After two years and seven patrols, luck finally ran out for U-67, a Type IXC German submarine that had known her share of successes in the Atlantic and Caribbean hunting grounds. When she fell prey to American depth bombs on 16 July 1943 and sank 850 miles west-southwest of the Azores, the commander and most of his crew went down with her. But five of the U-boat’s sailors were blown clear of the submarine, and three of those five were later successfully retrieved by U.S. Navy search parties. Fortunately for naval history, one of them, Oberbootsmaat (Petty Officer Second Class) Hans Burck, had kept a journal that survived the war intact. Combined with later reminiscences and his remarkable collection of photographs, Burck’s wartime account provides a firsthand view of the U-boat experience.
“I was born on 12 June 1921 in Frankfurt on Main, as the son of an old honored fishing family,” Burck recounted. “The profession of a fisher in our family goes all the way back to the 16th century with no interruption.” But interruption would come in the form of a looming world war, and in 1939 Burck enlisted in the German navy.
“After my basic military training, I was transferred to the service of submarines with the lowest rank—a seaman first class. In the middle of 1940 I was transferred to U-67. On this boat I stayed till the bitter end.”
Laid down in Bremen in April 1940, U-67 was launched in October and commissioned in January 1941. Operating out of the French coastal U-boat hub of Lorient, U-67 scored her first sinking west-northwest of the Canaries on her initial patrol in 1941, then survived an attack by a British corvette off Gibraltar during her second patrol later that year. It was on her third patrol, to the Gulf of Mexico in January–March 1942, that she really came into her own—and this was the patrol that Burck recorded in his journal.
Much of it reveals the daily perils, the training drills, and the ongoing combination of ennui and dread that defined U-boat life. 19 January: “By daybreak we submerge. . . . At nightfall we surface again and we run at high speed to get the danger zone behind us.” 24 January: “We are sighting some smoke [from a ship’s smokestack] on the horizon, but we want to avoid it because we do not want to be seen.” 5 February: “Today we practiced several alarm dives . . . . We are getting better and better, and we are almost satisfied with ourselves.”
By 16 February, U-67 had arrived off the coast of Curaçao, important to the Allied war effort for its massive oil refinery. “[F]inally it is time,” Burck wrote. “The commander, with a very calm voice, gives orders throughout the boat. Finally the order is, ‘Make torpedo weapons ready.’ . . . Exactly to the minute at 5:00 the first torpedo leaves the tube. The first eel is running. The seconds turn into hours. Finally a little jolt in the boat, and hooray! A hit. A 4,000-ton tanker is going down. All of a sudden all hell breaks loose. Searchlights are lit up and we have to dive.”
Two days later, hugging the coastline of Aruba, it was “again a very exciting day,” recorded Burck. “We stayed underwater all day long till it was dark. . . . Then we received the order to man the cannons. That was our most beautiful moment, which we all had been waiting for.”
This go-round, the targets weren’t afloat, but ashore. “The coast was so close we could almost touch it, and still more beautiful were the great big white [oil storage] tanks, one right after the other. We get the numbers for aiming the cannons with a certain type of grenade to shoot at the oil tanks. The first shot falls in the water. But the second shot and the following shots reach the targets. Then we change from detonating grenades to fire grenades. That was [sic] the most beautiful fireworks. On the shore it starts burning in every nook and cranny.” But the audacious bombardment had roused the foe. “All of a sudden there is a shadow on our stern. It was a Dutch motor torpedo boat. Then we beat a retreat and set course south.”
The next day, while, “the oil tanks are still burning,” the U-boat spotted a tanker, and “we sunk him with five torpedoes. . . . American warships are on our tail, and we submerge and receive eight water bombs [depth charges]. Those were the only ones we received on this trip.”
U-67 sank another tanker off the Leeward Islands before returning to Lorient in March 1942. Her fourth and fifth patrols likewise were successful, and by the end of her career she had amassed a total of 13 ships sunk (approximately 72,000 gross tons) and five ships damaged (29,000+ gross tons). But her sixth patrol, from March to April 1943, was a bit of a bust. U-67 and several of her sister-predators managed to peel off only two ships from an eastbound convoy over an eight-day period, and U-67, taking a hit from an escorting corvette, was knocked out of the action.
But if the sixth patrol was a disappointment, the seventh patrol, embarking in May 1943, would be the death of U-67. By mid-July, she had been at sea for ten fruitless weeks and was running perilously low on fuel. On 16 July, taking advantage of cloud cover to swoop in, U.S. Naval Reserve Lieutenant Robert P. Williams of Composite Squadron 13 off the escort carrier USS Core (CVE-13) flew his Avenger down to an altitude of 400 feet before unloading four Mark 47 depth bombs onto the fully surfaced sub. Her bow rose out of the water then sank within four or five seconds. Strewn amid the oil slick and wreckage that quickly spread over the ocean surface, Burck and two others (a seaman second class and a lieutenant) miraculously survived. They had had the relative good fortune of being on watch topside when their boat turned into a fast-sinking tomb.
After subsequent interrogations on board the USS Merrimack (AO-37), the interviewing officer reported: “Of the two enlisted prisoners, Burck is the more talkative, but he fancies himself as being adept at subterfuge and capable of inventing enough falsehoods and hyperbolic statements to confuse the general picture. . . . Burck has a dirty mind, and is occupied with thoughts of nothing but women and the greatness of Germany. He is a braggart and tends to be overbearing. . . . He hates the British and can recount horror story upon horror story to substantiate the basis for his hatred.”
Burck would live out the rest of World War II as a POW in Phoenix, Arizona, and later in England. “In December 1946,” he recounted, “I returned home after three and a half years as a prisoner of war. . . . After about a month of idle time and aimlessness in the homeland . . . I again practiced the profession of a river fisherman, because it was important to get food to the hungry population. At the same time I was a ferryman, since in Frankfurt all the bridges were destroyed.”
As infrastructure was rebuilt and families reunited, the war memories began to fade. “After about a three-year time,” Burck recalled, “slowly some normalcy returned in our lives. One felt again as a free citizen. The reconstruction of the new Germany was going full-blast.” And, having been thrown from the top deck of a sinking U-boat, he had lived to see his country reborn.
Hans Burck journal, January–April 1942, transl. by Peter Peterson, Melanie Wiggins Collection, U.S. Naval Institute Archive, Annapolis, MD.
Hans Burck letter, 29 April 1998, transl. by Peter Peterson, Melanie Wiggins Collection, U.S. Naval Institute Archive, Annapolis, MD.
“Report of Antisubmarine Action by Aircraft,” Report No. 3, 16 July 1943, contained in USS Core Action Report, July 1943, Record Group 38, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
USS Merrimack report, “Subject: German prisoner, Information Regarding,” 23 July 1943, www.uboatarchive.net/U-67MerrrimackReport.htm.
“LT Williams’ Awards,” www.uboatarchive.net/U-67Awards.htm.
Melanie Wiggins, U-Boat Adventures: Firsthand Accounts from World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 49–59.
Kenneth Wynn, U-Boat Operations of the Second World War, Vol. 1: Career Histories, U1–U510 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 48–49.