Ceasefire - a WW2 story from north Norway
When U-711x returned to Harstad on Feb 24 1945 she carried an unexpected load in her starboard torpedo tube. It was the body of an Englishman but this man wasn’t dead as they’d expected when they’d picked him from the freezing Barents Sea, he was, miraculously, alive.
They should never have taken him on board. They’d surfaced, briefly, as the wind had begun whipping the sea into a foam-flecked gale. They had wanted to see the wreckage of their victim. A British corvette. They knew they’d hit her. Everyone in the boat had felt the detonation. They had cheered.
It was their first real success. No one liked to think too much about the fishing vessel they’d stopped late in the previous summer. It had had eight civilians on board – Norwegians, heading for Shetland – though they refused to admit their destination. Five men, a woman and two children. They’d sunk the boat and landed the people in Lodingen. They didn’t need to take them all the way back to Hammerfest. They hadn’t come from there.
Seeing the children marched away to Gestapo prison had been hard. There would be interrogations. Would pressure on the children be used to make the adults talk? That wasn’t why the crew of U-711x had joined the Kriegsmarine, not to make war on children. They weren’t like the Luftwaffe. They didn’t fight civilians. (Except merchantmen, carrying war materials to enemies of the Fatherland. Not that they’d sunk any. Not in two years. U-711x was not a successful boat.)
If they hadn’t had a political officer on board, they’d have dropped the families ashore and put out to sea again. Maybe the Kapitan would have alerted the police, but he wouldn’t have handed them directly to the STAPO. Their Kapitan was a decent man. He had family, back in the Baltic. Most of them did. One day they wanted to see them again. Embrace them without seeing ghosts. Without feeling ashamed.
It was uncomfortable when they’d been forced to shift their base westward. The Russians were overrunning Finnmark. The U-boats were relocated nearer to the village where those families had lived.
Their political officer had an accident there. He’d disappeared one dark night in the docks. He could have fallen and hit his head, then tumbled into the water. The nights were long during the Norwegian winter.
No body had been found so they’d recorded him as absent without permission and left early for their patrol. If they’d reported it officially the reprisals against the local people would have been savage. They guessed the disappearance was revenge for those children but they didn’t talk about it. They knew that they were hated. They felt more comfortable at sea though they hadn’t achieved much – except staying alive. Too many of the submariners they’d trained with were dead.
This had been a proper target: a Royal Navy escort vessel, all 925 tons of her. The Allied convoy had been lying stopped near the mouth of the Kola Inlet. U-711x could hardly believe her luck as she crept ever closer to her stationery prize. Her Kapitan had become an expert in using dense layers of the Arctic Ocean to confuse the enemy sonar. With the new torpedoes there’d be no giveaway trail of bubbles as the missile homed in on its victim. Nothing to reveal their whereabouts.
The torpedo hit must have been direct to her depth charges. They heard a massive explosion and then the corvette went down with a rush. It took maybe half a minute.
U-711x stayed deep as she heard the British ships searching for survivors. Perhaps there would be another sitting duck. Very soon she could hear most of the vessels leaving the area. They must know they had been fools to loiter here. One large ship stayed longer, then she too left. U711x sent a pair of torpedoes after her but they missed.
Then she surfaced to enjoy her triumph. This made up for the months – years – of cold, dark, profitless patrolling. Their feelings of inferiority as they compared themselves with other more successful boats. They had no emblems of success, no iron cross for their Kapitan, no civic feasting for themselves. They were lucky to be alive, they knew that, but alive for what purpose? To send a few children into prison?
It was a shock to discover they’d picked up a body. It had come up on the conning tower, caught uncomfortably round their periscope. They should have re-submerged and let it float off. But they didn’t. They’d been down for a long time. They were short of air and they wanted to fix this place in their minds. This bleak patch of sea, so close to the enemy coast. The scene of their success.
The body blocked their view. The Kapitan sent two crewmen up on deck to clear it.
The bitter cold of the Arctic air was a shock. There was a gale getting up and the sea surface was whitening with spume. The two men struggled to disengage the corpse so they could push it off their deck. It was wearing earphones. There were wires trailing from the headset. It looked as if the body had been blown straight out of its workstation when their torpedo hit. That must have been some blast they’d triggered. Mechanikergefreiter Peter Sehmel took a closer look. The body’s face was blue with cold and white with rime. Its eyes were wide and staring.
Then, as if they sensed his gaze, his human warmth, the eyes flickered.
‘It’s alive!’ said Peter, jerking upright as best as he could. This cold was so intense it threatened to freeze you in position, like ice statues. How could this person have survived? ‘We should get him below.’
