Sunday, November 1, 2015


"Captain! Splashes!"

The sonar operator's harsh whisper cut through the silence of the submarine's atmosphere and reached his captain's ears. Captain Hans Werner quickly gave his orders.

"Dive! Make your depth 100 meters, ahead two-thirds."

The planesman quickly pushed his controls forward causing the submarine to dip downward and dive deeper into the depths. Their speed increased as they dove, desperately trying to outrun the depth charges the destroyer had dropped. Too late. The deadly drums sank down and began to explode around U-684.


Werner awoke from his dream to the sound of someone pounding at his door. Drenched in sweat, he swung his body out of the bed and called out.

"Who is it?" he shouted.

"I am Lieutenant Müller, Captain. I was sent by the Admiral to fetch you and bring you to headquarters," the disembodied voice answered.

"Can't it wait until later?" What a stupid question, the captain thought, keeping an admiral waiting. He had noted the time, almost 0300H. Three hours of sleep would have to do.

"He said not to delay, sir." There was no doubt in Hans' mind that he was in trouble. Why else would he be called at this hour?

"Okay, I'll just get dressed." He didn't open the door to invite the man inside and have a seat while waiting for him. If he was going to be reprimanded, he was not going to give the lieutenant any comfort. Where it used to take him five minutes to get dressed, now took him fifteen. Why hurry to a chewing out, he thought. I'll face it like a man but I'll delay it for as long as I can.

The drive to headquarters was quiet. Two soldiers sat on either side of him while the lieutenant sat in front with the driver. With this many escorts, the thought occurred to him that he might be going to a firing squad. He watched the trees along the road and wondered if there were any in the afterlife. I'll find out soon enough, he thought bitterly. It seemed so unfair, what had happened. His mind wandered to the events that brought him here.

First Patrol

U-684, a type VIIC U-boat, was on the surface, running at 10 knots on one of her two diesel engines. These engines were used to propel the vessel while it was on the surface. For underwater travel, the submarine's screws are driven by electric motors, which are powered by batteries. These electric motors, when connected to the diesels, become generators, allowing them to recharge the batteries. This was the reason why only one diesel was being used for propulsion. The other was being used to drive the motors and recharge the batteries. Fully charged batteries don't last more than a few hours at full speed, so running on the surface was generally preferred to staying underwater. It gave the sub longer range and allowed fresh air to be circulated around the sub's spaces. It was also easier to spot ships, or targets, on the surface.

There was one downside to staying on the surface, however. Allied aircraft now flew almost all over the Atlantic, launched by catapults from ships or from aircraft carriers. These aircraft could either report their position or attack them directly. To guard against this, at least four men were stationed at the conning tower, the structure that stood up from the submarine's deck. Each man was responsible for a quarter of the area around the boat. They used large binoculars to scan the skies and sea looking for prey...or hunters.

U-684, at this time, was charging her batteries in the dark of night. Recharging at night was preferable to recharging in daylight since there was less chance of being discovered. You'd want full batteries in case you had to dive quickly.

One of Werner's men came up into the conning tower. "Captain? We've got a message from BdU." BdU was the U-boat headquarters where all deployments and orders originated from.

Werner gave his binoculars to the Second Watch Officer and descended into the submarine. He went to the radio operator's station and read the message handed to him.

A convoy of twenty freighters, escorted by six destroyers were sailing about 200 kilometers south of their position. At their maximum speed of 14 knots, they could reach it in 8 hours or so. Unfortunately, that would bring them in range without the cover of darkness. Werner ordered a change in course to intercept. He would assess the situation when he got there.

U-684 sailed south for 7½ hours. Dawn was two hours ago and their boat was on full alert looking for ships or aircraft. They couldn't dive as yet because they wanted to conserve as much battery time as possible. If they ran out of batteries in the thick of battle, they would have to surface and that would make them as vulnerable as a beached whale.

"Captain, radar sets detected to the south-west. Signal levels are too low to detect us, however."

Werner decided to partially submerge the boat and allow only the conning tower to jut above the water. This is only possible in calm water which was the sea state at the time. Doing this lowered the chances of being detected by radar but it also slowed his speed. Presently, the lookouts spotted the smoke from the convoy's ships. It was time to dive.

"All crew below decks!" The lookouts quickly began moving into the boat with the captain being the last to go below. The dive was timed so that the hatch was closed just before the sea washed over the deck of the boat.

Werner intended to place himself in the path of the convoy, allowing them to pass over him. As soon as they had slipped by, he would fire his torpedoes.

Soon sonar detected the sounds generated by the convoy as it plowed through the waves at 11 knots. U-684, like all older model submarines, normally ran at 5 knots when underwater. They could run faster but that ran the risk of draining their batteries in a short time. Too slow and they might miss the convoy altogether.

Hunting ships from underwater is a lot like hunting for frogs in the dark. There are several dozens of frogs making sounds and you're trying to gauge the location of the critters just by listening and making educated guesses. The sonar operator can tell you the direction but can only guess at the distance. He might be able to tell you the approximate speed by counting the number of revolutions a ship's screw is turning but in a herd of ships, picking out a single screw from almost 30 is a skill most people do not have. As a consequence, most submarine captains raise their periscopes to determine the best angle for a torpedo shot. Captain Hans Werner was not an exception.

