This October 1994 interview is with Reinhard Hardegen, former U-boat officer and Knights Cross winner

Thanks for meeting with me. I would like to start by asking what attracted you to join the Kriegsmarine and go into the U-boat arm?

Reinhard: Well, I always loved the sea since an early age so you could say it was in my blood. I joined the Rechsmarine early on in 1933, our fleet was very small so I trained on sailing ships and aged small ships. I was recruited for naval air duty as a spotter then a pilot. In 1935, Germany signed a treaty with England that would allow us to build a navy again so this was an exciting time. I stayed in naval aviation in which my job would be to scout for enemy ships and targets. I even visited your country and was amazed at the people and how kind they were to us.

I had a mishap in which I crashed due to mechanical malfunction. This put me in the hospital for a long time, and made me think twice about the air arm. I had made many friends over my career, many of whom were in the new U-boat arm, and they were quite convincing in getting me to join after I healed. The war had just began so I was full of patriotism and ready to do my part. I had no desire to be in the air again, so I signed up for duty that was even more dangerous than my previous one it turned out.

How did you view the news of a new war starting?

Reinhard: It was with deep sadness we were called to duty to fight our brothers again. The mood in Germany was one of deep optimism, yet with an undertone of fear. Hitler and the National Socialists took a nation that was in deep trouble and turned it completely around. I remember seeing all the homeless and destitute on the streets in the 20’s. Hitler changed our situation almost overnight; by 1939, Germany was emerging again as a powerful economic nation that was outpacing England and France. Our standard of living was high, good jobs abounded, and the people had hope for a bright future with lots of smiling faces. Couples were having babies again, where during the Weimar era, the birthrate slowed way down.

We all knew there were problems with Poland, Hitler made it very clear, and I believe correct, that Germany must be given back the land taken by the Allies after WW1. This was part of his stated mission so it was no secret. He had been successful, with England’s blessing, up to Poland. Poland had been given the largest chunks of land, and Germans who were now Poles told terrible stories of persecution and abuse by their new nation. I cannot forget also that Poland even attacked parts of Germany after the war to get even more land. Our Freikorps stopped this yet there was deep resentment between our two nations that culminated in war.

I say this because I want you to understand that Hitler had been put in a situation unique to this time. A nation, who was forced to surrender land now wanted to right the wrong in a peaceful way, but also had to contend with a nation who was being encouraged by England to refuse all negotiations. While our fellow Germans were living like second-class citizens in their former homes. Most Germans understood why war with Poland came, but we did not want to have to fight them, peace could have easily been achieved where both nations would have been happy.

What was your first combat patrol like?

Reinhard: After going through very tough U-boat training, I was assigned to my first boat where after further real time training in the North Sea we were made ready for action. I was with kptlt. Schulz and for the most part this patrol was uneventful, we did sink a freighter and came under minor attack. We put into port in France, which I looked forward to seeing. We came into port as a successful boat, and looked forward to a good leave. I still remember the nurses and officials who took on the dock to greet us, as was customary for a ship coming into harbor. Many men on board looked forward to getting to meet the girls of both German and French nationalities.

I want to say this was highly encouraged as our government wanted to show we were not the evil invaders the English made us out to be. Our men were given instructions to help the French people in any way possible, but to always be on guard as well. We had only a few minor infractions that had to be dealt with, but all of my crews always behaved themselves and acted with honor.

You were awarded the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves from Hitler, what do you remember?

Reinhard: I remember it well, I was given command of my own boat soon after my patrols on U124, and my new boat and crew did very well. We had great success, especially once America came in to the war. I was sent a message from Donitz awarding me the KC in January 1942, then in April of 42 the Oak leaves. I was ordered to report to the Führer’s headquarters for a briefing and awarding. I was somewhat prepared by other KC winners of what to expect, they said the Führer wanted to hear straight talk about how the war was going.

I had a list of concerns I wanted to bring up, from morale, torpedoes, and how we were being used. Many party officials and military officers greeted me, and then I met the Führer. He was very jovial and kind, he started by asking me to join him for lunch after the ward of the oaks. He told me he does not always seem to get an accurate view of what is happening on the fronts, and wanted my opinion of the U-boat war.

