Authors: Erik Larson
The crew of U-20 once scavenged an entire barrel of butter, but by that point in the patrol the boat’s cook had nothing suitable on hand to fry. Schwieger went shopping. Through his periscope he spotted a fleet of fishing boats and surfaced U-20 right in their midst. The fishermen, surprised and terrified, were certain their boats would now be sunk. But all Schwieger wanted was fish. The fishermen, relieved, gave his crew all the fish they could carry.
Schwieger ordered the submarine to the bottom so his crew could dine in peace. “
And now,” said Zentner, “there was fresh
fish, fried in butter, grilled in butter, sautéed in butter, all that we could eat.”
These fish and their residual odors, however, could only have worsened the single most unpleasant aspect of U-boat life: the air within the boat. First there was the basal reek of three dozen men who never bathed, wore leather clothes that did not breathe, and shared one small lavatory. The toilet from time to time imparted to the boat the scent of a cholera hospital and could be flushed only when the U-boat was on the surface or at shallow depths, lest the undersea pressure blow material back into the vessel. This tended to happen to novice officers and crew, and was called a “U-boat baptism.” The odor of diesel fuel infiltrated all corners of the boat, ensuring that every cup of cocoa and piece of bread tasted of oil. Then came the fragrances that emanated from the kitchen long after meals were cooked, most notably that close cousin to male body odor, day-old fried onions.
All this was made worse by a phenomenon unique to submarines that occurred while they were submerged. U-boats carried only limited amounts of oxygen, in cylinders, which injected air into the boat in a ratio that varied depending on the number of men aboard. Expended air was circulated over a potassium compound to cleanse it of carbonic acid, then reinjected into the boat’s atmosphere. Off-duty crew were encouraged to sleep because sleeping men consumed less oxygen. When deep underwater, the boat developed an interior atmosphere akin to that of a tropical swamp. The air became humid and dense to an unpleasant degree, this caused by the fact that heat generated by the men and by the still-hot diesel engines and the boat’s electrical apparatus warmed the hull. As the boat descended through ever colder waters, the contrast between the warm interior and cold exterior caused condensation, which soaked clothing and bred colonies of mold. Submarine crews called it “
U-boat sweat.” It drew oil from the atmosphere and deposited it in coffee and soup, leaving a miniature oil slick. The longer the boat stayed submerged, the worse conditions became. Temperatures within could rise to over 100 degrees
You can have no conception of the atmosphere that is evolved by degrees under these circumstances,” wrote one commander, Paul Koenig, “nor of the hellish temperature which brews within the shell of steel.”
The men lived for the moment the boat ascended to the surface and the hatch in the conning tower was opened. “
The first breath of fresh air, the open conning-tower hatch and the springing into life of the Diesels, after fifteen hours on the bottom, is an experience to be lived through,” said another commander, Martin Niemöller. “Everything comes to life and not a soul thinks of sleep. All hands seek a breath of air and a cigarette under shelter of the bridge screen.”
All these discomforts were borne, moreover, against a backdrop of always present danger, with everyone aware they faced the worst kind of death imaginable: slow suffocation in a darkened steel tube at the bottom of the sea.
On one of U-20’s patrols, this prospect came to seem all too real.
T WAS EARLY
in the war, when U-boat commanders and British defenders alike were developing new tactics to deploy against each other. Schwieger was scanning the sea through his periscope when he spotted two buoys ahead, spaced far apart. They had no obvious purpose, and their presence in that area of sea was unexpected.
Schwieger saw no danger. He called out, “Two buoys sighted. Keep exact depth.” The boat continued forward at “periscope depth,” 11 meters below the surface, about 36 feet, deep enough that only the top of the periscope showed above the water.
Something banged against the exterior, and then came a grating sound, like steel moving along the hull. “It sounded as if huge chains were banging against the boat and were being dragged over it,” said Rudolph Zentner, then on duty in the boat’s control room.
The men operating the ship’s horizontal rudders, the dive planes, called out in alarm. The rudders weren’t responding. Zentner
checked the gauges that monitored depth and speed. The boat was slowing and sinking. It heaved and lurched from side to side.
Zentner watched the depth gauge and called each change to Schwieger. The boat sank deeper and deeper. At a depth of 100 feet, U-20 struck bottom. At this depth the pressure posed no threat, but the boat now seemed fused to the ocean floor.
Zentner climbed the ladder into the conning tower, and there looked out through one of the small windows of thick glass, the only means of observing the surrounding ocean while submerged. What he saw stunned him: a crosshatch of chain and cable. “Now we knew the meaning of those buoys,” he said. A giant steel net had been suspended between them, a submarine trap, and U-20 had run right into it. The boat lay on the bottom, not just ensnared but pinned down by the weight of the net.
And now, something else: through the walls of the hull the crew heard the thrum of propellers overhead. They knew from experience that this particular pattern of sound was generated by destroyers—“a shrill, angry buzz.”
Depth charges did not yet exist, but the presence of destroyers waiting above was anything but reassuring. These were the ships that U-boat commanders most feared. A destroyer—a
—could move at 35 knots, or 40 miles an hour, and fire a lethal shot from a mile away. It could also kill a submarine by ramming. With a bow edged like a carving knife, a fast-moving destroyer could slice a U-boat in half.
The interior grew warm and close. Fear settled over the men like silt in a tide. “You can bet there was no laughing and singing on board now,” Zentner said. “Each man thought of his home in Germany and how he would never see it again.”
These were the hard moments of command. Schwieger was not permitted to show fear, though he undoubtedly felt it. In such close quarters, to act with anything other than confidence and reassurance would have amplified the fear already at play.
