Found at sea
The sole survivor of a sunken German U-boat recounts his watery 1944 rescue
National Post Published: Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Lyle Stafford for National Post Walter Schmietenknop,
84, a stoker on U767, a German U-boat was the only
survivor when in 1944 she was sunk by the British in
the English channel during D-day. At his home in
Surrey, B.C., Nov. 4, ...
Walter Schmietenknop is probably the only resident of
Canada to have escaped from a sunken German U-boat and
lived to tell the tale. The four-part documentary TV
series, Convoy, concluding today on History Television,
uses interviews with him and other veterans from both
sides to recount the battle for control of the Atlantic
during the Second World War.
Schmietenknop had joined the German navy in 1942 on the
advice of his father, who "didn't care much for Hitler."
The idea was that going to sea was preferable to being
conscripted into the army and sent to Stalingrad to
Adam McDowell recently called Schmietenknop, 84, at his
home in Surrey, B..C. to talk about his escape from the
deep. The German navy veteran had already self-published
an account called Saved; sections in italics below are
edited passages from the book. We join the story in the
English Channel on June 18, 1944, as the 19-year-old
electrical engineer (an obergefreiter, or seaman first
class) has his check of the engines interrupted by
British depth charges. These will soon leave U-767, a
class VIIC submarine, crippled on the Channel floor.
A big generator, which was hanging from the ceiling,
came loose and fell into the electric motor, which
produced a huge flame. In other parts of the
compartment, water pipes burst and air was hissing out
all over the place. All of this happened in a split
The submarine turned on its side and we sank to the
bottom. The depth of the Channel varies in that area. It
can be up to 100 metres deep. We went down to 70 or 75
metres and lay on our side.
Schmietenknop says he's told this story countless times
over the decades. "Normally we don't talk too much about
that. But if somebody wants to hear it, you do," he
says, noting that he's never truly been traumatized by
the experience. "I've never had dreams of war. Never. It
never bothered me after that."
We tried to contact the other section of the sub, but
couldn't. We were cut off from the rest of the
submarine. There were 18 men in this compartment.
Nowhere in Schmietenknop's account does he mention being
afraid. There "was no time to be scared" during the
ordeal, he says. "It goes quick, you know."
When we had tried everything to contact the others, one
of the older men, a sergeant, took command and we sang
our national anthem (Deutschland uber alles). There was
no panic, but everyone was caught up in his own
thoughts.. No one screamed or moaned, except for one
sergeant, who moaned and lamented that he had to die.
This man had always made a mockery of anything to do
with God or Christianity.
Schmietenknop was one of around 50 men on U-767, and he
was the only survivor of its sinking. He believes he
owes his life to the intervening hand of God. "I thank
my Lord for that. Nobody else could have got me out of
there." A mechanical miracle makes his point.
Two men who were between me and the torpedo hatch, which
was the only means of escape, had turned the wheel to
open the hatch and the wheel had actually turned. At
this depth it should not have been possible to turn it
because of the outside pressure.