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A New Skipper
We spent the next few days unloading the U-505 and preparing her for the move to a berth in the armored bunkers. Once the boat and our personal possessions had been safely stowed, we were finally granted liberty to leave the barracks. Naturally, we spent most of our free time paying visits to our favorite haunts in Lorient's entertainment district. Upon leaving our barracks, however, we were shocked to see how much things had changed during our absence. The British had been hitting the city with heavier and heavier bombing raids. Luckily for us, most of the damage was confined to the port area; our favorite streets were still relatively intact. Many other parts of the city, however, were scenes of utter devastation.
The ladies of Lorient were very happy to see us again, especially since we had everything they longed for: cigarettes, chocolate, and even a little spending money. Of course, in the back of my mind, I tried to believe that Jeanette loved me because she considered me handsome and charming... but a couple of nice presents never hurt! At any rate, it was wonderful to be back on land again. Even the military police were good to us, looking the other way as we staggered from pub to pub in search of "just one more drink." In time, we discovered a way through the perimeter wire that allowed us to sneak back into the barracks after hours. After that, our opportunities for recreation were only limited by our capacity to perform duties the next day.
Despite our fun, however, the fate of our Skipper hung like a dark cloud over our heads. It turned out that Kapitänleutnant Löwe had been suffering from a severe case of appendicitis. Prompt medical attention alleviated the threat to his life, but the physical pain he had endured was nothing compared to the emotional anguish he was to experience over the sinking of the damned three-masted schooner. Löwe's instincts were correct; the sinking was a colossal mistake.
We learned that the 400-ton Roamar was the property of a Colombian diplomat. Its sinking, though technically-speaking perfectly legal, had provided the political grounds for Colombia to declare war against Germany! Of course, at that point in the war, Colombia's declaration of war had about as much effect on us as the howling of a dog has on the moon. But the effect on Löwe's career was catastrophic: he was relieved of command of the U-505 and assigned to shore duty. Admiral Dönitz, recognizing our Skipper's talents, arranged to have Löwe put on his staff. Löwe's assignment to the Great Lion's staff would have been the envy of most naval officers, but it broke our Skipper's heart to have to give up frontline sea duty.
News of Löwe's transfer was an occasion of great sadness for us all. We had tremendous affection for him, and unbounded respect for the way that he had handled our boat. Even in the most dangerous moments, our Kapitänleutnant had never lost his head. How many times the mere sound of his deep, steady voice had calmed us young crew members during emergencies! A green crew is sensitive to little things like that, and is reassured by them. Löwe also had a sort of intuitive ability to sense danger. The survival lessons he taught us would be ignored in the future only at great cost. Most importantly, Löwe was a natural leader with a keen understanding of how to deal with men in the pressure cooker environment of a submarine at war. He always treated us with respect, never demeaning us or abusing his authority. Rather, he led us by his personal example. It's not an exaggeration to say that Axel Olaf Löwe was like a father to us. Quite a few of us were moved to tears during his farewell speech.
After the first group of crewmembers had departed for furlough, we met our new Skipper, Kapitänleutnant Peter Zschech. Young, handsome, and cultured, he appeared to be a perfect example of the new breed of U-boat commander that the Propaganda Ministry liked to portray in magazines and films. Rumored to be the son of an Admiral, Zschech came to our boat with the very highest of reputations. His previous assignment was serving as Executive Officer on U-124, U-boat ace Jochen Mohr's famous "Edelweiss Boat." Our first personal impression of him was that he was intelligent, self-confident, but a little aloof… like an aristocrat. Almost immediately, however, we found out that his aloofness hid an explosive temper. His sudden fits of anger and general moodiness contrasted sharply with Löwe's calm approach to command.
Zschech also seemed very eager, perhaps a bit too eager, to get at the enemy. He actually had the cheek to criticize his mentor Jochen Mohr for being too timid! This we took with a grain of salt since Mohr was universally regarded as one of our greatest U-boat commanders. We suspected that Zschech had a bad case of Halsschmerzen, the "sore throat" common to many young officers that could only be cured by wearing a Knights Cross medal around the neck.
But Zschech was a newly-promoted Skipper, so we passed his braggadocio off as youthful exuberance. Despite a few misgivings about his inexperience, Zschech had come to us with an excellent recommendation and we were hoping that some of U-124's great success (over 100,000 tons sunk) would rub off on our boat.
To replace our departing Executive Officer Nollau, who was being transferred to take command of his own boat, came Oberleutnant "T.B." (NOTE: Out of respect for their families, I shall refer to this and one other officer only by their initials.) "T.B." was a close personal friend of Zschech, having graduated with him in the naval officer class of 1936. Right from the beginning he seemed very arrogant. His attitude was one of utter contempt towards us, refusing to even introduce himself to his new crew. The nature of his "friendship" with Zschech also began to make us a bit uncomfortable. "T.B." and Zschech would spend long hours alone together and would sometimes even hold hands in the presence of the crew. I had deep misgivings regarding our new Exec right from the beginning, but most of the crew remained optimistic that any problems would be worked-out during our next war patrol.
The one new officer about whom we had absolutely no doubts was Oberleutnant "J.H." This swaggering, baby-faced Engineering Officer acted as though he knew everything about a U-boat, but it was immediately apparent that he knew almost nothing. Our Chief Engineering Officer Fritz Förster had to re-teach "J.H." virtually everything about his job. On one of the first crash dives he supervised, "J.H." came close to killing us all by diving U-505's nose into the sea floor. Only quick action by Förster saved us from certain doom.
I witnessed Förster lecturing the new Engineering Officer in no uncertain terms: "This submarine is not your toy! Always keep in mind that there are 49 other human beings on this boat and that they want to return to their homes after this patrol."
I muttered to myself, "Amen to that!"
As a matter of fact, this new crop of officers soon had quite a few of us crewmen muttering to ourselves. The officers acted as though fear was a better motivator than respect. How different this was from Löwe, who always said that on a submarine, rank mattered nothing compared to how well a person did his job!
Of course, anyone who has served in the military knows that a new commander always tries to "shake things up" in his unit in order to establish his authority over his men. In the case of these three new officers, however, we thought they were going way too far. Even our veteran officers Förster and Stolzenburg agreed. Our new Skipper and his friends seemed to resent any advice from our old officers, even when presented in the most friendly and deferential manner. They seemed especially hostile towards Förster, who, although functioning as Chief Engineering Officer, was actually more senior in rank than Kapitänleutnant Zschech. In the end, they had to leave Förster pretty much alone in engineering matters because of his great wealth of experience.
The discomfort of our old officers was nothing compared to what we crewmen experienced. Zschech's first order was that we would undergo, of all things, infantry training! We were issued brand new Mauser 98k rifles and immediately began a course of tactical ground combat training. We got used to the actual training fairly quickly, though the chore of keeping our weapons and uniforms clean was a constant annoyance. We all wondered what the hell any of this had to do with serving on a submarine. More and more of us began to grumble about our new Skipper, but the majority of the crew still withheld judgment, optimistic that Zschech would prove his worth at sea....