|Feldgrau.com - research on the German armed forces 1918-1945|
The following is a brief exerpt from the privately published autobiography of Hans Goebler, "Steel Boats; Iron Hearts". Hans, who unfortunately died in 1999, had some truly amazing stories to tell about his life as a submariner on the U-505 during WWII. It was kindly provided for use on this site by John Vanzo. This exerpt details an attack by Allied naval forces on the U505 in 1943 while it was in the Atlantic and the dramatic resulting aftermath which ended in the only known suicide of a German submarine Captain.
...I was lying in my bunk during the pre-dawn hours of October 23rd, when I realized that I was breathing fresh air. The gentle rocking of the boat, followed moments later by the throaty throb of the diesels, confirmed that we were on the surface. The air was cold and I was reluctant to leave my bunk. But I had duty to perform, so leave it I did. It surely made no difference to the bunk; another man would be lying in it before the sheets cooled.
A few minutes later, I was dressed and at my station in the control room. Zschech seemed more agitated than usual, climbing up and down between the bridge and the control room like a nervous cat.
I didn't pay much attention to him; my concern was with the ship's Doctor who, as usual, was trying to steal my breakfast bowl of "Kujamble Eis." This mixture of crushed ice and raspberry syrup was much treasured by us crewmen. It was also strictly rationed by Toni, our cook. Toni was of the opinion that the Doctor was too fat and therefore never gave him anything beyond the normal ration of food.
"That man eats too much. He is putting more in the diesel room pail than any two of us!" Toni was fond of saying. Naturally, this made the Doctor all the more obsessed with obtaining some of the frozen confection. Several times a day he would peek his head into the control room to see if there was an unattended bowl of the stuff. I'm proud to say he never got any of mine.
The day passed quietly, as if we were on a vacation cruise. We dived as soon as the batteries were recharged and didn't resurface until well after dark. I was back on duty that evening when, a little after midnight, we began hearing faint, distant rumbles. Over the course of several hours, the rumbling became louder and more distinct. They were clearly the explosions of depth charges. A long, steady series of them would go off, followed by silence, then another long series. The drum roll of the depth charges seemed to affect Zschech very deeply.
Around noon on the 24th, we once again heard the steady rumble of depth charges exploding in the distance. We had often heard this noise before, but never for such a prolonged period. We knew that, somewhere, a U-boat was catching hell.
Over the next several hours, the noise gradually got louder. It would stop for a short while, then resume, closer than before. I'm not being melodramatic when I tell you it began to sound like the slow, steady drumbeat of a military funeral procession, inching ever closer to our position.
After six full hours of this morbid tattoo, Zschech retreated to his cabin, closing the curtain behind him. Occasionally, he would call the radioman and soundman into his cabin for an update, but otherwise nothing was heard from him. Meanwhile, we continued on course through Sea Square CF5424. After sunset, the detonations started getting quite loud. We in the control room began asking ourselves what the hell Zschech was doing lying in his cabin as the kettledrum beat of depth charges got closer and closer.
At exactly 1948 Hours, the soundman ran to Zschech's cabin and reported engine noises. At long last, Zschech pushed aside the curtains of his cabin and emerged. As he walked by me, I could see that his face was ashen gray. Instead of issuing orders, however, Zschech climbed the ladder to the vacant conning tower.
We control room mates looked at each other in total puzzlement, silently asking each other what he was doing up there. On German subs, the only time the conning tower was used was when the Skipper wanted to look through the periscope. But we were cruising at a depth of 100 meters, far too deep to use the periscope.
Two minutes later, the radioman shouted a report up to Zschech through the conning tower hatch, informing him of what we all could hear with our bare ears: we were being scanned by Asdic. The pause between each Asdic "ping" was rapidly getting shorter. They had obviously located us and were headed right towards us.
Soon the enemy ships were almost directly above us. And yet, still no orders, still no Skipper. Where the hell was Zschech? Before we had time to ask, BOOM!… we were thrown off our feet by a giant depth charge explosion. The whole boat was rocking crazily as the control room air filled with broken glass and flying objects. I grabbed for any hold I could grasp... they never dropped just one. BLANG!!! The lights went out and the pressure hull rang like a church bell with the concussion from the second charge.
