Background: The Nazi published a large number of 32-page booklets in a series titled “War Library of the German Youth.” They were intended to persuade the youth of the glories of war, and often included a pitch to enlist in the military. This one is titled Dust Cloud and Neptune: Hunting Convoys in the Mid-Atlantic. My military vocabulary is not well developed, so I may not have all the naval terms translated properly. This appeared in mid-1942. There were 156 items in this serious, though it seems not to have been as popular with the youth as another series of adventures in former German colonies. This page includes all the illustrations in the original.
The source: Staubwolke und Neptun. Auf Geleitszugjagd im Mittelatlantik(Berlin: Steiniger-Verlage, no date). This is #136 in the series “Kriegsbücherei der deutschen Jugend.”
In gray-green camouflage in an Atlantic harbor, there are enormous concrete bunkers with large bays. They were built almost overnight by thousands of workers from the Organisation Todt or the Reich Labor Service. The harbor water flows slowly through the gaping doors, which allow a little light to reach the interior. That and the electric lights provide just enough illumination to turn the midnight darkness into mysterious twilight.
Like horses in their stalls, here the submarines lay next to each other. One submarine is in dry dock. Hammers fall, welders are at work, and one hears drills. Damage is being repaired. The crew is leaving another submarine, tossing their packs into a waiting truck. A submarine has returned from its mission, and is resting now, safe in the bunker from enemy air attacks. The crew gets a leave after a long mission. A third submarine is taking on torpedoes. Another bay is empty, waiting for a boat that is due to return today.
Things are lively on “U ...” All the hatches are open. Dim light shines from the interior. Boatswain R, the Number One, and several crewmen are loading fresh provisions. Sacks of potatoes disappear inside, as do a case of apples, grapes, meat, sausage, cheese, butter, cabbage and eggs. The fresh fruit is the last of it. The boat is ready, since the fresh provisions are the last that is loaded. Here and there Number One tosses another piece of paper on board and cleans up.
Everything must be in order. The captain is due any minute.
The C. E. [chief engineer] Lieutenant v. E. and the I WO. [first watch officer] Lieutenant L. are talking. Like everyone else, they are wearing the yellowish-green submarine uniform. The responsible officer for the electrical equipment, Engineering Machinist B., steps up to the L. I. A short announcement:
“Electrical systems ready!” — “Yes!”
Diesel engines ready!” — “Yes!”
Diesel Machinist K. goes back to his two diesels. They are named “Mosquito” and “Elephant.”
Staff Machinist H., the oldest on board, stays above for a moment. He will not see the light of day for a long time, for once at sea there is rarely opportunity for him to come above.
“Upper deck ready!”
Number One reports to the I. WO.
Everything is ready. The minutes pass slowly. In the distance, a tall slender figure appears. He clambers over the construction, carrying a brief case in his left hand. A blood-red scarf show through a fur vest. The thin face is tense. The captain’s cap is a dirty white.
The crew lines up. They are over forty battle-tested and experienced soldiers who are not sailing against the enemy for the first time with their captain. The L. I. as senior officer takes command.
“Line up! Attention! Look straight ahead!”
As he announces the captain: “Eyes right!”
Captain G. steps over the small plank that is the only connection between the boat and the shore.
“As ordered, the crew is all present. Everything is ready to sail!”
“Thank you! Heil U ...!”
“Eyes ahead! At ease!”
The captain speaks to his men. He spares himself a lot of words. He knows them, and that he can depend on them, and what he can expect of them.
The men know him. In brief, he says: “The war begins and ends for us in the locks.”
The I. WO handles the departure.
“All lines are free!”
“Both engines, all ahead slow!”
“OK, Neptune, close the hatches!”
Boatswain R. does his usual duty. Neptune—that is Able Seaman F.—neatly rolls up the lines on deck. They’ll be needed again in the lock. A shudder runs through the ship: both engines, which were silent while in port, are running. They will cease only when the boat returns from its mission against the enemy after many weeks.
The boat glides slowly through the harbor. Comrades from other boats wave.
“A degree to starboard!”
The submarine glides smoothly into the lock and ties up. The closest friends are there, comrades from other boats.
The water gurgles through the lock. Finally the water level has reached sea level. The gates open slowly. The sea is ahead.
“Secure all lines!” — “Both engines all head slow!” — “Course 220 degrees!”
“Secure upper deck!”
Quickly, all the lines and gear are stowed. The hatches are closed and tested.
I. WO to the captain: “Upper deck clear!” — “Yes!”
Below deck is also secured. Machinist K. is at work. His blond head slips like a weasel through the cargo, stashing a vegetable crate here, the jams there, securing the potato sacks and the spices. The chief engineer checks once again the fore and aft torpedo tubes.
L. I. to the captain: “Lower deck secure!” — “Yes!”
The men on the pier grow smaller.
To the signal station: “U ...” has left!
Neptune does the signaling. A powerful escort leads the way, accompanied by minesweepers. Woe to the enemy pilot that tries to attack! He would be dispatched quickly.
Guarded by the escort, “U ...” heads for the open sea. The first evening clouds are on the horizon. The minesweepers have turned back. Now the escort signals:
“I’m leaving. Good luck!”
