UNDER THE WATER UNDER THE WIRE
and the men who sank the Sydney
by Grahame Wilson
"I love my country. I love the sea and the ships, but I hate politicians. I think it is tragic that the world is at war because one man and one man alone wanted war, but what can we do? We are naval men and we do what we are told."
Captain Theodore Detmers.
In November 1941, during interrogation in Western Australia after sinking the HMAS Sydney.
The young man lay motionless on the hospital bed. The nurse slowly lifted the sheet and covered his face. The two men folded their stethoscopes, turned and moved away from the dead man's bedside. Dr Rolfe Goosen gazed out the window, and muttered to his companion. "Another one. Nineteen, and about to get married. Yesterday, I felt sure he was improving."
"Yesterday he wasn't aware that he'd lost a leg," replied Dr Willie Heiden. "That's four gone this morning. All from that bomb dropped yesterday. Two were young girls, both Norwegians."
"I wonder will the world be any better, Willie. They bomb us. We bomb them. What then?"
"We can only hope, Rolfe. That's about all."
"Ah, Willie. I've been up here in Narvik far too long. Patching up young men and women, then wait and watch as too many die. Just a few more days, then off I go."
"I can't believe you're really going. Do you have to take on such a thing?"
Rolfe shook his head then led his friend out into a quiet hallway as he reached into his pocket. "We're not civilians Willie. I'm in the Kriegsmarine, just as you're in the Luftwaffe. I just feel this move would have more purpose, be more positive. They said this hospital was a temporary attachment. I've been here well over a year."
"I know that Rolfe but you're needed here. Really needed. You could refuse."
"Could I? Here, take a look at this order; read the last signature." He held up a letter.
"Donitz! Admiral Donitz? So urgent?"
"Grossadmiral Donitz now! I know it's going to be difficult Willie – it's an order, and from 'The Lion' himself, so that's final."
"Good luck Rolfe. I know I could never take it on."
Rolfe glanced at his watch. "I have to go over now to meet their captain. If you can cover for me here, I'll be back in about an hour."
They parted, Rolfe donning his overcoat before venturing outside into the courtyard. The German military hospital in Narvik looked like many other buildings in the town, except for a large Red Cross on the roof.
As Willie Heiden returned to the ward there was a sudden quiet. Faces looked up in fear as the soft deep growling of an air raid siren gradually wound its way up to an unnerving howl. Following was the deep hum of aircraft engines, faint whistles, each whistle ending with a jarring thud. Walls and windows rattled and shook.
The bombing paused. Then came a single terrifying whistle from directly above. The nurse began screaming. Heiden grabbed her, dragged her to the floor and tried to shield her. There was a flash and a deafening explosion, windows disintegrated into shards of glass that flew across the ward. Cabinets and medical equipment rolled, toppled, then smashed to the floor. Suddenly, a brief numbing silence. Then screams, shouts and running footsteps.
The nurse remained on the floor, shaking and crying; the tears streaming down her face now joined by a tiny trickle of red from a sliver of glass above her eye. Willie helped her to her feet; another nurse calmed her while he rushed to the outside door.
There was smoke rising from a black hole in the courtyard and from three crumpled figures lying nearby. Heiden picked his way over shattered bricks, tiles and timbers to reach them. Medical staff had joined him, many as yet unaware of, or choosing to ignore, their own injuries. The three were blackened and burnt. Two were dead, both nurses – he'd been working with one of them only minutes before. He barely recognized the third; it was his friend Rolfe.
With a supreme effort Rolfe forced a blistered hand into his overcoat, dragged out a smoking bundle of papers and pushed them towards Heiden. He was trying to talk, but failed and began coughing and choking. He could only speak with his eyes, but they were closing. As his hand went limp, the papers were caught in a gentle breeze and drifted across the courtyard.
An orderly brought them back but by then, Rolfe was gone.
Dr Willie G Heiden carried on as best he could that morning. The staff at the small hospital was almost a family, and did what they could for each other while dealing with their regular patients. Despite everything, there was little serious damage to the hospital or its other occupants.
Some hours later briefcase in hand, Heiden excused himself from the hospital and left the building, well bundled against the cold wind which swept down from the snowy peaks and moaned its way across the grey waters of the bay. He made his way down towards the harbour between rows of tall neat houses. Their steep roofs and bright colours tried vainly to offer a splash of cheer despite many having been reduced to untidy piles of splintered wood. War damage. That day they were all unnoticed by Willie Heiden.
He couldn't believe that Rolfe was dead. Gone. They'd been great friends, right from the beginning. Both newly married, both with young children. There was a further coincidence when he discovered that Rolfe's wife lived with her father in Hamburg, only a few streets away from his own wife in Kirchdorfer Strabe.
A pair of soldiers rounded the corner ahead, and motioned him to stop. Heiden stared vacantly, not noticing until one of them raised his machine pistol.
Heiden had barely reached for them when the other soldier made a whispered comment in his companion's ear.
"Ah. You're a doctor at the hospital, Sir?"
As Heiden nodded absently the pistol was lowered.
