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U-925

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Captain Hellmut Knoke, U-925

[24 August 1944] The men and I are excited for our first war patrol. The younger sailors still believe the Royal Navy can be defeated, I do not have the heart to crush their enthusiasm. Our current standing orders are to shove off soon and head for the Iceland Passage and head for the Atlantic to report on the weather conditions of the area. Personally, I do not believe we can win this war with Britain and America.

[25 August 1944] Of course there are always problems with ships or really anything with more than 2 moving parts in this cold weather. The oil we use for our diesel engines and pumps are forming frozen crystals and pipes are warping due to the sheer cold. Luckily, the warmth of the engines running at full pace is somewhat of a comfort and it keeps the engineers glued to their stations. The younger boys are singing and going on about growing large viking beards. It is on my shoulders to bring them home safely. I will not engage hastily and will be careful with the lives the Kreigsmarine have entrusted to me.

[26 August 1944] On a U-Boat there is precious little space, and in these trying times, one must be especially creative with what has been given. Sacrificing comfort for more vittles, I found that my command room crew has replaced the stuffing in their seats with candies and smoked sausages instead. Typical German boys, I cannot be cross with them for such a decision. Besides, I did bring my casting net for some fishing...

[27 August 1944] It turns out my cook has a penchant for ghost stories, and has been entertaining the younger crewmen with his tall tales of horror, they will need the entertainment. In the torpedo rooms, my loaders have reported that they are having issues with the torpedo batteries and the grease freezing. We are almost to the North Atlantic so we may begin our mission. Perhaps I should run a gunnery drill to jolt the men back into fighting spirit, as some have become bored already after just 4 days underway. Restless boys.

[28 August 1944] The first taste of the reality of this war, a British Supermarine Walrus spotted the boat and shot at us with its Vickers, doing little but startling the deck crew and the men on the smoking deck. We immediately battened down the hatches and dove to a safe depth and waited for the boat plane to disengage. Given that it was out so far, the aircraft was probably launched by a cruiser, meaning that we must now practice extreme caution.

[29 August 1944] We travel underwater during the day, and surface only at night to avoid being spotted by what could possibly be a larger group of Royal Navy destroyers and cruisers. Although it seems likely they would only spare one vessel to hunt for us, I don't want to take the risk. A few of the boys are still rattled by the brush with the plane yesterday but they will shake it off. This kind of thing doesn't compare to other engagements my fellow sub captains have endured, god rest their souls.

[30 August 1944] Our worst fears have been confirmed, this morning a smoke trail was spotted 158 degrees stern, and from the looks of it, the trail belongs to a destroyer type of vessel. It is still far away enough for us to maneuver but they can steam ahead a lot quicker than even the fastest U-Boat. I have trained for this, and I am ready. I share a cup of beer with my sailors, one of the benefits of a duty like this is that the beer is always ice cold and refreshing. It warmed our spirits and reminded us of a time before the war, where, if conditions were different, we would be huddled into a warm bar, crackling fire, instead of a freezing metal tube, singing songs and recounting probably false stories of previous conquests...

[31 August 1944] To throw off our enemy I have decided to do a radical course change to 60 degrees north at a fast speed. Moving erratically while still avoiding the hunter is key to our survival. The men hold their breath and so do I. Like a dolphin, we have gotten used to an endless cycle of diving and surfacing, over and over again bobbing up and down. The smoke trail remains ever on the horizon and we remain ever more elusive. Eventually they will have to break off and rejoin their group, they can't pursue us forever.

[1 September 1944] Success! We have managed to elude the enemy destroyer and we are continuing on our way to observe the weather patterns of the North Atlantic! My men shout about their glorious run-in with death, and how they are ghosts, how they can never be spotted! Never beaten or cornered by an English tin can any day of the month. I am pleased they are so revived by a dangerous occasion, I can rely on them when things get tough to pull through. They expect the same of me after all.

[2 September 1944] I don't think my men had this kind of assignment in mind when they signed on for the sub service but it keeps them out of harm's way and allows them to go back into the arms of their mothers and sweethearts. This afternoon we ran into trouble when the radio we use to communicate with headquarters stopped functioning, probably an effect of ice forming and melting constantly. I have ordered them to get it fixed immediately, but for now, I'll continue to keep all my observations down in my notebook.

[3 September 1944] A thick fog has rolled in over the ocean, this is excellent, as it gives me the opportunity to remain surfaced for as long as the fog remains, and keep on my patrol path. The radio is more severely damaged than previously thought, and will require dedicated maintenance. Later today, the radar operator spotted a ship, not moving or at least moving very slowly to our 340 degrees. While this was a prime target, our orders are to be weathermen for now. My men crave the chance to break the back of a ship, their willingness to get into the thick of it makes me proud.

