Reinhard Hardegen, the last living “Ace of the Deep”, died recently at the age of 105. The highly-decorated U-boat captain was credited with a total 115,656 tons of Allied shipping sunk in the Atlantic during WWII. He ranked #24 in total tonnage among all German U-Boat commanders in WWII, and was one of only 30 recipients of the U-Boat War Badge with Diamonds.
Hardegen’s first patrol as captain of U-123 took place in the summer of 1941, when he sank five ships in the South Atlantic, totaling 21,507 tons.
One of Hardegen’s claims to fame was being the first German U-Boat to attack American shipping, prowling off the Eastern Coast of the US. Hardegen’s U-123 scored the first sinking of Operation Drumbeat on January 12, 1942, sinking the 9,000-ton British steamer Cyclops near Nova Scotia. Two days later, he sank an oil tanker near 150 miles east of Long Island. The following night, he ventured unmolested into Long Island Sound close enough to see the lights of New York City, and even the brightly lit Ferris Wheel on Coney Island. Continuing his patrol, he sank a further seven ships before running out of torpedoes, for a count of nine ships totaling 53,173 tons. Dramatizations of his successes on this patrol were turned into a movie that was shown throughout Germany. His second Drumbeat patrol was just as successful, sinking ten ships for a total of 57,170 tons.
More than once, Hardegen went out of his way to help survivors of the ships he sank. In one instance, he gave a lifeboat full of sailors some food and pointed them in the right direction to reach shore. In another, he literally held up a neutral ship at gunpoint, forcing them to turn around and rescue the survivors of a ship he’d recently sunk.
His removal from command after such illustrious performance may have been due to health problems he had kept secret during his career, or it may have been due to his chastising Hitler to his face in May 1942.
Hardegen and another famous U-Boat ace, Eric Topp, had been invited to a private dinner with Hitler for their accomplishments. Hardegen took the Fuhrer to task in front of everyone for ignoring the successes of the U-boats, and instead, pouring Germany’s money into tanks for the Eastern Front. Getting a dressing-down from Chief of Staff Jodl for his “impertinence”, Haedegen shot back “Herr General, the Führer has the right to hear the truth, and I have the duty to speak it.”
After commanding U-123 on her journey from Lorient to Kiel for repairs, he spent the rest of the war ashore. His last combat action was in February 1945, commanding an infantry battalion made of sailors against British forces near his hometown of Bremen.
After the war, he returned to Bremen, where he opened a successful oil trading business in 1952. He served in local politics for 32 years. In later years, when relating the Hitler incident, Hardegen said “I was not a Nazi. I did my duty for my country, not for Hitler.”