Military history


The medium, 500-ton Type VII oceangoing boat U-30 patrolled a waiting station, designated U, about 150 miles west of Scotland. To the south of her, five identical sister ships of the Salzwedel Flotilla occupied waiting areas west of the British Isles. These six Type VIIs represented one-third of the German submarine force deployed in the Atlantic.

The U-30 was one of ten Type VIIs that had been commissioned in the prewar years. A forerunner for the improved mediums in being or under construction (Types VIIB and VIIC), she was three years old and was commanded by a twenty-six-year-old lieutenant, Fritz-Julius Lemp. Born in China on the eve of World War I, the son of a German Army officer, in 1931, at age eighteen, Lemp had joined the Reichsmarine and had served on continuous active duty for eight years. In his fifth year, 1936, he had joined the embryonic U-boat arm. After submarine school and a tour as a watch officer on the Type VII U-28 and further schooling to qualify for a captaincy, in November 1938 Lemp had been promoted to command U-30. In a recent peacetime drill U-30 had survived a near-fatal collision with her sister ship, U-35. Lemp had demonstrated remarkable coolness and control in that crisis, earning the praise not only of Dönitz and Salzwedel Flotilla commander Hans Ibbeken, but also his crew—three other officers and forty enlisted men.

With the improvements incorporated in the later models, U-30 was the submarine type Dönitz favored most. Overall she measured 211 feet and had a beam of 19 feet. Inside her cigar-shaped pressure hull, which was divided into six fore-to-aft compartments of nearly equal size, she was much smaller: about 142 feet long and about 10 feet wide in most areas. She was exceedingly cramped—a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare.

The bow compartment contained U-30’s main firing battery: four torpedo tubes, the standard armament of all oceangoing U-boats in commission or under construction. The U-30 carried ten torpedoes in this space, four in the tubes and six reloads—two stored above the deck plates and four in the bilges. The compartment also served as living quarters for the chief torpedoman and for about twenty-four of the lowest-ranking seamen and mechanics (stokers or firemen). They shared twelve collapsible bunks, built in along the bulkheads, and four hammocks slung in the overhead. They ate meals on small, collapsible wooden tables, while sitting on the lower bunks. The space was so densely packed with torpedoes, gear, and men that it was impossible to stand erect and there was scarcely room to move. Some submariners half jokingly called it “the cave.” A more fitting description might be “snake pit.” As in all ships, the bow compartment took the worst pounding in a heavy sea. The one advantage to living all the way forward was that there was no “through” traffic.

Like all the U-boats deployed in the Atlantic, the U-30 carried two types of torpedoes, both with 616-pound warheads: the older “air”-propelled torpedoes (G7a) and the new, top secret, battery-propelled, wakeless or “electric” torpedoes (G7e). Both types were 23½ feet long and 21 inches in diameter and weighed about 4,000 pounds, or two tons. The air torpedoes were fitted with pistols that could be set for either impact or magnetic detonations; the electrics only with magnetic pistols. Both types had to be thoroughly checked every three or four days to make certain the complicated propulsion, steering, and depth-setting mechanisms were in proper working order, especially that the batteries of the electrics were warm and fully charged. The torpedo maintenance disrupted sleeping and eating routines. The bunks had to be trussed up and the eating tables stored away to make room to pull the torpedoes partway from the tubes for servicing and to take up the deck plates to get at the reloads in the bilges. Those who lived in the compartment prayed for action; with the firing of each torpedo, they gained slightly more living space.

The next compartment aft was less forbidding. Below the deck it contained one-half (sixty-two large cells) of the boat’s batteries. Above the deck were sleeping and eating accommodations for nine men: the captain, the three officers, and five other senior petty officers, midshipmen, or apprentice engineering officers. The captain’s bunk, which could be sealed off by a sliding curtain, was on the port side aft. Directly across the passageway from his bunk were the sonar and radio rooms. The other eight men slept in built-in bunks along the port and starboard bulkheads. The captain and the officers ate on a small folding table in the aisle, sitting on facing lower bunks, making way for traffic to and from the bow compartment. To soften the atmosphere of the compartment—and perhaps to add a touch of elegance—the lockers and closets were faced with a veneer of varnished wood.

