A tale of two mariners: On the mercy of some U-boat captains
M. Michael Brady
In September 1981 a Norwegian and a German, both former mariners, met in Bremen, Germany. They would not have met had it not been for their remarkable encounter early in the Battle of the Atlantic of World War II.
Nearly 40 years earlier, in the evening of Monday, January 26, 1942, Norwegian seaman Wilfred Larsen was on the Pan Norway tanker when it was sunk by deck gun fire from the surfaced U-123 German submarine under the command of Captain Reinhard Hardegen. In the water and then in a lifeboat, seaman Larsen reckoned that though just 19, his end had come. Captain Hardegen was to allay that fear. Over a loudspeaker, first in German and then in English, Hardegen calmly told the Norwegian seamen not to give up, but to climb up to the submarine’s deck on a net that would be lowered, to await transfer to an approaching neutral ship that would take them to a neutral port. That’s what happened. A Greek ship under Swiss charter soon picked the crew up and a few days later set them on land in Portugal.
From Portugal, Larsen went to Glasgow and mustered on another Norwegian tanker, the Leiv Erikson, only to endure another sinking when it was torpedoed in the Caribbean on June 27, 1942. Thereafter, he mustered on other Norwegian ships before returning to Norway after the war.
His life on land was as harsh as his years at sea had been hazardous. The Norwegian authorities were indifferent to the needs of returning war sailors, particularly ones without families, such as Larsen, who had been raised in an orphanage and at age 13 had been compulsory signed on to shipboard work. Like other war sailors, he suffered from survivor syndrome, which in today’s psychiatric lingo classifies as a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He coped in part by reading relevant media articles and books to come to terms with his wartime experience. He read about Operation Drumbeat, the massive German submarine attack against Allied shipping off the East Coast of North America in the first eight months of 1942 (Further reading). And he read about Reinhard Hardegen, the submarine captain from Bremen who had sunk 22 ships, including the Pan Norway, and had been personally decorated by Hitler. So he knew the name of the man behind the calm voice he had heard as the Pan Norway sank. But what was the man like? He must have been young, as were many of the submarine captains. But why had the young, successful submarine captain rescued the crew of the Pan Norway? A trip to Bremen to meet Hardegen and get answers to those questions became his greatest wish.
In the autumn of 1981, Hjemmet, a Norwegian family magazine, granted his wish by arranging a trip for him to Bremen to meet Hardegen, accompanied by Arild Mikkelsen, a Hjemmet journalist. The meeting of the two men was more amicable than ex-war sailor Larsen could have dreamed, not least because Hardegen insisted that they drop German formality and use each other’s first names. Likewise, at the press conference that evening, Hardengen answered all the questions that had been on Larsen’s mind as well as questions from attending journalists.
He had rescued the crew of the Pan Norway because that’s what he always did upon sinking a ship, provided his submarine wasn’t threatened. Moreover, other wartime submarine captains, including one who had become a close friend, also rescued the crews of ships they sank. That Larsen could confirm, as his closest friend back home in Risør had been a war sailor who also was rescued by the German submarine that had sunk his ship. Though little known in Norway, many war sailors knew that the neutral ships that appeared and rescued survivors at the scene of a sinking often had been summoned by the submarines that had sunk their ships.
To a question on his opinion of Der Führer at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, Hardengen replied that by 1942, he and his crew had realized that Hitler was a madman who was wreaking havoc and driving Germany towards catastrophe. Even though they got little news while at sea or during their brief stays in port, they saw the trends in a country gone wrong. But what could they do? Desertion was not an option, as if captured they would be shot and their families would suffer. So they continued performing their military duties.
News of the revelations at that press conference spread, at first slowly. In 1990, Norwegian journalist and author Eva Borgengaard decided to further research them with an eye to documenting a previously untold segment of war history. First, she sent German-speaking colleague Karen Ullensvang to Bremen to interview Reinhard Hardegen and gain his permission to compile the book. Hardegen agreed, and journalist Ullensvang returned to Norway with previously unpublished facts and photos. The subsequent work on the book took more than two decades, slowed somewhat by Wilfred Larsen’s death at age 70 in 1993. The book was published in 2014 under the title Bak Hitlers rygg (Behind Hitler’s Back), a short name for the humane wartime activities of Reihard Hardegen and his crews. In an epilogue, author Borgengaard credits war sailor Wilfred Larsen with the incentive that led to the meeting on which the book is based.
Last January, the Norwegian Defense Department invited the public to suggest the names of previously unknown World War II heroes, with an eye to their being officially recognized. By early May, more than 400 suggestions had been received. In an article on that total, Aftenposten published illustrated summaries of the outstanding six suggestions. Among them was German U-boat captain Reinhard Hardegen, who was credited with saving Norwegian war sailors and others from death at sea.
• Bak Hitlers rygg by Eva Borgengaard and Odd Bækkevold, Nova Forlag, 2014, 160 page hardcover, ISBN 978-82-82810-61-6 (in Norwegian).
• “Reddet Livet til Norske Wilfred” (Saved Norwegian Wilfred’s Life), by Inge Lundereng, Vi Menn, week 48 issue, November 24, 2014, pages 6-12 (in Norwegian), an illustrated story of the sinking of the Pan Norway, link: issuu.com/hakonzen/docs/bak_hitlers_rygg_omtale_vi_menn.
• “Forsvarsdepartementet etterlyste glemte helter fra 2. Vedenskrig—over 400 forslag har kommet inn” (Defense department seeks forgotten World War II heroes—more than 400 proposals received), link: www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/Forsvarsdepartementet-etterlyste-glemte-helter-fra-2-verdenskrig—over-400-forslag-har-kommet-inn-8011023.html (in Norwegian).
• Operation Drumbeat, the dramatic true story of Germany’s first U-boat attacks along the American coast in World War II, by military historian Michael Gannon, first published by Harper Collins in 1990 and subsequently by Naval Institute Press in March 2009, ISBN 978-1591143024.
• Auf Gefechtsstationen! U-Boote im Einsatz gegen England und Amerika. Mit einem Geletwort von Grossadmiral Dönitz (At Battle-stations! U-boats in Action Against England and America, with a Foreword by Admiral of the Fleet Dönitz) by Reinhard Hardegen, Leipzig, Boreas-verlag 1943 (in German), Captain Hardegen’s book on his Operation Drumbeat patrols; new and used copies still available.
This article originally appeared in the May 29, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.