Sunday, January 01, 2006

Life on German U-boat recalled


South Bend Tribune
By William Mullen
August 30, 2005

The U-505.

CHICAGO -- On a pleasant evening in early June, two former German U-boat crewmen quietly dined together in the new $35 million exhibit hall built by the Museum of Science and Industry for one of its most prized holdings, the captured German submarine the U-505. The occasion was a small dinner for the museum staff and selected guests the night before the exhibit's grand opening.

Karl Springer, 83, and Wolfgang Schiller, 82, were the only two of the seven survivingU-505 crew members who could attend the ceremonies. Each was still a teenager when he joined the crew, and the mortality rate for submarine duty was so high that both men assumed they would be entombed inside the boat on the ocean bottom by war's end.

"I didn't expect to live," said Schiller, a tall, craggy-faced, white-haired grandfather who joined the U-505 crew in 1942. "None of us did. How could we? As the war went on, more and more boats failed to return from their missions."

Since the Museum of Science and Industry installed the submarine in 1954, it has been the museum's most popular single attraction. More than 24 million people have toured its interior, and for many, it remains one of their primary memories of the museum.

In telling the boat's story, the museum emphasizes the remarkable saga of the U-505's capture two days before D-Day in 1944. It remains one of the most daring acts of seamanship and courage in naval history, a tale even more vividly told in the new exhibit.

What isn't as well-known is the story of the U-505's combat service before its capture. Few who file through its impossibly cramped passageways have an inkling of its dark, violent wartime past, a vessel plagued with bad luck and, for much of the conflict, a hated, tyrannical captain.

Some of that story was relived the night of the dinner as Springer and Schiller reminisced. Two books on the U-505 published last year also detail its wartime service: "Hunt and Kill" (Savas Beatie), a collection of articles edited by military historian Theodore Savas, and "Steel Boat, Iron Hearts" (Savas Beatie), a memoir by crew member Hans Goebeler, published posthumously.

Being selected for duty on the U-boats, the most elite unit in the German navy, was a great honor. Only 10 percent of sailors were selected for training, and only 10 percent of them made it through. Most were bright, working-class teenagers who had proved their proficiency in skills like diesel mechanics or electronics in trade schools.

No uniform in the German military was more respected than that of the U-boatmen, but there was a grim reality behind the honor of serving on the submarines. As the war wore on, the average life expectancy of German subs and those aboard them dropped to just three months.Early in the war, it appeared that U-boats might carry Germany to victory as they sank fleets of freighters trying to bring food and munitions from the Americas to European armies struggling against the German war machine. German "wolf packs" -- several subs operating in tandem to attack and sink convoys -- were the terror of the high seas.

Had Germany's success against Allied shipping continued for another year, it might have won the war. But by the summer of 1942, the Allies began to gain the upper hand with improved sonar locating devices and a rapid increase in anti-submarine surface ships.

Their "wolf packs" decimated, the Germans turned to a "lone wolf" strategy, using bigger, better-armed subs that could roam widely and hunt enemy ships by themselves. The U-505 was one of these, capable of missions up to 12,000 miles from home.

Home for U-505 was Lorient, one of five French coastal towns the Germans used as heavily protected submarine ports."We'd be gone for three or four months at a time, coming back and retrieving all that back pay every time," says Pete Peterson, 84, a mechanic on one of the U-505's sister ships. "We bought the whole town, sometimes."

Commissioned in 1941, the U-505 sailed out of Lorient in early 1942 on its first operational mission off the coast of Africa. It was under the command of Capt. Axel-Olaf Loewe, a skipper who demanded the highest shipboard performance from his men but was otherwise casual about military regimen and things like the dress code. Approachable and sympathetic, he was extremely popular with his crew.

Under his command in the early months of 1942, the U-505 sank seven Allied freighters in the Atlantic. As it returned periodically to Lorient for refitting and restocking, it was met with a hero's welcome, the men standing on deck in formation as brass bands blared and cheering crowds applauded them from the docks.

