Time-Life Books – The Seafarers: The U-Boats
As more and more German Submarines were destroyed by one Allied weapon or another, the U-boat campaign became more bloody and brutal. From the start, some commanders had taken their orders for unrestricted warfare as a license to kill indiscriminately. One case was that of Lieutenant Wilhelm Werner of the U-55, who torpedoed the steamer Torrington 150 miles southwest of the Scilly Isles on April 8, 1917. The Torrington’s captain and 20 of the crew from one of the ship’s two lifeboats were ordered on board the U-boat. The captain was sent below, and the rest of the crew were lined up on the deck and their life jackets were taken away from them. Then Werner gave the order to dive, and the U-boat submerged with the sailors still standing on the deck. There were no survivors. Four days later, Werner disposed of some of the crew of the steamer Toro in the same way and, at the end of July 1917, Lieutenant Paul Wagenfuhr of the U-44 gave the same treatment to men from the steamer Belgian Prince.
Early in 1918 a number of clearly marked Allied hospital ships came under U-boat attack, even though the German government had publicly stated that hospital ships would not be harmed. Again Werner was foremost among the offenders. On January 4 his U-55 torpedoed the hospital ship Rewa in the Bristol Channel. Four crewmen on the Rewa were killed, but all 279 patients aboard the ship were removed before she sank. On February 26 another U-boat sank the hospital ship Glenart Castle off southwest England with the loss of 153 lives. In the same area the hospital ship Guildford Castle barely escaped destruction on March 10 by turning to evade a U-boat’s torpedo. The torpedo scraped along the vessel’s side but did not explode.
Perhaps the most callous atrocity of the War was that perpetrated by Lieutenant Helmut Patzig of the U-86 against the crew and medical staff of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle on the night of June 27, 1918. Torpedoed 116 miles west of Fastnet Rock, off southern Ireland, the clearly lighted converted liner—which fortunately had no wounded on board— filled rapidly and sank within 10 minutes. As the lifeboats pulled clear, the U-boat surfaced, and the Llandovery Castle’s master, Captain R. A. Sylvester, was ordered to come alongside. Patzig questioned him about eight American airmen who he alleged had been on board. Sylvester denied the claim, pointing out that his vessel was a hospital ship and that his staff included seven Canadian medical officers who perhaps had been mistaken for Americans.
Patzig turned away, then approached the other lifeboats at high speed and demoniacally began to run them down, hurling the submarine this way and that as he smashed them like matchwood. Only the master’s boat was spared. In the darkness the men in this boat heard the U-86 open fire on the people who had been thrown into the water. Then the U-boat melted away into the night. The 24 survivors in the master’s boat were eventually picked up by another ship. Of the other 234 people from the Llandovery Castle, including 14 nurses, no trace was ever found. For this crime, Patzig and his lieutenants, John Boldt and Ludwig Dittmar, were arraigned for trial in Leipzig after the War. Patzig went into hiding and never showed up. His two lieutenants were found guilty and were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment each, but shortly after the trial they escaped. Still, for every barbarous U-boat act a chivalrous one could be cited.
Certain commanders were as consistently merciful toward their victims as others were callous. Lieutenant Hans Rose, who gained a reputation as one of the most humane U-boat captains of the War, sometimes towed a torpedoed ship’s lifeboats shoreward until they were in sight of land. In the southwest approaches on December 6, 1917, Rose torpedoed
the United States Navy destroyer Jacob Jones, the first American destroyer to be sunk by a U-boat in the War. After watching her crew take to their boats in the wintry waste of the ocean, Rose felt compelled, at great risk to himself, to send a radio signal to the British naval base at Queenstown giving the latitude and longitude of the survivors and asking for help to be sent to them. Then he made off as fast as he could.
At 6 o’clock that evening, the Carolina had been steaming 60 miles due east of Cape May. A Mrs. Westbrook of New York, one of the few passengers who had not gone belowdecks for supper, first spied a low-lying hull on the surface of the sea less than two miles away. “Why,” she said to a lady near her, “there comes a submarine.”
