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Sole Survivor of U-869

  • Posted 11.14.00
  • NOVA

When a shorter version of NOVA's "Hitler's Lost Sub" aired in Germany in April 1999, a remarkable thing happened. A 78-year-old man came forth and announced that he was the sole survivor of U-869. It turns out that Herbert Guschewski, one of two radio operators aboard the sub, had been taken off the U-boat with pleurisy just before it set sail on its final voyage. In June 1999, NOVA producer Rush DeNooyer interviewed Guschewski at a monument to the U-boat service in the northern German coastal town of Möltenort. Below, hear Guschewski's emotional response to the film and to the wrenching memories it resurrected of his lost comrades and his life aboard U-869 more than a half century ago.

Herbert Guschewski at the Möltenort memorial in 1999 Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

An elite CORPS

NOVA: What did you feel upon seeing the film about U-869?

Herbert Guschewski: I must say that I can't bear to see it anymore. I am so agitated inside that I can hardly stand it. I had a vision of the bones of my body lying right there, if I hadn't been lucky enough to miss that voyage on U-869. I was able to live another 55 years, and I thank the Lord for that.

Why did you go into the submarine corps?

There was a certain adventurism about it. You got to experience something and at the same time do something for your country.

Did you have an idol?

Prien's attack at Scapa Flow was the initial reason I joined the submarine forces. [In October 1939, in the most famous U-boat patrol of the war, Lieutenant Commander Günther Prien snuck his U-47 into Scapa Flow, Britain's chief fleet anchorage, and sank the British battleship HMS Royal Oak. See Map of Lost U-boats.] That attack was highly glorified in the press back then.

Herbert Guschewski during his years as a U-boat radioman in World War II Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Herbert Guschewski Collection

Did you feel part of an elite as a U-boat officer?

Without a doubt. You had to be totally healthy, no illnesses, not even a filled tooth. Before each mission we were checked several times. Yes, we were an elite, I have to say.

How did that feeling of eliteness manifest itself?

The more ships sunk, the greater the admiration of the sailors and other officers became. If a boat sunk a lot of ships, it was celebrated accordingly back in the harbor and in the press.

And that was incentive enough?

That was enough for me back then. I didn't have a political reason. Back then we didn't talk about politics aboard the submarines.

Martin Horenburg at sea Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Martin Horenburg Collection

Radio man

What was your job aboard U-869?

There were two sergeants aboard. One was the Radio Operator Martin Horenburg; the other was me. [A wood-handled knife found with Horenburg's surname carved into it was the first clue as to the identity of U-869.] The two of us had three wireless operators beneath us. We had to operate the transceiver. We had to be ready to launch at all times, ready to contact the flotillas that sent us our orders. When we launched, the first thing was to fire the torpedo. The radio operators had to follow up via radio location and see whether the torpedo was a hit or a miss. And then we always had to be ready to send out radio messages, in case of an emergency on board.

"Maybe they just didn't want to say it, but they were frightened."

Were you familiar with the equipment?

Yes, the equipment was familiar to me from U-602 in the Mediterranean. [Before joining U-869, Guschewski had served as radio operator aboard U-602. On his 22nd birthday, April 6, 1943, he waved goodbye to U-602 as it left Toulon without him (he had been transferred days before). U-602 was never heard from again and was presumed lost off the Spanish coast, all 48 hands lost.] I was the station leader there, and I thought that I would be station leader on U-869 again. So I was a little disappointed that Martin Horenburg was there. Not that he was my supervisor but that I wasn't alone in command. I must say, though, I had the best relationship with him. He was a good-looking man with great knowledge, and we did some great teamwork together.

The crew of U-869 assembles on deck Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Herbert Guschewski Collection

With the good times of the submarines pretty much over, what was the morale of the crew at the time?

The boat was put into service in the beginning of 1944. Nobody talked about the fears that they may have had. Maybe they just didn't want to say it, but they were frightened. I can only speak for myself. I did know how many boats and commanders didn't return.

