Sheathed in armour

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model of a long warship with a red hull and grey decks

Model of U99. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

As regular readers of this blog will know, I like my food – good traditional English grub boiled, grilled, roasted or fried. If there’s one thing that puts me off it’s tainted food: the awful aroma and taste of the processed ready-meal or tinned scouse, to name just two.

German propaganda films of the Second World War depict the crews of U-boat submarines as swashbuckling marauders trawling the vast oceans for enemy ships to attack and destroy. In reality, the lives of the 40,000 men who served in the U-boat fleet bore little relation to this glamorous image which their activities inspired in the German public mind. The U-boats were cramped, smelly, unhygienic and also almost unbearably claustrophobic.

A typical U-boat bow (front) compartment measuring just 12 feet across, housed some 25 men, several 22 ft torpedoes and equipment. Each bunk bed was used by two or three people on a shift system.

The diet of U-boat crews was mainly tinned food. But, fresh or tinned, it always “tasted of U-boat – diesel oil with a flavour of mould,” according to Heinz Schaeffer, commander of U977.

A German war photographer on board U96 in 1941 wrote: “The heat. The stench of oil.  Lead in my skull from the engine fumes. I feel like Jonah inside some huge shellfish sheathed in armour.”

Included in the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery is an exhibition model of the notorious U99 (shown here) which sank 40 British and Allied merchant ships (about 250,000 tons) in under nine months’ active service from July 1940. She was under the command of Otto Kretschmer, one of Germany’s most successful U-boat aces. U99’s luck, however, ran out on 17 March 1941 when she was sunk south west of the Faroe Islands between Iceland and north Scotland by the destroyer HMS Walker. Kretschmer and most of the crew were rescued and became prisoners-of-war.

U-boat medals on display include an Iron Cross second class 1939-45, which was awarded to large numbers of U-boat men, and a U-boat patrol badge. 

Towards the end of 1940 Admiral Karl Donitz, Officer Commanding U-boats, introduced the wolf pack system of using several U-boats to attack a convoy at night on the surface. A detailed model shows a wolf pack gathering beneath the waves for a surface attack on an Allied convoy in the north Atlantic at night.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.