I told him of all of my concerns, regarding defective torpedoes, wolf packs needed to be tripled in size to be effective, and how a lack of effective organizing was hurting morale. He agreed, and told me that Germany was caught completely unprepared for the type of war that we were fighting, that his generals were doing their best, but were in unfamiliar territory. He shouldered the blame, saying he never wanted this war, and only wanted Germany to have her rightful land, and freedom. I told him that was irrelevant now, since we are in the war, we must fight to win it.

He did stress to me that since Germany had lost many of the aces, he wanted me to spare myself from frontline duty, and help with torpedo research. To see if I can help to fix the problems, I was angry as I was a soldier and wanted to do my duty, he shot back that sometimes your duty takes you to the design table, or factories instead of the front. He took hold of my hands and begged me to help fix the problems that I spoke of, that this is what Germany needs now. I told him I wanted to be honest, and tell him the truth and that I wanted to keep fighting. I said this with the most respect, and really felt he wanted to hear the truth, some of his staff was not impressed.

He told me to take a few days to think about it while on leave. After time home with family, I decided he was right, so I agreed to help with instruction and research. This more than likely saved my life.

Do you think Germany could have ever won the sea war?

Reinhard: Interesting question, I believe we could have won if we would have focused solely on U-boat construction early on. In 1939, I was appalled that we were going to war with such a small U-boat fleet. The early successes were a testimony of the brave crews more than anything else who threw themselves head first into the fight, at great peril, like Gunther Prien. If say by 1940 we would have been able to field one thousand boats instead of 26 we could have sunk every allied ship, and over whelmed any convoys, this was the stated purpose of the wolf packs. The Führer understood this, and told me if he had his way we would have zero boats, as peace was his aim, but since the English refused to take part in arms reduction, he had to arm, he was not able to arm fast enough when war came however.

If I was in charge, I would have prepared for a sea war and learned lessons from the first war, used an effective force in overwhelming numbers to collapse your main enemy. Germany was overwhelmed by allied production, they could make more ships in a month than we could make in a year. They developed new measures to combat us, and we developed ours too late. It was not until 1943 that Germany really geared up to fight the war. We still had life in our cities going on as if it was still 1938, and peace was the norm. So in short, yes, we could have won, but it would have meant really preparing for war early on and making war production a top priority.

What was it like being depth charged?

Reinhard: It was one of the scariest things you can imagine all it would take to crack our hull was a close depth charge. I was in a few attacks, and you feel helpless, hoping and praying they do not get lucky. We would do the math and count how many screws we heard, and then calculate how many charges they could carry. That helped to take some of the angst away otherwise one could go mad. We had a bad attack that almost made us prisoners or worse, but luckily the ship left before we could surface. We would always sustain some type of damage when these charges went off; usually it was only minor, like a blown fuse, or lightbulb. There was lots of praying to God during a depth charge attack. My boats were very lucky that the Allies could not get us.

One cannot discuss WW2 without asking about war crimes and atrocities; did you witness any of these happening?

Reinhard: Yes, this topic always seems to follow any discussion regarding Germans in the war, sadly. I can tell you that I did not see any atrocities at sea. I was in the war from 1939-42, during the happy times, and all combatants behaved themselves. I heard rumors about the British shooting survivors of sunken German ships, refusing to rescue our sailors, and planes strafing stranded sailors. I never saw any of this I want to stress that.

I am sure you have heard of the Laconia incident, this was a turning point in the war. Early on Donitz gave strict orders that we were to stop and aid crewmembers of all ships that we sunk, no exceptions. I can only think that in the mind of the US pilots, they really thought they were killing enemy who were trying to trick them. I do not understand how, as anyone with common sense could see there were people in lifeboats and it was clearly a rescue mission. The fact the U-boat was trying to explain they needed help for civilians makes me scratch my head in disbelief they attacked this rescue scene.

