The stealthy nature of submarine warfare brought with it a dicey redefinition of what constitute war crimes. In Sea Wolves, Tony Matthews focuses on what he calls “four of the most dangerous submarine commanders of the Second World War.
Japanese captains Hajime Nakagawa and Tatsunosuke Ariizume and German Heinz Eck went past sinking their prey to machine gun life rafts and even took civilian crew aboard for the sole purpose of obtaining intelligence and then torturing and killing them.
The fourth, Alexander Marinesko, captain of the Soviet submarine S-13, sunk the converted liner Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 and killed nearly 10,000 crew and passengers, the greatest loss of life at sea in history—and followed that by sinking Steuben, with almost 5,000.
Aided by the bitter memories of the few survivors, Matthews devotes most detail to the victims, while noting that only one of his four villains could truly be said to have been brought to justice.
In the case of his one Allied killer, however, his description of the circumstances behind Wilhelm Gustloff’s tragic end do not argue convincingly for condemning Marinesko, who could not have known how many children and civilian refugees were mixed in with Nazi political and military personnel being evacuated before the oncoming Soviet army that night.
From the evidence the author presents, one is led to wonder whether such an accusation would have been leveled at an American submarine skipper torpedoing a Japanese transport.
Savage Submarine Commanders of WW2
by Tony Matthews, Pen & Sword Maritime, 2023
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