Translated from the Third Reich original. By U-Boat commander and Knight’s Cross recipient Captain Werner Hartmann with forward by Admiral Dönitz. Hartmann was one of Germany’s first u-boat captains; Prien served as his watch officer. Hartmann stalks freighters, evades destroyers and enemy planes (and even submarines), narrowly escapes death in a u-boat trap and even sinks a cruiser. This book captures the human spirit of the u-boat men who, man for man, contributed more to the war effort than any other branch … and who suffered the highest losses. Indeed, in that regard, the chapter “Death in a U-Boat” is especially insightful.
Translated from the original Third Reich book Feind im Fadenkreuz (literally, Enemy in the Crosshairs) by U-Boat Captain Werner Hartmann, published in 1942 with a brief forward by (then) Vice-Admiral Karl Dönitz, chief of the u-boat arm. The drawings and photos also come from the original.
Hartmann became one of Germany’s first u-boat captains way back in the mid-1930’s and commander of a u-boat fleet even before the outbreak of the war. U-boat ace Prien served as watch officer on Hartmann’s u-boat before getting his own. Hartmann also knew Commodore Bonte of the Narvik destroyer task force. Grand-Admiral Raeder as well as Vice-Admiral Karl Dönitz visited Hartmann’s war boat, the Westward-ho. Hartmann was awarded the Knights Cross by Adolf Hitler.
This book starts in 1935 and goes through the first war winter. Hartmann stalks freighters, evades destroyers and enemy planes (and even submarines), narrowly escapes death in a u-boat trap and even sinks a cruiser. After his third combat mission he is – against his wishes – given a land assignment.
This books captures the human spirit of the u-boat men who, man for man, contributed more to the war effort than any other branch … and who suffered the highest losses. Indeed, in that regard, the chapter “Death in a U-Boat” is especially insightful.
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Here’s an excerpt:
Motor boats shot from behind the collapsing steamer.
But those were no rescue boats. They had hidden on the steamer’s lee side. Circling planes buzzed in the sky. They quickly discovered our two snorkels in the water. They came at us. Our boat fell like a stone in to the protecting depths.
I climbed to Zirfas in the listening room. He huddled under the earphones and didn’t move.
“All hell is loose up, Captain, sir”. He whispered without looking up. “Motorboats in listening and attack mode. Probably guided by the planes. Taking their time. They want to be sure. There’ll be shooting here in a moment. Definitely, they’re being careful.”
And that was what happened. Every three minutes the motor boats dropped a series of four depth-charges. It boomed and whipped and burst, making such a racket that our heads thundered. The bombs were well-aimed. And the motor boats had skillfully distributed themselves so they didn’t miss a spot where they figured we might be.
After about forty depth-charges they rested. It was dead still. Suddenly we stood as if under a steel bell in nothingness. We wondered a little why we hadn’t been hit. Nobody said anything. There is a kind of silence that is full of tormenting loudness. It is cool and strange and filled with intangible vibrations that pain the nerves.
The boat moved slowly at crawling speed. I stood with Hippel in the tower by the rudder controls. We leaned our elbows against the support board and did not look at each other. At first we had counted the seconds. The depth-charges came in set intervals. Then we counted onward and onward, but nothing more happened.
“Boat is water-tight, everything in order”, the watches reported up after each new attack.
Now the report was also lacking. No hissing now with the subsequent explosion. But the boats were still in the vicinity. We still heard their motors. We had landed in an English u-boat trap.
The pause continued. It was already five minutes, six minutes, seven minutes. I looked at Hippel. His gaze was diagonally upward, somewhere; he saw nothing. He strained for the unknown, invisible, uncanny.
“Hippel, already eight minutes”, I whispered.
He was a bit shocked, as if awakened from a trance. Then he seriously and slowly put his index finger against his lips like the “enemy-is-listening” poster. Just don’t conjure them, that was supposed to mean. It wouldn’t have taken much and we would have knocked on wood three times. As proscribed by the superstitious ritual. It was a crazy mood.
After twenty minutes I dismissed the off duty men. They should go to their bunks. One can never tell in advance how long such a dangerous situation underwater will go on. Then air slowly gets short. One must spare oxygen. Man who are lying down consume less of it than men who stand upright and move around. I laid down myself.
“Keep the boat deep”, I told Hippel. Even the noise of the bilge pump would have betrayed us.
Around 16:00 in the afternoon, without recognizable reason, the next depth-charge fell down into our glass-green silence here with a faint, twisting rustle. It burst and thundered close to the boat. We feel how the pressure wave shoved us a bit to the side. It was as if the steel was bending. Another series followed. Those were the loudest, sharpest, most threatening explosions I have ever experienced on a combat mission.
I again climbed to Hippel in the tower. We looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. They must see traces up there, maybe air bubbles or oil flecks. The pressure might have cracked a tank. We couldn’t tell now.
“Boat is water-tight, everything in order”, the watches reported monotone.
The men wore life-vests and held the bags with the diving gear ready. We had to reckon with everything. We were rather helpless. If we actually left traces on the water surface, we hardly had a chance. There was nothing to do. The electric motor ran soft and noiseless. We continued at crawl speed. It was not certain whether that served a purpose. Perhaps it even betrayed us.
Our air would last until the next morning. But we had to try to surface already in the night. In daylight they would have us immediately on this kind of Potsdam Square in the Atlantic.
Around 19:00 another dark death blessing rained down on us from above. Now the bombs were obviously somewhat scattered. There was no longer any system in the bombardment. Above water it was probably just getting dark. We made a slow, winding curve and took a different course.
I had potassium packs passed out. The air got worse and we had to absorb nitrogen when exhaling. The potassium packs back then were large white-tin-casings with a built-in gas mask filter that one held in front of the mouth. After a while they got repulsively warm. They have meanwhile been improved. Aside from a few commands and the occasional hissing of an oxygen bottle, it remained quiet in the boat. We waited four hours.
Shortly before surfacing I checked the life-vests. I instructed my men how to behavior if captured. Some of us, I said, might fall now. We did not know what awaited us up there. Perhaps all of us would perish. We would also know how to die like soldiers. And since a man can only become a hero after his death, we had prospects.
It was not an elegiac mood. One shouldn’t think that. I also didn’t see anybody who was afraid. We reasoned with ourselves that it might get that far in a few minutes. It is strange how neutral toward oneself, how subservient to fate and calm a man is in such moments.
We would, if it got rough, do our best to escape the English who, for our sake, had sacrificed a fat steamer and done nothing else all day but search for us. There were no longer any other possibilities.
Zirfas strained his ears around the dial.
“All quiet”, he reported. “They might be lying in wait. None are moving anymore.”
I went through the control room.
“Blow the tanks!”
It whistled and rustled in the tanks. I climbed into the tower, past the rudder control, and remained on the step just below the hatch in order to immediately see what was up.