A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, A PHANTOM WAS LAID TO REST.
There are several spooky submarine yarns from both World Wars and later, but none are as celebrated or weird as the story of the ill-fated German submarine UB-65. According to the meticulous and reliable http://www.uboat.net her details are as follows:
She was built by Vulcan, Hamburg (Werk 90), launched 26 June 1917 commissioned 18 August 1917 and had just one commander during her short career from 18 August 1917 – 14 July 1918 , Kapitanleutnant Martin Schelle. On her six patrols she sank seven allied ships and damaged a further six. She was one of a class of 24 submarines especially designed to operate out of the ports of occupied Belgium. It was during construction that bad fortune began to dog this particular boat.
If we are to accept the legend, then the crew of UB-65 were less terrified of confronting enemy forces at sea than they were of the ghost that haunted their ship. As with most of these yarns, this one has had its fair share of embellishment over the years. The initial ‘authority’ who launched the spectre was one Hector Charles Bywater (1884-1940), a brilliant naval journalist and naval strategist, a multi-lingual spy whose ability to speak German passed him off as a native. Bywater is as much of a conundrum as the UB-65 itself. As will be seen, other writers have added layers of spurious ‘authenticity’ to his original exposition. Bywater bases his telling of the saga on a pamphlet published after the war by ‘the distinguished psychologist Professor Dr. Hecht’, and a ‘first-hand account’ by an un-named petty officer who was lucky enough to leave the boat before she died.
The misfortunes of UB-65 began whilst she was still on the slipway.
A heavy metal girder slipped from the crane tackle as it was being lowered into position to be welded into the hull, instantly killing a German workman and injuring another, who died in hospital a few days later. Before launching, poisonous fumes in the engine room took the lives of three more workers. So before the UB-65 had even put to sea, five men had died building her.
Once out at sea on her trial run, a sailor was sent forward on the deck to inspect the hatches. He was swept overboard and lost. Her first test dive was almost fatal. She should have levelled out at 30 feet, but a forward ballast tank ruptured and the sub plummeted to the seabed. She remained stuck there for 12 hours, and during this frightening period flood water seeped into the batteries. The resulting toxic fumes spread among the crew. When, with some relief, the boat finally managed to surface, everyone was violently ill, so much so that two men died in hospital. Could things get worse? Without a doubt, and here the illegitimate elements of this oft-repeated story begin to rear up. Some writers relate that she was commissioned in not in August, but in February, 1917, with U-65 placed under the command of Oberleutuant Karl Honig. Unfortunately, you will not find a commander of this name listed; the records show Kapitanleutnant Martin Schelle as sole commander during the boat’s brief life. But back to the story. While torpedoes were being loaded for UB-65’s first patrol, a warhead exploded, killing the Second Officer and eight seamen. Nine other sailors were seriously wounded. By this time anyone being assigned to this particular submarine would have something to worry about, and on top of it all, the first ghost makes an entry. As she was under tow back to dry dock for repair, a hysterical sailor reported that he had seen the ghost of the Second Officer, his arms folded, standing on the prow. The haunting had begun.
Although Bywater was the first to bring all this to attention in his 1932 book, Their Secret Purposes, most of the crew names don’t crop up until an article on the sub, written by Peter King in Fate magazine in 1974. The story gathered more trimmings in Raymond Lamont Brown’s Phantoms of The Sea (1972) and a further Fate article by King in 1977. Bywater’s source is a ‘Professor Dr. Hecht’ and from somewhere, King pulls a first name out of the bag – now he’s ‘Max’ Hecht. This revelation is followed by a previously unidentified sailor who becomes ‘Petersen’ claiming that he also saw the ghost. Petersen wisely decides to jump ship the day before U-65 was to embark on her first patrol. Several men on that initial patrol reported seeing the ghost of that Second Officer. One night the duty officer was found sobbing on the bridge, claiming to have seen the ghostly figure, arms folded, standing on the ship’s prow. A torpedo man named Eberhard goes berserk and rants about being pursued by the ghost. According to Bywater, he’s given a shot of morphine but despite its relaxing qualities, eventually makes it up onto the deck where he promptly jumps overboard and sinks like a stone. Whilst under attack from depth charges, Lohmann, UB-65’s coxswain, is thrown to the deck, cracks three ribs and dies from internal injuries a week later. ‘Oberleutnant Karl Honig’ was next on the hit list. After patrolling the Dover Straits in February 1918, UB-65 docked in Bruges just as British aircraft began a bombing raid. Honig is said to have been decapitated by flying shrapnel as he stepped down the gangplank, his headless body propelled backwards onto the deck. His corpse was laid there for a while, covered with a canvas shroud, and that same night an officer and eight crewmen said they saw the Second Officer’s ghost again, standing by the cadaver. Now the entire crew of the UB-65 apply for a transfer. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? The German Navy are very concerned, and yet another new name enters the story; he is ‘a German Naval Lutheran minister, the Rev. Franz Weber’, who conducts an exorcism of the ship. A Commodore arrives and investigates. The anonymous chronicler, the petty officer, tells Max Hecht that he missed a trip on the boat due to rheumatism, and the day before she sails he is visited by another crewman called Wernicke, who bids him a somewhat ominous farewell. As new names keep attaching themselves like limpets to this story, such as Petersen, Weber and Max Hecht, Richter, and as the 1974 Fate article identifies the commodore as ‘Michelson’, (Lamont Brown has him as ‘Admiral Schroeder’) we’ll examine their potential origins later on.
