Hans Goebler: U505 Submariner

The following is a brief excerpt from the privately published autobiography of Hans Goebler, “Steel Boats; Iron Hearts”. Hans, whounfortunately died in 1999, had some truly amazing stories to tell about his lifeas asubmariner on the U-505 during WWII. It was kindly provided for use on this site by JohnVanzo. This excerpt details an attack by Allied naval forces on the U505in 1943 while it was in the Atlantic and the dramatic resulting aftermathwhich 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 Irealized that I was breathing fresh air. The gentle rocking of the boat followed moments later by the throaty throb of the diesel, confirmed thatwe were on the surface. The air was cold and I was reluctant to leave mybunk. But I had a duty to perform, so leave it I did. It surely made nodifference to the bunk; another man would be lying in it before the sheetscooled.

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 Doctorwho, as usual, was trying to steal my breakfast bowl of “Kujamble Eis.”This mixture of crushed ice and raspberry syrup was much treasured by uscrewmen. It was also strictly rationed by Toni, our cook. Toni was ofthe opinion that the Doctor was too fat and therefore never gave himanything beyond the normal ration of food.

“That man eats too much. He is putting more in the diesel room pail thanany two of us!” Toni was fond of saying. Naturally, this made the Doctorall 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 ifthere was an unattended bowl of the stuff. I’m proud to say he never gotany of mine.

The day passed quietly as if we were on a vacation cruise. We dived assoon as the batteries were recharged and didn’t resurface until well afterdark. I was back on duty that evening when, a little after midnight, webegan hearing faint, distant rumbles. Over the course of several hours,the rumbling became louder and more distinct. They were clearly theexplosions of depth charges. A long, steady series of them would go off,followed by silence, then another long series. The drum roll of the depthcharges seemed to affect Zschech very deeply.

Around noon on the 24th, we once again heard the steady rumble of depthcharges exploding in the distance. We had often heard this noise before,but never for such a prolonged period. We knew that, somewhere, a U-boatwas catching hell.

Over the next several hours, the noise gradually got louder. It wouldstop for a short while, then resume, closer than before. I’m not beingmelodramatic when I tell you it began to sound like the slow, steadydrumbeat of a military funeral procession, inching ever closer to ourposition.

After six full hours of this morbid tattoo, Zschech retreated to hiscabin, closing the curtain behind him. Occasionally, he would call theradioman and soundman into his cabin for an update, but otherwise, nothingwas heard from him. Meanwhile, we continued on course through Sea SquareCF5424. After sunset, the detonations started getting quite loud. We inthe control room began asking ourselves what the hell Zschech was doinglying in his cabin as the kettledrum beat of depth charges got closer andcloser.

At exactly 1948 Hours, the soundman ran to Zschech’s cabin and reportedengine noises. At long last, Zschech pushed aside the curtains of hiscabin and emerged. As he walked by me, I could see that his face wasashen gray. Instead of issuing orders, however, Zschech climbed theladder to the vacant conning tower.

We control roommates looked at each other in total puzzlement, silentlyasking each other what he was doing up there. On German subs, the onlytime the conning tower was used was when the Skipper wanted to lookthrough the periscope. But we were cruising at a depth of 100 meters, fartoo deep to use the periscope.

Two minutes later, the radioman shouted a report up to Zschech through theconning tower hatch, informing him of what we all could hear with our bareears: we were being scanned by Asdic. The pause between each Asdic “ping”was rapidly getting shorter. They had obviously located us and wereheaded right towards us.

Soon the enemy ships were almost directly above us. And yet, still noorders, still no Skipper. Where the hell was Zschech? Before we had timeto ask, BOOM!… we were thrown off our feet by a giant depth chargeexplosion. The whole boat was rocking crazily as the control room airfilled with broken glass and flying objects. I grabbed any hold Icould grasp… they never dropped just one. BLANG!!! The lights went outand the pressure hull rang like a church bell with the concussion from thesecond charge.

Finally, Zschech came down the ladder from the conning tower. Hisexpressionless face, illuminated by the fluorescent paint on the air ducts,was ghostly white. We all stared at him, anticipating some orders formaneuvers, but still, he said nothing. Instead, he walked zombie-likethrough the forward hatch into the radio room. As he passed me, I couldsee his wide-open, unblinking eyes shine in the half-light.

Two more charges exploded in quick succession. They were a bit fartheroff 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 weresent sprawling to the deck in heaps.

