July 16, 1942
CAPTAIN WALTER CROSLAND GLANCED OVER HIS LEFT shoulder. The lights of Havana were still visible off the port stern. He yawned and slid his pocket watch from his pants, angling it into the glow cast by the ship’s dials and gauges. It was almost three o’clock in the morning, and the freighter Gertrude was not yet thirty miles off the northeast coast of Cuba. Crosland reached for his cigarettes and tried to ignore the uneasiness that had tugged at him since leaving the harbor more than three hours earlier.
There were U-boats in the area. He knew it, and so did everyone else. That’s why he was running at night with his lights out, something he had never done. Only three days earlier, the steamship Oneida, a massive 2,309-ton vessel sailing around the eastern tip of Cuba, was sent to the bottom by a pair of torpedoes that struck her in the main engine compartments. After news of that disaster filtered in, Captain Crosland had delayed his departure in hopes that the U-boat—surely there was only one—might sail away in search of more productive hunting grounds.
There was a limit, however, to the delay the Gertrude’s cargo could withstand. A small freighter, she was loaded with sixteen tons of onions, among other assorted fruits and vegetables. It was food for the fighting men, Crosland knew, and as such, was fair game for the “wolves of the sea.” Leery of spoilage, the captain had steered out of port at midnight, but was bound up by strong winds and heavy swells. The freighter was barely making ten knots.
The bridge door opened as Briley, his first mate and the officer on watch, came inside with a mug of steaming coffee. “Everyone’s sacked out, Cap’n, and all’s clear except for these seas. Still only moderate, though . . . three to four feet.”
Crosland grunted acknowledgment as he accepted the coffee from the younger man. The deck pitched as he took a sip. He grimaced and said, “Well, whether I pour it all over my arms or get it down my gut, I s’pose it’ll keep me awake.”
Briley chuckled dutifully, then spoke. “Cap’n, will we be . . .”
Without a hint of warning, a piercing squeal followed by a loud, roaring voice washed over them. “Achtung!” The captain ducked, hunching his shoulders, while Briley involuntarily dove to the floor. “Achtung!” the voice came again. “Attention!” This time in English. Almost immediately, Crosland recognized the voice as coming from some type of loudspeaker. It rang with electronic feedback, but was clear and so obviously close that it had startled the men to the point of near panic.
Gathering his wits, Crosland grabbed the ship’s wheel and desperately began turning the freighter to the starboard, away from the thundering voice. That the voice had addressed them first in German had not escaped his notice. Once more, the disembodied voice from the dark boomed across the water, again in English, this time adding another command: “Shut down your engines, and abandon your ship immediately!”
For a moment, Crosland actually considered running, but was quickly overcome by the reality of the situation. A U-boat—it was obviously a U-boat—had tracked and maneuvered ahead of him. The submarine was faster, it was armed, and it would undoubtedly destroy him if he sought to escape. Without delay, the Gertrude’s master palmed the button overriding the big diesels and snapped, “Briley, get the crew off.”
Crosland flipped an alarm switch. A siren from within the ship began to scream in short, shrill bursts. The first mate still had not moved from the floor. “Briley, get up! Let’s get this crew off!”
“Cap’n, should we . . .”
Crosland kicked the terrified man and screamed, “Get up now! They’re gonna sink this ship! Get the men into the lifeboats! Go!”
As Briley ran below, Crosland exited the bridge to the outside, searching vainly for the U-boat he knew was just beyond his vision. The voice assaulted his senses once more. “Abandon your ship immediately! Abandon your ship immediately!”
Crosland slid down the stairs and met the crew emptying onto the main deck. Confusion reigned as the men frantically unbuckled the lifeboats, but within minutes, using the block and tackle, they were lowering themselves down the side of the doomed freighter. The captain was the last man off. “Pull away,” Crosland ordered as the men scrambled into place and fastened oars into oarlocks. “Pull away hard!”
When Crosland’s lifeboat was barely fifty yards away, he began to make out a shape and half stood, struggling against the pitching ocean, to see over the heads of the crew. Suddenly he yelled, “Pull starboard! Starboard!” The lifeboat was steering straight into the lee of the surfaced submarine.