By mid-summer 1918, Germany was losing the war. U-boat losses were such that none could be unnecessarily laid up, so UB-65 was put back into service. On June 30 she set out on what was to be her last patrol. The story goes that while patrolling off the coast of Ireland U.S. submarine L-2, operating as part of an American flotilla based at Bantry Bay, was travelling at periscope depth when she spotted UB-65. The American skipper, Lt. Foster, (or Forster) got into position and was about to fire torpedoes at the enemy ship. What followed adds another phenomenal twist to the story. Before L-2 could act, her captain was amazed as U-65 blew up before their eyes and sank. The American submarine never fired a shot. Was that the end of it all? Not quite.
Goss and Behr offer a tantalising follow-up, which I have unfortunately not been able to track down, but it adds a nice spooky coda. They tell us that on July 10th 1968, almost exactly 50 years to the day (give or take 3 days, depending on which report of UB-65’s death is accurate), a man from Baltimore called Sven Morgens-Larsen and his wife June were enjoying a cruise on their yacht Grey Seal off the Irish Coast close to Cape Clear. In the late afternoon they were approaching Fastnet Rock. At 6.30 pm they heard a muffled explosion. The sea, a few hundred feet from them, churned, and up popped a submarine’s conning tower. As the rest of the craft emerged from the foam, they saw the number ‘65’ on her side … and a stationary figure standing on her prow. The whole apparition, submarine, figure, everything, then dissolved and was gone. Apparently Morgens-Larsen knew nothing of the legend until he’d returned to Baltimore where he looked up the story in the archives at John Hopkins University. Fact or premeditated fancy? Who cares; those pesky U-boat men just won’t stay down. Yet even this peculiar report has a precedent. The large American nuclear submarine USS Thresher went down with all hands on a deep test dive 220 miles off Cape Cod on April 9 1963. Her loss in peacetime, with 129 men, was a major maritime tragedy. Fast forward to the summer of 1967 when the Schulz family with their three children are enjoying a cruise on their yacht the Yorktown Clipper, again 200 miles off Cape Cod. Suddenly, to their amazement, to starboard, a massive submarine surfaces. She looks damaged, with a gash in her hull. There are two uniformed US Navy men, one standing on her walkway, and one on her bows, staring back at the Yorktown Clipper through telescopes. This encounter lasted a few minutes, and climaxed dramatically as the sub reared up out of the water, and broke apart amidships, then vanished beneath the waves. The two figures did not budge. As she went down, the Schulzes maintain that they saw the name ‘Thresher’ on her side.
Perhaps in the watery hereafter, the spirits juggle around with earthbound officialdom, because the real nuclear submarine would not have had her name written on her side, just her number, 593, from her official designation SSN-593. So, with the Thresher tragedy still painfully fresh to a seagoing family just four years after it occurred, was this some psychic hallucination triggered by a collective memory? The Schulzes were in the area where the tragedy had occurred. If one person had reported this vision, it could be questionable, but a married couple and their three children? Would a family conspire to make things up? We don’t know – but there’s a distinct possibility that Hector C. Bywater may have done so with the UB-65.
Goss and Behe suggest the story of the jinxed sub may have been part of a British destabilising propaganda drive to unnerve German sailors. On the other hand, his book Their Secret Purposes, (Constable, London 1932) which includes the haunted U-boat, is ample evidence that this inventive, talented man liked spinning a meaty yarn. Bywater was no stranger to intelligence work and had worked behind enemy lines in Germany. He is also famous for his 1925 ‘faction’ book The Great Pacific War, written whilst he was naval correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.
It is a startling but true fact that Bywater prophesied in uncanny detail in Japanese Pacific campaign of World War II. He has been dubbed among some historians as ‘the man who invented Pearl Harbor’. His book opens with Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, Formosa and Korea. ‘But in thus pursuing a policy which aimed at the virtual enslavement of China, Japan had inevitably drawn upon herself the hostility of the Powers,’ wrote Bywater. Much more so than Morgan Robertson’s eerie predictions in 1898 concerning the Titanic, Bywater’s book is replete with so many accurate predictions that it could well have been the handbook used for Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Navy. The Great Pacific War was published while Isoroku Yamamoto – the admiral who masterminded the Japanese naval strategy in World War II – was an attaché with the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C. It was featured in the New York Times’ popular book section in 1925, and although the Japanese embassy registered an official protest over the review declaring it ‘provocative’, it would have been essential reading for any Japanese naval officer. Yet despite all this, as a kind of Robert Harris of his day, Bywater was making it all up, but magnificently so, due to his thorough knowledge and grasp of naval affairs.