Toilet facilities on U-30 were primitive. There were two heads, or toilet bowls, placed in closets about the size of a telephone booth. One was located on the starboard side, forward in the officers’ compartment; the other aft, adjacent to the galley. However, inasmuch as the boat had limited food-storage space, the aft toilet closet had been taken over for that purpose. The toilet in the officers’ compartment thus served all forty-four men. Since the fresh-water supply was also limited, no one was permitted to bathe with fresh-water and beards were encouraged. Body odors were masked with sweet-smelling lotions.

The next compartment aft—the control room—was located almost exactly amidships. This was the working headquarters of the boat, somewhat comparable to the bridge of a surface ship. Merely twenty feet in length, it was crammed with machinery for operating the boat, surfaced or submerged: controls for the rudder and diving planes, engine-order telegraph, gyro compass, blow and vent valves for the ballast and other tanks, navigational plotting desk, the business end of one of the two periscopes. A six-foot man could stand erect, but just barely. Dials and gauges of every description occupied every square inch of the curved bulkheads and the low overhead. To the nonsubmariner, the control room was an unbelievably cramped space with an incomprehensible array of gear, but to the submariner, every dial, gauge, and valve was well understood—and vital to his well-being and safety.

The center of the control room was dominated by the lower skirt of a large cylindrical tube, with a ladder inside, leading to the conning tower. That small, misnamed* place was a miniature combat center. It contained a duplicate helm station, gyro-compass repeater, engine-order telegraph, the business end of the slim attack periscope (which generated less wake), and the torpedo angle and depth-setting solver. During submerged attacks, the captain manned this periscope. He orally passed data (target size, estimated speed and range, angle on the bow, etc.) to the officer manning the torpedo data solver and gave steering orders to the helmsman and depth-control instructions to those in the control room below.

The conning tower was also part of the emergency escape system. The main challenge of escaping from a disabled sunken submarine was to get a hatch open against the massive outside sea pressure. To escape from a Type VII boat, the men followed this procedure. First, all hands gathered in the control room, sealed its fore and aft watertight doors, and strapped on oxygen-breathing apparatus. Next they flooded the control room with seawater to a level above the skirt on the tube leading to the conning tower. Then they bled high-pressure air into the compartment from overhead outlets. The pressurized air pushed downward on the seawater, forcing it up through the skirt into the conning tower. The men then gradually increased air pressure on the water, compressing it until the inside water pressure equalized with the outside water pressure. When that equilibrium was established, the hatch in the conning tower, leading to the bridge, would open freely. The men escaped by ducking under the skirt, going up through the flooded tube to the flooded conning tower, thence to the bridge and onward to the surface.

The compartment aft of the control room was less austere. Below, it contained the other half (sixty-two large cells) of the boat’s batteries. Above the deck plates, there were eight built-in bunks for the petty officers and thirty-six small wood-faced lockers, each measuring about one cubic foot, where the enlisted men stored personal valuables, such as money, official papers, pictures, and cigarettes. The men who lived in this compartment also ate on wooden tables in the aisle, sitting on lower bunks and giving way to traffic, which was usually heavier in this area. The ship’s galley, where food for all forty-four men on the boat was prepared, was located in the after port side of this compartment. The galley consisted of a miniature three-burner electric range with hood, two small ovens, and a platter-size sink. The cooks had to carry the food from the galley to the bow compartment and to the officers’ compartment, then collect the dirty pots and plates.

Principal German Attack Submarines of World War II

The food on U-30, like the other VIIs, was considered to be excellent, but the diet was limited by the lack of storage space and refrigeration. Every nook and cranny of the boat had been utilized for storing potatoes, cheese (in several varieties), and countless cans of coffee, tea, milk, fruits, and sweets. Hard-crusted black bread was stored in mesh-net hammocks in the overheads. In addition, U-30 carried a stock of canned bread, which, it was believed, would not mold. Scores of large sausages and smoked meats of every kind hung from the overhead all through the boat, giving the effect of a German butcher’s shop.

The next compartment aft—the fifth from the bow—was the diesel-engine room. It contained two large, noisy 1,160-horsepower engines, one to port, one to starboard. Air for the engines was supplied by a large pipe—the main induction—running outside the pressure hull up into the bridge structure, with the intake at maximum possible elevation above sea level. The engine exhaust was piped overboard mixed with seawater to minimize smoke. The engine room also contained the main air compressor for charging the compressed-air storage bottles, and a small distiller for making fresh water from seawater. The output of the distiller was used mainly to refill the 124 battery cells, which ran hot and therefore evaporated water at a fairly high rate.

