Monday, November 9, 2015


The briefing for the last trial was in Werner's office. None of the other officers were present, just the admiral and Werner. The admiral came straight to the point.

"Captain, this is the last trial for your boat. If this trial is successful, I will be taking the results of all the tests to Admiral Donitz to get his approval to present it to the Fuhrer. This project, thus far, has been quite successful and I believe that the Fuhrer will be hard pressed to find a reason to disapprove it.

"You are to take U-1215 out and submerge as soon as possible and sail to the edge of the continental shelf approximately 180 kilometers away. You will then follow the shelf two hundred kilometers southeast, turn around and sail northwest two hundred kilometers. You will repeat this continually for three weeks. At the end of those three weeks, you will return to base. This trial is to test how the submarine performs on long cruises and whether the crew comforts we included in the design will improve the men's performance. Are there any questions so far?"

"Is the Heimlich going to accompany us on this trial, sir?" Heimlich had not had much success tracking U-1215. She would not be able to follow them around, much less guard them.

"No, the area is being actively patrolled by Allied aircraft. In any case, her presence will seem strange to anyone who finds her. What is a destroyer doing all alone so far from the bases? If the Allies capture her or any of her crew, they may find out about U-1215 which we cannot allow."

Werner thought about it for a few moments. Three weeks at full speed would bring them to New York and back with several days extra to sink some ships. That was wishful thinking, of course. The admiral would never allow it. Instead, they were going to sail up and down the Bay of Biscay, following the continental shelf for three weeks, submerged the whole time. This area was close enough to the mainland that Allied warships avoided it but aircraft were another matter. Their being underwater would keep them safe from detection but what if an enemy captain discovers them? "Admiral, what if we encounter enemy vessels along the way?"

"That is unlikely to happen, Captain, but in case you do encounter them, you are to avoid contact at all cost. I am confident they cannot hear you but you are still detectable if they use active sonar. Your boat is the only one of its kind so don't lose it. Furthermore, both sides of this conflict do not know about you. An Allied submarine will attack you for sure, but a u-boat may decide to attack you as well just because he doesn't recognize you as a German submarine.

"Still, one can never be 100% sure about anything so I have authorized you to carry a full load of torpedoes with active warheads. If you are discovered, you may launch your weapons at them but you will not, repeat, not initiate action against any vessel. Is that understood?"

"Clearly, Admiral."

"And that goes for u-boats as well."

Werner looked at his admiral in surprise. "Sink a u-boat? Sir that would be counter-productive!"

"It would be counter-productive if everyone knows about you before U-1215 and his brothers can become operational. My order stands. You are to destroy anything that discovers you."

"Very well, Admiral. I shall do as you say." Werner, didn't like it but he had his orders.

"Good, you will leave on May 7 and we will expect you back on May 28."

Werner suddenly thought of something. "Admiral, what if something goes wrong and we need to surface?"

The admiral looked at Werner for a few moments before he spoke. "Captain, if you can, you may sail her on the surface back to base. If you are unable to sail her, you may call for help on the radio using our codes. I will send the Heimlich to take you in tow. If, however, you are in danger of being discovered by an enemy warship, you are to scuttle her," the admiral made a short pause, "along with you and everyone else on board."

The admiral's final sentence caused Werner to look up in shock. The older man just looked at him intently. He was ordering Werner to commit suicide and to bring his men along for his last trip, if it came to that.

The admiral stood up and told Werner to follow him. They went out to the submarine where the admiral ordered everyone to get off. Once the boat was cleared of men, he led Werner inside to the captain's stateroom. He went to the bed and pulled up the reading lamp. The fixture came off and revealed a recessed space. Inside was a button.

"This, Captain, is a scuttling button. Normally, the engineering officer is in charge of scuttling the boat once all the crew have abandoned ship. This button, will enable you to blow up the submarine from here, in case you need to destroy the boat with everyone in it. Commander Meyer is the only other officer who knows about this button and he has orders to activate it in case you are unable to do so." The admiral replaced the reading lamp. It went back to being an ordinary reading lamp. Werner suppressed a shudder. He had switched that lamp on and off dozens of times in the past weeks. He wondered if he was ever going to be able to sleep in his own stateroom after this.

The admiral stood up and started walking toward the control room. There, he paused and faced Werner. "Captain, the Bay of Biscay is a very dangerous place. Allied planes patrol it regularly and British submarines occasionally lie in wait for our u-boats to pass by before sending a torpedo as a way of greeting. Since you will be underwater the whole time, you won't have to worry about aircraft. A submarine, however, is another matter. I'm confident they won't hear you but you will probably hear them unless they happen to be lying around with their motors off. If you do detect them, you are to change course to avoid. I know the temptation to fire on an unsuspecting enemy is very great but if you miss and they escape, they will return to their base and report that they encountered a silent u-boat. They may start developing something to counter that ability. We must hide that fact from them until we have a force of U-1215's brothers in operation."