"You should be careful walking these streets, Sir. Especially alone. Not everyone in Norway is a friend of Germany." The soldiers turned and resumed their patrol.
Heiden continued on down the hill, and soon the harbour came into view. There it was, the U-boat. Rolfe's words came back. 'This U-boat, you may have seen it. That long one at the wharf. They've just lost their regular doctor. I'm not sure what happened, but they have to leave within days. They must have a doctor. Apparently it's a long voyage, and there're about 60 of them. My job will be to keep them alive, and healthy.'
Heiden walked slowly along the harbour frontage. A group of soldiers was dealing with the still smouldering remains of two storage sheds. One directed him to a sentry box on the wharf. Inside was an old man, his few remaining teeth chattering as he formed the words. "Your papers. Be careful, the wind."
"I'm here on behalf of a - friend. I need to speak to the captain of a U-boat; number 862. I believe it's on this wharf?"
"I need your papers, that's the order for everyone who wants to enter."
Heiden's gloved fingers fumbled, found them and held them out for scrutiny. After much checking, they were handed back. He returned them to his briefcase, alongside an envelope containing Rolfe's charred documents.
"Down the wharf, Sir. It's a long walk."
Heiden braced himself against the wind, trying to avoid bomb craters, pools of water and crates of supplies scattered all along the wharf. After negotiating around several parties loading a minesweeper, he sighted the low squat hull of one of the Kriegsmarine's latest U-boats. He'd seen a few before, but only in the distance. He'd never seen one so large.
U-862. That was the one.
He always thought there was something feline about the shape. Like some women he had known. Graceful curves, but with hidden claws. There were several vehicles parked beside the conning tower. As he approached, a group of crewmen glanced up from their work on a deck gun, as did others carrying supplies up a narrow gangplank.
"Can I help you?" came an enquiry from above.
The bridge was only a little higher than the wharf. He looked up to see three men scanning the surrounding skies. One had lowered his binoculars to observe him.
"I wish to see your captain. My name is Heiden, Dr Heiden. I'm here on behalf of Dr Goosen."
The men at the deck gun stopped and peered in his direction. One of them wiped his hands, pushed the hair back from his eyes and quickly stepped ashore.
"Dr Heiden did you say? I'm Captain Timm, Heinrich Timm."
For a few seconds they stood there each assessing the other, then Timm spoke again. "You wish to see me. Is there a problem?"
In the U-boat service, it was an unwritten custom that only the captain wore a white hat. A few mornings later, the dim light barely revealed the white cap of Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Timm as he stood on the lower rear deck of the conning tower with a few senior officers. Behind him two men kept watch for enemy aircraft. Any of the crew not essential in the hull below were lined up on the afterdeck for the customary briefing.
"Men, as you all know, we're starting off on a very long patrol. Several days ago, in Trondheim, I said exactly the same thing. When we left we were about to face the enemy waiting for us out there in the North Sea.
"Standing with me here today on the tower is seaman Karl Stuger. We all owe him our lives. It was he who spotted the oil slick trailing behind us, and if we had continued further out, the British could have followed us, and sent us to a depth that we're not at all accustomed to. I would have been unhappy. You would have been unhappy, and I'm sure our Führer would have been even more unhappy. We were fortunate that here in Narvik they had this dry-dock to repair the leak.
"Karl Stuger is to be commended. He is one of our new crew and I would like to particularly commend him, not only for spotting the leak, but for having the courage to report it. I urge all members of the crew, whatever rank or station, to report such things. If you're ever in doubt, just think where we would all be now if seaman Stuger had been too embarrassed to say anything.
"In a few hours we will be again in the North Sea. Men, I know that working together, we can defeat Churchill and his damned allies and send their ships to the bottom.
"Narvik has been kind to us in another way. At last we now have a doctor –— Dr Heiden. Dr Heiden has made unusual sacrifices to join us at such short notice. He is new to the U-bootwaffe, and I urge you to introduce him to any safety issues unique to your compartment."
He turned to an officer. "Would you take her out, Oberleutnant?"
Oberleutnant Gunther Reiffenstuhl stepped forward and ordered the men to return to their stations below.
Timm stood at the rail watching as they filed down the after deck hatch. He and his wife Marga had no children of their own, but here he had 64 men under his charge, many of them under the age of twenty.
Although Timm was only in his mid-thirties himself, they were his men, his boys. He also knew they would do their duty to him as captain, and to Germany. He knew he was taking them to face an enemy which was becoming ever more numerous, ever more well equipped, ever more dangerous. He watched until the last man reached up and closed the steel hatch. There was a disturbing finality about it. Whatever the danger, Timm was determined to do his utmost and bring his men back alive, to their families, and he hoped, to a better Germany.
Reiffenstuhl gave the necessary orders for the lines to be cast off. Timm and his fellow officers gave a brief final salute to the small group of dockyard personnel braving the early morning cold. With two deep blasts from the signal horn, U-862 was carefully reversed, and as it gathered way and cleared the dock Reiffenstuhl ordered a turn to starboard. As soon as the bow pointed into the deep waters of the fjord, the tower was cleared and they submerged, a few farewell flowers left to float from the deck, the only trace of their departure.
