The sleek and sharklike U-boat had been stalking the British merchant convoy for five fretful hours. Forty metres below the heaving seas, she struggled to maintain a two-knot headway against the powerful crosscurrents of the North Atlantic Ocean.
“Sound contacts at bearing three-four-seven,” the hydrophone operator whispered as he pressed the headset against his grimy ears. “Moving towards us.”
“Periscope depth.” Kapitänleutnant Tobias Elfe’s quiet order — his first spoken one in the past half-hour — reverberated through the hushed submarine.
“Aye, Herr Kaleu,” acknowledged the first watch officer, using the familiar, diminutive form of the submarine commander’s rank. “Planesmen: periscope depth, ten degrees up-angle.”
The planesmen twirled their wheels as the watch officer kept a careful eye on the depth gauge. The submarine gently nudged her bow upwards. Upon reaching fourteen metres, the watch officer ordered the planesmen to level out the diving planes.
“Periscope depth reached, Herr Kaleu.”
Elfe removed his peaked white cap and nodded to the watch officer. “Very well. Up periscope.”
A midshipman unlatched the bolts securing the periscope and flipped down its black, chequered handles. “Periscope ready, sir.”
Elfe squatted and grasped the handles, easing the periscope upwards as he straightened his knees. When the instrument was about seven-tenths of a meter off the deck, he hunched down and peered through its viewing lens.
At first, he saw nothing: whitecaps, whipped by the cold North Atlantic winds, continually washed over the lens. However, after lifting the periscope a few centimetres higher, he eventually descried eight ships silhouetted against the slate-grey afternoon sky: it was the convoy, steaming almost straight at them.
With his thumb, Elfe flicked the magnification lever and focused the lens on the two nearest vessels. After studying their profiles, he decided they were flower corvettes: small, but highly manoeuvrable, armed escorts. Normally, Elfe would not have worried overmuch: the corvettes were unequipped with asdic, and thus could not easily detect submerged U-boats. Still, he felt an inexplicable twinge of foreboding as he flipped up the handles and ordered “Down periscope.”
As soon as the periscope was seated, the watch officer’s eyes sought him out. Elfe put his white cap back on his blonde head and drawled, “It’s them, Henri: two corvettes and six merchantmen — one’s a tanker. Range, seven thousand metres. Rouse the men. Bring us ten degrees starboard and make your speed four knots. We’ll try to catch them broadsides.”
The watch officer grinned. He cranked the handle of the engine-room annunciator and sang, “General quarters. Flank speed. Helm ten degrees starboard.”
A wordless thrill infected the U-boat crew as they quietly dashed to their battle stations: here, at last, was a chance to strike a telling blow against the smug, complacent Allies and — after enduring two listless weeks of false hydrophone contacts and empty seas — a long-awaited opportunity to bring glory to the Fatherland. For Elfe, his cautious elation at the sight of the slow-steaming convoy was also practical: the U-263 was still 30,000 tonnes shy of her patrol quota, and the destruction of the ill-protected merchantmen would help slake her wolfish thirst.
Several crewmen cheered as the increased output of the electric engines hummed throughout the submarine; a sour-faced petty officer swiftly shushed them down. Elfe kept his eyes glued on the ship’s chronometer. Fifteen minutes later, he ordered ahead one-third and raised the periscope again.
The foggy lens showed the six merchantmen languidly steaming across the U-boat’s bow in parade formation. Through either a misplaced confidence in the prowess of their agile escorts, or a laxness in discipline, or both, they were not zigzagging — making it an easy, textbook approach. Elfe first set the periscope’s cross-hairs on the fat tanker, lagging behind the others, and then on the two cargo ships steaming directly ahead of the lumbering giant. He called out their bearings, estimated speeds, and ranges. The weapons officer — a grizzled first lieutenant — immediately plotted their targets’ position on his tactical chart and relayed instructions to the bow torpedo room using a sound-powered phone.
“Torpedo settings for designated targets Alpha through Gamma confirmed, sir.”
“Ready forward tubes for launch.”
“Aye, aye, Herr Kaleu. Torpedo tubes One through Four flooded, open, and ready,” replied the weapons officer.
Elfe mentally calculated the tanker’s tonnage and decided he would need two torpedoes to sink it; he would then shoot a torpedo into each of the two cargo ships steaming in front of the tanker, and save his remaining stern torpedo for the escorts, if necessary.
