Iron Coffins

Iron Coffins - Chapter 1 and 2

               Chapter I

"Ensigns," the Admiral began, "you have been called together to re-
ceive your first important assignments. You will be sent to front-line
units today. Wherever there is a ship of our Navy, be it in the Baltic or
the Atlantic, in the Mediterranean or the Arctic Ocean, there your
services are needed. The time has come for you to show what you have
learned. You will prove yourselves for the sake of your country. You
will take on England wherever you find her ships, and you will break
her power at sea. You will win victory."

    The Admiral, a lean, tall man, gazed around to catch our eyes. We
Ensigns had formed a horseshoe around him in the large square of
the Naval Academy at Flensburg. The time was mid-morning of a day
in late April 1941. The occasion was our graduation.

    The Admiral went on to tell us of our great naval tradition and of
our patriotic obligations as Germans. He spoke of honor and the cause.
All of us had heard such speeches often before, and yet for most of us
the call to glory or death had lost none of its exciting challenge.

    For me, this moment was especially satisfying because I had awaited
it for so many years. The decision that I was to become a naval officer
was made for me when I was still in the crib. My father, whose nautical
ambitions had been frustrated by family and business responsibilities,
resolved that I would one day wear an admiral's stripes. And so I was
pledged to the sea. My childhood and youth, spent in two towns in the
Black Forest of southern Germany, conditioned me for my career
aboard ships. Fascinated by the windjammers, merchant vessels, and
luxury liners that carried men to every conceivable shore, I read count-
less books about sea battles, explorers, conquerors, and naval heroes.
Before I reached the age of 17, I gained much practical experience
sailing on Lake Constance, where I learned to handle nearly every kind
of sailboat from a nutshell to a 60-foot, two-masted yacht. At 18 I
served a six-month hitch as an apprentice aboard a schooner sailing
the Baltic and North Sea. During my last year in high school I passed
the rigid tests required for admission to the Naval Academy. There-
after I served my compulsory term with the National Labor Service,
regulating mountain streams and building roads. Then, in September
1939, the outbreak of the war changed everything. The blitzkrieg con-
quest of Poland provoked Great Britain's entry into the hostilities, and
as a result I was called into the Navy sooner than expected. On Decem-
ber 1, 1939, I moved into the barracks of the officers' training center
located on a small island in the Baltic. Here I joined my class of over
600 enthusiasts.

    When I put on blues that first day of December, I was 19 years old.
During that cold, harsh winter, we were exposed to the most rigorous
military training program. Our intensified schooling and strenuous
drills in snow and mud had been devised to eliminate all but the fittest.
The rough training on land was followed by three months of sailing
aboard the square-rigged windjammer Horst Wessel. Then came an
exhaustive tour aboard a mine-laying training ship roaming the Baltic.

    After the fall of France, I was given my first command. It was only
a small ship in the 34th Mine-Sweeper Flotilla, based in Den Helder,
a key port on the Dutch coast. But I became acquainted with death
while serving with this very active flotilla. On duty clearing the English
Channel, I daily escaped British, French, Belgian, and Dutch mines,
and survived heavy British air attacks on sea and in port. I also shot
down a Bristol Blenheim bomber with an old watercooled machine gun
from World War I; suffered my first and last seasickness; won a pro-
motion to cadet and a medal for sweeping up a great number of those
round, black, explosive monsters from the infested waters; and partici-
pated in the trials of Operation Sea Lion, a plan for the invasion of the
British Isles which never got offshore. All in all, I had earned my medal
and promotion the hard way; and I expected to be put in charge of a
larger ship after another term in school.

    Shortly before Christmas of 1940, I rejoined my class of '39 at the
Naval Academy in Flensburg. I discovered that a few of my classmates
had already been killed in action. All the rest were promoted to Ensign,
which entitled us to change into double-breasted blues. The following
five months were extremely rough. We lived under constant pressure,
with but a few hours of sleep a night. A rapid succession of classroom
lessons complemented our education in navigation, naval tactics, marine
engineering, naval architecture, and oceanography. We also polished
up our English. In sports we exhausted ourselves in gymnastics, box-
ing, fencing, soccer, sailing, and even in horseback riding and jumping.
The tough requirements had been designed to separate the boys from
the men. Well before graduation day the weakest had been eliminated.
Now that the great moment had come, I realized that this was the last
time my class would meet as a complete unit.

     The Admiral closed his little speech with Nelson's classic words,
 moderately altered to suit the situation: "Gentlemen, this day Germany
expects every man to do his duty." Then he and his staff left the square,
and the officers who had guided us during the past months took over.

    As we waited in tense expectation, the officers disclosed our new com-
mands. Some of us had been selected to serve on destroyers, others on
minesweepers. A few were assigned to capital ships. The majority,
however, was ordered to report to the U-boat Force. This was a service
that none of us had as yet experienced. To my surprise, I was ordered
to join the 5th U-boat Flotilla in Kiel. That naval base was the largest
on the Baltic coast. It was common knowledge that most of our
U-boats, which had been so successful during the preceding months,
had sailed from Kiel for their rewarding missions.

