On 10th November 1942 U boat U-505 was patrolling off Trinidad. It was a tense time, the crew did not warm to their new commander Kapitzinleutnant Zschech, who did not wholly inspire confidence. Over the previous days they had had to repeatedly crash dive as they were hunted by Allied aircraft.
They had moved to a new area to try to find somewhere quieter. They had confidence that the new Metox radar warning device would give them warning of any Allied plane’s radar operating in the vicinity – it had proved itself several times already. All looked well when they were patrolling on the surface in the afternoon:
Things remained quiet until about 1514 hours, when suddenly the siren for manning the anti-aircraft guns began to blare. Almost simultaneously, the shrill alarm signaling an emergency dive sounded. We all looked at each other in puzzlement because the orders were contradictory: how could we man the deck guns while at the same time submerge?
Just a few heartbeats later, before we had sorted-out the situation, we heard the unmistakable roar of aircraft engines resonating through the hull of our boat. I unconsciously ducked my head at the sound, instinctively aware of how close the aircraft must be for us to hear its engines above the hammering of our own diesels.
Suddenly, a deafening blast, a thousand times louder than a thunderclap, knocked us off our feet. It felt as if a giant fist had slammed the boat down into the water. A split-second later three more explosions ripped through the air, even louder than the first. Our boat’s steel hull rang like a cathedral bell from the concussions.
This time the shock waves pushed our boat upward, sending anyone still standing after the first blast sailing through the air. One of the men who was standing watch on the bridge, a Petty Officer, was blown by the force ofthe first blast through the top hatch and down into the conning tower. The second set of blasts rolled his bloody, unconscious body down through the control room hatch, where he fell and landed on his head on the steel deck in front of me.
Inside the boat there was pure pandemonium. The lights had gone out and the air was suddenly filled with thick acrid smoke. When the emergency lights finally came on, it unveiled a scene straight from Dante’s Inferno, complete with screams and burning noxious fumes.
Shouts from the aft end of the boat told us that there was a large breach in the hull. A thick jet of seawater was pouring into the boat, filling the diesel bilge and flooding the engine room. Someone reported that the depth meter indicated that water was weighing the boat down. Translation: we were sinking!
I cannot possibly begin to describe what it was like inside the boat at that moment. Nor can I describe my emotional state. Never in my life had I felt such an irresistible urge to escape – to climb, crawl, and if need be, claw my way up the conning tower ladder to the sun and fresh air of the surface.
Something, however, held me back, and I refused to succumb to the animalistic desire within to run. Perhaps it was my training or professional pride. Or perhaps it was just a childish fear of being called a coward. Whatever it was, I somehow overcame the primal desire to escape.
Despite our desperate situation, a steely determination to do our duty and fight to save our boat quickly spread unspoken from crewman to crewman. None of us deserted our post.
Not everyone, however, was so determined to stay on board. Kapitzinleutnant Zschech came running through the control room and clamored up the ladders to the bridge. What he saw must have really scared him because after just a moment topside, he shouted down to the control room the order to abandon ship. We all froze at our posts, unable or unwilling to obey the order.
U 505 had nearly fallen victim to the U boat hunting skills of RAAF pilot Flight Sergeant Ronald Sillcock. He had perfected the technique of locating a U-boat by radar and then turning his radar off and patrolling out of sight in the clouds. Once he had a good visual identification he would cut his engines and dive out of the sun for a surprise precision attack. Two U-boats had been seriously damaged by this method in recent weeks.
Unfortunately for Sillcock and his crew the attack on this occasion had been too precise. As his depth charges hit U-505 and exploded, he was directly overhead. His Lockheed Hudson was wrecked and the entire crew killed.
On U-505 the Engineering Petty Officer led a determined attempt to save the submarine by plugging the hole in the hull and the boat was able to limp back to France, earning the distinction of being the ‘most heavily damaged U-boat to successfully return to port’. It was not the end of distinctions for U-505 and Kapitzinleutnant Zschech, although not for the reasons he and his crew might have hoped for.