Finally, Zschech came down the ladder from the conning tower. His expressionless face, illuminated by the florescent paint on the air ducts, was ghostly white. We all stared at him, anticipating some orders for maneuvers, but still he said nothing. Instead, he walked zombie-like through the forward hatch into the radio room. As he passed me, I could see his wide-open, unblinking eyes shine in the half-light.
Two more charges exploded in quick succession. They were a bit farther off than the others and we dared to hope that the worst was over. Then, WHOOOM, the biggest explosion ever, nearly turned the boat over. Men were sent sprawling to the deck in heaps.
Amongst all the clamor, I thought I had heard a little bang coming from inside the boat, but didn't think anything of it at the moment. Then I glanced around and happened to notice Zschech slowly begin to lean over. I figured he had just bruised his head against a bulkhead, so I turned my attention back to my controls.
Then, BOOOM!!! An explosion even closer than the last deafened our ears, turning our world into a shattering, nightmarish blur of tumbling men and flying debris. Sprawled on the deck, I listened as well I could with my ringing ears for the telltale sound of in-rushing water that would signal our doom. Instead, there followed a few minutes of utter silence. The destroyers were evidently reloading their depth charge mechanisms as they circled for another run.
During that brief respite, our emergency lighting system came on. Our control room looked as if a hurricane had hit it, but we were still alive. Then, I heard some commotion coming through the open forward control room hatch. From my position I could see a body laying face down, motionless on the deck. A shiny pool of dark blood was quickly spreading around the man's legs.
A moment later, I saw the Radio Petty Officer kneeling down and examining the bleeding man. With some effort, he managed to turn the man over onto his back. After another minute, the lifeless legs were dragged into the Olymp, our nickname for the area around the Skipper's cabin. It was then that we realized that something was very, very wrong. A few of us crept quietly up to the Skipper's cabin to see what had happened.
There was Zschech, lying in his bed. He had shot himself in the head with his pistol during the depth charge attack!
It seemed like a million years had passed since Peter Zschech first occupied the commander's cabin. Now there he was, lying on his bunk, blood streaming out in little gushes from a small hole in the side of his head.
But even in this last act, Zschech had failed to fully accomplish his purpose. He was still alive, though he was making the loud, unmistakable sounds of a dying man.
The Doctor came running to the cabin. "What can we do?" the Doctor asked. "WHAT CAN WE DO?" The doctor was clearly panicked.
"Shut up!" someone snarled to the Doctor in a stage whisper, "The destroyers are listening for any sound."
For several minutes, Zschech lingered in this vegetative state, making loud death rattles. At last, one of us placed Zschech's pillow over his face to muffle the noise and, out of mercy, to hasten the inevitable. The Doctor tried desperately to pull the pillow away, but four strong hands kept it in place. We knew that poor Zschech, and we, would be better off if he died as quickly and quietly as possible.
The Doctor began shouting hysterically to remove the pillow. Our Exec Paul Meyer, now the Acting Commander, calmly but sternly ordered him to be quiet. "There's nothing you can do for him now," Meyer explained. "Those ships up there are still trying to send us to hell. Sound travels better through water, and any noise we make down here can be heard up there. So, please, Doctor, be quiet."
Meyer, now completely in command of the situation, ordered two Bold capsules to be ejected to decoy the enemy Asdic. Once the chemicals had released their cloud of bubbles and metal particles, we crept away at our most silent speed. The next spread of depth charges landed directly on the Bold bubbles, close enough to shake us severely, but not enough to cause us damage.
A few minutes later, however, another spread nearly finished us off. We suffered substantial damage, but luck was with us and that was the last close shave. An hour later, we were safely out of range of the destroyers. We busied ourselves with repairing the most serious leaks and broken equipment while the enemy continued to plaster our previous location.
At exactly 2129 Hours on October 24th, 1943, a terse entry was made in the U-505's logbook: "Kommandant tot" (Commanding Officer dead). No other explanation was made. At this point, most of the crew still didn't even know that Zschech was dead, much less how he died. There would be time enough for that later. Meanwhile, those of us who did know felt that we were better off with our new Skipper.
