A Damned Un-English Weapon


October 1912

He heard rushing water. That was wrong – there should be no rushing water. Spiess stepped forward to the bulkhead and looked through the small round hatchway. In the dim half light, he saw young men coughing and leaning over. Water covered the steel deck plates. How did the water get there? At that moment, he was overcome by nausea and backed away.

He began to cough. The crew around him began to cough. His eyes smarted. He blinked to relieve the irritation, but it only got worse. He tried to keep his eyes shut. The coughing around him increased. He could no longer hear the rushing water because the sound of men coughing blotted everything out.

He felt a burning sensation in his mouth and nasal passages. He had difficulty drawing breath while the coughing only got worse. Then it was fire – fire coming into his mouth, going down his throat and filling his lungs. He was breathing fire!

From above, a voice shouted, “Blow the ballast tanks!”

He tried to look up, but the burning on his eyes increased. He could barely make out the other crew now. Most were doubled over coughing or lying on the deck. Several were on the narrow iron ladder, trying to move up to the conning tower, but they appeared to be stuck. He closed his eyes again, hoping for any relief from the searing pain.

“Blow the tanks, dammit, or we’re all going to die!” came the voice from above.

Through his agony, Spiess realized the order was directed at him. He was the officer in command in this compartment. He reached for the wheel that controlled the compressed air, but a member of the crew was clinging to it. He pushed the boy to the deck and took hold of the wheel. The fire was on his eyes, in his mouth, in his lungs. He tried not to breathe, but he must have oxygen. He exhaled and tried to turn the wheel, but his body was not responding to the commands of his mind.

If I don’t turn this wheel, I will die, he thought, and he prayed to Saint Michael to give him strength. Slowly at first, the wheel began to turn. He had to inhale, but the burning sensation forced him to draw shallow breaths. He continued to turn the wheel, turning, turning, while the flames filled his body.

At last! The sound of rushing air filled his ears.

Now what? Despite the air now filling the ballast tanks, the boat was still taking on water and sinking deeper and deeper into the sea. If he could change the angle of the forward hydroplanes, maybe the boat would switch direction and ascend to the surface. He had to climb over bodies writhing on the deck to reach the wheel that controlled the hydroplanes. To his great relief, this wheel was easier to turn. He felt the boat level off, then begin to rise by the bow. Or was that an illusion?

The fire kept building in his mouth, throat and lungs. Now his skin was burning too. His head was throbbing. Is this the end? Should he be begging God’s forgiveness? The pain forced his eyes closed. He realized he was losing control of his body when he sank to his knees. The last thing he remembered was collapsing onto the deck.

When he awoke, the world was black. His eyes hurt when he opened them. He could see nothing. Was he blind? Was he alive? His nose recognized the unpleasant odor of disinfectant. He felt pain in his lungs as he struggled to suck in air. The sound of labored breathing filled his ears. Was that his breathing or were others present?

Was he still on the U-boat? No, he was in bed – a clean bed. And he was alive! Johannes Spiess said a brief prayer of thanksgiving. He closed his eyes to limit the burning sensation and tried to think of something else, anything to take his mind off his misery.

His life had taken a terrible turn. Just three weeks ago, he had been happily serving as second torpedo officer on the battleship SMS Pommern. At the autumn position reassignments, Spiess hoped to be placed on one of the swift new torpedo boats. But young officers in the Imperial German Navy had the duty to follow, and not question, the commands of their superiors. To his deep disappointment, he was assigned to the Undersea Boat Service. His new position would be First Watch Officer aboard U-9.

Spiess’s initial dislike of his assignment was reinforced by the response of his fellow officers, all of whom expressed their regrets. The Undersea Boat Service enjoyed no respect in the German Navy. Germany was far behind the other European powers in developing a submarine flotilla, even though German boatyards had the technology and were kept busy building undersea boats for Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary … even Norway.

Once the German Admiralty finally began commissioning U-boats for its own navy, the vessels were built as cheaply as possible, with poor systems for propulsion, internal communication and other critical areas. It was especially galling to Spiess that the German boats were not powered by modern, efficient diesel engines, which had been invented by a German twenty years ago!

