We went back out into the English Channel close to the island of Guernsey and somehow the enemy knew our whereabouts. We cruised around for a few days and then came June 18, 1944, a Sunday.
I had just come on duty at 4 P.M. and was sitting down to fill out some forms about the performance of the engines. Suddenly the alarm sounded. The British had probably figured out that we had the new torpedos which found their targets by sound, so they didn’t come close to us. They set up an ambush. The ships were set in a horseshoe formation and we were coming into the open end of the horseshoe.
We knew they were there, but we had to see what was going on, so we came up very slowly to periscope depth to look around. When the commander looked around, he saw that we were already into the trap. Before we could take any evasive action, there was a tremendous blast. We were right under the surface. Everything shook and rattled. A second earlier I had been standing on the deck plate and now I was suddenly standing in the middle of the bilge and the deck plates were gone.
A big generator which was hanging from the ceiling, came loose and fell into the electric motor, which produced a huge flame. In other parts of the compartment, water pipes burst and air was hissing out all over the place. All of this happened in a split second.
There was no time to think, everything happened too quickly. The submarine turned on its side and we sank to the bottom. The depth of the channel varies in that area. It can be up to one hundred meters deep. We went down to seventy or seventy-five meters and lay on our side. I could see the depth on the instrument.
When the blast hit, I was not wearing my lifejacket with its attached oxygen tank. It had fallen into the bilge, but one of the crew handed it to me and I put it on.
We tried to contact the other section of the sub, but couldn’t make contact. The watertight hatches on each side of the command center shut as soon as we were hit. The compartment with the electric motors and the diesel room were together, but we were cut off from the rest of the submarine. There were eighteen men in this compartment. We tried to communicate with the others through the speaking tube, but got no answer. Then we hammered on the door using morse code, but there was no response. Since we didn’t get any response, we had no idea what the conditions were in the other compartments.
When we had tried everything to contact the others, one of the older men, a sergeant, took command and we sang our national anthem (“Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles”). There was no panic, but everyone was caught up in his own thoughts. No one screamed or moaned, except for one sergeant, who moaned and lamented that he had to die. This man had always made a mockery of anything to do with God or Chrisianity.
Two men, who were between me and the torpedo hatch, which was the only means of escape, had turned the wheel to open the hatch and the wheel had actually turned. At this depth it should not have been possible to turn it because of the outside pressure. Normally these hatches were very difficult to open because they were routinely tightened under pressure as the sub submerged. But even though, the wheel turned the hatch did not open because the pressure was greater outside than inside. As the water level rose in our compartment, one man after another ran out of air and became unconscious. Some men said some final words as they ran out of air.
All of these voices and what they said came back to me later. At that time I didn’t really pay attention to what was said. I was sitting at the highest point in the compartment where I still had some air to breath. I looked at the hatch and noticed that a ring of water formed around the edge of the hatch. That meant that the pressure inside our sub was now equal to the pressue outside and the hatch could be opened!
The two men between me and the torpedo hatch had already closed their eyes; the lack of oxygen had made them unconscious. I grabbed my breathing apparatus, made my way to the hatch, turned the handle and opened it. The hatch opened for me to escape. I got stuck in the hatch with my hands at my sides and injured the ligaments in both hands, but at the time didn’t notice it.
Then as I came out of the hatch, I saw my life flashing before my eyes. This was a frightening experience. I didn’t just see my life like in a film, I actually lived it as it was. Every action, every word, every person I had ever met, was in this experience. Then, when I came to the present moment of escaping the torpedo hatch, it started again. And there was no hiding. Everything was there. Afterwards I could remember people and conversations which had not been in my conscious memory before. The Bible tells us that we will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word we have spoken and every deed we have done. (Matthew 12:36-37 and Revelation 20:12). All our words and deeds are written down, but they are also within us as experienced by me.
Then, looking up, I saw a big grey spot on top. I said to myself: “that’s where you have to go, there’s life up there”. So I put my hands together over my head to help my progress. When I looked again the grey spot had turned brighter. I knew I had to get there, but it took so long that I almost gave up.
I had just about given up when I popped out onto the surface of the ocean. All this time I had been breathing from my oxygen bottle which was attached to the lifejacket which I was wearing. When I got to the top, the oxygen had run out. If there had been remaining air I could have inflated my lifejacket. But there was nothing left and I had no strength left to blow it up.
So I had to start swimming without the life jacket and also remembered what I had learned in my training. When you are seventy meters below the surface, the air you breathe is going into your bloodstream. When you come up fast, it is going to form bubbles in your bloodstream and it will tear your lungs apart. I was
waiting for this to happen. Therefore, when I had to cough, I expected my lungs to come out. But I saw no blood and I had no bad effects at all. I knew that my life had been spared by a miracle.
