"It is the duty of every captain to have faith in his men; he must want to have faith in them, even if they have disappointed him at one time or another."
- Kapitän zur See Wolfgang Lüth - der große Jager (the great hunter)
Wolfgang Lüth was the single most successful U-Boat commander in history. His record of sunken ships, his extremely long war patrol, revolutionary ideas for managing his crew, his knack for leadership, and his untimely death put Herr Lüth into the spotlight for history.
Early History and Training
Wolfgang Lüth was born on October 15, 1913 in Riga, Latvia. Lüth was studying law, but in April 1933 at the ripe age of 19, he decided to join the German Kriegsmarine. He underwent the standard three months of training as a Seekadett aboard the training ship Gorch Fock. The annual intake of officers in the German Navy were known as "crews", and Lüth was a member of Crew 33 (for 1933).
Lüth moved to the light cruiser Karlsruhe and went on a nine month training tour "around the world," which included India, Indonesia, Australia, and North and South Americas). For one more year, he served aboard the light cruiser Königsberg. On October 1, 1936, after being a Fähnrich zur see (or Midshipman) Lüth was commissioned with the officer rank of Leutnant zur See. Lüth decided to transfer to the Unterseebootwaffe, or the submarine arm of the Navy in February 1937.
After some brief training, he was made II WO (Second Watch Officer) aboard U-27 in July 1937, under the commander Hans Ibbeken. He made a single war patrol off the coast of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The Third Reich supplied military support to rebel Francisco Franco if not just for the opportunity to get combat experience with her troops, warships, and aircraft. It was a proving ground for many new military techniques that were later used in the war.
In October 1937, he was made I WO (First Watch Officer) of U-38 under Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Liebe. During this time, he was promoted to Oberleutnant zur See (the equivalent of Lieutenant Junior Grade in United States Military Ranks) on June 1, 1938.
Their submarine was out on patrol when World War II broke out between Germany, Poland, France, and Great Britain with the Wehrmacht's Invasion of Poland. He finished his patrol with U-38 on December 31, 1939 and served for a short stint of duty on a school boat.
Lüth gets a command
Wolfgang Lüth received his first command when he replaced Max-Martin Schulte as Captain of U-9, a Type IIB U-boat built in April 1935 at F. Krupp Germaniawerft shipyard in Kiel. Lüth commanded the boat during 6 war patrols and made his first kills as commander of a boat. The most distinguished of his kills during these patrols was the French submarine Doris in May 1940, which was a rarity as submarine-to-submarine engagements are few and far between. During these six patrols totally 74 days at sea, he received the Iron Cross 2nd Class on January 25, 1940, and was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class that May for his sinking of the Doris. He returned from patrol with U-9 on June 30, 1940 without losing a single crew member.
He was honored by allowing him to commission a brand new U-Boat, U-138. U-138 was a Type IID boat which was laid down November 16, 1939, at the Deutsche Werke shipyard in Kiel. It was a small U-Boat, only 29.8 meters long inside her pressurized hull, sporting only three forward torpedo tubes and storage for five total. U-138 and her crew went on a short training patrol from June 27 to August 31. Lüth then went on his first war patrol with U-138 and on the night of September 20, 1940 he spotted and sank four merchant ships, which added a total of 34,633 tons to his credit. This was very impressive for a new commander with a small U-boat on his first war patrol.
He left for a second patrol on which he sighted two ships, one of which he sunk and another he damaged. Impressed with his skill as a commander, Lüth was awarded the Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross by the Führer on October 24, 1940. He was the first and only commander of a small U-Boat to receive the Knight's Cross - an almost elite inner-circle club amongst recipients in the Wehrmacht. The Knight's Cross can be equivocated to the American Congressional Medal of Honor.
Moving Up in the Kriegsmarine
Wolfgang Lüth left U-138 in the hands of Peter Lohmeyer and took command of the larger Type IX U-43 from Kapitanleutnant Wilhelm Ambrosius. Starting October 21, 1940, Lüth took U-43 on five war patrols. During these patrols totalling 204 days, he and his crew managed to spot and send to the sea floor 12 ships accounting for 68,077 tons of ship. On January 1, 1942 Lüth was promoted to Kapitänleutnant. He finished his last patrol with U-43 on April 11, 1942 without any casualties to his crew.
In May, the Befelshaber der U-boote (U-Boat High Command) gave Lüth orders to commission the new Type IXD 2 U-181. U-181 was laid down March 15, 1941 at the Weser shipyard in Bremen. Lüth took the boat on her maiden patrol on May 9, 1942. By October, his patrol had led him to the coast off of Capetown, South Africa. Following that he and his crew sank four ships, tacking 21,987 tons onto his tally. On November 16, his boat received and de-crypted a message that Lüth had been awarded the Oakleaves Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross. During the next two weeks, he also sank an additional eight ships tallied at 36,394 tons. In January 1943, his boat reached the home base of the 12th Kriegsmarine Flotilla (a command echelon similar to a squadron or battalion) in Bordeaux, France.