Elfe’s unshaven Nordic face glistened with sweat. He swung around to touch the lucky horseshoe that his bosun had welded onto a bulkhead before they left the German port of Wilhelmshaven: seamen were a superstitious lot, and Elfe was no exception. He swung back towards the periscope and refocused it on the hapless ships.
“Launch torpedoes One and Two at Alpha, Three at Beta, and Four at Gamma: on my mark — fire!”
The U-boat shuddered as compressed air blasted the torpedoes out of their tubes.
“Torpedoes One through Four launched, Kaleu!”
Elfe exhaled noisily and nodded to the watch officer, who fished out a stopwatch from his breast pocket and clicked it on. The bridge crew looked at each other and tried their best not to fidget. There was nothing else for them to do but wait — and hope for the best — as the U-boat’s steam-powered eels relentlessly swam towards their prey.
For the pencil pushers and bean counters in the Germany Navy, the U-263 was just another Type VII-C submarine: one of the hundreds that comprised the backbone of Admiral Karl Dönitz’s vaunted undersea fleet. But for the virtual family of crewmen and officers who ate, slept, and worked inside her cramped steel pressure hull, the U-263 was more than that. She was — while they were at sea — their home, their haven, their sanctuary: she was the Kriegsmarine’s Water Maiden: their Nixy.
Her streamlined figure trembled as the depth charges dropped by the vengeful flower corvettes detonated harmlessly above her stern — scant minutes after her torpedoes had struck home. The tanker had been blown clean out of the water, the fuel from her bloated storage tanks stoking up an already raging inferno. The two cargo ships had suffered a similar fate: flotsam from their broken hulls littered the heaving seas long after they had plunged down to their watery graves.
At last, having successfully eluded her irate but equally inept pursuers, the Nixy heeled and rushed to the surface like a serpentine bloodhound, eager to reach the dismal patch of ocean where she had remorselessly broken the thick iron backs of her kills.
The U-boat’s conning tower broached the North Atlantic’s choppy surface, her diesel engines throbbing as they simultaneously recharged her batteries and spun her twin screws to make ten knots. Elfe had ordered the torpedo room crew to reload the forward tubes and was now standing on the conning tower, clad in foul-weather gear, binoculars in hand, searching the white-capped seas for survivors; it was, he thought, the decent and gentlemanly thing to do, despite the Kriegsmarine’s explicit orders to the contrary.
Fruitless minutes passed. Elfe was about to order the helm to turn back northwest in pursuit of the three remaining merchantmen when the lookout beside him yelled and pointed eastwards.
“There, Herr Kaleu: two points off the starboard bow.”
Elfe brought up his binoculars. He saw a large wooden crate bobbing up and down on the rough seas. On it clung a long haired, bearded old man, pitiful and naked.
“All stop; hard right rudder.” The Nixy lissomely swung her steel body around and eased herself beside the crate. An able seaman wearing a life vest and a safety line jumped into the frothy swells and dragged the lone survivor towards the bobbing submarine. Once alongside, strong hands pulled them both aboard: the seaman, drenched and sputtering; the old man, half-drowned and delirious.
From the conning tower, Elfe looked down on the forward deck, where his eye fell on the elderly, dark-skinned man, who, despite his feverish state, glared back defiantly.
“Get him below,” said Elfe. “And ask our medic to take a look at him.”
Elfe opened the conning tower hatch and slid down the control room ladder. After telling the watch officer to resume their pursuit, he made his way forward to the warrant officers’ mess room, which also doubled as a sickbay.
The old man was sitting on a narrow cot, a wool blanket wrapped around his shivering body. His long, white hair clung wetly to his dark, sullen face. The ship’s medic had rammed a glass thermometer between his chapped lips and was reading it when the submarine commander entered.
“How’s our guest?” Elfe asked.
The medic shrugged and shook his head. “He shouldn’t be alive, but he is. His temperature is over fifty degrees Celsius.”
Elfe knelt down to face the shipwreck survivor.
“What’s your name? Where do you come from?”
The wizened man’s eyes burned with a cold light. “Jamar,” he spat out in Germanic pidgin. “Tunisia.”
Elfe raised an eyebrow. “You’re a long way from home, Jamar.”
“Home,” the old man croaked, his dark brown eyes brimming with sorrow. “Wives, sons, daughters — going home, with me, on ship…” He furiously wiped his tears away and glowered at the pensive U-boat commander.
“You kill them! You kill them! I curse you — yellow-haired devil, pawn of dark one!” The old man jabbed a quivering finger at Elfe. “May foes eternally hound you! May death nip at your heels forevermore!”
Jamar was wearing an ancient silver necklace; from it dangled an odd assortment of crescents, discs, and pentacles. With astonishing speed, he leapt up, pushed the medic down, grabbed Elfe, and whipped the necklace across his flabbergasted face.
Elfe grappled with the maniacal survivor and — after a brief struggle — managed to knock him onto the sickbay’s metal deck. The old man lay where he fell, frothing at the mouth, the silver necklace still clutched in his gnarled hands. The medic — dazed and pale — crawled cautiously to his erstwhile patient and placed a trembling finger on his scrawny neck.
“No pulse — amazing how he lasted this long.”
Panting, Elfe touched his bleeding cheek and leaned against a bulkhead. By a fluke of pitch and roll, the twitching corpse’s head had turned to face him, and the cold, lifeless eyes bored into his like sharp damask blades.
They buried the old man at sea, hastily and without ceremony. His necklace tinkled lightly as he slid down a wooden plank into the briny deep to join his loved ones.
After Elfe had dismissed the desultory burial detail, he felt a pang of anguish, which he, for the sake of his sanity, quickly suppressed. War is war, and casualties — innocent or otherwise — were inevitable. All the same, a disturbing sense of unease hounded him as he clambered up the conning tower to join his lookouts in the Nixy’s renewed hunt for the fleeing merchantmen.
He was donning his sea-jacket when one of the lookouts shouted.
“Enemy aircraft at 7 o’clock!”
Elfe swiveled towards the submarine’s stern and — to his horror — saw a fork-tailed, twin-engine bomber diving straight for them, its bomb bays yawning wide.
The submarine commander and his lookouts barely had time to scramble down the conning tower hatch before the first stick of bombs straddled the crash-diving U-boat.
The blasts from the near misses rocked the Nixy and tumbled her off-duty crewmen out of their bunks. With his ears still ringing from the explosions, Elfe heard his watch officer scream, “Dive planes twenty degrees down-angle! Flank speed! Full left rudder! All hands to the bow section, all hands jump to the bow — emergency dive!”
With most of her crew jammed into her sharp nose, the Nixy plunged swiftly into the cold depths of the Atlantic, anxious to put as much water as she could between herself and the 250-pound bombs being dropped by her determined enemy.
The bombardment had stopped by the time the U-boat passed thirty metres. Elfe ordered the planesmen to avast diving and had the engine room reduce speed to ahead slow.
Tense minutes passed. Finally, Elfe spoke softly. “Stand down alert; crewmen report to their duty stations. Damage and casualty reports in fifteen; lookouts, please join me in the officer’s wardroom immediately.”
Elfe removed his cap and sat down at the head of the wardroom table. He wearily rubbed his face with his hands and was astonished to see fresh blood on them.
“Are you all right, sir?” an ensign asked solicitously as he and his compatriots filed into the wardroom. “Your left cheek is bleeding — shall I pass the word for the medic?”
Elfe shook his head and forced a grin. “Thank you, Herr Schautt, but it’s just a scratch: a bomb splinter…” The lie almost died on his lips; he knew that Jamar’s damned silver trinket was responsible for the unhealed wound.
He pressed a rolled-up handkerchief against the cut and cleared his throat.
“Gentlemen, as you know, we’ve just been attacked by an Allied bomber. I’ve called you here to verify the incident, so you all have permission to speak freely. Now, who saw it first?”
A lanky warrant officer raised his hand. “I did, Herr Kaleu.”
“And what can you tell us about its approach: its angle of attack, possible patrol route, and the like?”
The man hesitated and scratched his pimply chin. “Very sorry, sir, but I’ll be hanged if I know. The plane just popped out of nowhere.”
Elfe felt his chest tighten. “Explain.”
The warrant officer edgily glanced around the wardroom and lowered his eyes. “The skies were clear: absolutely nothing, then all of a sudden — there it was!”
The U-boat commander pursed his lips and carefully studied the lookouts’ drawn faces. “Can anybody else confirm Herr Tropp’s impression?”
Several heads nodded self-consciously. “Ja, Herr Kaleu.”
Elfe sighed. “And can anyone here confirm that the aircraft in question was…a Lockheed Ventura?”
