U-Boot Demise…

Oberleutnant zur See Herbert Werner commanded U-415 from 17 April 1944 through 14 July 1944. Having joined the Kriegsmarine in 1939, he served as a watch officer in training aboard U-557 under Korvettenkapitän Ottokar Arnold Paulssen for three patrols and ninety-three days at sea. In that time the sub sank five Allied ships. Werner left the boat in November 1941 for another training assignment. On 16 December, U-557 was lost with all hands. From Werner’s book Iron Coffins: “It was past 1700 when I returned to the bunker. The radios had been silenced. Instead, the huge vault-like structure resounded to the songs of our 800 crewmen, who remained eager to sail against the enemy even if it meant sailing straight to their deaths. At 2100, as night descended upon the Normandy battlefields, 15 U-boats slipped out into the Bay. The night was clear. The stars glittered faintly in a still light sky. Soon a full moon would rise and light up our way into the Atlantic.

“The moon had risen fully above the horizon in the southeast. Standing like a giant lantern in the sky, it illuminated the long row of U-boats and was sharply reflected in the calm sea. Contrary to common procedure, all the men had put on their yellow life jackets. The bridge had been stacked with piles of ammunition, the conning tower turned into an arsenal. The gunners hung at their automatics in tense expectation of the first enemy plane. I stood in my nook trying to keep my boat directly in the wake of U-821, and to hold the distance to a prearranged 300 meters.

“2310: The first radar impulses were picked up by our Bug and the Fly as the coast receded. The report from below—‘Six radar impulses, all over forward sector, increasing in volume fast!’—alarmed every hand on the bridge. All ears turned into the wind, all eyes searched the quarters ahead. I kept my gaze circling above the armored superstructure, but the intense moonlight revealed no winged black monsters.

“2320: The head of our procession reached the open sea. With the escorts still in line, the eight boats sliced the silvery surface and drove ever deeper into the enemy’s defense. The scream of high volume radar impulses and the stream of emergency messages from below never ceased.

“2340: Sudden fireworks flared up in the forward port quarter, five miles ahead. We had been warned that several of our destroyers were en route from Lorient to Brest, and we should not mistake them for the British. I focused my glasses on the disturbance and sighted seven destroyers in an athwart formation, fighting off a British air attack. Thousands of tracers were exchanged, and brilliant flares parachuted down upon our vessels, adding their white light to the yellow moonglow. The sound of gunfire and howling aircraft engines increased as we drew closer to the battling forces. The Tommies, noting our approach, halted their wild attacks to avoid being trapped in the crossfire between U-boats and destroyers. The destroyers raced eastward past our long file, and our trawlers, seizing the chance for protected trip home, swerved out of formation and fastened onto the destroyers’ wake. Their sudden maneuver left eight U-boats at the mercy of the British. At that moment all eight U-boats acted in concert, and I ordered, ‘Both engines three times full ahead. Shoot on sight.’

“June 7 At 0015, our long chain of boats was racing at top speed towards the Atlantic. The diesels hacked, the exhausts fumed, impulses haunted us all the way. I found myself glancing repeatedly at my watch as if it could tell me when the fatal blow would fall.

“0030: Radar impulses chirped all around the horizon, their volumes shifting rapidly from feeble moans to high-pitched screams. The Tommies were obviously flying at various distances around our absurd procession. They must have thought we had lost our minds. Sometimes I could hear aircraft engines at fairly close range, but could not spot a plane. The hands of my watch crept slowly ahead while the British waited for reinforcement; our eyes sharpened and our hearts beat heavy under our breasts.

“0112: The battle began. Our leading boats were suddenly attacked. Tracers spurted in various directions, then the sound of gunfire hit our ears. Fountains reached into the sky.

“One of the enemy airplanes caught fire. It flashed comet-like toward the head of our file, crossed over one of the boats, dropped four bombs, then plunged into the ocean. The bombs knocked out Sachse’s U-413. With helm jammed hard aport, the boat swerved out of the column. She lost speed rapidly and sank below the surface.

“0125: The aircraft launched a new attack, again directed at the boats in the front. Three boats, brightly lighted by flares, concentrated their gunfire and held the planes at bay. A spectacular fireworks erupted, engulfing the U-boats and aircraft. Suddenly the Tommies retreated. Radar impulses indicated that they were circling our stubborn parade, regrouping for a fresh attack. I raised myself over the rim of the bridge, straining to see and sound out the roaming planes.

“0145: The boat at our stern, the last one in the column, became the target of a new British tactic. Trying to roll out the carpet of fire from the rear, a four-engined Liberator came roaring down on starboard, diving for the bow of U-256. Boddenberg’s men opened fire. But the aircraft veered off in front of the boat, where her guns became ineffective. That was our chance. ‘Open fire!’ I screamed. Five barrels, all that we had available, blazed away at the Liberator as it dropped four depth charges ahead of U-256 and roared past us. Four giant water columns leaped skyward behind the riddled aircraft as it tried to escape our fire. But some shells from our 37mm gun hit the plane broadside. It exploded in midair, then plunged into the sea. U-256, beaten and mutilated by the depth charges, lay stopped and helpless in our wake, slowly falling out of line. That was the last we saw of her. Realising that her demise left us the first target in any new attack from the rear, I called for more ammunition. Radar impulses increased rapidly. For a while, however, the British held back.