The periscope broke the surface and Werner began turning it around, looking for the targets as well as looking out for danger. He spied the convoy lying about 15 kilometers away on bearing 220. He was excellently placed to get into position ahead of the convoy.
Werner surveyed the convoy for several seconds. Unfortunately, that was more than enough for a pair of eyes to see him.

Lieutenant J.G. Vincent O'Grady saw the periscope's feather, or wake, as he flew his float plane ahead of the ships. He immediately radioed his destroyer that a submarine was stalking the convoy and dropped a flare. By then, Werner had lowered his periscope and did not know he had been spotted. A destroyer raced toward its last location and began using its sonar to search the depths.

Werner almost slapped himself in frustration. His own sonar had heard the destroyer approaching, forcing him to dive deeper to escape.

He was looking for a thermal, a rapid change in the water temperature as the submarine goes deeper. This tends to reflect the sonar pulses and submarines use it to hide. It's rather like an aircraft entering a cloud. You lose sight of the plane but it's there inside the cloud.
Luck was not on Werner's side, however. The destroyer found U-684 and began dropping depth charges into the water. Some of the deadly drums exploded quite close causing damage to the hull. U-684 continued to dive while making course changes to throw off the destroyer's attack. The sought-after thermal presented itself, however, and Werner decided to abort his attempt to attack the convoy. His new submarine was leaking badly in places, the control for the torpedo doors were damaged, and there were several injuries to his crew. He resurfaced after several hours and headed for his submarine base in France.

So now, here he was, on his way to his superior officer probably to explain how he messed up on his first war patrol. His submarine was in its pen being repaired and won't be sailing for several weeks. His injured crewmen needed to be replaced and experienced crew were hard to find nowadays. He'd be stuck with young, fresh recruits who probably went through just a few months of training.

Visit to the Admiral and the Secret Base

The admiral's home and office was in a French chateau. There were no lights outside but that was a typical wartime precaution. Keeping even one light on would be like a beacon for enemy bombers. Werner was escorted to the admiral's office on the second floor. The admiral's aide showed him in and closed the door behind him.

The office was plush. A large painting of Adolf Hitler adorned one wall and two others were displayed prominently. Werner didn't care much for art, however, and he only gave them a cursory glance. The admiral was talking on the telephone to someone about preparing a visit. When he finished he looked at Werner and gestured for him to sit.

"How are you, Captain," the admiral asked.

"I could be better, sir," he replied. No point in lying to this man, he thought bitterly. The admiral's aide sat to one side and slightly behind the captain. Werner wondered if the man was holding a pistol to his back.

"Too bad about your patrol, wasn't it?"

Here it comes, Werner thought. "Uhm, yes sir. I got too eager and someone probably spotted my periscope," he explained. Talking too much, he said to himself. Don't show him you're nervous.

"Do you think it would have been an advantage if you had not had to raise your periscope or stayed underwater for a longer time," the admiral asked.

Why did he ask that, wondered Werner.

"That would be ideal, admiral, but it's difficult to make an accurate assessment of the situation if you don't take a look and our submarines are not, as yet, capable of extended periods underwater." Keep it short, Werner, he warned himself.

"Tell me about the destroyer. Did your speed underwater hamper your efforts to evade him?"

He's getting ready to drop his bombshell, I could tell, Werner felt.

"Well, as you know admiral, our speed underwater is about a third of our speed on the surface. Evading a destroyer that's faster than you is a real challenge," Werner explained.

"What if I told you that we can do all those; find the enemy without using a periscope, move underwater for long periods of time, move faster than ever before and evade your pursuers easily?"

Werner struggled to understand what the admiral was saying. Was the man toying with him? He decided to answer the question directly instead of trying to analyze it.

"Sir, if we had such a submarine, we'd win this war," Werner answered. He believed that too. He was well too familiar with the limitations of the present crop of submarines. Is that what he meant? Or is he saying that I should have been able to do all those things he said?

"Captain, you will come with me for a ride. I want to show you something," the admiral said. Werner was getting puzzled at the admiral's behavior. Am I going to be given a lesson in driving a submarine or am I being taken somewhere to be shot?

The admiral's aide led the way to the staff car in front of the house. The car that fetched him earlier was still there, engine running except there was only the driver. The aide opened the door and the admiral waved Werner in before climbing in himself. The aide got into the passenger seat in front. They drove along the road until they turned into a dirt road some distance away. Werner had passed this road many times and never gave it a second look. Now, however, they were bumping along in a forest of trees so thick that the road was hidden from the air. At a bend on the road, they suddenly came upon a guarded gate. The admiral waited patiently as the guards verified his identity and even asked for a password. The gate was still hidden by the trees but just behind the gate was a rock face. It had a large steel door that opened to let the admiral's car in.

The rock face was sloped inward at the base, effectively hiding the door from the air. Inside, another large steel door waited for the outer door to close before it opened. Nothing was being left to chance. The two doors prevented any light from inside the inner door from reaching the outside where it might be seen. The driver parked the car and the aide let the admiral and captain out.

Werner looked around the man-made cavern. Soldiers stood around and workers moved about taking boxes and crates and taking them somewhere. What was this place? The admiral led him to a small door. The aide and driver stayed with the car.

The door opened into a larger cavern, lit with bright lights. Down a long flight of stairs was what was obviously a pier. The cavern was an internal dock and floating on the water was a large submarine.

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