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Knight's Cross And Oak-Leaves Recipient Gunther Prien

Discussion in 'German WWII Medals and Awards' started by Jim, Sep 12, 2007.

  1. Jim

    Jim Active Member

    Sep 1, 2006
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    Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien

    The first of Germany's great U-boat aces was born in Osterfeld on 16 January 1908. His naval career began when he joined the Merchant Navy in 1923 at the age of just 15. Working his way up from a humble cabin boy, at the age of 23 he gained his master's ticket, enabling him to serve as a Fourth Officer on large passenger ships. His career, however, was cut short in 1932 when, like so many of his countrymen, he became unemployed following cut-backs to the merchant navy caused by Germany's dire economic straits.

    As one of Germany's greatest war heroes, Gunther Prien was immortalised in many paintings. This one, showing him in his U-boat leather jacket and white-topped commander's cap, was painted by the famous war artist Wilhelm Willrich, and formed part of an extensive series of period colour postcards for collectors.


    He immediately enlisted into the Reichsmarine, though this required him to revert back to the rank of Ordinary Seaman. His experience and personal qualities ensured he soon regained lost ground and by 1935 he had gained a commission as Leutnant zur See and a transfer to the new U-boat arm of the Navy, now renamed the Kriegsmarine. After two years of intensive training on U-boats, Prien was promoted to Oberleutnant zur See. He obtained priceless active service experience on patrols during the Spanish Civil War as a Watch Officer on U-26. Prien was rapidly building a reputation as a fearless and aggressive officer, always scoring highly on training exercises. His dedication paid off when, in December 1938, Prien at last gained his own command, the Type VIIB boat U-47. In March 1939 he was promoted to Kapitanleutnant.
    Following the outbreak of war, Prien immediately began to satisfy the high expectations of his superiors. On 5 September, he sank his first enemy ship during his first patrol, the British freighter Bosnia: Prien ensured that the crew were safely evacuated and handed over to a neutral ship before sinking the 2,400-ton vessel. Not one single life was lost. Two more freighters totalling just under 6,000 tons were sunk during this patrol. Prien was a committed Nazi supporter, but this did not prevent him from carrying out his duties in as chivalrous a manner as circumstances allowed. Meanwhile, the Commanding Admiral Submarines, Konteradmiral Karl Donitz, had been planning a strike at the very heart of the British Navy's home fleet, the anchorage at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. A daring and audacious commander would be needed for such a task, and Prien was offered the opportunity.
    In a night-time attack on 13 October, Prien was able to navigate his boat through the defended entrance to Scapa Flow where he torpedoed and sank the battleship Royal Oak before escaping unscathed. Although being somewhat elderly and not one of the Royal Navy's finest ships, the loss of the Royal Oak, to say nothing of the 833 crew lost too, torpedoed by an enemy submarine in what was considered a safe anchorage, was a devastating blow to British morale. Many refused to believe a submarine had been responsible and rumours of sabotage circulated for years afterwards. On his return to Germany, Prien was decorated with both the Iron Cross First Class and the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross in recognition of his great achievement. In fact the entire crew of U-47 were decorated with the Second Class Iron Cross (First Class for those who already held the Second Class) and were invited to a formal reception in Berlin hosted by Hitler. The crew of U-47, especially Prien, became heroes overnight. Prien's next war cruise was also a success, setting off from Kiel on 16 November and sinking a further three enemy ships in a month-long voyage, returning to base just before the end of the year. After a spell in dry-dock for repairs and maintenance, U-47 set out on its fourth war cruise, which in the event was rather uneventful with only one enemy ship sunk. The fifth patrol was also unsuccessful, U-47 being dogged by recurring problems with torpedoes. The torpedo crisis was affecting all U-boat commanders who were forced to watch helplessly as time after time they detonated prematurely, or failed to detonate at all (caused by insufficient testing of the complex magnetic detonators on the torpedoes). Worst of all was the fact that a premature detonation would fail to damage the enemy ship but would immediately alert enemy escorts to the presence of the U-boat, and several were lost to counter-attacks by British escorts.

    Prien is shown here on the bridge of his boat, the Type VIIB submarine U-47. On the side of the tower is the famous 'snorting bull' emblem adopted initially by U-47 and subsequently by the whole U-boat flotilla.


    By the time Prien set out on his sixth patrol in June 1940, conventional impact pistols had been retro-fitted to the torpedoes and Prien once again achieved dramatic results. In a cruise lasting some 34 days, U-47 sank eight enemy ships, thus adding some 51,000 tons to his score. His seventh cruise was almost as successful, a further seven enemy ships being sunk, and a further 35,000 tons added to his tally. Prien's audacious manner was well illustrated during his eighth patrol: after a successful attack on a British convoy that netted him three more victims, he had only one torpedo remaining, and was assigned to act as a weather monitoring boat. During this period he detected a further British convoy and called in a number of other U-boats to make the attack. Despite being ordered to return to port, Prien did not wish to lose the opportunity to make good use of his remaining torpedo. He joined in the attack and sank a further enemy ship, before surfacing and seriously damaging another with his deck gun. On his ninth patrol, a short run lasting just ten days, he added a further four enemy vessels to his growing list of victims.
    On 20 October 1940 Prien became only the fifth German to win the coveted Oak-Leaves clasp addition to the Knight's Cross. At this point U-47 was taken into port for a long-overdue refit and Donitz took the opportunity to offer Prien a transfer to a shore-based post in command of a training unit where his vast experience could be put to good use. Prien refused and insisted on staying with his boat. On 5 February 1941, during his tenth patrol, Prien encountered a British convoy and growing impatient with the wait for reinforcements to arrive (these were despatched when the convoy was detected), Prien attacked alone. Three ships were sunk and a further damaged. Prien then acted as a homing point for a squadron of Focke-Wulf 'Condor' maritime bombers, which sunk a further seven of the enemy's ships. On 29 February, when still at sea, Prien was promoted to the rank of Korvettenkapitan.
    On 7 March, Prien began yet another convoy attack. He successfully torpedoed a large whaling ship, but then came under attack himself from British escorts. What happened next is not clear, but it is likely that U-4 7 fell victim to a depth-charge attack by the British escorts Wolverine and Verity. Germany had lost the first of its great U-boat aces. The Nazi propaganda machine had elevated him to a national hero, with a book published of his exploits (almost certainly written 'on his behalf by a member of the propaganda ministry) and even a film made based on some of his experiences. Prien himself was somewhat bemused by all this, and made it clear that in his own eyes, he was 'an officer, not a movie star'. In addition to the Knight's Cross with Oak-Leaves, he was decorated with the U-boat Badge with Diamonds and the diamond-studded Navy Honour Dagger. His final tally was 30 enemy ships sunk and six more damaged for a total of 165,000 tons, in addition to the sinking of the Royal Oak.

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