Eric_W's Reviews > Lone Wolf: The Life and Death of U-Boat Ace Werner Henke

Lone Wolf by Timothy P. Mulligan
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Oct 10, 09

bookshelves: biography-memoir, nautical-non-fiction, history-historiography
Read in October, 2009

Werner Henke committed suicide by leaping up on the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp where he was being held for interrogation by the Americans following the sinking of his command,‭ ‬the U-515,‭ ‬and the capture of his crew.‭ ‬He was immediately machine-gunned by the guards in the tower.‭ ‬He was thirty-five and considered one of the best U-boat captains of the war.

Henke had grown up in Thorn, now part of Poland. His family was reasonably fortunate because his father was a forester, a civil service position that was stable during the depression when most people were losing their jobs. Inflation cut into the family's income, but nevertheless, they had food on the table and a place to live. Henke was a mediocre student at best, never attaining his abitur, a necessity for getting into university. For whatever reason, he decided to join the merchant marine where he passed his mate's license. Because of the depression, however, German shipping was also in the doldrums by the early thirties. An option was to join the Reichsmarine (the name was not changed to Kriegsmarine until 1935.)

The German Navy, whittled down after the Versailles Treaty, had become a truly elite service with barely 2.5 percent of the applicants passing the exams. But this meant they were unable to meet the officer needs of Hitler's expanding navy. Coincidentally ,at about the time when Henke wanted to join they had lowered their standards (still very high -- but a university education was not longer an absolute necessity if one had merchant marine experience.) He scored very high on the entrance tests and was admitted as an officer cadet in 1934.

German officer cadets were trained differently than their American counterparts who spent their entire time at Annapolis. German naval training emphasized practical knowledge including a cruise on a sailing ship, 14 months on a cruiser in positions of increasing responsibility and training in both infantry and ordnance. Because of his six years at sea, the sailing cruise was waived for Henke as well as some of the infantry and non-naval instruction. (Mulligan's description of life and training at the Castle as the naval academy was called, is quite interesting -- German cadets had much more freedom than their American Annapolis counterparts, the Germans arguing that those who abused the privilege self-selected themselves out of the process, falling by the wayside.) Classes included, navigation, engineering,foreign languages, naval history and tactics in addition to sailing, fencing, gymnastics, field hockey, horsemanship (surely a useful naval skill if ever there was one), and boxing. Henke graduated 99th of 112. His class went on to distinguish itself both militarily and in casualties. 40% did not survive the war as compared to 13% of the equivalent class at Annapolis.

Henke, always a gadfly and rebel, even without the separate route to his naval commission would have found integration into the corps difficult. The naval mutinies of 1918 had placed an immense strain on German naval tradition and attempts to inculcate honor and self-sacrifice, and obedience, especially loyalty to the state were values that Henke, who appreciated personal freedom and fun, had difficulty adjusting to. He was not particularly well-liked by his classmates who thought he played on his good looks and deviltry to the detriment of the Prussian tradition of mehr sein als scheinen.

Ironically, by 1939, he had had almost no experience with submarines, which, until Doenitz assumed command, had been the step-child of the navy which assumed all major combat would be at the surface. When Hitler declared war on Poland, Henke was one of the first naval officers to see action on the SchleswiglHolstein, an older battleship which attacked Danzig. He was award one of his first of many medals (and one of the first of the war.)

The first of many disciplinary actions came after several months service on the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer a duty during which he formed few friendships. He over-stayed his leave by three days while visiting a girlfriend. He was arrested and confined to quarters for ten days. His disregard for the niceties of rank continued to get him into trouble. A miscalculated arrival at his new base and a fist-fight with an SS captain resulted in his removal from the Kriegsmarine, but the submarine "dienst" was so anxious for officers and liked non-conformists that he was kicked out one day and reinstated as a submariner the next.

1940 was the "happy time" for German U-boats and they probably would have completely blocked off Great Britain had they had the 300 boats Doenitz thought was the minimum for a complete blockade. Instead he could only get 5-7 on station at one time. Even so, their "wolf-pack" tactics, coordinating all the subs to a convoy and then attacking at night on the surface when British sonar was useless, resulted in complete devastation for several convoys.

Following a very successful cruise during which Henke was executive officer on the U-124 and he personally launched torpedoes that sank several ships, Henke was awarded his own sub, the U-515. It was the practice in the German navy to billet officers to the shipyard as their new sub is being built so they learn the ship from the ground up and can discuss her various idiosyncrasies with the shipyard workers.

There were substantial differences between US and German subs. U-boats used oak paneling in living quarters in spite of the risk of fire and insect infestation, but US sub living quarters were actually more comfortable with more space if not as nice looking. Swing music was banned in Germany but on U-boats a phonograph record was kept in the radio room and banned music was often used to improve morale. Training was rigorous but because of the shortage of subs, many graduates never saw a submarine until assigned to one. The average age of these sailors was 21.9 years of age. The U.S. actually had a higher number of sailors in the 18-19 year-old range on their subs. It had been the practice of the German Navy to rotate crews out to different ships after two to three tours. Henke managed to prevent this and was unusually successful in keeping his crews together.

Henke's downfall resulted from a combination of bad luck, bad propaganda, and historians who got things wrong (Ladislas Farago, a participant in the propaganda battle, does not come off well.) It began with the sinking of the Ceramic, clearly a legitimate target, carrying troops and war materiel in addition to some non-combatants, mostly relatives of the officers on board. Many successfully evacuated the ship into lifeboats after being torpedoed by the U-515 but a vicious storm which followed killed all but one survivor who was taken aboard the U-515 which had been ordered back to the scene in order to capture the ship's captain for intelligence purposes. I won't detail the propaganda battle which followed but it resulted in Henke being declared a war criminal, before the concept had even been developed by the allies. I guess everything's fair in love and war, but clearly he got a raw deal and the pressure contributed to his suicide. News of the shooting (at a secret army location, I should add, circulated widely among German U-boat sailors along with a story told to them by a captured African-American soldier: A white southern sheriff discovers the body of a black man covered with a white sheet. The body is riddled with twelve bullet holes. "Damn, another suicide," he remarks."

This book is an excellent combination of the scholarly (everything is well cited and referenced) and the intriguing narrative.
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message 1: by Stephen (new)

Stephen When will we ever really know the truth between propaganda and reality? We still live with that. Superb review, Eric.


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