Schwieger ordered, “Reverse engines.”
The engines responded. The boat strained. Steel rasped against the hull. Meanwhile, the propeller sounds above grew more distinct.
Zentner watched the dials and indicators in the control room. “The gauges were the whole world to us now,” he said. “I had never gazed at anything so eagerly before.”
The boat began slowly backing, amid the shriek of steel outside. And then, it was free.
Schwieger ordered ascent to cruising depth, 22 meters, or 72 feet, and full speed ahead. There was relief, until the men realized the propeller sounds above were not fading. The destroyers seemed to know the boat’s exact location. Schwieger ordered a zigzag course, wide to right and left, but the destroyers always followed.
Schwieger traveled blind. He could not attempt to use his periscope because the destroyers would spot it immediately and begin shooting or attempt to ram the boat, or both. Schwieger ordered the helmsmen at the dive planes to maintain as deep a depth as the charts for these seas allowed. The pursuit continued “hour after hour,” Zentner said, with U-20 following “a wild, weird course, going as fast as we could.”
The best hope now was night. As darkness fell on the seas above, the propeller sounds began to fall away until they faded to nothing. Schwieger brought the boat back to periscope depth and took a fast look around, 360 degrees, to make sure no threat was near.
This was a strenuous maneuver. The fittings on the periscope, where it jutted through the exterior of the conning tower above, had to be tight to keep water out and to withstand the pressures of a deep dive. Turning the apparatus required strength. The snugness of the fit was never perfect, however: a certain amount of
oil-laced water inevitably dripped onto Schwieger’s cap and face.
Once confident that the destroyers were gone, Schwieger ordered U-20 to the surface.
And there the final mystery was solved. In backing from the net, the boat had snagged a cable attached to one of the buoys. The buoy had followed on the sea above like a fisherman’s bobber, revealing to the destroyers’ lookouts every change of course, until darkness at last made the buoy invisible.
Schwieger was lucky. In coming months, the British would begin hanging pods of explosives off their submarine nets.
, April 30, as U-20 passed from the Heligoland Bight, Schwieger’s wireless man continued to send messages reporting the submarine’s position, apparently in an effort to determine the maximum range for sending and receiving signals. The last successful exchange was with the
at a distance of 235 sea miles.
By seven that evening the U-boat was well into the North Sea, traversing the Dogger Bank, a seven-thousand-square-mile fishing ground off England. The winds picked up, as did the seas. Visibility diminished.
The submarine passed several fishing boats that flew Dutch flags. Schwieger left them alone. He signed his log, thereby marking the official end of the first day of the cruise.
AURIAT LEFT HIS SISTER
apartment and traveled crosstown to 645 Fifth Avenue to pick up the final component of the collection of items he was bringing to London. He went to the home of a client named William Field, who, despite his address, described himself as a “gentleman farmer.”
A few months earlier, Lauriat had sold Field a rare volume of Charles Dickens’s
A Christmas Carol
, first published in December 1843. This copy had belonged to Dickens himself and was the one he entered into evidence in a series of legal actions he brought in early 1844 against “literary pirates” who had republished the story without his permission. On the inside of the book’s front and back covers, and elsewhere within, were notes about the lawsuits that had been jotted by Dickens himself. It was an irreplaceable work.
Lauriat wanted to borrow it. Earlier in the year he had corresponded with a London solicitor who had written an account of Dickens’s piracy litigation. The solicitor had asked Lauriat to bring the book with him on his next visit to London so that he could copy the various notations within. Its new owner, Field, “agreed rather unwillingly to do this,” Lauriat wrote, and only after Lauriat promised to guarantee its safety.
Lauriat met Field at his apartment, and there Field handed over the book, a handsome volume bound in cloth and packaged in a
“full Levant box,” meaning a container covered in the textured goatskin used in morocco bindings. Lauriat placed this in his briefcase and returned to his sister’s apartment.
54, on Friday morning, Turner ordered a lifeboat drill. The ship carried forty-eight boats in all, of two varieties. Twenty-two were Class A boats of conventional design—open boats hung over the deck from cranelike arms, or davits, strung with block and tackle. The smallest of these boats could seat fifty-one people; the largest, sixty-nine. In an emergency, the boats were to be swung out over the sea and lowered to the deck rails so that passengers could climb in. Once the boats were filled, two crewmen would manage the ropes—the “falls”—at the bow and stern of each boat and through careful coordination lower the boat in such a way that it would enter the water on a level keel. This was like being lowered down the face of a six-story building. Given that a fully loaded lifeboat weighed close to ten tons, the process took skill and coordination, especially in rough weather. But even in the best conditions it was a hair-raising operation.
The other twenty-six boats were “collapsibles,” which looked like flattened versions of the regular boats. Capable of holding forty-three to fifty-four people each, these had canvas sides that had to be raised and snapped into place to make the boats seaworthy. The design was the product of a compromise. After the
disaster, ocean liners were required to have enough lifeboats for everyone aboard. But in the case of a ship as large as the
, there simply was not enough room for all the Class A boats that would be necessary. The collapsibles, however, could be tucked underneath and lowered from the same davits after the regular boats were launched; in theory, they could also float free when a ship sank. The designers, however, seemed not to have taken into consideration the possibility that the boats might end up in the water before being properly rigged, with scores of panicked passengers hanging on and blocking all efforts to raise the sides.
Taken together, the
’s lifeboats could seat as many
as 2,605 people, more than enough capacity for all the ship’s passengers and crew.