Wilhelm Zahn

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Wilhelm Zahn
Wilhelm Zahn.jpg
Born(1910-07-29)29 July 1910
Died14 November 1976(1976-11-14) (aged 66)
Allegiance Nazi Germany
Service/branch Kriegsmarine
Commands heldU-56
Battles/warsBattle of the Atlantic

Wilhelm Zahn (29 July 1910 – 14 November 1976)[1] was a German Kriegsmarine officer during the Second World War. He was U-boat First Watch Officer, then became U-boat commander and was finally promoted to Korvettenkapitän on 1 April 1943.[2] As commander of U-56 he was able to avoid detection by the destroyers surrounding HMS Nelson and came in close proximity to the British flagship, launching three torpedoes against her whilst she was carrying Winston Churchill and the high military command of the British Navy. Following that incident he became widely known as the "Man who almost killed Churchill" amongst the U-boat submariner corps.[3] He was one of the commanding officers during the sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff which has been described as "Adolf Hitler's Titanic".[4]

U-boat action[edit]


At 10 a.m. on 30 October 1939,[5][6] Zahn was commander of U-56 when he managed to avoid detection by the 10 destroyers and battle cruiser Hood,[7] protecting the Home Fleet west of the Orkneys and came within striking distance of HMS Nelson and Rodney.[5]

Unbeknownst to Zahn,[8] aboard the flagship HMS Nelson were First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill,[6] Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Forbes, and admiral Sir Dudley Pound who was the First Sea Lord at the time.[9][10] The reason for the gathering was Winston Churchill's decision to convene a conference with the leadership of the British Navy because of the sinking disaster of HMS Royal Oak caused by a U-boat attack during which 833 servicemen died.[8]

In Zahn's own account of the events, three cruisers were heading straight toward his U-boat's position, making any attack by him almost impossible, when suddenly they veered by twenty to thirty degrees from their previous course opening the field of attack and bringing him into a direct line of fire with HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney.[5][8] Rodney was the lead ship of the convoy and Zahn decided to wait until it passed and concentrated his sights on the Nelson.[5] The U-boat came within the point-blank range of 800 metres of the ship and Zahn's chances of striking and sinking it were high.[6][10]

A G7e torpedo (middle) similar to the ones used by U-56 against the Nelson.[11][12]

He fired three torpedoes from U-56's three torpedo tubes[12] toward the flagship. No detonations occurred but two torpedoes allegedly struck the hull of the Nelson: one of the sonar operators of ‘’U-56’’ claimed to have heard sound of impact with Nelson's hull.[8][9][10][13] The third torpedo subsequently exploded at sea without causing damage.[9] The incident has been described as the "most important non-sinking" of the conflict.[6] After the attack Zahn became widely known as the "Man who almost killed Churchill" amongst the U-boat submariner corps.[3]

After the attack Zahn ordered the U-boat to descend to a deeper level to avoid depth charges, since the destroyers had by now detected its presence. In the evening Zahn ordered U-56 to surface and subsequently sent a radio report to Berlin listing the targets in the group including HMS Rodney. The delay in the transmission of the information was caused by Zahn's depression caused by missing his target. Had this delay in Zahn's report not happened, the German command could have sent U-58, which was in the area at the time, to renew the attack on the British targets.[5]

Because of his failure to destroy the Nelson, Zahn became depressed and Karl Dönitz had felt obliged to relieve him of his U-56 command and sent him back to Germany to become an instructor.[13][14] Later, in his memoirs, Dönitz called the failed attack by U-56 "an exceptionally serious failure" but did not blame Zahn whose daring, in the presence of the destroyers, he praised, saying "The commander who had delivered the attack with great daring when surrounded by twelve escorting destroyers, was so depressed by this failure, in which he was in no way to blame, that I felt compelled to withdraw him for the time being from active operations and employ him as an instructor at home".[13] In addition Dönitz had received reports from his men concerning problems with the defective G7e torpedoes that they were using and knew that the failures were caused by the faulty torpedoes.[12] Zahn eventually recovered and later that year was given command of U-69.[14]