It was the 3rd June, 1944.
Timm made a quick check of the control room, then after another welcoming handshake to the doctor, went to his cabin.
Reiffenstuhl now had command. Only four years earlier at the age of 18, he had left school and joined the Kreigsmarine. He had served with Timm on the smaller U-251 was already second-in-command and 1st Watch Officer. With the recent terrible losses within the U-bootwaffe, he was even considered ready for his own command, his own boat.
Inside the control tower was a tiny compartment where this young man crouched before the attack periscope, the only one on-board who could actually see the world outside. What he could see on each shore of the fjord and in the shallows were the remains of shattered wrecks, all vivid reminders of the furious battles between opposing naval forces a few years earlier. German and British, burnt and blackened, some on their sides, some with bows pointing skywards, others sunk, their presence marked only by a few rusting masts and upper structures.
Maintaining a careful watch for these wrecks, as well as enemy air patrols, he relayed information down through a speaking tube to the larger control room directly below. A number of officers worked alongside the navigator, and plotted the circuitous passage through the long winding waterway. It took skilful hands and guidance to control the angle of the bow and stern hydroplanes if they were to maintain the correct periscope depth. Any breach of the surface could reveal their presence and result in them joining the graveyard below.
Once they were safely under way, and the first watch change had taken place, Timm called for his second-in-command to come to his cabin. A few seconds later Reiffenstuhl made a polite cough before pushing aside the heavy green curtain that formed the door of the only private cabin on-board. Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Timm nodded, and Reiffenstuhl made a brief report of the ship's status. Timm nodded towards a chair, an indication for him to sit down and forget formalities.
"Heinrich, this Heiden is not the doctor I expected!"
"Ah, Reiffi. There is no short answer to that. It took a lot of negotiating. We nearly had no doctor at all. That is why I simply had to leave you here in charge while I was ashore. Those air raids, you remember when they hit the dock buildings?"
"Why of course. A direct hit. The Wehrmacht lost 13, and their transport workshop."
"One bomb went a little further and we lost our new doctor. It hit the hospital. The doctor we expected, Dr Rolfe Goosen? He was killed."
"My God. The hospital?"
"Yes. The hospital courtyard. Goosen and two nurses."
"We were lucky to escape down there in the harbour."
"I know Reiffi. We were sitting targets in port. I only met that doctor once, and then only briefly. His death, of course, is tragic, but I found it almost unbelievable when another doctor turned up offering to replace him. Our Dr Willie Heiden."
"My God. That's good, but it sounds a little crazy."
"That's what I thought. Heiden told me that he and this other doctor were very good friends, and he was fulfilling his friend's dying wish."
"Very — noble."
"You can keep this to yourself — although he may even tell you — but the two doctors lost their families, wives and children, on the same night, in the same raid. The Hamburg raid. I would take that as a good reason for such loyalty."
"Ah, Hamburg," was all that Reiffenstuhl could say.
In July 1942, over a period of eight days, around 3,000 British and American aircraft dropped thousands of tons of bombs on Hamburg resulting in an enormous firestorm. This was Operation Gomorrah, and resulted in at least 50,000 deaths.
"Heiden is attached to the Luftwaffe, not the Kriegsmarine, so I had to contact a General Stumpff, he's commander of Luftflotte 5, here in Norway. Then I had to penetrate the bureaucracy around Donitz at Kriegsmarine Headquarters. As you can imagine, a busy time.
"The hospital authorities were most unhappy. Having offered us one doctor, they were about to lose a second. However, with some pretty heavy pressure from above, they reluctantly conceded. They had no choice.
"In the meantime, Kriegsmarine headquarters managed to find a doctor serving on a surface ship who was almost forever seasick. He was delighted to serve ashore, even up here in cold, miserable Narvik.
"Now, to the present situation. As you'd expect, our doctor has a few things to learn about life on-board, and frankly we'll need time to really know him. Normally I wouldn't accept someone like that, but as soon as the dockyard plugged that oil leak, we had to go. Let's make the best of it. It's not much but he's had some experience in small boats. Reiffi, wasn't your father a doctor?"
There was a nod in reply.
"If you could take Heiden under your wing, get to know him a little better. I suspect he'll be free of claustrophobia."
"Right Captain. I think we'd certainly know by now."
"Also I'm never fussy about uniforms as you know, ask him if he's happy to stay in Luftwaffe blue."
"One other thing, Reiffi. Heiden — he says he's a good swimmer…"
"Mmm? Let's hope he doesn't need to be!"
"… but, but… he also mentioned that he has done a little gliding."
"Ah. Interesting. No one else has. I'll look into that."
Timm returned to the control room, while Reiffenstuhl caught up with Dr Heiden who was already at work in his role as the ship's doctor, removing a few particles of grit from the bloodshot eye of one of the crew.
"Now, just a few drops in the eye. This is saline. Come back if it doesn't settle down." The crewman mumbled a thank you, and left.
"Dr Heiden. The crew's coming to you already? That's good. I'm Gunther Reiffenstuhl, Second Officer." They shook hands.
"Reiffi will do. The captain's asked me to introduce you to the joys of life aboard our beautiful boat. Is now all right?"