Before any of this could really sink into our heads, the ssing-ssing-ssing sound of the enemy Asdic devices began anew. Soon we were surrounded by propeller noises. A moment later we heard the clearly audible sound of big drums of explosives splashing into the sea over our heads. Once again the devil's drumbeat began, the deafening noise and jarring shock waves getting closer and closer.
I fervently prayed to heaven for a miracle to happen: that one of those drums would explode too soon and blow to pieces the bastards trying to kill us. I hope God forgave my sacrilege, but that is exactly what I prayed.
We endured several more depth charge attacks before we managed to shake the tormentors off our trail. Two and a half hours later, Meyer finally felt it was safe enough for us to risk recharging on the surface. He made a very short speech over the intercom to the crew, explaining that Zschech was dead and that he, as Exec, was assuming command. He also announced that we were returning to base. Heads kept poking through the fore and aft control room hatches, asking what happened.
"There's no time to explain." was the only answer.
Luckily, there were no enemy vessels in sight when we surfaced. A bright phosphorous glow followed in our wake as we prepared for a burial at sea. A few mates and I dragged Zschech's inert body back into the control room. When we turned around, we realized that a yellow cloth tampon that had been inserted into his head wound had popped out, leaving a long trail of blood behind us.
Seeing pieces of Zschech's brains clinging to the cloth was too much for most of us to bear. Only two guys were able to carry on. They placed his body into a hammock, put a trim weight between his feet, and then sewed the hammock closed from bottom to top. I just stood there frozen in shock, watching with horrified fascination as our Skipper's body was slowly encased in his canvas coffin.
Just before dawn, the body was ready to be hauled up to the conning tower for burial. Meyer ordered, "Control room: Attention!" but none of us moved. Perhaps if he wasn't sealed inside the hammock, we could have saluted the uniform. But none of us could bring ourselves to stand at attention for the man. Meyer understood and did not press the matter.
Zschech's body was lifted up to the bridge and dropped over the side without ceremony. We continued running on the surface at high speed in order to put as much distance between us and the destroyers as possible. In the meantime, the story of how Zschech had met his end made its way throughout the boat.
Today, of course, I feel great sorrow for Peter Zschech. He is, as far as I know, the only German submarine commander to have ever committed suicide whilst in action. But at the time, we felt no sympathy for the man; a mixture of anger and betrayal is a much better description of what we felt. From our perspective, by committing suicide when he did, Zschech had acted as a selfish coward. If he wanted to kill himself, we asked each other, why didn't he do it back in Lorient instead of deserting us at the exact moment we needed a Skipper most?
He never brought our boat the success he promised, nor did he ever treat us with the respect that we, as a veteran crew, felt we deserved. Zschech was a very bright man, and could have served with distinction as a staff officer, but he lacked the sterner stuff required for command. It is uncomfortable to admit now, but at the time, most of us were not especially sorry to see him gone.
The burial of Zschech did not end our danger. Just after sunset on the 25th, we were once again heavily depth charged by the enemy. On and on, the big barrels of TNT rained down upon us. It was as if Death was knocking on our pressure hull, asking permission to enter. We somehow managed to slip away after an hour of pummeling from the destroyers.
Around 2000 Hours, after darkness had completely fallen, Meyer decided to risk a high speed sprint on the surface to get us out of the danger area. Just two minutes after we surfaced, however, our eagle eyes on watch spotted the dark shadows of our tormentors close by off our starboard bow. Meyer decided to gamble that we would not be spotted and made a run for it. We began slicing through the waves full speed ahead.
For about ten minutes, it looked like we might make it. But the destroyers must have picked us up on radar because suddenly, one of the devils turned and headed straight for us at top speed. We had only seconds to get the boys on watch off the bridge and back inside before diving.
"Schnell auf tiefe gehen!" (Go deep, quickly!) shouted Meyer. We plunged beneath the waves just as the big ship started its depth charge run. We crash dove down to 150 meters and began evasive maneuvers.
