Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Diving a German U-Boat

U-352 88mm Bow Gun Mount & Conning Tower
My buddy “Sarge” introduced me to SCUBA diving a couple of years ago as a “best man” gift at his wedding. What started out casually as just another fun vacation activity to enjoy some free morning at a tropical resort has grown for both of us into a true passion for the sport.

While the Midwest might not seem like a diver’s paradise, it’s actually an excellent training ground to get well schooled in solid dive practices. We like to joke that if you can navigate 100-yards with 5-feet of visibility 60-feet down on the bottom of a silty inland lake in 50-degree temps you’ll be bulletproof in the gin-clear bathtub of an 80-degree Caribbean reef.

As we’ve pursued our love for diving, we’ve discovered a host of local underwater attractions (beyond the ubiquitous submerged rock quarry) along with an inspiration for more advanced training. Sarge took a dry-suit course to extend his Minnesota diving season into a year-round affair. He now dives under 2-feet of ice in February and makes Columbus Day runs to explore shipwrecks in the frigid waters of Lake Superior. We’ve both gotten certified in enriched gas technology to extend our bottom times at deeper depths and I’ve used my skills to dive the myriad of wrecks in Lake Michigan where 45-degree fresh water preserves even 150-year old wooden schooners in surprisingly good condition.

This summer we decided to step it up and put our hard-earned training to use in the Major Leagues. The Outer Banks of North Carolina is known as the “graveyard of the Atlantic” for the stunning array of ships sunk over the centuries by winter storms, tricky navigational hazards, and the German Kriegsmarine which operated with near impunity, torpedoing thousands of tons of commercial shipping during the early days of WWII. With the lure of testing our mettle against all that wrecked metal we packed our gear for Hatteras.

U-352 Pressure Hull Battle DamageOur main objective was both predator and prey during Hitler’s Operation Paukenschlag (“Drumbeat”) during the winter and spring of 1942 when German u-boats slaughtered over 600 ships off the largely unprotected sea lanes right up against the US east coast. The German Submarine, U-352 met its fate during a chance encounter with the tiny Coast Guard Cutter Icarus. Originally designed to fight small-time rum-runners during prohibition the up-gunned Icrarus executed several near-perfect depth-charge runs against the hapless Lt. Hellmut Rathke and his German crew of 49. When the concussions subsided, Lt. Jester and his Argos-class cutter had chalked up a rare U-Boat kill for the US, sending the technologically superior Type VIIC U-Boat to her grave 110 feet deep on the sandy bottom off of Cape Lookout where she lies to this day.
U-352 Conning Tower & Aft Hatch

Almost 70-years later, the sub is still remarkably intact with many identifiable features including the conning tower, dive planes, torpedo tubes, various hatches, and the mount for the 88mm deck gun.U-352 Torpedo Tube

Even breathing Nitrox, bottom times are limited to around 25 minutes at that depth and visibility was around 40-feet. Currents were ripping at about 2-knots or so from stern to bow making the dive a challenging experience but well worth the trip.

A few weeks later, Sarge and I visited the U-505 exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry with our underwater pictures in-hand. Although the 505 is a slightly larger Type IX boat, the similarities are striking and the visit gave us a chance to put theU-352 Prop Shaft, Rudder & Aft Dive Planes features we saw submerged into the context of a fully-restored war machine – and this time with an unlimited air supply. I even researched and built a scale model to match the U-352 in color, features, and insignia which has allowed me to envision what the boat was like when she was in her operational prime (see comparison photo).

Sarge and I now both feel like we’ve touched history in a small way and the experience has inspired both of us to learn all we can about wartime U-Boat operations and the men who fought them.


Dan from Madison said...

Great post!

Carl from Chicago said...


Gerry from Valpo said...

That's something I have wanted to do since watching Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt as a kid. Someday maybe.

Welcome to the blog!