Heiden nodded and followed Reiffenstuhl to the small wardroom, which was quieter. Reiffenstuhl poured two coffees from a simmering pot.
"Call me Willie."
"Right, Willie. My father is still practising medicine back in Baden. I wondered about studying it myself –— but then along came the war… now, let me start by telling you that this patrol really started off from Kiel before we sailed to Trondheim. By the way, you do know we're ultimately heading for the Indian Ocean? To an island called Penang, in the Dutch East Indies?"
Heiden nodded, very cautiously. "That's a long way."
"Ah. Unfortunately the captain couldn't really tell you the precise destination until you were on-board and at sea. He never told the crew either. You never know who's listening when you're ashore. Not just enemy spies, but when those dockyard people have too much to drink, well…" Reiffenstuhl shrugged his shoulders. "We'd been loading tropical uniforms, so we all suspected a long voyage south. I served with the captain in U-251. We spent most of our time then in Arctic and Baltic waters chasing Russian conveys. Most of this crew came with him from U-251 and it was a real surprise when the captain announced we'd be going that far south and crossing the equator.
"That explains the pills."
"At first I wondered why there was such a stock of vitamin pills, specially vitamin C. Men used to get scurvy in the early days. On those long voyages living on salted meat and hard biscuits. Citrus fruit finally solved the problem, they're full of vitamin C."
"I remember now Willie, there was one of our boats, it was out for months. They had that scurvy. No-one could think straight…Well, as I said, we originally left Kiel and headed out into the North Sea, but almost immediately the enemy was giving us a bad time with their air patrols. We not only have the British and Americans, but up here a few Russians as well. Every time we surfaced, we were picked up by their radar signals, which forced us down again. It meant we couldn't really surface. Underwater we may be out of sight, but we can only run on battery power for so long. If the batteries run out, we have to surface. So down below, we not only travel slowly, but we can't find any ships to attack; unless they're very close. Thank God our commander turned around in time and brought us back. We landed at Bergen with the batteries very low. If he'd kept going, we would have been forced to surface, and that would have been the end for us all."
"Your Captain Timm," said Heiden, pausing thoughtfully, "we had a funeral service in the hospital chapel for my friend Rolfe. I was surprised, rather impressed, that Captain Timm found time to come over and pay his respects."
"Really?" Timm hadn't told him about that. "Anyway, we later left Bergen, and were making our way further up the Norwegian coast to avoid British air patrols when luckily, as you heard on deck, a watchman noticed a long trail of oil behind us. It had to be fixed so we headed further north to Narvik, to the dry-dock.
"Now, enough of that. I'll assign someone to help you sort out any particular medical requirements, your sleeping arrangements and all that. We can't let you up on the tower just yet. You're very new to U-boats, Willie. If the enemy turn up and we have to crash dive, we have just seconds to get down here and close up. You might be left behind to enjoy a lonely cold bath.
"The seas are calm now here in the fjords, but very soon we'll hit rough water. You're not going to enjoy that. It's bad enough on a ship's deck, but as you move around down here, duck your head. You'll have to walk carefully, don't slip; just try to roll with the boat.
"I'll get someone to show you each individual compartment. There are five. Make sure you know how to open and close each of the watertight hatchways. In an emergency, although it's unlikely, you may find yourself alone in a compartment, having to do just that.
"Now, tube seven, that's what we sometimes call it. Or the heads. Toilets if you prefer. What we shoot from there is worse than any torpedo, believe me. We have two heads, although the one at the rear is for now being used as a food store. It will be a long time before we can stop for supplies, so we can only use the forward head at the moment.
"Another thing, very important. Make sure you know how to operate the various valves in the head. They say there's more than one U-boat lying on the bottom because someone forgot which valve to turn. Also, you can't flush them unless we're near the surface. I suggest you check with one of the nearest crewmen. Otherwise, it's the bucket. There's one in each compartment, and for God's sake, if you have to shit in the bucket, don't spill it, or it all ends up in the bilge and stinks out the ship for a long time."
It wasn't long before U-862 reached the mouth of Vestfjord and was, for the third time, heading out into the North Sea. After surfacing, those on watch scrutinised their wake with great care. There was no revealing slick of oil. It seemed they were finally under way, and being so far north, there was little sign of the enemy.
Timm tried to make up for lost time. Submerged, their speed was about seven knots. Now, able to remain on the surface for longer periods, they could sometimes make 19. They were soon well out to sea; however, the worsening Arctic weather demanded caution. The low conning tower helped to deceive the enemy, but gave little protection from the freezing waves. Those who were sealed up below carried on as best they could, bracing themselves as the U-boat pitched and rolled to the deafening impact of the violent sea. Heiden could do little more than sit on his bunk and hold on.
Narvik is higher in latitude than Iceland and Timm was deliberately heading well to the north of Iceland, beyond the likely range of enemy air patrols. He knew this area well, from his time in U-251 operating against convoys heading to the Russian port of Murmansk.
