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Reinhard Hardegen
Born (1913-03-18)March 18, 1913
Died June 9, 2018(2018-06-09) (aged 105) (aged 105)
Place of birth Bremen, Germany
Place of death Bremen, Germany
Allegiance  Nazi Germany
Service/branch  Kriegsmarine
Years of service 1934–1945
Rank Korvettenkapitän
Unit 3rd U-boat Flotilla
2nd U-boat Flotilla
Commands held U-147 (11 December 1940–4 April 1941)
U-123 (19 May 1941–31 July 1942)
Marine Infanterie Regiment 6 (February–May 1945)
Battles/wars Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945)
Awards Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves
Other work Businessman and Politician

Lieutenant Commander Reinhard Hardegen (born March 18, 1913) is a German U-boat commander who sank 22 ships, amounting to 115,656 gross register tons (GRT) sunk, making him the 24th most successful commander in World War II. He was never known to be a virulent Nazi supporter, however.[1] After the war, he spent a year in British captivity before running a successful oil company and serving in Bremen's Parliament for over 32 years.

Early life

Born in Bremen, Germany, Hardegen dreamed of a career in the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) from an early age. Following his graduation from high school he enrolled in the Kriegsmarine as a Seekadett, sailing around the world in the light cruiser Karlsruhe in 1933. In 1935, Hardegen was transferred as a Marineflieger in the Kriegsmarine's air arm. He trained as a naval aircraft observer and, after, as a pilot, and was promoted to leutnant on 1 October 1936. In early 1939, he crashed his aircraft and was hospitalized for six months. Later that year, Hermann Göring declared all aircraft in German service as belonging to the Luftwaffe, effectively canceling the Navy Air Arm. Hardegen was then transferred to the Ubootwaffe and began training as a U-boat commander.

World War II

Hardegen served as 1.WO (First Watch Officer) under Kapitänleutnant Georg-Wilhelm Schulz aboard U-124 and, after two war patrols, was given his own command, the Type IID U-boat U-147, operating out of Kiel, on 11 December 1940.[2] The boat was ready for its first patrol shortly before the new year and, after visiting the U-boat base in Bergen, U-147 was ordered to patrol the convoy routes north of the Hebrides.

On the second day of the patrol, Hardegen fired a torpedo which failed to detonate against a large merchant ship, before being forced to submerge after mistaking a destroyer for a merchant ship. During the dive, the tower hatch was damaged, forcing U-147 to resurface after a short while to make feverish repairs only a few hundred meters from the destroyer. The gathering darkness, however, saved the boat from being detected.[3] The water leaks had damaged the diesel engines aboard the boat, forcing Hardegen to use his electric motors when, later in the night, he saw another merchant passing by. Although slowed, the U-boat had enough speed to close the distance and launch a torpedo which sank the freighter. After interrogating the crew, Hardegen learned it was the Norwegian steamer Augvald 4,811 GRT. A few days later, Hardegen again attacked two freighters, only to find his torpedoes missing or failing to detonate. Shortly thereafter, he was ordered back to Kiel.

After completing the patrol, Hardegen was given command of U-123, a Type IXB U-boat operating out of Lorient. Hardegen's first patrol with U-123 started on 16 June 1941, with a course for West African waters to attack British shipping around Freetown.

On 20 June, Hardegen sunk the neutral Portuguese vessel Ganda, mistaking her for a British freighter. Dönitz later ordered all references to this sinking deleted from the journals of U-123 and the matter received little attention.[4] This was the only of two known alterations of the Kriegstagebuch ordered by Dönitz, the other being in regard to the sinking of the liner SS Athenia. After receiving depth charge damage, U-123 returned to Lorient, docking on 23 August, with a total score of five ships for 21,507 GRT.

His next patrol, in October 1941, took him to the North Atlantic. On 20 October he intercepted a convoy and attacked the British auxiliary cruiser HMS Aurania (13,984 tons). Although badly damaged, the cruiser was towed to harbour for repairs. Some of the crew abandoned the cruiser, however, and Hardegen picked up a survivor who was brought back to France as a prisoner of war. This led Hardegen to claim the sinking.[5] A day later, Hardegen sighted another convoy, but was forced to submerge by aircraft while shadowing it and lost contact. After weeks of patrolling the area south of Greenland, U-123 returned to Lorient.

First Drumbeat patrol

Hardegen's aircrash in 1936 had left him with internal injuries, a bleeding stomach and a shortened leg. He had been classified as unfit for U-boat duty, but the paperwork had not caught up with him until now. Dönitz learned of this, but needed experienced commanders for Operation Drumbeat, the offensive into American waters, and so Hardegen was allowed to go on two more patrols.