Amongst all the clamor, I thought I had heard a little bang coming frominside the boat, but didn’t think anything of it at the moment. Then Iglanced 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 myattention 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 andflying debris. Sprawled on the deck, I listened as well I could with myringing ears for the telltale sound of in-rushing water that would signalour doom. Instead, there followed a few minutes of utter silence. Thedestroyers were evidently reloading their depth charge mechanisms as theycircled for another run.

During that brief respite, our emergency lighting system came on. Ourcontrol 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 roomhatch. From my position, I could see a body lying face down, motionlesson the deck. A shiny pool of dark blood was quickly spreading around theman’s legs.

A moment later, I saw the Radio Petty Officer kneeling down and examiningthe bleeding man. With some effort, he managed to turn the man over ontohis back. After another minute, the lifeless legs were dragged into theOlymp, our nickname for the area around the Skipper’s cabin. It was thenthat we realized that something was very, very wrong. A few of us creptquietly 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 withhis pistol during the depth charge attack!

It seemed like a million years had passed since Peter Zschech firstoccupied 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 hishead.

But even in this last act, Zschech had failed to fully accomplish hispurpose. He was still alive, though he was making the loud, unmistakablesounds 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, “Thedestroyers are listening for any sound.”

For several minutes, Zschech lingered in this vegetative state, makingloud death rattles. At last, one of us placed Zschech’s pillow over hisface to muffle the noise and, out of mercy, to hasten the inevitable. The Doctor tried desperately to pull the pillow away, but four strong handskept it in place. We knew that poor Zschech, and we would be better offif he died as quickly and quietly as possible.

The Doctor began shouting hysterically to remove the pillow. Our ExecPaul Meyer, now the Acting Commander, calmly but sternly ordered him to bequiet. “There’s nothing you can do for him now,” Meyer explained. “Thoseships up there are still trying to send us to hell. Sound travels betterthrough 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 Boldcapsules to be ejected to decoy the enemy Asdic. Once the chemicals hadreleased their cloud of bubbles and metal particles, we crept away at ourmost silent speed. The next spread of depth charges landed directly onthe Bold bubbles, close enough to shake us severely, but not enough tocause us damage.

A few minutes later, however, another spread nearly finished us off. Wesuffered substantial damage, but luck was with us and that was the lastclose shave. An hour later, we were safely out of range of thedestroyers. We busied ourselves with repairing the most serious leaks andbroken equipment while the enemy continued to plaster our previouslocation.

At exactly 2129 Hours on October 24th, 1943, a terse entry was made in theU-505’s logbook: “Kommandant tot” (Commanding Officer dead). No otherexplanation was made. At this point, most of the crew still didn’t evenknow that Zschech was dead, much less how he died. There would be timeenough for that later. Meanwhile, those of us who did know felt that wewere better off with our new Skipper.

Before any of this could really sink into our heads, the ssing-ssing-ssingsound of the enemy Asdic devices began anew. Soon we were surrounded bypropeller noises. A moment later we heard the clearly audible sound ofbig drums of explosives splashing into the sea over our heads. Once againthe devil’s drumbeat began, the deafening noise and jarring shock wavesgetting closer and closer.

I fervently prayed to heaven for a miracle to happen: that one of thosedrums would explode too soon and blow to pieces the bastards trying tokill us. I hope God forgave my sacrilege, but that is exactly what Iprayed.

We endured several more depth charge attacks before we managed to shakethe tormentors off our trail. Two and a half hours later, Meyer finallyfelt it was safe enough for us to risk recharging on the surface. He madea very short speech over the intercom to the crew, explaining that Zschechwas dead and that he, as Exec, was assuming command. He also announcedthat we were returning to base. Heads kept poking through the fore andaft 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 brightphosphorous 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 hadbeen inserted into his head wound had popped out, leaving a long trail ofblood behind us.

Seeing pieces of Zschech’s brains clinging to the cloth was too much formost of us to bear. Only two guys were able to carry on. They placed hisbody into a hammock, put a trim weight between his feet, and then sewedthe hammock closed from bottom to top. I just stood there frozen inshock, watching with horrified fascination as our Skipper’s body wasslowly encased in his canvas coffin.