Not far away to the south of Iceland, another U-boat, U-110, lay silent on the seabed. Three years earlier, in 1941, Captain Leutnant Fritz Lemp had been running at periscope depth when he was spotted by HMS Aubretia and attacked. It seemed certain the U-boat was about to be rammed and sunk, so Lemp gave the order to abandon ship. Soon, he and his crew were in the water. Thirty one of his men survived, Lemp and 14 others did not.
U-110 however, although badly damaged, was lingering, giving the British a chance to quickly board and search before the U-boat finally slipped under. Charts, documents and several technical manuals were retrieved. These were destined for an Enigma code machine.
It had taken enormous time and effort by British specialists at Bletchley Park, north of London, to break the original 'Triton' Enigma code. The first machine had three code wheels, which gave a huge number of variations for each letter in a message. Every second day the wheels were turned to different positions, adding further complexity. Nevertheless, the code was eventually broken. At last, German military signals were easily read. The British had the advantage.
Then, suddenly the German code changed. It could no longer be read. Allied losses began to rise. The Germans had the advantage.
The sinking U-110 carried the technical manuals for the latest Naval Enigma machine which now had four code wheels and new codes. Before long, the mathematicians and cryptographers at Bletchley had unravelled these new Enigma codes. The British and their allies again had the advantage.
While the German military firmly believed that their Enigma code was unbreakable, Timm, like most U-boat commanders, was always wary about the transmission of any message. However, before U-862 finally left Norway, the necessary variations to the original plan involved an exchange of encrypted messages to the U-boat section of Kriegsmarine headquarters. That was headed by Admiral Karl Donitz in Berlin, Commander in Chief of Submarine Tactical Command (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote), known as BdU.
A few days later, these messages had been decoded and decrypted by the British Admiralty.
U-862 was now known to be one of eight, long-range U-boat Cruisers heading through the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, then to the Dutch East Indies. As a result, this secret decoded information, now classified as "Ultra" was forwarded only to specific security cleared individuals at USN Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii, commanded by Admiral Chester Nimitz, to the joint Royal Australian Navy / United States Navy Fleet Radio Unit, Melbourne (FRUMEL) and to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the South West Pacific Area.
Three days later Timm turned his ship and began to follow near the edge of the Greenland ice flow. Thankfully the stormy weather was soon replaced by calm, but with the calm came freezing temperatures. The open water became dotted with small ice floes as they headed south towards the Denmark Strait. Although the passage was still wide Timm reduced speed as the floes far ahead could be seen growing larger.
It was about an hour before the morning watch was due to change. In his cabin, as Timm stirred from a sleep troubled by undefinable dreams, an awareness of calm gradually became a reality. The exhausted sea now rested quietly. Through his curtained door came the distant comforting clatter of the diesels, muffled voices from the nearby control room, and the occasional cry of delight as a crewman won his card game of Skat. Quickly dressing, he entered the small cabin next door.
"Good morning men, good morning Wolfe. What's the latest? Have the British surrendered yet?"
The two wireless operators, known as funkers, nodded their good mornings in acknowledgement. The senior officer, Wolfe partly removed his headphones and smiled. "Ah. Captain. Once they hear that we're on the way, I'm sure they'll give up." His smile faded. "Berlin claims that wherever the Allies land they will be defeated. There are other reports that large forces are preparing along the coast of southern England. For an invasion no doubt. The weather down there is quite bad, and it's not expected to clear for a week or so."
"I can't imagine any serious invasion in rough weather. Thanks Wolfe."
The warm inviting smell of freshly baked bread drifted from the galley. Timm turned back, and entered the control room, nodded a greeting to the duty crew, and scanned the latest plots from the navigator. Continuing aft towards the engine compartment, he exchanged quiet murmured greetings with his crewmen, some at their stations, some off-duty playing chess, others trying to read, yet more managing to sleep in narrow bunks between or above torpedoes, or squeezed into other impossible spaces within the crowded hull. There was no mess room for lower ranks; they either ate in their bunks or while standing.
The clatter became much louder as Timm passed through a watertight door into the engine space. He was greeted in a loud hoarse voice by one of the engineering officers. "Good morning, Captain. Thank heaven the seas have calmed."
"How are your babies behaving this morning, Hugo?" shouted Timm, nodding towards the two MAN diesels that filled much of the compartment and made ordinary speech nearly impossible.
"Hansel and Gretel? Gretel has been a bad girl. One of the rocker arms is a little loose. But we can soon fix her. We'll give her a good dose of oil to keep her quiet."
"Nothing serious? Do you need a shut down?"
"We'll manage, Sir. You keep pointing us in the right direction, we're always behind you."
Timm smiled at the old joke, nodded to the other crewmen and left the compartment. Thank God there were men on-board like Hugo. Amidst the racket, his chief somehow kept his sense of humour. Whether his sense of hearing would survive was another matter. Today his engines were Hansel and Gretel. Last week they were Punch and Judy, a few weeks earlier, Adolf and Eva. That particular combination amused many but angered a few staunch patriots.
Timm retraced his steps to the control room, then climbed up through the conning tower to the bridge. The blast of cold air instantly removed any remnants of sleep. Reiffenstuhl was standing as watch officer and with him four crewmen, each scanning a designated quadrant. Their every breath left a steamy plume in the icy air.