Finally away and to the U-boat’s side, the Gertrude’s captain called for his men to cease rowing as they all stared at the sub’s long, sinister shape. It was painted completely black, and Crosland could make out the moving shapes of several men on the tower. Then, with fire that lit the night sky from a location on the deck of the sub, but beyond its tower, a huge gun opened up on the Gertrude. The first shell set the freighter on fire. Then, shell after shell was blasted into the superstructure of the vessel until, in less than ninety seconds, she slipped under the waves. Crosland sat down heavily, vaguely aware of the smell of burning onions.
The crew in the lifeboats watched as the U-boat, finished with its larger prey, revved its surface diesels and turned to come after them. A few of the men cried out. They had heard the stories of lifeboats and survivors being shredded by the machine guns of a victorious U-boat.
Crosland, however, still had his wits about him and was curious about the order to abandon ship. Most tankers and freighters, he knew, were simply torpedoed, the attack coming as a surprise, leaving the crew who survived to get off and into the water the best way they could. This was war. Everyone knew it, and mercy was rarely part of the equation.
As the U-boat churned closer to him and began to slow her engines, Crosland thought about the war and his part in it. He was an old man, more than fifty, and had been turned down by the navy when he’d tried to enlist. Running a merchant ship that supplied the Allies was his way of serving his country. He had not, however, really expected to see any action. Yet here he was, a moment away from what he hoped would be a quick death. This really is a world war, he thought. I am sixty miles from Miami Beach and about to get killed by Nazis.
The submarine settled to a stop less than thirty feet away. This time without the loudspeaker, the man from the tower shouted down, again in perfect, unaccented English: “Is your lead officer aboard?”
Crosland took a deep breath as his crew turned toward him. He stood and answered in a clear voice: “I am he.”
The captain noticed the man who spoke huddling with another man wearing a white officer’s cap. The speaker turned and said, “Our commander wishes to know if you have fresh water aboard.”
Crosland wanted to curse him. He wanted to swim over and wring his neck, but he said simply, “No.”
Quickly his answer was relayed to the man in the white cap, and two canteens were slung from the sub’s tower into the lifeboat. “Do you have a compass?” he was then asked. Crosland almost wished the Germans would shoot. He had never felt so helpless in his life. “No,” he replied.
“Look at my hand,” the man commanded as he extended his arm to Crosland’s left. “Your closest landfall is there. Good-bye.”
“TAUCHEN,” CAME THE ORDER FROM HANS GUNTHER Kuhlmann as the hatch was secured and the crew of the U-166 began to take her down. Kuhlmann was too tall by several inches to comfortably stand on the submarine’s bridge, and so as not to slump more than he already did in the confining space, he removed his white cap as soon as he stepped from the ladder. The white cap was a symbol of leadership in the Unterseebootwaffe, worn only by the submarine’s commander.
“Excellent work, gentlemen,” Kuhlmann said to the men on the bridge. “Steady her at one hundred feet. Set a northwesterly course for one hour, at which time we will surface and resume patrol until dawn. Carry on.” Orders given, the young commander retreated to his tiny room behind the bridge and pulled shut the only privacy curtain on board.
At twenty-eight years of age, Commander Kuhlmann was the second oldest man aboard. He was from Cologne, a city on Germany’s eastern border, and had studied French and English—receiving higher marks in English—as a teenager. After high school, young Hans entered Germany’s military service as a naval cadet and soon went to sea as an officer cadet.
Throughout the 1930s as Germany lumbered yet again toward war, Kuhlmann served as a torpedo officer aboard various gunships until being assigned to the new U-boat fleet in 1940. He served as an officer of the U-37 for fourteen months, during which time the submarine completed eight missions and sank an incredible forty-six Allied vessels. He was the Unterseebootwaffe’s rising star, and early in 1942, Hans Gunther Kuhlmann was appointed commander of Germany’s newest Type IXC submarine, the U-166.
“Sir?” The voice was accompanied by a sharp knock on the bulkhead outside Kuhlmann’s tiny stateroom.
