Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Tour of the Sub

It was unlike any other submarine he had ever seen, not even the newest type of U-boat, the Type XXI.  The admiral had paused and allowed Werner to take a few moments to look it over from his vantage point.

Its hull was smooth and black and, although the lights in the cavern lit the place to almost sunlight brightness, it almost disappeared in the dark water. It was about one-and-a-half times the width of U-684 and more than twice the length. And while the typical u-boat was shaped like a surface vessel, this one was vastly different.

It had a chisel-like bow and the bowline ran vertically up and down from the deck to the water unlike the typical surface vessel. The dive planes near the bow were raised in the surfaced position and was the only reason why Werner could tell it was a submarine. A surface vessel did not have this feature.

About a third of the way from the bow was a conning tower but this one was also of a different design from the usual u-boat. It was shaped like a very short aircraft wing standing on end. He couldn't see a periscope or a snorkel so he assumed they were either not installed or were hidden inside the strange-looking structure. On the very top was a hollowed out space that had what seemed to be double doors. No doubt the space was where the lookouts stationed themselves when the boat was on the surface and the doors were shut when the boat submerged.

The aft part of the boat gradually sloped down until the end was underwater but a vertical fin could be seen sticking out of the water. It was a strange design for a submarine and Werner found himself becoming eager to understand the concept.

The admiral allowed him half-a-minute to see the whole boat and then led the way down the staircase. A row of sheds and other buildings lined the dock around the sub but the admiral went directly to the gangplank. He then stopped to wait for Werner.

"Captain, we are going inside for a tour. I would appreciate it if you keep quiet and reserve your questions until after the tour. Is that understood," the admiral commanded. Werner nodded his head, effectively saying, yes, while obeying the order at the same time.

They went in through the forward hatch, which was rather large and shaped like a small door than a hatch. Their descent had brought them into the torpedo room. Inside were the longest torpedoes he had ever seen. They were the reason for the large hatch. The forward hatch was also the weapon's loading door.

There were six torpedo tubes and torpedo racks on both sides of the boat. Making a quick mental count, Werner noted there was space for twenty-four torpedoes. If the six torpedo tubes were already loaded, that would make it thirty weapons that could be stowed on board. This was serious firepower. His own sub carried only twenty-two such weapons.

Werner also noticed the torpedoes had hydraulic loaders like the newer submarines now being built. These made short work of reloading the tubes enabling the submarine to fire another spread of six in a little over three minutes. The old block-and-tackle method took as much as fifteen to thirty minutes to reload.

Werner also noticed something stranger still. All the torpedoes had no screws. There was a hole where the screw would normally have been. Perhaps they had not been fitted yet.

Werner was surprised to find that the sub had a very deep draft. Where all the submarines he had ever been in were only one deck through and through, this one was at least two decks high.

The admiral waved for Werner to follow him into the next compartment. They climbed a ladder. Through a water-tight door, they came upon the forward head on the left and the radio/sonar room on the right. The sonar room looked much like any other sonar room except this was slightly roomier. The head looked unremarkable as well.

Still moving aft, Werner found himself in the sub's control room. His mouth gaped in amazement. The control room had more space than his submarine and even more than the new ones. The helmsman and planesman's stations lay next to each other in the forward part of the room. In place of the cushioned stools, these positions had cushioned chairs with backrests. Each chair also had seat belts to ensure that the helmsman and planesman kept the boat under control in spite of the sub's movements. Next was a large plotting table. Holders for the pens, rulers and slide rules were conveniently placed close by. Next to it was the firing solution equipment and to the right was obviously the remote torpedo firing station based on the labels on the buttons and lights. Early submarines had the torpedo firing levers in the torpedo room. In this submarine, the weapons could be fired from here. The periscope was just forward of the center of the room and looked unremarkable.

There were other controls and stations but Werner did not recognize them and the admiral did not allow him time to examine everything. One thing that amazed Werner was the fact that the room was clean, more like a land control room than a submarine's. There were no pipes or electrical conduits running overhead or on the walls. Missing was the familiar valves used for diving and surfacing the boat.