"Good morning No 2. Good morning men."
Through frozen lips there was a mumbled little chorus of, "Good morning, Captain. Good morning, Sir."
The path between the ice floes had narrowed a little, but they were still able to make good progress. In silence, Timm gazed up at the dark blue sky of the Arctic night. Such vast space compared to the confined steel tube below. Far to the East, a tiny sliver of the summer sun sent a few shafts of warm colours across the landscape, allowing a faint glimpse of Greenland's icy ramparts. Their only audience in this beautiful emptiness was curious seals and sea birds.
He climbed down from the tower onto the forward deck, leaned against the deck gun and pulled up the collar of his heavy coat. With his hands clasped behind, he would begin the long walk towards the bow. Timm loved the space out here. The long wide deck was steady now, it was his alone. Beneath his feet not steel but planks of oak. He sometimes wondered whether they were from the same forest trees he'd climbed as a child.
Standing at the bow there was no engine noise, just the gentle hissing of the waves, and the tingling of tiny fragments of ice as they struck the steel on either side. The air was cold but clean. Out there alone in the wind, he looked straight down into the black water. For the first time he felt an uneasy shudder.
He turned and retraced his steps, pausing for a while at the deck gun before repeating the exercise. Away from the clatter of the diesels and the chatter of the crew, as he looked ahead his thoughts turned to home.
To Marga, alone again back in Bremen. There were many lonely wives back in that great seaport. There were some who called them Neptune's Wives. There were others, sadly, who became Neptune's Widows. They banded together, giving each other support and helping out those who lost their homes or children. He didn't want Marga to become one of Neptune's Widows, and he would do all he could to bring his crewmen back home.
From the tower, Reiffenstuhl watched, knowing that their very lives had often been in the hands of that distant solitary figure. He'd been in U-251 with Timm on many patrols; they'd spent over 200 days in dangerous waters.
When Timm handed over U-251 to its new commander, their old boat had lasted a mere four days before being surprised by British Mosquito bombers. Reiffenstuhl knew many of the 39 who went down. Only the captain Franz Säck and three others survived. He often wondered, was it just chance, skill or Timm's intuition?
From the bridge, Timm looked a small lonely figure, but it was a ritual Reiffenstuhl had witnessed many times before. It puzzled some of the crew but Reiffenstuhl understood. A commander needs his time alone.
Like his father before him, Timm began in the German Merchant Marine. Working on various cargo and passenger vessels of the North German Line, he travelled to many parts of the world, even as far as Australia. His skills in seamanship pointed to a promising career; however, the war, and the Versailles Treaties' restrictions, had resulted in the collapse of the German economy. Germany's overseas trade, and therefore its shipping, was in decline.
At the same time the German Navy, now called the Kriegsmarine, was beginning to expand. In the summer of 1932 a ship filled with cadets was struck by a sudden squall and sank. Thirty-six men, potential officers, drowned in the Baltic. Because of this sudden shortage the Kriegsmarine was forced to accept men from the Merchant Marine and Timm, like many others, took this opportunity.
After basic military training and the compulsory Nazi party indoctrination, he became a naval officer. As a serving officer, Timm initially distinguished himself on the 9th January, 1940 in the North Sea, off the coast of Denmark. Timm was then in command of the minesweeper M7. On that day he was attacked by the British submarine HMS Starfish. Fortunately for M7 the torpedo missed, but unfortunately for Starfish, their periscope was sighted and Timm ordered the dropping of depth charges. To escape detection the British Commander, Lieutenant Turner, dropped to the seabed and switched off his motors. M7 waited patiently above, the hydrophone operator on full alert. Each time Starfish started its motors, M7 responded with depth charges. This continued all through the day, and by the evening Starfish had sustained so much damage that the only option left was to surface, and hopefully escape in the darkness.
The dazed crew were greeted by searchlights and machine gun fire. Commander Turner responded with a white light, signalling a surrender. He ordered his crew to abandon ship and for Starfish to be scuttled.
Timm ordered M7 to immediately stop the firing. It was winter, and only a few of the crew risked jumping into the icy water. Timm lowered a boat to rescue those who had, and brought his minesweeper alongside, saving the entire crew before the submarine sank.
This operation was kept secret, and British submarine patrols, which had been numerous in the area, were not resumed for some considerable time, wary of the unknown danger.
Timm was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class, and promoted to Kapitänleutnant. The story was well known within the Kriegsmarine, and Timm's easy-going nature, his sense of humour, coupled with his professionalism, earned him great respect, not only from those who served under him, but from his seniors. Five months later the M7 was involved in further action in Norway, resulting in Timm being awarded the Iron Cross 1st class.
Later in the day Timm heard a quiet call at his cabin door. It was the funker; his head came through the curtain. "It's started, Captain. It's Normandy."
"My God. Even with the weather?"
"It's on the BBC, and the Voice of America. They say many of our boats have been sunk. Berlin has said nothing so far. I must get back." His head disappeared.
