When we were able to run our sub competently, we had a training crew on board for a week. They were cadets and they had an older officer with them. Most of these cadets were machine personnel but some of them were engineers.
These young men were all graduates of secondary schools, a fact which made some of them a bit arrogant. When they came to train with us they were, at first, only allowed to ask questions and they were not allowed to touch anything. There was one fellow particularly who kept getting his hands on everything and I kept telling him not to touch.
Suddenly we heard the alarm and I had to go into action. First I had to duck under the machine to close the valves. While I was occupied this cadet switched on the motor but he switched it the wrong way. Sparks began to fly and immediately there was a voice from the conning tower: ”What happened to the motor? Schmietenknop, what are you doing? Are you crazy?”
I quickly got back up after closing the valves and gave the trainee such a shove that he flew over the iron threshold into the next compartment. In the meantime, Lieutenant Schuster, the engineer, came running from the conning tower and shouted: “What are you doing?” I just pointed to the trainee. The corporal who was looking after the other machine confirmed that I wasn’t the one who had hit the wrong switch. I was still underneath the machine closing the valves when the trainee got involved. Even though, the trainee had caused the problem, I was in trouble too, because I was responsible for the machine. When the next trainee came in, I told him to stay outside the hatch in the other compartment. I would show him everything, but he couldn’t get near enough to touch anything.
Later on, there was another incident involving one of the trainees. At this point, the trainees were already at the stage when they were actually helping to run the sub. We had just dived and were
descending at a good angle, when suddenly we were going down at almost ninety degrees. One of the trainees had pushed the button for the hydroplanes too far. The hydroplanes on a submarine are moved up or down by buttons which the operator pushes with his hand. Each hydroplane has two buttons. Maybe the trainee had received the wrong orders but that was not clarified. In any case we were now going almost straight down.
Our commander was asleep at the time, but this perpendicular dive woke him up in a hurry. Meanwhile the crew was trying everything to get back on an even keel. The electric motors were running as fast as they could go in reverse to try to slow us down. The motors should never have been run as fast as they were going now, but this was a serious emergency.
As we were descending almost vertically, a spare cylinder for the diesel engine, which was fastened to the fifth torpedo in the stern, came loose and came hurtling down toward the bow of the boat.
I was standing on the hatch frame, standing up straight on the bulkhead, which was almost horizontal at this time. I saw this thing coming loose and I just had time enough to jump out of the way and shout down to warn everyone else about this cylinder. It went straight down into the galley, where it smashed a ladder, which stopped it. All of this took only a few seconds, of course.
The drive shafts were throwing off sparks like a grindstone and making a horrible squealing noise because of the increased pressure at this depth. Our boat was guaranteed by the shipbuilders for two hundred meters, but we went past the two hundred meter mark very quickly, and when we finally pulled out of this near fatal dive, we were down about two hundred and sixty meters.
Because of the pressure, the circular ribs of the sub began to pop. The length of the submarine is reinforced by circular ribs one meter apart and six meters in diameter. These ribs began to break, one by one.
Finally, the sub began to level out, because the crew had pumped as
much air into the tanks in the bow as was possible. The hydroplanes began to react again because the speed had diminished. Very slowly we began to ascend. While all this was happening, I didn’t think about dying. I just did what I had been trained to do in a situation like this. After this incident was over and things got back to normal, I began to realize how close we had been to being crushed in the depths of the ocean.
We had to go back to the shipyard for repairs. The broken ribs had to be replaced, the bearings had to be checked out and everything had to be inspected for damage.
After our boat was repaired, we went out into the Baltic Sea for our final training. We left Hela for ten days of tactical maneuvers. It was like real war. Four freighters were sent out into the ocean and we had to find them. Ten submarines took part in this maneuver. The freighters left two days ahead of us. They could have gone in any direction, west to Kiel, up to Koenigsberg, to Finland or to the Norwegian or Swedish coast. We had no clue as to where they went, but had to find them.
The freighters had destroyer escorts, just like the enemy’s in the Atlantic. If we made contact, they would attack us if they saw us first. They wouldn’t shoot at us, but would try to ram us.
Our fleet commander sent two subs to the west, two to the north and two to the east to find the convoy. When one of the subs found the convoy after a day’s search, they radioed us and we all went after the convoy.
When we found them, we would have to try to get them by simulated torpedo attack before they detected us. The signal that we had fired a torpedo would be to blink our big morse lights at the target ship. Then they would see whether we had hit them or not.
After the third day we caught up with them. It was night, but there was a moon. We had to stay on the dark side so that they wouldn’t see us. In the right position, we could see them clearly, but they wouldn’t be able to see us.
So we sneaked up on them and shot right at the center of the ship and got credit for it. After the hit we had to leave and could’t engage them again until we had gone away for two hours. We didn’t come back until early morning. It was pitch dark and we thought that they couldn’t see us. One of the destroyers was behind the convoy and our commander thought that they couldn’t see us because we were on the dark side. But suddenly the alarm went off. That ment we had to dive and we went down fast. The destroyer passed right over us. He would have rammed us if we had not moved so fast. The idea of this sort of realistic training was that if we couldn’t make it here in these maneuvers, we wouldn’t make it in a real battle situation either. Then we received a radio message: “Whoever this sub is, come up.” They didn’t know which submarine it was. We had to come up and lost two points. To recover our points, we had to work hard during the rest of the exercise.
The “enemy” had airplanes as well as ships, and if a plane came too close to us we would lose points. One day, when we were up, we had an air alarm and we had to try to shoot down the airplane. The sea was very rough at this time and one of our men was knocked overboard. The heavy seas hit him and the iron clasps of his harness broke off.
It took us quite some time to get him back aboard. We circled around to pick him up, but it was impossible to get him aboard. Finally a corporal attached a line to himself and jumped into the sea to bring the man on board. We pulled them aboard, but unfortunately it was too late. Even though we feared that the man was dead, we worked in shifts giving him artifical respiration until we arrived in port. We had done everything we could, but he was gone. This was our first fatality.
We crossed the Baltic Sea and stopped in all the small ports at night. The purpose of our overnight stops was to show that German submarines were still at work. The news media in England had announced that there were no more U-boats, so we had to be visible for the encouragement of the German people.
In the bigger harbours quite often we found old moth-balled cruise ships, which were used by the submarine crews to sleep in when in port. On a submarine, there are only half as many bunks as crew, because half the men are on duty at any time. We used these cruise ships only during our training.
It was during one of these overnight stops, while we were bunking on one of these old cruise ships, that I found out what it was like to be drunk. I had tasted wine at the party we had when we finished our basic training and I also knew many folk songs that praised the taste of wine. Sometimes, we were given a choice of receiving a package of cigarettes or a bottle of wine and so far I had taken neither. But on this occasion I had decided to take a bottle of wine. As I sat at a table writing a letter to my family, I took a good swig of wine and it was really good, and another, and another. I never finished my letter, because I got very sick and had to run to the washroom. Afterwards I felt better and decided to go ashore. When the man on watch saw me, he realized that I was under the influence and made me walk back to salute him again. He had a good laugh at my silly behaviour and, of course, the crew all heard about it and had a lot of fun at my expense.
Copyright © 2006/2007 Walter Schmietenknop. All rights reserved.