The Second Watch Officer retrieved a Bold capsule from the aft torpedo room and took it to the head where the miniature "Torpedo Tube #7" was located. A moment later he ran to the control room in a very agitated state. He needed help because the tube's outer door was jammed. I ran back to the head with him and together we managed to load the tube.
Depth charges were exploding very close, making the entire boat shake with their concussion. When we attempted to expel the Bold, however, it refused to budge. I grabbed a big wooden dowel and pressed with all my might against the expelling rod. Finally, the capsule shot loose and released its mass of bubbles and metal flakes. The crew breathed an audible sigh of relief when they heard the capsule firing. Sure enough, the enemy ships above us were decoyed by the bubbles. The zzing - zzing - zzing of their Asdic gradually faded into the distance.
(By the way, I don't mention this incident to in any way portray myself as a hero who saved our boat; every single man in our crew performed hundreds of similar acts that, together, helped us survive. I only allude to it because it was something I remember from this incident.)
By midnight, we had put a safe distance between us and the hunters. After taking a quick peek with the periscope, we popped up to the surface to re-fill our air tanks and recharge our batteries. While on the surface, we received a FT ordering Zschech and four other boats to rendezvous with a Milk Cow supply boat at position Blu 2860. Headquarters was still unaware of our change in command.
Soon after, however, an airborne radar alert from our Naxos device forced us to dive to the cellar again. All night and for most of the next day, we were subjected to a non-stop barrage of bombs and depth charges dropped by the omnipresent buzzards and their friends the destroyers. It had long been a habit among some of the crew to keep a tally of the number of depth charges dropped on us, but on this occasion, even the most conscientious counter lost track of how many explosions we endured. For sure they were upwards of 300.
Unfortunately, our brief time on the surface had been insufficient to fully charge our tanks with air. As a consequence, after about five hours, our oxygen monitoring device indicated that we were breathing dangerous levels of carbon dioxide. The sound of propeller noises churning above us ruled out any return to the surface. Our boat was equipped with an oxygen recycler, but we didn't have enough juice left in the batteries to run it for long.
We eventually had to break out our emergency personal respirators to avoid asphyxiation. Then, all but the most essential crewmen on duty were ordered to lay motionless in order to conserve oxygen. We hated wearing those damned things! A clip was fitted over your nostrils to close your nose, then you sucked air through a hose. They never worked very well, and after a while, the potassium compounds inside the canister would begin to heat up like a little furnace.
It seemed like an eternity before the propeller sounds moved sufficiently distant for us to risk surfacing. The metallic clang of the top hatch, when it finally opened, sounded as beautiful as Christmas bells to us. The diesel air intake was switched to internal and our Jumbos began pulling a deliciously cool, invigorating breeze into the boat. You can't imagine how marvelous something as simple as fresh air can seem to a man who has had to breathe through those suffocating devices for several hours. Before long, we had recovered from the drowsy symptoms of dioxide poisoning and were ourselves again. We prayed we would never need to breathe through those respirators again. The mere memory of wearing those things still upsets me to this day.
The next few days passed uneventfully. We only surfaced at night, so we hardly ever saw the sun. But the sea was calm, and as the depth charge noises faded into the distance, we thought our chances were getting better that we could make it back to Lorient. Perhaps we were fooling ourselves, but we were young and strong and confident in ourselves. You had to be an optimist aboard a U-boat because a pessimist would have ended-up like Zschech.
We also had lots of confidence in our Acting Skipper, Oberleutnant Paul Meyer. Although he had never attended Commander's School, he really seemed to know his job. He also understood that we knew our job. We handled routine duties without him even having to say a word. Naturally, we would report to him what we had done, but he trusted us to do what needed to be done.
The Raccoon, our grim-faced Engineering Officer, was another matter. He was obviously still in shock over the death of his guardian angel Zschech. Only gradually did he realize that we were a professional crew, and that our chances of survival had improved once Meyer took over. In time, he too began to have confidence in our survival.
Just before dawn on the 30th, we sent FT messages to the Second U-boat Flotilla and Dönitz's U-boat Command Headquarters. We apprised them of Zschech's death and of our intention to return to base. They were very happy to hear from us, for our boat had been officially reported as lost.
