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Günther Prien

Günther Prien

German World War II U-boat commander
The basics
Occupations Officer Korvettenkapitän Submariner
Countries Germany
Gender male
Birth January 16, 1908 (Osterfeld)
Death March 7, 1941
Authority ISNI id Library of congress id Openlibrary id VIAF id
The details

Günther Prien (16 January 1908 – presumed 7 March 1941) was a German U-boat commander during World War II. He was the first U-boat commander to receive the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and the first member of the Kriegsmarine to receive the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves of Nazi Germany. It was Germany's highest military decoration at the time of its presentation to Prien.
Under Prien's command, the submarine U-47 was credited in Nazi propaganda with sinking over 30 Allied ships totaling about 200,000 gross register tons (GRT). He sank the British battleship HMS Royal Oak at anchor in the Home Fleet's anchorage in Scapa Flow.

Early naval career

Prien was one of three children of a judge. Prien joined the Handelsflotte (German Merchant marine) in mid-1923 After several years of work and study as a seaman, Prien passed the required examinations and became the Fourth Officer on a passenger liner. Prien received his sea captain's license in January 1932.

Unable to find work due to the severe contraction of the German shipping industry during the Great Depression, he was forced to turn to the Assistance Board for sustenance. Angry with what he considered to be an inept government, which seemed impotent in the face of the country's economic disaster, he joined the Nazi Party in May 1932. Donald Macintyre described Prien as "the most Nazified U-boat captain", "an ardent ruthless Nazi". In August 1932 Prien joined the voluntary labor corps of Vogtsberg at Olsnitz where he rose to the rank of deputy to the camp commander.

Prien applied to the Reichsmarine in 1933; he served on a light cruiser and then was posted to the U-Boat training school at Kiel. Upon graduation, he was posted to U-26 at the Deutsche Schiff- und Maschinenbau AG (Deschimag) Yard in Bremen as First Watch Officer, serving under the command of Werner Hartmann. U-26 went on two patrols in 1937 (6 May – 15 June and 15 July – 30 August) during the Spanish Civil War. Prien rose steadily in rank, from midshipman in 1933 to Oberleutnant zur See (Senior lieutenant at Sea) in 1937. He was appointed to the command of the new Type VIIB U-47 on her commissioning in December 1938 and promoted to Kapitänleutnant (Captain lieutenant) in February 1939. Prien married in 1939; the couple had two children.

World War II

A model of Günther Prien's U-47, a Type VII diesel-electric hunter.

First patrol

World War II commenced during Prien's first patrol in U-47. He departed Kiel on 19 August 1939 for a patrol lasting 28 days. On 5 September, he sank the British SS Bosnia of 2,407 gross register tons (GRT), the second ship of the war to be sunk by a U-boat. His boat sank two British vessels, Rio Claro of 4,086 GRT on the 6th, and Gartavon of 1,777 GRT on the 7th. U-47 returned to Kiel on 15 September having sunk a total tonnage of 8,270 GRT.

Second patrol: Scapa Flow

Infiltration of Scapa Flow by U-47

On 14 October 1939, Prien's boat penetrated the Royal Navy's primary base, Scapa Flow and sank the battleship Royal Oak. He returned to Germany to instant fame. He was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, personally by Adolf Hitler, the first sailor of the U-boat service and the second member of the Kriegsmarine to receive this award. Prien received the nickname Der Stier von Scapa Flow ("The Bull of Scapa Flow"); the emblem of a snorting bull was painted on the conning tower of U-47 and soon became the emblem of the entire 7th U-boat Flotilla. Two members of the Scapa Flow crew earned the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross during World War II: the chief engineer (Leitender Ingenieur) Johann-Friedrich Wessels and 1st watch officer (I. Wachoffizier) Engelbert Endrass.

Kept secret by the German naval command was the fact that Prien had fired a total of seven torpedoes at his target, of which five failed because of long-standing problems with their depth steering and their magnetic detonator systems. These problems continued to bedevil the German submariners for a long time and particularly during the German invasion of Norway, when the U-boats were unable to keep the Royal Navy at bay. Prien narrated the attack in the book Mein Weg nach Scapa Flow (1940, Deutscher Verlag Berlin).

