View Full Version : My interview with a U-Boat Veteran
03-21-2008, 02:04 PM
My meeting with Ernst Roth almost never happened. Last year I decided to see if I could track down any surviving U-Boat crew members. It wasn't easy. I spent hours and hours trawling websites and going through historical books. The Berlin Library were helpful, and patient - given I don't speak or write German. Dozens of emails and letters were sent of on what ended as wild goose chases. I didn't receive many replies and those I did get usually started, "I am sorry to inform you of the passing of".
There were a handful that did reply, but they all declined my invitation, saying the subject was too long ago and that it was best left in the past.
I wondered if my approach had been wrong. Had I offended them? I hoped not. Perhaps they didn't think I was serious? I wouldn't have blamed them if they had felt that way. I put the folder of research and correspondence in a drawer and eventually forgot all about it. That was until a month ago. I say our meeting almost never happened because I binned an unopened letter, thinking it was junk mail. I came across it again when one of my children upended the waste paper basket. Knelt on the floor surrounded by crumpled till receipts and used paper tissues I opened the envelope and read the hand written note inside.
How interesting to receive your letter' it began.
I am traveling to England, London in fact, in March next year' it continued.
And continue we shall. Soon!
03-21-2008, 02:10 PM
It better be quick... How old is he?
03-21-2008, 02:14 PM
Sounds fascinating RJ...you lucky devil you http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_wink.gif
03-21-2008, 02:22 PM
Can you give us details on Ernst Roth ? Which boat did he served on ?
03-21-2008, 02:33 PM
Guys, this is a work of fiction I have to say. Wasn't my intention to mislead you (as you will see as it continues) I was building the scene for the first part of the story.
I hope you will enjoy it anyway - It's a Patrol Report with a twist - done retrospectively as recalled by Ernst to me in an interview.
Some of you here know I like to don my 'Writing Cardigan' from time to time and make up long words that I think look good! Part one is coming soon. Apologies again! http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/35.gif
03-21-2008, 02:47 PM
Blimey RJ you had me there http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/35.gif http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/touche.gif
A great build up to the start of your story though...you have my undivided attentionhttp://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_wink.gif
03-21-2008, 03:18 PM
And it sounded so believable too! But fact or fiction, I'm curious about the story you have for us! http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif
03-21-2008, 04:31 PM
So we'll begin! http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_biggrin.gif Stories in forums don't appeal to everyone, so I'll try not to make this too wordy. Just for the record, it's all purely fiction, characters that appear do not represent, nor are they based on anyone in real life and neither do they reflect any political views of the author. It's just for fun!
I know London quite well, having worked there so long. I decided a small café I knew on the South Bank, just by the Millennium Wheel would be a good place to meet Ernst. After several more letters it was all arranged. The day arrived and I got to the café early to get a good table. It would have been nice to sit outside but the overcast sky and cold March breeze suggested otherwise. I looked up at the huge wheel slowly turning. It might make a good conversation starter I supposed. That was, if he ever turned up. I had been told to look for a gentleman wearing a green tweed overcoat and a Bavarian style hat.
I needn't have worried. Ten o' clock came and the door opened. The green overcoat and Bavarian hat stood in the doorway. I half stood and nervously waved. I prayed he wouldn't think I was wasting his time.
So you sent me a letter?' he said as I went to shake his hand. Younger than I thought'.
Thank you for coming, er, Mr. Roth' It struck me I wasn't sure how to address him and I was terrified of offending him.
Ernst is easier' he said as he sat down. On the table he placed an old black leather brief case that had been badly repaired many times. It looked like it should have been replaced years ago.
I couldn't put an age to him; perhaps he might reveal that later I hoped. Slim and about 5 and half foot tall I guessed. He immediately struck me as someone, despite his advanced years, still retained a zest for life.
What brings you to London Ernst?' I asked. I thought this was a good opener.
Not just your letter I assure you!' he laughed. I have great grandchildren here I have never met. The whole family wants a big reunion and many of them live here now. A big fuss if you ask me. Coming to see what you wanted gave me an excuse to get away from it for a while' he explained.
