Erich Topp (r) on U-552 in St. Nazaire in October 1941
|Ordered:||25 September 1939|
|Builder:||Blohm & Voss, Hamburg|
|Laid down:||1 December 1939|
|Launched:||14 September 1940|
|Commissioned:||4 December 1940|
|Fate:||Scuttled, 2 May 1945, at Wilhelmshaven|
|Class and type:||Type VIIC submarine|
|Height:||9.60 m (31 ft 6 in)|
|Draught:||4.74 m (15 ft 7 in)|
|Complement:||4 officers, 40–56 enlisted|
|Identification codes:||M 20052|
German submarine U-552 was a Type VIIC U-boat built for Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine for service during World War II. She was laid down on 1 December 1939 at Blohm & Voss in Hamburg as yard number 528, launched on 14 September 1940 and went into service on 4 December 1940. U-552 was nicknamed the Roter Teufel ("Red Devil") after its mascot of a grinning devil which was painted on the conning tower. She was one of the more successful of her class, operating for over three years of continual service and sinking or damaging 30 Allied ships with 164,276 tons sunk and 26,910 tons damaged. She was a member of 21 wolf packs.
U-552 was involved in two controversial actions: in October 1941 she sank the USS Reuben James, the first US Navy warship to be lost in World War II; this was at a time when the US was still officially neutral, and caused a diplomatic row. In April 1942 she sank the freighter SS David H. Atwater off the US seaboard.
U-552 had an unusually long service life, surviving to the end of World War II; after evacuating from her French base during the spring of 1944 she operated on training duties in the Baltic Sea until 2 May 1945, when her crew scuttled her in Helgoland Bight, to prevent her falling into enemy hands.
German Type VIIC submarines were preceded by the shorter Type VIIB submarines. U-552 had a displacement of 769 tonnes (757 long tons) when at the surface and 871 tonnes (857 long tons) while submerged. She had a total length of 67.10 m (220 ft 2 in), a pressure hull length of 50.50 m (165 ft 8 in), a beam of 6.20 m (20 ft 4 in), a height of 9.60 m (31 ft 6 in), and a draught of 4.74 m (15 ft 7 in). The submarine was powered by two Germaniawerft F46 four-stroke, six-cylinder supercharged diesel engines producing a total of 2,800 to 3,200 metric horsepower (2,060 to 2,350 kW; 2,760 to 3,160 shp) for use while surfaced, two Brown, Boveri & Cie GG UB 720/8 double-acting electric motors producing a total of 750 metric horsepower (550 kW; 740 shp) for use while submerged. She had two shafts and two 1.23 m (4 ft) propellers. The boat was capable of operating at depths of up to 230 metres (750 ft).
The submarine had a maximum surface speed of 17.7 knots (32.8 km/h; 20.4 mph) and a maximum submerged speed of 7.6 knots (14.1 km/h; 8.7 mph). When submerged, the boat could operate for 80 nautical miles (150 km; 92 mi) at 4 knots (7.4 km/h; 4.6 mph); when surfaced, she could travel 8,500 nautical miles (15,700 km; 9,800 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph). U-552 was fitted with five 53.3 cm (21 in) torpedo tubes (four fitted at the bow and one at the stern), fourteen torpedoes, one 8.8 cm (3.46 in) SK C/35 naval gun, 220 rounds, and a 2 cm (0.79 in) C/30 anti-aircraft gun. The boat had a complement of between forty-four and sixty.
Initial voyage to Helgoland
Following construction, which was completed on 4 December 1940, U-552 was given two months of working-up training, during which she prepared her crew and equipment for the operations ahead. She then sailed from Kiel on 13 February to Helgoland for her first official patrol, arriving there on 18 February 1941. This port city was to remain U-552's home base until she was transferred to the occupied French port of St Nazaire in mid-March 1941.
U-552's first official war patrol began on 18 February 1941 when she left Helgoland for a patrol in the North Sea and the North Atlantic south of Iceland. This first operation yielded one British tanker and one Icelandic trawler carrying fish. The British tanker, Cadillac, was sunk just north of Scotland on 1 March while the trawler was sunk just south of Iceland on 10 March. Following these victories, U-552 headed back to St Nazaire. The remainder of her later patrols were all conducted from the French city, which gave her easy access to the Atlantic Ocean and allowed her more time at sea.
U-552 began her second war patrol on 7 April 1941 when she left her new home port of St Nazaire for the North Atlantic. For 30 days she searched the area of Ocean south of Iceland and West of Ireland for any Allied convoys. During this time she sank three British merchant vessels and damaged another for a total of 24,119 tones. Following her torpedoing of the British ship Capulet on 28 April, which only managed to damage the vessel, U-552 was depth-charged in five separate attacks by two accompanying destroyers. After several hours, the U-boat managed to escape but was unable to pursue the convoy. After these attacks, U-552 returned to St Nazaire on 6 May.
