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Engine room of an oil-burning German submarine

The U-Boat commander who almost killed Churchill

Wilhelm Zahn was responsible for killing countless Allied soldiers. Winston Churchill was aboard one of the ships he targeted and was more than lucky to survive.

A U-Boat engine room| Image: Shutterstock

On the morning of 30 October 1939, U-boat commander Wilhelm Zahn brought his vessel to periscope depth to scan the horizon. According to German war records, the U-56 was prowling the waters off the north coast of Britain, just west of the Orkneys. It wasn’t long before Zahn had caught sight of multiple Royal Navy ships, including HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney, two large battleships that were key to the British Home Fleet at the time.

Just two weeks prior, another U-boat had successfully sunk HMS Royal Oak anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, killing over 800 in the process. The audacious attack had made a celebrity of its commander, Günther Prien, who became the first German submarine officer to be awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

Now fate had presented Zahn a similar opportunity to strike a blow to British maritime strength and morale, a chance to claim another German victory so early in the war. Unbeknownst to the 29-year-old commander, one of the targets within his sights was far more valuable than he could ever have imagined.

Aboard Nelson was none other than Winston Churchill, who’d convened a conference with Royal Navy leadership to discuss the recent sinking of the Royal Oak. Included in that list of military dignitaries was the Admiral of the Home Fleet, Sir Charles Forbes, as well as the First Sea Lord at the time, Sir Dudley Pound.

Given the number of British warships protecting the area, said to be a further 11 destroyers, Zahn’s manoeuvring of U-56 undetected to within striking distance of such key targets was quite miraculous. However, his window to attack did not initially seem possible as the battleships were headed straight towards his position. Once again though, fate dealt him a generous hand as the ships suddenly veered course by 20-30 degrees, bringing them into a direct line of fire with U-56.

First into Zahn’s field of vision was Rodney, which led the formation of British vessels. The German commander decided to let her slip by and instead, he focused his sights on the next battleship to come into range, Nelson. At just 800 metres out, the chances of the U-boat hitting its target were very high. ‘An ideal set-up,’ Zahn would later state, ‘the fan of the torpedoes sped away smoothly, as on a practice shoot’.

As the three torpedoes hurtled towards the flagship Nelson, those aboard the German U-boat listened on the submarine’s hydrophones for the distinctive sound of underwater explosions. The sound never came. Instead, a sonar operator on the U-56 allegedly heard two of the torpedoes hit the Nelson but fail to detonate. The fate of the third is debated, some claim it also struck the hull of the British warship and failed to detonate, others state it missed its target and detonated at sea. Either way, the failed attack alerted those aboard the Nelson to the hidden dangers that lurked below.

With the element of surprise now gone, Zahn ordered his submarine to dive into deeper waters to avoid any incoming depth charges sent from alerted battleships above. U-56 snuck off into the depths of the North Sea; what could have been a game-changing and defining moment of WW2, turned into one of history’s greatest ‘what-if’ moments.

In the hours that followed the attack, the missed opportunity weighed heavily on Zahn’s mind. So much so that the commander failed to report the incident to U-boat Command until later that evening, after he’d finally ordered the U-boat to surface. Luck was clearly on the Brits side that day, as had Zahn reported the incident earlier, Rear Admiral Karl Dönitz, the German ‘Commander of the Submarines’ could have sent the nearby ­U-58 to continue the attack.

The Germans would later learn about the presence of the British PM aboard the Nelson, garnering Zahn the reputation amongst his peers as the ‘Man who almost killed Churchill’. The missed opportunity of a lifetime caused the German commander to fall into a deep depression that ultimately led Dönitz to relieve him of his command of U-56. Zahn was sent back to Germany to temporarily work as an instructor.

In his autobiography, ‘Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days’, Dönitz described the attack as an ‘exceptionally serious failure’ but refused to criticize Zahn, stating the commander had ‘delivered his attack with great daring’ and ‘was in no way to blame.’ German U-boat Command had been made aware of technical faults with the G7e(TII) torpedo being used by the submarines at the time and Dönitz knew that the equipment was to blame in this instance.

Exactly two years later to the day, on 30 October 1941, Zahn returned to action, taking up command of U-69. It proved to be a short-lived and unsuccessful stint for Zahn, who failed to sink any Allied ships, leading Dönitz to surmise in a report that the commander’s lack of success couldn’t be solely attributed to just bad luck. Dönitz relived Zahn of his command in mid-1942.

Just over two years later, the 30th day of a month would once again prove significant for Wilhelm Zahn. This time it was 30 January 1945.

Zahn was a senior officer aboard Wilhelm Gustloff, an armed military transport ship that had been assigned the task of evacuating German civilians and military personnel from Eastern Europe as the Red Army advanced.

Zahn vehemently disagreed with both the route and speed that the ship’s captain had plotted. His objections could not prevent the boat from being sunk by a Soviet submarine; over 9,000 souls were lost at sea. It was the largest loss of life from a single ship sinking in naval history, nearly six times more deadly than the Titanic.

Zahn and the captain of the Wilhelm Gustloff survived the sinking. An official naval board of inquiry was opened and Zahn was ordered to testify in front of it. Nazi Germany collapsed before Zahn’s level of responsibility could be resolved. The commander would live to the age of 66 before passing away in November 1976.

From the ‘most important non-sinking’ of the war to the deadliest maritime disaster ever, the life of Wilhelm Zahn was anything but eventful.