On 23 December 1941, U-123 left for the first phase of Drumbeat. Five boats, which was all Dönitz could muster, were sent towards the American coast, to take advantage of the confusion in the Eastern Seaboard defense networks shortly after the declaration of war. Hardegen was ordered to penetrate the harbour of New York City, but due to the haste with which the operation had been prepared, he had only a tourist guidebook for navigational help[6] instead of the detailed charts usually given out for such hazardous missions. Following his foray into New York, Hardegen was to target merchant shipping off Cape Hatteras.

On 12 January 1942, Hardegen drew first blood, sinking the British freighter Cyclops (9,076 GRT). On 14 January, he reached the approaches to New York harbour. Hardegen decided to proceed into the harbour on the surface.[7] The still brightly burning shore lights helped immensely with the navigation through the unknown waters. During the morning hours, U-123 sighted the Norwegian tanker Norness (9,577 GRT) off the coast of Long Island and sank her, although it took five torpedoes due to malfunctions.

Following this, Hardegen decided to bottom[Clarification needed] the boat and wait for nightfall before proceeding into the harbour itself. During the night of 15 January, Hardegen entered the harbour, nearly beaching the boat when he mistook shorelight for a light ship.[8] The crew of U-123 were elated when they came within the sight of the city itself, all lights burning brightly, but Hardegen did not linger long, due to the lack of merchant traffic. He did sink the British tanker Coimbra (6,768 GRT) on his way out.[9]

Hardegen then proceeded south along the coast, submerging during the day and surfacing at night. Apart from one air attack on 16 January, Hardegen did not experience any resistance from the United States Navy or Air Force. During the night of 19 January, Hardegen sank three freighters off Cape Hatteras in shallow waters close to shore. A couple of hours later, he happened upon five more merchants traveling in a group and attacked them with his last two torpedoes and his 105 mm deck gun, sinking a freighter and claiming the tanker Malay (8,207 GRT) as well.[10] Although badly damaged, Malay, traveling empty, had enough buoyancy to stay afloat and managed to make its way to New York under her own power five days later.[11]

With all torpedoes expended, and the port diesel engine not functioning optimally, Hardegen decided to set course for home. Just before dawn, the Norwegian whaling factory Kosmos II (16,699 GRT) was spotted only 400 metres (1,300 ft) away. The skipper of Kosmos, Einar Gleditsch, decided to ram U-123, ordering full speed ahead.[12] Hardegen, realizing that the whaler was too close for him to submerge, turned hard to port and ordered full ahead. With its port engine unable to deliver top RPMs, U-123 only just managed to keep ahead of the tanker, and it took over an hour for Hardegen to gain enough of a lead to have room to manoeuver.[13] This encounter was, ironically, the most dangerous for U-123 on its first trip, telling volumes about the lack of US Navy preparedness.

During the return journey, he spotted and sank the British freighter Culebra (3,400 GRT) on 25 January using the deck gun, but return fire from the freighter damaged the boat.[14] The following night, the Norwegian tanker Pan Norway (9,231 GRT) was attacked and sunk. After the attack, Hardegen ordered a nearby neutral freighter to pick up the survivors, although he had to repeat his order after the Greek captain decided to steam off without picking up all of the crew.[15] This sinking brought the tally for the first patrol to nine ships sunk for a total of 53,173 GRT over a two-week period, although Hardegen also claimed Malay for a total of 66,135 GRT.[16] The success of Hardegen's Drumbeat prompted Dönitz to radio a congratulatory signal on 20 January, "An den Paukenschläger Hardegen. Bravo! Gut gepaukt. Dönitz." (For the drum-beater Hardegen. Well done! Good beating. Dönitz.)

On 23 January, Hardegen received another signal, confirming he had been awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes) for sinking over 100,000 GRT of enemy shipping. He returned home to Lorient on 9 February and received a hero's welcome.[17]

Second Drumbeat patrol

On 2 March 1942, Hardegen left for his final patrol, his second to American waters. The first successes were achieved when Hardegen sank the American tanker Muskogee (7,034 GRT) on 22 March and the British tanker Empire Steel (8,150 GRT) on 24 March. The latter attack expended four torpedoes, however, as one malfunctioned and one was fired without having been aimed.[18] The tanker, carrying gasoline, burned fiercely for five hours before sinking and no survivors could be spotted. The somber crew of U-123 nicknamed the night the "Tanker Torch night".[19]

On 26 March, Hardegen attacked the American Q-ship USS Atik (3,000 GRT), mistaking it for a merchant freighter. After torpedoing the ship, Hardegen surfaced to sink her with the deck guns, only to find the Atik trying to ram him and opening fire on him with guns that had been concealed behind false bulwarks. Making a getaway on the surface, U-123 received eight hits and one of the crew members was fatally wounded. Approaching the Atik submerged, Hardegen sank her with another torpedo.[20]

