Thursday, November 10, 2011

My Grandfather's Blog

This is my grandfather's blog. Franz Strobl was nineteen years old when he wrote these words as he served in the Austro-Hungarian Kriegsmarine during WWI. Franz was of the rare breed known as Submariners, and of the still rarer breed of those who survived their service in that branch of the military which claimed the highest casualty rate.

His memoirs were written on scraps of paper at night in the barracks, on the train to and from leave, and in his bunk below decks of his U-Boat as it cruised the Adriatic along the Dalmatian coast.

The pile of tattered papers made their way into the hands of my uncle, Joschi Lampert, who translated Franz's words from German to English...the sort of English that retains much of the word order of the original German. This was a daunting task as much of the original handwritten pages were torn or damaged in some way and my grandfather wrote in a Gothic hand that would have been nearly impossible for me to decipher. I have transcribed my uncle's translation as closely as possible, making changes only in the interests of clarity. The form and substance of the translation have a charm and innocence with which editorial correction would tamper to no benificial result.

You will read the words of a young Austrian made old by the "War to end all Wars." You will read as he became a decorated hero for a cause he did not understand nor endorse. And you will read how he was ultimately the only survivor of his ill-fated boat. The first installment will follow. Enjoy, in his own words, the story of Franz Strobl, Submariner of the Imperial Kriegsmarine who, if he were writing this today, would wish you peace.

Part 1. Late 1915 to Early Spring 1916

"Hallo! Franz come up. We are going aboard the U.B. XV." So calls Torpedo-Foreman Stieber, A Polish student as civilian, but a good soul and a good comrade who was gladly ready to do a favor anytime.

"What are you saying Stefan?" I ask after I jumped with two leaps up the stairway and onto the deck. Stefan repeats his news and here comes Weapon-Mate Jakl, a slightly irritated Czech reservist.

"Nah, Sacrament" he starts a little strong, "Don't stand around but pack your bag and come to the provision office. Be happy to finally leave this crate. Otherwise you will be locked up a few more times. You know that the boatsman doesn't like you."

I and Stefan laugh in his face and then disappear to the stockroom to pack our duffelbags. Nice and square, according to regulations to make sure we don't have any problems and are able to get away from the Budapest as fast as possible. I spent two years on this old Coast Defender and I really did not have any luck here.

At first it was somehow tolerable. But then, when the boatsman who is like a little god on this ship, began to beset me because I did not wash his laundry any more, it started. For every minor infraction I had to report. I was punished so that I became his favorite whipping boy. I was, after all, no angel, and took revenge in my own way by hiding his things, filling his boots with water and such dumb jokes every chance I got. Which for some reason always resulted in another arrest.

That's why I was so happy that I could get away from here at last. There was nothing happening here anyway.Since Lovcen was captured all we ever did was maneuver and exercise. We watched in envy, the crews of the torpedo boats and destroyers and especially the submarines. Yes, there was some action. There you could say that they accomplished something. Now it was going to change for us too. We went proudly to the commissioner for our wages and to the office for our service books. We also had to stop to see the Captain who gave us instructions and wished us good luck. Then we said goodbye to all our comrades, threw our bags over our shoulders and off we went.

We took a steam launch to land and waited for the passenger ship that took care of the traffic in the "Bocce di Cattaro."We rode to "Porto Rosa" where the submarine station was located. Since we had some time, we stopped at a bar and bought ourselves a glass of wine. "You know" said Stefan,"I am really glad that we are together and we are getting away from the Budapest. Hopefully we will find some friends there."

"Yes" I replied, "I'm extremely anxious to see what it looks like in such a submarine. We will have to study hard at first in order to be worthy. Otherwise we will have to go back to the Budapest."

Then each of us followed his own thoughts.

The Villa Stein

After a while, the steamer arrived and took us to Ponto Rosa. There we went to the submarine station to inquire about the location of the barracks where the crew of the "Fifteener" was housed. We met an old buddy who also used to be in the machine room of the Budapest. His name was Fugita. We had a few things to talk about and to see. He showed us the U.XV and led us to the Villa Stein. That was the name of the building where the men of the XV were quartered. It was a house that was not yet completed when the war broke out, standing there in the rough with a temporary roof. It was a little away from the other barracks and looked somewhat like a ruin.

If the appearance of the exterior was not very impressive, inside was even less to cheer about. All one big room with shelving covering one whole wall and to the ceiling. The lumber was rough and the boards un-planed. The bed boxes had been attached into those units next to and on top of each other.

The Torpedo Master soon showed up and we told him about our transfer. "Where are you coming from?" he asked. When we told him that we came from the Budapest and that we were Torpedo Specialists, he replied, " Well, in that case, you have to learn fast. In a few days we are going out on action and one of you will have to join us since we are short." That did not bother us and it was for that reason we stepped forward and we will try hard to make it work.

" Are you hungry and thirsty?" asked the Telegraph Master. Sure we were and they gave us canned food and wine. Our eyes grew big because we never had anything that good in the Navy. The result was that we liked this place so much already.