Through a water tight door at the far end of the control room, the captain found the C.O.'s state room and next to that was the wardroom on the right and food storage spaces on the left. The wardroom on U-684 was a bench and a table off to one side. It was a tight fit and one sometimes has to stand to let someone through. The wardroom in this submarine  was a real room with chairs instead of benches. There was enough space for people to pass without the necessity of someone standing to make room.

Further on, they came upon the officer's head and shower. Shower? Werner felt a stab of jealousy. His own sub did not have such amenities. He and his crew had to endure each other's smell for as much as ten weeks.

Next came the officer's berth. Double-deck bunks with a small table for each occupant at the foot of the beds. Werner shook his head. Was there anything this new submarine had that would surprise him further?

A watertight door led them into a strange room. It was two decks high and was dominated by an enormous "thing." Werner burned to ask the admiral what it was but he had been ordered to keep his questions to himself until the tour was over. It was approximately cylindrical and several pipes connected it to what looked like two turbines whose shafts extended into the next compartment. A flight of stairs went down onto the deck but the admiral didn't head that way. He walked along the catwalk to another watertight door with Werner following him.

They emerged into what looked like an electrical room where rows of panels with switches and meters were laid out on the floor. A control desk dominated the center of the room. 
On one side of the room was a pair of poles with what looked like periscope handles folded up except that the poles were only about three inches in diameter. The poles stood on the floor in a colored circular plate about a meter wide. The admiral walked over to one of the poles, stepped onto the plate and flipped the handles down. Werner watched in amazement as the admiral smoothly slid down to the lower deck using the handles to steady himself. Werner looked into the hole the admiral had disappeared into and saw him slap the handles up as he stepped away from the circle. The device then slid back up and clicked into place upon reaching the upper deck.

Werner knew he was expected to follow his superior down the same way. It seemed so simple so he stepped onto the plate grasped the handles and flipped them down. Immediately, he was lowered to the deck below quickly but smoothly. As soon as the device had stopped, he stepped away while slapping the handles back into their folded position. The handle and the plate automatically slid back up to the upper deck.

Werner was grinning from ear to ear and almost blurted out something. The expectant look on his admiral's face, however, stopped him and the grin changed into a simple smile. The admiral smiled back, nodded his head, and continued with the tour.

This room contained a pair of generators, which were connected to the turbine shafts in the previous room. Werner looked around but couldn't see the motors that he guessed would be turning the screws that drove the boat through the water. Perhaps they had not been fitted in yet. Strange though.

Through yet another watertight door, they entered the large room they had seen from the top of the catwalk earlier. The large unknown machine dominated the room and Werner correctly ascertained that this machine was the reason why the submarine was so big. The boat had been designed around it.

They were now walking back towards the bow but through the lower decks. They next passed through what was most certainly the crew's mess. This was where the ordinary crew members ate their meals or lounged during their off watch. The serving counter was off to one side along with the kitchen. Werner made a quick count. There were tables and chairs for about thirty people. Werner shook his head, something he'd been doing several times already. U-boats didn't have mess rooms.

Adjacent to the crew's mess was the crew's showers and heads. There were two of each. Immediately after came the crew's quarters. Cubicles with two bunk beds lined both sides of the space. Another quick count gave Werner twelve cubicles, forty-eight beds in all.

The next compartment was the main food stores. At present, it only held tins of beans and sardines but there was also a refrigerated room for storing perishable foodstuffs. This space was rather large, much larger than the stores in U-684, which had 57 crew members. This new boat was apparently designed for longer cruises.

The last door took them back to the torpedo room. The admiral turned to Werner. Quiet time was over.

The Offer

"So, Captain, what do you think of our new toy?"

Werner took a few seconds to form his answer. He had a lot of questions himself but the admiral had asked first.