U-9 – along with the rest of the flotilla – had to make do with the smelly, ineffective and cheaper Körting heavy oil engines, which belched huge clouds of white smoke through tall exhaust funnels. The funnels had to be disassembled whenever they submerged. Those clouds of white smoke, thought Spiess, completely undermined the U-boat’s chief advantage: stealth in approaching the enemy. The Körting engines also had chronic mechanical failures. At least one fourth of the vessels were out of service for repairs at any given time.

Johannes Spiess prized order and cleanliness. He grew up in a tidy, spotless home, meticulously overseen by his very proper and demanding mother. Frau Spiess expected her son to excel in every possible way. In addition to being the most studious boy in his class, young Hans was always freshly bathed and neatly dressed. This earnest, tidy, hard working boy was frequently a favorite of his schoolmasters.

His partiality for cleanliness even affected Spiess’s choice of military service. Most German boys wanted to serve in the army, one of the country’s most respected institutions. But in the army, you were always in danger of getting dirty from such activities as marching through muddy fields. By comparison, the sea and ships were relatively clean places – at least for the officers. Hans’s expectations of order and hygiene had largely been met in the navy.

But all that changed just a few weeks ago, the first time he set foot aboard a U-boat. Fuel and lubricating oils leaked everywhere, but were especially noticeable on the steel deck of the engine room, where they caused even the most sure footed sailors to slip and fall. The greater hazard was a stray electrical spark, which might ignite the fuel and imperil the entire crew. Fires occurred with alarming frequency in the Undersea Boat Service. Crews became expert firemen. Every man knew he had to extinguish the flames quickly before he was overcome by smoke and lack of oxygen.

Keeping the interior of the boat clean was nearly impossible, since fresh leaks continually spurted forth. Dirt and food particles mixed with the oils to provide a coating of grime on the interior deck and bulkheads. An amazing number and diversity of insects came aboard with food provisions and thrived in the oil and grime, to the constant irritation of the humans on board.

Disgusting smells were even worse. The first time he descended the ladder into U-9, Spiess knew he was not suited to this environment. His nose informed him right away. A terribly sour odor greeted him, produced by the fuel for the Körting heavy oil engines. His nose was also offended by the single marine head, used by everyone on the crew. To conserve the limited supply of compressed air, the head was only flushed when it was in danger of overflowing. Other foul smells, most of them unidentifiable to him, added to the unpleasant mixture. The extreme dampness below only intensified the sensation. He was told he must quickly learn to recognize and counteract certain specific odors – the poisonous gases that were a constant threat on board.

With grim humor, U-boat crews called their vessels “iron coffins.” That appellation was too chillingly prophetic for Spiess, so he chose to call the boats “sewer pipes.” The steel walls of the pressure hull were round like a large pipe and the noxious odors were worse than any sewer he could imagine. The complex stench of the boat permeated the crew’s clothing and hair. The men had to keep separate clothing ashore for wearing while on leave. Even then, after a shower and a fresh uniform, the foul smells lingered. U-boat men were shunned by other seamen and were the target of jokes and name calling.

Predictably, the odors were a severe impediment to socializing with the opposite sex. Even prostitutes avoided them. Most of the time, U-boat men simply banded together with others from their group. This was not the life Spiess envisioned when he joined the navy.

Living aboard ships, sailors were accustomed to making do with little space and virtually no privacy. But this was another matter entirely. The cramped, eerily half lit interior of a U-boat would test any man’s claustrophobic impulses. Maximum headroom was two meters, but that was at the center of the passageway. It was much lower on the sides. Spiess could not move about the boat without constantly stooping to avoid the pipes, control wheels, shut off valves, switches, gauges, complicated technical apparatus, food provisions and other obstacles overhead. He knew it would take him some time to learn how to pass through the small round hatchways in the watertight bulkheads without banging his head. A fat man, even a broad shouldered man, simply would not fit through those tiny openings. You had to grab a bar above the door, put your feet through first, bend over backwards and push yourself through. No wonder the Undersea Boat Service recruited short, extraordinarily fit young men.