As I was swimming and came to the top of a wave, I looked around to see a destroyer leaving the area.”Well”. I thought, “I have just escaped from a sunken submarine, only to die out here in the English Channel.” I might even have said it aloud.
I also prayed at that time. I thanked the Lord for rescuing me out of the submarine and sparing my life. As far as I knew, I was the only survivor. I also promised the Lord that my life would now be his. My parents and grandparents had taught me the truths of the Bible and I knew what I had to do. I had always respected my parents and grandparents, but I never consciously accepted their faith as my own faith. I told the Lord that I was sorry for my sins and that I wanted to accept his grace and be forgiven. I promised to live for him from this time forth. I believe I was quite sincere at that time. Unfortunately, I did not keep my promise until ten years later, but the Lord kept me safe from harm.
In the meantime I kept on swimming, I don’t know how long. I thought it might have been hours, but it was probably only fifteen or twenty minutes. After a while I was exhausted and was floating on my back. The seas were quite rough and at one point I was at the top of a wave, when I saw a destroyer coming straight towards me. I didn’t know if they could see me or not. But I swam for all I was worth, which wasn’t very much. The ship kept bearing down on me.
I had heard of people from another boat who had been cut to pieces by an English ship when they were in the water. So I tried my best to get out of the ship’s way, but it was no use. The destroyer kept coming until it was right beside me, it stopped and picked me up.
I learned later, that it was the British destroyer, Fame, which picked me up. (Blair, 590.) Fame was one of the three credited with the sinking of U-767 (my submarine). The other two were Havelock and Inconstant. (Lenton, 22.)
Here I was, a prisoner of war, sleeping on a make-shift bunk on a ship which was still in battle. Right beside me was the door to the outer deck where the depth charges were kept. The next morning, about ten o’clock, I heard all the bells going and I knew it was an alarm. The engines revved up to high, sailors were running around all over, and I thought they must have sighted a submarine and were going after it.
This gave me a very uncomfortable feeling. I saw all the depth charges ready to go and I knew that my comrades were down there. I wanted to do something to stop the action but, of course, I couldn’t do anything. An officer came by and must have seen the anger in my eyes. He closed the door so I couldn’t see anything any more.
This kind of activity went on for the next three days. Movement, alarm, getting ready to throw the depth charges over, cruising around some more. During this time a couple of young sailors came in and started to tease me. They had a magazine with a picture of Hitler in it. They showed me the picture and then motioned that they would cut his throat. I shook my head and said “No, No.” But they just laughed and did it again.
They gave me the magazine and left. So I looked through the magazine and found a picture of Winston Churchill. When the two sailors came back in, I showed them the picture of Churchill and made motions to cut his throat. They burst out laughing and we had a good laugh together. We agreed that we should cut both throats.
During this time I also began to think about my grandfather’s prediction regarding this war. What would be the end result of all this fighting? Would Germany be beaten? My thoughts were quite agitated as I waited for something to happen in this chaotic situation.
I also remembered several occasions during my military service when the Lord had obviously protected me in spite of my own foolishness and naivete. The first time was in Hamburg when our submarine was outfitted with a snorkel. Heinz and I were in the city having supper in a small café. Heinz told me that there were a
couple of women giving us the eye. When I looked at them, I saw that they were obviously older then we were, perhaps in their thirties. They were well dressed and neatly groomed. I told Heinz that he must be wrong. These women wouldn’t be looking at us when there were officers in the same café. They would be after the officers. But Heinz insisted. We finished our supper and went out onto the street. There, these same women seemed to be waiting for us. They asked us if we would like to go for a drive in their car. I couldn’t believe it, and I had a strange feeling that there was something dangerous about this. But Heinz was a very sociable kind of guy and he talked me into going on a date with them two days later.
When we arrived for our date, we were met by these two women in their expensive car waiting for us. Two ladies driving such a car was very unusual and made me very suspicicious and even Heinz had started to share my concerns. He wasn’t too sure any more that this date was a good idea.
We got into the car and were driven to a large house in an upper class district of Hamburg. When we stepped into the house I couldn’t get over this strange feeling I had. But Heinz was being talkative and friendly with the women. He even volunteered to help make coffee for the “Kaffeeklatsch” for which a table with cake had been set. I didn’t join them in the kitchen, but stayed in the hallway instead. I noticed a row of closed doors at the foot of the steep stairwell. Heinz and the women came to look for me, because I hadn’t joined them in the kitchen and when they saw me staring down the stairs, one of the women asked me: “Walter are you afraid? You are staring down these stairs, would you like to see what’s behind those doors?” I agreed to check out those doors, but I whispered to Heinz that he should keep a lookout while I was doing so. When I had just about reached the bottom of the stairwell, Heinz shouted out and I ran back up the stairs as fast as I could. He said:”I saw men looking through the windows from the outside. We were out of there and running down the street as fast as we could. When we got back to the submarine, we told our commander
about this incident and he reported it to the police. We remembered what street the house was on and what it looked like. But when the police arrived about twenty minutes later, the lights were out and nobody was home.