Hour by hour they were approaching more dangerous waters. For a while Timm just sat lost in thought. He recalled a few words of the English poem, 'Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred'. That's where they were heading now. He opened a cabinet and stared at a photo pasted behind the door. He and Marga at a party, just weeks before they were married. What did the future hold for them now?
A few hours later, U-862 began to run into more floating ice and increasing fog. Timm called Reiffenstuhl to his cabin. "Gunther, our luck won't last much longer. We can't afford to make a wrong turn through this ice. Very soon our friends the British will locate us up here and toss us a few bombs."
"Mm, true Captain, although, according to the Voice of America, they're rather busy down in Normandy."
"Let's hope so. The weather may turn bad again. Berlin sounded hopeful. Our defences down there are enormous, the British may end up with another Dunkirk. We can only hope. They lost 60,000 with that adventure. You might win yourself another jacket, Gunther."
Reiffenstuhl smiled, and stroked his battledress jacket. Germany had acquired thousands of them, abandoned at Dunkirk. The dress code on U-boats was very relaxed, and the British jackets had proved popular.
"Remember Churchill tried a landing at Dieppe? That cost them about 4,000 men. Hopefully this will be another disaster," said Reiffenstuhl.
"Did you talk again to Heiden?"
"I gave him a few days to find his sea legs. He's fine now. It seems that flying is in the family, his father was in the Luftwaffe in the first war, and took little Willie gliding as a boy. Then he arranged for him to have a few flying lessons. Later on he started medical studies in Tubigen, then after that joined the Luftwaffe. I suspect he only joined to please his father."
"What do you think about Heiden with the Bachstelze?"
"Well, he's probably the best alternative, Heinrich. Our doctor was our man. He's gone. I suppose we could pick another. I'll try myself if you like?"
"No, no. Your other duties are more important. Heiden has handled himself well so far. There's not a single person on-board with any flying experience at all. It may not be much, but at least he's had some. Let's talk to Heiden about it."
Later, in the wardroom Heiden was pouring over the manual for the Focke-Achgelis FA-330. Both the captain and his second-in-command sat opposite watching.
Heiden looked up at them. "You have one of these on-board?"
They nodded. Heiden shook his head in disbelief. "It says here Professor Focker designed it. 'The Bachstelze, commonly known as the Water Wagtail'. Everyone remembers when Hanna Reitsch flew Focker's first helicopter in Berlin."
"Inside the Deutschland hall. I remember the photograph," said Reiffenstuhl.
"I'm surprised you're asking me to do this. The ship's doctor? I'm the new boy!"
"Our previous doctor was our pilot. As a doctor, you are officially a non-combatant," replied Timm. "Like it or not, our job is to damage the enemy, your job is to fix any damage the enemy does to us. You've probably found already that your medical duties here are not that demanding?"
Heiden nodded in agreement. "True. It's nothing like the hospital. Most of the men are pretty fit."
"There is no compulsion about this, Heiden, but let me warn you, if the enemy suddenly turn up, we may have to cut you loose."
"But… well if we have a steady wind and I can test it a little with just a short tether at first, it should be fine. Quite a change from cuts and bruises. It should be similar to flying a glider."
A few ice floes drifted past and the occasional seal would suddenly raise its head from the glassy sea, give a loud snort and follow their progress, blinking with its large dark eyes. As the evening approached, the fog began to thicken and more ice floes appeared. They could be heard clicking and bumping along the hull. It was mutually decided to launch the Bachstelze machine at dawn and search for the best path through the narrowing ice field.
Although as yet untested, Heiden seemed the only person on-board with any competence to fly the Bachstelze machine. If all went well, he would carry out various watch-keeping observations, having already been given a quick refresher course on what that involved; how to carry out regular horizon scans without unwittingly ignoring any blind spots; how to read compass bearings and relay them by telephone to those below.
Well before dawn he was wide awake. It was flat calm, not a breath of wind, except that generated by the U-boat's forward speed. Perfect conditions for any trial. The greatest dangers would be either an emergency landing in the freezing water or the enemy turning up suddenly, both of which seemed unlikely. Heiden watched closely as a few crewmen got down on their knees to unlock two watertight hatches at the rear of the bridge.
They lifted three long blades out of one of the deep vertical hatches. Various pieces of tube and a seat appeared from the other. An instrument panel was handed up through the conning tower hatch. Heiden stepped down for a closer look as a flimsy helicopter-like machine began to rapidly take shape. He checked each of the various bolts and clips which held the whole system together. On the U-boat's rear gun deck was a raised platform about the size of a child's bed. The Bachstelze was lifted onto it. He climbed and sat on the open seat then carefully examined the controls and the tiny instrument panel. It had an altimeter, airspeed indicator and tachometer. It had no engine, it was really a one-man autogyro.
After adjusting the seat and panel, it took only a few minutes more before the simple machine was ready and hooked up to an electric winch. Two crewmen reached up and started pushing the rotor blades. With the U-boat moving ahead at about 20 knots, the wind gradually took over and spun the blades faster, the rate showing on the tachometer. The two crewmen held the Bachstelze as it began rocking about, struggling to lift-off.