It was a known fact, because of well-aimed attacks by Allied aircraft at night, that the Allies must have invented new location machines and that we didn't have any real resistance to them yet. So there was fear, and more so than before. Especially us as the radio operators. We were located by Allied aircraft day and night—the beeping in the headsets, it went right through me. [Guschewski operated the radar search-receiver, which detected the "beeping" of radar waves emanating from Allied aircraft as they homed in on the U-boat.] So the radio operators were especially in fear.

Towards the end, in fact, the order to submerge didn't come from the commander anymore but from the radio operator, who said "We've got Volume 5" [refers to sound intensity of detected radar signal] and the boat went under. The next moment the bombs fell. So the crew had to completely rely on the radio operator—when I served in the Mediterranean it was me—otherwise we would have never returned and all been dead.

One of the confirmations of the U-boat's identity, found by divers Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy John Chatterton

Reconstructing events

When you heard that divers had found a knife with Horenburg's name on it, how did you react?

The name Horenburg isn't common, so when I heard that—the name Horenburg—I knew it had to have been Martin Horenburg. Only then did I believe that U-869 was found off the American coast and not in Casablanca. [It had been thought since the war that U-869 sank off Casablanca, Morocco.]

U-869 was thought to have never received its final orders and simply proceeded to the American coast. As a radio mate yourself, what do you think happened?

If there had been a radio message missing that would have called the boat back to Casablanca but the boat didn't get it, the commander would have been fully responsible to [Commander Karl] Dönitz [head of the U-boat service] to get the message no matter how. [Radio operators at Dönitz's headquarters numbered their messages consecutively and sent them repeatedly throughout the day and even at night to ensure their intended recipients received them.] It could have been crucial for the boat. It could have announced a single operating battleship or aircraft carrier, which could be very dangerous to submarines in the middle of the Atlantic.

A closeup of the entry for U-869 on the Möltenort memorial Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

So that missing message, Number 3, was extremely important. Each boat had to retrieve every missing message. All messages were repeated at night by an automatic transmitter on the longest wavelengths. You didn't even have to surface to receive them; you could receive them at a depth of up to 30 meters (100 feet). And they were repeated over and over.

Then, according to you, what happened?

U-869 had already sunk. That's why the crew didn't answer or come back to Casablanca.

So you don't think they refused to obey and kept going?

No. A refusal? Not a possibility. Horenburg would never have done that. That never occurred in the Navy.

"I feel all stirred up inside. I've had nightmares."

Could there have been a technical defect in the radio transmitters or receivers?

No, that was never the case. Even in high pursuit, we always fixed the radio transmitters. We had everything with us, the tubes and spare parts. And Horenburg was just the guy to always put the tubes back in and continue on. I don't have another solution. The boat must have sunk before it got the message to return to Casablanca.

Now that you know about the boat, what do you think happened to sink it?

There was talk about a misguided torpedo, but that happened once in 100 boats, if ever. I could only figure this out if the divers would discover if any torpedo chutes are open and any torpedoes are missing.

To Guschewski, it's inconceivable that U-869's commander would have disobeyed an order. He simply never received it, Guschewski believes. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Herbert Guschewski Collection

ADJUSTING TO THE NEWS

What did you think when you heard that the boat lies somewhere completely different than you'd always thought?

I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it. For 55 years, I thought the boat was off Casablanca, off Morocco. Then I got a call from Commander Jürgen Weber of the U-Boat Veterans Association in Munich, and he asked if I had seen this film the night before. I said no, and he said that it wasn't true that my boat was off Casablanca, but that it was off New Jersey instead. I doubted that and couldn't believe it. I was convinced only after many sleepless nights and countless discussions with people who knew the situation, when they pulled up the box of spare parts and cleaned the brass plate, and it said U-869, built by Deschimag in Bremen. Only then did I believe that it was U-869.

Did it change things for you?

Knowing it's in a different location doesn't really change anything. But since I saw this film, I've been very moved. I feel all stirred up inside. I've had nightmares. It's all come back to me—the war, all we went through, all we had to endure, for no reason.

Does it make a difference that you now know where your comrades lie? Was it abstract before, where it is real now?