The U-cruiser continued southward, sinking more ships and dodging more destroyers. Her 13th victim, the Norwegian steamer Vindeggen, presented some problems. A woman and her two-year-old baby daughter were on board, and the sea was too rough for them to be placed in the lifeboats. Moreover, the ship was loaded with 2,000 tons of copper, a very scarce metal in wartime Germany that was desperately needed in the manufacture of shells. Nostitz decided to take the woman and child on board and to replace the U-boat’s iron ballast with as many of the copper ingots from the Vindeggen as the submarine could carry. The Vindeggen’s master, given a course by his captors, steered toward an empty quarter of the ocean with the U-151 trailing behind. Some 150 miles out from the American coast, the two vessels stopped, and for the next two days the copper was transshipped to the U-boat. When the laborious task was completed on Iune 10, the crew of the Vindeggen were placed in lifeboats, the woman and child were brought aboard the submarine, and the ship was blown up with explosive charges.
When the Vindeggen went down, the Norwegian flag fluttering proudly from the masthead, her old captain stood rigidly at attention in his lifeboat. On the submarine the woman cried and the little girl clapped her hands with glee at the strange sight. The tiny tot, Eva Ugland, soon became the U-boat’s darling. The cook prepared cakes, candies and dishes of canned fruits and whipped cream specially for her. The sailors fed the delicacies to the child with an unflagging delight.
To cheer everyone up as the U-boat headed for land, towing the Vindeggen’s lifeboats behind her, the U-151’s crew got out on deck and sang old songs to the accompaniment of a guitar and mandolin. At about 5 p.m. that day, another Norwegian steamer, the Henrik Lund, was sighted. The Germans set the Vindeggen’s boats adrift, sank the Henrik Lund
and then took the lifeboats from both ships in tow. Soon after dark a patrol boat was sighted. The U-151 cast off the boats—after placing little Eva Ugland and her mother in one of them—and steered away, staying on the surface to make sure that the boats’ occupants were safely picked up. The people in the boats began to make a tremendous noise to
attract the patrol vessel’s attention, waving lanterns and setting off rockets. Under the guns of the U-boat, just 300 yards off, the patrol boat drew up and took the whole crowd on board. Only then did the U-151 depart.
…It destroyed the broadcasting system, so that the senior officers were unable to give any orders, even “Abandon ship.” Worse still, it set a magazine on fire aft and sent burning cordite—the explosive propellant for the shells—raging through the vents.
“It was like looking into the muzzle of a blow lamp,” one Marine recounted. “The flame was
bright orange outside and an intense blue inside.” Men ran around screaming in the dark with their clothing on fire and their blackened flesh curling off like paper from a wall.
The force of the last explosion had blown a huge hole in the deck plating of the aft section, amidships, and it seemed that the whole starboard side was melting and collapsing. As the ship rolled farther and farther over, men began to slide down toward the hole, dropping into the fires still raging in the magazine beneath. Belowdecks, survivors, dazed with horror, groped their way about in the dark, looking for a way of escaping into the open. Already the Royal Oak had listed so far over that it was clear to all on board that she had only a few minutes more to live.
Most of the 1,200 crew members were belowdecks when the ship was hit. The greater proportion of them were trapped inside. Some men, believing that the ship was under air attack, lost any chance of survival by actually moving deep down into the ship to gain the cover of the protective deck armor overhead. Some never even found the ladders but
blundered about, lost in the dark, till the end. Others found the ladders but could not open power-operated armored hatches because the electricity had failed. Two sailors were sliced in half at the waist when a manually operated steel hatch suddenly slid shut under its own weight as the angle of heel increased; as their bloody lower halves fell, they knocked the men below them off the ladder. Many men were trapped, pinned down by heavy gear sliding across the sloping decks.
By now the ship had heeled over to an angle of 45 degrees. The spotting top on the tripod mast began to sheer, and the guns swung around their turrets and pointed down into the water. The starboard portholes, which were covered only with plywood blackout screens while in port, had already dipped into the sea, and the water flowed freely through them.
The portholes on the port side now pointed skyward, and through these the last men to escape from inside the doomed ship wriggled their way out. Once through, they could either climb up the ship’s side to the deck or slither down to the sea.