“Neptune, get up! It is quarter to six!”
Neptune shifts in his bunk, which is next to the reserve torpedoes.
“Man, what’s up! Are you crazy?”
“No, no, really! We are at sea!”
Erwin, the “Dust Cloud,” does not relax. He always lisps to his comrades. He whispers quietly so as not to wake the others. Neptune stretches wearily and then groans. He has a headache from the hammering of the diesel engines and the boat’s odor. In half sleep, he has confused dreams amidst the ship’s monotonous hammering. He forces his feet into the felt boots. He pulls his greenish-gray leather jacket over his lederhosen and wool jumpers, which he never takes off during a mission. He rinses out his mouth. Taking care of teeth is essential. His morning chores are done. He takes a quick look in the mirror. Does he have a beard after one night? To his annoyance, there is nothing to see. Neptune is much too young. He is barely 20. His greatest regret is that he has never yet succeeded in growing a proper submariner’s beard.
“To the fore!”
With practiced skill, he climbs up the tower and sticks his head through the hatch. He looks around and sees the black shadow of the old watch standing out against the sky.
Neptune takes over the lookout post.
First he surveys the horizon. They he looks up into the night sky. The Atlantic is clear, no steamer, not a ship in sight. The four lookouts on the first watch have the “coffee watch,” as it is jokingly called. For Boatswain R, who takes this watch, always calls down: “A cup of coffee for Germany’s best watch!”
Then Erwin dashes so quickly that “the dust flies,” like a living “dust cloud,” to make the coffee.
The four lookouts examine the horizon centimeter by centimeter. Nothing in sight! What a disappointment!
The sea grows rougher. Close together, the four lookouts stand in the cramped tower, four lost souls in the endless sea. In the twilight one must watch with special care. Twilight is the best time to attack, and the worst time to be attacked. Spray hits their faces. Three hours pass. Finally the first gray appears, the first day at sea.
“To the captain: Dawn!”
The call goes from the bridge to the tower, from the tower to control, from control to the captain’s quarters, and wakes him from deep sleep. He is up in a flash. Pulling his cap over his ears, he heads for the bridge. He is always on the bridge at dawn and dusk.
A form in a blue jumper follows the captain to the bridge, First Mate M. He examines the sky. Good cover. The horizon to the east is clear. The North Star, Procyon and Vega are clear. He repeatedly checks the sextant, then disappears down below.
The sky changes. The silver streak of the moon comes out. The silhouette of the boat is clear.
“Watch out, Heini! don’t write your name in the water!”
The voice of the Boatswain growls down through the tower to the helmsman, who had daydreamed a bit and “written” a long S-curve in the water behind.
“The guy is chiseling his name in the Atlantic!”
The boatswain mutters. The captain has something to say:
“Listen to me up there! Or to the devil with you! You depend on the men down below to do their duty if things get tense up there. More than 40 comrades are depending on you. It’s a damned lousy feeling when someone is up there who we don’t think it watching hour by hour, second by second, without someone always standing behind him with a club. Lookout is not only a question of seeing, lookout is a question of character! Do you understand me!”
The captain goes below. Silence prevails. The mood is past. Bright day is coming. The fourth hour of watch will soon be over. The eyes are tired and red from the salt spray. The relief is due. They all scan the horizon. Hey!
The bell rings shrilly. The watchers jump below in precise order to control. After a last look around, the I. WO closes the hatch.
“Hatch is shut!”
Neptune is already at his station, the aft rudder. From rear control, Dust Cloud’s deep voice sounds:
“Rear control ready to flood!” — “Flood”
The voice of the L. I.cuts through control. Dust Cloud opens the fast air valves to the dive bunkers, turns a handle and opens the air release. The air hisses out and water pours in. The boat dives. The L.I. watches the depth gauge fall. Lights blink to show him that everything is in order, and that water cannot get in anywhere. The boat sinks like a stone. The boat still pounds.
“Level at x meters! Both engines ahead full!”
The L. I. repeats the captain’s command. The two aft steersman watch the water levels and balance the boat until all the air is out of the dive tanks and they are filled with water.
“Close air valves!” — “Air valves closed!”
Erwin, the Dust Cloud, instantly closed the air valves. The L. I. trims the boat.
“A hundred liters!” — Trim 50 liters fore!”
Erwin turns the handles or runs the pumps. The aft battle station requires rapid action and precise action.
“A man from the bow to control!” — “Aye!”
A man from the tower to the hatch room!” — “Aye!”
Every movement must be reported to the L. I.! The boat must be trimmed for each small shift in weight.
“To the captain: the boat is at x meters!”
“Go to y meters!”
The boat descends slowly. Its second, underwater, life has begun. Silently, all do their duty, Orders are given and repeated in whispers. Each feels as if he is sneaking up on the enemy. The Atlantic rolls over the boat. Safely and surely, the boat moves through the depths of the sea.
After a long time in port, the captain wants to test the crew before crossing swords with the enemy. He wants to know just how far he can trust his boat. Many look tensely to the hull, wondering if it will hold. A foolish question, really; the responsible men know it will hold. Water drips from a grate: drip — drip — drip.
