|Born||27 March 1916
|Died||30 November 1945
|Years of service||1934–1945|
|Unit||12th U-boat Flotilla|
|Commands held||U-852, 15 June 1943 – 3 May 1944|
Heinz-Wilhelm Eck (27 March 1916 – 30 November 1945) was a German U-boat commander of the Second World War, who was tried, convicted, condemned and executed postwar for ordering his crew to shoot the survivors of a Greek merchantman sunk by U-852.
Eck was born in Hamburg and served with the Kriegsmarine from 1934, becoming a Kapitänleutnant on 1 December 1941 and assuming his first command on 15 June 1943. From 18 January 1944 he led U-852 on a patrol heading for South African waters and then on to the Indian Ocean. While en route he encountered the lone Greek steamer SS Peleus, and sank her with two torpedoes on 13 March.
The sinking Peleus left a large debris field, amongst which were several survivors clinging to rafts and wreckage. This field would provide unmistakable evidence of the presence of an enemy submarine, and thus would betray the position of the U-852 to aircraft and shipping patrolling the area. Eck then controversially decided to sink the wreckage with the use of hand grenades and automatic weapons. The question of whether this "dispersal" order explicitly or implicitly encouraged the killing of the sailors in the water, or whether this was an unfortunate example of collateral damage was the subject of a post-war trial. During the trial, Eck acknowledged he realized that by sinking the rafts, he was denying the seamen a chance of survival.
Eck ordered his junior officers to fire into the wreckage in an effort to sink it. Accounts differ greatly as to the number of shots fired and the damage done. The two surviving Greek sailors reported the shooting went on for a long time, and that at least four of their compatriots were killed by it. The German crew's report stated, however, that they had fired several short machine gun bursts into the wreckage and were unable to see their targets in the dark. The men shooting were later proven to be the ship's engineering officer, Hans Lenz (who claimed he had done so under protest to spare an enlisted man from having to do it), Walter Weisspfennig (the ship's doctor who was not supposed to be handling firearms), the second in command August Hoffmann and an enlisted engineer, Wolfgang Schwender (who was under direct orders and fired very few rounds). Eck was also present during the incident; the remaining crew were below decks.
The operation to sink the rafts and wreckage was not hugely successful, but the submarine was able to evade pursuit, and managed to sink the British cargo ship SS Dahomian off Cape Town on 1 April, this time hastily leaving the scene rather than pausing. A few weeks later on 30 April the boat was spotted by a Vickers Wellington bomber flying from Aden, which managed to damage her with depth charges, thus preventing her from diving. Knowing all was lost, Eck made for the Somali coast, where his ship was beached on a coral reef while under extensive air attack from six bombers of 621 Squadron Royal Air Force. Of Eck's crew, 58 made it to shore, where they were captured by the Somaliland Camel Corps and local militia and sent to various prison camps to wait out the end of the war. Seven of the crew had been killed by the constant air attacks.
Standing trial after the war
In prison, Lenz provided his captors with a signed confession. This, when combined with the testimony of the Peleus survivors and the log of U-852 (which Eck had failed to destroy), provided conclusive testimony. Following the war's conclusion, all the above named crew members were placed on trial at the Hamburg war trials (an extension of the Nuremberg trials for minor war criminals) for the deaths of the steamer's crew. The judge was Melford Stevenson. After a four-day hearing, at which crew members, survivors and experts were called, all five men were found guilty.
Eck, Hoffmann, and Weisspfennig were sentenced to death. Weisspfennig was condemned because as a non-combatant under the Geneva Convention, he was prohibited from firing weapons even in action. Eck and Hoffmann were executed because in their role as the boat's senior officers, responsibility for the actions of their crew, as well as for themselves, fell directly on their shoulders. All three were shot by firing squad at Lüneberg Heath on 30 November 1945. Lenz, by virtue of his protest at the time and his written confession, had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, while Schwender, the only man involved who had been under direct orders, was given seven years. Schwendier was released in 1951; Lenz was released in 1952.
The incident was the only case in which U-boat personnel were convicted of war crimes committed during the Second World War, compared to the thousands of people from the other branches of service. Similar and even worse war crimes had been committed by German submarines during the First World War, as in the case of the machine-gunning of the survivors of the HMHS Llandovery Castle hospital ship. British and American submarines (such as HMS Torbay and USS Wahoo) were recorded as killing survivors of their targets, and yet their crimes were hushed up at the time and for some years after the war; no legal proceedings were ever attempted against their crews. The crew of the Wahoo could not be tried after the war, because they were by then dead, as were the crew of the German U-247, who had shot the shipwrecked survivors of the fishing trawler Noreen Mary.
Gwyn Griffin's best-selling 1967 novel An Operational Necessity was based on the Peleus Incident.
- Clay Blair, Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunted, 1942–1945 (1998)
- Blair 1998, p. 815
- Clay Blair Silent Victory (2001 )
4. Savas, Theodore P., editor. (1997, 2004). Silent Hunters: German U-boat Commanders of World War II. Naval Institute Press and Savas Publishing Company. (Includes long essay on Eck with extensive discussion of the trial testimony and his actions, by Dwight Messimer.)
- "The Boats – U-852". uboat.net. Retrieved 25 March 2007.
- "Heinz-Wilhelm Eck Siegerjustiz and the Peleus Affair". uboat.net. Retrieved 25 March 2007.
- War crimes details (Archived 2009-10-25)