The temperature of the sea was 48° F. Immersed in such cold water, the average man could not expect to survive for long. The chances of survival for the men of the Royal Oak were reduced still further by a shortage of lifesaving equipment. There had not yet been a general issue of life jackets, and most of the life rafts had been smashed in a storm at sea a few days before. A large liberty launch, capable of carrying hundreds of men, was crushed when the spotting top crashed down on it. Apart from wooden planks and floating wreckage, only a picketboat and a Navy-contracted fishing drifter called Daisy II—both boats tied up amidships on the port side—offered survivors any possibility of keeping afloat on the water. Power failure had made it impossible to use the ship’s wireless or signal lamp
to send an SOS, and neither from the shore nor from the Pegasus was there any apparent sign that the disaster over-whelming the Royal Oak had been observed. In fact, sailors aboard the seaplane transport had felt the force of the explosions. They were too far away to see what was happening and were not yet aware that the Royal Oak had suffered an enemy attack. They launched two boats to investigate, but undertook no serious rescue operation until some time later. Only a few of the Royal Oak’s sailors were eventually saved by the launches from the Pegasus.
The men who boarded the Daisy while she was still tied up to the battleship did so initially in an extraordinarily orderly manner, having been organized into a file to go down the ship’s ladder by a junior duty officer, who exhorted the men with fairground cries: “Roll, bowl, or pitch, every time a coconut, form a queue here, my lucky lads!” But the Daisy was being slowly dragged out of the water by the Royal Oak’s roll, and was forced to cast off. After that it was every man for himself. Many sailors jumped off the dying ship, bouncing off the side as they fell. The men scrambling over the ship’s barnacle-encrusted bottom as the port side reared up lacerated themselves horribly. Both the Royal Oak’s Captain Benn and the ship’s second-in-command, Captain R. F. Nichols, managed to take to the water. But Rear Admiral Henry Blagrove of the 2nd Battle Squadron, who happened to be on board as a passenger, was not so lucky. He was last seen on the quarter-deck by the engineer commander, who survived. “What caused those explosions, Engineer Commander?” the admiral had asked.
“Torpedoes, Sir.” The engineer commander had no doubt, after the second explosion,
about what had hit the ship.
“My God!” the admiral exclaimed. He was never seen again.
The ship’s angle was now approaching 90 degrees. Suddenly she gave a great lurch, and turned turtle. “The thing which struck me most,” one survivor recalled, “was the tremendous noise; it was like a huge tin full of nuts and bolts, slowly turning over. Racks of shells must have been coming loose, and other gear, so that anybody still inside had no hope. It must have been an absolute nightmare.” More than 800 men remained trapped inside the hull as the Royal Oak turned upside down. Half a dozen were left standing on top of the inverted ship’s bottom, and as she slowly sank beneath them they waded off into the water as if from a beach. The time was about 1:33—less than 29 minutes after the first of
the U-47’s torpedoes had struck the Royal Oak, and 17 minutes or so after the last. With a great gasping sound, the battleship disappeared in the waters of Scapa Flow.
But the tragedy was not quite played out. The picketboat was so overloaded that it soon capsized and sank, drowning a number of men. The fishing boat Daisy II began pulling survivors aboard. There were several hundred men in the water. Those who could not swim thrashed about, crying out for help, while some who could swim burst out singing: “Roll out the Barrel,” “South of the Border” and “Daisy.” Many men were so thickly covered in black oil that had seeped out of the battleship’s fuel bunkers that they were almost invisible. Some were so badly burned that it was difficult to haul them out of the water without causing further injury and pain. One sailor was burned so terribly that the flesh ran off his
hands and face like water. “He was holding them in front of him like downward pointing claws,” one of the survivors observed, “and the flesh was dripping off them.”
About 50 men struck out for the rocky cliffs half a mile away. The cold was intense, as one swimmer recalled: “It got past my flesh until I could feel my own skeleton. I was aware of every bone in my body.” More than 30 of these swimmers succumbed to the cold and drowned. A number of those who made it to the rocky shore were so exhausted that they collapsed and died there. But three men had enough strength left to walk two miles to the village of Scapa and raise the alarm, while another man, who swam off in the opposite direction, managed to reach the Pegasus after nearly three hours in the water.