That was wrong. They should have pushed him back into the sea, freeing up the periscope as they’d been ordered, then gone back down the ladder into the smelly fug. Away from the screaming wind that was whipping away their wits. They knew the order from GrossAdmiral Dönitz. ‘Rescue contradicts the most basic demands of war: the destruction of hostile ships and their crew. Be harsh.’
‘We can’t do it,’ said Peter’s crewmate. ‘We must follow orders.’
The body’s eyes met Peter’s again. It wasn’t a body; it was a living being.
‘It’s acceptable,’ said Peter, with a rush of gladness, pointing to the wireless headset still clamped to the man. ‘It’s an officer. He may have information. We can question him.’ They could see a book edge protruding from the top of the man’s pocket. ‘He may have codes!’
There wasn’t any more discussion. It would have been impossible to kill the man now they’d looked at him and he’d looked back. Instead they heaved and shoved to get his frozen mass through the hatch and into the warmth of the boat.
To start with the rest of the crew mocked them as they cut off his sodden uniform and rubbed his frozen skin. But only in fun. No one was truly angry. It was like the body was their trophy, snatched from the battle scene. Even the Kapitan agreed that the prisoner’s information might be valuable.
U711x had dived again, and everyone felt safe as the storm raged above. The enemy would have enough to do surviving on the surface. They wouldn’t come looking.
They cheered their Kapitan for his skill. Then cheered him again when he ordered that each man be allowed two bottles of Becks from a store that no one knew he carried. One, he said, was for their discipline in the long, silent, stalking process; the other for their success. A great shot! The sonar operators and torpedomen were cheered as heroes. The glow of goodwill included their rescued man. When the book in his pocket turned out to be about sailing, not codes, people just shrugged. Their B-Dienst cryptanalysts were known to be brilliant. They didn’t need wet books from half-drowned British officers.
When it became obvious, during the following days, that the prisoner had completely lost his memory after the blast from their torpedo had blown him out of his wireless room, people felt oddly glad. There wasn’t any need to interrogate him or even keep him in confinement. Where could he go? He was a nice guy, smiled all the time and embraced his rescuers as soon as his limbs began functioning again. They didn’t want him to remember his companions, lying dead at the bottom of the Barents Sea.
His Royal Navy uniform got stuffed into one of the tubes that still contained a torpedo. When it was fired the clothes would go too and if they got found the officer would be assumed dead -- as he should have been.
They began to teach him German. After a few days he picked it up so fast that they wondered whether he might have known their language before the war. Many Britishers did. There were people who still thought they should never have been enemies.
Maybe it was those bottles of Becks; maybe it was the prisoner’s smiles and gratitude, the indiscriminate frequency with which he embraced his rescuers – which seemed to include everyone – but there wasn’t any objection when Peter dressed him in the items of uniform left by Maschinengefreiter Hubertus Hausser, their ‘absent’ political officer. It became amusing to call their Englishman 'Hubertus'. Especially when he learned to answer to the name and follow their instructions, however silly they were. They had needed to be careful what they said when the first Hubertus was around. This was a joke that continued to improve.
An uninvolved observer might wonder whether the crew of U-711x had gone a little mad at this time. Had some trace of laughing gas seeped into the submarine atmosphere?
But as they surfaced and raised their swastika flag as they approached their base, there was some dispute what they should do. Hand him over obviously.
Then how would they explain their use of Maschinengefreiter Hausser’s clothes – and name? The fact they’d not reported the political officer’s death. Did they have time to re-educate their prisoner into his own identity? He’d need that evidence if he were to be treated properly as a prison-of-war. His clothes and papers had gone when they’d taken a shot at a straggling merchantman. The torpedo had been wasted as the merchantman was almost out of range and then a swarm of British aircraft came humming over. There must be a Royal Navy carrier nearby.
Things were changing fast in this far northern area of the war. They’d lost their base in Hammerfest. The people of Hammerfest had lost their town too. It had been totally burned.
Their base now was in Kilbotn a few km south of Harstad. They’d radioed their success and knew that there’d be an official welcome from the port captain. It wasn’t like the days when the legendary commanders had brought their boats home to the sound of bands and cheering crowds and had been given civic receptions and parades. If they could keep the new Hubertus out of sight initially, maybe he could reappear when they were docked. Save them from awkward explanations or from being given a new, possibly fanatic, political officer.