Just before dawn, the body was ready to be hauled up to the conning towerfor burial. Meyer ordered, “Control room: Attention!” but none of usmoved. Perhaps if he wasn’t sealed inside the hammock, we could havesaluted the uniform. But none of us could bring ourselves to stand atattention for the man. Meyer understood and did not press the matter.

Zschech’s body was lifted up to the bridge and dropped over the sidewithout ceremony. We continued running on the surface at high speed inorder 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 waythroughout the boat.

Today, of course, I feel great sorrow for Peter Zschech. He is, as far asI know, the only German submarine commander to have ever committed suicidewhilst in action. But at the time, we felt no sympathy for the man; amixture of anger and betrayal is a much better description of what wefelt. From our perspective, by committing suicide when he did, Zschechhad acted as a selfish coward. If he wanted to kill himself, we askedeach other, why didn’t he do it back in Lorient instead of deserting us atthe exact moment we needed a Skipper most?

He never brought our boat the success he promised, nor did he ever treatus with the respect that we, as a veteran crew, felt we deserved. Zschechwas a very bright man and could have served with distinction as a staffofficer, but he lacked the sterner stuff required for command. It isuncomfortable to admit now, but at the time, most of us were notespecially sorry to see him gone.

The burial of Zschech did not end our danger. Just after sunset on the25th, 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 wasknocking on our pressure hull, asking permission to enter. We somehowmanaged to slip away after an hour of pummeling from the destroyers.

Around 2000 Hours, after darkness had completely fallen, Meyer decided torisk 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 watchspotted 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 forit. We began slicing through the waves full speed ahead.

For about ten minutes, it looked like we might make it. But thedestroyers must have picked us up on the radar because suddenly, one of thedevils turned and headed straight for us at top speed. We had onlyseconds to get the boys on watch off the bridge and back inside beforediving.

“Schnell auf tiefe gehen!” (Go deep, quickly!) shouted Meyer. We plungedbeneath the waves just as the big ship started its depth charge run. Wecrash dove down to 150 meters and began evasive maneuvers.

The Second Watch Officer retrieved a Bold capsule from the aft torpedoroom and took it to the head where the miniature “Torpedo Tube #7” waslocated. A moment later he ran to the control room in a very agitatedstate. He needed help because the tube’s outer door was jammed. I ranback to the head with him and together we managed to load the tube.

Depth charges were exploding very close, making the entire boat shake withtheir concussion. When we attempted to expel the Bold, however, itrefused to budge. I grabbed a big wooden dowel and pressed with all mymight against the expelling rod. Finally, the capsule shot loose andreleased its mass of bubbles and metal flakes. The crew breathed anaudible 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 asa hero who saved our boat; every single man in our crew performed hundredsof similar acts that, together, helped us survive. I only allude to itbecause it was something I remember from this incident.)

By midnight, we had put a safe distance between us and the hunters. Aftertaking a quick peek with the periscope, we popped up to the surface tore-fill our air tanks and recharge our batteries. While on the surface,we received an FT ordering Zschech and four other boats to rendezvous witha Milk Cow supply boat at position Blu 2860. Headquarters was stillunaware of our change in command.

Soon after, however, an airborne radar alert from our Naxos device forcedus 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 droppedby the omnipresent buzzards and their friends the destroyers. It had longbeen a habit among some of the crew to keep a tally of the number of depthcharges dropped on us, but on this occasion, even the most conscientiouscounter lost track of how many explosions we endured. For sure they wereupwards of 300.

Unfortunately, our brief time on the surface had been insufficient tofully charge our tanks with air. As a consequence, after about fivehours, our oxygen monitoring device indicated that we were breathingdangerous levels of carbon dioxide. The sound of propeller noises churningabove us ruled out any return to the surface. Our boat was equipped withan oxygen recycler, but we didn’t have enough juice left in the batteriesto run it for long.

We eventually had to break out our emergency personal respirators to avoidasphyxiation. Then, all but the essential crewmen on duty wereordered to lay motionless in order to conserve oxygen. We hated wearingthose damned things! A clip was fitted over your nostrils to close yournose, then you sucked air through a hose. They never worked very well,and after a while, the potassium compounds inside the canister would beginto heat up like a little furnace.

It seemed like an eternity before the propeller sounds moved sufficientlydistant 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 beganpulling a deliciously cool, invigorating breeze into the boat. You can’timagine how marvelous something as simple as fresh air can seem to a manwho has had to breathe through those suffocating devices for severalhours. Before long, we had recovered from the drowsy symptoms of dioxidepoisoning and were ourselves again. We prayed we would never need tobreathe through those respirators again. The mere memory of wearing thosethings still upsets me to this day.

