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Erich Topp

Erich Topp

German admiral and U-boat commander during World War II
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro German admiral and U-boat commander during World War II
Countries Germany
Occupations Engineer Korvettenkapitän Submariner Architect
Gender male
Birth 2 July 1914 (Hanover)
Death 26 December 2005 (Süßen)
Erich Topp
The details

Erich Topp (2 July 1914 – 26 December 2005) was the third most successful of German U-Boot commanders of World War II. He was a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords of Nazi Germany. He sank 35 ships for a total of 197,460 gross register tons (GRT). After the war he served with the Federal German Navy, reaching the rank of Konteradmiral (rear admiral). He later served in NATO.

Early life and career

Topp was born in Hannover, the son of an engineer, and joined the Reichsmarine in 1934, serving on the light cruiser Karlsruhe in 1937, before transferring to the U-Bootwaffe (submarine fleet) in October 1937. In May 1933, Topp joined the Nazi Party and in 1934 also joined the Allgemeine-SS.

World War II

He served as Watch Officer on U-46 under the command of Herbert Sohler and took part in four combat patrols before he was given his first command on U-57 on 5 June 1940. He led U-57 on two missions during which the boat managed to sink six ships. She was sunk after a collision with a Norwegian vessel on 3 September 1940.

U-552 returning to St. Nazaire

Topp survived to take command of U-552, a Type VIIC boat — on 4 December 1940. With U-552, Der Rote Teufel, he operated mainly against convoys in the North Atlantic, sinking 30 ships and crippling several others on ten patrols. One of his victims during this period was the destroyer USS Reuben James, the first US warship to be sunk in World War II on 31 October 1941. While leading to diplomatic consequences with the United States, it was his sinking of the SS David H. Atwater the following year that some writers have elevated into a controversy. When Topp spotted the coastal steamer David H. Atwater off Chincoteague, Virginia on 3 April 1942 (often mistakenly dated 2 April 1942), he surfaced U-552, overtook it from astern, and attacked with his deck gun, which was common practice. Topp fired 93 rounds and set the ship on fire. From his KTB: "93 shots 8.8 cm, ran off at high speed." Steamer sinks. Most of the crew jumped overboard and drowned. At least one writer claims Topp's gunners turned machine guns on the crowded small craft, but this unverified claim falls apart upon close examination. First, the flames and gun damage made it impossible to use the damaged and destroyed lifeboats. Second, it was dark and other than the outline of the ship, there was little to be seen because U-552 was between 600 and 800 yards distant. Third, using a machine gun against a ship made no sense whatsoever, especially when ammunition was limited and it might be needed to fight off aircraft. Fourth, Topp's KTB is absolutely silent on the matter. Last, Topp would never been allowed into the diplomatic corps after the war and stationed in Washington, DC, had he intentionally machine-gunned American merchant sailors. Twenty-four of the 27 sailors aboard were killed. Almost certainly many men were killed or wounded by the gunfire, but there is absolutely no evidence that this was intentional, or that machines guns were used, although it has been reported that way in a few books.

In October 1942, he was given command of the 27th U-boat Flotilla, based in Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland), which put him in charge of introducing the new Type XXI Elektro Boot boats to active service. He wrote the battle manual for the Type XXI, and shortly before the end of the war, he took command of U-2513, on which he surrendered on 8 May 1945, in Horten, Norway. From 20 May to 17 August 1945, Topp was a prisoner of war in Kragerø (Norway).

Later life and Bundesmarine

Prof. Gerhard Graubner and Topp designed and built the Stadthalle (city's event hall) in Mülheim an der Ruhr.

On 4 June 1946, he started at the Technical University of Hanover, studying architecture, and graduated in 1950 with a degree in engineering. He also served as technical advisor for the 1957 film Sharks and Little Fish.

After his re-entry into the Bundesmarine on 3 March 1958 and a briefing at the Naval Staff, he served from 16 August 1958 as Chief of Staff at NATO's Military Committee in Washington DC. Subsequently he was on 1 October 1963 appointed Chief of Staff in command of the fleet, and served from 1 July 1965 as Deputy Director in the Naval Staff, employed in the Ministry of Defence. Promoted to flotilla admiral on 15 November 1965, he was simultaneously appointed chief of the operations staff of the Navy and Deputy Chief of the Navy. Promoted to Rear Admiral on 21 December 1966, as a tribute to his efforts in rebuilding the navy and the establishment of the transatlantic alliance, on 19 September 1969 he was awarded the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He retired on 31 December 1969.

After retiring from the Bundesmarine, for a few years Topp was a technical advisor to the German shipyard HDW AG. His service as a NATO advisor was loosely portrayed (as "Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke") in the 1965 movie The Bedford Incident. His memoirs "The Odyssey of a U-Boat Commander: The Recollections of Erich Topp" was published in 1992. When Topp was asked in 1996 by publisher/historian Theodore P. Savas to contribute a Foreword for a collection of essays on German U-boat commanders, he instead submitted a contribution about his close friend Engelbert Endrass, who was lost with his crew and boat U-567 off Gibraltar in late December 1941. Topp had privately penned the piece about their friendship on his next patrol to the east coast of America, but had never submitted it for publication. The essay was translated from German and footnoted by Dr. Eric Rust, and appeared as the opening chapter in "Silent Hunters: German U-boat Commanders of World War II" (1997, 2003, 2005). Savas also recruited Topp to serve as the technical adviser for the 2001 submarine simulation computer game Silent Hunter II, and a series of interviews with him appears in the game. He was interviewed on World War II submarine operations for the Nova (TV series) special Hitler's Lost Sub, which detailed the efforts of a team of divers, led by John Chatterton and Richie Kohler to identify an unknown German U-Boat wreck 65 miles off the coast of New Jersey; the wreck was identified as U-869.

