. Their successes in the First World War sounded the death knell for the battleship era.

The submarines of the past were minnows compared to those of today. I have attended a number of naming ceremonies at Barrow-in-Furness and been astonished by the enormous size of modern subs.

The spectacular careers of two U-boat submarine aces were ended and their vessels sunk when they attacked an Atlantic convoy bringing vital supplies to Britain in the Second World War.

It was on the night of 16 March 1941 when Captain Donald Macintyre’s 5th Escort Group, led by the destroyer HMS Walker, defeated the German Wolf Pack attack on Convoy HX 122 south of Iceland.

Otto Kretschmer was captured after his U-99 was forced to surface by depth charges from the Walker.

Joachim Schepke was crushed to death when U-100 was rammed by the destroyer HMS Vidette.

A third ace, Gunther Prien, had been lost along with U-47 in combat with another escort group several days earlier.

Kretschmer (1912 – 1998) was Germany’s most successful ace, sinking 47 ships totalling 274,333 tons. He was nicknamed Silent Otto because of his reluctance to make radio broadcasts during patrols, no doubt contributing to his success.

Schepke sank 37 ships (155,882 tons). A popular figure, he wrote a book called U-Boat Men of Today and made a speech to thousands of Berlin schoolchildren about the undersea war.

Prien sank more than 30 ships (194,000 tons) including the veteran battleship Royal Oak and the Arandora Star.

A total of 833 people died on the Royal Oak, sunk at her moorings in Scapa Flow on 13 October 1939, and more than 800 on the Arandora Star.

In the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery there is a photo of Kretschmer striding down the gangway from HMS Walker at Princes Landing Stage, Liverpool, and into captivity (pictured).

There are three head-and-shoulder photos of the aces and also images of Donald Macintyre and HMS Walker. There is a model of the Arandora Star.

Almost a third (about 800) of all Allied merchant ships sunk by U-boats in the Atlantic during the war were victims of just 30 experienced officers who had joined the German Navy by 1935.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops.