German submariner Peter Petersen survived three patrols aboard U-518. He missed the fourth—during which it was lost with all hands.
The tide of war turned in the Atlantic Ocean during the summer of 1943. For three years, Germany’s ping as the hunters. Now the U-boats and their crews became the hunted, as Allied warships and air power gained the upper hand. Making his first of three patrols aboard Unterseeboote had ravaged Allied ship- U-518 during that fateful summer was 20-year-old sailor Peter Petersen. “We were caught by six American destroyers after an unsuccessful attack on a baby escort carrier; our boat went deep as the destroyers made run after run on us with depth charges. That was an awful time. They were throwing tons of depth charges at us. Explosions all around us, and there was nothing we could do about it. We had to take it.” Petersen shared his recollections with Roger Steinway in July 2001.
Military History: Where were you born?
Petersen: I was born in 1923 in a little town called Husum on the North Sea. This is in Schleswig-Holstein, south of Denmark.
MH: Do you have any early memories of Germany’s troubles during the 1920s and ’30s?
Petersen: I remember the elections in 1932 and the great change in 1933. There were placards with campaign slogans being put up by the many political parties. The election was really between the National Socialists and the Communists. I do recall some fistfights during the campaign, but no shooting. That might have happened in other parts of Germany—not where I lived.
MH: What changes did the Nazi government bring to your life?
Petersen: I joined the Hitlerjugend. Actually, there was a group before you joined the Hitler Youth called the Jungvolk, for 10- to 14-yearolds. I belonged to both these groups. We met every Saturday morning and had plays, hikes and war games. We would divide into two groups and put different colored thread around our arms. The goal was to attack the other guy and tear the thread off his arm. If you did this, he was out of the game. My life was like any other child’s—happy as a lark and not worried about things that didn’t concern me. I went to school and worked on the farm. I was 16 years old when World War II started and had begun my apprenticeship to be a mechanic. I worked on farm machinery and diesel engines.
MH: What did you do when war broke out in 1939?
Petersen: The policy was for students to complete their education before military service. I went to school a couple of times a week and worked as an apprentice in a repair shop. There was also work on the farm because my father had been recalled to service. He had served with the infantry during World War I in France. He was a reservist in September 1939. I vividly remember the start of the war. There was a knock on the door in the middle of the night, and a messenger told him to report for duty at once. In a few weeks he was in Poland. My mother, brother and I ran the farm. My father was discharged after Poland. He was 40, and food production was important.
MH: Did your father later return to military service?
Petersen: No. My brother Max was drafted and served in the Russian campaign with the infantry. He was shot in the head, which took out a chunk of his skull. They fixed him up with a steel plate, and he is still alive.
MH: Any special reason you decide to join the Kriegsmarine?
Petersen: You bet—good ones! The sea is in my blood. I was born next to the sea. I still can enjoy every rivet and corner of a ship. I did consider the Luftwaffe because I would have liked to fly a Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter, but I was probably too tall to be a pilot. As a mechanic, I thought they would let me fix fighters, not fly one. The final reason for joining the navy was that I did not want to get drafted into the infantry, go to Russia and freeze in a foxhole at 30 degrees below zero with nothing to eat while being shot at.
MH: When did you enlist in the navy?
Petersen: It was in 1942. Boot camp was at Zwolle in Holland. That is where I volunteered for submarines. A lot of people did, but many were not accepted because they were not in good physical shape. My trade was in demand. The U-boats needed men with mechanical backgrounds. Submarine school was in Pillau on the Baltic Sea. Most of the training involved classroom work learning about the engines and the different systems. It took about three months, and it was very hard work. The commander of the training flotilla was a total idiot—a martinet. His name was Captain Zerpka. He demanded everything be done on the run. He was very picky about the way one should report to him. The officers and men disliked him intensely. Of course, there was a hidden benefit. Everyone, including the officers, was so damn scared of him that they did their duty. There were also good things. We lived on the cruise liner Robert Ley. It was nice, gracious living—very clean. Four students shared a cabin. As part of the Nazi “Strength Through Joy” program, the ship had made prewar cruises as a reward system for factory workers and party members who did well at their jobs. It was used as an accommodation ship for a good part of the war.
MH: How did you do in training?
Petersen: I always did well at school. One of the rewards for the top students was to go out in one of the training submarines. These were small Type IIC 250-ton “school boats.” As we sailed out into the Baltic Sea, the petty officer asked me, “Is this your first time going underwater?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He replied, “Remember this time when you go down for the last time!”
MH: Did that first dive bother you?
Petersen: No, it was rather unsensational. The boat tilts a little bit, and you don’t know if you are 10 feet or 100 feet underwater unless you know what gauges to look at. One of the first things you get through your head in submarines is that the deeper you get, the safer you are—hide and become invisible!
MH: Were you chosen for your expertise with engines?
Petersen: Yes. The German navy was a little different from the U.S. Navy. We picked careers because most of us would be career sailors. The navy looks at your background, and you choose a career based on your education. I have regretted since choosing what I did. If I had to do it over again I would choose a career on deck. However, I picked engines, so that was my navy career.
MH: Was your intention to be a career sailor?
Petersen: It would have worked out that way. The first enlistment was for 41⁄2 years. If you made petty officer by that time, you could sign on for 12 years. I was eventually sent to officer’s school, so I had to sign up for 24 years. This was not a problem. I liked the navy and military life. Let’s assume that I stayed in for 24 years. There were many government jobs open for the retired military man. I would have been set for life.
MH: Where did you go after the basic submarine course?
Petersen: Some of the men went on to other training. I was sent to the personnel pool at St. Nazaire in France and was promoted to the next grade—a Gefreiter with one chevron on my sleeve. After returning from a furlough at home, I went to a personnel pool at Bordeaux. St. Nazaire and Bordeaux were on the Bay of Biscay, where we had submarine bases. The men [sent to] the personnel pool helped around the shipyard while waiting for an assignment. We would stow provisions on a U-boat that was getting ready to go to sea, also stand guard, do further training and go on military exercises.
MH: When did you get assigned to a boat?
Petersen: It was on August 17, 1943. A messenger came to my room at 7 p.m. and said that I was sailing on U-518 the next morning. U-518 was based at Lorient, farther up the French coast in Brittany. It was undergoing repairs at Bordeaux after an air attack in the Bay of Biscay. It needed a man with my training to replace a sailor who had come down with appendicitis. The chief engineer had gone to the personnel office and flipped through some records and said, “I want this guy.” It took me all night to get ready. I had to get my gear, make a will, write to my parents and do all the paperwork. We sailed the next morning. I was badly seasick on the surface of the Bay of Biscay. I got it out of my system the first day and have never been seasick since. Of course, the ride is much smoother when submerged.
MH: What was life like for the new guy on a U-boat?
Petersen: I suppose it is like in any unit. I was a complete unknown, but you get into the routine. I was assigned my bunk and my watch station. I started to grow a beard just like everybody else. The patrol lasted four months, so we all had big beards when we returned. It made us look older than our 20s. A funny thing happened after the patrol. I kept the beard for a few days, then shaved it off. My shipmates didn’t recognize me without my beard and refused to let me board the boat.
MH: What was life like in a U-boat?
Petersen: The inside of a submarine can get very hot. We used our diesel engines running on the surface. Then we would crash dive and switch to the electric motors, but all the heat from the diesels stayed. The men usually wore shorts and sandals or deck shoes. The space inside the boat was very small. Supplies are stowed in every possible place. The smell was also bad. We were given cologne called “4711,” but we rarely used it. Better to give it to your girlfriend ashore. It might get you some favors.
MH: What happened on your first patrol?
Petersen: The first patrol took us down through the Florida Straits into the Gulf of Mexico. Things were getting tough for U-boats in 1943. There was a great increase in enemy air and naval antisubmarine forces. Many U-boats were not returning. Our skipper was Kapitänleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Wissmann, and he was aware of the danger. We ran into aircraft off Miami and patrol ships in the Florida Straits. We had to crash dive, but were not detected. Fortunately, we had excellent listening devices. Under the best conditions, we could pick up a ship’s propeller noise up to 30 miles away. We also had electronic equipment called Wanze [bedbug] that let us know if we were being tracked on the surface by radar.
MH: What happened in the Gulf of Mexico?
Petersen: There were targets, but no success attacking ships. Torpedoes didn’t explode or went off course. The changes in the temperature of different layers of water prevented us from hearing ships. Other times we would hear them but the boat was not in a good position to fire. We fired on several ships without result. Wissmann fired four torpedoes at one freighter, and they all missed. He thought that the torpedoes were running too deep. The good part was that the enemy still did not know that U-518 was there. If a ship were sunk, the American antisubmarine forces would have been after us.
MH: What were the results of your first patrol?
Petersen: There were no ships sunk. We came across a baby escort carrier in the Atlantic on the return trip, and Wissmann must have fired eight torpedoes at it. None of them hit. Some of the torpedoes had to be defective. Wissmann was not a bad shot. He couldn’t have missed with all of them. The next day an American destroyer found us and summoned five more. They attacked us with depth charges. The ship would shake, the lights would flicker and small leaks might develop. The leaks were dangerous because the boat would take on more water, forcing it deeper. There is a point of no return. The gauges went to 230 meters—about 700 feet. We went past 230 meters—close to 800 feet. There was a lot of water pressure on the hull. Maybe another 10 feet, and we would have gone down. During a depth charge attack everyone is quiet and looks up because that is the direction that the noises are coming from. We were not supposed to use up oxygen moving around and talking. Some people were chalk white. Others would bounce their legs up and down, or pull on their beards. We were encouraged to sleep, but you only pretended to be asleep. U-518 was attacked with depth charges several times during my three patrols, and it was a great strain, but I never saw a man go over the edge.
MH: How did U-518 escape?
Petersen: We were down for 36 hours. Finally, we had no more air to breathe and the electric batteries were run down. The captain said to abandon ship. We put on life preservers, and each man had a one-man dinghy. If you had something you wanted to save, a wristwatch or a letter from a sweetheart, you put it into a condom. The plan was for the boat to surface, and we would go overboard. The boat would be scuttled. Hopefully the destroyers would pick us up. The captain told us later that after surfacing he saw the destroyers on the horizon. Wissmann ordered one diesel to be started and turned our stern to the destroyers. They didn’t see us. He ordered the other diesel started, and we hauled ass out of there. We ran on the surface for a few hours to load the batteries and air out the ship.
MH: What happened after your return to Lorient?
Petersen: Wissmann was relieved. I think the problem with the torpedoes caused his transfer to the training flotilla. Our new commander was Oberleutnant Hans-Werner Offermann—a 23-year-old. I worked in the control room with him. The control room is a great place because that is where the action is. The captain and chief engineer spend a lot of time there. The navigator has his corner where he works. The planesmen and the diving officer were there. The control room is a very sought-after position. I got my chance to work there as a mechanic before my first patrol under Wissmann had finished. Only the best crewmen worked in the control room. The climate is usually pretty good because of the fresh air coming in through the conning tower when we were surfaced.
MH: What was your job?
Petersen: One of my jobs was to work the valves that trimmed the balance of the boat. Every day we had to make a mathematical calculation of the weight of the ship. Let’s say that the cook took 100 pounds of potatoes from storage in the bow of the ship. He would report that and we would enter the information in a log as “100 pounds light on the bow.” Theoretically we should take in 100 pounds of water to compensate. It gets more complicated figuring in fuel oil usage. The engineer would report that we used 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on that day. But if you use diesel oil, you don’t get lighter. Fuel and seawater are kept in the same tank. As the fuel is used, seawater comes in to replace it. Since the oil is lighter, it floats on top of the water in the tank. Water is heavier, so the boat gets heavier as we use more oil. You have to know if the fuel came from the tank amidships or astern to keep the boat in trim. Another part of my job was communications. We used the microphone, the telephone and speaking tubes to stay in contact within the ship.
MH: Can you describe a memorable control room incident?