The next few days passed uneventfully. We only surfaced at night, so wehardly ever saw the sun. But the sea was calm, and as the depth chargenoises faded into the distance, we thought our chances were getting betterthat 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 anoptimist aboard a U-boat because a pessimist would have ended-up likeZschech.

We also had lots of confidence in our Acting Skipper, Oberleutnant PaulMeyer. Although he had never attended Commander’s School, he reallyseemed to know his job. He also understood that we knew our job. Wehandled 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 whatneeded to be done.

The Raccoon, our grim-faced Engineering Officer, was another matter. Hewas obviously still in shock over the death of his guardian angel Zschech.Only gradually did he realize that we were a professional crew and thatour chances of survival had improved once Meyer took over. In time, hetoo began to have confidence in our survival.

Just before dawn on the 30th, we sent FT messages to the Second U-boatFlotilla and Dönitz’s U-boat Command Headquarters. We apprised them ofZschech’s death and of our intention to return to base. They were veryhappy to hear from us, for our boat had been officially reported as lost.

Unfortunately, the enemy intercepted our radio transmission. Armed withour secret codes and a superb radio signal triangulation service, theAllies could calculate our location to within a radius of one nauticalmile. As a result, the next morning we suffered through another heavybeating by destroyers. The drum concert they played on our hull lastedover eight hours. I personally counted 175 depth charges. Once againthough, our lucky old boat the U-505 beat the odds.

As we approached the entrance to the Bay of Biscay, the weather turnedvery nasty. Our prow had to literally smash its way through huge,breaking waves. Conditions were so rough that the bridge watch wasreduced to only 30 minutes in duration, the physical limit of humanendurance in the face of such a pounding. Mammoth waves crashed over thetop of the bridge, pouring more seawater through the conning tower hatchthan I had ever seen before. At times, the conning tower was floodedseveral feet deep in salty brine.

In our control room, the bilge pump could barely keep up with the influxof water. It was quite a task to perform one’s duty when the boat waspitching and rocking so violently. Even when we were technically offduty, we were kept busy drying binoculars and oiling the anti-aircraftweapons. The poor torpedo mechanics were frantically trying to keep theirnew torpedoes dry; the new programmable models were quite capable ofexploding if they suffered a short circuit. We were all very relievedwhenever 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 anofficer. On the night of October 31st, we were cruising along at a depthof 120 meters when our boat’s Doctor appeared in the control room. Theother officers were catching up on some much-needed sleep, so this Quackwas at liberty to indulge his fantasies of being a real submariner.

He sat himself down in the Diving Control Officer’s motorcycle-like seatand began giving orders to the diving plane operators. The boat beganswimming up and down like a dolphin as the Doctor amused himself at thecontrols. We control room crewmembers gave each other worried looks, butas long as he didn’t endanger the boat, we played along with hisunauthorized antics.

At one point, however, he ordered me to press out 25 liters of trimballast with compressed air. Well, I knew quite well that opening adecompression valve against 130 atmospheres of water pressure would resultin a loud hammering and squeaking sound that could be heard for milesaround. Such a noise would be a dead giveaway of our position to anydestroyers lurking in the area. After a moment of thought, I told himthat I would not obey his order. He ordered me a second time to blow theballast, and once again I refused.

The doctor’s face flushed with rage. “After your watch is over, you willreport to Oberleutnant Meyer!”

“Jawohl, Herr Oberassistenartz!”

Two and a half hours later, when my watch was over, I reported to theofficers’ wardroom. The Doctor was there, giving Meyer his version of theevents. When he was done, I saluted and entered the room. Meyer rose andsignaled 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 whathappened!”

I explained what happened and why I did what I did. Meyer lowered hisvoice so that the Doctor could not hear. In a sly tone, he advised me thatthe next time a similar situation arose, to merely pretend to carry-outthe order.

“But Herr Oberleutnant, I didn’t want to lie to him…”

“Dummkopf! Don’t you realize that every day, sailors get locked up inthe brig for disobeying even the most irresponsible orders? The next timesomething 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 ourpresent situation, I’m letting you off with just a warning. But apologizeto the Doctor, understand?”

“Jawohl, Herr Oberleutnant!”

