When you are hundreds of feet below the Atlantic Ocean in a metal cigar, breathing stale air and counting the days since you last saw sunlight, reality becomes subjective. The isolation of a Type VIIC U-Boat can have strange effects upon the forty-five men on board. Like looking through a grimy periscope at the choppy sea surface, things can become altered beyond their original form.
But there is nothing imaginary or exaggerated about the thing that lurks beyond the metal hatch before me. As I sit here in the torpedo room, a prisoner of my own making, I hear the tapping once more.
It is the tapping above all that got to us the most; eating away at our souls and our sanity.
The creature has full run of the boat now. All the crew are dead save me. I have seen our wonderful master race reduced to quivering masses of insanity deep beneath the waves.
Those fools in Berlin have got it so wrong. In our arrogant efforts to reinvent ourselves as the super race envisioned by Nietzsche, we have failed to properly take into account the mysteries of the world. If there is any super-being in existence, then it is surely that which dwells without this room. Its ability to use man’s own fears against himself has granted it the ultimate victory over those who intruded upon its silent world.
The main ballast tank beneath the control room had ruptured as soon as we hit the reef. Ordinarily we wouldn’t have been at such depths, but a sudden electrical failure onboard caused us to drop rapidly. As the hull connected with the rocky shelf a shockwave shuddered throughout the boat, knocking us all of our feet.
The control room filled with foul-smelling diesel fumes. A beam of light from a torch penetrated the fog and a voice called out to me; ‘Number One! Is that you Gottleib?’
It was Kommandant Krause who hailed me. ‘It is, captain’ I replied as I squeezed my way through to him.
‘What news from the engine room?’ he asked.
‘It’s taking on water. Biermann is trying to plug the leak, but it is filling up fast.’
‘Get two more men to help him. I want that hole stopped! Mehler! What depth are we?’
‘One hundred and seventeen meters, Captain!’ replied Mehler.
We managed to stop the leak. Within ten minutes the damage reports had been carried out and the awful news swept the length of the boat like a black plague. With a burst ballast tank, our chances of resurfacing were slim.
It is something every U-Boat crewman fears. It’s common for U-boats to simply disappear in the Atlantic, consigned to unknown fates beneath the waves, leaving only a garbled radio distress signal as their epitaph.
With the immediate danger over, the second watch took to their bunks. I knew what they would be doing – handling faded photographs of sweethearts back in France or the Fatherland. Thinking about their homes, their families, everything they fought for – and may never see again.
I knew how they felt. I often thought about Frieda, her golden curls and sweet smile. I thought about the trips we used to take around the countryside just out of Frankfurt on my old bicycle, the sun shining through drifting clouds, birdsong, the smell of her perfume.
But Frieda was dead. And for three years I had lost myself in a world of brine and grease and diesel, a world of charts and radio signals, numbers, blips and coordinates, the stink of sweaty bodies, the claustrophobic corridors lit by flickering lamps that swung with the roll of the ocean. I hated it all. But I knew no other life. My hopes and dreams that existed before the war were shattered beyond salvage. Frieda’s death, my commission under Kommandant Krause, the never ending tour of the Atlantic, always searching, always listening for the sound of allied vessels; propellers churning the surface above our heads.
It was then that the tapping began. Beginning at the stern and moving gradually along the length of the hull - a dull - rhythmic tapping, echoing throughout the boat as it made its way back and forth.
It was nothing like the distinctive ‘pings’ of an allied destroyer using ASDIC, instead it sounded like a physical object raking the side of the boat. It scratched and scuffled as if claws were working at the iron plating, searching for a way in.
Many theories as to its cause were put forward by the crew and there was discussion of trapped air bubbles rising up around us. But these were feeble attempts to explain the phenomenon and disguise a fact that nobody wanted to admit. The noises put the fear of God into us.
‘There’s something out there’ said a petty officer in a whimpering voice. ‘It’s trying to get in.’
‘Stop that nonsense!’ barked the Oberbootsman, a bald, burly man whom the men called ‘The Hammer’.
