E rich Topp, the third top scoring U-boat commander of World War II, is credited with sinking 34 ships totaling 193,684 tons. Born in Hanover on July 2, 1914, Topp joined the German Navy in April 1934. He served six months aboard the light cruiser Karlsruhe before transferring to the U-boat service in October 1937.
Topp’s first assignment was as Watch Officer aboard U-46. After four patrols in U-46, he replaced Klaus Korth as commander of U-57 in June 1940. U-57 was a small, 340-ton Type IIC coastal submarine equipped with three torpedo tubes and carried a crew of 25.
On his first cruise in U-57, Topp sank his first ship, the 2,160-ton steamer Atos. He then sank the British steamer Dunstan which was part of the North American bound Convoy OB-202. His next victim was the 10,900-ton freighter Cumberland, followed by the sinking of the Havildar, Pecten and Manipur. On the return passage after having sunk over 30,000 tons of shipping, U-57 collided with the Norwegian freighter Rona in the Brunsbuttel channel. Six crewmen of the U-57 were lost, but Topp was cleared of any responsibility in the accident.
Topp commissioned U-552 on December 4, 1940. U-552 was a 626-ton Type VIIC submarine built in Hamburg by the Blohm and Voss works. Because of the red devils that decorated its conning tower, U-552 became known as the “Red Devil Boat.”
On their first patrol in U-552, Topp and his crew sank the 12,062-ton British tanker Cadillac on March 1, 1941. The Cadillac had been sailing with Convoy HX109 from Canada to England. He followed this by sinking the Icelandic trawler Reykjaborg using both torpedoes and deck guns.
Topp’s second cruise proved to be very successful. On April 27, 1941, he sank the Commander Horton and the 10,160-ton freighter Beacon Grange. The 5,500-ton British freighter Nerissa was the next victim, going to the bottom in May. Between June 10-18, U-552 sank the 4,860-ton steamer Ainderby, the 8,600- ton freighter Chinese Prince, and the 10,000-ton steamer Norfolk. In recognition of his growing record of success, Topp received the Knights Cross on June 20, 1941.
Soon after the ceremonies, Topp and his crew went back to sea. On August 23, 1941, U-552 finished off the Norwegian steamer Spind, which had been crippled by the U-564.
On September 1, 1941, Topp was promoted to Kapitaenleutnant. However, it would be almost a month before he sank another ship. On September 20, he and his crew made up for lost time by sending to the bottom the 8,200-ton British tanker T.J. Williams, the 4,100-ton Panamanian steamer Pink Star and the 6,300-ton Norwegian ship Barbo.
TANGLED WITH THE U.S.
Based at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, the United States Navy destroyer Reuben James sailed with four other destroyers from Argentia, Newfoundland, on October 23, 1941, to escort the eastbound convoy HX-156. While escorting that convoy at about 5:30 AM, the Reuben James crossed U-552′s sites near Iceland. The Reuben James had positioned herself between an ammunition ship in the convoy and the known position of a “wolfpack” of German U-boats.
U-552 sent a torpedo into the forward portion of the Reuben James blowing of her entire bow when a magazine exploded. The bow sank immediately. The aft section floated for five minutes before going down. Of the crew, 44 survived and 115 died. Topp had claimed the first United States Navy ship to be sunk by hostile action in World War II.
RACKING UP THE SCORE IN 1942
Topp and the U-552 were again at sea in early 1942 and sank the 4,100-ton steamer Dayrose on January 15. Three days later, the crew sank the American steamer Frances Salmar and on the 25th, the 6,250-ton Dutch tanker Ocana.
By April he was having success off the east coast of the United States. The east coast was still as lit up as it was during peacetime. The American steamer David H. Atwater was sunk on April 3, followed by the 7,950-ton tanker Byron T. Benson on the 5th, and the 7,130-ton tanker British Splendour and the 7,860-ton Norwegian factory ship Lancing two days later. By the end of the 16-day cruise, Top and his crew claimed 35,000 tons of shipping (including five tankers). Germany was pleased with his results and awarded Topp the Oakleaves to his Knights Cross. He was the 87th recipient of the award.
Erich Topp signature, 1983.
In June, Topp was on patrol again. On the 15th, he attacked Convoy HG84–one of the Gibraltar convoys–and sank five ships.
On August 3rd, Topp attacked yet another convoy, ON-115. During this attack he sank the 7,160-ton Belgian steamer Belgian Soldiers and damaged the 10,600-ton British tanker G.S. Walden. Topp returned to a hero’s welcome and awarded the Swords to his Knights Cross, the 17th recipient of this award. Nevertheless, this was Topp’s last war patrol with U-552.
German high command assigned Topp the command of the 27th U-boat Flotilla at Gotenhafen where new U-boat crews received their tactical training. Topp wrote the battle instructions for the new Type XXI Elektroboot submarine.
A few weeks before the war ended, Fregattenkapitaen Topp took command of U-2513, one of the type XXI submarines. Neither Topp nor the U-2513 would see action, however, and the boat was surrendered at Horten, Norway, on May 8, 1945. (The U-2513 was transferred to the U.S. Navy in August 1946 and underwent sea trials. By 1951, the Navy had gathered enough information from the U-2513. The U.S.S. Robert A. Owens (DD 827) sunk the sub with anti-submarine rockets off the west coast of Florida on October 7, 1951.)
TAPS FOR AN OLD SAILOR
There is a disagreement as to the number of ships and tonnage sunk by Topp. He is said to have sunk 34 or 35 ships with tonnage ranging from 192,611 tons to over 220,000 tons.
After the war, Topp worked for some months as a fisherman before he became a successful architect. In March 1958 he rejoined the German Navy. During this second naval career, Topp spent four years in the USA as a staff member of the Military Committee of NATO.
Konteradmiral Topp retired in December 1969. He was decorated in that year with the Gro?e Bundes Verdienstkreuz (Great Federal Merit Cross). He died on December 26, 2005, in Suessen, Germany, at the age of 91.
For more information on Topp’s military career, see The Odyssey of a U-Boat Commander: Recollections of Erich Topp by Erich Topp, Eric C. Rust (Translator) (ISBN: 0275938980, Praeger Publishers, 1992).