“External exhaust port is leaking!” The announcement sounds a bit too excited.
“Question from the L. I.: Is the interior secure?” — “Yes, the interior is secure!”
The boat goes deeper. The captain, the L. I. and the central machinist watch the gauges, metes and valves carefully. They alone know how far they can depend on the boat. Everyone else trusts them blindly. More and more leaks appear, more and more valves drip. A novice on his first voyage nervously announces:
“Water entering through a stop valve!”
Erwin punches him in the side.
“Shut up! Nothing will happen with our old man!”
The chief machinist also grumbles.
“Are your legs in the water yet? The captain rubs his hands in comic desperation.:
“The young lad is boasting! Great!”
Everyone laughs, because they know everything is OK. The “old man” knows what he is doing, after all. The boat shifts. The enormous pressure of the water has compressed it. Meter by meter the boat creeps deeper. The captain is at full attention.
A rib has made itself known. The limit has been reached. The captain gives a last look at the depth gauge.
“To the L. I.: surface!”
The captain disappears behind the curtain that separates his space from the rest of the boat. The L. I. brings the boat up.
“Clear the upper deck for surfacing!”
The sea watch is ready to spring up and see what is there and, if necessary, to fight.
“The tower is up!” — “Equalize Pressure!” ...”Pressure equalized!”
The ears pop. the I. WO opens the hatch. Air, air, fresh air streams in! The lungs suck it in. “Both engines full speed ahead!”
“U ..,” presses on into the Atlantic. The danger of air raids is over. Now there is opportunity for a cigarette on the tower. Only one at a time can head up, since each one requires a few seconds to get back down — and seconds can be crucial.
Dark cloud cover brings a magical Atlantic night that weighs on the heart and draws the true sailor back to the sea.
Close together, the men of the first watch stand together. No human soul fails to be silenced by the unending sea and its incomparable wonder.
“There, Neptune, near the horizon, that bright star is Spica.”
So, that is Spica. Neptune dreams a bit. His thoughts wend their way homeward. Can those back home see Spica? What about the small truck in which he had so often ridden? His comrades named him after it. An insult, really. Suddenly he stiffens. Almost automatically, he had been surveying the horizon, no matter where his thoughts were. He sees a light, a ball of light, spouts of flame.
“Lights on he horizon! Signals!”
“You’re dreaming, Neptune. It’s only phosphorescence. Pay more attention!”
Phosphorescence! The sparks of a thousand diamonds, a million emeralds, and sapphires cannot compare with the splendor of the sea. Silver and gold shines around the boat, and a thousand shining sparkles are in the wake.
No one knew who started. First one, then two, then the entire watch was singing.
“In the barracks by the big gate, there stood a lamppost, and it stands there still...” and “Then we sailed around Cape Horn...” and “Off Madagascar...” and again and again the boat’s favorite song: “and if something happens to me, who will stand by the lamppost with you, Lili Marleen?”
Lured by “his” song —he has a picture of Lale Anderson in his pocket—the L. I. comes up top and joins in with his clear baritone. It gets more comfortable. “A cup of coffee for the Führer’s best watch!”
One, two, three fish swim like torpedoes alongside the ship courting each other.. A small black shadow flashes past — a frightened gull. Where do they hatch? The nearest land is thousands of kilometers away. Can they get there? If one of these creatures could rise up and see this monster glide past with its singing watch in the middle of the Atlantic, it would believe in the devil or in Lützow’s wild wide or in the bogey man...
“New watch! Oiled garb!”
The old watch finds its bunks. Soon they are sleeping deeply.
Oops! Suddenly both of Neptune’s legs are hanging in the air. He curses and raises the “railing,” a small bar that keeps him from flying into the neighbor’s bunk in rough seas.
“Shit!” Another has fallen out of his bunk and pulls himself painfully back. Neptune presses both arms and legs against the sides. He lays this way for hours, defending himself against the boat’s tossing. It is easy enough with practice, but it is tiring.
Crash! Crunch! An empty can slides through the room.
Tsschhh!! Heels shift from left to right and back again.
Rumble! A stool in the officers’ mess tips over. The devil is loose in the back of the mess. Knives, plates, forks and spoons, glasses and coffee tins are flying about in a wild dance.
Click ... click ...click... Milk cans are falling to the ground. Everyone hears the noise, but each pretends to be fast asleep!
Get out of the bunk again? Let someone else do it!
“What’s going on here? Do I have a crew of children? Report to me in ten minutes that everything is back in its place, understand??”
The “entertainment” comes to an end after the captain’s sharp command. But the “old man” is right. Had he not ordered last night that everything should be made secure? Look what happened! Everyone’s sleep is disturbed!
“Didn’t I tell you to secure everything? Were you asleep all day?? You have five minutes!”
Now he gets to work in the officer’s mess.
Dust Cloud gets to control. One can’t describe what falls on his innocent head. But he dashes through the boat like greased lightning, securing what can be secured, stapling what can be stapled. Finally he cleans up the remaining mess and throws it overboard.
“Boatswain’s mate, all is secured!”
“Boatswain’s mate to Lieutenant: Boat is secure!”
“Captain, all is...”