Unless the commander needed to conserve electrical power, which happened frequently, the interior lighting was left on night and day when the petroleum engines or electrical motors were running. The lighting was so dim you had to use your flashlight to find a water leak, a shut off valve or other important equipment, read a chart or a book, or even see what you’re eating.

As First Watch Officer, Spiess would be second in command of the vessel. That entitled him to a tiny curtained off space aboard U-9, about two meters long by one meter wide. Most of that space was occupied by a collapsible cot, but the cot was barely one and a half meters long, too short to stretch out. If one was to sleep on this cot, one would have to curl up or have one’s legs dangling over the end. The cot was jammed in between the pressure hull and a small clothing locker to prevent it from sliding about in the pitch and roll of the boat. Just above the cot, preventing him from sitting up in his tiny space, was the rear end of a reserve torpedo, smeared with grease. Mounted on the pressure hull at the foot of the cot was a fuse box, which would give you a nasty shock if any part of your body made contact.

There was even less furniture in the crew’s compartment. Sleeping accommodations had not been planned for these boats, so the crew rigged hammocks or slept on the hard and oily deck. When Germany began to build these vessels just a few years ago, their mission was not clear. Spiess assumed their purpose was to defend the entrances to the harbors at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, which would – he hoped – require little overnight deployment. Officers and crew slept in “living ships” or barracks when they were in port.

Spiess had many concerns about the viability of U-boats. He believed it was against the laws of nature for man to try to inhabit the depths of the sea. Instinctively, he doubted these boats were seaworthy, and that feeling was reinforced by many reports of sinkings, especially in foreign navies. They were designed to travel under water, but were totally unpredictable when submerged. They might descend steeply by the bow, or by the stern, or move like a corkscrew. Maintaining an even trim, especially at attack depth, was a Herculean task. On the surface, they pitched and rolled in heavy seas far worse than surface vessels half their size.

As second in command, Spiess had to become familiar with all of the complicated technical apparatus on board. He was particularly challenged by the great number and variety of tanks outside the pressure hull and their controls. There were the ballast tanks, which took on sea water for submerging. There were the regulator tanks, located amidships, which took on water to compensate for general weight loss on board. There were the trim tanks, located at the bow and stern, used to maintain an even trim while submerged. Water was expelled from these tanks by closing the upper vents and activating compressed air cylinders, forcing the water out of the tank.

Spiess would have to improve his limited knowledge of physics. He had heard of Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy, but didn’t really understand it. The specific gravity of sea water totally eluded him. The weight of sea water was constantly changing, due to depth, temperature, currents, marine life, sunlight or clouds, time of year and many other factors. Every change required an adjustment of the sea water in the tanks. If an imbalance was not immediately corrected, the boat would either rise to the surface or sink to the bottom. He was relieved to learn the boat’s Chief Engineer bore principal responsibility for these constant adjustments.

Also located outside the steel pressure hull were the tanks for fuel and fresh water. Pipes leading from these tanks through the pressure hull into the interior were among the most vulnerable points of a U-boat.

As there were only a few officers on board, Spiess would have to become a generalist, familiar if not expert in all areas of seamanship. He had to learn how to be a navigator, plotting courses and using a sextant to fix the boat’s position. He was an expert with torpedo armaments, but he needed to learn how to operate everything else: the petroleum engines; the coupling devices; the electrical motors; the forward and aft diving hydroplanes that enabled the boat to dive, maintain trim while submerged and re-surface; the arrangement and connection of the electric battery banks; the ventilation system and its potash filters that removed poisonous chemicals from the air while submerged; the three level steering system that could be controlled from the central station, the conning tower above or the bridge on top of the conning tower; the new wireless telegraph machine; the two periscopes that were the boat’s eyes when running submerged; the endless controls, valves and gauges for all the systems, the tangled jungle of pipes, faucets, levers and so much more.

