On 13 November 1941, at 3.40pm, Friedrich Guggenberger, commander of the German submarine U-81, fired a single torpedo that brought to an end the short, but dramatic, wartime career of HMS Ark Royal, the Royal Navy aircraft carrier that played a critical role in the search and subsequent sinking of the Bismarck.
Shortly after the attack HMS Legion, one of Ark Royal’s escorts, came alongside and began to evacuate her crew. The end came at 6.19am, on the morning of 14 November 1941, when the list became too much for her and she capsized, broke in two and sank.
Guggenberger had joined the German navy in 1934 and rose to become one of the Kriegsmarine’s most successful submarine commanders. Between November 1940 and July 1943 he was responsible for sinking seventeen ships, which amounted to more than 66,000 gross register tons. In recognition of his attack on the Ark Royal he was awarded the Knight’s Cross on 10 December 1941.
He was replaced as commander of U-81 by Johann-Otto Krieg on 24 December 1942 and the following month received Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross. Later, he spent three months on the staff of Admiral Karl Dönitz before returning to sea in May 1943 in command of U-513. On his only patrol with the submarine he sank four ships and damaged a fifth, but U-513 was sunk following an aerial attack. Guggenberger was one of only seven of the crew to survive and they spent a day adrift in a life raft before being spotted and picked up by the American ship USS Barnegat. He survived the ordeal thanks to the medical treatment that he received for his serious wounds and spent the rest of the war in various prisoner-of-war camps in the United States of America. In February 1946 he was transferred to Camp Shanks in New York and finally repatriated in August 1946.
In November 1940 he married Lieselotte Fischer and after the war they had three daughters and a son. Once back in Germany he studied as an architect, but his passion for the sea meant that he re-joined the navy in 1956, rising to the rank of Konteradmiral and served as Deputy Chief of Staff in the NATO command AFNORTH for four years.
Guggenberger’s death was something of a mystery. He lived quietly for many years following his retirement in 1972. On 13 May 1988 he went for a walk through the forest and failed to return home. Despite extensive searches at the time nothing could be found of him. His body was eventually discovered two years later.
For more on the hunt to find and sink the Bismarck take a look at John Moffat: Legend of the Bismarck.
Chapter 2: John Moffat: Legend of the Bismarck
John Moffat: Legend of the Bismarck tells the remarkable story of a Fleet Air Arm pilot and flying legend who, with a single torpedo strike, delivered from an obsolete biplane, in a force nine gale, in the middle of the Atlantic, brought about the sinking of Germany’s powerful battleship, the Bismarck.