But he is sound asleep again. The noise did not disturb him. But he knew that many of his men could not sleep, and besides, an order carried out poorly is a bad thing.
Morning comes slowly. The boat is bumping along like an old Ford on a rough road. Knives, forks, cups and saucers clatter. Dust Cloud is working in the kitchen. Suddenly the I. WO springs from his bunk with a powerful curse. The whole boat laughs. The bow can hardly quiet down. A particularly rough wave sent a soup bowl filled with morning porridge right into his bunk as a welcoming greeting.
Breakfast can only be eaten standing up. That takes practice. One puts the back against one wall, and the feet look for bracing on the other, and the plate has to be balanced so that the soup doesn’t spill over the edge.
“First watch to the deck! Wear oil coats!”
As Neptune goes above, Mother Nature has prepared a wild scene. Waves five, six or seven meters high surround the tiny boat. The white foam is high above the boat, now it dives down on it and drives it to the side like a toy. A submarine, however, is a stand-up toy. It is the most seaworthy of all ships. It rights itself every time, despite the sea.
It takes all of Neptune’s strength to hold firm. Suddenly a comrade holding watch slips through the green sea, and clings to the periscope. His knuckles are white, but he holds on. The sea won’t get him! The waves roll under the boat. Now it is high above the bridge and has a wide view of the raging sea. He almost seems to be clinging to the heavens. The blue-gray sea slams into the four once more. The two rear lookouts close the hatch, but a lot of water has already poured into control and into the bilge. More water pours down. They can hardly hear each other.
“Central? — “Attention!”
Dust Cloud’s blond head appears.
Security straps to the bridge!
Four security straps are passed up from below. The men tie themselves in. Now at least they can no longer be washed overboard.
“What time is it?”
Just an hour has passed. Legs and arms grow slowly weary from the waves’ eternal pounding. Three hours to go.
“A cup of coffee for the Führer’s snappiest watch!”
Despite the storm, Dust Cloud manages to get excellent coffee to the bridge. It has to be drunk quickly between two waves, however, or...
The I. WO hums to himself: “The ocean is beautiful when tossed by wind and waves...”
The Boatswain is a bit annoyed. “I’d like to have the guy who writes songs like that here...”
“Well, Boatswain, the song is still lovely. And despite it all, the landlubbers envy us our experiences.”
“Well, I’ve had enough. I’d like to be sitting in a good pub! A hot sun, a thick green oak above, and a tasty cold beer would be nice too!”
Silence again. Each watches his sector.
They all quietly curse the captain. Why have an underwater vessel? Why not build a duck? Why sit up here when it is so calm down below? But that is a mistake. A submarine is not really an underwater vessel. True, when it gets tough, when destroyers are around, one seeks the safety of the depths. Otherwise? Diving means being blind and wasting electricity. That is not why one goes to war. The captain is tough in this regard. They are hunting for convoys. He doesn’t even consider diving, regardless of how the sea rages. Submarine warfare calls for real men.
“Hey, Neptune, if we had beer at sea we’d all be drunk, yes?”
The Boatswain can’t stop thinking about it. He plans to buy a village pub later. The I. WO hums on.
“A sea voyage....” Oops! A wave washes the rest of the words from his mouth.
“...is a delight!” Sploosh! He is wet from top to bottom.
“A sea voyage...” Slap! The sea hits the side of the bridge like a sword, and sprays the I. WO in the face.
“...is lovely!!” The I. WO can’t be stopped.
“A cigarette to the bridge!” “A cigarette is lit and handed to the Boatswain. It is soggy before it reaches his mouth. He dries his hands and gets another. He gets one puff before the sea puts it out. The cigarette is soaked.
The minutes pass slowly. 240 minutes have to pass in this shitty weather. And one can’t daydream even for a second. A second’s inattention, and forty comrades lose their lives. One second’s inattention may miss the sliver of mast on the horizon, perhaps visible only in that second. A whole convoy may as a result be missed, and with it the success of the entire mission. It is the same on every boat. Everything depends on each individual.
But submarine life is also wonderful. Men who have served on them want to stay with it, even if the sea rages, the potatoes fly off the plates, and the boat is not still for days.
Days have passed since the storm. Still no freighter has been sighted.
“Rear engine! All ahead slow!”
Like a giant whale, the boat sails slowly to the west. The watch scans the horizon with their binoculars. But the Atlantic remains empty.
“I hope nothing has happened to keep the English from showing up?”
But curses or grim jokes do the captain no good. Nothing comes. The men begin to avoid him. During such waiting periods, no real submarine captain can get along with those around him. He wanders around like a caged lion, snapping at anyone who comes near him. The boat continues along its assigned course toward England’s last remaining convoy lines.
The first days of November are over. The sun still burns hot and the water that sprays in the face is lukewarm. The off-duty watch takes it easy. Recorded music plays over the loudspeakers throughout the boat, awakening longings. It is late in the evening. Inside, one knows that only by looking at the clock. The same yellow light always burns. The crew has the same cramped space at its disposal. Each crewmember gets only one cigarette break a day, and the chance to see the sky.
The captain lies on his bunk and pages through the guidebook to the German Art Exhibition. Suddenly the music stops. The radio has switched it off. The captain listens to the code.