The next day we reported our orders for embarkation and on the following day we were scheduled to go to Cattaro for medical examinations to find out if we were fit for Submarine service.

We Never Want to Go Back Again

When our steamer passed by the Budapest, I confided to Stefan, " Listen, if it turns out that I'm unable to stay, I will never go back onto that box and come what may. If there is no other way out, then I will shoot myself. I sure suffered enough up there. And all because of that boatsman. Just imagine if I was to return there I would be the perfect prey for him. I could not endure it."

"I'm not going back either!" Stefan replied. After a two hour trip, we arrived at Cattaro. Now it will be decided.

Everything turned out well. We both passed. Like chains dropping from every part of my body, that's how I felt, definitively redeemed. While we were both small-minded and depressed just a short time ago, our hearts now beat with pure joy. It was cause for celebration.

"What do we do now?" I ask Stefan, " we have four hours before our return trip."

"Dumb question!" he says, "We'll go to a place where we can drink a toast to this special day."

"Alright, let's find the first best 'spelunke' and also get something to eat, for I feel terribly hungry." I answered, " And then we will see what else we can do. Maybe there will even be a pretty little doll. I have not been on land for a long time anyway and who knows if we won't drown on the first operation. It will be a shame if we don't jump at this opportunity."

Stefan agreed and it didn't take long for us to find what we were looking for.

The wine was good and the fish, fried in oil, wasn't bad either. Even a beautiful, subservient spirit was at our disposal. What more could we want? Unfortunately, the time elapsed much too quickly and we had to go back to our steamer. On our return trip, Stefan, who had a little too much wine, got to feel quite miserable. He moaned while I laughed at him which made him very angry. But that did not help him and he had to 'pay his tribute'.

"You know Stefan," I said to him, "if you cannot tolerate wine, you will have to drink goat's milk. That is better for sucklings."

For that he wanted to attach a nice name to me but 'Ulrich' wouldn't allow it. Then he got very quiet. Later, I looked after him and he was leaning over the side railing...asleep.

I now had time to devote myself to my own thoughts until we got to Ponto Rosa.

Note: The reference to 'Ulrich' Is probably my grandfathers version of the heaving noises associated with drinking too much wine. Something akin to our phrase, "selling Buicks."

Return from Cattaro

Thinking back about the time I was on board the Budapest...

I got very acquainted with the "dark arrest'" on many occasions because of several military wrongdoings as it happens so easily with young people. Things like undisciplined behavior, overtime transgressions or not saluting a senior officer. Dark arrest usually included fasting. Then there was also "bar arrest" where iron shackles would be put around your legs above the ankles and secured with locks. These were fastened to a continuous bar and could be screwed tight. You would lay there on your back on the newly oiled iron floor of the middle deck which, naturally, was a very tough situation.

With Dark arrest you usually received up to two months "board arrest" as a bonus (like barracks arrest). As an example: Two days dark arrest and fasting, two months board arrest followed by two more days of dark arrest. When we cruised by the Budapest, I hummed the old reserve song but thinking of a different text:

And when the service time is done,
you old dark arrest begone.
Sitting in you so often was a bother,
with stale old bread only, and water.

Just then I hear the signal, "All hands get busy!" and the KP is running around with their tin buckets and pitchers to bring the food. Although the food onboard those ships was quite acceptable, according to regulations, it had to be tasted by an officer before distribution. It was not comparable to the food at the submarine station. There it was much better.

All kinds of thoughts went through my head. Onboard the Budapest, unending service duties and exercises together with all kinds of trickery and torments from the officers while always standing with one foot in confinement. And the inferior food. But here at the submarine station, adventure, action and good fellowship, even with the officers. No unneeded exercises, and the best chow imaginable. Of course, the danger of drowning has come closer and closer. Is not life suspended by a thread that can be broken so easily by the various circumstances? But what does it matter? Every minute, thousands die for their homeland and nobody has the privilege to live longer than others. It is still better to go to a watery grave with this coffin of iron and steel than possibly waste away as a cripple on this crooked world for who knows how long. Maybe even as a burden to other people who will in time probably forget that this cripple sacrificed himself for their country too.

Even as schoolchildren, we saw plenty of old war veterans standing around the town squares with their barrel organs and music boxes. They were mocked by the children without their parents reprimanding them. Jawohl! Better an eternal peace on the bottom of the ocean than such a life! No matter if it occurs in a less than gentle way, the end result is in all cases death. And if one gets away you can say you have accomplished a little more for your homeland than just exercising.

Stefan woke up just before Ponto Rosa. He still looked a little stupid but he felt much better. As we arrived in the Villa Stein, the result of our physical examination was reported and the Torpedo Master received us by saying, " So, you better get a good night's sleep tonight. Tomorrow starts with a different note." And so it was.

Coming Onboard the S.M.S.U.B.XV

Certain clothes always remained on the boat and were, in a way, just lent to the crew for service onboard. It was the official outfit and designation of fitness for duty.