I am pleased I could help you out then' I ventured. Ernst shrugged his shoulders. I wasn't sure if this meant I was or wasn't helping him. I decided to press on.
You were aboard U-205, of the 7th Flotilla, out of St. Nazaire They must have been interesting times Ernst'
St. Nazaire! Some great bars! Oh the girls! Much fun was had!' He said, suddenly animated with a wistful look in his eyes.
Opening his briefcase, he took out a rectangular photo album. I cleared the coffee pots and cups to one side so he could lay it flat on the table. I had a good feeling about this. He seemed to have livened up.
What do you have there Ernst?' I asked tentatively.
It's a photo album! So you can assume I have some photos to show you! It's why you asked me here isn't it?' he said. I couldn't make out if his laugh was one of enthusiasm or wether he was mocking me.
Look here' he said, stabbing a finger at the first page. The St. Nazaire pens were enormous! I took this after the final pre-patrol inspection was completed on March 31st 1941. She was a great boat, a fine VIIc.
'That would have been your Patrol out to grid square BE62 - a distance of approximately 1300km West from the U-Boat Pens at St. Nazaire? I asked.
'Yes! You have done your homework I see!' Ernst replied. 'This photo here, isn't my boat, but it's the same pen that I left from. I got a little brave one night in a bar, and knowing that 22:00 was the 'night' departure time, I climbed up a crane and took this photo:
Ernst was clearly very proud of his endeavours that night and I congratulated him on his photo. I knew that U-205's patrol of BE63 was an eventful one, and I hoped the elderly gentleman sat in front of me, who I had never met before, but had agreed to give me some of his time, would reveal more of that patrol. There were certainly more photo's in his album laid out on the table and he seemed keen to show me.
... to be continued! (Corny I know!)
03-21-2008, 04:41 PM
Excellent so far RJ http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/11.gif http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/25.gif http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif
It seems your writing cardigan is working it's magic as usual http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_wink.gif
Looking forward to the next installment http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/16x16_smiley-happy.gif
03-21-2008, 07:34 PM
If we still had the Short Story Contest, this would have been a top contender. and it's not even complete yet. Excellent work as always http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/16x16_smiley-wink.gif
03-22-2008, 10:57 AM
It seems your writing cardigan is working it's magic as usual Wink
Looking forward to the next installment
Thanks! Part Two is almost finished http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/25.gif
03-22-2008, 02:13 PM
Yes, we eagerly await your continuing venture. Very nice.
03-22-2008, 06:02 PM
Excellent RJ !
http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif
You will write a book some day will you?
03-23-2008, 12:26 PM
You will write a book some day will you?
Yes Messervy - Two actually. My first one will be called 'The Moderator - A True Story of One Man's Life in a Forum'.... You'll all be in it!! http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/16x16_smiley-very-happy.gif
Part Two will come soon I promise. Hopefully tonight http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_smile.gif
03-23-2008, 02:34 PM
Great idea RJ! The first post had me totally fooled to until I read your follow-up! http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_biggrin.gif
I can't even guess where this story is going... Looking forward to chapter 2! http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/25.gif
03-23-2008, 03:51 PM
Ernst, what can you tell me about the crew aboard U-205?' I asked him. I wanted to keep asking open questions, not closed ones for fear that I would get only Yes' or No' answers. I desperately wanted him to open up and talk freely.
Swallowing his coffee he replied, A good bunch I remember, a fair mix of new recruits and more seasoned guys. Overall, we all got on. The elders guided the new lambs. We sailed to our grid reference for patrol with no interruptions. The mood was a positive one, we felt brave and morale was high. Here is a shot of a good friend of mine. He hated photo's of himself, which is why I took this one. He wasn't happy - I think it comes over in the look he gave me!
'The 24 hour sector patrol was dull. No contacts, no flyer's, nothing. We were glad to get moving again, which we did as quickly as we could' Ernst said.
'So you got on your way. When did you come across the convoy?' I asked, keen to keep Ernst on a roll.