The lookouts glanced uneasily at each other; in unison, they nodded, with one of them adding, “It was a Model J, sir: swept-back vertical stabilisers — a forked tail.”
After several perfunctory questions, Elfe dismissed the men. They sauntered out of the wardroom, leaving their commander with an unstanched wound and a hair-tearing puzzle: how could a land-based, carrier-incapable, short-range bomber have pounced on their U-boat — right in the middle of the godforsaken North Atlantic?
Elfe made his way back to the tension-filled bridge. There are no secrets aboard a submarine, and judging from the anxious pairs of eyes that remained discreetly riveted on him, it was obvious that the lookouts had already blabbed about the Ventura.
“Henri, take us to the surface,” he said with all the sangfroid he could muster as the watch officer acknowledged his presence. “Flank speed towards the merchantmen’s last position. Now, where are the reports I asked for?”
The damage report wasn’t too bad, Elfe thought as he flipped through it: a cracked air compressor, a broken hydraulic pump, and a few burst ballast pipes — nothing the chief engineer couldn’t handle; the casualty list, though, was another matter: four crewmen were badly concussed, and another — the master electrician — had broken his neck when he slammed against an unsecured bulkhead during the surprise bombardment.
“He died instantly, Herr Kaleu,” the medic said as the morose commander paced to and fro within the stifling confines of the sickbay, where the slowly cooling body of the electrician — covered by a flimsy white sheet — lay on a metal folding-table. “There was nothing we could do.”
Elfe paused midstride and looked the medic in the eye. “Herr Brandt, do you believe in luck? Fate? Destiny?”
The medic looked flustered. “Well, I…I fancy myself a rational, scientific person,” he ventured. “So my answer is no: I do not believe in such things, sir.”
“Good on you, Herr Brandt,” Elfe replied with a distracted, haunted look. “Good on you.”
At that moment, an unkempt seaman poked his head into the sickbay. “Pardon, Kaleu, but the navigator has passed the word for you.”
Elfe nodded and headed for the hatch, but the medic held him by the elbow. “Your cheek, sir: it’s still bleeding.” Indeed, crimson spots were seeping through the gauze that covered the festering wound.
The submarine commander gently disengaged himself from the medic’s grip. “I’m fine. Please see to it that Herr Faber’s body is prepared for burial.”
The tension on the bridge became more pronounced as Elfe hovered over the navigator. “What is it, Rudi?”
“Sir, an hour ago, our instruments indicated that we were at these coordinates.” The navigator fished out a grease pencil and marked a spot on their sea-chart. “I’ve just re-checked our bearings, and — unless our equipment is completely malfunctioning — it seems that we haven’t budged a centimetre.”
The bridge crew looked nervously at one another as Elfe ordered the duty ensign to climb up the conning tower and take a quick position fix with a sextant.
“Here, sir,” said the ensign, handing Elfe a small piece of paper. The commander thanked him and handed the note to the navigator.
The bleary-eyed officer read it, checked his charts, and scratched his head.
“They’re the same coordinates, sir.”
Elfe rubbed a tired hand over his face. “Let’s try heading west for half an hour and then take another reading — using different sextants.”
No one in the Nixy spoke as she thrashed westwards. A half-hour later, the duty ensign clambered up her conning tower with three sextants in hand. The young officer took his readings and went back below.
Elfe felt a tug on his dirty shirtsleeve. “Here, Herr Kaleu,” the ensign said, note in hand. Elfe grimly passed it to the navigator.
“No luck, sir: according to the readings, we’re not moving.”
Elfe sighed and closed his eyes. There has got to be a rational, scientific explanation for this, he thought. Magnetic interference, perhaps — that could account for the gyroscopic equipment. But what about the sextants? They relied on the sun to provide a visual fix. Could the sun itself be wrong?
Bone-weary, Elfe leaned against the bulkhead closest to the periscope and reflexively groped for the Nixy’s lucky charm. An instant later, he turned around and stared at the bulkhead with bulging eyes.
The welded horseshoe was gone.
Aghast, Elfe quickly looked around to see if anybody else had noticed. Apparently, nobody did: everyone was too worried, too busy.
Elfe’s mind was still reeling when the conning tower lookouts cried, “Multiple warships dead ahead!”
The watch officer instinctively hit the crash dive button and spun the annunciator. “Alarm!”
