The picture that Wolfgang Luth, the second most lethal “U-Boat” commander of the Third Reich with almost fifty sunken ships on his service record, offered when he arrived in port, was priceless. The long beard, the hallmark of Germanic divers, the already developed bald head that dominated his head, and his somewhat irregular teeth gave him a certain Darwinian air. Behind that curious image was, however, one of the officers who best navigated in the tortuous sea of ​​personal relationships with the crew. To such an extent that his files and routines under the waters were copied by his colleagues during World War II.

In a lengthy conference given on December 17, 1943, in Weimar, Luth revealed to the admirals of the General Staff what life was like for the crew inside a submarine. With her, without knowing it, he left a document of vital importance to understand the daily life of submariners in the middle of World War II. It couldn’t be more graphic. He spoke of the annoying diesel stench inside the submersibles, as well as the lack of space. He also made reference to the fact that, despite what was happening in the rest of the navy, he had implemented several changes such as serving a less strong coffee to his amberjacks (night watchmen) to avoid, among other things, intestinal decompositions.

But it didn’t just explain the nastier side of underwater life. Lüth also revealed to those present the psychological tricks he used to prevent his boys from going crazy. Some of them, as simple as putting on music in the late afternoon in order to differentiate between day and night; organize chess championships or forbid them to keep erotic magazines and photographs in their bunk beds. The latter, in fact, were thrown into the sea, because, in the words of the military man, they clouded the minds of the divers. “Not because you are hungry you have to paint attractive loaves on the walls,” he said.

It might seem exaggerated, but both his standards and his good work at the hands of a “U-Boat”, won him not to join the extensive list of soldiers who ended their days in a deep trench of the Atlantic. The figures speak for themselves: throughout the entire Second World War, and according to the sources, a total of 783 submarines of the «Kriegsmarine» were destroyed and served as steel coffins to 32,000 sailors. «Surely no other Corps has ever had such high losses, surviving until the end of the fight without its moral suffering. And certainly no other achieved such extraordinary results with relatively so few men and equipment, “explained Harald Busch, a member of the Propaganda Ministry of the Third Reich, in” This was the submarine war.

Stench and atmosphere

At the end of April 1941, when the clock struck eight in the morning, a young ensign named Herbert A. Werner – eventually one of the most effective submarine commanders of World War II – showed up at the harbor to his higher. Herr Oberleutnant, I ask permission to serve on board. His interlocutor shot him an inquiring look. What the hell is wrong with the headquarters that another ensign sent me? They’ve already punished me with two like you, newbies who don’t know how a submarine really sucks. The answer was burned into his mind. He soon discovered the reason that he carried. On the high seas, the plague emanating from the interior of the submersibles was characteristic. Diesel, sweat, and breath from mouths used to drinking coffee to stay alert. This is corroborated, in statements to the press, by the historian and journalist Jesus Hernandez, author of the blog “It’s war!” and from a score of works on World War II such as “Hitler’s heroes” (Almuzara, 2020),There was no shower.

Taking into account that the heat was suffocating, being able to reach fifty degrees, the perennial smell of diesel and humidity, the stench that the bodies must expel is imaginable, despite the fact that they used to use a lemon cologne, known as “Kolibri”, to eliminate the saltpeter. Luth also dedicated a few lines in his extensive lecture to the stench that was generated inside the ship. Accustomed to long voyages (he spent 205 days in a row at sea), he explained that there was a kind of mist that was impossible to eliminate inside the submersible. A “smelly mist” accompanied by a “constant dampness” that filled the nostrils. For this reason, in addition to the sailors’ mental health, he advised them to ascend to ventilate and stay on the surface when there was no danger.

In “Steel Coffins”, Werner himself also made reference to this annoying plague with which they learned to live, Pale, bearded machinists stole a few minutes to look at the sun and sky and to fill their lungs with clean, fresh air. Conditions were very different inside the ship. The stench of 51 sweaty men, diesel fuel, spoiled food, and moldy bread mixed with the offensive odors emanating from the kitchen and the two tiny sinks. The overwhelming smells and endless rocking made the men locked in the narrow drum dizzy and dizzy. Only the daily adjustment dip brought partial relief from the perpetual rocking.

Little space

The second drawback was the limited space they had to spend the day today. Lüth defined the atmosphere as “unnatural and unhealthy” when compared to that of “a ship on the surface.” Hernandez corroborates the words of the commanders to press. The biggest problem was the absolute lack of space in the first days since every last inch was used to stow supplies. The torpedoes also occupied a space in which, after launching, hammocks were placed ”. All of this shows, in the historian’s words, that “despite the glamor that surrounded the submarine crews, their life on board was anything but glamorous.”
This is how Werner defined his first “walk” through that claustrophobic place,
“The excursion soon turned into a serious experience.