The curtain was briefly pulled aside as Under-Lieutenant Josef Bartels Landermann entered and closed it behind him. “Sit, Landermann,” Kuhlmann barked roughly, loud enough to be heard beyond the curtain despite the interior noises of a sub under way.
The under-lieutenant, officially Oberfahnrich zur See, was a man somewhat shorter than his commander. At about five feet ten or eleven inches, he was powerfully built and had a plain but pleasant face framed with closely cropped brown hair. He sat as he had been ordered to do. Since Kuhlmann occupied the only chair in the cramped space, the under-lieutenant parked himself on the commander’s bunk.
For several seconds, the men stared at each other, Kuhlmann glowering fiercely. Then, as if a switch had been turned, each broke into a broad grin. Stifling laughter, Kuhlmann propelled himself from the chair to the bunk and slapped the other man on the back. “You were marvelous, Josef,” he whispered gleefully. “Allied supplies destroyed, not a man lost to either ship. A perfect encounter. And your English is incredible.”
Nodding, but neglecting to smile, Landermann asked quietly, “Did you see the faces of their men as we swung the boat? They were certain we intended to shoot them.”
Kuhlmann’s joyful expression faded as he ran a hand through his thick black hair. “Yes, it has happened enough times that they expect it now. But it will not happen on this boat. War is one thing. Murder is quite another.”
Each man paused briefly, contemplating that distinct difference, until Landermann broke the silence. Leaning toward the commander, he whispered conspiratorially, “So . . . what now . . . into the Gulf of Mexico?”
Kuhlmann furrowed his brow. “Of course,” he replied and, holding up a finger, added, “but not a word. Remember, you are not supposed to know.”
Indeed he was not. The mission of the U-166, including its destination, was a secret to be held only by the submarine’s commander and its official, onboard Nazi Party observer, a man named Ernst Schneider. But there was another secret on this submarine, one that, had the German High Command known, would have meant certain redeployment, perhaps even discipline for Kuhlmann and Landermann. The commander and his under-lieutenant had been best friends for years.
It was a situation never tolerated by the Nazi military machine, whose entire structure was based on loyalty to the Führer and mistrust of everyone else. It was dangerous to the well-being of the High Command for two men to trust each other. Before long, it was assumed, these men would begin to confide in each other and question orders—maybe even the philosophy behind those orders.
Control was ensured by means of informants carefully placed at the grassroots level throughout the military. For all appearances, they were ordinary soldiers or sailors and existed in addition to official informers—the Nazi Party observers who were placed on each U-boat and ship. These men were specifically charged to ferret out troops disloyal to the party ideal. It quickly became apparent to the High Command that it was not even necessary to place these informers with every company as long as the fighting men did not know each other well. The threat of who might be an informer was enough.
Josef Bartels Landermann was twenty-six. Two years younger than Kuhlmann, he was also from Cologne. The two men had been fast friends since before they were teenagers. They had grown up in the same neighborhood, gone to the same schools, and been in each other’s weddings. It was only as adults that their paths diverged.
While Hans Kuhlmann intended the military as a career from the time he left high school, Josef Landermann continued his formal education on full scholarship to Oxford, in England. Intending to become a teacher, he was a student of world history, but had a gift for languages that left his professors dumbfounded. His ear for sound and nuance made Josef a popular student, for he was able to mimic any voice, any inflection, almost without exception.
Having heard a particular professor’s stiff British accent every day for some time, Josef once stood up before the man arrived, walked to his desk, and impersonated him perfectly for a full minute, including the man’s mannerisms and walk. Moments later, after Josef’s impromptu performance had ended, the professor himself entered the classroom and began his usual routine . . . only this time to uproarious laughter.
Returning from Oxford, Josef married Tatiana, his high school sweetheart, and a year later, they were blessed with a child. A daughter, they named her Rosa, after Josef’s mother, who along with his father had died while Josef was in college. He doted on the child and his wife, buying them every extravagance a teacher could afford. His life was perfect.
But the war changed everything. Josef had been teaching for two years when he was called up for military duty. Tatiana cried endlessly. Reports had been filtering in for some time about the numbers of men who were giving their lives in service of the Führer, and Tatiana was convinced that Josef would never return to them.