Unfortunately, the enemy intercepted our radio transmission. Armed with our secret codes and a superb radio signal triangulation service, the Allies could calculate our location to within a radius of one nautical mile. As a result, the next morning we suffered through another heavy beating by destroyers. The drum concert they played on our hull lasted over eight hours. I personally counted 175 depth charges. Once again though, our lucky old boat the U-505 beat the odds.
As we approached the entrance to the Bay of Biscay, the weather turned very nasty. Our prow had to literally smash its way through huge, breaking waves. Conditions were so rough that the bridge watch was reduced to only 30 minutes in duration, the physical limit of human endurance in the face of such a pounding. Mammoth waves crashed over the top of the bridge, pouring more seawater through the conning tower hatch than I had ever seen before. At times, the conning tower was flooded several feet deep in salty brine.
In our control room, the bilge pump could barely keep up with the influx of water. It was quite a task to perform one's duty when the boat was pitching and rocking so violently. Even when we were technically off duty, we were kept busy drying binoculars and oiling the anti-aircraft weapons. The poor torpedo mechanics were frantically trying to keep their new torpedoes dry; the new programmable models were quite capable of exploding if they suffered a short circuit. We were all very relieved whenever our batteries had been recharged enough for us to submerge.
It was during one of those dives that I once again got in trouble with an officer. On the night of October 31st, we were cruising along at a depth of 120 meters when our boat's Doctor appeared in the control room. The other officers were catching up on some much-needed sleep, so this Quack was at liberty to indulge his fantasies of being a real submariner.
He sat himself down in the Diving Control Officer's motorcycle-like seat and began giving orders to the diving plane operators. The boat began swimming up and down like a dolphin as the Doctor amused himself at the controls. We control room crewmembers gave each other worried looks, but as long as he didn't endanger the boat, we played along with his unauthorized antics.
At one point, however, he ordered me to press out 25 liters of trim ballast with compressed air. Well, I knew quite well that opening a decompression valve against 130 atmospheres of water pressure would result in a loud hammering and squeaking sound that could be heard for miles around. Such a noise would be a dead give-away of our position to any destroyers lurking in the area. After a moment of thought, I told him that I would not obey his order. He ordered me a second time to blow the ballast, and once again I refused.
The doctor's face flushed with rage. "After your watch is over, you will report to Oberleutnant Meyer!"
"Jawohl, Herr Oberassistenartz!"
Two and a half hours later, when my watch was over, I reported to the officers' wardroom. The Doctor was there, giving Meyer his version of the events. When he was done, I saluted and entered the room. Meyer rose and signaled me to follow him into the galley.
Once we were out of sight, Meyer turned to me and asked, "Are you crazy? Why did you refuse to carry out an order? I want to know exactly what happened!"
I explained what happened and why I did what I did. Meyer lowered his voice so that the Doctor could not hear. In a sly tone he advised me that the next time a similar situation arose, to merely pretend to carry-out the order.
"But Herr Oberleutnant, I didn't want to lie to him..."
"Dummkopf! Don't you realize that, every day, sailors get locked up in the brig for disobeying even the most irresponsible orders? The next time something like this happens, just tell the officer what he wants to hear, then proceed with your duty the best way you see fit. Now, because of our present situation, I'm letting you off with just a warning. But apologize to the Doctor, understand?"
"Jawohl, Herr Oberleutnant!"
"All right then, get out of here," laughed Meyer, giving me a light kick in the butt as I turned to leave. We exchanged conspiratorial smiles and I returned to my bunk.
Paul Meyer was the right kind of man to be Skipper, I thought. He knew his job and he knew how to get along with the crew. As for the Doctor, I'm quite sure that Meyer was much harsher with him than he was with me. One thing for sure, the Quack never again tried playing Diving Officer.
On November 1st we entered the Suicide Stretch of the Bay of Biscay. Our progress back to base was agonizingly slow. Because of the intense enemy air activity, we were now traveling more than half of our daily mileage totals underwater. During our first war patrol under Löwe, we were traveling an average of less than one-tenth of our daily distances underwater. Our proximity to base made our slow progress all the more frustrating.
