What was one of the most shocking acts of infamy of the German submarine weapon began on March 13, 1944, in full WWII. That afternoon, the commander Heinz-Wilhelm Eckbony complexion and high cheekbones, he glimpsed from the bridge of his U-852 the silhouette of the ‘SS Peleus‘. Catching and destroying the Greek freighter did not bring a sigh. It was a simple hunt; another day at work. What did take him nearly five hours was the ignoble task of machine-gunning the ship’s survivors. All this, with a single objective: to eliminate, in the most literal sense of the word, the possibilities that the witnesses reported their whereabouts to the allies.
But that outrage did not go unpunished. After the conflict and the fall of the Nazi eagle, Eck and those officers who had participated in the massacre were interrogated, prosecuted and placed in front of a firing squad. ‘ABC’, which closely followed the trial, reported the sentence on October 21, 1945 under the headline ‘Three German sailors sentenced to death’: ‘Death penalty by shooting for the commander of the ship, lieutenant of the ship Heinz Eck, for the frigate captain Augustus Hoffman and for the navy doctor Walter Weisspfennig». In this way, the sailor expired his last breath with the sad title in his service record of being the only German submarine captain executed for war crimes.
The truth is that the massacre perpetrated by Eck was just the icing on the cake of a controversy that had arisen after the German blockade of Great Britain. In principle, and as explained in his memoirs Karl Dönitz -Command of the Reich Submarine Weapon first, and the Kriegsmarine later-, the submersibles were governed “by the rules established in the London submarine protocol of 1936” in relation to attacking merchant ships:
“A merchant ship, armed or not, had to be, as before, treated by the submarine as if it were one of many surface warships; In other words, it was necessary to stop it and proceed with its search while the submarine was at the surface of the water. In the event that, according to the provisions of the regulation on dams, whether due to the nationality of the steam or the cargo it was carrying, it should be sinking, the submarine had to previously worry about safeguarding the crew, for which no it was enough to place it in the ship’s salvage boats if the event occurred on the high seas ».
Submersibles were only exempted from this rule in the event that merchants were escorted by warships, took part in battles or had been converted into troop transports. Needless to say, these and many other similar laws did not please the capitals of the ‘Submarines‘ Germans. And is that, sinking one of these ships abiding by international regulations forced them to reveal their position and be an ideal target for enemy convoys. Perhaps for this reason, the ‘Führer’ prohibited the attacks against ships dedicated to the load of merchandise during the first year of the war. However, the passing of the months and the need to cut off the arrival of resources to Great Britain from the United States made him change his mind, as Dönitz confirmed:
«The progressive cancellation of the restrictive provisions in submarine warfare was developed through a series of orders that began with the authorization to make use of the weapons against the vapors that used their radiotelegraph facilities, against those who were sailing without lights or against those who were armed, until full authorization is reached to attack any ship that is recognized as an enemy. It ended up declaring an area of operations […] all the maritime space that surrounded England ‘.
The tension increased even more in September 1942, when, after sinking the British ‘RMS Laconia‘, the U-156 He set out to help rescue the nearly two thousand Italian prisoners trapped on the ocean liner that had found their bones in the water. During the work, an allied bomber launched its deadly charge against the submersible. Although the commander managed to flee, it caused Dönitz to rage, who shortly after sent the following order to his men:
«Any attempt to rescue personnel from sunken ships, as well as the rescue of swimmers and pick-up aboard passengers from rescue boats, towing them, assistance with food and drinking water are suppressed. Salvage contradicts the most primitive demands of the execution of war, which consists in the destruction of enemy ships and crews.
Death at sea
This is how the situation was for Eck that unfortunate March 1944. It is true that he was not a novice when it comes to sailing, having joined the ‘Reichmarine’ in 1934, but the reality is that he was not at that time nor two months in command of U-852. To make matters worse, and as Theodore P. Savas explains in his magna ‘Silent Hunters: German U-Boat Commanders of World War II‘, his superiors had warned him that his new ship was one of the’ largest, slowest, heaviest and easiest to sink of all those in service ‘and to be very careful with the wreckage of the ships he destroyed, because they could locate him thanks to them.