After a few steps, I was completely disoriented. I hit my head against pipes and conduits, against handles and instruments, against the low round hatches in the bulkheads that separated watertight compartments. It was like crawling up the neck of a bottle. Most cumbersome of all, the ship rocked vigorously in the increasingly rough sea. In order to maintain my balance, I had to frequently seek support while swaying like a drunk on the floorboards. Apparently, I would have to lower my head, walk smoothly and move along with the ship, or I would not survive a day in that tube.

Space was so tight that there were only beds for half the crew. For this reason, the already popular “hotbed” system was used. This meant that, in practice, one part of the crew was on duty while the rest rested. So, until it was time to change. It was not the most hygienic situation, but there was little else they could do. In addition, this method allowed that there were always sailors awake to attend to any eventuality. “All that nervous tension accumulated by claustrophobia could suddenly explode in what was called” Blechkoller “, something like” panic to be locked in a can “, a reaction of violent hysteria”, reveals Hernández to Press

Another of the worst situations that could be experienced in those metal shells was to endure claustrophobia when depth charges rained from Allied ships. It was in those moments that tension surfaced, in Luth’s words. The man who endures a depth-charge attack in a submarine finds himself in the situation of the aviator who is being harassed by three fighters at the same time. Both of them hear differently each one of the projectiles fired at him, and each explosion, whether it hits it or not, he feels it to the bottom of his being. But the diver, unlike the aviator, cannot escape into the air, or move, or respond to enemy fire. Oftentimes, under the explosions of depth charges, the submarine runs out of light, and when darkness surrounds a man, he is easy prey to terror.

Hard existence

According to Lüth, the day-to-day conditions were lethal for seafaring. The most typical German submarines (Type VII) only had a toilet for the fifty men of the crew. As if that were not enough, the usual thing was that they were muffled due to extreme use and lack of care on the part of the crew. This is how the commander recalled it in his conference: The issue of the toilet can present certain difficulties, especially when new people embark and they do not know how to handle the pump correctly. So that no one is left waiting for a long time, I have a sign placed at the entrance, which says, “Be brief.” Inside there is a hanging notebook, in which each user must write down their name. Thus, as soon as a traffic jam occurs, the culprit is known, who must hit the pump until everything is clear.

So that this does not seem like the confession of a crime, it is allowed to add to the side of each name the verses that are desired; and at the end of the cruise, there are so many writings that you could spend the entire afternoon reciting them despite the fact that the German submarines were rather submersible (since they only dived underwater when there were enemies nearby) the reality was that the crew hardly came out to take the air. In the words of Hernandez, although inside the twenty-four hours they passed under the same electric light, they tried to follow the schedule of a normal day in order to maintain normality. Thus, lunches and dinners were held at a specified time and, in free time, chess was played or chatted with colleagues. This is how Luth reviewed it:

As onboard a submarine the days and nights tend to be confused, it is necessary to do something to artificially distinguish them. During dinner, I order the light to be dimmed throughout the ship, and an hour later there is a music session with records. As the guard changes at eight o’clock, the concert begins an hour earlier and ends an hour later, with a break in between. Luth also tried to differentiate Sunday from other days. In this way, it made a day special that, otherwise, became monotonous. His trick was to start the day with a music record and end the day always with the same one: “Lullaby.” At the same time, he insisted that the sailors wear something without dirtying themselves. “If anyone still has something clean, save it for Sunday. Inside the toilet, there is a hanging notebook, in which each user must write down their name. Thus, as soon as a traffic jam occurs, the culprit is known as.

The food was, in principle, good. However, it deteriorated throughout the journey. In Hernández’s words, at the beginning of the mission, it was mixed. They had coffee, eggs, and bread with butter and jam for breakfast, and vegetables, meat, potatoes, sausages, or fish were available for lunch and dinner. But when fresh produce ran out and mold made its appearance, food spoiled and you had to use canned food. Alcohol was reserved for celebrations, whether it was when a ship was sunk, a certain date, or the passage of the equator. Lüth, how could it be otherwise, had his own tricks to get good bread and that his men would not get bored. Bread is baked in my submarines; but since the oven does not usually work very well, it occurred to me to organize a bakery championship. Four who knew something of the trade took part in the competition, and thus we managed to have a first quality bread. The canteen requires special care. My rule is that everything in it is distributed equally to everyone, from captain to page. And if an exception is made, it is explained in detail why to all.