Kapitänleutnant Kurt Petersen’s 22-day patrol of the northeast Bahamas is remarkable for its duration, the comparatively late-in-the-war patrol, and its ineffectiveness. U-541 entered the area south of Bermuda on the 6th of April by motoring due west for four days. Then on the 11th, while northeast of Abaco by about 300 miles, the boat turned north and exited the area for the Cape Hatteras region on the 12th of April.
Ten days later Petersen returned, this time midway between Bermuda and Savannah, to patrol well to the northeast of Abaco and Eleuthera. This lasted for 17 days, until the 8th of May and no ships were sighted or sunk. The closest the sub came to the Bahamas was roughly 100 miles north of Walker’s Cay, Grand Bahama, east of Cape Canaveral on the 24th and 25th of April.
On the 8th of May U-541 again left the region in favor of the Carolinas, returning for the final time a week later, on the 14th of May. This time the course was quite clear – Petersen steamed south from a point midway to Bermuda, then southeast, and final east, exiting the area south of Bermuda on the 19th of May.
Certainly Petersen was trying with gusto. On the 14th of May while offshore from the border between South Carolina and Georgia (east of Savannah), Petersen reported attacking an unescorted tanker with six torpedoes and observing only two detonations at the end of their runs (Wynn Vol.2, p.22). His return home was more interesting but no less frustrating: On the 26th of May, less than a week after exiting the area, U-541 stopped and searched two neutral ships: the Portuguese Serpa Pinto and the Greek ship Thetis, which was carrying 200 passengers including Jewish refugees.
Because the Thetis was chartered to a neutral Swiss party, and Portugal was not a neutral that Germany wished to incite (thereby making the transit to and from Biscay by U-boats even more dangerous, should that country side with the Allies), both ships were allowed to proceed after consultation with Berlin. Petersen did however imprison two US citizens aboard his submarine for the return voyage to Lorient, which was reached on the 22nd of June 1942 (Wynn Vol. 1, p.23).
Twenty-seven at the time of this patrol, Kurt Petersen was awarded the German Cross in Gold in 1944 six weeks before setting off from Lorient on 29 February. Kapitänleutnant Petersen was a member of the Crew of 1936 whose second rank, in 1938, was Sea Cadet. Over his career of 316 days on four patrols he sank one ship of 2,140 tons. On the down side he took command at a time when Allied ships were harder to find and glory immeasurably more difficult to obtain. On the up side, Pedersen survived the war and is alive today.
SOURCES: Gudmundur Helgason, Rainer Kolbicz, www.uboat.net, 2011, Kenneth Wynn, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997