It seems, these women were after us and not the officers in the café, because we were from the submarine that had a snorkel fitted. Apparently they were with a group of spies who wanted to find out about the snorkel.
Another time I had been protected from injury or death was in Larwig, Norway. We shared the harbour with four other submarines. The commander had told us that we were here to wait for the invasion. We knew the invasion was coming but we suspected that it would not be up here in Norway. It wouldn’t make sense for the Allies to attack us in Norway because of the terrain, the fjords and the location of the country. But we were there to wait, just in case.
We stayed in this harbour for four days. The town was located on the hill above the harbour, about two kilometers away. Here in Norway all houses were lit up at night, they had no blackouts like we had in Germany.
We were allowed to go ashore, but for safety reasons were supposed to stay in groups of three or four. We were not really safe here, because all the Norwegian men were at home, not away, fighting a war. We had to travel in groups for protection, because the navy personnel carried no weapons. However, neither my friend Gerhard nor I had learned our lesson completely about safety in numbers and once again went off to explore all by ourselves.
In town they had a carnival with merry-go-rounds and other types of entertainment. We saw a couple of girls and smiled at them. They were friendly and smiled back at us. We walked about ten meters behind them hoping to get a chance to talk with them. Hopefully they would understand a little German, in any case we felt it was worth a try.
At first they strolled along the street, then they turned uphill on the promenade. As we got closer we realized that we were coming to a dead-end; yet the girls suddenly disappeared.
I felt a little apprehensive and said to Gerhard:” There is something wrong here” Gerhard replied: “There is nothing wrong, you’re just too afraid” I reminded him of what had happened to Heinz and me in Hamburg and he replied:” Yeah, I know, but there’s nothing to worry about in this town.
By this time, we were high up on the hill and had a good view of our submarine tied up at the pier; in fact we could even hear them talk. It was very close, but the promenade had come up in a series of hairpin bends.
Looking down we saw that there were terraces all the way down the hill with shrubbery growing on them. That wasn’t all we saw, there were five or six men making their way up the terraces carrying weapons, possibly knives.
“What are we going to do, Gerhard, we are in danger?” We shouted down to the sub and they answered: “Where are you?” We yelled “Up on the hill” At this point we realized that if we were attacked it would be too late for them to help us.
As the men got closer I said:” There is only one way to escape and that is to jump down onto the terraces over their heads and keep going down the hill”. We were in good shape in those days. When the men came up to the last terrace, we jumped over them and continued down the hill from terrace to terrace.
Down below, our men would be there to help us. When we arrived at the sub, the crew came with us to look for the men who had come after us, but these men had disappeared. As expected, we were reprimanded by our commander. We had been in trouble before, but this time the trouble was simply not following orders to go ashore in a large enough group. We had also been very naïve to follow these girls hoping to talk to them. We had no intention of harming anyone.
Once again I was protected from my own folly. I know now that it was the Lord protecting me. The people at home, my parents and the church, were praying for those of us who were out there. In some cases the men who were prayed for as much as me, had to die. Some of them were ready to go, I wasn’t. But even though I hadn’t committed my life to the Lord at that time, whenever I was in a dangerous situation, I had a feeling that something was not right in my life. Now I know that it was the Lord giving me that feeling.
We had not quite learned our lesson in Norway, however, and the Lord rescued me from another desperate situation in Riga, Lithuania. We were tied up there for a few days and again we were told to go ashore only in groups. There were partisans in the woods between the harbour and the town. Heinz and I, however, ignored
these instructions again. We were actually very close to the German military camp when we ran into trouble. There was a path parallel to the fence and ditch which enclosed the camp.
Walking along this path, we suddenly saw men come out of the woods ahead of us. We stopped and looked around and realized that there were also several men behind us. They all had objects in their hands, which might have been clubs or knives. I said: “Heinz, we have to climb over the fence”. We scrambled down the ditch and over the fence. Once over the fence, we were in safe territory in the military camp. Fortunately, these partisans didn’t have firearms or we might have been dead.
This last experience cured us of this sort of naivete. We finally realized that we were in a war, even though we still didn’t really know what war meant.
While I was on the destroyer I remembered these incidents and was grateful to the Lord for preserving my life, but there were also periods when I was completely confused. I must have had a breakdown of some sort. During those periods I couldn’t remember who I was. I didn’t know if I had brothers or sisters. I couldn’t focus my thoughts on anything. It must have been some kind of amnesia. It would come and go. Sometimes I could remember things at other times I couldn’t.
Copyright © 2006/2007 Walter Schmietenknop. All rights reserved.