This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Emil Klusmeier: the Final Torpedo

(From 2008)


On the night of May 7, 1945, a small convoy (code name EN91) of five Allied merchant vessels was approaching the Firth of Forth, in Scotland. The war in Europe was all but over. Germany had signed the surrender and the war was officially to end at midnight. It was approaching 11 pm.

Adolf Hitler was dead. Berlin had fallen to the Russians, Hamburg to the British, the rump German government of Grand Admiral (Großadmiral) Karl Dönitz was holed up in Flensburg on the Danish frontier, and the Wehrmacht had surrendered on the Western Front on 4 May – three days before.

The men aboard the ships of the convoy were probably justified in imagining that with the end of the war just an hour away, they were safe and they were celebrating. A mite too soon.

Out in the inky darkness, under the windy North Sea, a small German submarine was approaching.

It was the U 2336, one of the new breed of “electro-U boats”. U 2336 was a Type XXIII coastal submarine, meant for shallow water work at relatively short ranges. It was also one of the most revolutionary submarine designs ever, a sub so advanced that it rendered every older design obsolete virtually overnight; a sub so advanced that two scuttled examples were raised from the sea-bed ten years later and re-inducted into the resurrected German Navy. Can you imagine what I am talking about?

Like its larger but much less successful counterpart, the Type XXI electro-U boat, the Type XXXIII could travel underwater almost without ever needing to surface. It was so silent as to be almost undetectable, and if detected could evade any attack with contemptuous ease. Like the Type XXI, it was a genuine submarine, meant to remain underwater, unlike all previous subs which were basically torpedo boats which could submerge if they had to. And like the Type XXI, the Type XXIII subs were far too late to influence the course of the war.

In the control room of the U 2336, Kapitänleutnant Emil Klusmeier watched the ships of the convoy through his periscope. Klusmeier, the second man (the first was Oberleutnant Jürgen Vockel) to command the U 2336, was an unusual submarine commander for two reasons. This was his first operational patrol as captain, and he would not have been on it except that he volunteered for the job. He volunteered for it because he had been among the officers who had been involved in setting up the whole Type XXIII programme and he wanted to see how his ideas worked in actual combat.

No, the ships of EN 91 were not safe at all…

Klusmeier had left Kiel harbour on 23 April 1945 for a trial cruise, returning after five days. By that time the British were nearing and he left for Larvik in occupied Norway with his sub. There he refuelled, stocked up and loaded torpedoes, and left on a war patrol on 1 May 1945…one day after Adolf Hitler committed suicide and the same day that the Red Army took Berlin. Remember that. Hitler was dead, Berlin fallen, and Klusmeier must have known the war was about to end.

The first shots of the Second World War at sea were fired on 3 September 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, when Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp of the U 30 sank the British liner Athenia. Klusmeier was about to fire the last. 

The Type XXIII had just one major drawback. Due to the small size of the vessel, it could carry just two torpedoes pre-loaded in harbour in two torpedo tubes. Klusmeier had only two torpedoes to expend, and he must have wondered which two of the five shapes in his scope to expend them on…

The first recipient of his favour was the old Norwegian freighter Sneland 1. Klusmeier sent her to the bottom with his first torpedo, along with seven of her 29 man crew. He quickly switched his scope to the British/Canadian freighter Avondale Park, built less than a year previously. The torpedo sped from its tube, and Avondale Park went down with two of her 32 man crew. She was the last ship lost to German submarine action in the Second World War.

Klusmeier, with no more torpedoes to expend and with his combat tests done, then turned round and left for home. He arrived at Kiel on 14 May and surrendered the submarine there.

There were some questions awaiting him, the chief being just why he had attacked the ships, since Großadmiral Dönitz had ordered all German subs, by radio, to cease fire on 4 May. He said, and maintained throughout his later years as a prisoner of war and then as an appliance dealer in his hometown of Bochum, that he had never received the signal. Well, perhaps.

Even supposing Klusmeier was telling the truth, he must have known, having left port only a few days ago, that the war was about to end. Was he justified in torpedoing ships and killing men when the end of the war was certain and his actions would have no effect on it at all?

In this regard, while researching Klusmeier, I found this page here which says about Klusmeier that:

Emil Klusmeier ... later volunteered for a command in order to verify his ideas in practice and with U-2336 scored hits.

Since the U2336 only went on one war patrol and this was Klusmeier's first time as captain, maybe he was loath to let a chance go by to try out his theories in practice. Or maybe he still thought the war worth fighting so long as it wasn’t ended.

One might say the war was still officially on and that war is war, and it’s a warrior’s job to fight; and it was too bad that some men died needlessly, but all war deaths are needless in one way or other.

Or else one might say that Klusmeier was looking for revenge, and was a war criminal.

Me – I think that people who A-bombed a defeated Japan just to prove a point have no grounds to squeal.

And as for Klusmeier himself - I wonder if it had been an Allied sub commander who had sunk an Axis ship in the last moments of the war, whether he would have been condemned or feted. The latter, I strongly suspect.

As usual, the only real war crime is to lose. 

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