Dit dit dit dah dit dah dit...
Signals fly through the room are caught and quickly written down on paper. The radio mate brings the message to the captain. Captain G. reads. His brow furrows.
“This is ‘U ...,’ ...This is ‘U ...’ Convoy in quadrant zdax attacked. Passenger steamer burning, 5,000 tons sunk. Losing contact. Convoy course is 180 degrees.”
To the south!
“First mate to Captain!!”
“First mate, how far are we from quadrant zdax?”
“X miles, Captain!”
“Good. New course is y degrees. Both engines ahead full!”
The water pours over the bow. Bright white foam streams on both sides. The wake bubbles. “U ...” is on the hunt.
Dit dit dit dah dit...
More radio messages. This time from headquarters.
“To U... To U...! To U...! Attack convoy z!”
The grey wolves gather. From all sides they head toward quadrantzdax. They seek rich prey and speed through the whole night toward the target. “U...” is part of it. The captain is a changed man. His bad mood is gone. Things are happening! Things are happening!
Everyone has the fever of the hunt.
The first masts shouild be visible on the horizon at about noon, if the calculations are correct. The lookout stares until his eyes pop out. Each wants to be the first to spot the convoy. And it is important to see without being seen.
Ship to the starboard!
Neptune points. The captain does not see anything. But Neptune is his best lookout. He looks through the binoculars again. Nothing? No, is there is a small black stripe?? There it is again!
A German submarine!
They are both searching for the convoy. But it has zig-zagged, and is elsewhere in the ocean. It has vanished, and must be found again. The captain has a difficult job, since the convoy can be anywhere in an area that is about half the size of the old Reich.
Both crews wave and wish each other good hunting. Then both boats go their ways and disappear into the Atlantic. More hours pass. A new radio message from headquarters.
“The weather will be clearing after z o’clock in the area of convoy z.”
The midday sun is high when a dark spot nears from the east at great speed. With roaring motors the airplane glides over the boat heading west to the convoy. More waiting.
The boat changes course.
The captain heads further south, presuming correctly that the convoy will change course as a result of the loss of cover.
Neptune once again is the first.
“Masts on the horizon!”
It is true! There are one, two, three, four small masts. They look like matchsticks. The convoy is there!
Now comes the hard part. Maintain contact, and wait for other boats to arrive. It is a battle of nerves between the convoy leader and the captain! If nothing unexpected happens, the battle will end with a new German submarine success.
Watching the horizon is tiring work. As the best lookout, Neptune takes the prime position and does not let his gaze wander for a second.
“The masts are getting larger!” — A degree to starboard!”
The masts are getting smaller!” — “One degree port!”
The masts are still getting smaller!” — “Two degrees port!”
“Three masts have disappeared over the horizon! Only one is still visible, but it is getting larger!” — “One degree starboard!”
Carefully, carefully the captain surveys the horizon.
“Well, an old escort is suspicious, like a bull elephant. If he sees anything he’ll alarm the whole group!”
The captain knows exactly what he has to do. Captain G. is an old submariner. The large mast on the horizon is still moving about. He looks to the sky with concern. Will the sun stay behind the clouds until dusk? Otherwise the boat will stand out against the horizon. Finally, darkness begins to come. Take care! The transition from light to dark is so fast that even full speed sometimes cannot hinder losing contact. How can one find the convoy then?
“The convoy is zigging to the east!”
Thank God!! Keep an eye on them. Success will come. But what is that?
Suddenly there is s rising cloud of smoke next to the mast on the horizon. It grows minute by minute. A destroyer is heading toward the submarine at full speed. The course is changed. Now there is only one escape:
“Alarm!” — “Dive!”
The boat dives. It surfaces after a short while. The surface is clear. But the convoy has been lost. Other submarines have not yet arrived. God knows where Tommy has gone.
The captain isn’t giving up. He chases after the convoy. The sea may pound the tower, everything inside may fly about, even those with good sea legs may tire, but the captain keeps at it. After days and nights of dogged hunting, the convoy is lost. This time, the prey got away.
Those are the last masts the boat sees for weeks. The weeks that follow are really typical of submarine life. For every moment of battle, there are a hundred moments of ordinary life.
One evening a stiff wind blows from the west, straight ahead. The sea pounds over the bow. The wind rises to hurricane strength. Life becomes difficult. Everyone glares at everyone else. These are the hardest days of the mission, but they must be endured. The storm lasts for weeks. What more is there to say.
Always the same faces. They know every detail. K... is bored. Only Erwin, the Dust Cloud, tries to lighten things up with a joke occasionally. Or he just smiles, and the mood lightens up.
“Change of watch! Third watch with jackets and southwesters!”
The first watch comes down wet as dogs. Neptune gets out of his wet coat as fast as he can and gives it to his comrades to dry in the battery room. They he runs like a madman...
Well, four hours of watch are a long time. And one can’t get away. And if one can’t go above...one must wait until one is below... Neptune runs like a bullet to the head, only to stare.
A small lamp is red: occupied!
Damn! Who’s in there?
He has reason to curse. The unwritten law is that the head is left free for the watch. And now someone is sitting in there...!