He had only three days to report after his notice arrived and the entire third day, Josef knew, would be spent traveling. The first, he spent in shock with a fussy baby and a hysterical wife. The second morning, his last with his family, Josef dressed in his only suit and took his small family by rail outside Cologne to visit Tatiana’s family on their tiny farm. There he talked with Tatiana’s father and brother while she took comfort in the presence of her mother. That afternoon, Josef pulled Rosa in an old wagon and briefly posed with Tatiana and the baby for her brother, an amateur photographer, who later sent the small photograph to Josef by mail. Assigned to the Kriegsmarine, Josef labored as a cadet until spotted on duty one day in port by his old friend, Hans Gunther Kuhlmann. Kuhlmann, about to begin sea trials of the newly outfitted U-166, demanded an English translator as part of his crew and pointed to “that man . . . the one with the broom,” as an example of one who could fill the position. He had heard the man, Kuhlmann said in what was not quite a lie, teaching English to children.
Bilingual crew members were in great demand, especially aboard U-boats, whose men sometimes found themselves thousands of miles from friendly food and fuel. The Nazi gold each submarine carried for just such a purpose would often be used as payment for these necessities.
Bilingual crews were one thing, but Kuhlmann knew the area of the world to which he was about to be sent. He needed a man absolutely fluent in English. That the man he demanded happened to be his best friend, well, that was a bonus and could remain their little secret.
Josef, for his part, was delighted. He and his boyhood friend shared a common philosophy about the war. That much was established immediately. The two men fought for Germany and had their own reasons for doing so . . . but both had refused the opportunity to join the Nazi Party.
Once on board, Josef was quickly promoted from cadet to sub, or under, lieutenant, and he became the commander’s unofficial right hand during the submarine’s sea trials. These exercises, conducted in hostile waters during wartime, were much riskier than a typical shakedown cruise. Therefore, when the U-166 was caught on the surface by a British Spitfire, it was not totally unexpected. The Royal Air Force pilot had strafed them, and scrambling to get off the conning tower where he was stationed with his captain, Josef pushed Kuhlmann down the hatch and away from the hail of bullets. For this act, he was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, and at the insistence of Kuhlmann, he wore the ribbon as a part of his uniform. The medal he carried in his pocket, though its very existence embarrassed him greatly. When Josef “saved” the U-166 commander, he was only trying to get out of the way.
Josef saw Tatiana and Rosa only once more after joining the U-166. With a three-day pass—May 28–31—he spent much of the time traveling home to the tiny apartment in Cologne. The hours were precious, but he had been exhausted. Josef slept on the threadbare couch for much of his visit, Rosa climbing all over her father, Tatiana quietly stroking the face of the man she loved.
Had it been only sixteen days? Josef blinked his eyes several times and carefully placed the photograph back into his waterproof submariner’s pack. Sixteen days seemed to have lasted a lifetime. Josef stood. Kuhlmann had left him in his cabin, ostensibly to clean, but in reality affording his friend the only luxury there was on a Type IXC—privacy. Josef was grateful and had taken the moment to dream of his family. As he stepped through Kuhlmann’s curtain, the present once again washed over him like a foul tide.
Josef turned toward the sound of the voice. It was Ernst Schneider, the boat’s official observer. As a Nazi Party representative, Schneider sailed with the U-166 for the purpose of watching and reporting the actions and attitudes of the officers and crew. It was a task deemed especially important in the Unterseebootwaffe. Sub commanders were an independent lot, after all. Thinking “beyond the circumstance” was their stock-in-trade. It was often what kept their crew alive, but this independent thinking, it was feared, could lead to independent action . . . and that could never be tolerated.
“Landermann!” the observer called again as he approached.
“Yes?” Josef coolly replied.
Narrowing his eyes, Schneider said, “You will address me as ‘sir.’”
Josef crossed his arms and tilted his head. “I am required to address the officers of this boat as ‘sir.’ You, however, are not an officer of this boat. Therefore, I will address you with respect, but as I please.”
Schneider stared hard at him, choosing for the moment to ignore the slight, and said, “I want to meet you and Commander Kuhlmann in the mess immediately. Retrieve him for me, please. I will wait there.” He turned to go, then turned back and added, “And don’t push me, Landermann. I hold your life in my hands.”