Mechanikergefreiter Sehmel made a nice bed in the torpedo tube and persuaded ‘Hubertus’ into it. He was so amenable, this former Englishman. He always smiled and agreed and said thank you. A great improvement on the man whose clothes he wore. They’d given him an ultra-short haircut and a shave. Hausser had made a big deal out of staying clean and smart even when the rest of them had two weeks’ stubble and, frankly, stank. The people on Black Watch, their depot ship, hardly knew him. It would save them trouble if they believed that the absence report had been a misunderstanding and that Hausser had rejoined. As long as the Englishman never remembered who he was – or wasn’t.
The new Hubertus served two more patrols with U-711x. They were back in the sea area near Murmansk where he’d been left for dead. Peter worried this might stimulate some memories but it didn’t seem to. Maybe wireless operators were like submariners, lived in their own different world.
They hit a Soviet despatch vessel on their first patrol but they didn’t sink her. Then, on May 2nd when they were coming to the end of another uneventful tour, all U-boats received an order from GrossAdmiral Dönitz to ceasefire and return to their bases immediately. Dönitz was their Fuhrer now. It seemed that the war might be over.
Most commanders had expected to be told to scuttle their ships but the order never came.
What had it all been for?
U-711x raised her flag, as usual, as she came gently through the Andfjord to reach Kilbotn in the early afternoon May 4th 1945 and docked, as usual, alongside Black Watch. Most of the crew hurried across to the former passenger ferry as soon as they were given leave. They hoped for letters, needed news, wondered whether they’d be going home...
There hadn’t been a formal surrender. Not yet. The new government was in Flensburg, at the Naval School. Rumour was that Dönitz was desperately playing for time so the army could get home before the Russians rolled in from the East. The crew of U-711x felt the same. That’why they’d left Hammerfest. Everyone feared the Russians. For some it was maybe a bad conscience: they were aware how suddenly Hitler had turned them on their former ally: they had some idea how harsh the fighting had been as their army and air force struck deep into that vast country. They expected the Soviets to want revenge.
Peter had already seen the Soviets in action. He’d been a 16-year-old in Estonia when they’d annexed his country: 17, when the rest of his family had been bundled into cattle trucks and forcibly deported. He’d have been loaded with them if he’d not been sleeping down in the harbour that night, keeping an eye on his friend’s yacht See Adler. Two weeks later the Germans invaded: See Adler was destroyed in the fighting and Peteris went to his friend in Hamburg where he worked in a shipbuilding yard until he was old enough for the Kreigsmarine. His home had been U-711x ever since; her Kapitan his nearest approximation to a father. If the war was truly over, he had no idea where he'd go.
On the day the British bombers came, Peter hadn’t joined the hopeful group hurrying to Black Watch. There was no one to write him letters. He had volunteered to undertake some maintenance work on the submarine. The Kapitan had said that if their boat was to be surrendered, she should be a credit to them.
Hubertus had also joined the working party but Peter’d sent him across to the depot ship to fetch metal polish and burnishers. He was worried about the prisoner. During their return from patrol, he’d noticed him looking at that English sailing book as if he might attempt to read it. Could his memory return? Peter took the book away and cursed himself for not having done so earlier.
It was a sunny afternoon, visibility was perfect, yet there was no alert and no fighters scrambled from Bardufoss to protect them. Maybe they, too, believed the war was over.
The attack only lasted seven minutes. The British had arrived in force. 44 aircraft from the Royal Navy Home Fleet carriers: Wildcat fighters and Avenger torpedo bombers, gliding in low to drop their load with impressive accuracy. Black Watch caught fire, exploded, broke in two, sank. Everyone was killed.
On U-711x the Kapitan shouted at the working party to cut her loose and get away. She had already been hit and was hit again, repeatedly. She only achieved a couple of hundred metres distance from the burning Black Watch before she sank. Those on board, however, survived.
Author's Note: Unfortunately only the 'heartwarming' aspects of this story and its main character are fiction. The rest is historically true. I first read the account of the torpedoing of the RN corvette in Richard Woodman's Arctic Convoys. (John Murray 1994) and used it fictionally as the opening of The Salt-Stained Book (Strong Winds 1) . I returned to it in Pebble (Strong Winds 6) and here's a little more romanticising of historical fact.
The 'real' U-711 is not a war grave today, but a dive site. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j82Hv0XefqQ
There are connections. Peter can be rediscovered many decades later in Pebble (a novel) but I'm afraid that everyone on Black Watch died (historical fact) and 'Hubertus' was on Black Watch. I had thought he had died on the torpedoed corvette when I wrote the Salt Stained book. Then I discovered (historical fact) that there had been a sole survivor... then I wandered off into fiction again.