The submarines of the Kriegsmarine: the U-48

(To Francesco Sisto)

The German submarine U-48 in the Second World War achieved important successes and records: during its two years of active service, the boat managed to sink 51 ships (50 merchant ships and one warship) for a total of about 299.477 and 1.060 tons. Additionally, she damaged 4 freighters for a total of approximately 27.877 GRT.

All these feats were accomplished in 12 war missions during the battle of the Atlantic.

The submarine belonged to the U-boats type VII. It should be noted that the boats type VII were the most used U-boats during the conflict, and more than 700 were built. U-48 was part of the group VIIB.

The vessel was laid down in the Kiel shipyard on 10 March 1937, launched on 8 March 1939 and delivered to the Kriegsmarine on 22 April 1939.

At the beginning of the war, Admiral Karl Donitz describes the situation thus: “The United Kingdom depended entirely on sea transport, whether it concerned food, raw or finished materials, military equipment. The only mission of the Kriegsmarine was to disrupt this flow and maritime communications.

It was clear that the objective could not be achieved by building a surface fleet and defeating the Royal Navy with it, when what was needed was a rapid and powerful attack; only U-boats were capable of achieving this, penetrating key areas around the British Isles, even at long ranges.

When war with the United Kingdom became a reality in September 1939, our navy had to change its weapons and methods and significantly alter its shipbuilding programme. Only the largest surface units nearing completion were retained, while those planned were replaced on submarine slipways. Bearing in mind that before the start of hostilities the production was between 2 and 4 U-boats per month, it was later decided to arrive at an average between 20 and 25".1.

According to German strategists, if the Kriegsmarine were able to sink more merchant ships than the British shipyards could build, the flow of vital supplies would be so diminished as to make continuation of the war impossible, forcing the British to ask for an armistice. Such an opportunity was very close when the armed forces of the Third Reich managed to fold half of Europe and – in fact – Germany was able to extend its maritime control.

The British Empire was based on the transports that arrived from allied and neutral countries and obviously from its colonies scattered throughout the world; to counter them, the German War Navy used numerous submarines, mostly belonging to the type VII.

The first commander of the U-48 was Lieutenant Herbert Schultze (photo), and was part of the 7th submarine flotilla when the conflict broke out. In five war missions, from September 1939 to spring 1940, the German boat sank 15 merchant ships for a total of approximately 109.074 GRT. Chief among the vessels destroyed was the French tanker Emile Miguet (14.115 GRT).

On May 20, 1940, Schultze handed over command of the submarine to Lieutenant Commander Hans Rudolf Rosing; the boat under Rosing caused the sinking of 12 ships for a total of over 60.000 GRT.

The third commander of U-48 was Lieutenant Heinrich Bleichrodt, who between September 1940 and December 1940 sank thirteen merchantmen and the British sloop Dundee (1.060 tons). On 17 December 1940, Schultze resumed command of the boat; in three missions from December 1940 to June 1941, U-48 torpedoed ten ships for a total of about 60.635 GRT.

In July 1941 the boat was assigned to the 26th submarine flotilla and remained there until March 1942; in April of the same year he was sent to the 21st flotilla and became a training boat until October 19432. A short time later it was decommissioned at Neustadt in Holstein.

On May 3, 1945, she was scuttled in the Bay of Lübeck.

U-48 had a displacement of 753 tons surfaced (857 submerged). The dimensions of her were 66,50 x 6,20 x 4,74 m. Its power was 2800-3200 hp (diesel) and 750 hp (electric).

Range: 8700 miles (10 knots surfaced) and 90 miles (4 knots submerged).

Armament consisted of five 5cm torpedo tubes, 53,3 torpedoes, one 14cm naval gun and one 1mm C/8,8 anti-aircraft gun.

The boat could count on a crew of 40/56 men plus 4 officers.

1 JP Delgado, History of Submarines. Underwater warfare from its origins to our times, LEG, Gorizia, 2014, p.210-11

2 See A. Fraccaroli, The submarine U-48, in Storia illustrata n°205, 1974, p.80

Photo: UK Government / Bundesarchiv