Specials Special
Submarine  VS   Submarine
Jolly Roger

Written by Eric R. Schwarz
Special thanks to: Mr. Klaus-Peter Pohland and Mr. Donald Kindell

Submarine against submarine encounters in WWII were infrequent when compared to other types of engagements routinely encountered. However, there was a period of time when both side’s submarines were concentrated in a relatively small geographical area and even deployed with frequency on anti-submarine missions. The setting was the North Sea, 1940.


For submarines in the North Sea and off the Norwegian coast, many factors influenced their operations. Certainly the most prevalent was the hours of daylight. In the spring and summer, the horizon was lit for up to 20 hours a day. This made it very difficult to operate on the surface to use their main diesel engines and resulting high speed to gain favourable firing position on a potential target or charge their batteries for submerged operations. Submarines were not designed to be used on the surface under good visibility conditions, but rather under cover of either darkness or bad weather- they are essentially an ambush weapon. In addition to the limited cover of darkness during the summer months, the North Sea was restricted in its opportunity for evasion as the bottom was often shallow and very flat. This feature also made for excellent mining conditions to lay protective anti-submarine barrages. On the other hand, the conditions in the North Sea provided benefits for submarines. The dark murky waters made aerial observation difficult- submarines at periscope depth could not, under normal circumstances, be detected from the air, plus frequent changes in the waters temperature and salinity layers made underwater detection difficult.

With the opening of hostilities off Norway in April 1940, the Allies deployed a sizable force of submarines south of Bergen and in the Skagerrak and Kattegat to interdict the German supply traffic. For their part, the Germans had deployed many submarines in these areas to screen their transport forces from interception by British surface forces. The concentration of submarines inevitably led to numerous encounters.

HM THISTLE attacked a German submarine off Stavanger and missed- her intended target U.4 in turn sank her the next morning by torpedo. HM PORPOISE and U.3 each missed one another off Lindesnes while the French submarine ORPHEE missed U.51. Several other failed attacks and encounters took place over the next few months. Except for the success of U.4, it became apparent that submarines were not ideal weapons to hunt enemy submarines. However, the British Admiralty felt a strong conviction that their own submarines could effectively intercept German submarines using the North Sea and Norwegian waters to access the Atlantic. So the practice of deploying Allied submarines in an anti-submarine role was encouraged and maintained.

By the summer of 1940, Britain was preoccupied with the threat of invasion from Germany. To give forewarning of any sea borne forces approaching, the Royal Navy stationed submarines off the approaches of the main Norwegian ports believed to be points of embarkation- Bergen and Stavanger. In addition, they patrolled the entrance to the Skagerrak and maintained offensive sorties in the sea-lanes between Stavanger and Kristiansand where enemy traffic had to travel in open waters. As always, a patrol line of several submarines were also held in the central and northern North Sea to intercept German submarines on their way to and from the Atlantic shipping lanes. The Germans had laid 2 large minefields off SW Norway to protect the approaches in mid-summer that greatly affected the British deployment of their submarines. Following several unexplained submarine losses attributed to the minefields, VAS adjusted his submarines transit routes that caused a concentration at several points. This inevitably led to confusion and on July 22 HM CLYDE fired a salvo of 6 torpedoes in error at HM TRUANT west of Bergen. They missed astern due to a bad estimation of speed and course. Following this event, orders were issued that emphasized obtaining positive identification of enemy submarines prior to attack, hopefully not conflicting with the need for rapid action necessary in fleeting submarine-to-submarine encounters.

As uncommon as submarine versus submarine encounters were, for a period of just 6 days in the North Sea in late July early August 1940, there were no less than 5 separate attacks- 2 including the very rare event of a submarine engaging another in a surface gun action. The first was on July 29 when at 2033 SW of Egersund, Norway, the 250-ton coastal submarine U.62 (Kapitänleutnant Hans-Bernhard Michalowski) surfaced. U.62 was headed for home, on her final operational tour- she was to be de-commissioned and used in a training flotilla upon arrival. Her batteries were nearly exhausted and she was out of torpedoes, her only weapons being her 20-mm C/30 antiaircraft gun mounted on the fore deck and a pair of 7.92-mm MG34s on the bridge. U.62 had been spotted and reported by the submarine HM TRITON the day before when leaving Bergen and the Admiralty had advised submarines stationed south to be on the lookout. The 750-ton British HM SEALION (Lt. Commander Ben Bryant) was submerged nearby and detected the German boat. Bryant attacked with 3 torpedoes but U.62 had seen her periscope and avoided the salvo on the surface. HM SEALION then surfaced and engaged with her 76-mm 50-cal deck gun. Three shots later U.62 dived, having been able to charge her batteries enough while surfaced (27 minutes). HM SEALION quickly followed her down, but neither maintained contact.

