Helmuth von Ruckteschell bigraphy, stories - German World War I U-boat commander

Helmuth von Ruckteschell : biography

22 March 1890 - 24 June 1948

Helmuth von Ruckteschell (22 March 1890, Eilbek - 24 June 1948, Hamburg) was an officer in the German navy, serving in both World War I and World War II. He was one of the most successful merchant raider commanders, serving as the captain of the German commerce raiders Widder and Michel during World War II. He was ruthless in the execution of his duty, and after the war was convicted of war crimes.

Pre-World War II

Born in 1890, he joined the German navy in 1910; in 1916, with the rank of Oberleutnant zur See, he transferred to the U-boat Arm. He served as Watch Officer on and , before being given his own command in July 1917, first of , then, in March 1918, of . He earned a reputation as an overly aggressive commander, which caused him to be placed on a black-list of officers that the Allied powers considered to have breached the laws of war. This contrasted with his artistic and cultured nature. He was an avid reader and loved classical music, and was a student of Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy.

After the war, he left Germany to escape the harassment suffered by former submariners at the hands of the victor nations. He lived in Sweden and Lapland for several years, earning a living as a lumberjack and a surveyor, before returning to Germany in the early 1930s.

War Crimes trial

Ruckteschell was the subject of one of the first war crimes investigations undertaken by the British Admiralty. It was alleged that on several occasions the warships commanded by Ruckteschell had continued firing on merchant vessels after they had surrendered. Since such behavior contravened the laws of naval warfare, the Admiralty requested that Ruckteschell and his crew members be detained for interrogation.

At the end of World War II Ruckteschell was on the staff of the German naval attaché in Japan and he was eventually located in an internment camp near Kobe from where he was brought back to Germany for trial.

According to the British charges submitted to the United Nations War Crimes Commission, the evidence revealed "at least one clear case of mass murder and several equally clear cases of the sinking of vessels whose crew were on the vessels when they were fired on, and were not picked up subsequently when on boats, rafts and in the water."


  • 1. Regarding , which was attacked on 10 July 1940 by Widder.
The charge was that he continued to fire after the radio was knocked out and the signal to surrender acknowledged. It was claimed that the Widders gunners continued to fire for eight minutes after a signal was sent indicating that the Davisian crew were abandoning ship.
The defence maintained no signal had been seen or received and that three seamen on board the Davisian were seen heading towards her gun.
  • 2. Regarding , attacked on 21 August 1940 by Widder.
The charge was that he fired on the lifeboats, and failed to ensure the crew's survival. Able Seaman Robert Tapscott of the Anglo Saxon, although unavailable to attend Ruckteschell’s trial, testified that the Widder had opened fire on the boats and rafts as they moved away from the sinking ship.
The defence maintained he was firing over heads at the ship; and that the boats attempted to escape and were lost in the dark.
Ruckteschell was found guilty of "not providing for the safety of the crew".
  • 3. Regarding , attacked on 4 August 1940 by Widder.
The charge was that he failed to ensure the safety of the survivors. Ruckteschell chose to leave 28 of them adrift over from the nearest land.
The defence maintained it was dark, and that Widder searched for them for 2½ hours without success.
He was initially found guilty on this charge, but was later acquitted on appeal in August 1947.
  • 4. Regarding , attacked on 11 September 1942 by Michel.
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