Petersen: Sometimes excitement happens when it isn’t expected. We were headed to the Caribbean on my second patrol in January 1944. U-518 was underwater, and we were cruising at slow speed. The helmsman who steered the directional course was sitting by himself in the tower right above us. All he had to do was look at the compass every now and then and correct the course by pushing a couple of buttons. It was all done electrically. He got bored and took the signal pistol off the wall. He played around with it and accidentally fired both barrels down into the control room. All these little blue and red fireballs are zipping around, bouncing off the walls. Scared the crap out of us! The reaction of the control room crew was fantastic. The doors were slammed shut to keep the balls from reaching the batteries and starting a fire. We grabbed fire extinguishers and chased down the fireballs. By that time the skipper was out of his bunk and in the control room.
MH: Is it safe to say that Offermann wasn’t happy?
Petersen: Oh, yes. Our helmsman explained what he had done. He was relieved from duty and was supposed to be courtmartialed, but he was a good man, our battle station helmsman. He ended up being the mess boy for the petty officers for the rest of the trip…and we still had three months on patrol. This was an interesting trip because we met with a Japanese submarine, I-29, in the Atlantic and transferred Naxos radio equipment and three Germans—two technicians and a navigator. Their job was to guide the Japanese into Lorient. We heard the Japanese coming and surfaced at the arranged spot. We got close, and the Japanese sailors tried to throw us a line but couldn’t reach us. We had a line-throwing gun, so we loaded it and fired a line over. The Japanese damn near fell overboard. They thought we were shooting at them. Their sailors wore funny three-quarter-length pants that came down just below their knees. After our return to Lorient, we ran into the men we had put on the Japanese submarine and asked them how they enjoyed serving with our ally. They hated the food.
MH: Did you make it into the Caribbean?
Petersen: Yes. I know we attacked several ships and sank a Panamanian tanker, Valeria, on March 7, 1944, off Colombia. Allied planes were on patrol. Aircraft with radar equipment were our worst enemy because they had the ability to surprise us. One time we were cruising on the surface. Everything was quiet, and suddenly, bang, bang, bang—bombs had been dropped by an airplane that snuck up on us. Fortunately, they missed. We rarely had time to identify the types of planes attacking before crash-diving. If we were far out to sea, they were usually long-range, four-engine aircraft like the British Short Sunderland flying boat and the American Consolidated B-24 Liberator.
MH: When did you return to Lorient?
Petersen: We returned from patrol before the invasion of France, on May 7. We left on what was my final patrol after the invasion started—July 15, 1944. We did not return to Lorient after that patrol. As a result of the Allied invasion, the crew lost all personal belongings in storage at the base—shoes, tailored uniforms, books and pictures.
MH: Did you have any trouble in France at that time?
Petersen: By 1944, the French partisans were very active. You had to be armed if you went off base. After one patrol, several of our crew members were going back to Germany. We had a going away party, and about half the crew—25 of us—decided to escort our friends to the railroad station. We had armed ourselves with rifles, pistols and daggers, any weapon that was handy. A few guys picked flowers along the way and put them into their rifle barrels. When the train was leaving, somebody suggested we send our shipmates off with a salute. He fired his rifle into the air. Then the other guys started shooting. I remember seeing a red rose that was stuck in a rifle disintegrate as the trigger was pulled. As we walked back to the base, we ran into a unit of German soldiers ready for a fight. They naturally thought the shooting came from French partisans attacking the railroad train. Our chief petty officer quickly got us into formation, and we tried to march by singing. We were almost past the soldiers when one of their officers grabbed the barrel of a sailor’s rifle. It was warm, and we were caught. The skipper gave us hell, but he knew we were just blowing off steam. It was also fortunate that we were to sail the next day. Our punishment was supposed to be to drill all night in an open field, but the petty officer told us to lie down and try to get some rest.
MH: Where did your final patrol in U-518 take you?
Petersen: We sailed to the East Coast of the United States. American warships and planes were patrolling, and destroyers attacked us. We did sink a freighter—the Liberty Ship George Ade, torpedoed on September 12, 1944, off Cape Fear, N.C., was towed to port, but sank several days later in a hurricane. As I mentioned earlier, we could not return to Lorient. We were ordered to Kristiansand, Norway, and arrived in late October. From there we sailed into the Baltic to Stettin.