On 30 October 1941 Zahn took command of U-69 for the first time. It was the U-boat's sixth patrol, the previous five patrols being under Lieutenant commander Jost Metzler when from February to July 1941 sank approximately eleven British ships of about 50,000 gross register tons (GRT). Once at sea Zahn opened the sealed mission orders from Dönitz instructing him to go to the Störtebeker patrol zone named after a German pirate, lying to the east of the Azores. He was to search for supply ships originating from Cape Town and going to England through Gibraltar under code name OS11. On 3 November 1941 Zahn reached the area and wrote in his log "Now begins the tedious business of searching".[3]

On 23 November U-69 was ordered by Naval Command to sail to sector AK in the Atlantic southeast of Greenland and southwest of Iceland. Through adverse weather U-69 set to the new course. At 8 p.m. on 26 November 1941 Zahn under inclement weather decided to track a lone freighter moving slowly in heavy seas under snow and hail. After two hours of sailing on the surface Zahn decided on a surface attack against the freighter and released four torpedoes all of which failed to hit the target. Zahn ordered the submarine to submerge to load the four tubes with new torpedoes and upon resurfacing the target could not be located again. Although Dönitz sent messages concerning more targets after that U-69 was not able to locate them and on 3 December it was ordered back to St. Nazaire. Upon arrival, after 39 days of patrol in the Atlantic, captain Eberhard Godt, the U-boat chief of operations, reprimanded Zahn for his failure to sink any targets and although he acknowledged the impact of the severe weather he told Zahn in future not to submerge for such a long time to reload all torpedo tubes but to only perform a partial reloading to save time.[3]

In the early morning of 18 January 1942 U-69 with Zahn in command left St. Nazaire setting for a course toward the mid-Atlantic. U-69 came within 500 miles of Long Island, New York and since it was running low on fuel and could not positively identify a potential target as an enemy vessel, Zahn decided not to attack. U-69 was then ordered closer to the American coast but after increased anti-submarine activity Zahn decided on sailing for Grand Banks near Newfoundland. On 17 March 1942, after some more unsuccessful encounters at sea, Zahn brought U-69 to St. Nazaire after a mission in the Atlantic lasting thirty eight days without sinking any ship. Dönitz, in his post-mission appraisal report of Zahn's actions, wrote "Although opportunities presented themselves the commander once again has had no success. This cannot be attributed solely to lack of luck. The commander lacks skill both in general operations and in attacking." Dönitz did not approve of Zahn's tactics of just following a convoy of ships instead of launching an attack against it during the day and also blamed him for not following the convoy closely enough and for losing contact with it eventually, saying "Proper tactics would have been to head for the convoy at full speed and to decide on a daylight attack-or at the very least to have kept so close to the enemy as not to lose him, as was the case here". He then relieved Zahn of his command of U-69 and appointed him to a different post.[3]

Wilhelm Gustloff[edit]

Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship in Danzig, 23 September 1939

Korvettenkapitän Wilhelm Zahn and merchant marine Captain Friedrich Petersen were the two senior officers aboard Wilhelm Gustloff when on 30 January 1945 it was assigned the task of transporting an assortment of passengers from the East to the West of Germany. The passengers included 8,000–9,000 German war refugees, 1,000 members of the Second Submarine Training Division (2. Unterseeboots-Lehrdivision), about 400 women members of the Auxiliary Navy Corps, Nazi Party officials and injured servicemen.[15][16]

Although Zahn had the highest rank on the ship, Petersen, as a merchant marine captain, had formal command of the vessel, a fact that ran counter to the sensibilities of Zahn, who was unwilling to accept Petersen's authority.[17] At the same time, Zahn had military priorities which differed from those of civilian captain Petersen but since he did not have the legal authority to impose his decisions on the civilian captain,[18] eventually the two men ran into conflict concerning the details of how to plot the path that Wilhelm Gustloff would take. Problems also arose between the two officers regarding the ship's speed and the taking of safety precautions related to avoiding attacks by submarines which could be present in the area at the time.[15][16][18]

Zahn as the commander and Military Transport Leader of the Second Submarine Training Division wanted to effect standard navy war procedure during the transport of the naval trainees which included cruising at high speed and submarine avoidance precautions such as travelling near the coast with the ship in total darkness. Zahn's plans were met with resolute opposition from captain Petersen.[15]

