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Saved by Walter Schmietenknop

Chapter Eight

We drove for a long time, I don’t know how long, and when we stopped, everyone was taken off the truck except me. We drove off again and I was the only prisoner on the truck. I was sure they were going to send me to Murmansk. When we had driven for quite a while, I noticed that we were getting close to the harbour, because I could see the masts of ships. The truck made a few turns and stopped in an enclosure where I was taken off. I was back with the British.

They led me into a building with a long hall, it looked like it might have been a hospital at one time. It was nice and clean. The man in charge there looked at me and observed my oversize clothes, slippers and unkempt hair and beard. He laughed and told me to take all this stuff off, including the sign which said “Murmansk”. I was taken to a shower, where I could also shave. However, they still forgot to give me a comb until later.

When I had cleaned myself up, they put me into a room with four other German submariners. One of the older ones said, “you don’t look too good”. 

I was going to tell them what had happened to me, but they signaled that I shouldn’t talk. They indicated that there were microphones in the walls. They then produced some blankets and pillows and the older man and I went under the pillows to talk very quietly while the other men stood around us. He not only listened to my story but he also encouraged me.

Half an hour later I was taken out of that room again, perhaps because the microphones hadn’t given my captors any information. For about a week they put me in a room by myself. I was treated well and got my meals regularly, but I suspected that there was something more than a comfortable existence ahead of me. And there was.


One day, at about eight o’clock in the morning, a guard came to take me to a room where four men were going to interrogate me. The Army, Navy, Airforce and Intelligence interrogated me for eight hours a day. Each man questioned me for two hours. They wanted to know my boat number and all the other information which I had refused to give to the Americans.

In comparison to the American interrogator, these British interrogators were friendly. Very quickly they let me know, that they knew quite a bit about me already. They asked if the Americans had found out what boat I was on or what harbour we had sailed from and I said: “No, they didn’t find out anything from me”.

Then they told me, that I had made one mistake. In the coveralls I had been wearing when we were sunk, there was a piece of paper in the pocket which I should have thrown out. It was a report which I had to make out regularly concerning the condition of the motors. I had spoiled this one somehow and had put it into my pocket and started a new one. The British had searched my clothing very carefully and had found this report. They had taken it to a laboratory and after drying it out and unfolding it carefully they had been able to decipher the writing on it. This report form had the submarine’s number printed at the top. In case I didn’t believe him, my interrogator showed me the number, U-767.

I had to admit that it was the right number, and he said: “ It’s good that you didn’t tell the Americans.” These British men were fair and decent. If I wouldn’t tell them something, they would maintain their friendly attitude and simply try a different tack in their questioning.

Their line of questioning took a different turn from what it had been at the beginning. Once they knew my boat number they also knew which harbour we came from and other details.

What they really were after, was how the snorkel worked. They knew that our submarine had been equipped with a snorkel and that the snorkel had allowed us to get through the British blockade.

One of the interrogators asked if we had been close to Halifax and when I said we had, he wanted to know how we had evaded them so


successfully. We had gone around the Shetland Islands and they had never seen us. I had to answer this question.

Another interrogator wanted to know how fast the diesel had to run to recharge the batteries and I said that I didn’t know. He wouldn’t accept that. He said, “Everyone who is on the submarine would know that sort of thing, so don’t tell me that you don’t know”. So I gave him a figure which was higher than the real number. He made notes. Every one of the four interrogators asked about the same thing, for about two hours each.

At lunch time I was allowed to walk around in a tennis court that was surrounded by a tall hedge. There I smoked my first cigarette. Someone offered me a cigarette and at first I refused because I didn’t smoke. I was told that smoking a cigarette might calm me down. “You don’t trust me, do you?” said one of the men. “No”, I said. So he lit a cigarette and took a few puffs before handing it to me. I smoked this cigarette and after that I smoked regularly, although not heavily. I gave up smoking years later when the health hazards of smoking became better known.

The next morning the session started with the interrogator who had asked me about recharging the batteries. He looked at me for quite a while and said, “you’re a good liar”. “Why” I said. “Well,” he said, “if you had the diesels running that fast, all your batteries would be overloaded and would heat up. The laws of electricity don’t change.  Our people can figure it out”.

This time I gave him another figure, which was much too low. I never gave them the right number, and they knew it, but their interrogation continued in a friendly fashion and they acted as if they knew they would get me sooner or later.

This questioning went on for six days, eight hours a day; it was exhausting. After six days the interrogations were finished. They took me for a short walk through the woods and there was a huge camp with thousands of prisoners.


In the meantime, I had told the British officers that I had not filled out a Red Cross card. They were shocked that the Americans hadn’t taken care of this. In fact, the American interrogator had told me that my parents didn’t know whether I was dead or alive. “You could have perished along with all the others on the submarine. Nobody knows that you are here. So if I send you to Murmansk nobody will know. Germany doesn’t know that you are here” were his exact words.  The British filled out a Red Cross card for me so that my family would know that I was alive.

