Right from the start there was a hoodoo on the German submarine U-65. Men died in inexplicable accidents. Others went mad and killed themselves. But it was the appearance of the phantom which struck terror into the crew and signaled the submarine’s terrible and final fate.
Nothing strikes a deeper chill through a ship’s crew than the knowledge that their vessel is ‘jinxed’, that some strange hoodoo lurks between decks, turning every voyage into a nightmare of unexplained accident, sudden death and — possibly — ultimate disaster. For every seaman knows that no ship’s ‘curse’ can really be fulfilled until the vessel lies at the bottom of the ocean, a graveyard for all who defied it.
Many ships have been ‘jinxed’ and, in just as man cases, the curse has had a rational explanation. But nothing can explain what happened to the U-65…
German Submarine U-65
U-65 was one of a clutch of 24 submarines built by the Germans, in 1916, in the dockyard at Bruges, in Occupied Belgium. Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the German High Seas Fleet Commander, had persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm II that ‘packs’ of U-boats, operating against Allied merchant shipping convoys in the Atlantic, would offer an unfailing recipe for eventual German victory. The boats from Bruges were to form a spearhead of the ‘unrestricted’ U-boat offensive.
The boats were built with great speed and great skill and as each rose on her dockyard stocks so, too, did German hopes. Yet the general air of bustling optimism was clouded by a series of misfortunes that overtook the German submarine U-65.
As her keel was being laid a steel girder slipped and fell, killing one workman and severely injuring another. During engine tests on the slipway, poisonous fumes enveloped the engine-room and three men working there were trapped and asphyxiated. They had tried to escape but, for reasons no one could explain, the engine-room hatch had jammed.
In October 1916, the 24 U-boats were launched simultaneously and at once ordered to begin their sea trials. For 23 of them everything went well but on U-65 a most extraordinary tragedy occurred. A petty officer, assigned to the task of examining the casing for any signs of shoddy workmanship, marched forward rapidly from the conning tower and stepped straight over the German submarine’s side into the sea where he was drowned.
Shocked as he was by this incomprehensible incident, U-65’s commander carried on with his scheduled program of tests and put his boat into her first dive. She settled quite normally on the sea bed but when her ballast tanks were blown she refused to rise. For 12 anxious hours her officers and men labored, unsuccessfully, to move her and then, for no obvious reason, the hidden fault corrected itself and the submarine rose to the surface. A meticulous examination in harbor produced not a shred of evidence of any defect.
The following day, as U-65 was being armed for her first operational mission, a torpedo exploded as it was being lowered into the fore-hatch. The second lieutenant and five ratings were killed instantly. Such shattered remains of the officer as could be gathered were buried in the cemetery of Germany’s main naval base, Wilhelmshaven.
Before that latest disaster gossip and rumor had already sprouted from U-65’s continuing run of ill-luck, and even Admiral Schroeder, senior officer of the U-boat Command and not a man easily moved by seamen’s superstitions, began to fret about the dangers to morale among the crews.
With Folded Arms
Admiral Schroeder was even more disturbed when he learned that a U-65 rating, Karl Joseph Pedersen, and a petty officer, had made a remarkable report to their captain. They had, they declared, seen the ghost of the officer who was killed by the exploding torpedo. Pedersen was particularly explicit, “We saw him come aboard and walk slowly to the bow. He stood there, staring at us, with his arms folded across his chest.”
The young U-boat commander thought it wise to treat the two men gently. “These are hard times and we are all under much strain,” he told them. “I’m sure it’s just imagination. The accident was a sad experience for us all. Just try to put it out of your minds.”
The supposed apparition had, however, had a much deeper effect on Pedersen, than his captain realized. Unable to face up to what he regarded as the terror of further service in a ‘haunted’ ship, the seaman deserted the navy that same night, willingly running the risk of certain execution if he were captured.
For a few months, life aboard the German submarine U-65 — now repaired after the explosion damage — settled down to undisturbed routine and her captain was greatly relieved when, in the Spring of 1917, his boat was at last made operational. He and his crew scored their first wartime success by torpedoing a freighter in the English channel and then took their boat westwards towards the British naval base at Portland, in Dorset.
There at night, as the U-65 lay on the surface, charging her batteries, the ‘ghost’ was reported to have been seen again. As before, it stood at the bow with folded arms. And this time its appearance was recorded in the boat’s log, for there were said to be six witnesses and they included the captain himself. His own, first-hand account of the visitation would have been invaluable but he was never to present it. U-65 docked in Bruges during an Allied artillery bombardment and the captain was killed by fragments from a shell-burst.
After he had studied the U-65’s log, Admiral Schroeder determined that once and for all, an end must be put to “all that superstitious nonsense.” He carefully weighed up likely causes of the ‘haunting.’ It might be that, somehow, noxious fumes were circulating inside the U-boat and inducing mild hallucinations in some of the men — such things had been known to happen. It might also be that the boat’s lighting was so arranged that it projected grotesque shadows. Engineers and electricians carried out detailed examinations but could find nothing wrong.
As a personal gesture of reassurance to the boat’s company, Admiral Schroeder spent a night, alone, in the U-65 conning tower and reported, with hearty satisfaction, that nothing untoward had happened. The men were unconvinced and showed it in their gloomy faces. The admiral therefore disguised his annoyance and called for a Lutheran pastor to carry out a complete exorcism of the boat.