"It is certainly impressive, Admiral, but from the way it is hidden implies that this is a secret prototype rather a new U-boat model."

"Correct, Captain, it is a prototype. It was designed to test new ideas about u-boat operation, propulsion, tactics, and crew performance. You have, no doubt, noticed the improvements in crew comforts?"

"Indeed, Admiral. Life in a submarine is hard on the crew and extended patrols tax the men so much that we need several weeks to recover."

The admiral had continued walking, going back up through the sonar room and the control room until they reached the captain's cabin. He entered, waved Werner inside and closed the door. The admiral walked behind the small office table, sat down, and waved Werner to the opposite chair.

"Captain Werner, you are probably wondering why I have taken you here and shown you this boat."

Werner had been thinking about that all throughout the tour. He thought he knew why but wasn't sure if he should just come out and say it. He decided it would be better to be forthright.

"You are thinking of assigning me to this boat, Admiral?" He was rewarded with a nod.

"That is correct Captain." The admiral didn't smile or betray any emotion. There was probably something else.

"May I ask, why me, Admiral? I am one of your newest u-boat captains and without even a single ship sunk on my first patrol. My boat is damaged and several crewmen injured. Surely, there are other, more qualified, u-boat commanders than I."

The admiral sat silently for a few seconds, looking at him intently. Probably realizing his mistake, Werner thought.

"Werner, while I will not refute your statement, I do know that you were promoted to submarine commander for your performance while you were a subordinate officer in other u-boats. Your commanding officers spoke highly of you and I agreed to your promotion based on their recommendations. You also displayed a willingness to test new ideas and formulate better methods of u-boat operations. I will admit, however, that your performance is not the only criteria for my offer."

Aha, thought Werner, what might that other criteria be?

"This project already had a commanding officer. He was technically qualified, having been on the project from the start, but he also had a tendency to get very drunk once he got started drinking." A change came upon the admiral's face but Werner wasn't able to determine what it was. The admiral continued.

"One day he slipped out of this facility and got uproariously drunk. When security tried to arrest him, he broke away, stole a staff car and drove crazily through the city. He ran over two people but somehow made it into the country roads outside the city without crashing. Once there, however, he ran into a tank that was moving along the road and rammed it. The tank was undamaged, of course, but he was killed instantly. I reported the loss to headquarters but they have not sent anyone to replace him."

Werner wondered about the man who had just died. He was probably trained to use this new submarine and train the other captains once they became operational. Probably not a military man, Werner thought. We would not be so stupid.

"So, you want me to replace this dead captain as your project's commanding officer. I am flattered, Admiral, but that still doesn't answer the question of 'why me?'"

"The short answer, Captain, is that you have combat and operational experience. You are also an unmarried man with no known involvement with any woman, which is another qualification we require because acceptance means that you will not be allowed to leave this facility until the submarine has been either accepted or scrapped. In this case, however, I do not wish to make an order out of this assignment. I am asking you now, do you want this assignment?"

Werner paused a moment to consider. Putting a new submarine type through tests means being pulled out of combat duty. Any submarine captain worth his salt would prefer being in the thick of battle than in a secure, secret base, eating good food, and sleeping in comfortable accommodations.

On the other hand, being the first to use a new submarine and perhaps influence how it will be used by other captains was an opportunity not given to everyone. Werner was more of the former, not the latter. He'd take combat duty to being a test pilot any day.

He looked at the admiral who was looking back at him, waiting for his answer. Werner had performed terribly on his first sortie. Was the admiral doing him a favor or did he really believe in him? But he was being asked, not ordered. He had one last question.

"What about U-684, Admiral?"

"U-684 will be repaired and sent back out to sea under someone else's command."

Werner took a moment to think. Even though he had had only one patrol with U-684, he already had an attachment to the vessel and its crew. However, this new boat was going to be the future of submarines and may even go into operation soon. It may even turn the submarine war back into their favor. He made his decision.

"Admiral, I accept!"

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