At sea in September 1942, Loewe suffered a ruptured appendix and was hospitalized in Lorient. By then, Allied units, using sonar and blanketing the skies with aircraft that worked in concert with sub-killing surface ships, were making life hell for U-boats. On the U-505, Loewe's replacement, Capt. Peter Zschech (pronounced "check"), was about to make life even worse for the boat's crew.

Just 25 when he took command of the U-505, Zschech was the youngest cadet ever graduated from the German naval academy, according to "Hunt and Kill." He proved to be an aloof, hot-headed tyrant, his approach rigid and by-the-book. Almost every account paints him as quick to blame others for his own ineptitude and to treat most of his 50-man crew with contempt.

The men decided he drove them hard because he craved personal glory. Wrote Goebeler: "We suspected that Zschech had a bad case of Halsschmerzen, the 'sore throat' common to many young officers that could only be cured by wearing a Knights Cross medal around the neck."

At sea, submarine crews were used to long periods of tedium broken by episodes of breathless excitement and terror. Electricians, mechanics and radiomen worked in shifts, manning their posts for several hours. When the shift changed, the men going off duty jumped into the still-warm bunks vacated by those going on duty.

When the sub captain spotted a vulnerable enemy ship, he might trail it for hours as he maneuvered the boat into position to fire its torpedoes. It was a tricky business that tested a skipper's skill, and most pursuits ended in failure when target ships steamed out of range.

Having sunk seven ships in a few months, Loewe obviously was a skilled captain. And when he sank an enemy ship, he was also a gentleman, surfacing to make sure that the life rafts of the survivors had adequate food, water and medical supplies, according to Goebeler's account.

Zschech, on the other hand, had trouble calculating the direction and speed of his targets. In his 14 months on the U-505, he sank only one ship, the British freighter Ocean Justice, but did it in a way that bothered the crew even more.

After Ocean Justice sank, "Zschech ordered us away from the site without checking on the condition of the survivors," Goebeler wrote. "That unsettled me. Under Loewe, we had done all we could to adhere to the rules of war and common decency." Under Zschech, "I felt that we were acting like the heartless hunters that the enemy propagandists portrayed us to be."

Most German submarines, including the U-505, were not equipped with snorkel tubes that would have allowed them to use diesel engines under water, and they had to rely on electric motors for propulsion. The motors were powered by batteries that ran down within a few hours, forcing the sub to surface and run on diesel power while the batteries recharged. That made them vulnerable to being spotted and hit by Allied sub hunters.

Two days after it sank Ocean Justice on Nov. 7, 1942, the U-505 surfaced in the Caribbean.

A British bomber suddenly roared down and dropped depth charges, one ripping a huge hole in the U-505's hull. The bomber was so close that the blast's concussion exploded the plane in midair, leaving the wounded sub safe but thousands of miles from Lorient. It took 37 agonizing days to return home, but heavy seas and bad weather helped shield it from other Allied encounters.

It was the most severely damaged U-boat ever to return to Lorient for repairs and was out of the war for most of a year. It was May 1943 before the vessel was deemed seaworthy again, but for months it would discover problems and have to return to port. The crew suspected French workers were sabotaging the vessel.

On Oct. 10, 1943, the U-505 pulled out of Lorient on its way to the Caribbean on the last cruise under Zschech's command. The war by then had taken its toll on the young skipper, who had seen all of his close naval academy friends disappear with their boats to the sea bottom.

As his last mission got under way, he rarely spoke and spent most of his time isolated behind the curtained doorway of his personal quarters, ordering the U-505 to travel submerged as much as possible as it traversed the Atlantic.

Midday on Oct. 24, 600 miles west of Lisbon, the crew began to hear distant explosions as Allied ships attacked another German sub. "Over the next several hours, the noise gradually got louder," wrote Goebeler. "It began to sound like the slow, steady drumbeat of a military funeral procession, inching ever closer to our position."