Third patrol

U-47 under the command of Prien with 1st watch officer (I. WO) Oberleutnant zur See Engelbert Endrass and chief engineer Oberleutnant (Ing.) Johann-Friedrich Wessels left Kiel on 16 November 1939. U-47 attacked a British cruiser on 28 November 1939. Prien had identified the ship to be a London-class cruiser. Prien intended to launch a spread of three torpedoes, but only a single torpedo cleared the tube and detonated in the wake of the cruiser. When the periscope cleared the surface, Prien observed what he believed major damage to the stern of the cruiser, her starboard torpedo launchers dislogded and an aircraft tilted. U-47 surfaced and tried to pursue the cruiser but was driven off by depth charges dropped from the escort. It turned out the cruiser was HMS Norfolk which was slightly damaged by the detonation. The attack was reported in the daily Wehrmachtbericht on 29 November 1939, claiming the destruction of the cruiser. The war diary of the Befehlshaber der U-Boote (BdU) on 17 December 1939 stated that even though a hit was observed the cruiser was not sunk.

On 5 December 1939, U-47 spotted nine merchant vessels escorted by five destroyers. At 14:40, Prien fired one torpedo , sinking the British steamer Navasota from Convoy OB 46 on its way to Buenos Aires, killing 37 sailors. After sinking Navasota, British destroyers attacked U-47 alas without success. The next day at 20:29 the Norwegian tanker Britta was sunk killing 6 of her crew followed by the Dutch Tajandoen on 7 December 1939. U-47 continued to attack Allied shipping in the Western Approaches, however eight out of twelve G7e U-47 carried, failed to detonate either missing or malfunctioning. On 18 December 1939, U-47 returned to Kiel via the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal. The claims made by Prien are noted in the war diary of the BdU on 17 December 1939:

  1. steamer of unknown origin 12,000 GRT
  2. Norwegian tanker 10,000 GRT
  3. Dutch tanker 9,000 GRT

for a total of 31,000 GRT plus one British warship damaged, while the actual tonnage was only 23,168 GRT.

Later career

Amongst the ships sunk by U-47 was the SS Arandora Star, carrying over 1,200 German and Italian civilian internees and 86 German prisoners of war to captivity in Canada. Over 800 lives were lost.

Following later patrols and raids on Allied merchant shipping, Prien was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross in 1940.

Heinz Rühmann, Hans Brausewetter and Josef Sieber sang a persiflage of the 1939 song Das kann doch einen Seemann nicht erschüttern (That won't shake a sailor), written by Michael Jary from the film Paradies der JunggesellenBachelor's Paradise, on account of the Oak Leaves presentation to Prien. The reworded lyrics are Das muss den ersten Seelord doch erschütternThat must shake the First Sea Lord, alluding to Winston Churchill.

U-47 went missing on 7 March 1941 while attacking Convoy OB-293. She has generally been thought to have been sunk by the British destroyer HMS Wolverine west of Ireland; the submarine was attacked by Wolverine and HMS Verity, which took turns covering each other's ASDIC blind spots and dropping patterns of depth charges until U-47 rose almost to the surface before sinking and then exploded with an orange flash visible from the surface.

To date, there is no official record of what happened to U-47 or her 45 crewmen, though a variety of possibilities exists, including mines, a mechanical failure, falling victim to her own torpedoes, and possibly a later attack that did not confirm any kills by the corvette team of HMS Camellia and HMS Arbutus.

Prien's death was kept secret until 23 May. Churchill had personally announced it to the House of Commons, and propaganda broadcasts to Germany had repeatedly taunted listeners with the question "Where is Prien?" until Germany was forced to acknowledge his loss.

Although Prien was at sea for less than two years, his record stands high among the U-boat aces during the Second World War. He spent 238 days at sea and sank 30 enemy vessels for a total tonnage of 193,808 GRT.

In popular culture

The 1958 war film U 47 – Kapitänleutnant Prien, directed by Harald Reinl, was loosely based on Prien's combat record and command of U-47. Prien was portrayed by the German actor Dieter Eppler.

Prien was a subject of a hagiographic 1981 account by German author Franz Kurowski, Günther Prien, der Wolf und sein Admiral (Günther Prien, the Wolf and his Admiral). The German scholar Hans Wagener (de) classifies Kurowski's book, published by extreme right-wing publisher Druffel Verlag (de), as an "almost perfect example of a skillful distillation of the Nazi understanding of the Second World War". The Canadian historian Michael Hadley commented on narrative's goals as follows:

Here he [Kurowski] wished to commemorate the "meritorious soldier and human being Günther Prien [who is] forgotten neither by the old submariners nor" —and this would have startled most observers in Germany today [in 1995] —"by the young submariners of the Federal German Navy".