'Looking back, I think we got a bit complacent' he replied uneasily. 'We crossed over into BE38 and the watch crew started getting excited about masts on the horizon and some funnel smoke'
'How did the crew below take to that?' I asked?
Ernst learnt in towards the table, eyes wide open, 'It spread like wild fire! This was confirmed when we submerged to make a sonar sweep and the shouting from the Sonar Operator made the whole boat came alive! There was a flurry of activity and the chart table became the place to be:
'Intercept calculations were being worked on aloud which was unusual, as were orders for various crew members to take specific posts' Ernst continued. Despite his advanced years, the memories of what he was recalling were clearly alive and well in his eyes.
Ernst jolted back to reality and slammed his fist on the table, taking me by surprise, 'Then that damn weather turned! Damn it!' he said, turning the page of his photo album and pointing at a quite unique shot he had captured by placing the lens to the eyepiece of the periscope. The weather had indeed closed in and was awful, offering no long range view of the convoy.
'You could have lost them in weather like that' I suggested to him. 'But history records that you didn't - How did you manage that - given the atrocious weather Ernst?'
'We had an approximate fix and we had their bearing. We took a bold decision, having predicted their course and speed - we'd use the cover of the storm and limited visibility to surface and make an all engines full ahead run to get into a firing position to attack the convoy. This next picture I sketched, in the lull between surfacing and ending the run. This is how I saw, in my minds eye, U-205 charging through the waves to get ahead of the convoy' Ernst, it appeared, was a dab hand at sketching. A talent that would serve him, and me, well in the developing story of U-205's convoy attack. Remember that a vicious Atlantic storm is raging. Whilst U-205 speeds onwards, it is blind to what is in front of it, and, perhaps, what around it too.
Part Three follows soon.
03-25-2008, 06:44 AM
Great work so far RJ http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/25.gif Looking forward to the next installment http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_smile.gif
Great pictures too, I see you have been busy editing with photbucket http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_wink.gif
03-25-2008, 07:48 AM
http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_biggrin.gif You are right Goose!
I ran out of time, that second part should have been longer but I will make up for it with part three.
03-25-2008, 09:23 AM
Very nice, the suspense is killing me! Looking forward to part three!
Btw, adding those "old-time" pics is a great idea! http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/clap.gif
03-25-2008, 02:47 PM
The drawing of the U-205 ploughing through the waves was impressive. But I was confused.
So, the boat surfaced and ran at flank speed in a storm, in virtually zero visibility? With convoy escorts sniffing around?'
You are quick aren't you?' Ernst laughed. We were taking a gamble, but it was the only way to get ahead of the convoy and into position. We hoped we could get far enough ahead and the storm would then break' He explained.
Brave' I said.
In retrospect, it was crazy!' Said Ernst, turning the page in his photo album. Shaking his head he pointed to another drawing he had done all those years ago. It was a Flower Corvette in a pitching sea.
How we missed it I'll never know'
Did you run into it?' I asked.
God no! It came out of the fog right behind us, going flat out!' I was about to ask what happened next but didn't need to. Ernst was on a roll.
A crash dive was ordered, and every spare body wriggled through hatchways and ran towards the forward torpedo room to put extra weight at the bow of the boat and help get us under even quicker'
I guess the fact you were going at flank speed at the time helped too' I suggested. Ernst paused, expressionless. For a second I thought I had said the wrong thing, tried to be too smart perhaps but it was what had genuinely come into my mind as I listened to him.
You know, I never thought of that. All these years and I never considered that!' His weathered face crumpled and, much to my relief, he smiled.
Weren't quick enough' Ernst said, as if it were an admission of guilt.
Another escort, identified by the screws as a Black Swan began circling as we crept along at 2 knots. The Flower Corvette wasn't giving up either. Nobody on board said a word, ears straining'
For the splashes. The depth charges tumbling into the water above us!' Ernst said, exasperatedly. I felt a little foolish, asking a question with such an obvious answer. Ernst agreed to more coffee which I gladly ordered. A good sign, it meant he was not planning on leaving me just yet.
