Hirschfeld: The Secret Diary of a U-Boat NCO, 1940-1946
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Whilst there have been many memoirs written by U-boat commanders of the Second World War, a book such as this, based upon the diaries of a senior Petty Officer telegraphist, written in 'real time' is something very special. Wolfgang Hirschfeld, whose diaries Geoffrey Brooks has translated is a born story teller.
The principal chapters describe his experiences during six war patrols in U-109, in which he served as the senior telegraphist. His is a tale which covers the whole kaleidescope of emotions shared by men at war - a story of immense courage and fortitude, of remarkable comradeship born of the dangers, frustrations and privations shared and of transitory moments of triumph.
Throughout runs a vein of humour, without which resistance to stress would have been virtually impossible. We get to know one of Germany's great U-boat aces, 'Ajax' Bleichrodt, holder of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and, in a special biographical appendix, learn how he finally cracked under the strain. The role of Admiral Karl Donitz, the dynamic commander of the U-boat service, so fascinatingly described by Hirschfeld, is of special interest - not least because even this dedicated Nazi had clearly realized by September, 1942, that the war was fast being lost.
In 1944 Hirschfeld was promoted Warrant Officer and found himself on a large, schnorkel-equipped boat (U-234) heading for Japan with a load of high technology equipment and, in addition, a quantity of uranium ore. The possible significance of that uranium has been deeply researched by Geoffrey Brooks and is discussed in a second appendix.
submarine commanders in this regard see The British Submarine by Cdr F Lipscomb (Conway Maritime Press, London, 1975): in contrast with the observance of our own submarines, the enemy’s unrestricted warfare reached a new low level … our submarine policy was so strongly in contrast to that of the enemy that the effect on neutrals could be said to have sealed their attitude in our favour. As regards the Tirranna, with 274 neutral and British civilians aboard, Cdr Lipscomb, who obviously must have
destroyer’s propellers began to grind again. ‘Destroyer approaching.’ ‘Go to 450 feet.’ The electric motors were at full ahead to get us as quickly as possible to the lower depth. The Chief trimmed the boat at 480 feet and then the British vessel ejected another group of depth charges which tumbled down for thirty seconds before exploding. It was almost incredible that after such a close pattern of detonations the boat could still be afloat, but it didn’t seem that the flooding had got any
Carnac and then Leibling and I were summoned to Lorient by Lt Seidel. ‘Hirschfeld, I’m sorry to drag you away, but there’s no other boat or radio crew available at the moment and the BdU wants to try out a Coded Morse Conversation. Do you think you can do it?’ I shrugged my shoulders: First, I had to understand what it entailed. Two radio operators morsing messages en clair between their two stations were engaged in a ‘conversation’. But when one of these two stations was the radio room of a
addressed the coxswain. ‘Ah, Petersen …’The BdU smiled. ‘After the next voyage, I’m taking you off. I’ve got a job for you.’ He said something else that I couldn’t hear. He walked along the rank and looked each of us in the eye. Then he stood and faced us all. He seemed content with us this time and congratulated us on a well-conducted special mission. The safe arrival of the Silvaplana with her valuable cargo had been important for the Reich. But now we should get the boat ready as soon as
waves. Initially there was no noticeable effect even though the diesels were consuming the air from the interior of the boat. After five minutes the diesels were still running and this created a partial vacuum which was particularly unpleasant on the ear drums and rapidly became intolerable. Peter Schölch, the Boatswain, found that two fillings in his teeth dropped out. Suddenly all the men in the diesel room collapsed over the machinery, but fortunately the last man on his feet, Warrant