Zahn was drawing from his U-boat experience and was aware of British anti-submarine tactics in the Atlantic which included a minimum cruising speed limit of 15 knots for British commercial vessels, necessary to safely outrun the U-boats, and proposed this to Petersen. Petersen however was mindful of the damage the ship had sustained in an aerial bombardment the year before and did not believe that subsequent repairs to the hull were completely effective and had doubts that the ship's hull had the structural integrity to withstand the stresses imposed by the speed proposed by Zahn. He therefore insisted that the ship's speed not exceed 12 knots.[15][19]

However, Zahn knew that Wilhelm Gustloff was rated at 16 knots top speed and was annoyed at Petersen's insistence for keeping at the lower speed limit of 12 knots, which made the ship an easier target for submarines. Another point of disagreement between the two captains was the shape of the route. Zahn supported a zigzag submarine avoidance path while Petersen proposed a linear path to minimise travel time. Petersen also proposed cruising in deep waters and with the lights on to avoid collision with minesweeping ships which were reported as being present in the area at the time.[20]

Eventually the two captains agreed on a zigzag course. This did not prevent the sinking of the ship by a Soviet submarine.[15]


Following the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff, a naval board of inquiry was convened; Zahn appeared in front of it, having been called by the board to justify his actions. During his testimony, Zahn blamed the Croatian crew's lack of understanding of orders, given in German, for the high number of casualties during the sinking. Zahn also mentioned that he had not received any orders regarding the performance or avoidance of zigzag manoeuvres, saying that he "just got three phone calls and told to leave". He also said that he had concluded that there were no submarines in the area after discussions with fellow officers. This conclusion, he said, was further reinforced by his belief that if the presence of submarines had been detected in the area the naval command would have informed him.[15]

Subsequently, Zahn's testimony described the events as they unfolded after the torpedoes hit the ship. Zahn testified that immediately after impact Wilhelm Gustloff started listing about 5 degrees at the port side. For about twenty minutes the list remained small but then started increasing causing panic. Zahn testified that he told the refugees that the ship had run aground so as to minimise panic. When the ship kept turning more and the tilt angle increased to 25–30 degrees, Zahn abandoned any attempts at coordinating the evacuation efforts and went to the stern to board a lifeboat and leave the ship.[15]

Zahn also testified that ice had accumulated in the lifeboat launchers and made the lowering of the lifeboats difficult. In addition he blamed the Croatian crew for leaving, saying: "The davits were iced and the Croats were absent". He further testified that "only four to six lifeboats were lowered with the help of soldiers under difficult circumstances".[15]

Zahn told the inquiry that at first he and the other officers had gathered at the bridge and then instructed the refugees "to go to the upper deck and not to panic". But as the stern began tilting upwards and the bow started penetrating the surface of the water, Zahn realised the ship was not going to remain afloat for much longer and hurriedly left from the bridge.[15]


The conflict between Zahn and Petersen is depicted in the novel Polar Shift.[21] The paper The Good Captain and the Bad Captain: Joseph Vilsmaier's Die Gustloff and the Erosion of Complexity published in the journal German Politics and Society analyses Joseph Vilsmaier's two-part television series Die Gustloff in the light of the conflict between the two captains and its symbolism regarding the politics of conflict and social responsibility between the civilian and military sides of German society at the time.[16]

Zahn is depicted by Karl Markovics and in the two-part series he is called captain Wilhelm Petri. Petri is depicted as obsessed with military directives and efficiency in contrast to the civilian captain who is portrayed as caring for the refugees and their plight. The paper finds such portrayal of the main characters simplistic and counter to current scholarship on the subject.[16]


