Here's the opening salvo of a WW2 sub hunt story inspired by the display of U-boat number 534 at the Museum at Woodside Ferry Terminal (on the 'slummy side' of the Royal Blue Mersey).
I've kept close to the known facts about the vessel and included the use of the names of some real people. Other names are fictional characters straight from my over-fevered imagination. Enjoy!
Hmm. I tried to 'indent' the first line of each para, but that doesn't seem to work ....
The Spear of Destiny
Überlojtnant Herbert Nollau stood with his Zeiss nightglasses glued to his eyes, impervious to the rain whipped across his cheeks by half a gale. This howled almost exactly at ninety degrees to the tide, which had just reached the full but had not yet begun its retreat. His command craft, U-534, sat uneasily at anchor, dipping at bow and stern in the current, yawing appreciably as frequent Force Ten gusts buffeted her broad flanks. Low, heavy rainclouds hunkered closer, seeming to settle on the upper branches of the natural pine forest which spread untamed, unculled, across the low hills of Schleswig-Holstein.
An identical pair of black Opel staff cars bracketed a canvas bodied Mercedes half-track transport wagon, all three vehicles picking their way carefully along an unmarked country road. The headlights were taped down to the size and shape of a feral cat's vertical slits, acknowledging the strict rules governing all traffic during the hours of darkness. The road to the harbour just outside Lübeck was neither tarmac’ed nor enhanced with any form of lighting. The drivers were obliged to steer cautiously around every twist, using the gears and brakes more frequently than the accelerator.
"Amateurs!" he thought to himself, as the three sets of headlights crawled slowly closer. He decided he would never trust any of them to navigate a submarine, and particularly not in circumstances which screamed out for discretion and secrecy. He'd followed their progress through the totally blackened landscape now for almost half an hour and was frankly amazed that nobody else appeared to have noted the convoy's progress. Once again he scanned carefully behind the third set of lights: as far as he could tell, the vehicles conveying his final items of equipment weren't being followed. Perhaps there really was a God to thank, after all …
He blanked the thought as soon as it intruded on his consciousness, forcing himself back into State-approved Wehrmacht thinking, based on purely practical matters directly related to carrying out current instructions, with maximum efficiency, without question. He pulled the collar of his oilskins closer around his throat in a futile attempt to prevent the rain from seeping through, soaking his uniform. Raising his night glasses once more, he cursed the weather, the Wehrmacht and the world in general, feeling more exposed and vulnerable with every minute that passed as he waited for the convoy of lights to crawl closer, carrying the equipment which he had been ordered to collect. It bothered him that he was expected to set sail immediately, and await orders concerning his destination by radio once he had cleared the bay and entered Store Bælt: technically, that section of the North Sea was neutral Danish waters, and if he were to remain on the surface for any length of time in order to receive orders …
As the lights snaked around another pair of curves and began their final descent to the shoreline and the jetty where U534 was waiting, Herbert Nollau realized that he had on board a much more powerful sender/receiver than any other U-boat: in fact, not just one but two radios equipped with the Enigma cryptographic programme had been installed, ostensibly for testing. With a sudden jolt, the deceptively young-looking Überlojtnant realized that this technology was far more sophisticated than that which had previously been regarded as the best in the world: apart from being guaranteed unbreakable as a code, it could also send and receive radio signals without his craft needing to surface.
He shook his head to clear the worst of the pools which had formed in the upturned brim of his sou’wester and made his way down the ladder bolted to the side of the conning tower, aiming to be waiting on the quay before the three vehicles wheezed to a halt. His mechanic’s ear analysed and diagnosed a list of faults he could clearly identify from the laboured chugging of each engine. Furious at this indication of inefficiency, a corner of his mind decided that he would have had the senior officer responsible for each vehicle court-martialled, if the decision had been up to him. In spite of the horrors he had witnessed in three years of naval warfare, he shuddered. His orders, distasteful though they might be, were crystal clear …
Two gaunt, silent shadows slid with simultaneous choreography from the rear seat of each of the Opels: their sleek black trenchcoats almost touched the planks of the jetty, glistening in the starlight as if the officers wearing them had been marching for hours in the rain rather than just stepping out of a warm, dry car. Nollau fired off his most formal salute: the four SS-officers responded with a world-weary, bent-elbow half-salute and pointedly refrained from returning Nollau’s “Heil, Hitler!” One detached himself for a moment and gave a hand-signal to the driver of the canvas-sided truck. The driver immediately hammered his fist twice on the bulkhead behind his seat. Four soldiers appeared over the tailgate of the wagon and began to manoeuvre something long and heavy out of the cargo space.
Turning to face his command meant that Herbert Nollau had to turn his back on the four staff officers. Somehow he managed to do this with an insolence which stated quite clearly that, as far as he was concerned, they were barely worthy of his contempt.