Werner nodded his head as he and the admiral walked toward the ladder that went up to the conning tower, but thought that the admiral was being overly cautious. If he heard another submarine in his path, he would have no way to know if it was friend or foe unless it was on the surface. A ship, however, was another matter. If he encountered a ship, he thought he could safely fire torpedoes into it. What better way to prove U-1215's abilities?

U-boat commanders were usually given free reign since they were so far from their bases. The decision to attack or not to attack was often left up to them though no u-boat commander in his right mind would pass up an opportunity to sink an enemy vessel. Still, he was given an order and he intended to follow it...unless forced to do otherwise.

He hid behind some crates, the shadow thrown by the overhead lights concealing him perfectly. He could hear the sound of activity close by so he stayed still to avoid discovery. Soon, the sounds faded and he ventured out, sticking to the shadows and hugging the walls or the sides of crates. People seemed to have gone into one of the buildings and the pier was empty. He ran out in the open, reached the aft gangplank, and was searching for an opening when he heard a noise. Sensing danger, his search became frantic when he found the aft hatch and started down. The slippery metal ladder caused him to fall to the deck below. He was a little stunned but uninjured. He started down a corridor to find a hiding place.

Lt. Schneider took them out this time. It was two days short of the full moon so conning the sub out of the pen was not difficult but it did not make it safer. They were partially submerged again, moving out at engines ahead slow. They were to keep monitoring the depth under the keel and dive completely as soon as the depth showed 30 meters. A very shallow dive, thought Schneider. If I'm not careful, I could run the sub aground and that might spell the end of this project, not to mention my life.

The moonlight was also worrying Schneider. All four lookouts, he and one other man were watching the sky and the horizon. If a plane spotted them, they had no weapons to defend themselves since U-1215 had no deck armaments. With only the conning tower above the surface, they might mistake us for a whale, Schneider thought hopefully.

The dive point was approximately eight kilometers away. Schneider ordered engines ahead one-third and set course to 243°. His fears were unfounded. Less than an hour later, U-1215 slipped beneath the waves.

About a hundred kilometers out, they encountered their first contact. It was probably a submarine, traveling on the surface and recharging its batteries. They didn't know if it was a submarine or a surface vessel, Allied or Axis. Werner debated with himself about using the periscope to identify it but it was coming toward them and they might see the periscope's feather when it rose above the surface. Werner ordered a turn to the north to avoid it. Just for practice, the firing team plotted an attack on the unsuspecting vessel as it moved on, unaware that it was being targeted though it was never in any danger. Their orders ensured that. If it was a u-boat, Werner wondered who it was. If it was a British or American submarine, it was being daring. By being on the surface in u-boat infested waters, they could easily become the prey.

The sonar operator kept his ear on the contact, listening for any changes but there was none. The unknown sub or vessel was chugging along toward the east at about 8 knots. A u-boat perhaps, not an Allied submarine. As the range increased, the sound became fainter and fainter until it was no longer distinguishable from the other noises of the sea. Werner got them back on their previous course.

Life on board the new sub is much more comfortable compared to his previous assignments, Werner thought. With the old submarines, space was at a premium. It was almost impossible to move from compartment to compartment without encountering someone moving in the opposite direction. Most of the time, one had to jam himself against the side of the passage to let someone pass. Of course, rank had its privileges. When the captain is walking in one direction, anyone walking in the opposite direction almost always let him pass unobstructed. During drills and actual combat, however, anyone seen running had priority. Even the captain had to let him pass.

All this was almost unnecessary in U-1215. The passageways were wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side but hardly anyone did this. Everyone walked single file going in one direction and single file in the other direction. A two lane road in a submarine! The only place where the passage was a bit tight was in the crew's compartment. The crew slept in bunk beds which were in cubicles—two bunk beds per cubicle, four beds in all. Each man had a locker for his use and the bunk bed could be lifted to reveal more space underneath for other personal effects. It was possible to sit up on a bunk bed and a fold away table let the men do any writing if they wished.

There were three columns of cubicles, one on each side of the sub and another in the middle. A head and a shower were at each end of the crew's compartment. The sub actually had four heads, a luxury in a submarine. Two were near the crew's compartment, one forward of the control room, and another in officer's country. More than once, the crew who had served on smaller submarines, were heard to refer to the U-1215 as "Neptune's Hotel."

This cruise was turning out to be a boring one. 200 kilometers at 12 knots can be traversed in under 9 hours though Werner had them crawling at one-third every few hours or so. They could make about four round trips per day at the rate they were going. Other than the surface contact on the first day, nothing else was encountered for a week. All was not well with the submarine, however.

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