  1. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "Wilhelm Zahn". German U-boats of WWII - uboat.net.
  2. ^ "U-35 Watch Officer Wilhelm Zahn". U 35.com.
  3. ^ a b c d e David Bercuson; Holger H. Herwig (13 April 2011). Deadly Seas: The Duel Between The St.Croix And The U305 In The Battle Of The Atlantic. Random House of Canada. pp. 120–155. ISBN 978-0-307-36848-5. He is known throughout the submarine force as the man who almost killed Churchill. On 30 October 1939 Zahn, then in U-56, had torpedoed the British battleship HMS Nelson with the Prime Minister on board. But the eels had proved to be ...
  4. ^ "Cover story: "The Suppressed Tragedy"". Der Spiegel. 2002. Some 9000 people lost their lives, most of them women and children. The Titanic was a testimony of the hubris of a civilisation that worshipped technology and thought it could conquer nature. The Gustloff, on the other hand, was the symbol of the German hubris, the dream of a greater German empire that ended in a nightmare. It was Adolf Hitler's Titanic.
  5. ^ a b c d e Ian Ballantyne (24 October 2012). Hms Rodney: Slayer of the Bismarck and D-Day Saviour. Casemate Publishers. pp. 4–. ISBN 978-1-78303-506-9.
  6. ^ a b c d Samuel W. Mitcham Jr.; Gene Mueller (24 August 2012). Hitler's Commanders: Officers of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine, and the Waffen-SS. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 224. ISBN 978-1-4422-1154-4.
  7. ^ Jürgen Rohwer; Gerhard Hümmelchen (1 January 2005). Chronology of the War at Sea, 1939–1945: The Naval History of World War Two. Naval Institute Press. pp. 7–. ISBN 978-1-59114-119-8.
  8. ^ a b c d Millard F. Beatty (1 June 2010). Principles of Engineering Mechanics: Volume 2 Dynamics – The Analysis of Motion. Springer. pp. 66–. ISBN 978-0-387-31255-2.
  9. ^ a b c Walter J. Boyne (28 February 2012). Clash of Titans: World War II at Sea. Simon & Schuster. pp. 94–. ISBN 978-1-4516-8514-5.
  10. ^ a b c Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.; MODOC PRESS INC. (30 June 2008). The Rise of the Wehrmacht: The German Armed Forces and World War II. ABC-CLIO. pp. 261–. ISBN 978-0-275-99641-3.
  11. ^ Peter Erich Cremer (August 1984). U-boat commander: a periscope view of the battle of the Atlantic. Naval Institute Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-87021-969-6.
  12. ^ a b c Jak P. Mallmann Showell; Gordon Williamson (20 July 2009). Hitler's navy: a reference guide to the Kriegsmarine, 1935–1945. Naval Institute Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-1-59114-369-7. Although not terribly clear, this shows a G7e torpedo being ... By the end of October 1939, Karl Donitz, head of the U-boat arm, was certain the fault did not lie with his men. ... Kapitänleutnant Herbert Schultze had come into port with U48 and reported that half of the ten torpedoes he had fired had been duds. Less than a week later, Kptlt. Wilhelm Zahn had had several battleships lined up in front of l/56"s three tubes – it was a Type IIC U-boat – and had fired a salvo
  13. ^ a b c Karl Doenitz (1997). Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Da Capo Press. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-306-80764-0.
  14. ^ a b Clay Blair (21 July 2010). Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939–1942. Random House Publishing Group. pp. 365–. ISBN 978-0-307-87437-5.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i Cathryn Prince (9 April 2013). Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 183–90. ISBN 978-1-137-33356-8.
  16. ^ a b c d Bill Niven. "The Good Captain and the Bad Captain: Joseph Vilsmaier's Die Gustloff and the Erosion of Complexity". German Politics and Society. Archived from the original on 24 December 2013.
  17. ^ Christopher Dobson; John Miller; Ronald Payne (1979). The cruelest night. Little, Brown. p. 55.
  18. ^ a b Sea Breezes: The Ship Lovers' Digest. C. Birchell. 1981. p. 356. Zahn (Navy) tried to run the ship as a naval unit was, unfortunately, evident, but he had no legal right to do so.
  19. ^ Prit Buttar (February 2012). Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany's Eastern Front 1944–45. Osprey Publishing. p. 223. ISBN 978-1-84908-790-2.
  20. ^ Nigel Pickford (2006). Lost Treasure Ships of the Northern Seas: A Guide and Gazetteer to 2000 Years of Shipwreck. MBI Publishing Company. p. 175. ISBN 978-1-86176-250-4.
  21. ^ Clive Cussler; Paul Kemprecos (30 August 2005). Polar Shift. Penguin Group US. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-101-20547-1.


  • Busch, Rainer; Röll, Hans-Joachim (1999b). German U-boat commanders of World War II : a biographical dictionary. Translated by Brooks, Geoffrey. London, Annapolis, Md: Greenhill Books, Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-186-6.