U-552 left St Nazaire for her third war patrol on 25 May 1941. In 39 days, she travelled into the North Atlantic and sank three British vessels: the Ainderby on 10 June, the Chinese Prince on 12 June and the Norfolk on 18 June. During the attack on the Norfolk, U-552 attempted to attack the remaining ships in the convoy but was forced to break off the attack due to the arrival of several of the convoy's escorts. All of these attacks occurred off the northwest coast of Ireland, and once U-552 returned to St. Nazaire on 2 July 1941 she had amassed a total of 24,401 tonnes from the ships she had sunk.
U-552's fourth patrol was much less successful than her previous three. Having left St Nazaire on 18 August, she proceeded to head south into the waters off Portugal and Spain. It was here that she sank the Norwegian vessel, Spind. Following this sinking, U-552 returned to St Nazaire on 26 August 1941, after only nine days at sea.
Fifth and sixth patrols
Her next two patrols all took her further into the Atlantic, where the danger was lessened, but so were the targets, with the result that she only hit three more cargo ships. This was also the time, during her final patrol of 1941, that she sank the Reuben James, which was torpedoed on 30 October in controversial circumstances.
Sinking of USS Reuben James
On 31 October 1941, USS Reuben James was one of five destroyers escorting convoy HX-156, close to the coast of Iceland, about 600 nmi (1,100 km; 690 mi) west of the island. Reuben James had just begun turning to investigate a strong direction-finder bearing when a torpedo launched from U-552 struck her port side and caused an explosion in her forward magazine. The entire bow section of the destroyer was blown off as far back as the fourth funnel and sank immediately. The stern remained afloat for around five minutes before sinking; unsecured depth charges compounded the damage, exploding as they sank and killing survivors in the water. One hundred and fifteen of her 160-man crew were killed, including all the officers.
The destroyer was the first US Navy warship to be sunk in World War II.
The incident provoked a furious outburst in the United States, especially when Germany refused to apologize, instead countering that the destroyer was operating in what Germany considered to be a war zone and had suffered the consequences. The sinking of the Reuben James did not lead the US to declare war on Germany; it did, however, provide a pretext to officially transfer the US Coast Guard from its peacetime role as an arm of the US Treasury Department to a wartime function as part of the US Navy. Congress also amended the Neutrality Act to permit the arming of US-registered merchant ships and authorized them to enter European waters for the first time since 1939.
Second Happy Time
In 1942, again commanded by Erich Topp (who would later become an admiral in the post-war Bundesmarine), U-552 participated in the "Second Happy Time" (Operation Drumbeat or Paukenschlag), during which German submarines had great success against unescorted American merchantmen sailing alone along the eastern seaboard of the US. U-552 was particularly successful during this period, sinking 13 ships and damaging another in just three patrols in the first six months of 1942. Two further patrols under Topp during the summer netted four more ships. However, in an attack against Convoy ON-155 on 3 August 1942, the boat was nearly sunk when she was caught on the surface by the Canadian corvette HMCS Sackville. The corvette machine-gunned the submarine and hit the conning tower with a four inch shell, causing severe damage and forcing Topp to return to base for repairs. U-552 was badly damaged by heavy seas during another patrol and was put into port for repairs, during which Topp was promoted and replaced by a more cautious commander, Klaus Popp.
Sinking of the David H. Atwater
The destruction of the SS David H. Atwater, in the Atlantic Ocean 10 nmi (19 km; 12 mi) off Chincoteague, Virginia, was one of the more controversial actions of the Kriegsmarine during the Second World War, primarily due to the manner of the sinking.
On the night of 2 April 1942, at the height of the U-boat offensive against US shipping known as the "Second Happy Time," the unarmed coastal steamer David H. Atwater was en route from Norfolk, Virginia to Fall River, Massachusetts, with a full load of 4,000 tons of coal.
Around 21:00, between Cape Charles and Cape Henlopen, the ship was ambushed by U-552, which had followed her submerged. The submarine surfaced about 600 yd (550 m) from the freighter and opened fire with her 88mm deck gun and machine guns without warning, one of her first shells destroying the bridge and killing all of the officers. In all, 93 rounds were fired from the deck gun, with 50 hits being recorded on the small freighter, which rapidly began to sink.
As it did so, Topp directed his crewmen to continue firing, striking the Atwater's crewmen as they tried to man the lifeboats. When Captain Webster was hit, the crew abandoned attempts to launch the lifeboats and leapt into the sea.
The first ship to arrive on the scene was the small Coast Guard Patrol Boat USS CG-218, which found a lifeboat holding three survivors and three bodies; the survivors reported that they had dived overboard and swum to the boat. Next on the scene was the Coast Guard cutter USCGC Legare, which had heard the gunfire and arrived just fifteen minutes later. The Legare found a second lifeboat with a body aboard; the boat was discovered to have been riddled by gunfire, and lent strength to the widespread belief at the time that U-boats were deliberately murdering the survivors of ships they had sunk. The Legare landed the three survivors and four bodies at Chincoteague Island Coastguard Station, then returned to sea to search further.