Privately, the admiral and his fellow senior officers were positive that what the German submarine U-65 needed more than an exorcist was an iron-handed commander. Lieutenant-Commander Gustav Schelle, an officer to whom rigid discipline was the essence of navy life, was therefore appointed to replace the U-65’s dead captain.
No appointment, with its need to pull a ‘faint-hearted’ crew into line, could have suited Schelle more. To U-65 he brought two men with whom he had preciously served and who shared his view of ‘navy ways’: Master Gunner Erich Eberhardt and Chief Petty Officer Richard Meyer. He announced that any crewman talking of haunting or ghosts would be instantly and severely punished. Each man, he insisted, would now concentrate all of his energies on winning the war for the Kaiser.
The Ghost Returns
The naval High Command was delighted. It seemed that Schelle really had laid the ghost to rest for, over the next 12 months, the U-65 began to develop an entirely new reputation — as a ‘normal’ and successful freighter-sinking war machine. Her crewmen were beginning to accept that perhaps they had been a trifle hysterical and that Schelle had rescued them from their irrational fears.
However, in May 1918, as the German submarine U-65 crept towards the Bay of Biscay and a tempting Allied convoy, the terror returned — and in a worse form. Master Gunner Eberhardt, Schelle’s own, solidly reliable ally, burst into the control room and, trembling, gasped, “I’ve seen the ghost — an officer standing near the bow torpedo tubes! He brushed past me and disappeared!”
Schelle was both angry and bewildered. For Eberhardt, of all people, to behave so outrageously, in such a ‘womanish’ manner, in front of his shipmates defied belief. He barked the order for Eberhardt to be put under sedation and close guarded. Then, looking closely into the startled faces around him, he warned every man in the control-room not to say a word about the incident to the rest of the crew.
Later that night, while resting before the forthcoming action, Schelle was aroused from his berth. Eberhardt, he was told, had seized a bayonet from his guard and taken his own life. Even the ice-cold captain felt a touch of fear and, indeed, his ship’s ordeal was far from being at an end.
The following morning, willing himself to concentrate on preparing his boat to put itself against the living enemy, Schelle ordered U-65 to surface and open the hatches for ventilation. No sooner had the conning tower hatch been thrown back than Meyer — Chief Petty Officer Meyer, Schelle’s other, steadfast shipmate — leapt on to the casing and threw himself into the sea.
By now the crew of the German submarine U-65 was so stupefied by the succession of catastrophic events — inevitably, everyone knew everything — that they were in no condition to fight efficiently. After a fumbled attack on the convoy the U-65 was hit by shellfire from Allied escort vessels and forced to seek refuge on the sea bed. There she lay for 12 hours while demoralized engineers, more terrified of ghosts than of Allied destroyers, sought with clumsy hands to repair the damage.
Eventually their boat regained the surface and slunk away home to Bruges.
Admiral Schroeder was consumed with rage when Schelle reported to him. On the instant he removed Schelle from his command of the U-65 and ordered the reassignment of every single officer and man. The German submarine U-65, he fumed, would be swept clean of its ‘contaminated’ ship’s company. And so it was, a few weeks later, that the submarine slipped away on her next patrol with new hands at her controls.
Nothing more was officially heard of her until August 1st, 1918, when the German newspapers carried a brief announcement, discreetly buried beneath the routine eulogies of the carnage on the Western Front: “one of our submarines, the U-65, is missing and must be presumed lost with 34 officers and men.”
The paragraph intrigued the British Admiralty. With their U-boat losses rising, it was most unusual for the Germans to name a specific boat as ‘missing’. It was almost as though the U-boat Command wished to convey some sort of message to those, in their navy, who would be able immediately to interpret it. Only after a lapse of some weeks did there come further news about the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the German submarine U-65. It was contained in a report, sent to Britain as part of the normal exchange of Allied information, from the United States naval authorities.
An Unidentified U-boat
On the morning of July 10th, 1918, the report said, a U.S. submarine, patrolling submerged off Southern Ireland, made a periscope sighting of a vessel apparently lying hove-to. The vessel remained motionless as the submarine closed in and a few minutes later she was identified as the German submarine U-65. The American captain ordered torpedoes to be made ready for firing and he and his officers began their final check on range. But, suddenly, before the American submarine could open fire, the U-65 was torn apart by some vast, interior explosion and disintegrated before their eyes.
The U-boat, the American thought, could have been a decoy — an abandoned vessel filled with explosives and designed to blow up when she was boarded, so destroying the boarding party crew and their nearby ‘parent’ ship. If that had been the intention in this case, then possibly the explosion was premature.
However, there was one odd factor, the U.S. authorities noted, that would seem to discount the idea of the U-boat as a decoy. Just before she blew up the American commander had seen someone standing on the U-boat’s casing, near the bow. The man had remained there unmoving, with his arms folded. He was wearing a naval overcoat–and he appeared to be an officer.
No satisfactory explanation of the curious saga of the U-65 has ever been forthcoming. After the war, when the legend became more widely known a German psychologist was asked to examine the evidence. His full report was never made public but he did admit that he could advance “no alternative theory to that of a supernatural agency which finally brought about the destruction of the ill-fated vessel. There is no evidence here of any kind of plot, and the facts do not fit with any known type of mass hallucination.”