    We dispersed exultantly. After lunch, the dormitory bustled with
activity--the emptying of closets, the packing of luggage, and the bid-
ding of farewells to all our friends. That evening we departed from the
Naval Academy in various directions to meet with our individual

    The crowded train rolled monotonously through the night. I sat in
a corner of a third-class compartment of a sooty car and dreamed with
open eyes. My classmates slept in impossible positions, pressed together
tightly or suspended in luggage nets. I tried in vain to sleep. I was
thinking about too many things at one time, about the present, the
future, and the past changes that the war had forced upon us and the
world. An eternity seemed to lie between the school years and that
night, yet time had passed so fast, too fast to understand. I knew only
that youth had vanished, that comfort and security were things of the
past. I wondered what would happen in the weeks and months ahead,
how it would feel floating below surface, and how I would be affected
by the first battle aboard the mysterious U-boat. I thought of the
possibility that my first engagement might also be my last. But if I
survived the first encounter, how many more would I endure before
fate struck? And I wondered how the depth charges would sound,
whether the first one would crack the hull, or whether it would take
10, 50, or 100 to sink my ship. I caught myself trying to picture the
horrifying last minutes when the boat went down. Would death come
slowly at a depth of 500 meters? How long would my life preserver
support me if I should be lucky enough to be left floating on surface ?

     And as I thought, my memory flashed back to my parents and my
 sister. I knew that they were, at that hour, in lasting security while I
 was traveling toward a questionable tomorrow, and I realized that
 everything was limited. The glory, the dreams of a successful life, the
 kisses of warm and longing women--all could be over soon and un-
fulfilled. My body could be entombed in an iron hull or float some-
where in the ocean as bait for hungry sharks. If I were lucky, someone
might find my remains and give me a decent burial.

    These thoughts accompanied me throughout the night. I felt closer
to death than to the life I had just begun to enjoy. What did I know
of life and love? I had to admit that I knew very little indeed. But I
was prepared to leave this world whenever it should happen. We had
been told many times over that sacrifice would bring us closer to

    It was still dark when the train arrived in Kiel. Only a handful of
us left the old-fashioned compartments; the rest had departed en route
to other ports. Since it was still too early for streetcars to travel, we
spent about an hour in the station cafeteria sipping sour ersatz coffee.
When the first tram rang its bell, we stormed aboard it with all our
baggage and headed for the Wik, the large Naval Base of the northern
end of the city. The streetcar lumbered through the awakening suburbs.
The sky slowly turned purple in the east, but the street lights were
still burning when we dismounted at our destination.

     I stood in front of a high brick wall that surrounded the naval com-
 plex. At the gate, the sentry examined my papers, then moved aside.
 When all of us had passed through the iron door, it closed with a
 shriek. Our hollow steps on the pavement echoed against the walls of
 the barracks as we walked toward the waterfront. The barracks and
 yard were a familiar sight. Here, almost three years before, I had
 gone through the tough exams that the Navy imposed on each pro-
 spective officer. I had returned again as a cadet aboard the schooner
 Horst Wessel, and had paid another visit the previous fall, after my
 service in the English Channel. This was the fourth time that I was
 drawn to the revered place of the Navy, and I would come back many
 times again during my career.

     In the half-light before reveille, the Bay of Kiel presented itself in
 all its natural beauty. The water was calm and silvery, with the op-
 posite shore reflected in dark green. Morning mist touched the several
 warships that rode at anchor, their gray superstructure shining almost
 white in the hazy air.

     Directly ahead was the Tirpitz Pier, named after the founder of
 the modern German Navy, Admiral Alfred yon Tirpitz. It reached far
 out into the Bay of Kiel. At that long jetty, many a British warship
 had fastened her lines for a friendly visit during the internationally
 famous "Kieler Week" of the Kaiser's era. During the First World
 War, parts of the German Fleet had sailed from that pier to fight the
 British cousin in the greatest sea battle of capital ships at Jutland. It
was from that same pier that our U-boats had launched their attacks
in 1914. During the peaceful years, the Tirpitz Pier had seen the
beginning of many new careers for men and ships. A new history
had begun on that pier in late summer of 1939, when our U-boats
launched their second assault on Britain within 25 years.

    The tide was low and the water splashed against the pier's wooden
poles. The odor of tar, salt, and oil mingled with the smell of fish,
seaweed, and paint. Numerous U-boats were moored here in rows
of two and three. Guards on their decks leaned against conning towers
or 8.8 cm. cannons, submachine guns hanging indolently from their
necks. They examined us critically and seemed amused as we paraded
down the planks.

    We reached the end of the jetty where two ships were tied to either
side of the wooden pier. An old steamer of about 10,000 tons rested
at the north side, while at the south side the tender Lech, the command
ship of the flotilla, was tied up. We presented our papers to another
guard, then crossed the gangway to the Lech and piled our suitcases
alongside her starboard railing. As we searched for the officers' ward-
room, the scent of freshly brewed coffee led us to the mess hall. We
received an excellent breakfast and soon felt reborn in our new environ-
ment. The room gradually filled with officers of all ranks. They wore
snow-white jackets and looked relaxed and satisfied. Evidently they had
found an ideal Navy life here; they worked and slept on a ship, saw water
all day long, but were never far from the city and its hectic night life.

     Around 0800 we prepared ourselves to report to the Commandant
 of the 5th U-boat Flotilla. His .4d/udant, a young and arrogant
 Leutnant, made us wait for more than an hour before he let us know
 that the Commandant would not be available. Free to do as we pleased,
 we left the tender to acquaint ourselves with the U-boats and their
 crews. We learned that some of the boats had just returned from a
 patrol, others had completed their training in the Baltic and were about
 to be fitted out for their first mission. Large quantities of cans, boxes,
 and fresh foodstuffs were carted onto the pier by trucks and piled up
 alongside the boats.

