October 1940: Rise of the Wolfpack! On the 5th of October 1940, a 35 ships convoy called SC-7 assembled off the coast of Canada and set off for the UK alongside 6 escorts. A straggler was sighted by U-124 on the 16th of October and was sunk. The next day, on the 17th of October 1940, U-38 sighted and sank another straggler while U-48 spotted SC-7. U-48 reported the sighting to the Kriegsmarine’s HQ which immediately vectored 5 submarines to intercept the convoy: U-46, U-99, U-100, U-101 and U-123. They formed one of the very first Wolfpack ever assembled.
Meanwhile, U-48, which was trailing the convoy, managed to engage and sink another two ships. The Wolfpack fell onto the convoy during the night of the 18th to the 19th of October. They sank 16 ships inside of 6 hours. The escorts were completely overwhelmed. When they chased one submarine away from the convoy, other subs would attack it. They often faced the choice between picking up survivors from the sea and fall behind the convoy or stick to the convoy and leave the survivors behind, condemning them to a slow death… While all the lookouts kept an eye on the perimeter of the convoy, some daring U-boat commanders actually attacked said convoy from within, surfacing in the middle of the ships and firing torpedoes at them undetected, almost at point blank range!
The next day, the survivors of SC-7 braced for another attack: They were convinced the Wolfpack was trailing them and would attack at nightfall. By then, SC-7 had lost 20 ships out of 35 (79,592 Gross Registered Tons). What saved SC-7 that night was the apparition of another convoy in the vicinity: HX-79! The Wolfpack engaged their new prey, sinking 12 ships! This particular Wolfpack sank 32 ships in total, including 28 vessels within a 48 hours window.
Members of this Wolfpack included U-boat aces such as Günther Prien, Joachim Schepke and Otto Kretschmer! This action was the most successful U-boat attack of the whole war… It came as a shock to the Admiralty and forced the Royal Navy to adapt to the new reality of the Wolfpacks… It would take the Brits another 7 months to develop and deploy new tactics and weapons against the U-boats.
This operation took place during a time German submariners called “The First Happy Time”: A period of total domination at sea that lasted from July 1940 to April 1941. 282 ally ships were sunk by German U-boats between July 1940 and October 1940! From April 1941 onward, the tide of war turned against the U-boats… Until January 1942 and Operation Drumbeat, when seasoned U-boat commanders turned their attention against the green US Navy. This “Second Happy Time” was also called “American Shooting Season” and lasted until August 1942… 8 months during which the Germans sank an additional 609 ally ships. From then onward, the combined military and industrial might of the allied powers rose sharply. The U-boats, from hunters, became the hunted… And hunted they were, almost to complete extinction.