MH: Why did you leave U-518?
Petersen: A communiqué went to all chief engineers asking them to recommend people suitable for officer training. Our chief engineer recommended me, since I had experience and good grades. I was in officer’s school during the winter and spring of 1945. U-518 was lost on its next patrol. American destroyers sank it with all hands on April 22, 1945, in the North Atlantic.
MH: Where was officer’s school?
Petersen: We started in the town of Stzeho, but soon transferred to Wesermünde. We took pre-engineering courses preparatory to being sent to the academy at Flensburg-Murwig.
MH: What happened in May 1945?
Petersen: The British came, and we surrendered. They didn’t abuse us, but they didn’t feed us much either. We were very hungry and scrounged for food. The British told us to get out of the school, so we lived on a luxury liner that was in port, Europa, for a couple of weeks. Then the British said: “Get the hell out. We are giving this ship to the French.” It became Liberté and sailed another 15 years. We were then marched to a camp in a farm area—just an open field surrounded by barbed wire. We stayed for three days while the British registered us. We went to a circle of farmhouses, where we had to fend for ourselves. The farmer helped us butcher horses. The British came along and asked for farmers among the prisoners. I said, “I am,” which was half-true. My father was a farmer. Crops were needed, so the Tommies took us to the nearest city. We were given new papers and told to go home. I was about 10 miles from home, so I walked. I was lucky when you think about the poor fellows out in Russia who spent 10 years in captivity. It even took some of the German prisoners in England several years to be released.
MH: When did you come to the United States?
Petersen: It took two years for my paperwork. I came on the immigration quota in 1950. I had sponsors here in Toledo, Ohio. I got a job at 90 cents an hour making window frames. I also got some education and looked for better jobs. I ended up staying with a company for 29 years. Things have gone well for me in America.
MH: Were you aware that U-505 went on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in 1954?
Petersen: My wife and I visited Chicago in the early 1960s and toured U-505. I was showing friends some of the machinery and where my bunk was. The tour guide asked me how I knew so much. I said I had served on a Type IX U-boat just like this one. After the tour, the guide introduced me to the director of the museum, Major Lenox Lohr. He asked me to help identify parts from the boat in storage. I spent two days identifying parts and explaining where they went on the boat. Major Lohr gave me a piece of the pressurized hull that had been cut out to make the tour entrance. Years later, Keith Gill at the museum contacted me and asked if I would like to help again. I have visited Chicago several times for special events. The museum is trying to raise funds to refurbish U-505. The boat was not designed to spend nearly 50 years outside in Chicago’s weather.
MH: Your interest in ships has opened a few doors for you.
Petersen: I have sailed aboard the nuclear submarine Tautog and a U.S. Navy destroyer. I have also been aboard the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis. The most interesting opportunity came from the Russian navy for their 350th anniversary. I was one of a group of Americans invited to Russia. I suspected that they knew about my German navy service. A Russian officer confirmed this when he said, “So Mr. Petersen, I understand that you were in the engineering branch of submarines.” We went aboard a Russian submarine and inspected an active missile cruiser at Sevastopol, on the Black Sea. There was a dinner on the cruiser with Russian admirals, and the vodka started flowing. I filled my glass with water. I never missed a toast and could still stand up straight. After the toasts, a Russian admiral said, “Let’s go for a ride.” We cruised around this top-secret base in small boats with the admiral as our tour guide: “You see that boat over there? That’s Mussolini’s yacht, and now we have it!” He pointed out a hill that had been hollowed out for a submarine base. I thought to myself that if we had seen this two years earlier, the Russians would have had to shoot us.
MH: Many veterans say the most important lessons of their lives were learned during military service. How about you?
Petersen: During the 36 hours under depth charge attack, I swore to myself that if I ever got out of this mess I would never let small things bother me again. There are very few helpless situations in life. You must go out and find the solutions to the problems that confront you.
Regular contributor Roger Steinway teaches history in Houston, Texas. For further reading, see: Hitler’s U-boat War, Vols. 1 & 2, by Clay Blair; and Torpedoes in the Gulf, by Melanie Wiggins.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.