Zschech stayed in his quarters, showing no interest in coming to the control room to order evasive action. At 7:48 p.m., a frightened radioman hurried to rouse Zschech from his quarters.

The Allied sub-killers had located the U-505. The captain drew back the curtain and emerged with a blank face while the sonar "pings" from surface ships began to echo off the sub's hull at an accelerating rate. The U-505 had been targeted.

The first explosion sent the men sprawling. The next knocked the lights out. In the eerie glow of fluorescent paint on overhead air ducts, the crew saw Zschech walking, still expressionless, to the radio room.

The next blast was so close that the boat tilted as if it would roll over. Goebeler, who was in the control room, saw Zschech on his knees, leaning over. Another tremendous explosion sent everyone flying. The emergency lights snapped on, revealing Zschech lying in his own blood, a bullet hole in his skull and his pistol nearby.

He was still alive, so the men put him on his bed. He groaned so loudly that the crew worried that the enemy destroyers above them, which had stopped the attack, would hear him and resume their bombing. One of the men put a pillow over Zschech's face until he stopped breathing.

"Everything was silent," said Schiller, who was stationed far back in the sub's torpedo room, "so the news passed through the boat in a whisper, one man to the next, that the skipper had shot himself in the head."

The U-boat's second-in-command ordered bits of debris ejected in hopes that, as it surfaced, the attackers would think their target had sunk. It worked, and the surface ships sailed on.

Schiller was ordered to bring lead weights to Zschech's quarters, where his body had been placed in a canvas hammock. They put the weights between Zschech's legs, and that night, as the vessel surfaced, Zschech's lifeless form was dropped into the sea without ceremony.

Skipperless, the sub had to return to Lorient. There the high command assigned Harald Lange, at 40 the oldest captain in the fleet, to lead the U-505. Lange, experienced and level-headed, bonded immediately with the crew. But hard luck continued to plague the sub, which never came close to sinking another ship. Instead, early in June 1944, it fell prey to a brilliant plan for its capture by Capt. Daniel Gallery, a Chicagoan who led the American anti-sub task force off Africa.

The U-505 and the task force, made up of an aircraft carrier and five destroyer escorts, played cat and mouse for several days until June 4, when Gallery's ships surrounded the sub and dumped a ferocious barrage of depth charges, badly disabling it.

As the U-505 surfaced, Lange realized it would soon sink and ordered his men to abandon the vessel. As they did, planes from the task force raked its conning tower with machine gun and cannon fire to hurry the evacuation along, killing one German and shattering one of Lange's legs so severely it was amputated later.

The Germans piled out of the badly listing sub and leaped into life rafts. That gave an American crew an opportunity to jump aboard the U-505 and halt its sinking. By doing so, they captured a German enigma code machine, top-secret German documents and the latest in German torpedo technology.

The sub was such a prize to the U.S. intelligence community that its capture became top secret.

If Germany had learned that one of its submarines was in Allied hands, it would have changed codes and shifted away from the war plans captured on the sub.

Thus the Pentagon chose, in the case of the U-505 crew, to disregard the Geneva Conventions on prisoner treatment. The U.S. did not inform the International Red Cross of their capture, and their families in Germany were told the men were missing and presumed dead.

"Once in a while," said Springer, "the International Red Cross would announce it was coming to inspect the (POW) camp, and the night before, we'd be shipped to a hiding place."

When Germany surrendered in 1945, most of the men were not sent home. Instead, they went to England, where they remained prisoners and were assigned to work details that included putting up housing for returning British veterans. They were all released by late 1947.

Neither Schiller nor Springer is happy that they and their submarine were seized by the Americans, but both credit the capture as the reason they survived to the end of the war. "We were lucky men to get fetched out of the water," Schiller said, "and lucky to still be here, alive."



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