Thinking about all he had learned in the past two weeks distracted Johannes Spiess from the pain he was suffering. As he lay in bed, he began to be aware of light. The light gradually increased until he could make out large windows, then other beds and men asleep in the room. So he was not alone. The other men were making the same labored breathing sounds he was. His burning eyes could not see well enough to recognize faces, but these must be the young men who were with him when this incident – the most horrific experience in his life – took place. What in the name of God had happened?

The door at the end of the room opened. A short, plump woman wearing a nurse’s uniform appeared and began going from bed to bed, checking the sleeping men. When she reached Spiess’s bed, he tried to speak but his voice sounded like a croaking frog.

“Where am I?”

“Ah, so you are awake,” she responded softly so as not to disturb the other men. “Guten Morgen, Herr Oberleutnant.”

“Where am I?” he repeated.

“You are in Kiel Naval Hospital. The doctor is here and he would like to examine you. Do you think you can walk?”

Spiess threw aside the covers and the nurse held his arm as he stood up. She helped him into a robe and slippers. To his great relief, he could stand and walk by himself, even though the pain continued in his lungs and eyes. Was the damage to his breathing and sight permanent? Was he disabled? Would he be discharged from the navy? At least he should be transferred out of the Undersea Boat Service. He never wanted to set foot aboard a U-boat again after what he’d been through.

It was a short wait before a bearded older man wearing spectacles bustled into the small examination room and said cheerfully, “Guten Morgen, Oberleutnant Spiess. Ich heisse Doktor Reiter. How are you feeling today?”

“It is painful to breathe, my eyes hurt and my skin is burned,” Hans croaked. “Please, Herr Doktor, can you tell me what happened?”

“Yes, I will explain everything. But first, let me have a look at you. Would you open your mouth, please?”

The doctor took out a small flashlight and peered into Spiess’s mouth, then up his nostrils, than into his eyes, muttering “Ach so” after concluding his examination of each area. He picked up an atomizer and sprayed into Hans’s mouth.

“Breathe in deeply please. Does this help?”

Spiess took a few breaths before replying “It helps a little. Can you tell me now? What happened to me?”

The doctor looked at him carefully. “Do you remember where you were?”

“Yes, I was aboard the training boat U-3. We were conducting a diving exercise when I heard water rushing. Then everyone began to cough and I felt like I was breathing in fire. I was barely able to blow the ballast tanks before I lost consciousness.”

“There is a simple explanation,” the doctor said. “Someone failed to secure the forward deck hatch properly and water began pouring in as the boat was diving. When the sea water reached the batteries, they gave off chlorine gas.”

“Chlorine gas? Isn’t that poisonous?”

“Yes. It causes nausea and coughing fits, followed by a burning sensation on all moist tissue. It also burns the skin. If you cannot escape the chlorine gas, the results are fatal. Happily, in this case, the boat rose to the surface quickly. The hatches were opened and fresh air came in to counteract the effect of the gas.”

“Did anyone die?”

“No one died, but some experienced serious burns that will take a long time to heal. I am afraid many of the injured men will never serve on a U-boat again. I am recommending they be transferred to another division of the navy to avoid further injury.”

Spiess could barely contain his excitement. He will escape this wretched assignment! He will be transferred. It could not come soon enough. He decided to ask.

“How long will I remain here, Herr Doktor?”

“We shall have to see how you progress, but I expect you will be here a week – two at the most. Do not worry. I expect you to have a full recovery.”

“And then I shall be transferred?”

“You? Why, it would be terrible to take you away from the Undersea Boat Service, Herr Oberleutnant. You are a hero! I understand your quick action brought U-3 to the surface. You saved the lives of everyone on the boat. Your commander came by last evening to see you. He was very excited to hear of your brave exploits. He said he cannot wait to have you complete your training and join him aboard U-9.”

Hans slumped down in his chair. The pain in his lungs swelled and he closed his stinging eyes. A terrible thought kept swirling around his brain. So this is it. This is my future. I am going to die trapped on one of these damned stinking boats.