In the large camp, I didn’t know anybody. There were groups who had been in battle together and had known each other for years. I was talking to one of the other prisoners when suddenly the guards in the towers came running down from the towers into the trenches. I asked my companion what this meant. He just said, “Look up at the sky.” I looked and looked and couldn’t see anything. Finally I saw two airplanes, but there was more. They were chasing a rocket, a German rocket.

We just watched and my companion told me that the British planes could get close to the rocket and shoot it down, but the explosion was so powerful that it would hit the plane as well. So now they were afraid to get too close, but by staying too far away they couldn’t hit the rocket. We watched for a while as several rockets came flying over and could see the smoke when they landed in London. I found out the next day, that our camp was not far from London.

The next morning some of us were called up to be transported by train. When  we arrived in London, about half an hour later, the train stopped for some reason on an overpass. People down below, beside the overpass threw rocks at the train and one came right through the window into our car. Suddenly all the people ran away as fast as they could, and the reason was a rocket. We saw a building about a block away get blown up. We were glad when the train finally moved again, because we were afraid that one of the German rockets might hit our train.


We moved on to our destination which was Edinburgh. On arrival we marched through the city, past the castle to a camp that was right next to an airfield. There I was assigned to a tent that was already occupied by five men.

Once in the tent, I introduced myself and then, because I was tired laid down to sleep. The other fellows were talking and someone kept coming over to my bed to see if I was asleep. This made me curious, so I pretended to be asleep, to see what this was all about. Finally, after checking a number of times, they agreed that I was asleep, but I wasn’t.

The conversation was about an escape plan. Three men were going to snatch an airplane and escape. One of them was a pilot. After their discussion, which I could just get the drift of without any details, they agreed that it would work. All I understood about the plan was that they had watched the airfield for three days and they knew the routine. They knew which airplane they would take and how they would get there. The planes at this airfield were reconnaissance planes only. There were no fighter planes here and this fact would give them a good chance of success. They were going to crawl through the hole in the wire fence and get to the plane at the exact time there was a gap between guards. They would wait until the mechanic had started the plane, rush out of the bushes, knock the mechanic down, kick away the blocks and take off.

When they had finished their conversation, I popped up and said, “Gentlemen, I’m coming along with you.” They were astonished, to say the least. When I insisted that I was coming along, they were convinced that I meant it, and I did. It took more than two hours to talk me out of it, because I was determined to go in spite of any danger. Finally, I had to agree that because they had taken so much time in planning and preparation,  it just wasn’t fair for me to insist on coming along.

The next evening, at dusk, the planned escape took place. The three men hid in the brush beside the airfield until the plane was warmed up by the mechanic. We couldn’t see what actually happened because of the twilight and the bushes between us and the airfield, but their split- second timing must have worked. We heard the plane take off and immediately the sirens started howling and there was a lot of activity. We think they made it. They probably flew to Norway.


The sirens kept on howling and everyone in the camp was ordered out of the barracks. They surrounded the camp with tanks. We were made to stand outside all night. What I didn’t know at first was that the escapees had other helpers in the camp. They had made three dummies and had dressed them in German uniforms. These dummies were held up by some of the prisoners and when the guards counted us they always came up with a full contingent, even though they knew that some men had escaped.

It was difficult for the guards to detect what was happening because we were about a thousand men in the camp and they were trying to count us in the dark with the help of flashlights. The prisoners in the know kept the dummies in the back lines as much as possible and if a guard came too close they would shuffle them off to a different line.

We were counted over and over until three o’clock in the morning, until one of the guards noticed that one of the dummies was being shuffled from spot to spot. He went straight over to the location and shook each man until he shook the dummy and found out what it was. Then they made each man march. This, of course, made the dummies obvious because they would just fall to the ground when they were let go by their helpers.

The next morning a group of prisoners, including myself, was put on the train to Glasgow. When we boarded the Queen Mary, we knew that we were going to the United States. That was fine with me, even though I had no choice. On the voyage I helped to serve the people on board. We had been asked to volunteer and I did. There were Australian and American pilots on board this ship.

During the voyage the ship suddenly began to maneuver as if she was trying to avoid something. Some of the fellows wondered out loud what was going on and I said they were obviously afraid of a submarine. They asked how I knew this, but I didn’t answer, instead one of the fellows who knew me said, “Oh, he knows because he’s been down there.”


I asked one of the Americans if he knew that according to the Geneva convention it was illegal to carry prisoners on a ship unescorted this way. I asked, “Why is this ship afraid of submarines? You didn’t notify the Red Cross about this prisoner transport, did you?” And he answered, “I guess not”.

I was grateful that we made it to New York without being attacked by a submarine. When we arrived, we were anchored quite far out in the harbour and were ferried in on smaller boats.

When we passed the statue of liberty, some of the guards wanted us to bow down to it;  they had whips, so they were quite convincing.  However, I noticed that none of the whips could reach me, so I just stood upright and grinned.



Copyright © 2006/2007 Walter Schmietenknop. All rights reserved.

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