Neptune pounds the door. Nothing happens inside. He is much to happy too have had the chance. Neptune pounds the door again.
“What’s going on there?”
The captain sticks his head out of his cabin. Well, enough pounding. Neptune must wait. He shifts from one leg to the other. He gets cramps. If only it were not red! Every time he needs to ... red! More than forty souls have learned to wait. But now he swears. When the guy comes out, Neptune will strangle him, murder him in cold blood! Enough! Is he going to sit there forever? Three or four comrades are already waiting. All eyes gaze longingly at the lamp.
The lamp goes out. Slowly and guiltily, the door opens. Neptune is ready. He has a stream of insults waiting for the guilty party. His best friend comes out and smiles.
Neptune dashes past like soccer ball heading for the goal.
The daily battle with the red light is one of the many aspects of submarine life.
It is nearly midnight. All is silent. Dim night lights are burning. In the dark bow, the hammocks swing back and forth. In the bunks on either side, the sleepers shift uncomfortably, since the ship is constantly rolling, up and down, port to starboard, up and down, port to starboard.
A light is burning in the officers’ mess, where the L. I. is still working on tables and reports and other paperwork.
Finally he closes the books and stands up. He thinks a moment. Should he head for the bunk? He was in the engine room today. The controls really need to be tested. Well, to work!
He goes through the darkened control room to see the night watch. Dust Cloud is sitting tiredly on a sack of potatoes. All this stuff to do!
“Dust Cloud, there is work to do in the engine room today, understand?”
“Yes, Sir. Should I get some food together? And make coffee?”
The L. I. goes through the officers’ quarters past the small kitchen and opens the hatch to the engine room. The noise is deafening. Only the rear diesel is operating, the starboard engine is quiet. The engine thunders to the same rhythm hour after hour, day after day, week after week, There has not been an hour of quiet since the voyage began.
“Machinist K, prepare to inspect the controls!”
“Yes, Sir, Lieutenant!”
The diesel’s cover is removed. The oily-black interior is visible. The diesel machinist and his men shine lights into the dark and measure to the millimeter the crankshaft.
Nothing escapes their trained eyes. Now and again their oil-stained faces rise, and the reach for some tool or another, or check to see that everything is tight. Then they continue working, tough and doggedly.
Dust Cloud is in control. One pot before him is filled with potatoes, another with sea water. Across form him is his friend Lands, Machinist Corporal L. They are both peeling. The chief machinist watches. His dirty face is weary. He is weary from the eternal life at sea, from eternal watches, from learning and training.
He is the oldest on board, and does not sleep so well any longer. He hardly lies down in his cot before he is back at “his” station. One can tell he has many missions behind him. Also many, many years of training and learning. He always had to learn the hard way. Now he is a stern teacher himself. They have all learned from him, Dust Cloud and Lands included, along with Little Hörst and Slow Bremer, and more besides. He is an excellent trainer for them all. Day and night, and in particular in moments like these, he always has something to day. He may show his walking stick that belonged to a comrade who fell in Poland, and is his constant companion, or it may be maps, drawings, valves, hand wheels, knives. No one knows it all as well as he, and no one on board has as much experience..
The hours pass slowly. A mountain of potatoes have been peeled. The men are still at work in the engine room. Dust Cloud stands up with a sigh.
“Well, that’s enough.”
“Lands, chop the onions. And get some butter. And there must be a little ham left from this noon. I saw it earlier. Bring it along.”
Dust Cloud disappears into the tiny kitchen. Soon a pan of butter is sizzling. With acrobatic skill, Dust Cloud slips in the potatoes. Lands is behind him with the onions.
The noise of the diesel pounds next to the kitchen. The engine check is finished. Both engines are running smoothly. “Mosquito” and “Elephant” are chugging along like old reliable companions.
Dinner in control. The chief machinist is looking through the periscope. The first mate is already holding his fork. The L. I. is sitting on a sack of potatoes. The men are sitting around wherever they can find a place. The big pot of potatoes is in the middle. Dust Cloud is carrying a big pot of coffee around. It all disappears into their stomachs quickly. Everyone goes back to their bunks.
Only Erwin, the Dust Cloud, and Lands remain on watch.
It’s been going on this way for weeks. No freighter in sight. It is as if Tommy has vanished from the seas. One day it comes to this:
” L. I. report to the captain!”
“L. I. how much fuel do we have left?”
“This morning we had ... cubic meters!”
“What do we need to continue slowly with one engine?”
“We need ... cubic meters a day!”
“So we still have ... days!”
“First mate and I. WO to the captain!”
In a moment, they are all in the captain’s tiny cabin. It is a difficult moment. The crew has held up well for weeks, not complaining as the storm hammered against the hull. Their hope in victory kept them going. But the hour has come when the fuel situation forces a return to port. The captain argues with each. He tries to find with the L. I. a way to reduce fuel consumption. He asks the first mate how far they are from port. He has a long conversation with the I. WO about the possibility of continuing west for a few days. In vain! They all know too well how things are. Facts are hard.
“Reverse course! We’re done!”
The joke is grim, and doesn’t work. They’ve been sailing about for weeks. Toward Greenland, then the Azores. They tried their luck close to England’s coast, then far to the west. In vain.