Josef watched Schneider move away, confident that what the man said was true. It was rumored that on his last assignment, a gunboat, Schneider’s observations had resulted in four men having been shot—one of them an officer.
Josef had no doubt about what Schneider would do if he were goaded, but it simply wasn’t in him to roll over for a bully . . . and this one in particular. Hans Kuhlmann wasn’t the only man on the U-166 Josef had known when he came aboard. Schneider had also attended Oxford in the same scholarship program of which Josef was a part. The two men were the same age, twenty-six, attended several of the same classes, were fluent in English—but beyond the veneer, they were as different as a puppy and a snake.
Ernst Schneider had grown up on the streets of Berlin. His father, a machinist by trade, was a drunk who beat his wife and daughters but, curiously, never his son. Perhaps that was partly why Ernst arrived at Oxford with a sense of entitlement. He was dark-haired, square-jawed, tall, and strikingly handsome. Students were initially drawn to this physically attractive young man, but soon shied from his arrogant, sometimes cruel, manner. This bearing was on display in the classroom as well as on the athletic field and in social settings.
Among the faculty and students, it was well known that Schneider had joined the Nazi Party as soon as it had been promoted on campus. To be sure, he was not the only one, but he was its most ardent promoter. Ernst Schneider was proud of the newly formed party and openly proclaimed its merits to anyone who would listen.
Josef had been a member of a historical discussion group at Oxford for a time that included the girl whom Schneider dated. She was absent for several sessions, then returned with bruises that had yet to heal on her face. The young woman explained the marks with a story about an automobile accident, but Josef wondered. After all, the discoloration was not only on the front of her face, but on the sides and the back of her neck as well. What kind of automobile accident did that?
Schneider was finally expelled from Oxford at the beginning of his third year. And Josef knew why. After all, he had had a front row seat to the beating Schneider delivered to an art history professor in front of the man’s class. It had been savage and swift. The professor had been commenting favorably on the work of Britain’s own Jacob Epstein, a sculptor in huge favor at the time with the bohemian crowd, when he also mentioned that Epstein was a Jew.
The class, Josef included, had watched in slack-jawed wonder as Schneider strode to the front of the room and casually picked up a bronze bust from the professor’s desk. Then, before anyone knew what was happening or could react, he grabbed the older man’s hair and smashed the heavy object into the professor’s face. Schneider got in four vicious blows before Josef and another student restrained him. How Schneider had gotten out of the country and avoided arrest Josef never knew.
The two men had been only passing acquaintances at Oxford, and “For God’s sake, stop!” had been the only four words Josef had ever spoken to his classmate. But when Josef arrived aboard the U-166 as the boat’s new translator, Schneider recognized him immediately.
“We do not need this man,” Schneider protested to Commander Kuhlmann. “I can be the boat’s translator. I speak English flawlessly.”
“That may be so,” Kuhlmann responded, “but I speak English only to a moderate degree, and I want to be certain that the exact words I ask to be spoken . . . are the words actually coming from my translator’s mouth. Do I make myself clear?” And just like that, before the submarine ever sailed, Ernst Schneider had two enemies on board.
Schneider did not stand as the commander entered the mess with his under-lieutenant. “Gentlemen,” he said, “join me.”
Kuhlmann never met Schneider’s eyes. He went instead to the coffeepot and slowly poured Josef, then himself, a cup. Only after taking a sip of the bitter liquid did he motion for Josef to sit down. The commander offered nothing—coffee or a nod of recognition—to the party’s official observer. After another swallow, he finally looked at the man and said, “Yes?”
Not intimidated in the least, Ernst Schneider removed a notepad from his jacket pocket. “Commander Kuhlmann,” he began, “I have asked you and your translator to join me as I construct my report on our latest enemy contact.” He leaned forward and dramatically poised his pen above the paper. “Could you explain, please, why the crew of the freighter Gertrude was warned before the attack, at significant risk to this vessel I might add, then not only allowed to go free, but given our own precious provisions and directions as well?”
