The U-Boat That Got Away

By Schaeffer, Heinz | Sea Classics, July 1999 | Go to article overview

The U-Boat That Got Away


Schaeffer, Heinz, Sea Classics


With Germany's surrender all the U-boats at sea were ordered to surface and give themselves up. Most complied with the order except for U-977. The submarine's brazen Kapitan and crew decided to make a dash for freedom - an escape that would become one of the greatest sea adventures of World War II.

U-977 was a long-range battle submarine, one of the last built in Germany before we lost the war. She was shiny-new when I got her. I was her first commander - and in sober resignation I expected to be her last. The enemy's radar was searching us out with deadly efficiency. British propaganda estimated the average life of a U-boat at 40 days, and this time the British were right, and we knew it.

As it finally turned out, U-977 and her crew were destined to beat the averages. There would be a secret cruise toward freedom, and terrible suffering, and an underwater voyage longer than any in naval annals. And at the end there would be a fantastic accusation. It has been said that we took Adolf Hitler aboard the U-977 - not dead, but alive - and delivered him to a hideaway in the frozen Antarctic.

All this began at our naval base in Kiel, in late April 1945. We knew Germany was being defeated, but we could not foresee that only a few days remained before our leaders would surrender. They were still urging us, "Fight on! Fight to victory!"

There was an air raid at Kiel every day. Our antiaircraft defenses no longer existed, they had been blown up, and we never saw a German fighter in the sky. During one of these raids I cast off and slid out of the harbor through a cataract of falling bombs. American planes roared overhead, ammunition stores exploded all around us, and a passenger ship at anchor, the NEW YORK, flared like a torch. Another escaping U-boat, following close in my wake, took a direct hit. It sank in a matter of seconds. I ordered full speed ahead. It didn't matter what speed we traveled, but it calms a man's nerves to give an order of some kind.

The raid had driven us out of Kiel before we could embark all our stores, so I put into a Danish port to load ham and eggs and kegs of butter, and all the other eatables I could get. We planned to fill our fuel tanks in Kristiansand, Norway, if we could squeeze past the Allied lookouts. The passage to Norway was thickly sown with mines and patrolled by Allied planes. More than half our U-boats were lost on this run. Yet it was the only way we could go, since our bases in France had been captured.

We hoped to get through at night, but our radar soon showed twelve enemy aircraft bearing down on us. I'd had my fill of night air attacks, with my gun crews dazzled by parachute flares and unable to see anything except tracer bullets and exploding bombs. We dived and took a chance on the mines. At daybreak we rose to periscope depth. No planes or ships were in sight, so I decided to give the crew some practice using the Snort. I had used this engine-- breathing apparatus on another U-boat, but it was completely new to our chief engineer and to most of our crew. The Snort, or Snorchel (US Navy: snorkel), has two tubes, a long air intake opening above the water and an engine-exhaust outlet that is supposed to discharge at or slightly below the surface. A valve in the intake snaps shut automatically whenever a wave washes over it, and snaps open when the wave recedes. And the purpose of all this is to get air to our Diesel engines, so we can cruise submerged - for days on end if necessary -- without using our precious batteries.

I gave orders to rise to seven fathoms, the depth for Snort cruising. We started both diesels, one to charge batteries, the other to drive the U-- boat. We had been making three knots on the batteries; now we were making seven knots. There was an inrush of air through the Snort. Pressure inside the boat suddenly increased. In a moment the Snort value closed with a snap and the Diesels sucked air from the engine room, creating a partial vacuum. …

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