So, what about all those names mentioned in the UB-65 story? Let’s deal first with the very foundation of Bywater’s version – the mysterious ‘pamphlet’ of ‘Professor Dr. Hecht’. The pamphlet does not exist. Checking on line I find that there was a Max Hecht. He was born in 1857 and is listed as a ‘psycho-semasiologist’. He dealt with semantics and the study of language, and doesn’t seem to fit the bill as a renowned, well-known psychologist. Lamont Brown however, refers to him as such, and states that his ‘unpublicised’ report on UB-65 exists in the Staatsbibliothek der Stiftung Preussicher Kulturbesitz, in Marburg. But as with any other documents mentioned by writers relating the story, Goss and Behr went to much trouble to have these dug out from the relevant German archives, yet found that they did not exist. They are left only with speculation as to who Bywater based his mysterious ‘Professor Doctor Hecht’ upon. They hint that he might have been based on the journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht (1894-1964), the first screenwriter to be awarded an Oscar. It seems unlikely. There was indeed a Submarine Commodore called Andreas Michelsen, who had commanded the light cruiser Rostock in the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and in June 1917 took over command of U-Boats. With no crew list for UB-65 available, the names Lohmann and Eberhard evade us. Then we have the crewmen Petersen and Wernicke, the man who said goodbye to the un-named petty officer. There’s nothing on Petersen, but there is a Fritz Wernicke (1885-1918), who commanded UB-42 and UB-66 (which is one number away from 65), but UB-66 went down with all hands with Weinecke in command, on January 18 1918 in the Eastern Mediterranean. There are a couple of other names left hanging; some crewman called Richter and the exorcist, Lutheran Minister, Rev. Franz Weber. These appear in versions of the story in the 1970s. Fate magazine became a magnet for these stories, and although in its later incarnation, (prior to its demise in 2009), it wasn’t afraid debunking a subject, in earlier times many features didn’t have to be too academically inclined with sources and footnotes. We were also in the heyday of aliens and the UFO, subjects which could impregnate any other paranormal happening like a virus.
So who were Franz Weber, and the mysterious Richter? If you were looking for some German names to slot into a U-boat story – how does Franz Weber-Richter sound? To discover who he was, we only have to look at an article in Der Spiegel dated February 8 1961, entitled Men From Another Planet. He was Germany’s own George Adamski. Together with his interplanetary associate, Charles Mekis, Weber-Richter had managed to convince a growing army of followers that an invasion of earth by the Venusians was imminent. His leaflets and publications delivered an income, but living in South America provided an added opportunity to raise funds. It may have been tough convincing people that he had spent several months living with aliens on Mercury, but Franz Weber-Richter claimed to be Hitler’s son, an assertion just slightly more credible than ‘the Venusians are coming’ but sufficient to gain sympathetic hand-outs from aging, fugitive Nazis. Der Fuhrer would have been proud.
Whatever ‘the truth’ is about the doomed UB-65, it doesn’t really matter, except for the fact that 37 families in Germany lost their sons and husbands to an unimaginably horrible death. Time and our imagination have built this into an immortal story, and we need such romance in our lives. The careful researchers at http://www.uboat.net mention nothing of her haunting. Her loss is reported thus: ‘14 Jul 1918 – Lost by accidental cause (marine casualty) off Padstow, Cornwall on or after July 14, 1918. 37 dead (all hands lost)’. And she has now been found as the following report states on both Facebook and Wikipedia:
‘An expedition mounted in 2004 as part of the Channel 4 Wreck Detectives underwater archaeological TV series to survey a previously unidentified U-boat wreck that had been located earlier at , during a routine survey by the Royal Navy, confirmed the identity of the boat as UB-65. Inspection of the wreck by nautical archaeologist Innes McCartney and U-boat historian Dr. Axel Niestlé (through identification of design features such as the type of deck gun, and identification numbers that were stamped on one of her propellers) proved conclusively that the wreck was that of UB-65. A survey of the wreck showed no obvious indication of weapon attack being the cause of loss (although this could not be ruled out; shock damage from a depth charge attack could have caused loss through failure of internal seawater systems and hull penetrations that would not be obvious from an external examination). The aft hatches are open indicating a possible attempt by at least some of the crew to escape from the vessel. Consideration of the various observations of the wreck, along with historical observations regarding depth control and handling difficulties on diving experienced by other boats of the class, led to a conclusion that she was most likely lost through accidental causes on or after 14 July 1918, the date of the sinking of a Portuguese vessel in the Padstow area. All of her crew of 37 were listed as lost. Having been identified as UB-65 the wreck was given protected place status under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 on 1 November 2006.’
R.I.P. Petersen, Lohmann, Richter, Eberhard and all your other shipmates, real or imagined.