The next morning we suffered through another depth-charge attack. This one didn't last long, but the charges exploded extremely close to the hull. Everything that wasn't securely clamped down got thrown about the boat, including we crewmen and the bathroom pail between the diesels.
(NOTE: Speaking of clamping things down, it was quite an art to keep all the waterproof hatches and seals properly clamped as we dived and surfaced during these attacks. You see, whenever a boat dived, the seals between a hatch and its bulkhead got pressed together by the change in air pressure. As a result, as our depth increased, the big wing nuts on the clamps would have to be tightened accordingly. When surfacing, the wing nuts had to be gradually loosened or else the clamp would be too tight to open when we surfaced. At the beginning, I personally was in charge of making sure that the seals of the periscope up in the conning tower were adjusted in a similar manner. Having to climb up into the dark, deserted conning tower during a depth charge attack was a daunting task. But all of these procedures were performed almost instinctively, even when enduring the heaviest of depth charging or bad weather. It was just one of the thousand critical little details that had to be taken care of in those old boats that today's submariners never have to be bothered with.)
When we surfaced the next morning, we were surprised to find that last night's escape from the depth charges had been closer than we thought. Big pieces of the protective metal sheeting around the conning tower had been blasted off. The explosions had also shattered several of the wooden planks on our upper deck. Seeing with one's own eyes the damage we had suffered reinforced our determination to keep on our toes.
After that close call, we played it very safe. When our wake caused phosphorizing, Meyer ordered us underwater… slower, but safer. Men literally tip-toed across the deck so as to minimize noise.
During this tense period, my mates became particularly annoyed at my self-taught English lessons. Reading aloud was frowned upon in general, but they were particularly irked with the possibility of being detected by the enemy because of someone speaking English words. As a result, I practiced my pronunciation in silence by merely mouthing the words.
On the morning of the 7th, we celebrated a melancholy anniversary: it had been exactly one year since our last sinking of an enemy vessel. That ship was the first and only kill we had scored under Zschech. We prayed that whatever curse had been hanging over our heads would end, now that Zschech had gotten his wish for everlasting peace.
I was never one to be frightened much by superstitions, but whenever I passed Zschech's cabin, I got goose bumps. We kept the curtain to his cabin closed, and no one had dared to enter it since the day of his suicide. Even Oberleutnant Meyer felt more comfortable staying in his junior officer's bunk. Seeing that closed curtain reminded me of the way Zschech would hide in his cabin, alone with his tortured thoughts. It was as if his ghost still haunted the little room. I got over the feeling about the cabin as soon as we got a new Skipper, but the memory of poor, tragic Zschech will stay with me forever.
Later that morning, we reached the outer approaches to Lorient harbor. Following orders from Second U-boat Flotilla Headquarters, we made the approach on the surface. We were used to running on the surface only in the dark, so it was so strange to see our bow wearing a big, white beard of froth as we sliced through the waves in broad daylight.
We were nearing the entrance to the harbor when, around noon, we received a FT ordering us to Sea Square 5530 to render emergency assistance to Von Schroter's U-123. Just then, we caught sight of four large aircraft approaching low and fast from the east. Within seconds, our gun crews were at their battle stations, ready to fire. With just seconds to spare, one of the aircraft dropped a recognition flare; they were a flight of German JU-88's being sent to assist U-123. A bit later, two of our torpedo boats sped into view, traveling at top speed to augment the rescue force.
For four long hours we searched in vain for our sister boat. We finally received word that the Luftwaffe boys had spotted the U-123 and taken over the situation. With that mission out of the way, we proceeded back towards Lorient.
As we entered the harbor, everyone busied themselves with emptying their moldy lockers and throwing their possessions into sea bags for the trip to the barracks. When the red buoy came into view, we fell out to assemble on bent knee on the upper deck and the Wintergarten anti-aircraft platform. It was quite an experience to rumble into the inner harbor in broad daylight, passing the old fortress on the right and the French cruiser Strasbourg, positioned as a permanent barrier on the left.
We had made it home, all of us safe and sound. All, that is, except one.