Fifty-four days after those premonitions, on the afternoon of March 13, 1944, Eck found the ‘Peleus‘in international waters, off the coast of Liberia. Although the officer did not know it, the freighter covered the route between Freetown Y Silver river. U-582 was sailing on the surface when, at around five in the afternoon, the lookout gave the warning. “Alarm!” The pursuit lasted until a quarter to eight, when, after ensuring that he would hit, the commander fired two torpedoes without submerging. There was no reason to do so, as the ship posed no real threat. Both hit the ship’s holds squarely. «The detonation was impressive“, Affirmed, after the Second World War, the commander.
The ‘Peleus’, condemned, sank like an immense inert rock. Although he still had the kindness to resist on the waters the minutes necessary for the crew – between 35 and 39 men, depending on the sources that were used – were thrown into the sea. Savas narrates that the vast majority of the sailors did not have time to put on their lifejackets, so they grabbed hold of any debris from the floating ship and – in the case of the more fortunate – they got on the few emergency boats that managed to stow . The screams and calls for help instantly took over the air and reached, no doubt, as far as the bridge of U-852. But Eck didn’t seem to be affected. The commander just picked up one survivor, and for questioning.
Nothing seemed to indicate that international norms were going to be violated. In fact, the second officer of the watch, Lieutenant Augustus Hoffman, informed the prisoner that he was going to be deposited in one of the boats and that the survivors would be picked up in the next days by British ships. At the time, several members of the crew were on the bridge: the first officer Colditz, the chief engineer Lenz and the on-board doctor White penny. That seemed normal. Or, rather, as normal as it is to end up with a merchant ship in the middle of nowhere. However, in a few minutes the situation took a sinister turn when Eck informed his men that these barges were a claim for the enemy and endangered U-582.
To the amazement of several of the submarine’s crew, Eck then ordered to raise two machine guns from the heart of U-582, place them on the stern rail and … fire on the rafts. Although the commander always defended that he did not demand to kill the castaways, the truth is that it was something implicit. What followed was a whirlwind of gunfire lasting more than five hours; a madness that spread over time due to the impossibility of sinking the boats with a bullet. Those responsible for pulling the trigger were Weisspfennig and Hoffman. As if that were not enough, when they saw that it was not effective they started throwing grenades. There were only four survivors, and some, like Agis Kephalas, suffered severe shrapnel wounds.
Eck had no use for this madness. Shortly afterwards he was hunted down and imprisoned by the British awaiting trial. Your statement in Nuremberg it was published by ‘ABC’ on October 21, 1945. And the truth is that it could not be more enlightening. In the words of this newspaper, the ship’s lieutenant confirmed that “his crew received the order to machine-gun the survivors and make all trace of the Greek enemy steam disappear”, sunk by “a magnetic torpedo». However, it defended itself arguing that its action “was legitimate from the military point of view, since the appearance of survivors or wrecks of the wreck would have attracted other ships and / or planes to the scene of the incident and would have endangered the safety of the submarine” .
And he did not stop at that point, but added that he had acted that way out of fear that his ship would be mercilessly destroyed. This is how ‘ABC’ narrated it:
“Eck said that he had been induced to follow by reports of what happened to submersibles carrying torpedo survivors. One of those submersibles – he said -, in which were women and children who were traveling in a ship sunk by him, was sighted on the surface by an opposing plane. He realized that he was carrying survivors and that he should not be attacked; the plane flew away, but later came back on the submarine and the submarine had to throw the survivors into the water and submerge with damage ”.
The commander also insisted that, during the First World War, There were many lifeboats machine-gunned by both sides. In any case, they were empty words, as he was sentenced to death along with Hoffman and Weisspfennig. The rest of the sailors present that day on the bridge had more luck and were saved from the firing squad, although not from jail. The case was so notorious that it reached Dönitz’s ears after the conflict. And the boss, while trying to defend Eck, admitted that this had been sheer madness: “I cannot approve of the commander’s conduct, because the soldier must not deviate from the customary fundamental rules of warfare.”