He placed a small, shrill whistle to his lips and blew, one long (but not overloud) blast. Within ten seconds, the deck was populated by about twenty matelots, standing at ease, who somehow contrived to arrive from nowhere and in total silence. Close to the bows, and just for’ard of ‘midships , cables were deployed from two small jib cranes. Within seconds, the submariner crew were on the jetty, taking the unidentified cargo from the shoulders of the four soldiers and hoisting it with ease onto the foredeck, thence by some lightningfast legerdemain out of sight below decks. Within seconds, the crew had followed, leaving Überlojtnant Nollau as the only member of the Senior Service still on the jetty. At a silent gesture from one of the anonymous black trenchcoats the four soldiers climbed back over the tailgate, into the truck. After about four attempts, the driver managed to coax the engine into life and began to back and fill, facing back the way he had come.
As he completed the manoeuvre and gunned the engine to set off up the hill, the four SS officers opened their trenchcoats to reveal the muzzles of rapid fire MP43 machine pistols. With one accord they raised their weapons and sent round after deadly round of ammunition into both the cab and the rear of the vehicle, holding the triggers steady. Before the hail of bullets ceased, the fuel tanks of the wagon exploded, sending flames soaring high into the night sky, setting small fires in the tree tops as they lost their intensity and curled back towards the ground.
Suddenly, Herbert Nollau’s orders seemed fractionally less dishonourable.
Having emptied their weapons, the four executioners appeared to have rediscovered some of their habitual swagger and pride. Crashing the butts of the now-empty weapons against the rough wooden planking of the jetty they raised their right arms to the fullest, and screamed: “Heil, Hitler!” as their heels crashed together in perfect unison.
Sick to his stomach at the pleasure his countrymen took from the callous murder of fellow Germans, it was all Herbert Nollau could do to raise his arm, bent-elbowed, in the less formal salute he would never under normal circumstances have accepted from others nor used himself. His pulse began to hammer at twice, perhaps three times its normal speed as he wheeled on his right heel and marched to cast off first at the sternpost of U534, then moving to the bow, coiling the short ropes and stowing them automatically before moving towards the conning tower as the U-boat began to drift away from the quay. Through the deck, he could feel her powerful engines throb against the soles of his feet, still idling in neutral until he gave the order to go “Slow Ahead”.
Before he could do that, however, there was the small matter of his final orders, which had been delivered in a private one-on-one briefing from Admiral of the Fleet von Friedeburg earlier that evening.
“You are an honourable man, Herbert: every report I have read of your conduct throughout your three years as a U-boat Commander has made this very clear to me.”
”But for reasons which you will, I am sure, understand when the time comes, I am delivering these, the last orders you will ever receive as a commander in the German Navy, personally and as Man-to-Man: there will be no written records, and if therefore you should choose to ignore (or even go directly against!) my orders, nobody will have witnessed this conversation and nobody therefore will be in a position to accuse you of … of anything.”
”But please be aware: I am not going to ask you to betray your country. Our country, which I know you love as much as I have always done, is finished as a world power. I think we both know that.”
Without waiting for Nollau to reply, von Friedenburg swept on:
“Nor am I going to ask you to betray your command, or perform any other abhorrent act such as scuttling your ship, which I know you love as much as you love being German! Your choices, on the other hand, are very limited. If you are still here at midnight …” He glanced at his watch “ … an hour and a half from now, you will have to make an unpalatable decision. Either you must accept an order to surrender which (at this precise moment) has not yet been given, or you must stand and fight with what limited weaponry you have –but I do not think you would last very long against the might of Europe, with the Allied Armies heading this way from every direction possible, and I do not think you would consider it the ‘honourable’ thing to do, either.”
The young Überlojtnant thought once more of the verbal orders which he had been given. Since the Admiral had departed in a powerful launch, Herbert had dissected his instructions, word by word, looking for some leeway, some opportunity to follow the letter of the law without observing each and every horrific detail. During the past hour what he had been told he must do had seemed both repulsive and dishonourable, but after witnessing the massacre of unsuspecting German lives, shot in the back without a chance to defend themselves, he now had a clear conscience. The Senior Commander of the German Navy had effectively told him that he would be able to choose how to act once he left this isolated wharf: but he had been very specific about the last thing Herbert was required to do before leaving …
Halfway from the bows to the con tower he suddenly dropped to one knee and took careful aim through the sights of a rocket launcher. At this range it was impossible to miss. Twin muzzles released the “ba-bam!” of two shells, which blew apart the two staff cars parked immobile on the jetty along with their occupants, four officers and two drivers. His orders had been quite specific: “There must be no witnesses…”
Herbert Nollau was certain he could smell roasting flesh, and realized that it was not a youthful memory of wildschwein, the culinary masterpiece of his native Bavaria.