As the submarine quickly became a significant weapon in the war, attention focused on the men who manned them. Among the Allied nations, German submariners gained the reputation of being pirates and barbarians who merited little more than hanging.
In Germany, service in submarines vied with service in the air as the most glamorous (and dangerous) of wartime callings. In spite of heavy and increasing losses, there never was a shortage of volunteers for the tremendously expanding German undersea service.
Among U-boat officers were representatives of some of the highest houses of German nobility, and even royalty. Among the latter were a prince with a notably old title — Prince Henry XXXVII of Reuss — and Prince Sigismund of Prussia, a nephew of the Kaiser. They served like any other U-boat officers and were subject to the same hazards.
Prince Sigismund experienced one of the more chilling events of the submarine war. As an officer on the famous von Arnauld's first submarine in the Adriatic Sea, Sigismund was standing watch in the conning tower of the surfaced U-35 with another officer when they saw a periscope near at hand. Before either could shout an alarm, the ominous track of a torpedo appeared — headed straight for them.
There was nothing that could be done — the torpedo was too near to permit them any action at all except to watch in paralyzed fear as the explosive missile sped through the water at them. There was no question about it, the torpedo was on a track that would hit the U-35 almost in dead center.
The attacking Allied submarine had apparently set its torpedo to run at the shallowest possible depth, and this was probably the cause of its porpoising out of water just as it was about to strike the submarine. It passed through the air in the narrow space between the U-boat's conning tower and its deck gun, dropping to the deck with a clatter and slithering onward into the water on the other side — all in front of the wide eyes and blanched faces of Prince Sigismund and his fellow watch stander.
The clatter on the deck brought Captain von Arnauld running to the conning tower, where he found both officers standing transfixed. A quick glance told him part of the story — there within a stone's throw was a periscope. Von Arnauld quickly gave a helm order which brought the U-35 around to a course that would take it away from the enemy periscope and at the same time present only the narrow target of the U-boat's stern to the other submarine. Almost immediately a second torpedo passed within a few feet of the side of the U-35, and before the U-boat managed to submerge, a third and fourth torpedo sped through the water at it but failed to hit.
A small nucleus of U-boat men were taken from the regular navy. The rest came from various walks of civilian life. At sea their diet was monotonous, reflecting the national food shortage which stemmed from the fact that Germany's merchant fleet had been driven from the sea.
Whenever they could, U-boats replenished and augmented their supplies of food from ships they rifled before sinking. Some Q-boats used the desire of U-boat men for fresh meat to the Germans' disadvantage. A side of beef would be aired on a Q-boat's deck where it would be in full view of a submarine's periscope, in the hope that a U-boat which saw it might be tempted to surface and come within range of the Q-boat's hidden guns to get it.
Martin Niemoller of the U-151 — it was he who was later to become a minister and an outspoken anti-Nazi — remembered that
"our diet was most monotonous, particularly when potatoes and bread began to run out."
Before sinking the Italian steamer Etna, men from Niemoller's submarine took from it
"meat, fish, potatoes, vegetables, and bread, two barrels of preserved eggs, and two dozen cases of Milan export beer."
Another time Niemoller opened a case on the Portuguese sailing ship Viajante and
"gave a whoop of joy. Soap! Honest-to-God blue and yellow soap! We had for ages past been reduced to using a mixture of sand and pumice for washing purposes. All hands are now served out with eighteen bars of soap! What a treat!"
Some submarines had pets aboard, usually dogs. On the U-20, which sank the Lusitania, there were six at one time — a male that the U-boat's crew had taken with the submarine from port, a female rescued after a sinking, and the four puppies of their union. The captain of the U-20, Comdr. Walther von Schwieger, had of necessity to reduce the canine population of the cramped boat, and gave three away to other submarines.
Von Arnauld's U-35 had a pet monkey which it rescued from a sinking ship. The mischievous pet, a female, became a general favorite, and she remained aboard for a year before von Arnauld had her taken to a Berlin zoo. During the period in which the monkey was on board, the U-35 established a record for a single patrol that was unbroken throughout the war: from July 26 to August 20, 1916, the handsome, spare von Arnauld sank fifty-four ships for a total of 91,000 tons. After the war he saw the monkey again, in a cage with a sign saying that she had been presented by the officers and men of the U-35. She remembered her old master not at all.
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