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.