The Only War Criminal
Throughout the entire Second World War, the Kriegsmarine had only one U-boat commander convicted of war crimes. KL Heinz Wilhelm Eck of U-852 was indicted and sentenced to death by firing squad at the Nuremberg Tribunal on November 30 1945. Two other officers of U-852, the 2WO and the doctor were also indicted and shot. Additionally, the Leading Engineer and a seaman were complicated in the incident. They both received a reduced sentence of prison terms. The defense presented that the LI had objected to the actions of his CO and the seaman was simply following orders.
The story of the incident really began on a summer day of March 13, 1944. U-852 was enroute to the Indian Ocean to join the Monsoon wolfpack operating there. During the journey, Eck torpedoed and sank the Greek tramp steamer, SS Peleus. Amid the sinking wreckage were the survivors jammed packed in lifeboats and rafts. Fearing that the survivors of his torpedo attack would be rescued and give away his presence, Eck ordered for all the survivors to be machine gunned.
In protest, his Leading Engineer questioned his commander's order but could do little to change the fate of the survivors. Standing atop the bridge of the U-boat, the crew of the U-852 meticulously hunted and machine gunned the survivors. Hand grenades were also hurled at the remaining lifeboats. With all the survivors dead, the U-852 sailed away.
As it turned out, not all the survivors were killed. One survivor managed to escape and was eventually rescued by allied ships. He had lived to tell the story which had led to the indictment of the four U-boat officers and a seaman.
The U-852 was itself sunk on May 3 1944 by British aircraft off the coast of Somalia. The crew was interned and sent to POW camps, after which they were charged when the war ended.
The hearing was known as the Peleus Trial.
Those charged were Heinz Eck, August Hoffmann, Walter Weisspfennig, Hans Richard Lenz and Wolfgang Schwender.
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