“0220: Impulses now from starboard. I presumed several planes were approaching. Suddenly, a Sunderland shot out of the night from starboard ahead. I yelled ‘Aircraft—starboard forty—fire!’ Short bursts from our two twin 20mm guns followed the sweep of the plane. It cleverly flew in from dead ahead, making our guns ineffective, and dropped four barrels in front of our bow. Simultaneously, a Liberator attacked from starboard bearing 90, firing from all its muzzles. An instant later, four detonations amidships. Four savage eruptions heaved U-415 out of the water and threw our men flat on the deck plates. Then she fell back, and the four collapsing geysers showered us with tons of water and sent cascades through the hatch. This was the end. Both diesels stopped, the rudder jammed hard-a-starboard. U-415 swerved in an arc, gradually losing speed. Above on starboard floated a flare, its treacherous glare enveloping our dying boat. U-415 lay crippled, bleeding oil from a ruptured tank, slowly coming to a full stop—now a target to be finished off with ease. Bewildered, I peered down through the tower hatch into the blackness of the hull. All life below seemed to have ceased. I feared the boat might sink at any moment and ordered, ‘All hands on deck! Make ready dinghies and lifebuoy.’

“Not a sound came from below. The men must have been knocked out by the blows. Interminable seconds passed. From the distance came the drone of planes regrouping for a new assault. It had to be fatal. Suddenly, some men came struggling up the ladder, shaken, mauled, groggy, reaching for air, tossing inflatable rubber floats to the bridge. As they jumped on deck and prepared the dinghies, the gunners raised their barrels toward the invisible airplanes circling their disabled prey. The speed of the attack and the resultant damages prevented us from sending a distress signal. This, I thought grimly, was the way many of my friends had died—the silent way, leaving no word.

“U-415, hopelessly damaged, lay waiting for the coup de grace. Since the boat did not seem to be sinking, I told my men to take cover behind the tower instead of lowering the dinghies into the water. I was determined to remain on board as long as the boat would float and to shoot as long as there was ammunition and men to handle the guns. It turned out, however, that we would not die unreported: the radio mate managed to patch up our emergency transmitter and sent Headquarters news of our destruction.

“0228: Increasing engine noise heralded a new attack, a fresh approach by Sunderland from starboard ahead, guns blazing. Zooming over our bridge, it dropped four canisters. Four deafening booms tossed the boat aloft. At that moment a Liberator attacked at low altitude from port ahead. Our men on two 20mm guns started firing at once and emptied their magazines into the plane’s cockpit. The black monster swept across our bridge, dropped four charges, then zoomed away, blowing hot exhaust fumes into our faces. As the boat made four violent jumps to port and as four white mushrooms soared high alongside our starboard saddle tanks, the gunner at the 37mm automatic sent a full charge of explosive shells into the bomber’s fuselage. The flaming aircraft plunged into the sea. Somewhere, the sound of the Sunderland’s engines faded into the distance.

“Then all was very quiet. The flare still flickered on the surface next to our boat.

U-415 was near death, but still afloat. The Fly and the Bug had been shot away; we were without a warning device. The bridge was punctured by many projectiles. A gunner lay scalped by a shell. Other men had been hit by steel fragments. The Exec moaned in pain, his back badly lacerated by countless splinters. In the aftermath of battle, I felt hot. Assuming I was sweating, I wiped my burning eyes. But my hand came away red, and I realised that blood was streaming down my face. My white cap was punctured like a sieve, and the tiny fragments had torn my scalp.

“Then I heard the Chief’s voice from below: ‘Boat is taking heavy water through galley and bow hatches. Strong leak in radio room. I’ll try to keep her afloat, if you keep the bees away.’

“‘Can you get her repaired for diving?’ I shouted back.

“‘Can’t promise. We have no power, no light. We’ll do our best.’

“I lowered myself to the slippery deck. It was split in several places by the impact of depth charges which had hit the planks before falling into the water where they had exploded. One barrel had bounced off the starboard saddle tank and had left a deep dent. Far more serious, the starboard aft ballast tanks were split wide open. Diesel oil escaped in a thick stream, spreading rapidly over the surface.

“With each minute of truce, the danger of a new assault increased rapidly. The boat swung softly in the breathing ocean, paralyzed, seemingly dead. The next 20 or 30 minutes had to bring the finale. With every heartbeat we expected another attack or the boat to slip away from under us.

“Suddenly the Chief’s creaking voice escaped the hull: ‘Boat is ready for restricted dive. Twenty meters—no more. Only one motor good for eighty revolutions.’

“‘Can you hold her at twenty meters or will she go to the bottom?’ “

‘I can’t tell, we ought to try.’

“I tried. Quickly the men climbed up the bridge and dropped one by one through the round opening into their iron coffin. I watched the deck gradually sink below the surface. As the water crept up to the bridge I slammed the lid shut. Seconds later the floods engulfed the boat.”

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