U-571 was not just a Hollywood movie, but it was also a real-life, World War II German U-Boat. The movie, however, was not related to the actual U-boat. Hollywood writers used poetic license in assigning the number of the movie’s namesake. The U-boats more closely related to the theme of the movie were boats U-110, U-505, U-559, and U-570 - the most successful capture of these boats being U-505.
The German U-boat war (and the resulting Battle of the Atlantic) was a culmination of technology Germany had been developing since before World War I. Since the outbreak of the Second World War, the Kriegsmarine had been using their submarine force mainly against Allied merchant shipping under the direction of Großadmiral Karl Dönitz.
U-571 was ordered by the Oberkommando der Marine, and was subsequently laid down June 8, 1940 at the Blohm und Voss shipyard in Hamburg. U-571 was part of an order to Blohm & Voss of 100 U-boats spanning numbers U-551 to U-650. They were all Type VIIC boats.
The VIIC was an improved version of the VIIB. The VIIB boats were quite successful and so rather than drafting up a new U-Boat design, the Kriegsmarine opted instead to make improvements to an already proven model. The VIIC boats were a bit larger and heavier, and therefore a bit slower than their predecessors, but carried a significantly larger amount of fuel oil effectively increasing the vessel's range of operations. This model became the backbone of the U-boat force roughly after 1941. An interesting note regarding Hollywood, U-96, the U-boat featured in the other popular World War II submarine movie, Das Boot, was also a VIIC type boat. Including U-571, there were 568 of this style U-boat commissioned.
U-571 sported four forward torpedo tubes and one aft, storage for 14 torpedoes, and a deck gun. It could submerge to 250 m and typically carried a crew from 44 to 52 men. Its two diesel engines cranked out up to 2800 to 3200 horsepower. The boat's two electric engines, for use when submerged, could pump out 750 hp (560 kW).
U-571 was commissioned May 22, 1941 with Kapitänleutnant Helmut Möhlmann, previous Captain of U-143 and U-52, in command. U-571 was placed under the command of the 3rd Flotilla (a command echelon) and underwent training from the day of her commission until August 1, 1941. U-571 and her crew left for their first combat patrol and in 26 days later, attacked her first ship, the Soviet passenger steamer Mariya Ulyanova, near Cape Teribersky. The steamer ran aground and was damaged badly enough to be a total loss.
In the following March, on the 29th while afloat in the West Atlantic, U-571 torpedoed the 10,923 ton British freight steamer Hertford, sinking it. The U-boat's crew spotted and torpedoed the 10,044 tons of the large Norwegian tanker Koll on April 6th, off of Cape Hatteras. The torpedoes caused enough damage to allow the Koll to be finished off by gunfire. Eight days after that victory, while still off of the U.S. coast, U-571 sent the American freighter Margaret to the bottom. Möhlmann made an entry into the Captain's diary that some of Margaret's crew got to life rafts, however these crew were never rescued. Come July, U-571 moved down to the Caribbean. U-571 attacked one ship a day for three days starting the 7th, and a fourth ship on the 15th of July, 1942. In order of their attack, the U-boat crew torpedoed the British freighter Umtata, an American tanker J. A. Moffet, the Honduran freighter Nicholas Cuneo, and American tanker SS Pennsylvania Sun (this one in the Gulf of Mexico)..
The crew of the U-571 were again ordered to leave port and head for the American coast for a war patrol in January 1943. On the 8th of that month, they were attempting to attack Allied convoy TM1, but they were discouraged and chased briefly by the HMS Pimpernel They attacked the Norwegian motor tankers MV Vanja and MV Cliona, but failed in sinking either. March 22, their sub was attacked by an Allied aircraft. While the boat was not sunk, it was damaged enough to warrant returning to base.
After repairs were made, U-571 left port once again. In April, the Skipper made entries into the ship’s diary that they torpedoed and sunk three additional Allied ships - supposedly of convoy ONS-2: two large ships and one small coaler. However, the Allies were never able to confirm these sinkings with their records of ship losses. On the 22nd of April, exactly one month since the boat’s last accident, Herr Kapitänleutnant Möhlmann was significantly injured while on the conning tower. With an injured Captain, the crew under direction of the Watch Officer, they once again returned to home port.
May 31, 1943, Kplt. Möhlmann transferred command of the boat to Oberleutnant Gustav Lüssow so that he could take a course at the Naval Academy in Berlin. Möhlmann was afterwards given a position on the Befehlshaber der U-boote, or the U-Boat High Command. Under their new commander, U-571’s crew served a war patrol off the west coast of Africa until September 1, 1943. Mention of U-571 in official logs and documents disappears between September and December, which was common for ships in dry dock undergoing repairs and upgrades. January 18, 1944, U-571 reappears in official logs when Herr Lüssow relayed that his crew attacked and sank an unknown Allied destroyer. This also was never matched to Allied records of ship losses.
January 28, 1944, U-571 was afloat in the sea west of Ireland on her 11th war patrol, with 52 men aboard, when it came under attack by an Australian Sunderland aircraft belonging to RAAF Squadron 461/D. The U-boat crew, unsuccessfully, used her Anti-aircraft gun to defend herself. Two depth charges dropped from the aircraft sank U-571 with all hands. The boat and her crews’ remains reside at 52.41N; 14.27W in the North Atlantic.
- The National Archives and Records Service
- The Naval Historical Center, US Department of the Navy
- uboat.net - The U-Boat war from 1939 - 1945
- Miscellaneous pieces of information from many different books.