The Daisy had pulled up to the seaplane transport just a few minutes before. She had picked up 386 men—the greater part of the final total of survivors. These cold, shocked, injured, oil-covered men were given blankets, hot baths, cocoa, whisky and medical care according to their needs. By the time the sun rose, it was clear that there was no one else left alive in the waters of Scapa Flow. Twenty-four officers and 809 men had died in the attack.
At the British Admiralty in London it was announced, during the course of the morning, that the battleship Royal Oak had been lost—“believed by U-boat action.” The following day a group of Navy divers went down to investigate.
The wreck presented a ghastly spectacle. There were bodies stuck half out of portholes, bodies crushed by fallen gear, bodies bobbing up and down in upright positions on the seabed. Some divers were said to have come up crazed with the horror of what they had seen. Their reports confirmed the worst: The Royal Oak had been sunk by torpedoes. There
were huge holes below the water line, where the ship’s steel plating had been blown inboard. In addition, the divers brought up part of the afterbody of a torpedo. No further evidence was needed.
In their moments of triumph and their downfall, the U-boat men proved themselves seafaring warriors of the highest order. Few men in modern times have been in more intimate contact with the sea in all its moods: exposure to the elements and nearness to the water made the men on a surfaced U-boat’s bridge almost a part of their environment. In a
true Atlantic storm the water would break over the bridge as solid as wet cement. The force and weight of the seas were so great that on occasion men were swept overboard. In such weather the view from the bridge was petrifying—a vast wilderness of mountainous waves whipped white by the roaring wind. The duration of bridge watches had to be cut by half in these storms, for no man could stand more than two hours of battering by the seas and laceration by spray. Conditions were little better belowdecks. The violent corkscrewing, rolling, pitching and yawing motions of the boat, the brutal jolt as the bow hit a wave, and the steam-hammer clang of the sea smashing down on the hull made it difficult to relax for a minute.
Only when the U-boat dived was there any respite. Once the vessel was below the surface, all was peace and quiet. “A solemn stillness reigns,” recalled Claus Bergen, a German marine artist who had traveled with a U-boat on a wartime patrol in 1917. “The adjustment of the periscope and the movement of the submarine steering gear are the only sounds in the vessel that are audible in the conning tower. The commander uses both hands to swing the greased and glittering periscope, now dripping with water. In his eye, the only eye in the vessel that is still in communication with the upper world, is the bright and shining reflection of the light of day.”
Whether the U-boat was on the surface or was submerged, the interior lights burned 24 hours round the clock, effectively blurring the distinction between day and night. On long patrols especially, crews lived in an atmosphere of increasing squalor. The heat was oppressive, the air stale and foul and reeking of bilge water, wet oilskins, rubber boots,
sweat, and diesel fumes so thick that a man’s hair became a pitchy mire. The U-boat grew steadily damper from the intense condensation and the frequent leakage of water through the hatch of the conning tower. Bunks smelled moldy and charts began to rot. A gray-green film of mildew coated shoes and shirts. Sausages sprouted luxurious overcoats of mold overnight. In this environment a man could easily grow irritable and morose and, under stress, even paranoiac or violent—Blechkoller it was called, tin-can neurosis.
Yet through all this the U-boat men persevered. Hardship and deprivation were their constant companions; they contended with storm, ice and tropical heat, and lived continuously with the threat of death by asphyxiation, drowning or explosion. Only youth, camaraderie, discipline and a dogged heroism kept them going through an ordeal that
many men would have found unendurable.
…While probably only a few realized what was being taken out of the sub, even the fact of the U-boat’s capture had to be kept secret if the Germans were not to know that their cipher security had been penetrated. All the men were instructed not to talk about the matter. Not a single one of the 400 breathed a word of it for the remainder of the War. That in itself was a heroic feat, for in large measure the Allied successes that ensued were possible only because Dönitz and his staff never had an inkling that the British had an ear to the keyhole. Indeed, the whole affair remained secret for some 30 years, until the Allied governments began to release previously classified documents.