Hardegen's second patrol was along the Florida coast. He reached the target area in late March, attacking the American tanker Liebre (7,057 GRT) on 1 April with his deck gun. Although the tanker was badly damaged, an approaching patrol craft forced Hardegen to submerge and leave the area. Liebre was towed to port and was ready to sail again by mid-July.[21] On the night of 8 April, U-123 was positioned off the shore of St. Simons Island, Georgia and torpedoed and sank two tankers: the SS Oklahoma (9,264 GRT) and the Esso Baton Rouge (7,989 GRT). The two tankers were sunk in such shallow water, however, that they were re-floated and put back into service.[22] During the night of 9 April, U-123 sank the cold storage motor ship SS Esparta (3,365 GRT).

On the night of 11 April, U-123 torpedoed and sank the SS Gulfamerica (8,801 GRT) about two miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. The Gulfamerica was on its maiden voyage from Philadelphia to Port Arthur, Texas with 90,000 barrels of fuel oil. After hitting her with a torpedo, Hardegen closed in for the kill with his deck gun. Noting the already large crowds gathering on the beach to watch the spectacle, as well as all the beach houses just beyond the Gulfamerica, Hardegen decided to manoeuver around the tanker and attack from the land side.[23] The move was quite hazardous, as the U-boat was clearly illuminated to any onshore weapons, and the shallow waters forced it to take up station only 250 metres (820 ft) from the tanker, which risked return fire from the tanker as well as getting caught in a blaze if the oil spilling out caught fire. The highways leading from Jacksonville were soon thronged with curious people trying to get to the beach to look at the spectacle.[24] After firing for some time with the deck gun, the tanker was ablaze and Hardegen decided to leave. Already planes were overhead trying to locate the submarine by parachute lights, while a destroyer and several smaller patrol boats were closing in.[25]

Forced by an aircraft to crash dive, U-123 found itself on the bottom, only 20 metres (66 ft) under the surface, when the destroyer, USS Dahlgren dropped six depth charges. Taking heavy damage and believing the destroyer would move in for another attack, Hardegen ordered the secret codes and machinery destroyed and the boat abandoned.[26] As the commander, he was to open the tower hatch to allow the crew to escape using the escape gear; however, he was gripped by a paralyzing fear and was unable to proceed with the evacuation.[27] Luckily for him, the Dahlgren, for reasons unknown, failed to drop any more depth charges and, after a short time, moved away, allowing the U-123 to complete emergency repairs and limp towards deeper waters. Hardegen would later tell Michael Gannon, "Only because I was too scared was I not captured."[27]

On the night of 13 April, U-123 attacked the US freighter SS Leslie (2,609 GRT) with its last torpedo and Hardegen's fiftieth torpedo launch. It sank quickly just off Cape Canaveral.[28] About two hours after this attack, Hardegen shelled the Swedish motor ship Korsholm (5,353 GRT) under British charter, and sank her within twenty minutes. He did, however, mistake the freighter for a tanker.[29]

At this point in his second patrol, Hardegen claimed ten ships for a total of 74,815 GRT, whereas in reality he had sunk nine, if counting the two tankers later refloated, for a total of a still respectable 52,336 GRT.[29] To sum up his patrol, Hardegen chose the lyrical approach, sending the following signal to BdU:

Sieben Tankern schlug die letze Stund,
  die U-Falle sank träger.
  Zwei Frachter liegen mit auf Grund,
  Versenkt vom Paukenschläger.
  (For seven tankers the last hour has passed
  the U-boat Trap sank slower.
  Two freighters lie on the bottom too,

sunk by the drum-beater.)[29]

Setting course for home, Hardegen sighted the freighter SS Alcoa Guide (4,834 GRT) and sank her with fire from the 105mm deck gun, as well as the 37mm and 20mm flak guns on 16 April.[30] On 23 April, Hardegen received a signal confirming his award of the Oak Leaves to his Knights Cross. On 2 May, U-123 docked at Lorient, ending Hardegen's career as an active U-boat commander, although he commanded the boat for a final journey, bringing her back to Kiel for some necessary repairs in May 1942.