The Historic Patrol under Lüth's Leadership
When Kapitänleutnant Wolfgang Lüth left Bordeaux for his next patrol, it would set a major record. His patrol was destined for the African coast and the Indian Ocean when he and his crew set out in U-181 in March of 1943. This difficult patrol truly exposed the leadership abilities of Lüth with not only commanding his boat against ships, but with his own crew.
Kplt. Lüth managed to sink ten ships (amassing 45,331 tons) during this long and difficult patrol. This patrol lasted an amazing 205 days at sea! This was the second longest patrol of the war, second only to Korvettenkapitän Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat?s patrol of 225 days with the crew of U-196. This may also be the second longest patrol for any submarine throughout naval history. This patrol is even more historically significant because it was during this patrol that the Führer awarded Lüth the Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds - the first U-boat officer to receive the extremely prestigious award; one of the highest honors of the Reich.
The strains, stress, and hardships that such a long patrol posed to the crew, Lüth was able to overcome with tons of ideas for morale boosting and encouragment. There were birthday celebrations with song for every crew member's birthday, as well as songs for everything from submerging to eating. Lüth decorated the submarine with all sorts of festive home-made decorations for Christmas and even had a man dressed like Santa who went around and gave gifts to all the crew. The crews? days were regimented and there were boat tournaments in things like chess and skat. Records were played, men were allowed allowances of alcohol for special occasions, and there was even a newsletter and bullitein board for the ship. He did not allow nude posters, arguing "If you were hungry, would you put a picture of bread on the wall?" There were hundreds of special ways, many of them little but effective, that Lüth used to keep his crew happy, healthy, and high-spirited during long patrols.
Herr Lüth was invited to present his methods for crew morale boosting at the Convention of Naval Officers in Weimar on December 17, 1943. Some naval officers mocked his ideas and others embraced them as brilliant. Following this, in January 1944 and after a total of more than 5 years of continuous sea duty on U-boats, this famed commander was given command of the 22nd Flotilla based in Gotenhafen. The " 22. Unterseebootsflottille" was a training unit for future U-boat officers.
The Oberkommander der Marine, or the Navy High Command was so impressed with Lüth's ability that they wanted him to teach even more cadets. He was appointed to be commander of the First Department of the Marineschule (Naval School) in Flensburg-Mürwik. This is where cadets went to train for becoming Kriegsmarine officers. That September, Lüth was again promoted and made commander of the entire school - the youngest commander of a Marineschule ever. Lüth carried out his duties training young cadets and forming them into naval officers until the end of the war. The Kriegsmarine along with the rest of the Third Reich came to an end with the Unconditional Surrender to the Allies on May 8, 1945.
His Death and Funeral
The Kriegsmarine and the other branches of the Wehrmacht continued to operate "on standby" after the surrender for a short period of time, until the Allies managed to occupy and take control of everything. Lüth became the right hand man for Großadmiral Karl Dönitz, the commander of the Kriegmarine who suceeded Adolf Hitler as Reichskanzler. Dönitz maintained armed security around him, even after the war, because of his high position.
On the night of May 13, 1945, Herr Lüth was walking across the Marineschule grounds when he was asked the password by a German sentry. Lüth, for some reason, did not speak the password or state his identity. The sentry, as he was ordered, shot and killed Kapitän zur See Wolfgang Lüth. The sentry shot at a target he could not see, in the dark, and by chance hit Lüth directly in the head killing him immediately. There are theories as to why the highly decorated commander of the school did not speak the password to the sentry. The best presumption is that Lüth was either too drunk or tired or did not hear the sentry properly.
Two days later, on May 15, 1945 Kapitän zue See Wolfgang Lüth was the last man to receive a state funeral of the Third Reich. Six of his fellow U-boat commanders, all recipients of the Knight?s Cross were the honor guard and his funeral was attended by many high officials and officers of the Reich. Großadmiral Karl Dönitz had the last words at his funeral. Lüth was buried in Flensburg-Mürwik at Friedhof Adelby. A memorial stone rests to this day on the spot where Lüth is buried, inscribed with an Iron Cross and the inscription "Kapitän zur See Wolfgang Lüth zum Gedenhem + 15.10.1913 - 14.5.1945."
Wolfgang Lüth was regarded by some as a fine naval officer with a true care for his men and a knack for sinking ships. Some other U-boat commanders grumbled that his ship sinkings were much easier because his patrols were often in African waters or the Indian ocean, far from the constant aerial attacks and depth charges of the Atlantic. He unfortunately was also an outspoken supporter of the National Socialist movement.
Grandadmiral Dönitz noted, after the war, that Lüth would have become the Befelshaber der U-boot, or the Commander of U-boats - Dönitz's former position, had the war not ended so quickly. Even with his unfortunate death, Wolfgang Lüth left a legacy that few other naval officers have. His phenomenal record for days at sea and his excellent leadership and management of his crew, coupled with his record as the highest tonnage leader in the Unterseebootwaffe with 225,756 tons and 47 sunken ships to his credit as well as being the last man to receive an official state funeral of the Third Reich, all set Wolfgang Lüth apart as a significant figure in history.
- Wolfgang Lüth's leadership lecture at the National Convention of Naval Officers in Weimar, 1943.
- Oxford Companion to World War II
- Personal knowledge