[4 September 1944] Still no luck with the radio. My men are going to be scouring the ship for parts to fix it, but for the meantime it is worth noting that the radar operator reported the ship from yesterday remains in the same position since it was spotted. I observed the plotting table, mostly blank except with a mark where the ship was spotted. Against my better judgement and to let the men see some real action, I have the order to steam to the odd ship, and for everyone to get ready for some real combat.

[5 September 1944] We moved in at decks awash, slowly creeping up to the contact, ready to pounce. It was impossible to see in the current fog, but we had its heading and we continued on course. Eventually I was notified that the watchmen had spotted the ship, and I immediately sounded the alarm for the boys to get to action stations. The submarine exploded with activity, of sailors barking and receiving orders, of men donning their gear, the deck crew burst from the hatch like hungry dogs being set free from a cage to attack a wounded animal. I ordered the boat be surfaced, and the eager deck crew descended from the conning tower and onto the deck to man the deck gun and the flak cannons. We surged forth, ready to attack, I had my helmet on and was ready myself to see what this submarine could do. As we neared the ship, the flag of the United States could be seen wafting on the back, but something was obviously amiss. The lights were off, there was no yankee deck crew, no alarms, nothing. It was just a ship, dead in the water. Silent. It will take me a while to decide what to do...

[6 September 1944] We fired on the ship, after having moved away to a safe distance, one shot was fired over the deck as a warning, and after 15 minutes of silence, the next shot was fired into her side, exploding and ripping apart the thin, bolted steel. I watched as fragments of metal were blasted into the sea, but still no reaction. It was obvious that this vessel was abandoned, but why? Either way, it is not strictly my duty to find out, but my first mate is insisting we board the vessel to plunder it for supplies or indeed, a replacement radio. Admittedly it was not a bad idea, and getting a radio operational was of critical mission importance.

[7 September 1944] The boarding party was formed and ready to board. There were crew nets on either side of the ship, which was identified as an American Liberty-class cargo vessel. 134.5 meters long, moved at 11.5 knots at the very highest, capable of transporting over 10,500 tons of cargo. It also had a crew of about 60. So where did all the crewmembers go? Perhaps another submarine offered for them to surrender but for some reason never sank it after they did. Very strange. The top order is to seize a radio first and foremost, anything else comes secondary, and no trophy hunting, we are proud Kreigsmarine Sailors, not barbarians.

[8 September 1944] During the events of the boarding, the following was found: A radio, the parts of which could be compatible if not, wholly able to replace our broken one, several tins of sweets and cookies from America, including personal food items the sailors owned, maps and charts depicting the routes of yankee merchant vessels and some destroyer patrols, and the Captain's log. What an excellent haul, I am most pleased with my men's ability to scrounge all of this up. I shall take a crack at the American captain's notebook while updating my own. I have also decided to allow my men to enjoy and tour the American vessel, but not to wander off.

[9 September 1944] A truly disturbing account. The American vessel, named the "Pepper", had been heading back to the United States after dropping off its load of war materials to the British. After a dinner service on the 14th day of leaving, crewmen had begun acting irrationally and violently to other crewmembers, there is even an account of an officer fatally stabbing another with a marlin spike. These acts of random violence continued to intensify ten-fold as it had spread throughout the yankee ship. What in the world could have inspired such a horrible thing? In the last parts of the American's notebook, he simply wrote: "To my wife, Delores, and my wonderful son Nathaniel, I am sorry I am leaving you now, but the cold waters of this sea are a better fate for me than being on this ship a day more." God in heaven, what a terrible fate...

[10 September 1944] Feeling that we had just about scavenged everything useful off the American husk, and my mounting discomfort with the ghost vessel, I logged the sighting in my combat journal and sailed away. I told my boys the fate of the ship and her crew, and an air of somber darkness settled on their faces. I ordered tube 1 to be flooded, and gave the command to fire. After a brief minute, the American hell ship lifted up amidships and exploded outwards like a rose made of fire and metal. It was beautiful in a twisted pyrotechnical way, and a way of denying the enemy re-use of their ship should they manage to find it. The diary of the enemy captain, god rest his soul, I shall hold onto as a keepsake.