Whether the attack on the liferafts was deliberate, or an unfortunate and unintended consequence of a nighttime attack has been heavily debated. Some of the crew of U-552 survived the war, and her captain, Erich Topp, later became an Admiral in the post-war Bundesmarine. No charges were brought against Topp, as happened to Helmuth von Ruckteschell, captain of the raider Widder for a similar offence.
U-552 had less success in later years, as did the U-boat force in general, as U-boats failed to keep ahead of the rapidly increasing numbers and capabilities of Allied anti-submarine efforts. She was transferred to operations off the Spanish, Portuguese and African coasts, which were nearer to base and less dangerous than the newly reorganized defenses of the United States, where she attempted to sink troopships during Operation Torch. Whilst on this duty, Topp sank a small British minesweeper and later a cargo ship, but failed to enter the Straits of Gibraltar or seriously threaten the landings.
During 1943, U-552 was increasingly unable to serve effectively against the well-prepared and organized Allied convoy system, a fact reflected by her failure to sink a single ship during her two patrols into the North Atlantic Ocean. During one of these, a Royal Air Force B-24 Liberator aircraft spotted her and she was seriously damaged by depth charges, which necessitated four months' repairs.
In 1944 she had a single patrol, but was unable to close with or threaten any Allied convoys, and so was withdrawn to Germany in April 1944 for use as a training vessel in the 22nd U-boat Flotilla, a role she fulfilled until 2 May 1945, when her crew scuttled her in Wilhelmshaven bay to prevent her capture.
U-552 took part in 21 wolfpacks, namely.
- Brandenburg (15–26 September 1941)
- Stosstrupp (30 October – 4 November 1941)
- Störtebecker (15–19 November 1941)
- Benecke (19–22 November 1941)
- Seydlitz (27 December 1941 - 6 January 1942)
- Zieten (6–19 January 1942)
- Endrass (12–17 June 1942)
- Wolf (13–30 July 1942)
- Pirat (30 July – 3 August 1942)
- Steinbrinck (3–4 August 1942)
- Meise (11–27 April 1943)
- Star (27 April – 4 May 1943)
- Fink (4–6 May 1943)
- Naab (12–15 May 1943)
- Donau 2 (15–19 May 1943)
- Mosel (19–24 May 1943)
- Siegfried (22–27 October 1943)
- Siegfried 2 (27–30 October 1943)
- Jahn (30 October – 2 November 1943)
- Tirpitz 3 (2–8 November 1943)
- Eisenhart 5 (9–15 November 1943)
Summary of raiding history
|1 March 1941||Cadillac||United Kingdom||12,062||Sunk|
|10 March 1941||Reykjaborg||Iceland||687||Sunk|
|27 April 1941||Commander Horton||United Kingdom||227||Sunk|
|27 April 1941||Beacon Grange||United Kingdom||10,160||Sunk|
|28 April 1941||Capulet||United Kingdom||8,190||Damaged|
|1 May 1941||Nerissa||United Kingdom||5,583||Sunk|
|10 June 1941||Ainderby||United Kingdom||4,860||Sunk|
|12 June 1941||Chinese Prince||United Kingdom||8,593||Sunk|
|18 June 1941||Norfolk||United Kingdom||10,948||Sunk|
|23 August 1941||Spind||Norway||2,129||Sunk|
|20 September 1941||T.J. Williams||United Kingdom||8,212||Sunk|
|20 September 1941||Pink Star||Panama||4,150||Sunk|
|20 September 1941||Barbaro||Norway||6,325||Sunk|
|30 October 1941||USS Reuben James||United States Navy||1,190||Sunk|
|15 January 1942||Dayrose||United Kingdom||4,113||Sunk|
|18 January 1942||Frances Salman||United States||2,609||Sunk|
|20 January 1942||Maro||Greece||3,838||Sunk|
|25 March 1942||Ocana||Netherlands||6,256||Sunk|
|3 April 1942||David H. Atwater||United States Navy||2,438||Sunk|
|5 April 1942||Byron D. Benson||United States||7,953||Sunk|
|7 April 1942||British Splendour||United Kingdom||7,138||Sunk|
|7 April 1942||Lancing||Norway||7,866||Sunk|
|9 April 1942||Atlas||United States||7,137||Sunk|
|10 April 1942||Tarnaulipas||United States||6,943||Sunk|
|15 June 1942||City of Oxford||United Kingdom||2,759||Sunk|
|15 June 1942||Etrib||United Kingdom||1,943||Sunk|
|15 June 1942||Pelayo||United Kingdom||1,346||Sunk|
|15 June 1942||Slemdal||Norway||7,374||Sunk|
|15 June 1942||Thurso||United Kingdom||2,436||Sunk|
|25 July 1942||British Merit||United Kingdom||8,093||Damaged|
|25 July 1942||Broompark||United Kingdom||5,136||Sunk|
|3 August 1942||G.S. Walden||United Kingdom||10,627||Damaged|
|3 August 1942||Lochatrine||United Kingdom||9,149||Sunk|
|19 September 1942||HMS Alouette||Royal Navy||520||Sunk|
|3 December 1942||Wallsend||United Kingdom||3,157||Sunk|
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- Submarine atrocities