It was about 10 minutes later those splashes came. Some began to count under their breaths whilst staring at the bulkhead above them or at their feet. Others began to pray'
How does it feel to be depth charged Ernst? What did you do - count, or pray?' I was totally absorbed.
'Neither. I drew. I sketched pictures of what my minds eye saw as the outside world to distract me - these are the pictures you see here before you. The escorts above us, the streams of air bubbles rising to the surface from those depth charges'
I was astonished. Whilst the rest of the crew were contemplating being sealed forever inside their U-Boat, Ernst was drawing pictures!
'But you got away though' I said.
'Yes!' Ernst replied, triumphantly 'What is more, we dared to pop the scope, only to find the storm was clearing away. The Flower was making a wide looping turn to run across us again and she was just in range. It was now or never - Sink, or be sunk! So we fired and got lucky...
A secondary explosion was heard and we knew she was done for
'What about the Black Swan? She couldn't have been far away' I asked as the waitress gently laid two steaming cups of coffee onto the table.
'I think it was furious at losing it's little brother, the Flower! It began pinging furiously and the pitch of it's screws changed - it was racing to our position. Scope down and again we try to evade hoping we can get it in front of us like we did before. The charges splashed again above us as the Black Swan roared overhead at full speed.
'Ever had a very bumpy flight? With lot's of turbulence?' Ernst asked me. I nodded and grimaced, recalling the flight home from a weekend in Dublin where the wings flexed so much I was sure they'd snap and people openly crying with fear. Even the cabin crew were visibly scared, which is never a good thing as they are trained to hide any anxieties because passengers look to them for reassurance. 'That goes someway to describing what we went through at the hands of that Black Swan. Her aim was very good and I'm not certain what was louder - the explosions of the depth charges all around us or the crash of unsecured equipment inside U-205 as it fell about us, the wrenching of and splitting of pipework, the jets of water streaming across the compartments, and of course, the cries of the crew. To this day I can still hear it all clearly' he said adamantly. For the first time since he sat down, Ernst's sparky eyes had anger in them.
'So you've had a bumpy aeroplane flight you say? Well, imagine the row of seats you are sat in coming free from the floor. You are in darkness, and all around you other passengers are crashing into you as you struggle to stand up straight. You cannot help but lurch from one side to another, and you are totally resigned to the fact that at in the coming moments the thin plastic and metal just inches away from you that keeps you contained in that aeroplane is going to tear apart. You are not in control of your fate. Can you imagine that? Can you?'
Ernst sipped his coffee as we sat in silence. The atmosphere was unmistakably uncomfortable. I felt I had pushed him too far and I wasn't sure what to say next. It had taken all but a minute for him to make my bad flight experience pale into insignificance, despite it being the one time I would admit to being ever really being scared - I felt humbled in front of Ernst. Putting his cup back down on to the table and swallowing, Ernst flicked the page of his photo album, revealing more photo's and drawings in his album. Again I was relieved. Despite the hammering depth charging, this wasn't the end of the story - by a long way.
03-25-2008, 06:58 PM
Good read RJ very good read.
03-28-2008, 03:41 PM
Thanks cwhense, I hope to get the next part posted over the weekend. There is more to learn about Ernst, as will unfold in time! http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/25.gif
03-28-2008, 04:11 PM
Very vivid descriptions RJ http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/25.gif
Can't wait for part 4!
03-29-2008, 12:02 PM
Keep it coming. Pictures and story are excellent. Your loyal following clamor for more.
04-04-2008, 09:02 AM
Thankyou for the encouragement guys. I have to admit I have been struggling a little with this of late and I just haven't felt comfortable when I come to put together the next part and I've not been able to explain why. Until now.
Some of you may know I cannot 'write' without wearing my very old 'Writing Cardigan'. I found this today http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_eek.gif and I think it's to blame for writer's block! http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/16x16_smiley-very-happy.gif
(It's my elbow by the way! http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_wink.gif)