Back then you thought the boat was at a depth of 4,000 meters (13,200 feet). That's how deep it is off Casablanca. Now it is only 70 meters (230 feet) down. I knew divers would go down there, and I just hope that the place where it was found and the remains of my comrades are being honored and respected and not made into a circus. I am very grateful to the divers who will take care that this place will be preserved and that only they know where it is.

Why did Helmut Neuerburg, commander of U-869, have his vessel in just 210 feet of water when it sank? The answer will likely rest with him forever. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Helmut Neuerburg Collection

Supreme sacrifice

Isn't 70 meters an unusual depth? Can a submarine be navigated in that?

Yes, right away I saw a mistake of the commander here. When I heard the boat is in 70 meters depth, I couldn't believe that a submarine would go there. One does not know how it was sunk, by a torpedo or a water bomb, but the 70 meters meant no protection for the boat. It should have been at least 200 meters (660 feet) deep. Then you could still have maneuvered around the bombs.

Back then, how did you find out that U-869 had sunk or didn't return?

It was when the first books about the submarine war were published after the war that I read for the first time—I can't recall which book it was, there must be 20 by now—that U-869 sank on February 28, 1945, off Casablanca. Also known were the names of the attacking destroyers. It was said that the boat was in a depth of 4,000 meters (13,200 feet) and was destroyed. I knew back then that almost no more boats were coming home. Everybody knew that.

"I feel sad inside but relieved to have lightened my burden."

When the European war was over on May 8th, 1945, did you think about what may have become of your comrades?

I survived U-602 and was stirred deeply by that, because I had had a great relationship with Commander [Philipp] Schüler, who wasn't really a superior but a friend to me. I was moved deeply. In the time after that I was in Flensburg in the School for Mates, and I had a chance to gain some distance. When I heard about U-869, it was also the end of the war, which meant a lot to me, the killing would finally stop. I had to accept the fact that U-869 had to still be sacrificed as well.

"You have to be very, very sad when you see this," Guschewski said at the Möltenort wall, where the names of his lost comrades are listed. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Sadness—and relief

Editor's Note: After questioning Guschewski in a building near the U-boat monument at Möltenort, DeNooyer then interviewed him before the memorial itself. Survivors of the U-boat service erected the monument in memory of the 28,000 U-boat sailors killed in action during World War II. Beneath each U-boat number lie the inscribed names of all crew members lost.

What do you think of when you see this U-boat number and these names?

A deep sadness. That so many young people had to lose their lives. You have to be very, very sad when you see this.

If everything would have gone "normal," your name would be here.

Yes, yes. And because I am already old, and my parents and siblings have passed away, nobody would find their way here to Möltenort. It is distressing to know all that.

What does it mean to you after 50 years, that all of this gets stirred up again? Is that difficult for you?

On the contrary, it is a relief for me to be able to talk to friends about that. How it was back then, and why it all happened like it did. I feel sad inside but relieved to have lightened my burden.

In Guschewski's view, his comrades aboard U-869 gave their lives in a worthy struggle, a struggle in which fascism lost. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Herbert Guschewski Collection

Are you angry that all these young people, many of them very young, were sent to their deaths this close to the end of the war?

No, I feel no anger. That whole time there was a confusion of political opinions. We had several dictators in Europe. This could have never worked out for the good. It had to come about this way. That's why we are happy to be living in a democracy today. Everybody that is here on this wall could now say, if they knew, that at least they gave their lives for a good cause, so that we can live in peace today.

And really you should have been among them.

If I hadn't been so lucky I would now be immortalized here as well, and my skeleton would be in the wreckage off America, too. Of course, I am glad to have been able to live another 55 years, good years and bad years. I have children and a wife who takes care of me. I can be happy. All my comrades didn't have that. So I thank the Lord that I can stand here, even being myself on the verge of death because of my age.

Is that a burden for you that you are the surviving one?

No, not at all. I don't think it is a burden. I see it as a mercy that I was allowed to live that long. I think that that is good and well, and I will pass my wisdom to my grandchildren and nephews so that they will live with my memories so that such a thing will never be repeated.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Hitler's Lost Sub.

Interview of Herbert Guschewski conducted by Rushmore DeNooyer, producer of "Hitler's Lost Sub," and edited by Peter Tyson, editor in chief of NOVA Online

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