August 1, 1940. A new development was evolving in the area; 2 new Dutch submarines, O.21 and O.22, augmented the British submarines. They had just finished their trials and working up periods and were being deployed by the Royal Navy’s 9th Submarine Flotilla. They were both assigned an area in the central North Sea for the purpose of anti-submarine duties on their first war patrols.

When the 2 Dutch submarines came to the U.K. in May 1940, they were nearly complete, minus some armament outfittings. Their designs were typical in the Netherlands naval tradition- strong, efficient, well constructed, and innovatively designed. The British, who favoured traditional well-proven designs for their submarines, did not fully appreciate or utilize the Dutch planners progressive features. Two in particular. The first was a ventilation tube with a head valve that was designed for the Dutch submarines to operate their main diesel engines while submerged at periscope depth (although at a reduced speed of approximately 8.5 knots). This allowed it to remain submerged indefinitely and make detection considerably more difficult. Second was the fitting of a specially designed Vickers 40-mm antiaircraft mounting that retracted into a watertight storage well in the aft platform of the conning tower. The 40-mm shell could break up an aircraft in the air and be used effectively against surface targets while the protection from seawater improved the weapons operation/reliability and allowed the use of advanced optical sights as compared with the fixed open sights normally fitted on exposed guns.

As for the ventilation system, the British believed it to not be entirely reliable or safe. It did initiate interest in the concept, but the Royal Navy decided not to pursue its development and removed the system at the dockyards in May 1940 before the boats became operational. The Germans developed the Dutch design into the highly successful snorkel. As for the 40-mm gun, British theory on air attack relied upon rapid diving times- evasion rather than defence. Apparently there were no modified 40-mm weapons available for the original design, so the 2 Dutch submarines were fitted out with single 20-mm Oerlikons in British yards. Both of these features would have been invaluable for operations off the restrictive Norwegian coastal waters where air attack could be expected.

By 1602 on August 1, O.21 (Lt1. Commander J.F. van Dulm) had reached 55.34N 02.18E and spotted a 250-ton German submarine surfaced with a northerly course- U.60 (Oberleutnant zür See Adalbert Schnee). U.60 was headed to Bergen, Norway to re-fuel and provision before heading on patrol. Van Dulm commenced attack and thirteen minutes later, fired 2 torpedoes at the range of 2,000 meters, both of which missed. U.60 was unaware of the attack and the ever smiling and upbeat Schnee continued on course. As lucky as he was with O.21, Schnee again unknowingly escaped just hours later when at 1800 the other Dutch submarine O.22 (Ltz. I  Commander J.W. Ort) patrolling to the north of her sister ship spotted U.60. This time the range was too great and no attack was executed. While closing Bergen off Haugesund next evening, U.60 was attacked in error by German Ju88 bombers from K.G.30 flying an anti-shipping strike out of Stavanger to the Orkneys and emerged unscathed. Schnee, a 26-year old Berliner, would continue to enjoy considerable favour throughout his career, eventually receiving the Knights Cross and surviving the conflict. 

Destiny had a different ending for HM SPEARFISH. She had left Rosyth to relieve HM SNAPPER off Skudesnesfjorden (Stavanger) on August 2. She would never arrive. Less than an hour after O.22 spotted U.60 the evening of August 1, HM SPEARFISH was headed east off Aberdeen. At 1848 the 740-ton German submarine U.34 (Kapitänleutnant Wilhem Rollmann) spotted the conning tower of HM SPEARFISH, a sister ship of HM SEALION and HM SNAPPER. Rollmann, 4 days away from his 33rd birthday was completing an unbelievably successful tour. Since leaving Germany June 22, U.34 had sunk 11 enemy merchant ships and the British destroyer HM WHIRLWIND (50,000-tons + shipping) and was returning to a heroes welcome… with 1 torpedo remaining. In excellent visibility Rollmann fired his final shot at 1904 and saw 20 fragments blown into the air as the torpedo hit the targets bow. Five minutes later U.34 surfaced and rescued the only survivor. Rollmann too would receive the Knights Cross, but also a grave at the oceans bottom in 1943.