     Shortly before noon, we met again in the Lech's wardroom in ex-
 pectation of lunch. Small standing parties discussed the latest "Special
 Bulletin" which had been broadcast minutes before. U-boats had at-
 tacked a British convoy in the North Atlantic and had destroyed, so
 far, eight ships totaling over 50,000 tons. It was the greatest success
 recorded on a single convoy operation, and with the U-boats still in
 pursuit of the enemy, more sinkings could be expected. A feeling of
 pride took possession of us, although we were not yet a part of the
 U-boat Force. Enthusiasm was high when the Commanding Officer
 stepped into the wardroom. He went to his traditional chair, waited
 until all of us had found a place, then addressed the assembly: "Gentle-
 men, we have received numerous radiograms from our commanders,
 who are presently chasing a British convoy across the Atlantic. Ac-
 cording to their reports, the number of ships sunk has reached 14, with
 a total of approximately 85,000 tons destroyed. One escort vessel has
 been torpedoed. This is by far our most rewarding hunt. The battle
 in the Atlantic has become our battle. Our U-boats are dictating the

     We toasted the success, then sat down for dinner. The news was the
 prime topic of discussion. With a steadily increasing number of U-
 boats cruising the seas, the toll of British shipping was reaching un-
 precedented proportions.

    Indeed, we had reason to believe that our hunger blockade against
England would soon result in her downfall. On land, moreover, our
armies had driven deep into enemy territory. Following our seizure of
Poland, Norway had been defeated almost overnight; Holland, Bel-
gium, and France were overrun within a few weeks and Denmark
occupied. Our capital ships controlled the European waters far into
the Arctic region. It seemed to me one thing remained to be done:
intensify the U-boat offensive against England, starve the British and
force them to surrender. Once we held the British Isles, the war would

    After lunch we newcomers congregated on deck to await orders.
Finally, at 1430, the .4dfudant passed our crowd waving a few white
papers. We followed him into the officers' mess hall and formed a
ring around him, drawing nervously on our cigarettes while he sorted
his sheets. At last the ,4dfudant began to speak. He called our names in
alphabetical order, specified our boats and the port where each was
to be boarded. Since my name was at the end of the list, my patience
was put to a severe test. Some of us were lucky and were assigned
to a boat moored at the pier. Others had to travel to faraway ports.
My classmates Ahlers, Busch, and Faust were ordered to Bremer-
haven. Goebel, Gerloff, and my best friend Fred Schreiber were sent
to the Baltic U-boat base of Koenigsberg; they happily clicked their
heels and raced off to the office to ask for their orders in writing.
The ,4dfudant concluded by saying, "Those who have to report to
Bremerhaven, Danzig, or Koenigsberg must leave with the next train.
There is no time for a tete a tete with your sweethearts, gentlemen.
Ensign Werner stays aboard the Lech for special duty."

  I was stunned, bewildered. Hopeful that this was all a mistake, I
approached the young Adjudant and asked why I had been left stranded
aboard the Lech.

    "Don't you worry," he said disdainfully. "You will get to the front
fast enough. Your boat, U-551, is still on mission. You have to wait
until she returns."

  "When will that be, sir ?"

    "I can't tell exactly. But if it makes you feel better, I've heard the
boat has radioed that she has broken off her patrol."

    I was relieved to hear that I was to join an experienced crew, but
I was a disappointed, envious ensign as I shook hands with my depart-
ing classmates. Later that afternoon I was told to place myself at the
Adjudant's disposal. My main duty was to take officers aboard motor
launches and shuttle them across the Bay to Kiel and the shipyards.
I had expected responsibilities; instead I was asked to perform a minor
duty that any petty officer could have done as well. I tried in vain to
convince the Adjudant that I had never handled a small craft. "We
shall see," he said, taking me aboard one of the launches. "If you
haven't done it before, you will learn." Despite my best efforts to do
the job poorly, the Adjudant seemed satisfied. To my displeasure, I
found myself in charge of the motorboats.

     Several days passed. U-551 had not returned from patrol. From
 time to time I went to see the radio officer in search of news. I be-
 came ever more restless as I watched my classmates prepare for their
 first war patrol. Then came the day that shattered my hopes for an
 early sailing. The Adjudant brought me the bad news that U-551
 would never return. She had been lost in the North Atlantic.

     I expected to be transferred aboard another U-boat immediately.
 But when nothing materialized after several more days, I became un-
 easy. I suspected that the Adfudant had intentionally failed to arrange
 a new assignment. One day at breakfast I contrived to sit next to the
 Flotilla's Chief Engineer, whom I had regarded as a personable man.
 After a casual conversation about unimportant matters, I discreetly
 explained my awkward situation. The Chief promised to do something
 in my behalf. Though I was not quite sure he had made the promise
 in earnest, results came abruptly. The next afternoon I was told to
 see the Ad]udant. Expressionlessly, he handed me a sheet of paper.
 In a second I realized that it was my new order. I clicked my heels
 in sudden joy, saluted, and left his office quickly. Outside, I read the
 order in detail. I was to report aboard U-557 in Koenigsberg.

     At 2100 the same evening, my express rolled into Stettiner Station
 in Berlin. The platforms were bustling with traffic despite the late
hour. Soldiers from many fronts and all branches of the Armed
Forces were changing trains. Carrying my two suitcases, I transferred
to the S-hahn, the rapid transit system, for Station Friedrichstrasse.
Before I left Kiel, I had managed to send a wire to my blond Marianne
in the Capital. I had not seen her since the previous December and
a reunion was long overdue. I was supposed to meet her in a small
cafe near the Scala, where we had been accustomed to wait for each
other. I knew Marianne was as reliable as she was beautiful.