The tapping continued for a full half an hour, and I have never known the crew to be so silent. Each man stood at his delegated position, dreading the moment when the tapping would inevitably pass along the section of the hull directly over his head, each fully aware that only 15mm of steel plating stood between them and whatever dwelt in the water outside.
We all breathed a sigh of relief when the fearful tapping eventually stopped. But our fears were roused once again by another bizarre phenomenon. The temperature in the boat perceptibly dropped several degrees. Our breath came out of our mouths in billowing clouds.
‘Ziegler! What’s happened to the heating system?’ asked Krause.
The Leitender Ingenieur made his way to his staff to isolate the problem and check all the fuses. He came back promptly with a concerned look on his face.
‘Captain, we cannot find the cause of the problem. All of our instruments are working correctly, but even if they had failed, I don’t see why the temperature could drop so suddenly.’
He was right. No mechanical failure could have caused such a rapid change. I did not express my fears to anyone, but I knew that we were all thinking the same thing. Some foreign influence was sucking the heat out of our very bodies. I shivered, only partly due to the cold.
Whilst the first watch continued with the repairs I made my rounds of the boat, checking on our progress. I came across a pair of young seamen standing ankle-deep in oily water, desperately trying to fix the bilge pump. One of them I knew by the name of Urner. I guessed that he was about eighteen. He had joined us in La Rochelle and was as green as a grass snake. He still shaved every morning – a habit that quickly died once a sailor had experienced his first couple of tours. Urner was shivering visibly and the heavy wrench dropped from his shaking hands and it plopped into the black water.
‘How are you doing, Urner?’ I asked.
‘I’m trying, chief’ he replied with a stammer as he fished about in the filthy liquid for his wrench. ‘But I’m so scared. And so… cold.’
‘Cold?’ I answered. ‘Consider yourself lucky you weren’t with us when we were stationed in Norway. Winter in Tromsø is enough to make your balls turn black and drop off.’
He attempted a half-hearted grin and I left him to it.
In the control room Krause was checking some blueprints with Ziegler.
‘How’s that pump doing, Gottleib?’ he asked.
‘Nearly done, captain’ I replied. ‘The leaks have all been fixed too.’
‘Good. We need to calculate how much oxygen we have left to force the ballast tanks to lift us off this shitpile. If we don’t have enough, then we are really in trouble.’
‘Hey, captain’ said Ziegler. ‘It’s gotten warmer.’
It was true. Our breath was no longer visible. The heating system must have overcome whatever difficulty it had. Things were beginning to look better.
Suddenly a dreadful shriek echoed along the length of the boat, a howling peal of terror and anguish that froze all of us. It came from the prow - where I had just come from. The captain, Ziegler and I hurried towards the source where a commotion was already underway and several crew members were shouting.
The sight that met our eyes was hideous. A body lay face down in the oily water of the bilge. It was the body of the man I had seen working with Urner. The back of his skull had been caved in and a section of his brain was visible.
Urner stood a few feet away, held by the strong grip of two of his mates and he was screaming uncontrollably. In his hand he still clutched the heavy wrench, its end plastered in blood and matted hair.
‘What the hell happened?’ bellowed Krause.
‘It was Urner’ replied one of the men who gripped the hysterical youth. ‘He’s gone insane! He battered Drescher to death.’
‘It wasn’t him!’ howled Urner in anguish. ‘It couldn’t have been him! I didn’t know… I thought it was…’
His body went limp and the wrench fell from his hand to the murky water with a splash.
‘Take him to the torpedo room’ ordered Krause. ‘Lock him in. He shall be dealt with once we reach port although I have half a mind to shoot the lunatic myself right now.’
‘What about Drescher?’ I asked.
Krause looked down at the grotesque form that floated in the water. ‘Christ. Fish him out. We’ll need to keep his body as evidence for the court martial.’
The shocking string of events that had assailed us in the last twenty-four hours had unnerved everyone. Work continued, but the silence that pervaded the vessel was unbearably tense. The chief officers met for something resembling dinner, but appetites were poor. We sat in silence, picking at our food.
