A Submarine Haunting

In Germany a submarine was called an U-boat, or “Unterseeboot”. At the outbreak of World War One, Germany had 33 of them. With the possibility of rich prizes off the British and Irish coasts and in the Channel, in early 1916 an entire flotilla of 24 U-boats was launched in the North Sea. One of them was the U-65, and from the very beginning there was talk about “jinxes” and “hoodoos”.

During the construction of an U-boat, no woman was allowed on board (at the sight of a woman, the sea grows angry) and no flowers too, as wreaths are made of them. And carrying a black bag was forbidden, because this was a token of disaster. And of course, at the launching, a bottle had to be broken over the bows, as a libation to the gods.

All these precautions were double necessary with the U-65, because one day at the shipyard a heavy steel girder crashed to the ground and killed two workmen. And some time later yells were heard, coming from the engine room. The rescuers found the sliding door in the bulkhead jammed and when they got through, three men were lying dead on the floor, amid lethal fumes. An inquiry failed to establish what had happened. It couldn’t have been carbon monoxide from the diesels, because they were not running. Chlorine from sea water getting into the batteries then? But the submarine had been in dry-dock…

The U-65 sailed for her trails off the Schelde Estuary (between Belgium and the Netherlands) in good conditions: sea force 3, light airs, excellent visibility. A submarine’s first dive always is an anxious moment, so before diving the captain sent someone to check the upper deck. The bridge watch later declared that the man deliberately walked overboard, without a sound.

Perhaps those anxious looks and muttered words would cease if the U-65 could have a successful first dive. So the heavy hatch cover was closed and the U-boat angled down to the sea-bed… and there she stuck. It took the crew twelve hours to cure the trouble, staggering about like drunkards, some of them already fainted for lack of oxygen.

But okay, there was a Great War going on and German soldiers were not fighting ghosts. Jinxed or not, the U-65 had to sink ships. So she loaded supplies for her first patrol and when the last torpedo was being lowered down the forward hatch the warhead exploded. Five men were instantly killed, among them the second officer, known to the crew as “der Schwarze”, because of his dark complexion. The U-65 was badly damaged and put into dry-dock, and the dead men were taken to Wilhelmshaven for burial.

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