[11 September 1944] Finally! The radio has been made operational by splicing parts from the captured American equipment into ours. The man who did it, a young lad by the name of Hans Ulrich, has been granted the title "Frankenstein" by the crewmembers, and he has taken it to heart. It is back to the typical jovial antics of the crew as we continue on our mission, which was admittedly going far better than I had planned. Sent to go look at clouds, rack a "kill" on our belts! Jokes aside, my dreams after the sinking were plagued with a collection of nightmares about the American crew. I decided to pray for their souls, hoping they found peace in heaven. After all, what point is there in wishing suffering and damnation on your enemy? None, I say.

[12 September 1944] My decision to sink the cargo vessel may get us all killed. As I write, our friend from before has shown up again. Damn my rash action, I am ordering my boys to prepare for another round with this destroyer, and we go through the motions. Cat and mouse, except the mouse has a trick or two up his sleeve. The situation at hand demands my full attention, I will make an entry when I can.

[13 September 1944] Destroyers are a submarine's worst enemy, armed to the teeth with any number of devices designed to kill you, drown you to the depths of the sea where recovery is impossible. The single greatest threat to any submariner is the light and fast "tin can" and their often tenacious and saber swinging captains. This boat is no exception, as the captain of this particular vessel has been chasing us through the day, into the night, and in the morning he is still in hot pursuit of my ship and my boys. If only I could find a way to fool him long enough to put a stern torpedo into his sides or his stern...

[14 September 1944] Like an intricate ballet to the death between two knights of old, our ship and the destroyer fought fantastically for hours and hours, stretching the whole day. Failed depth charge attack after failed attack, missed torpedo after another, we battled and scrapped with the enemy like ferocious beasts, a sneaking, silent serpent lashing out at a rabid fox for what seemed like a century. We had managed some incredible maneuvers and escaped by none but the skin of our teeth, but my boys, my boys did me so proud, we escaped the enemy once more, and are on our way back home to port after completing our patrol. I shall give him the time to stamp his feet and curse, in the meantime, we will remain submerged moving slow for 24 hours to remain unseen.

[15 September 1944] A combat submarine is a lot like a factory floor; cramped, compact machinery and men moving and shifting in between it all. Every man with an important job that keeps the machine running, keeps us alive. There is a major difference between a combat submarine and a factory though. At this moment, the combat submarine is dead quiet. Like a graveyard or the inside of a church. Not a peep, not a squeak, even footsteps are taken softly and the men move like mice across a kitchen floor. We were found, once more, and the maddening pinging of enemy sonar was grasping down into the inky depths, trying to find us, violently searching, feeling...

[16 September 1944] This has gone on long enough, it is time for action. My plotter and weapons officers have pored over what was once a blank sheet of paper, filling it with numerous scribbles and sketches, mathematical equations and calculations made off the top of their head, fast as a bullet. Eventually they came to me with their compilation of numbers and figures that confirmed my theory. We are going to move in a straight line, let the destroyer follow our course, then we will dive to a lower depth and after it has passed over us, we will conduct an emergency surface and fire a full volley of torpedoes with multiple random solutions at an angle to try to hit the bastard. This requires my full attention, and I will make another entry when I can...

[17 September 1944] As I write this, U-925 is settling on the ocean floor. I have failed my boys and I have failed my country. My anguish has yet to subside, I will elaborate in time on the events of the previous day. God help us.

[18 September 1944] The angle was just right, everything had been so carefully planned. We thought that this was the last kick that would end this duel so we could just go home. I had anticipated the use of depth charges by our enemy, but we were in their baffles so there was no way they could have spotted us. It was just blind luck for them, although what does it matter now? The torpedoes failed to make their mark, and before too long we were thrown about by the explosions of depth charges, blasting the black waters around us and shaking the sub like mad. The first compartment to go was our engine rooms, saltwater blasted through the seams of the interior hull torn open by the blasts. The water filled up the diesel rooms, causing a number of bursts and exploded gauges, knocking the engineers down, and what I hope was quick, drowning them. The electrics came after, water gushing into the battery room and flooding it completely. Aft torpedo compartments are cut off from us, and we hear the desperate knocking from them, and their muffled pleas for help. Every hour is a test of my soul. My boys, my bright German boys are dying so horribly and I cannot save them.

[19 September 1944] It was evening this day when the knocking faded and the pleas quieted down to silence. God, please help my men, if it is our time, welcome them all to your kingdom, even Ensign Hummel, who doubted and spoke ill of you, you may send me to hell in his stead, amen.

[20 September 1944] The situation is bleak. There is no possible way to access the engine room to get them operational again, as well, we are running out of supplies, and the diesel food was all in the engine room, so that's no good. We do have the spoils taken from the American ship, candies, chocolate, cakes and bread. I suppose it would be cruel to deny the survivors a sweet escape from the reality of our situation, as well, the bread looks rather appealing.

