A U boat Captain returns to bombed out Germany

The subway ride spared me the sight of the ruins above, but not of the human ruins below; the thousands of homeless who lived in the underground, the hollow-cheeked women and children on the run, and bewildered soldiers on their way to shattered homes or battered fronts. Privation, hunger and lack of sleep, indifference and resignation marked the faces.

A German picture of the U boats in their massive concrete bunker at Brest in 1942. It was not until 1944 that the RAF developed bombs capable of penetrating them.
A German picture of the U boats in their massive concrete bunker at Brest in 1942. It was not until 1944 that the RAF developed bombs capable of penetrating them.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing damage to the concrete U-boat shelters at Brest, following two Bomber Command daylight raids: the first by ten Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 12 August 1944; the second on the following day by thirteen Lancasters of 617 Squadron, joined by fourteen others from No. 9 Squadron RAF. The target was attacked on both occasions using 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep-penetration ' bombs, which left the roof structure heavily damaged and perforated it in at least two places.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing damage to the concrete U-boat shelters at Brest, following two Bomber Command daylight raids: the first by ten Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 12 August 1944; the second on the following day by thirteen Lancasters of 617 Squadron, joined by fourteen others from No. 9 Squadron RAF. The target was attacked on both occasions using 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep-penetration ‘ bombs, which left the roof structure heavily damaged and perforated it in at least two places.
A forty-foot circle hole in the roof of a U-boat pen in Brest which had received a direct hit during the Allied bombardment. The capture of the deep water ports of Brittany did not greatly help the Allies, however, since the Germans had, as in Cherbourg, carried out thorough demolition of the port facilities before surrendering.
A forty-foot circle hole in the roof of a U-boat pen in Brest which had received a direct hit during the Allied bombardment. The capture of the deep water ports of Brittany did not greatly help the Allies, however, since the Germans had, as in Cherbourg, carried out thorough demolition of the port facilities before surrendering.

Herbert A. Werner had captained the last U-Boat to leave the German base in Brest France. U-953 had narrowly escaped RAF bunker busting bombs. She was crammed with evacuating naval personnel and valuable naval equipment – but no torpedoes – when she left Brest on the 23 August. After a perilous journey via La Pallice and Bergen in Norway, he finally arrived in Germany in late October.

U-953 suffered from a number of mechanical problems and needed a complete overhaul. It was the opportunity for Werner to take some overdue home leave. First he had to cross a Germany that was transformed by war:

It was a cold misty day in early November when I departed from Luebeck and headed for Darmstadt by way of Berlin. The express was packed with people who spoke with a hard Baltic accent, people who had fled their homes ahead of the advancing Russians. The refugees — mostly women and children and old folks — wore thread-bare clothes and carried humble housewares; they stood in trembling groups beside their boxes, bundles, valises, and bedding.

Along this pitiful human chain, alarming war news and rumors flashed through the train from compartment to compartment. The eastern front was moving west fast and Koenigsberg was in gravest danger, and the western front was moving east almost as fast.

I leaned at the window in the passageway, deep in forlorn thoughts. At my feet lay the suitcase with the presents for my parents and Trudy. The landscape rushed by, desolate and gray. In time, the monotonous North German plains were broken more and more often by larger and larger clusters of blackened walls, craters, rubble, and cut-off chimneys. Then the ruins themselves became a vast plain of destroyed city blocks, a whole civilization in ruins. We had arrived in Berlin.

People on the move, people in flight. Thousands filled the station. Women in Red Cross uniforms distributed food and a black gravy they said was coffee. Thin young infantrymen, heavily burdened with guns and knapsacks, wearing faded and patched uniforms, moved about like worn old men. I shoved my luggage through the crowded platforms and headed crosstown for the Anhalter Station.

The subway ride spared me the sight of the ruins above, but not of the human ruins below; the thousands of homeless who lived in the underground, the hollow-cheeked women and children on the run, and bewildered soldiers on their way to shattered homes or battered fronts. Privation, hunger and lack of sleep, indifference and resignation marked the faces.

Night had fallen over the city when my darkened train left behind the devastated world of Berlin and shrieked and clanked its way south. I passed the hours smoking, waiting, dreaming. I calculated that I would be home – if not in Darmstadt, then at Father’s new plant — by noon the following day, provided all went well.

However worse was to come. Werner was approached by a young woman who recognised him, even if he did not recognise her as a family friend from five years before.

She had indeed been my sister’s best friend when we had lived near Lake Constance. Then Clara told me that she had always liked my parents, that the long article about them in the local paper had been so well written. – A sudden chill clutched my throat, and I demanded, “What article are you talking about ?”

Her eyes widened, her mouth opened in horror. “Don’t you know?” she stumbled. “No, you didn’t know !” She covered her face with both hands. She did not have to tell me any more.

Everything around me began to turn, very slowly at first, then with a rush, as if a giant wheel had gone out of control. I heard the girl sobbing and saying far away, “Oh, forgive me, poor Trudy and your parents died in the air raid on Darmstadt two months ago.”

In my sickening dizziness, I pressed myself against the glass wal of the compartment to stay erect. The window, the wall, the people faded before my eyes. I clenched my teeth fiercely and fought back my tears; no one should ever see me crying. I closed my eyes and drew a deep, racking breath.

See Herbert A. Werner: Iron Coffins: A Personal Account Of The German U-boat Battles Of World War II

Recovering charred corpses  from underground bunkers following a bombing raid on Berlin, 1944.
Recovering charred corpses from underground bunkers following a bombing raid on Berlin, 1944.
Bomb damage to the elevated railway in Berlin-Schöneberg. The viaduct at the Buelowstraße was heavy distorted on 19 July 1944 after the explosion of a land mine .
Bomb damage to the elevated railway in Berlin-Schöneberg. The viaduct at the Buelowstraße was heavy distorted on 19 July 1944 after the explosion of a land mine .

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