Each of us grabbed a pair of boots, not new, but in good shape and even if they were a little too big, it did not make a difference. There was not much choice. A wool sweater including a hood, a raincoat and storm hat, and two blankets that were quite thin. It wasn't cold inside the boat and anyway, we never got out of our clothes while we were at sea. In any case, they did not make a good mattress but when we had the proper measure of exhaustion, we could sleep fairly well. The cap ribbon, "S.M.S.U.B.XV" marked the new man as a full worthy member. And only after an apparent showing of service ambition and with the approval of the Torpedo Master could a man be designated either "First Class" or to the reserve crew.

For the two of us, only the first class came into consideration. We wanted to see and experience something. Another reason was that the reserve crew had to stay in port during an operation and did not receive the extra measure of food. That alone was reason enough to be part of the regular crew. Imagine! Besides the regular rations, we got condensed milk and butter, shellfish, tuna, all kinds of stewed fruit and canned spreads, real Hungarian Salami and more stuff. So many things we did not even know by name, let alone to have ever eaten such delicacies.

The other point was that we noticed when a regular boatman was telling a story, the people gathered around the storyteller. Those from the reserve crew stood absent-mindedly around and once in a while made untimely remarks which resulted in either pitiful glances from the regulars or even admonishment or laughter. In no way did we want this. We wanted to be full-fledged boatmen.

Up at five o'clock for reveille and a half hour later we were already onboard the "U.B.XV" and started with a thorough cleanup "Because that's the best way to get to know the boat." said the Torpedo Master.

"Ouch! Damned!" I jerked back after I hit my head.

"Na, Na, not so hot-headed. You can see for yourself that it is a bit tighter here that on the Budapest." said the Torpedo Master. "This is after all a submarine and not a dance hall." And later he told us, "Look at these levers and wheels very closely. You will get more familiar with them in a few days. and this gyroscope...did you ever see one like this?"

"No." I said, and was a little ashamed.

"Well" he said, "It is going to dance around for you plenty. That means keeping a cool head and eyes open. No getting nervous when the seas get rough, otherwise you will always be off course and the Commander won't like that. He is otherwise a good man, but is very particular about the steering which is understandable."

"Jawohl!" I say, and rub my head as I look at the ventilation lever that juts down from the ceiling and on which I banged my precious head so hard that it was not only blue but also swollen.

Stefan passes by and takes revenge for the remarks I made when we returned from Cattaro. Mockingly, he said, "Franz, I keep telling you, what's big is also clumsy!"

To which I reply, " Not everyone can be a midget."

Onboard the S.M.S.U.B.XV Part 2

Yes, to be sure, the XV was small. It was one of the boats that Austria took over from Germany for coastal defense. 128 metric tons above water and 156 below. 28 meters long and 5 meters wide inside, in places only 1 1/2 meters. Two torpedo tubes that were already armed. The top speed was 5 miles on the surface and 4 miles under water. On deck, a 37 mm rapid-fire cannon and machine gun. Even though the crew was usually 20 men and 3 officers at the station, at sea there were only 3 officers with 13 men. That was all there was room for. Only 600 liters of water was taken along. That was for drinking and cooking. With the exception of the Commander, there was no washing, and even that you could not call washing. The bulk was tested for pressure up to 50 meters depth. A holding tank of 5000 lkg assisted surfacing if the boat should leak in the diving tanks. Besides that, there was a rescue bouy with telephone and light with 100 meters of cable attached to the boat which could be unbolted. If the boat could not surface despite the release of the holding tank, it could at least communicate with the upper world.

Every man had a life jacket that could be inflated and also served well as a pillow. The boat only had minimal speed but that disadvantage was partially balanced out by its ability to dive fast. The relatively limited range of operation could be somewhat increased by filling the trim tanks with fuel for the diesel engine. But that, in turn, decreased the diving capacity by making the boat lighter. Much to the detriment of the boat is the process of charging the batteries for the underwater running. There was only one motor available so the boat had to sit on the surface without any power for movement was at the mercy of the current. This is why the charging was done at night whenever possible.

For the improvement of the air, there was a ventilation system built in that included filter cartridges and oxygen supplement tanks that we carried with us. The inside of the boat was very cramped and the many wheels and levers made a confusing impression. It also meant that you had to be damned careful not to make the wrong move lest you could send the boat, with man and mouse, to the depths. That was enough reason to command a great respect for all the gadgets and we gladly submitted to the training with great pride.

During the following days we had torpedo maneuvers. This was for us quite an experience. How could we possibly move around in this 5 meter long and 45 centimeter thick heavy steel cigar? In this tight space where you could hardly turn around? But everything worked somehow since it was all measured out to the millimeter. The fact that we ended up with a few bumps did not matter and was taken as inevitable.

"What do you say? This is different than on the Budapest. There you could move around as you pleased but here you have to creep around like in a chimney." says Torpedo Instructor Lehar to us.

"Yeah, that's nice," we answer, " But in spite of that, it is here much more interesting for us. And here we know what we are doing it for. There it was only to keep busy smearing grease and polishing the aiming apparatus for nothing."

"Aye," he says, " We no not do nothing unnecessary here. But everything has to work efficiently, otherwise we might be out for some action and instead of accomplishing something, we have to be lucky that they do not rip off our behind!"