The last, or stern, compartment was known as the electrical room. It contained two 375-horsepower electric motors, or more precisely, motor-generators. The main driveshafts of the diesel engines ran through the core of the motor-generators. When the diesels were operating, either or both motor-generators could be clutched onto the turning driveshafts to serve as generators to charge the batteries. Or, as a fuel-saving (and range-extending) measure, the power produced by one motor-generator, operated by one diesel engine, could be routed to the other motor-generator to turn the other shaft.* Upon diving, when both diesels were shut down, the motor-generators were clutched to the driveshafts, drawing power from the batteries.

The U-30 and her nine Type VII sister ships were equipped with a stern torpedo tube, but it was located inconveniently outside the pressure hull and had to be fired by remote controls in the stern room. The tube was loaded in port with an air torpedo, which required less care and warmth than an electric. The tube could not be reloaded at sea. This inconvenience had been corrected in the next generation of mediums (VIIB, VIIC) by locating the tube inside the stern compartment and providing space for one reload under the deck plates.

Finally, there was the bridge, located atop the conning tower. During travel on the surface, when the boat was most vulnerable to detection by aircraft, four men were stationed on the bridge: the watch officer and three lookouts. Each man was supplied a pair of superb 7 × 50 Zeiss binoculars for searching the air and the horizon, which were divided into four 90-degree segments. Not an iota of slackness was tolerated; the safety of the boat depended upon the bridge watch’s ability to spot a plane or enemy warship in time to dive and evade. Failure to spot a threat to the boat could result in a formal investigation and harsh disciplinary measures.

In pleasant weather a bridge watch was a welcome diversion from the crowded, smelly life belowdecks. It was also the only place where smokers were allowed to light up. But in heavy seas and cold weather, the bridge was miserable and dangerous and a poor place to smoke. Huge seas regularly smashed over the bridge, tearing at the men, who were tethered with safety harnesses, and soaking them to the skin. They came off watch wet and freezing, and often bruised and battered.

During a night surface attack, the bridge was a battle station. While the captain remained below at a plotting board to size up the big picture, the first watch officer manned the firing binoculars, called the UZO, mounted over a gyro-compass repeater. He chose and lined up the targets in the UZO and, upon receiving authorization from the captain, gave the orders to shoot torpedoes at his targets. The three—or four—lookouts on the bridge during attacks were the most able on the ship, those with exceptional night vision. During the attacks they were not permitted to watch the action. They kept their binoculars glued on their 90-degree segment of the sky and horizon, to report whatever might appear.

All oceangoing submarines of the world’s navies were equipped with a big topside gun. As in World War I, these were to be used to sink unarmed or lightly armed merchant ships and for special tasks and emergency defense. Like all Type VIIs, the U-30mounted an 88mm (3.4”) fast-firing, good-quality, but unshielded naval gun. The ammunition for it was stored belowdecks and passed up hand-to-hand during a gun action. A specially trained supervising officer and a team of gunners conducted gun actions, seldom an easy task on the narrow, open, rolling and pitching deck, which was often awash with seawater.

To an outsider, life on board U-30 was simply appalling. The crew had no extra clothing. What they wore was soon filthy. Their hair and beards were soon matted with diesel oil and brine. The boat stank of diesel oil and sweat and cooked food and sickening sweet lotions. Except when submerged, the boat plunged, rolled, and shook wildly. Seldom could one stand or walk without a handhold. Unless properly secured, crockery and other gear flew in all directions. Cold seawater washed down the conning-tower hatch into the control room. There was always a line—sometimes a very long line—at the single toilet, which gave off its own repugnant odors. The heating and ventilation systems were not adequate. The boat was either too cold or too hot—and always damp and clammy. The food, including the canned bread, rotted and molded. Much of the vital machinery, especially the high-performance diesels, constantly broke down, it seemed.

But the young crew of U-30 took this discomfort and the danger in stride. The boat was a fighting machine, not a permanent home. A voyage was not forever, merely several weeks. When U-30 returned to port, the crew—like submariners everywhere—would be granted an extended rest period. The men could find comfort and cleanliness and room to stretch and unwind and, if desired, solitude and privacy on board the submarine tender or in barracks ashore or at home on leave. The men of the crew considered themselves a special breed—elite volunteers within the elite Kriegsmarine—and were proud of that distinction. And proud of U-30 and her nervy Captain Lemp, distinguished from the other men by his clean white cap. Not many men on U-30 would trade this arduous billet for any other duty.

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