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Trousers’ tales

6 July 2009 by stepheng

Black and white photo of a submarine being hoisted out of water.

Type VII German u boat. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

I like to think that the courtesies of life can be observed in even the most challenging situations so this particular story is very appealing to me. A pair of threadbare khaki trousers stand testimony to a compassionate wartime gesture after a German U-boat submarine sank a British ship.

On display in the Battle of the Atlantic gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum, the overall trousers belonged to a crew member on U-41.

They were given to James Kearon, of Arklow, Eire, a crew member of the steamship Darino of Liverpool after she was sunk off Spain in November 1939. He was one of 11 survivors who were taken on board the U-boat for three days before being transferred to an Italian ship bound for England.

Sadly, such acts of humanity by captains were forbidden by U-boat command later in the war.

In the late 1930s Karl Donitz, officer commanding U-boats, had estimated that Germany would need at least 300 U-boats in the event of war with Britain. In September 1939, however, Germany had just 57 subs with less than half having the range to operate in the Atlantic.

Until early 1945 all the German U-boats were based on First World War designs. By this time more than half (704) were of the Type VII (pictured) or its variants, the largest class of warships ever built in numerical terms.

Together with the larger Type IX, the Type VII Atlantic boats spearheaded Germany’s war at sea. The diesel–electric type VII was designed as a submersible, ocean-going torpedo boat.

In its original form it was only some 218 ft long with a displacement of 745 tons. This small size made it manoeuvrable and difficult to locate.

The Type VII had a fast surface speed of 16 – 17 knots, submerging in just 30 seconds. Its average range was more than 4,000 miles making it well-suited to ocean-going operations. Until mid-1943 these subs enjoyed remarkable successes in the Atlantic campaign.

Up to June 1940, U-boat operations in the Atlantic were limited because no more than 10 boats were usually available at any one time. Faulty torpedoes and the withdrawal of some boats to support operations in Norway were other handicaps.

German High Command, fearing American entry into the war, also placed strict limits on U-boat activities. Despite this, U-boats sank more than 200 British, Allied and neutral ships in the Atlantic during this period at the rate of 22 per month.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).

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