Topp died on 26 December 2005, in Süßen at the age of 91; he was survived by two sons, Peter Kay (b. 1945) and Michael (b. 1950), and five grandchildren.

Summary of career

Ships attacked

As commander of U-57 and U-552, Topp is credited with the sinking of 35 ships for a total of 197,460 gross register tons (GRT), further damaging four ships of 32,317 GRT and sinking one warship, USS Reuben James, of 1,190 long tons (1,210 tonnes).

Date U-boat Ship Nationality Tonnage Fate
17 July 1940 U-57 O.A. Brodin  Sweden 1,960 Sunk
3 August 1940 U-57 Atos  Sweden 2,161 Sunk
24 August 1940 U-57 Cumberland  United Kingdom 10,939 Sunk
24 August 1940 U-57 Havildar  United Kingdom 5,407 Damaged
24 August 1940 U-57 Saint Dunstan  United Kingdom 5,681 Sunk
25 August 1940 U-57 Pecten  United Kingdom 7,468 Sunk
1 March 1941 U-552 Cadillac  United Kingdom 12,062 Sunk
10 March 1941 U-552 Reykjaborg  Iceland 687 Sunk
27 April 1941 U-552 Commander Horton  United Kingdom 227 Sunk
27 April 1941 U-552 Beacon Grange  United Kingdom 10,160 Sunk
28 April 1941 U-552 Capulet  United Kingdom 8,190 Damaged
1 May 1941 U-552 Nerissa  United Kingdom 5,583 Sunk
10 June 1941 U-552 Ainderby  United Kingdom 4,860 Sunk
12 June 1941 U-552 Chinese Prince  United Kingdom 8,593 Sunk
18 June 1941 U-552 Norfolk  United Kingdom 10,948 Sunk
23 August 1941 U-552 Spind  Norway 2,129 Sunk
20 September 1941 U-552 T.J. Williams  United Kingdom 8,212 Sunk
20 September 1941 U-552 Pink Star  Panama 4,150 Sunk
20 September 1941 U-552 Barbaro  Norway 6,325 Sunk
30 October 1941 U-552 USS Reuben James  United States Navy 1,190 Sunk
15 January 1942 U-552 Dayrose  United Kingdom 4,113 Sunk
18 January 1942 U-552 Frances Salman  United States 2,609 Sunk
20 January 1942 U-552 Maro  Greece 3,838 Sunk
25 March 1942 U-552 Ocana  Netherlands 6,256 Sunk
3 April 1942 U-552 David H. Atwater  United States Navy 2,438 Sunk
5 April 1942 U-552 Byron D. Benson  United Kingdom 7,953 Sunk
7 April 1942 U-552 British Splendour  United Kingdom 7,138 Sunk
7 April 1942 U-552 Lancing  Norway 7,866 Sunk
9 April 1942 U-552 Atlas  United States 7,137 Sunk
10 April 1942 U-552 Tarnaulipas  United States 6,943 Sunk
15 June 1942 U-552 City of Oxford  United Kingdom 2,759 Sunk
15 June 1942 U-552 Etrib  United Kingdom 1,943 Sunk
15 June 1942 U-552 Pelayo  United Kingdom 1,346 Sunk
15 June 1942 U-552 Slemdal  Norway 7,374 Sunk
15 June 1942 U-552 Thurso  United Kingdom 2,436 Sunk
25 July 1942 U-552 British Merit  United Kingdom 8,093 Damaged
25 July 1942 U-552 Broompark  United Kingdom 5,136 Sunk
3 August 1942 U-552 G.S. Walden  United Kingdom 10,627 Damaged
3 August 1942 U-552 Lochkatrine  United Kingdom 9,149 Sunk


  • U-boat War Badge (7 November 1939)
    • with Diamonds (11 April 1942)
  • Honorary dagger of the Kriegsmarine with Diamonds (17 August 1942)
  • War Merit Cross
    • 2nd Class with Swords (30 January 1944)
    • 1st Class with Swords (1944)
  • Iron Cross (1939)
    • 2nd Class (1 January 1940)
    • 1st Class (1 September 1940)
  • Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
    • Knight's Cross on 20 June 1941 as Oberleutnant zur See and commander of U-552
    • 87th Oak Leaves on 11 April 1942 as Kapitänleutnant and commander of U-552
    • 17th Swords on 17 August 1942 as Kapitänleutnant and commander of U-552
  • Mentioned three times in the Wehrmachtbericht (3 July 1941, 11 April 1942, 18 June 1942)
  • Großes Verdienstkreuz des Verdienstordens der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (19 September 1969)


1 July 1935: Fähnrich zur See (Officer Cadet)
1 April 1937: Leutnant zur See (Second Lieutenant)
1 April 1939: Oberleutnant zur See (First Lieutenant)
1 September 1941: Kapitänleutnant (Captain Lieutenant)
17 August 1942: Korvettenkapitän (Corvette Captain)
1 December 1944: Fregattenkapitän (Frigate Captain)
1 November 1959: Kapitän zur See (Captain at Sea)
15 November 1966: Flottillenadmiral (Flotilla Admiral)
21 December 1966: Konteradmiral (Counter Admiral)

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