    She was but five minutes late, remarkable for a pretty woman. Her
face and blue eyes glowed as they had when I had first met her before
the war on Lake Constance. We sat and talked happily for a few
minutes, and when we left the cafe, there was the unspoken agreement
between us that we would not separate that night. Only a few steps
to the east was Friedrichstrasse, the pulsating vein of Berlin. It was
enveloped in darkness, but an occasional faint street light allowed
us to orient ourselves. Despite the late hour, Friedrichstrasse was
jammed with people--soldiers, sailors, and pairs of lovers like our-
selves, all struggling to find their way in the darkened city. Marianne
and I walked north, past the Station, into a dark, quiet section. Oc-
casionally we saw a lonely soul or a car passing with headlights
dimmed. We had assumed we would find asylum in a small pelion,
but we rang dozens of bells and still no door opened for us. We walked
up and down for almost an hour before we found a little place and a
tiny room to stay. However, it was big enough for the two of us, and
we did not require much space to be content.

     Long after midnight, the sirens began to scream. I had forgotten
 that there was a war on, and that the Tommies occasionally slipped
 through our air defense. After some hesitation, we decided to remain
 where we were and not seek shelter. While the flak hammered
 sporadically, we heard the howling of falling bombs accompanied by
 muffled explosions. The building vibrated slightly. When the raid
 was finally over, we had learned that defiance sometimes can be

     We had our breakfast in Cafe Wien on Kurfuerstendamm. There
 was no sign of the attack. The world looked as peaceful as always on
 that April morning. Stores, cafes, hotels were doing business as usual.
 Berliners mingled with soldiers in gray, green, blue and brown;
 the famous avenue was the stage for a splendid spectacle. When the
 church bells rang the hour, it was like any sunny Sunday before the

     Time to separate always comes too early, especially when duty calls
 one from a shared hotel room. But that day I was not quite sure
whether I would have preferred a further delay of my departure.
Although I felt quite comfortable in my love for Marianne, I regarded
my love for the Navy as being of a more permanent nature. It was
near sunrise when we kissed good-by at the station, and we promised
to see each other as soon as the war would allow.

    The Pommeranian Plains stretched endlessly alongside the tracks.
Heather gave way to woods of pine. Before the war, a traveller had
to cross the German border twice en route to Koenigsberg; he showed
his passport when leaving West Prussia for Poland and presented it
again a few hours later when leaving Poland for East Prussia. Now,
to the Poles' sorrow, the crossing of the border had become a very
simple affair.

    I traversed the battlefields of the war with Poland and arrived in
Koenigsberg at dusk. I was astonished to see the station fully illumi-
nated, as if in peace time. Streetlights, neon signs, storefronts, and
windows were ablaze with light. Despite the vague directions given
me by a policeman, I found the Navy yard where I was to board
U-55Z. Several U-boats swayed alongside a granite jetty; for a
moment I paused at the pier and stared at the black stilettos in the
murky waters, wondering which one would carry me into battle
against England.

    Some distance away lay an ocean liner; it was painted blinding
white and lighted up like a Christmas tree. Assuming that the white
ship was the fiotilla's headquarters, I dragged my baggage across
the gangway and reported to the officer on watch. He referred me to
the mate on duty and the mate sent me to the purser. He in turn
arranged for a cabin. I eventually fell into a soft easy chair, hungry
and exhausted. At last, I had arrived.

    It was late when I went on an expedition through the ship to find
the dining room and something to eat. In passing the bar I recognized
my classmates, Guenter Gerloff and Rolf Goebel, who had departed
from Kiel some two weeks before me. Approaching them from
behind, I tapped their shoulders and said, "How come you are not at
sea ?"

     They spun around. Chubby-faced Goebel replied, "It's not for you
 to ask, you land rat. We just came back from a long training trip."

     Gerloff, tall and blond, added smilingly, "You see the salt crusts on
 our lips? They don't dissolve with water, we have to use alcohol.
 That's how long we've been at sea."

  "I'll match that soon," I countered.

     "Not if they keep you in port to run their motorboats, you won't,"
 snapped Goebel.

"Don't worry about me. This time I've made it. I am ordered aboard
U-557. Do you fellows know where I can find her ?"

    "She happens to be ours," Gerloff said, "and the Captain will have
a fit when he hears of your addition."

    The talkative pair began to tell of their first experience aboard a
U-boat. Their enthusiasm for the weapon, for the Captain and the
crew, seemed sincere and not the result of increased consumption of
alcohol. I forgot my hunger and listened carefully, washing down
their tales with a few more drinks than I was accustomed to. It was
past midnight when I finally lay my spinning head on a pillow.

Chapter 2

Next morning at 0800, I boarded U-557 to report for duty. The
boat was weatherbeaten. The conning tower looked like a surrealistic
painting. The protective red undercoat showed in streaks through the
splintered gray surface paint. Rust had formed everywhere, even
around the barrel of the heavily greased 8.8 cm. gun on the foredeck.
There was a light green shine of algae on the wooden deck that
covered the steel hull. Her rundown appearance was obviously the
result of months of drills in the Baltic, and I found it very appealing.
     I presented my transfer orders to the Captain and said, "Herr
Oberleutnant, I beg to report aboard."

     He glanced at the paper, then hollered, "What the devil is wrong
with Headquarters, sending me another ensign? They've already
punished me with two just like you--beginners who haven't smelled
real U-boat stink." Then, with a vivid oath, he expressed the hope
that I might be useful as extra ballast.