Heiden moved the joystick and rudder pedals, then with a nod to Reiffenstuhl and the two men, he was cautiously released, and the winch cable let out a few feet. He was now in the air, but the machine immediately began yawing left and right repeatedly, and Heiden struggled with the rudder pedals before he finally gained control. With increasing confidence, he nodded again for the line to be extended, and gradually the machine climbed higher.
Heiden found that above the conning tower he was in smoother air, and steadily drifting to a position above the stern. This gave him an opportunity to explore the little machine's abilities.
Those below could see anxiety become a growing smile. He was excited by the experience and the expanding view around him. From high above, the boat below looked long and thin — a javelin parting the sea. In steady flight, 100 feet above the sea, he tested the telephone, reporting his progress and made observations of the surrounding sea. As his confidence grew, he requested permission to fly higher. This was declined, and he was winched down.
The funker had begun to pick up the faint searching radar beams from enemy aircraft and Timm decided on caution.
U-boats relied on concealment, and avoided the transmission of any signal, not only radio but radar as well, as this would give the enemy an ideal opportunity to discover their position. U-boats being slow-moving, any aircraft or fast warship had the advantage. U-862 used passive radar. This meant that the wireless operator, the funkmaat, could pick up the searching beams from enemy aerial patrols without the enemy's knowledge.
As Timm had hoped, Heiden had reported that they were heading directly towards a solid bank of fog. He knew that, even if radar detected them, enemy aircraft that came close would have little chance of finding them in fog. The Bachstelze remained on deck while Heiden changed into much warmer leather clothing.
Both the captain and his number one congratulated the new pilot, and later quietly agreed that his shaking and shivering was mainly due to the cold, rather than fear. Once the radar signals had faded away, the flight was resumed. The Bachstelze, with a more confident pilot at the controls, and a few warm drinks inside, quickly lifted off the deck and soon all that could be seen was the towline trailing off over the stern.
Reiffenstuhl stood beside Timm and spoke into a microphone. "Heiden, are you in the fog?"
"Not now, I can see much further," came the reply.
As ordered, he had climbed until he could just see beyond the fog to select the best path through the ice. Heiden was feeling more relaxed. The little machine was amazingly stable and he was able to enjoy the experience, sitting there in space, seemingly riding on a cloud. The only sounds were the rotor blades purring away just above his head and the gentle hissing from the bow waves below. He'd flown gliders before, but they had wings. The Bachstelze's slender rotor blades were barely visible, yet kept him aloft.
"I can see the ice closing in a little, far ahead. If you change course to 190°, there's a wider channel."
The information was relayed to the control room of the now invisible fogbound U-boat below, and it was soon on the new bearing.
"Very good Willie, look as far ahead as you can. Some of those leads may be dead ends."
With just the gentle hum of the whirling blades, Heiden was for the first time in many days alone with his thoughts. What an extraordinary turn his life had taken. When he'd filled in for Rolfe as ship's doctor, he only expected to be tending the sick and injured sailors. Quietly he'd dreaded the whole idea. Yet here he was, reliving the boyhood dreams of many of his friends, flying high above the Arctic Ocean, an aerial lookout for a U-boat hidden in the fog below.
What would Marlene have thought? Poor Marlene, she'd been so proud of her husband. They met in a shelter during a bomb raid, then soon married. Two years together, then another bomb raid…
There were no funerals, because nothing was left. Wives, children, buried in the rubble. Casualties of war. One day he would go back. There'd be a memorial for Marlene. She loved the mountains, perhaps he'd put something there.
As the day wore on, there were numerous course variations as Heiden followed the meandering breaks in the ice field. The bridge lookout kept checking for closer hazards, and Timm had a lookout stationed at the bow. Not all the ice floes were visible above water. There were many with underwater projections, strong and sharp enough to slice open their steel hull.
Above them, Heiden felt the cold creeping remorselessly through his heavy clothes. The enemy radars continued to sweep, but were still unsuccessful in finding them. It wasn't long before he could see where the ice pack was clearing, revealing wide open water between Greenland and Iceland. This was the entrance into the heavily patrolled North Atlantic, where many U-boats had been lost.
Timm gave the order and the Bachstelze was winched down, dismantled and stowed away. The area was now free of ice, and they would soon need to submerge. The little Bachstelze had proved its worth; so had its new pilot.
Heiden could barely control his shivering as he clambered back down into the hull. In the officers' wardroom, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"I could never do that Willie." said an officer quietly.
For the first time Heiden felt like one of the crew. It was a good feeling. As he clutched a large mug of steaming hot chocolate, he recounted his experiences. "It's amazing what you can see. Strange animals! Looked like dolphins. There must have been 20 or so. They had a thin long spike at the front."
"Narwhals, doctor. You don't often see them, but I have heard of 50 or a 100 in a group."
"You were lucky to see any," commented another.
Despite the lack of space, Willie Heiden found that returning to the warm cluttered interior was rather like coming home. Amongst the men and machines, the extra torpedoes and boxes of ammunition, was the food. Adding to the smells and the congestion, in many of the compartments, onions, strings of rotwurst sausage, and other edible items hung from the pipes above. . . .
There are 50 Chapters in total-also an epilogue, links and photographs.