The storm is long gone. All is calm on the boat. A pump sucks away slowly. The lookouts are quiet. Each is thinking his own thoughts. Now and again someone looks with binoculars toward the horizon. Nothing!
Wait a minute! Isn’t there something moving? A shadow?
Neptune takes another look.
“Lieutenant! There’s a shadow on the port side!”
“The I. WO takes a quick look. He’s right! A big form is coming toward them. Keep calm! They can stay opposite the moon.
“Hard starboard! All engines full ahead!”
“To the captain: Something to starboard!”
The boat comes alive. The captain springs from his bunk, jumps in his shoes and is on the bridge in no time. The L. I. is woken from sound sleep. He has long practice in becoming alert instantly. Everyone’s eyes sparkle. Control tests everything. Is the air pressure in the boat sufficient? What about oxygen? What is battery capacity? The diesels are singing their song. Action! Action! murmurs the “Elephant.” Finally! Finally! Finally! answers the “Mosquito.”
The captain evaluates the situation instantly. A shadow is coming out of the emptiness, a something, a ship, a prey! First, go after good light.”U ...” heads past the giant, then turns to an attack course.
“Wonderful! Wonderful! Our position is good!”
The captain rubs his hands. It can’t go wrong now!
The order reaches every corner of the boat clearly. Everyone is alert. Everyone is at his battle station. No one speaks. Only the orders are repeated. Someone checks the fire control. The I. WO announces:
“Torpedoes ready!” — “Thank you!”
The shadow grows darker, more threatening, blacker.
“My God, it’s a monster! At least 15,000 tons!” “It’s got a big gun on the port side!” “And another starboard!” “It’s got a big smokestack!” “There! All the life boats are hanging outside!”
The lookouts note the characteristics of the ship.
“Starboard 15!” — “Now at starboard 15!” — “Turn!”
The compass turns slowly.”
“Rudder midships!” — “Rudder midships!” — “Good!”
The boat is now stationed such that its tubes are perpendicular to the course of the oncoming freighter. The captain is delighted. It has to work! The I. WO as torpedo officer gives steady commands.
X meters! X meters! ....
“Damn! It zigged!”
The steamer made a course change at the last minute and is heading off with growing speed.”
“All engines ahead full!”
It won’t get away! Once again, the submarine turns to fire. Again, the enemy changes course at the last second. Again, and again. Captain G. doesn’t give up. They still haven’t noticed anything. An hour has already passed.
Once again “U ...” is in attack position. The huge silhouette is outlined against the moon. The thing must be at least 20,000 tons! It’s a giant!
“I. WO, are you ready to fire?”
“Yes, sir, Captain!”
“What is your plan?”
“Two torpedoes, Captain!”
“Agreed! You have permission to fire!”
“Tubes one and two..Ready!”
“Tubes one and two...Fire!”
“Tubes one and two have fired!”
As in a well practiced exercise, the announcement goes calmly through the boat. All look toward the enemy, seeking to piece the dark night.
“What happened? It changed course again!” “Damn! The fish will miss!”
The fish swim past. “U ...” changes course to keep on the heels of the prey. Once again it is in firing position. Once again two torpedoes are fired. The seconds pass.
Suddenly the steamer seems to stop. The fish have hit???? No! The steamer changed its speed. Once again, the fish swim past.
“The dog!” The captain slams his fist.
“I’ll get him if it takes every torpedo I have!”
“Rudder hard to port!”
The captain has turned at just the right time. The steamer has turned and is heading straight toward the boat.
“Have we been spotted?” Nervous moments pass. But all is well!
“He has to sink! Load the tubes!”
Above water the tubes are loaded while “U ...” speeds toward the enemy once more. The men work feverishly in the bow. Bare-chested and sweaty, the men push the one and half thousand kilogram torpedo into the tube. It is beastly work that has to be done quickly ... and is done! Four fish have already missed! That’s almost a disgrace! And there is all the tension built up over weeks.
The hunt goes on for hours. Morning is dawning. But mist comes with the morning. A gray blanket is over the sea. The steamer’s outlines grow unclear. It vanishes.
“We have to have it, whatever the cost!”
“I. WO, is everything ready? Can you fire immediately if we have a clearing in front of us?”
“Everything is ready, Captain!”
“Good. All engines ahead full!”
“U ...” plunges through the mist with full speed in pursuit of the prey.
“To the port — a big shadow!”
“Neptune points to it. There he is again! Four pairs of eyes turn toward it and look through their binoculars. The enemy is heading straight at them.
“Port 15!” — “Rudder is 15 to the port!”
“Have they seen us?”
“I don’t think so, captain! There is still fog at their bridge level!”
“Good! Let’s get closer! He won’t get away from us this time!”
The distance narrows. Nerves tense. Nearer and nearer. Now or never!
“Permission to fire!”
“Tube one, tube 2 ... ready!”
“Tube one, tube 2 ... Fire!”
“U ...” turns. As it does so, there are two hard, metallic blows:
Both fish hit! A visible shudder goes through the enormous ship. Even the mast shakes. It is tipping to starboard.
Now they must have seen the submarine!
The captain keeps his eyes to the binoculars. Is the enemy preparing the guns? Or is he abandoning ship?