     I was disappointed by my welcome, but not by the Captain. Ober-
leutnant Ottokar Paulssen was a short, stocky man in his early thirties;
he had blond hair and blue, witty eyes that sparkled under the peak
of his white Navy cap. The cap, which only the commander had the
right to wear aboard, showed traces of verdigris on its brass ornaments.
He wore a long jacket of light gray leather; its seams at the shoulders
and pockets had been expertly hand-stitched with a heavy yarn. An
artistic seaman's braid was fastened at his left epaulet with thread
bleached almost white; and his feet, cased in large leather boots,
stuck out beneath his wrinkled pants. In short, Paulssen fitted my
picture of the ideal U-boat commander.

     With no regard for formalities, the Captain bluntly ordered me to
change out of my dress uniform, then turned me over to his second
officer. This slim and trim fellow, possibly two years my senior, intro-
duced himself as Leutnant Seibold, watch and radio officer, and shook
hands heartily.

     Seibold answered many of my questions before I asked them. He
told me that U-557 had just completed a strenuous seven-month
shakedown cruise in the Baltic. The boat's company totaled 48 men,
not counting us Ensigns; it consisted of 4 officers, 3 warrant officers,
14 petty officers and 27 seamen, machinists, and technicians. Some of
the men had already seen action, and with them as a hard core,
Paulssen had forged boat and crew into an effective war machine,
ready and eager for the gruesome work that lay ahead. Paulssen him-
self, Seibold continued proudly, was a veteran of the underseas force.
He had served aboard a U-boat in 1937 in the international control
organization during the Spanish Civil War, cruising the Mediterranean
and the Bay of Biscay. Later, as commander of a home-based U-boat,
Paulssen trained many of the crews now manning U-boats on the
Atlantic front. At the end of his little history, Seibold ordered the first
seaman's mate to take care of my immediate needs.

    The mate led me back to the liner. There I was equipped with three
sets of fatigues, a complete leather suit, an oilskin outfit for foul
weather, two blue sweaters, blue knitted underwear, rubber boots,
felt-lined leather boots, thick gloves, binoculars, and a multitude of
small items. To secure all this gear I had to make three trips from
the supply room to my cabin in the liner.

    I was putting on my fresh fatigues when Goebel rushed into my
cabin, almost demolishing the door. "Hey sailor, pack your bags!"
he cried. "We are sailing at 1400, destination Kiel."

    "Damn it," I snarled, "I just came from there !" But I packed in a
hurry, carried all my belongings aboard U-557, and threw them into
one of the narrow berths.

    At exactly 1400, U-557 separated from the pier. The boat slid
away in complete silence, powered by electric motors. She maneuvered
into navigable waters, then her diesels took over the drive. U-557
headed for the open sea.

    When the silhouette of Koenigsberg had sunk below the horizon, the
Captain ordered the third seaman's watch to the bridge. The boat fol-
lowed a westward course. Hard, short breakers hit her from star-
board; fine spray showered the superstructure. The smokers threw
their cigarettes overboard and slipped through the conning tower hatch.
I followed them down the vertical ladder into the long, narrow boat.
Here all was peaceful. Each man had taken his proper place. The only
sound I heard in the forward compartments was the knocking of the

     Oberleutnant Kern, the Executive Officer and First Watch Officer,
intercepted me in the center aisle and gave me a stern lecture on my
immediate duties. I was to be a lookout with the second seaman's
watch when the boat was surfaced; when it was submerged, I would
do various jobs, assisting at the electric helm or the hydroplanes,
helping Wiesner, the navigator, to calculate our position and helping
Second Officer Seibold to decode top secret messages. I was also to
spend time with him, Kern, and with Feder, the engineer; they would
acquaint me with the boat's construction, machinery, equipment, tanks,
valves, computer, torpedoes, and artillery armament. Kern urged me to
spend my spare time studying the engineering manuals, so that I
would catch up with the rest of the crew as soon as possible. He then
took me on a tour through the pressure hull.

    The trip soon turned into a sobering experience. After a few steps,
I lost my bearings completely. I banged my head against pipes and
ducts, against handwheels and instruments, against the low, round
hatches in bulkheads that separated the compartments. It was like
crawling through a bottleneck. Most annoying of all, the boat rocked
vigorously in the increasingly rough sea. In order to keep my balance,
I frequently had to reach for support as I staggered over the floor
plates like a drunk. Apparently I would have to duck my head, walk
softly, and ride with the boat or I would not survive one day in the

    As we passed through the control room, I bowed under the extension
of the conning tower. Then, without warning, a heavy breaker came
rushing down the hatch, drenching me to the skin. The old veterans
laughed loudly. The Exec, who had obviously timed the baptism for
my inauguration, hid his smile and continued to explain the con-
struction of the underwater wonder.

    The ship was divided into four pressurized compartments. The aft
section contained all the machinery and electrical equipment, air com-
pressor, and one torpedo tube. The two powerful diesel engines were
capable of driving the boat at 19 knots on surface. Two electric motors,
operating on gigantic storage batteries, ran the ship when she was
submerged; they could propel the boat for one hour at the top speed
of nine knots, or for three days at a cruising speed of one or two
knots. However, these batteries had to be recharged under normal
conditions every 24 hours. This could be done only by surfacing, for
the batteries that ran the electric motors were charged by generators
driven by diesel engines.

    Between diesel compartment and midships were a tiny galley, a
washroom, petty officers' quarters, and below the deck plates, one
half of the 50-ton storage batteries. In the center compartment mid-
ships was the heart and brain of the boat, the control room. It was
overloaded with pipes, ducts, valves, wires, hand-wheels, gauges,
switches, meters, control mechanism, and a gyro compass. Its major
equipment included pumps, fresh-water producer, lower periscope,
magnetic compass, chart closet, and table, as well as electrical gear to
control rudder and hydroplanes.