[21 September 1944] The survivors, 34 men exactly, gorge themselves on the food left by our American foe. It did not take much to fill their shrinking bellies. I myself had greatly enjoyed their chocolate, lemon cakes, and hard fruit candies. I let my boys have the run of the baked goods, as they deserve it, for all their hard work. I'm fading a little, but I must keep strong, for the men.

[22 September 1944] There is nothing to report. There is no hope of getting out of this submarine and onto shore. I don't know why we are holding on for our last seconds on earth. Some of my boys are having cramps, probably from gorging themselves so much last night, but I can't and don't blame them for doing so.

[23 September 1944] The problems with the men continue, along with cramps, some are feeling sick and have been vomiting constantly. I think there must have been something in the food, who knows how long that American ship was adrift? That food could have been months old...

[24 September 1944] The ships chaplain is doing a good job at keeping the boy's spirits up, throughout the vessel guitar music and singing can be heard as the men live their lives in vain of the situation at hand. I admire their bravery. Meanwhile, the sickness is taking its toll on the boys. 12 of them are laid up, and a section of the enlisted quarters has been converted into a hospital of sorts. Doctor Keitel is working overtime trying to make the men comfortable, although that was hard enough without the looming impending death that we are condemned to. I gave up my quarters to comfort a younger sailor who is suffering tremendously from the bug, and will be sleeping in the fore torpedo room with the other officers that survived.

[25 September 1944] A fight broke out between two men in the sick bay. Matrose Tannenberg and Matrosengefreiter Klebbel had an argument over one apparently "stealing the other's girlfriend". In the ensuing argument and scuffle, Klebbel had bitten and punched Tannenberg so badly the area was spackled in blood. Tannenberg was moved as far stern as we could manage and Klebbel is being interred in a makeshift brig until we can figure out what the hell is going on. This is not the time to be turning on each other.

[26 September 1944] Several more incidents aboard. Men screaming at nothing, getting into fights, clawing at the walls of the submarine to try to get out, an act of utter madness. Two more of my boys died today after wounds sustained after one attacked his own forearm with a knife trying to slaw out "A serpent under his skin" and another simply had a horrible seizure and died immediately after. Out of the 32 men remaining, 20 are wounded and the rest are chained up to equipment, away from each other, biting and stark raving mad. I remember the journal from my American counterpart, and realized what had happened and what was happening now.

[27 September 1944] The men were separated, it was heartbreaking to do, but it had to be done. Those who had consumed the bread of the American ship had to be quarantined from those who did not. A fungus in the bread had driven the ones that gorged themselves on it into psychotic lunatics, and those who consumed it were probably going to succumb to such a fate. Of the ones who are left, 6 men, including me, did not eat the American bread. We took the fore torpedo room for ourselves with... no provisions, except water, and sealed off the rest of the crew to their fate. I established that Matrosenstabsoberfeldwebel Oppendorf was to lead the sick men in their waning hours. As time ticked by, we sat in the fore torpedo room. The lights flickered that night, and eventually the red glow of the night lamps went out, and we were buried once more in complete blackness.

[28 September 1944] In that blackness was the most harrowing hell I have ever experienced, together with the other 5 men, we sat and heard the mad ravings of the men in the other compartment. Screaming, pleading, slamming their fists and fighting amongst each other. Sometimes we would hear the mad cry of one mad, then a wet crunching noise, then silence for a few seconds before it picked back up again. In the other compartment, they were running wild, murdering each other, beating one another to death and spitting curses at enemies imagined. In the fore torpedo room, we had prepared a P38 pistol to end it all.

[29 September 1944] We had our last "meal" and said our goodbyes. The first to kill himself was young Frankenstein, who had a loud "Heil Hitler" before sticking the gun in his mouth and firing. Next was Doctor Keitel, who had given me a personal salute before shooting himself. Next was Lieutenant Langsdorff, who kissed a photo of his mother before shooting. Matrosenfeldwebel Freiman could not do the deed, and had, between sobs, asked me to do it for him. I obliged, as his Captain, and said my personal goodbyes to him before shooting him in the heart, killing him almost instantly. I am alone now.

[30 September 1944] Suicide, in my faith, is blasphemy. To take the life the lord gave you yourself is like a slap to his face. That being said, my boys in the next room are being rowdy, as their Captain, I must go and see how they are doing, shouldn't I? I shall open the hatch and see what all the racket is about. I will settle my boys down.

Captain Hellmut Knoke, U-925