Günther Prien had been considered as namesake for the 1967 commissioned guided missile destroyer Lütjens. However the legend surrounding Prien, that he had distanced himself from Nazism and had become an active member of the German resistance and was held captive at the Wehrmachtgefängnis Torgau (Torgau Wehrmacht Prison), turned out to be false. Consequently, the name Lütjens, named after Admiral Günther Lütjens, was chosen instead.

Summary of career

Ships attacked

During his career Prien sank 30 commercial ships for 162,769 GRT, one warship of 29,150 GRT, and damaged eight commercial ships for 62,751 GRT and one warship of 10,035 long tons (10,196 t).

Date Ship Nationality Tonnage Fate
5 September 1939 SS Bosnia  United Kingdom 2,407 Sunk at 45°29′N 09°45′W / 45.483°N 9.750°W / 45.483; -9.750 (Bosnia (ship))
6 September 1939 SS Rio Claro  United Kingdom 4,086 Sunk at 46°30′N 12°00′W / 46.500°N 12.000°W / 46.500; -12.000 (Rio Claro (ship))
7 September 1939 SS Gartavon  United Kingdom 1,777 Sunk at 47°04′N 11°32′W / 47.067°N 11.533°W / 47.067; -11.533 (Gartavon (ship))
14 October 1939 HMS Royal Oak  United Kingdom 29,150 Sunk at 58°55′N 02°59′W / 58.917°N 2.983°W / 58.917; -2.983 (Royal Oak (ship))
28 November 1939 HMS Norfolk  United Kingdom 10,035 Damaged
5 December 1939 SS Novasota  United Kingdom 8,795 Sunk at 50°43′N 10°16′W / 50.717°N 10.267°W / 50.717; -10.267 (Novasota (ship))
6 December 1939 MV Britta  Norway 6,214 Sunk at 49°19′N 05°35′W / 49.317°N 5.583°W / 49.317; -5.583 (Britta (ship))
7 December 1939 MV Tajandoen  Netherlands 8,159 Sunk at 49°09′N 04°51′W / 49.150°N 4.850°W / 49.150; -4.850 (Tajandoen (ship))
25 March 1940 SS Britta  Denmark 1,146 Sunk at 60°00′N 04°19′W / 60.000°N 4.317°W / 60.000; -4.317 (Britta (ship))
14 June 1940 SS Balmoralwood  United Kingdom 5,834 Sunk at 50°19′N 10°28′W / 50.317°N 10.467°W / 50.317; -10.467 (Balmoralwood (ship))
21 June 1940 SS San Fernando  United Kingdom 13,056 Sunk at 50°20′N 10°24′W / 50.333°N 10.400°W / 50.333; -10.400 (San Fernando (ship))
24 June 1940 SS Cathrine  Panama 1,885 Sunk at 50°08′N 14°00′W / 50.133°N 14.000°W / 50.133; -14.000 (Cathrine (ship))
27 June 1940 SS Lenda  Norway 4,005 Sunk at 50°12′N 13°18′W / 50.200°N 13.300°W / 50.200; -13.300 (Lenda (ship))
27 June 1940 SS Leticia  Netherlands 2,580 Sunk at 50°11′N 13°15′W / 50.183°N 13.250°W / 50.183; -13.250 (Leticia (ship))
29 June 1940 SS Empire Toucan  United Kingdom 4,421 Sunk at 49°20′N 13°52′W / 49.333°N 13.867°W / 49.333; -13.867 (Empire Toucan (ship))
30 June 1940 SS Georgios Kyriakides  Greece 4,201 Sunk at 50°25′N 14°33′W / 50.417°N 14.550°W / 50.417; -14.550 (Georgios Kyriakides (ship))
2 July 1940 SS Arandora Star  United Kingdom 15,501 Sunk at 55°20′N 10°33′W / 55.333°N 10.550°W / 55.333; -10.550 (Arandora Star (ship))
2 September 1940 SS Ville de Mons  Belgium 7,463 Sunk at 58°20′N 12°00′W / 58.333°N 12.000°W / 58.333; -12.000 (Ville de Mons (ship))
4 September 1940 SS Titan  United Kingdom 9,035 Sunk at 58°14′N 15°50′W / 58.233°N 15.833°W / 58.233; -15.833 (Titan (ship))
7 September 1940 SS Neptunian  United Kingdom 5,155 Sunk at 58°27′N 17°17′W / 58.450°N 17.283°W / 58.450; -17.283 (Neptunian (ship))
7 September 1940 SS José de Larrinaga  United Kingdom 5,303 Sunk at 58°30′N 16°10′W / 58.500°N 16.167°W / 58.500; -16.167 (José de Larrinaga (ship))