    The forward section contained a radio room, a listening room, bow
torpedo compartment with four tubes, and also men's quarters, officers'
and warrant officers' wardrooms, the Captain's small corner, a hint
of a washroom and, again below deck plates, the second half of the
storage batteries. The three pressure compartments were subdivided
into seven watertight rooms, each equipped with watertight doors
that could withstand pressure equal to that at a depth of 120 meters.

    The fourth and smallest compartment, the conning tower, contained
the attack periscope, torpedo computer, and helm. Buoyancy tanks,
trim cells, fuel oil, and fresh-water tanks were located throughout the
boat and in the outboard tanks in strategic locations.

    After walking the full length of the boat, I was overwhelmed by her
complexity and thoroughly confused by the Exec's rather superficial
explanations. I believed that it would take me years to gain his knowl-
edge, the Chief's skill, and the Captain's qualifications.

    I was at the navigator's small plotting table when the Captain called
from the bridge: "Prepare for diving maneuver. Alarm for exercise !"

    Moments later, the men on watch came tumbling down the aluminum
ladder, hitting the deck plates with violent jolts. Then the alarm bell
shrieked throughout the boat. To open up the ballast tanks to the sea,
machinists grabbed the handles of leverage valves and hung from them,
using the full weight of their bodies to speed the opening action. Others
turned hand-wheels frantically. With a loud uproar, air escaped the
tanks and water rushed in. U-557 dipped so swiftly that I had to
grab something to stop myself from falling to the metal deck plates.
Again I was reminded that I had to remain constantly alert.

    Suddenly there was a cry, urgent and piercing, "Outboard air in-
duction valve doesn't close !"

U-557 sank fast, bow first, at an angle of 35 degrees. A machinist
appeared in the round opening of the rear bulkhead, yelling, "We can't
stop the leak ! Head valve must be jammed !"

    Paulssen shouted, "Blow all tanks--both planes up--surface,
Chief !"

    Within seconds, the depth-gauge needle gyrated to 60 meters, 70,
85, 110 meters. Then the boat briefly balanced out on even keel--and
began to tilt down at the stern. I slid aft until I grabbed an overhead
pipe. Now the boat tumbled rapidly toward the bottom of the Baltic,
stern first. Her descent was so steep that everything not fastened--
suitcases, boxes, food cans, personal belongings--rolled dangerously
down the center aisle. The two men who operated the hydroplanes
slid from their seats into the valve station. One man, flying through
the round hatch in the forward bulkhead, clung to it in desperation.

     The Chief yelled, "Stop blowing, boat is out of control !"
As U-557 neared the ocean floor, a terrifying roar came from the
diesel compartment. Tons of water rushed through a leak. Then the
boat hit with a shuddering jolt. The lights went out. I lost my grip
and landed on top of the navigator, who himself had fallen over
somebody else. Then there was silence.

   A hollow voice drifted up from the stern: "Inboard air induction
valve is closed and secured."

   The leak was stopped. But the boat, her stern buried in the mud,
hung at a 50-degree angle, swinging back and forth gently like a

   "By auxiliary lighting, all men to the bow room!" This was the
Captain's encouraging voice. At once, some lights came on, and shad-
owy figures began the climb uphill. Taking stock hastily, I noted that
the depth gauge read 142 meters; U-557 seemed to be stuck solidly
in the mud beyond reach of rescuers from above. Her electrical cir-
cuits were out of order. The batteries had lost much of their acid,
and poisonous chlorine fumes were escaping. There was also the pos-
sibility of an explosion.

    My appraisal was interrupted by someone shouting through the voice
tube: "This is the diesel room. Mechanic Eckstein is dead !"

    It flashed through my mind that Eckstein might have gotten the
best of a bad bargain. If the deadly gases did not burn away our lungs,
we would die of suffocation as our oxygen supply was used up.

    We continued struggling uphill on hands and knees, bracing our
feet against a pump, a valve, a convenient pipe. As I dragged myself
along the deck plates, I looked into the faces of men I hardly knew.
Soaking wet, smeared with oil and grease, dirty and sweating, they
followed Paulssen's order without showing emotion. We had all be-
come important ballast, putting our weight on the scale of our fate.
It was indeed ironic that the Captain had called me surplus ballast
when I reported aboard.

    Eventually, the men reached the forward torpedo room. But the bow
of the boat lowered only slightly. She seemed to be locked in her posi-
tion, the tremendous weight in the aft bilges acting as an anchor. I
heard the Captain conferring with the Chief in the control room. I
could see the two through the round opening of the hatch in the
sparsely lighted section. It was as if I were standing atop the stairwell
of a 10-story building, looking down into the lobby.

    Paulssen ordered 25 men to form a bucket line to transport the
water from the flooded engine rooms into the bilge of the bow com-
partment, thus equalizing the weight and putting the boat on even keel.
I joined the group and descended the steep grade, sliding on my seat
along the floor plates through the aisle. Arriving in the diesel room,
I saw dark, oily water covering most of the rear torpedo room. Out
of reach, caught in the mechanism of the aft torpedo tube, hung the
dead mechanic. }{is head was split open at the right temple; blood
streaked his yellow face.