Our meal was interrupted by the massive shape of the Hammer who cast a shadow over the table as he approached. ‘Captain’ he said. ‘We have something of a problem.’
Krause covered his face with his hands and spoke through his fingers; ‘What now?’
‘I think it’s best if you come and see.’
Ziegler and I followed the Kommandant and the Hammer down the length of the vessel to the torpedo room. There we found a group of frightened petty officers huddled together at the hatch that led into the chamber.
On the floor of the torpedo room lay Urner. His head was tilted up to the ceiling. His eyes bulged in their sockets. Around his bare throat were a series of purple bruises indicating that he had been choked to death. Near the body lay an upturned bowl from the galley, its contents spewed over the floor, still steaming.
‘Who was the last to see him?’ the captain asked the crew.
‘About half an hour ago I sent Bohm with a bowl of stew for our captive’ said the Hammer.
‘And where is Bohm now, Oberbootsman?’ asked Krause.
‘Ah, we can’t find him captain.’
‘Can’t find him? We’re on a fucking U-boat! Get looking!’
All hands took up the search and it was not long before another commotion was heard at the entrance to the engine room. A pale-faced petty-officer trembled at the hatchway.
‘This man says he saw something – in there’ remarked The Hammer.
‘Saw something?’ answered Krause. ‘Well, was it Bohm?’
‘It was horrible, captain, dreadful! Don’t make me go back in there… I beg you!’
‘Talk sense, lad! What did you see?’
‘It was a man… of sorts, but hunched over, and he had dark skin. Like a negro.’
‘What is this nonsense?’ exclaimed Krause. ‘Are you suggesting we have a stowaway? Someone who has been with us since we left La Rochelle without our knowing? Impossible!’
‘Captain, I don’t think it was… well… human.’
‘Stay here, all of you’ said Krause and he disappeared back to his quarters, returning shortly with a pistol in his hand. ‘I’ll be damned if I let any man cause this much trouble on my ship. You three follow me in. We shall go slowly and flush this rat out.’
We left the petty-officer trembling at the hatch as we entered the dark, humid chasm of the engine room. It was black and filthy and I could see how a young, frightened mind could easily see things that were not really there. Krause crept ahead slowly, holding his Luger above his shoulder.
Suddenly Bohm appeared like a ghostly apparition from behind one of the engines. He was clearly not the beast-man described by the petty officer, but I had to admit, the expression on Bohm’s face was one that would remain with me to my death. His eyes were gaping wide in a look of terror and the pupils were fully dilated. He moved towards us with slow steady movements, occasionally jerking as if he were a puppet on strings.
Krause was frozen, his face a mask of horror in the dim light of the room. He let out a high-pitched shriek that cut through us all.
‘It’s not possible!’ he wailed. ‘Oh, Christ, it can’t be…’
The figure of Bohm lurched steadily towards us.
‘Hold it right there, Bohm!’ I called out, but my words had no effect. The man was clearly in a trance of sorts.
Krause had begun to weep, a sight more disturbing than anything I had witnessed so far. He was mumbling words I could barely understand, but he seemed to be apologising to Bohm, who, all the while was creeping ever closer.
‘I’m sorry’ Krause murmured. ‘We didn’t know… we didn’t know…. I’m sorry… No! Get away from me! It was an accident! Get away from me!’
Krause raised his pistol at Bohm.
‘Captain, no!’ I cried.
The shot went off and Bohm fell backwards with a shattered forehead. Krause blinked and looked down on the body, the Luger smoking in his hand.
‘Captain, you shot Bohm!’ Ziegler said.
The Kommandant swayed on his feet and then seemed to regain his senses. He looked at Bohm’s prostrate form almost in disbelief. ‘I… I don’t understand’ he mumbled. Then he straightened and did his best to compose himself. ‘You all saw him’ he remarked. ‘You all saw him come at me. He wasn’t going to stop. I had to.’
We helped the captain back to the officer’s quarters and sat down at the table. A bottle of whisky was produced and we all poured ourselves generous helpings.