7 September 1940 SS Gro  Norway 4,211 Sunk at 58°30′N 16°10′W / 58.500°N 16.167°W / 58.500; -16.167 (Gro (ship))
9 September 1940 SS Possidon  Greece 3,840 Sunk at 56°43′N 09°16′W / 56.717°N 9.267°W / 56.717; -9.267 (Possidon (ship))
21 September 1940 SS Elmbank  United Kingdom 5,156 Damaged at 55°20′N 22°30′W / 55.333°N 22.500°W / 55.333; -22.500 (Elmbank (ship))
19 October 1940 SM Uganda  United Kingdom 4,966 Sunk at 56°35′N 17°15′W / 56.583°N 17.250°W / 56.583; -17.250 (Uganda (ship))
19 October 1940 MV Shirak  Belgium 6,023 Damaged at 57°00′N 16°53′W / 57.000°N 16.883°W / 57.000; -16.883 (Shirak (ship))
19 October 1940 SS Wandby  United Kingdom 4,947 Sunk at 56°45′N 17°07′W / 56.750°N 17.117°W / 56.750; -17.117 (Wandby (ship))
20 October 1940 SS La Estancia  United Kingdom 5,185 Sunk at 57°N 17°W / 57°N 17°W / 57; -17 (La Estancia (ship))
20 October 1940 SS Whitford Point  United Kingdom 5,026 Sunk at 56°38′N 16°00′W / 56.633°N 16.000°W / 56.633; -16.000 (Whitford Point (ship))
20 October 1940 MV Athelmonarch  United Kingdom 8,995 Damaged at 56°45′N 15°58′W / 56.750°N 15.967°W / 56.750; -15.967 (Athelmonarch (ship))
8 November 1940 MV Gonçalo Velho  Portugal 8,995 Damaged at 52°30′N 17°30′W / 52.500°N 17.500°W / 52.500; -17.500 (Gonçalo Velho (ship))
2 December 1940 SS Ville d'Arlon  Belgium 7,555 Sunk at 55°00′N 18°30′W / 55.000°N 18.500°W / 55.000; -18.500 (Ville d'Arlon (ship))
2 December 1940 MV Conch  United Kingdom 8,376 Damaged at 55°40′N 19°00′W / 55.667°N 19.000°W / 55.667; -19.000 (Conch (ship))
2 December 1940 MV Dunsley  United Kingdom 8,376 Damaged at 54°41′N 18°41′W / 54.683°N 18.683°W / 54.683; -18.683 (Dunsley (ship))
26 February 1941 SS Kasongo  Belgium 5,254 Sunk at 55°50′N 14°20′W / 55.833°N 14.333°W / 55.833; -14.333 (Kasongo (ship))
26 February 1941 MV Diala  United Kingdom 8,106 Damaged at 55°50′N 14°00′W / 55.833°N 14.000°W / 55.833; -14.000 (Diala (ship))
26 February 1941 MV Rydboholm  Sweden 3,197 Sunk at 55°32′N 14°24′W / 55.533°N 14.400°W / 55.533; -14.400 (Rydboholm (ship))
26 February 1941 MV Borgland  Norway 3,636 Sunk at 55°45′N 14°29′W / 55.750°N 14.483°W / 55.750; -14.483 (Borgland (ship))
28 February 1941 SS Holmlea  United Kingdom 4,233 Sunk at 54°24′N 17°25′W / 54.400°N 17.417°W / 54.400; -17.417 (Holmlea (ship))
7 March 1941 MV Terje Viken  United Kingdom 8,106 Damaged at 60°00′N 12°50′W / 60.000°N 12.833°W / 60.000; -12.833 (Terje Viken (ship))


  • Wehrmacht Long Service Award 4th Class (22 January 1937)
  • Iron Cross (1939)
    • 2nd Class (25 September 1939)
    • 1st Class (17 October 1939)
  • U-boat War Badge with Diamonds
  • Diamond-studded Navy Honour Dagger
  • Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves
    • Knight's Cross on 18 October 1939 as Kapitänleutnant and commander of U-47
    • 5th Oak Leaves on 20 October 1940 as Kapitänleutnant and commander of U-47
  • Mentioned eight times in the Wehrmachtbericht (29 November 1939, 28 June 1940, 1 July 1940, 6 July 1940, 10 September 1940, 25 September 1940, 20 October 1940 and 23 May 1941)

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Early naval career World War II In popular culture Summary of career
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