“All right then, get out of here,” laughed Meyer, giving me a light kickin the butt as I turned to leave. We exchanged conspiratorial smiles andI returned to my bunk.

Paul Meyer was the right kind of man to be Skipper, I thought. He knewhis 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. Ourprogress back to base was agonizingly slow. Because of the intense enemyair activity, we were now traveling more than half of our daily mileagetotals underwater. During our first war patrol under Löwe, we weretraveling an average of less than one-tenth of our daily distancesunderwater. Our proximity to the base made our slow progress all the morefrustrating.

The next morning we suffered through another depth-charge attack. Thisone didn’t last long, but the charges exploded extremely close to thehull. Everything that wasn’t securely clamped down got thrown about theboat, including we crewmen and the bathroom pail between the diesel.

(NOTE: Speaking of clamping things down, it was quite an art to keeping allthe waterproof hatches and seals properly clamped as we dived and surfacedduring these attacks. You see, whenever a boat dived, the seals between ahatch 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 wouldhave to be tightened accordingly. When surfacing, the wingnuts had to begradually loosened or else the clamp would be too tight to open when wesurfaced. At the beginning, I personally was in charge of making surethat the seals of the periscope up in the conning tower were adjusted in asimilar manner. Having to climb up into the dark, deserted conning towerduring a depth charge attack was a daunting task. But all of theseprocedures were performed almost instinctively, even when enduring theheaviest of depth charging or bad weather. It was just one of thethousand critical little details that had to be taken care of in those oldboats that today’s submariners never have to be bothered with.)

When we surfaced the next morning, we were surprised to find that lastnight’s escape from the depth charges had been closer than we thought.Big pieces of the protective metal sheeting around the conning tower hadbeen blasted off. The explosions had also shattered several of the woodenplanks on our upper deck. Seeing with one’s own eyes the damage we hadsuffered reinforced our determination to keep on our toes.

After that close call, we played it very safe. When our wake causedphosphorizing, Meyer ordered us underwater… slower, but safer. Menliterally tip-toed across the deck so as to minimize noise.

During this tense period, my mates became particularly annoyed at myself-taught English lessons. Reading aloud was frowned upon in general,but they were particularly irked with the possibility of being detected bythe enemy because of someone speaking English words. As a result, Ipracticed my pronunciation in silence by merely mouthing the words.

On the morning of the 7th, we celebrated a melancholy anniversary: it hadbeen exactly one year since our last sinking of an enemy vessel. Thatship was the first and only kill we had scored under Zschech. We prayedthat whatever curse had been hanging over our heads would end, now thatZschech had gotten his wish for everlasting peace.

I was never one to be frightened much by superstitions, but whenever Ipassed Zschech’s cabin, I got goosebumps. We kept the curtain to hiscabin closed, and no one had dared to enter it since the day of hissuicide. Even Oberleutnant Meyer felt more comfortable staying in hisjunior officer’s bunk. Seeing that closed curtain reminded me of the wayZschech would hide in his cabin, alone with his tortured thoughts. It wasas if his ghost still haunted the little room. I got over the feelingabout 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 theapproach on the surface. We were used to running on the surface only inthe dark, so it was so strange to see our bow wearing a big, white beardof froth as we sliced through the waves in broad daylight.

We were nearing the entrance to the harbor when, around noon, we receivedan FT ordering us to Sea Square 5530 to render emergency assistance to VonSchroter’s U-123. Just then, we caught sight of four large aircraftapproaching low and fast from the east. Within seconds, our gun crewswere at their battle stations, ready to fire. With just seconds to spare,one of the aircraft dropped a recognition flare; they were a flight ofGerman JU-88’s being sent to assist U-123. A bit later, two of ourtorpedo boats sped into view, traveling at top speed to augment the rescueforce.

For four long hours, we searched in vain for our sister boat. We finallyreceived word that the Luftwaffe boys had spotted the U-123 and taken overthe situation. With that mission out of the way, we proceeded backtowards Lorient.

As we entered the harbor, everyone busied themselves with emptying theirmoldy lockers and throwing their possessions into sea bags for the trip tothe barracks. When the red buoy came into view, we fell out to assembleon bent knee on the upper deck and the Wintergarten anti-aircraftplatform. It was quite an experience to rumble into the inner harbor inbroad daylight, passing the old fortress on the right and the Frenchcruiser 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.