Alarm!! — Dive!!
The boat is underwater in a moment. Neptune is in the rear at the controls of the aft rudder, steering the boat. The boat has to be at periscope depth quickly so that the captain can see ... and fire. It is not easy to hold the boat level. But Neptune is experienced. In a few moments the boat is at an even keel at periscope depth.
“Aha! I thought so! The thing has hoisted the war flag! We’ve got an auxiliary cruiser!”
The cheers resound through the boat. This flag will see the sinking of a British warship this morning!
“Crash! Crunch! Crack!”
What is happening?
It is dark in the boat. The lights have gone out. The L. I. questions the ship:
The reports come in. “No damage!”
The boat’s hull held. A depth charge must have gone off in the vicinity. The captain looks through the periscope. He gives the crew a brief report.
“All hell is breaking loose!: — “They are lowering the boats!”
“They are working like the Devil!”
The auxiliary cruiser is still not sinking. It might be towed back home.
“Tube — Ready!”
“Tube — Fire!”
A fish swims toward the sinking giant with its death-bringing cargo.
Another metallic blow shows that the fish hit. The colossus jumps again to the side. But it still does not sink. It must have a lot of wood as ballast in its belly!
“Load the tubes!”
The men work quickly. Each moment is dangerous. Surely it has called for help. Destroyers are surely racing to help from all directions to rescue the sailors and hunt the submarine.
“He’s going down if I have to fire every torpedo I have!” I. WO, are the torpedoes ready?”
“The torpedoes are loaded and ready!”
“Good! ... Tube one ... Ready! ... Fire!”
A short, loud sound. Then there is a deafening detonation. The ship is tossed about.
“We apparently hit the munitions chamber!” “Now it’s breaking in two!” “Yes! The masts are tipping toward each other!” “It’s sinking!” “The bow is in the air!” “It’s going down!” “The stern is up!” “Prepare to dive!” “Dive!”
The excitement is tremendous.
The battle between the 20,000 ton auxiliary cruiser and the “U ...” lasted seven hours. A dirty oil spot is all that remains of the trophy. The course is fixed toward home.
Dit dah dit dit dah....
A radio message!
“U ...” here, “U ...” here! Convoy in quadrant xaf!
Quadrant xaf is along the course. Perhaps one can have another shot at the convoy!
“All engines ahead full!”
Hours of hunting pass. Finally! “Masts on the horizon! Six, seven, eight, nine...” It’s the convoy!
But its course is the worst possible. One could follow for hours without getting a shot in.
Hey, what’s happening? The convoy is zigging!
Dive! It is daylight, and any surface attack will mean the loss of the boat.
“Go to periscope depth!”
Slowly, carefully, the captain raises the periscope by centimeters until it is just above the water. The waves repeatedly wash over the lens. Nothing can be seen. Now it is clear again! Now it’s gone! There it is again! Careful use of the periscope is necessary to success.
There! In the center of the convoy!
“Tube ... Fire!”
The torpedo hisses out of the tube toward a 5,000 ton freighter. Nervous seconds pass.
“Boom!” A detonation is heard.
The giant tips over and sinks within a few seconds.
Course 90 degrees!
The course toward home, to the east.
Eyes eagerly look for the strip of land on the horizon, a small, dark band. Land! For the first time in weeks!
Everyone who is off duty heads to the tower. The tower sways back and forth, Everyone wants to be there when the proud hour of return comes. From weary faces, from faces with blond, brown, black and red beards, happy eyes sparkle. The crowd waiting on the pier is already visible through the binoculars. There in blue is the base commander. There are girls from the vicinity with flowers. Why, even the commander is there with his staff to welcome the homecomers. Music plays as the boat enters the lock.
“Tie the lines!”
The boat is connected to the land. For the first time in weeks the engines are quiet. The commander comes on board, hears a report, and looks each member of the crew carefully and knowingly in the eye.
The captain stands before his men once more. In his hand he holds the certificates for the iron crosses earned on this voyage. There are many this time, for many sailors have already been on some successful missions,
Neptune springs forward and receives the Iron Cross, Second Class from his captain.
Dust Cloud steps forward. The commander awards the cross. Then a short speech:
“Comrades! The voyage is over! We have been successful! That may not always be the case! But always on every voyage, there must be the reliable work, brave conduct and unbreakable camaraderie for which I have been happy to award these decorations! Heil ‘U ...!’”
The hunt is over.
The last page of the book has the following encouragement to enlist:
Greater Germany’s sons from every district, north and south, east and west, sail against England, the enemy of German unity, freedom and greatness. They will certainly defeat the enemy and win victory for the Führer and people. Do you, German lad, want to enter the navy as an officer candidate? If so, report to the office of education of the navy (Admissions Department) in Kiel. There you will receive the necessary forms. If you, German lad, want to join the ranks of our brave submariners and sailors on battleships, armored ships, cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, speed boats and scouting vessels, or the ranks of the naval artillery that protect the coast, report to the nearest recruiting office or district army office. There you will learn all the details.
[Page copyright © 1998 by Randall L. Bytwerk. No unauthorized reproduction. My e-mail address is available on the FAQ page.]
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