Before this, however, he and fellow Oak Leaves winner Erich Topp were invited to a dinner with Adolf Hitler. During the dinner, Hardegen caused great embarrassment by sharply criticizing the lack of priorities given to the U-boat war by Der Führer, causing Hitler to go red with anger and Hardegen to receive a reprimand from Chief of Staff Alfred Jodl, to which Hardegen replied, "The Führer has a right to hear the truth, and I have a duty to speak it."[30]

Shore duty

On 31 July 1942, Hardegen relinquished command of U-123 and took up duties as an instructor in the 27th U-boat Training Flotilla in Gotenhafen. In March 1943, Kapitänleutnant Hardegen became chief of U-boat training of the torpedo school at Marineschule Mürwik, before taking up a position in the Torpedowaffenamt (torpedo weapon department), where he oversaw testing and development of new acoustic and wired torpedoes.[31] In his last posting, he served as battalion commander in Marine Infanterie Regiment 6 from February 1945 until the end of the war. The unit took part in fierce fighting against the British in the area around Bremen, and most of the officers were killed. Hardegen stated that his survival was due to his being hospitalized with a severe case of diphtheria.[32] For the last few days of the war, Hardegen served on Dönitz's staff in Flensburg, where he was arrested by British troops.

Later life

After the war, Hardegen was mistaken for a SS officer with the same last name, and it took him a year and a half to assemble the evidence to convince the Allied interrogators of his real identity.[32] He returned home in November 1946, where he started as a businessman, first on a bike and then in a car. In 1952, he started an oil trading company, which he built up into a great success. Hardegen also served as a member of Parliament (Bürgerschaft of Bremen) for the Christian Democrats in his hometown of Bremen for 32 years. He turned 100 in March 2013.[33]


Wehrmachtbericht references

Date Original German Wehrmachtbericht wording Direct English translation
Saturday, 24 January 1942 Bei diesen Kämpfen hat sich besonders das Unterseeboot des Kapitänleutnants Hardegen ausgezeichnet; es versenkte allein acht Schiffe mit 53 000 BRT, darunter drei Tanker, vor New-York.[37] In these battles, especially the submarine of Captain Lieutenant Hardegen has excelled; it alone sank eight ships of 53 000 GRT, including three tankers, before New York.
Tuesday, 14 April 1942 Bei den Erfolgen im Atlantik zeichneten sich die Unterseeboote des Kapitänleutnants Hardegen und des Oberleutnants zur See Lassen besonders aus.[37] In the successes in the Atlantic, the submarines of Kapitänleutnant Hardegen and of Oberleutnant zur See Lassen particularly distinguished themselves.


  1. "Korvettenkapitän Reinhard Hardegen". Retrieved 19 April 2010. 
  2. Gannon, p.34
  3. Gannon, p.36
  4. Gannon, p.52
  5. Gannon, p.58
  6. Gannon, p. 137
  7. Gannon, p. 215
  8. Gannon, p. 231
  9. Gannon, p. 234
  10. Gannon, p. 263
  11. Gannon, p. 265
  12. Gannon, p. 276
  13. Gannon, p. 278
  14. Gannon, p. 286
  15. Gannon, p. 291
  16. Gannon, p. 296
  17. Gannon, p. 304
  18. Gannon, p. 320
  19. Gannon, p. 322
  20. Gannon, p. 326
  21. Gannon, p. 334
  22. Gannon, p. 336
  23. Gannon, p. 363
  24. Gannon, p. 364
  25. Gannon, p. 367
  26. Gannon, p. 368
  27. 27.0 27.1 Gannon, p. 372
  28. Gannon, p. 376
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Gannon, p. 377
  30. 30.0 30.1 Gannon, p. 400
  31. Gannon, p. 408
  32. 32.0 32.1 Gannon, p. 409
  33. "Empfang zum 100. Geburtstag von Reinhard Hardegen". Bremische Bürgerschaft. April 2013. Retrieved 2013-04-20.  (German)
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 34.3 34.4 34.5 Busch and Röll 2003, p. 187.
  35. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 213.
  36. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 59.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 2, p. 86.
  • Busch, Hans-Joachim; Röll (2003) (in German). Der U-Boot-Krieg 1939–1945 — Die Ritterkreuzträger der U-Boot-Waffe von September 1939 bis Mai 1945 [The U-Boat War 1939–1945 — The Knight's Cross Bearers of the U-Boat Force from September 1939 to May 1945]. Hamburg, Berlin, Bonn Germany: Verlag E.S. Mittler & Sohn. ISBN 978-3-8132-0515-2. 
  • Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000) (in German). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939–1945 – Die Inhaber der höchsten Auszeichnung des Zweiten Weltkrieges aller Wehrmachtsteile [The Bearers of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939–1945 — The Owners of the Highest Award of the Second World War of all Wehrmacht Branches]. Friedberg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 978-3-7909-0284-6. 
  • Gannon, Michael (1991). Operation Drumbeat. HarperPerennial. ISBN 0-06-092088-2
  • Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939-1945 Band 2, 1. Januar 1942 bis 31. Dezember 1943 (in German). München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, 1985. ISBN 3-423-05944-3.

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