Key point: The German crew received a hero's welcome for the infiltration mission.
World War II had been in progress for six weeks when on the evening of October 12, 1939, the German submarine U-47 surfaced off the Orkney Islands at the northern tip of Scotland. While the officers standing in the conning tower observed the twinkling lights ashore to the west, only the captain, Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien, knew the purpose of their mission. Security surrounding it had been so tight that only now, with the climax approaching, would it be possible to tell his men the reason for so daring a foray into enemy waters.
Following a night of observation, U-47 submerged and withdrew eastward. As it settled on the bottom, the motors were cut and Prien ordered the crew to assemble in the forward mess. The time had come to reveal to these young men—average age of 20—that the following day, they would be entering Scapa Flow.
A Symbolic Mission
Scapa Flow had a special significance to the officers and men of Germany’s Kriegsmarine. It was at Scapa Flow that the pride of Germany during World War I, the High Seas Fleet, with which it had sought to challenge the Royal Navy for control of the seas, had been scuttled, laid to rest in a final defiant act following the defeat of its armies in northern France and Flanders. There, its ships lay as they still do, in 15 fathoms of water. The superb natural harbor provided ample protection for large numbers of British warships and a perfect position from which to intercept German vessels attempting to escape into the North Atlantic. Prien was proposing an extraordinary act.
The German Navy was very much the least favored of the three services at the outbreak of the war. The glory went to the Army and in its support, the Luftwaffe, as they sliced through Poland in a few short weeks. The mind-set of Hitler’s high command was geared to fighting battles on the continental landmass, and little imagination was applied to the problems faced by naval forces. Nor were the consequences, either tactical or strategic, considered of an enemy whose principal strength was naval.