    The pool of black liquid seemed too wide and deep to move wltb
buckets and cans. I calculated that our efforts to bale the water to the
bow would serve only to use up our oxygen at a much faster rate.
Nevertheless we baled. We worked in near silence, passing the full
buckets from man to man up the elongated tomb, spilling the oily, salty
substance over ourselves. Unable to hold any position for long, we
skidded over the plates while trying to hand the full buckets uphill.
Sometimes an empty can came flying past our heads like a projectile.
Some men groaned under the load. Others uttered curses when the ugly
water was spilled into their faces.

    Three hours passed. We counted the buckets and cans in agony and
in hopelessness: "Four hundred and twenty, four hundred and twenty-
one, twenty-two..."

    Four hours passed. With enormous effort we fought against fatigue
and resignation. The water level in the stern had fallen only a little.
But the containers passed from hand to hand in an unbroken chain,
"Five hundred and eighty-two, eighty-three..."

    After we had put in six hours of hard labor, the second half of the
crew took their turn. The air had become thick; it stank of oil, sweat,
chlorine, and urine. Our breath grew short, our movements weak. And
still we continued to pass the containers in agonizing sluggishness. Now
everyone was half suffocated, half drowned.

    Nothing changed until we had been submerged for over 14 hours.
By then the first bucket brigade had long since commenced its second
shift, and U-557 still had not lowered her bow appreciably. But then
Paulssen made a new attempt for survival. He ordered the bucket line
to quit work and all men to return to the bow compartment.

     Gasping for air, we struggled uphill toward the tip of the boat. As I
forced myself in between the torpedo tubes, the impossible occurred.
Very slowly and gently, the hull began to sway. Air bubbles suddenly
escaped the forward buoyancy tanks with a guttural sound. Then the
bow descended and hit bottom with a thud.

     Somehow the men drove themselves into action. The dead mechanic
was carried to the Captain's nook and covered with a canvas; the
Captain closed the green curtain and separated his corner from the
traffic. The bilge pumps were out of order, but the excess water in the
after bilges was distributed with buckets to balance the boat. The water
damage in the electrical compartment--damage that could not be re-
paired at sea--had disrupted our cooking facilities, but the cook handed
out cans of peaches, pears, and strawberries. Spirits rose as hunger and
thirst were assuaged. But the fact remained that we were trapped.
Some 40 tons of water kept the boat pressed to the bottom.

    The Chief went to work to free us. At his command, compressed air
shot into the buoyancy tanks with a hissing sound. The boat remained
glued to the bottom. More air rushed into the tanks. Still no sign of a
lift. Then the stream of air diminished, stopped. We had exhausted our
compressed-air supply. We were still doomed.

    But the Chief did not give up. Spinning around, he yelled, "All men
to the bow !"

    Everybody pushed and stumbled forward. As we crowded into the
forward compartment, the Chief ordered us to turn around and run aft.
We tumbled and tripped in the opposite direction, ducking through the
hatches in the bulkheads, slipping and sliding along the wet deck plates.
Arriving in the aft compartment, we heard the Chief calling us back,
and again we turned around and started forward blindly, like mad
steers in a stampede. We gasped and coughed and ran and ran. Almost
imperceptibly, the boat began stirring. Then, as we poured into the bow
torpedo room, the stern suddenly lifted. U-557 had worked herself free.

    The men ran to their stations. Then, unbelievably, the bow lifted
and the boat floated gently upward in complete freedom. As I stepped
into the control room, the needle of the depth gauge had already reached
140 meters. It swung to 130 meters and moved steadily along the dial.
Excitedly the Chief shouted the figures to the Captain in the conning
tower: "Eighty meters. Forty meters. Twenty meters. Tower comes
free. Boat has surfaced !"

    Paulssen flipped open the lid of the bridge hatch, ending 20 hours in
our underwater tomb. Fresh, crystal-clear air streamed through the
hull, reviving every man but one.

    U-557 resumed her voyage to Kiel on surface. Calm routine replaced
the hectic ordeal. An inspection soon disclosed that a wrench was
jammed in the outboard air induction valve just below the cigarette
deck. No one knew how it had gotten there.

     During the next two days and nights, I adjusted gradually to my
new way of life with its complex procedures and the boat's perpetual
rocking and listing. I became acquainted with most of the crew, made
myself useful wherever possible, and took my place on the second
watch every eight hours. I learned how to ride with the boat, to climb
up and down the aluminum ladder in the tower without injury, to
keep my balance while swaying through the center aisle in heavy seas,
to duck through the circular openings in the bulkheads, to eat my meals
between the extremes of the boat's motions, to acquire skill in using
the pump in the washroom by operating its various valves in proper
sequence. I also learned that the Captain's harshness was only a shell
around a congenial character, that he was married and had a baby son,
and that--to our mutual surprise--we had practically grown up to-
gether. We had attended the same high school and studied with the
same professors, had drunk from the same water fountain in the court-
yard and learned to love the sea while sailing on Lake Constance. These
discoveries, however, did not change Paulssen's attitude toward me.
On the contrary, I felt that he put even stricter requirements upon my
training. While my two classmates, Gerloff and Goebel, escaped his
constant observation, he developed a strange habit of catching me in
my narrow bunk after an exhausting day and sending me back to
work in the engine compartment instead of allowing me to rest. None-
theless, I managed to stay awake on duty.

    On the fifth day of our near-fatal trip, we approached Kiel Lightship
at around 0700. One hour later we sailed past the Navy's War Memo-
rial, which pointed like an admonishing finger into the morning sky.
The Bay of Kiel opened beneath the rising mist, and the boat maneu-
vered cautiously through the mounting traffic toward the Naval Base.
At 1030 on April 26, U-557 finally came to rest at the Tirpitz Pier.