Because of this and other incidences late in 42 and 43, it forced Donitz to halt our rescuing of crewmembers of sunk ships. This was hard for us to do, but the Allies showed they had no fair play at this stage of the war. I was sent to the front in 1945 as every man was needed, I heard many claims against the British and Americans of shooting prisoners, looting, rape, and needlessly destroying landmarks and treasures. You must remember that war has its own rules.

As far as Germany goes, we stand accused of some of the most cruel and sadistic crimes against the peoples of Europe. I cannot say I saw any of this, as I was secluded at my training base and was never on the east front fighting. Between you and me, I can say I am a little skeptical about many of the stories being published and I simply do not believe them. They are very farfetched, and told by people who have a political axe to grind it seems. Therefore, while I will say there is much evidence against Hitler, I always keep an open mind.

There is the scene in Das Boot where an “Old Guard” in the club makes fun of Hitler; would this have happed in real life?

Reinhard: I am laughing, as that is a good scene and I helped the director with questions. I will say that that scene would not have happened in the way it was written. The Führer was much respected and the early victories astounded us all, we never though Germany could beat France in such a short time. I will say that in some of the clubs, where drinks were free or very cheap some man would make derisive comments about the Reich being bombed, spies not being stopped, and our leaders being too stupid to understand you don’t send single boats out against many targets. The Führer was never a target unless it was just an innocent jest that is how much he was respected.

I had heard stories about the Gestapo being called to investigate those who did make derisive statements but I never personally saw this. Therefore, in short, that is a funny scene and it could have applied to Rader or Donitz, or Goering, but the Führer was largely off limits due to the respect his soldiers had of him. Later in the war, this may not have been true, as many were disgruntled by the way it was turning out, and the loss’s families were suffering. Most anger and frustration was directed towards the Allies, and the senseless bombings against civilians.

What was it like being away from the fleet, and teaching?

Reinhard: At first, I did not like it, I wanted to be with my men at sea, but later as the list of missing and fallen grew, I felt lucky to be in a position to survive. I worked with torpedo designers and gave very good feedback on what was needed and problems with existing models. I also liked teaching tactics to new commanders, and seeing them understand and learn from my experience. I would even take them out on the learning boats, which was very pleasing to me. Once we even came under attack from a fighter and it gave me a good reason to chew the asses of the lookouts who were too complacent thinking no enemy would be in the far North Sea. I made a very instructor, and after the war, many told me the lessons they learned from me helped save lives. I will say what I learned teaching others, and leading men shaped my post war life, and made me a successful executive.

I wanted to ask how you felt about America early on in the war, it has been claimed that we violated neutrality and helped England illegally. What are your thoughts?

Reinhard: Well, I will not be too hard on your country, as I have met many Americans and have many good friends from the states; I like most everything about your country. In the early parts of the war, Roosevelt made it very clear; he disliked Germany and Hitler, to the point of skirting laws to aid our enemies. The 50 destroyers given to England, letting the English use US bases for operations, spying and given the information to our enemies, escorting convoys, and air patrols who relayed our positions to the English all were violations of neutrality. I do not want to condemn America as your leaders did what they thought was correct, but it made it inevitable that Germany would have to fight the US, when we could least afford it.

I thought to myself in Dec 1941, that finally we would have a chance to fight back instead of having our hands tied. We had been given very strict orders to avoid any US ships at all coasts. Even if we thought, we saw a US flagged ship we could not attack. The Ruben James was an example of how the war escalated, this ship should not have been by a convoy, but it was and was destroyed. The American people were told it was an example of our sneakiness and barbarism, what they were not told is that it was protecting war material going to England, and actively searching and hunting German U-boats. These acts made it a legitimate target, but Topp to this day still feels very bad, even though he sunk a hostile ship.

I have heard that the English also resorted to tricks like hiding under false flags of neutral nations, or even allies of Germany. As I said, war has its own rules sometimes. You must do what it takes to win, even if it blurs the rules. They have always been notorious for using sneaky tactics to attack us. We were well aware of the Q-ships of the first war and that is why we had to shoot first and ask questions later more than once.

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