HMS Spearfish. Ira his great-uncle perished when she went down  (Photo: © Collection Ira James) HMS Spearfish. Ira his great-uncle perished when she went down  (Photo: © Collection Ira James)

August 2 dawned with seasonal fog and mist accompanied by low clouds over the sea. At 0750, O.22 spotted at southbound enemy submarine- U.34. Once again the target was out of range for attack. U.34 would later meet up with one of a pair of German submarines headed out on patrol from home bases, U.37 and U.38. Both were 1,000-ton Type IXA ocean-going designs that had left port at the same time and were travelling close, but not together. This put quite a few submarines in the same general area. Both U.37 and U.38 were near enough to both be attacked by the same 18 Group Coastal Command Hudson from No.220 Squadron patrol bomber around 1508. The pilot thought he attacked only one target. There was no damage from the air attack.

1600 in position 56.15N 02.35E, O.22 spotted either U.37 or U.38 headed north. Ort, from Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies, was a very experienced career officer. He commenced attack, obtaining firing position at the extreme range of 3,600 meters by 1620. He fired 2 torpedoes but gained no hits. Whichever boat it was, U.37 or U.38, neither was aware of any attack.

To conclude matters, August 3, the 1,000-ton British submarine HM TRIAD (Lt. Commander George Salt) was returning from a brief patrol off Fedjeosen (north of Bergen) and was in the same vicinity as the loss of HM SPEARFISH. While diving she spotted the 740-ton German submarine U.46 (Oberleutnant zür See Engelbert Endrass) on the surface. U.46 had left Germany the day before on patrol. HM TRIAD was not in a position to fire torpedoes, so Salt immediately surfaced and engaged the German submarine with her 102-mm deck gun. It was 2230 when U.46 realized she was under artillery fire from the British submarine, and Endrass, a 29-year old who would also receive the Knights Cross, decided not to engage the enemy despite having an outfit of 1, 88-mm C/45, 1, 20-mm C/30, and 2, 7.92-mm MG34. Alarmdive was sounded and U.46 slid beneath the waves after the third shot from HM TRIAD, who also dived to hunt the German. U.46 heard propeller noise and ASDIC impulses, so Endrass surfaced right away but saw nothing. HM TRIAD also lost contact. U.46 would put into Bergen for unrelated repairs and HM TRIAD would arrive at Rosyth and be in dock from August 9 to 23 then to the Mediterranean from which she would not return.

Six days, seven encounters, one loss. The Dutch would have varying degrees of success- O.22 would be lost in a few months off SW Norway while O.21 would go on to sink U.95 in the Mediterranean Sea. Three of the German submarines were commanded by future Knight Cross holders, 2 of whom would die before the wars end. And of the actions in this small theatre of battle, it is uncommon for submarines to engage each other, let alone in 2 surface gun battles. In fact, during the entire conflict from 1939 to 1945, there is only one recorded incident of a submarine sinking an enemy submarine by surface gunfire- the Italian ENRICO TOTI sank a British submarine off Libya October 15, 1940. Most accounts state the victim to be HM RAINBOW, some claim HM TRIAD- both were lost at that time.


The Admiralty continued a policy of deploying submarines against enemy submarines and achieved some notable successes against Italian submarines in the Mediterranean. Against German submarines there were few successes, and the overall effectiveness of the policy is doubtful. Considering the huge number of German submarines operational throughout the war the results were minimal. The main contribution of the policy was to harass the German submarines and slow their transits, thus restricting their operational times in shipping lanes. A type of virtual attrition. Realistically, the British had little else to send their submarines against with a prospect of success as the Germans effectively protected their coastal traffic lanes with extensive minefields, surface escorts, and aerial patrols until the last days of the conflict. Thus the results of the Allied submarines in the conflict against the Kriegs Marine submarines were minor but never the less contributed overall to the enemy’s defeat.


Written by Eric R. Schwarz, 2001
Special thanks to: Mr. Klaus-Peter Pohland and Mr. Donald Kindell



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