    Our rusty boat berthed near the stern of the tender Lech. The lines
were not yet fully secured when Kern, the Exec, crossed to the liner to
arrange for the crew's lodging and for Eckstein's last journey to his
hometown. For the next two hours, every hand was kept busy trans-
porting damaged suitcases, soaked seabags, and trunks from the
U-boat to the steamer. The ship's comfortable cabins contrasted sharply
with our tight quarters aboard U-557. I established myself in a third-
class cabin, then returned to U-557, which was being stripped down for
repairs and a new fitting-out. Seven months of rough training, cli-
maxed by our recent damages, had left deep scars throughout the boat.
But the men had already forgotten their brush with death; they were
relaxed and cheerful as they worked. A radio blared out the latest
popular tunes.

    I was in the petty officers' wardroom when Gerloff came rushing
down the aisle asking "Have you heard the bad news ?"
"Haven't heard anything," I said. "What are you talking about ?"
"Kretschmer and Schepke are supposed to be sunk. I can't believe it."
But the news was confirmed by Leutnant Seibold. U-99, with Kret-
schmer in command, and U-lO0, under Captain Schepke, had indeed
been destroyed while attacking a convoy in the North Atlantic. Both
great captains had been considered indestructible, and their loss--
the first to be admitted publicly in 18 months of U-boat action--
reminded us that the sea war was increasing in intensity as the British
built up their defenses. Kretschmer, our tonnage king, had sunk close
to 325,000 tons of enemy shipping, including three destroyers. This
was equal to the entire tonnage of a medium-sized seafaring nation.
Schepke, with more than 250,000 tons to his credit, was killed when
his boat was rammed by the destroyer that had blown her to the sur-
face. Kretschmer, on the other hand, was captured and spent the rest
of the war in imprisonment in Canada.

    The double tragedy, which had occurred on March 17, stunned and
baffled the country. Had the British introduced new weapons or tech-
niques of anti-submarine warfare ? So far, hunting had been relatively
easy. U-boats were fast, maneuverable on and beneath the surface, and
were also capable of diving below the British depth charges. Our
losses were negligible compared with the casualities U-boats had in-
flicted upon our adversaries. We were without an explanation. Su-
preme Headquarters, to soften the bad news, issued a statement
declaring that U-boats had, since the outbreak of war, sunk well over
4 million tons of enemy shipping, as well as one battleship, one aircraft
carrier, and 18 lesser vessels of the Royal Navy.

     U-557 was taken to the shipyard for complete overhaul, including
diesels, batteries, and electric motors. For one week the crew shuttled
daily between the Tirpitz Pier and dry dock. For me, new experiences
followed in rapid succession. The first day I was sent to the Admiralty
to complete our navigational file with charts of the Atlantic. The second
day I helped the Exec round out our library of artillery and torpedo
manuals. On the third day, Seibold made use of my modest administra-
tive skills and my four-finger system on the typewriter. Feder, the
Chief, assigned me the task of drawing diagrams of our stowing ar-
rangements in plan and elevation; I also assembled lists of all govern-
ment property that had to be accounted for--tools, spare parts, sea-
man's gear, even jars of medicine. The officers displayed a tendency to
unload their work on us ensigns, and the nights as well as the days
were filled with chores.

     Finally the weekend brought relief. On Saturday, I drove into Kiel
with Goebel and Gerloff, and we browsed through the bookshops
searching for reading material for the long weeks at sea. We had
Viennese cake in a card and steak for dinner in the Rathskeller, our
favorite resturant. We drank quantities of Moselle wine, toasting each
other and a successful mission. It never occurred to us that our first
battle might be our last.
 On Monday, May 5, U-557 sailed out of the shipyard fully over-
hauled. She had received a fresh coat of gray paint, and looked and
smelled newly commissioned. We spent the day in the Bay making trim
dives and other maneuvers, checking instruments and engines for
proper function. I was amazed by the crew's high standards and the
ship's great maneuverability. Although she displaced 770 tons and was
75 meters long and about six meters in diameter at the beam, she
responded to the Chief's commands with speed and precision. U-557
was ready to join her many sister ships in action.

    On May 8, we sailed to the arsenal, where we loaded the boat with
14 torpedoes. Most of them were of the newest design, electrically
powered and equipped with magnetic detonators. After the last two
torpedoes had been secured in their racks on the floor, wooden decks
were fastened over the sleek metal fish, leaving just enough room for
the men to crawl to their bunks and to the torpedo tubes.

    On May 9, U-557 took on food and ammunition. Cans, barrels, and
cartons were carefully sorted out and stowed away. While shells for
our 8.8 cm. cannon and our 2 cm. anti-aircraft gun were lowered into
special compartments, the provisions were distributed throughout the
boat. I was astounded to see the food supply for eight weeks disappear
between pipes and valves, ribs and machines, closets and ducts. Huge
smoked hams were hung in the control room. Staples such as whipped
cream, butter, coffee, and tea were locked up for distribution by the
Captain. The fueling of U-557 was accomplished on May 10. On May
12, we received loads of fresh vegetables, eggs, bread, and fresh water.
We squeezed the crisp loaves into the last unoccupied crannies and
filled three hammocks with the rest, letting them swing free in the bow
and aft compartments.

    As these days of preparation ended, our carefree mood turned seri-
ous. Retiring to the cabin on the old steamer, I packed my surplus gear
into suitcases, registered their contents, and labeled the luggage. In
case I did not return my belongings would be sent back home. Then
I wrote a last letter to my parents and another to Marianne. Now I
was ready to face the unknown.

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