Kuhlmann seemed to consider the question. “Because it’s my wife’s name?” he answered.
Josef snorted, stifling a laugh as Schneider quickly looked from one to the other. “Pardon?”
“Gertrude is my wife’s name,” Kuhlmann said slowly as if explaining something to a child. “I thought it only fair that we not shoot her too quickly.”
The two men stared at each other unblinking until Schneider, at last, slowly leaned back in his chair and closed his notebook. Placing his pen back into his jacket pocket, he said, “I am pleased that you find this a source of amusement, Commander. I assure you, my superiors will not. Look here, you placed this vessel in jeopardy . . .”
“No, you look here,” Kuhlmann interrupted. “At no time was the 166 in danger. The target was identified as unarmed and lightly crewed. As for allowing the men to go free, what would you have me do, shoot them in the water? The freighter’s crew are noncombatants. The freighter’s supplies were the enemy, not the men. And giving two canteens of water and compass bearings was the least a decent human being could do. Certainly I hope the Allies would do our merchant seamen the same courtesy.”
“The Fatherland is at war,” Schneider growled back. “I am confident the Führer does not desire courteous U-boat commanders.”
“Do not forget who is in charge here, Mr. Schneider. You are overstepping your bounds. I make the decisions on this boat. Only my judgment determines the methods utilized in the prosecution of a target.”
Schneider calmly stood to leave. “Perhaps it is you who are overstepping the bounds, Commander Kuhlmann. Do not forget, I have been briefed on the mission as well. As the official party presence on board the U-166, I am sure that you are aware of my authority to order mission changes according to the coded messages I will be receiving on this voyage. Do not play with me, Commander. You may disregard my bark, but you’ll find my bite eminently worse . . . and occasionally final.”
As Schneider stalked haughtily from the mess, Kuhlmann’s shoulders slumped. Josef, who had not spoken a word during the entire encounter, gave his friend a questioning look. Kuhlmann spoke quietly. “He is right, Josef. Not morally, of course, but in accordance with the wishes of the High Command. We are to take no prisoners and leave no man to oppose the Fatherland ever again.”
“Why don’t you do as they demand?” Josef asked, though he knew the answer.
“I must live with myself after the war. My children must be able to look their father in the eye. I fight for my country, Josef, not for the psychopath who has kidnapped her and turned her into a whore.”
Though Josef agreed, he quickly glanced around to make sure no one heard the words of his friend. “Don’t talk while you are angry, Hans,” he said. “Words such as these will surely get you shot.”
"But I am always angry, Josef. That is the problem.”
To change the subject, Josef asked, “What did Schneider mean when he said he could change our mission? What was that about coded messages?”
Kuhlmann gazed blankly into his coffee cup before answering. When he did so, it was with a suspicious expression. “Again, he is correct, but I do not understand why. Do you remember the day of Hitler’s inspection?”
“Of course. It was less than a month ago.”
“Why were we herded onto the gunboat across the pier? Why do you inspect a U-boat crew on the deck of a gunboat?”
“You told me it was because of the Führer’s security.”
“Yes, this is what I was told at first. However, Admiral Doenitz informed me later, personally, that our mission might have an additional aspect. What that addition was, he did not say . . .” Kuhlmann smiled ruefully and peered at his friend from the corners of his eyes. “. . . and naturally I did not ask.”
“Naturally,” Josef agreed.
“But he did tell me that a special antenna and radio equipment were being added to the U-166 as we stood at attention for Adolf.” Again, Josef glanced around. “So that was the real reason we were inspected on the gunboat. It is insanity. They keep secrets about the boat and its mission from the commander of the boat! The admiral also told me that this swine, Schneider, would be receiving the coded messages and would keep me informed.”
Kuhlmann sighed and stood. Josef stood with him. About to enter the hallway from the mess, Kuhlmann asked quietly, “How are you faring? With . . . you know . . .” He shrugged.
“I’ve thought about killing myself,” Josef responded.
Kuhlmann looked at his friend for a moment without expression. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “You won’t, though, will you?”
“Good man,” Kuhlmann said and nodded as the two men exited the tiny room and walked the narrow passageway, each in a separate direction.