The U-boat nosed down sluggishly. “The ballast pipes must be malfunctioning,” Elfe muttered. But in his mind’s ear, Jamar’s spiteful voice began to ring: I curse you, yellow-haired devil — may foes eternally hound you!
The Nixy had reached periscope depth when she, quite inexplicably, refused to go down any further.
“It’s as if something’s fouled our diving planes,” the watch officer said hoarsely. “Fourteen metres is all we’ve got.”
The crewmen and officers on the bridge exchanged panicked looks. In undersea warfare, an evading U-boat needed to pull the ocean above it like a frightened child hiding under a blanket — and fourteen metres made for a very threadbare quilt.
Ignoring the icy ball bouncing around his gut, Elfe licked his lips and ordered the periscope to be raised. He peered into its eyepiece — and gasped.
Through the lens, Elfe saw scores of Allied warships
— battleships, carriers, cruisers, and destroyers — swiftly converging on his position. His eyes bulged in disbelief as he studied their shimmering, ghostly silhouettes.
“It can’t be…Ark Royal; Repulse; Barham; Galatea; Edinburgh…” Elfe tore himself away from the periscope and staggered back.
The watch officer — in blatant disregard of bridge protocol — grabbed the periscope and squinted through the lens. After several seconds, he turned to his commander, white as a sheet.
“Impossible! They were all confirmed sunk months ago.”
Elfe was about to reply when the sonar operator cried, “Wasserbomben!”
“All hands: brace yourselves!” Elfe managed to shout just as the phantom fleet’s first salvo of depth charges detonated beneath the inexplicably lethargic U-boat. The deafening blasts flung him against a nearby bulkhead.
Elfe slumped down on the deck, unconscious.
When Elfe came to, everything was dark and silent. The first thing that surfaced, unbidden, to his mind were Jamar’s venomous words: Yellow-haired devil! Pawn of dark one! May death nip at your heels forevermore!
Elfe groped for a handhold, found one, and gingerly pulled himself upright. His head felt as if a miniature torpedo had exploded at the base of his skull. He retched. Like a blind man, he stumbled and held his arms out as he felt for the emergency torch stowed underneath his bridge perch.
In time, his probing fingers gratefully closed around the chequered grip of the small torch. He thumbed the switch and was rewarded with a feeble beam. The U-boat commander swung the torch around him, the open wound on his left cheek oozing drops of fresh blood.
The faint light revealed a bridge in shambles: broken glass, bent pipes, and shattered equipment filled the edges of his vision. His bridge crew was nowhere in sight.
With the steadily-dimming torch in hand, Elfe methodically searched the length of the stuffy, unlit U-boat, with only the muted sound of his own footsteps and the soft, sibilant hiss of leaking seawater as company. Save for a few bloodstains and some discarded items of torn apparel, he could not find any trace of his crew.
Elfe clambered onto an unflooded passageway and cautiously made his way back to the bridge. I need to get to the surface, he thought; if I can only find the emergency blow valve, I’ll have a fighting chance.
At that moment he heard the faint jingle of a metal trinket and someone giggling behind him. The discordant noises rang against the U-boat’s metal hull. He gasped and quickly swung the torch around.
Elfe licked his quivering lips and pressed on, his head still throbbing with pain. Panting heavily, he ducked as he reached the passageway’s end and emerged at the dark, silent bridge. The torch was nearly drained, and he could hardly breathe: the carbon dioxide levels inside the submarine had risen dramatically.
Exhausted and scared, Elfe slumped down against the navigator’s console and wiped the sweat from his brow. At that moment, he heard unearthly laughter fill the bridge, amongst them the burbling sniggers of youths and the hoary chuckles of an old man.
Chilled to the marrow, Elfe desperately thrust out the torch.
The beam suddenly faltered and flickered out.
In the utter darkness, Elfe felt icy fingers brush against his face and tug at his sweaty blonde hair.
Panicked, he swung the torch wildly and, hitting nothing, backpedaled until his head banged against the bulkhead that the missing horseshoe had once adorned.
Elfe winced in pain and struggled to fill his lungs with what remained of the U-boat’s rank atmosphere. He succeeded — and was thus able to let loose a thick, bloodcurdling scream just as the fingers found his neck and twisted it in a slow and agonizing chokehold.
Ghostly giggles echoed inside the Nixy as she forlornly flicked her dented steel fins and dived deep into the murky waters of the North Atlantic to begin the first leg of her restless, eternal patrol.