Interview with Ernst Schmidt, U-Boat crewmember and officer, Sydney, Ohio, 1996.

[Above: Ernst Schmidt.]

We have been friends for a while now, so I wanted to write down some things we have spoken of for posterity. My first question to you is how did you come to the Kriegsmarine, and particularly the U-boats?

Ernst: Yes, this is a good idea. I was a member of the youth organizations before the war, and particularly was in the maritime section. I naturally had a love of the sea, from a very early age when going on vacations to the coast. You could say it was in my blood to be on the water. I enlisted when I became old enough, much to my parents frustration. They wanted me to use a degree to go into the sciences. I was accepted into the navy and started training on the Albert Leo Schlageter, as you know it was named after a martyr the French killed for his patriotism to the Fatherland. This was a sailing ship that got us used to all the nautical tools of the trade like star gazing, rope tying, ship operations and cleaning, and so on.

I was assigned to the cruiser Emden to further learn sea navigation, weapons, and defense. From there I was sent for duty to the destroyer Leopold, where we learned wartime actions like mining, and anti-U-boat tactics. I learned an appreciation for the U-boat and had a desire to serve on one. After all the training you had to select a specialty to go into if you had not already chosen, I chose the U-boat arm. I was always fascinated with the tales of WWI U-boat men and their daring feats. This was a career many young Germans aspired to; we either wanted to be pilots, on a U-boat, a paratrooper, or on Panzers. The SS was also big, but extremely selective, so not very many were taken. This changed later in the war.

Once accepted into the U-boat arm, the training was very hard indeed. We learned everything you could possible learn about these boats. It took us a long time to complete total training and fitting out. You had to pass many tests along the way, each advancing you to a new station. I was selected for officer training early on so I was elevated, which meant more was demanded. I was posted to my first boat, U-139 then U-345 as training ships which broke us in and gave us experience. Lucky for us there was no action, just drills and mundane tasks. I was allowed on the bridge as a watch, to keep watch for the signs of ships or aircraft. Later in the war, I was posted to long range boats that would be out for two or three months at a time.

[Above: The Albert Leo Schlageter was named after the martyr who was murdered by the French on May 26, 1923.]

What was it like living in Germany during the war?

Ernst: It was not like what you would think; it wasn't until 1943 that Germany really was under a wartime footing. You would, of course, see the men in uniforms occasionally but really life went on as before. There were street vendors, artists, outdoor concerts, plays, exercise classes, and lectures for the schools. Unlike the picture that is painted today, Germans were not always marching and parading around. There were very few times you could watch a parade, it was for some celebration or special occasion. Parades and speeches were pretty rare, Germans wanted to live life and enjoy what we had, not goosestep all over the place. Life was not altered by the war at first, I went to see a 1940 modeling show in Berlin with girls from all over the world taking part. You would never have guessed we were at war, except for seeing flak batteries every so often. The news was all good, the RAF and French had bombed some cities in the west in 1939 and '40, but nothing really bad yet.

Even in Poland in 1940, Germany was sending large sums of money and material to rebuild what the war destroyed. Volunteers from youth and labor groups were asked to go east; a friend of mine was part of this, going to Warsaw to rebuild living areas. Stores had lots of merchandise, so even as late as 1944 you could go buy whatever you wanted mostly. I still remember my time in Pillau [East Prussia], I can still smell the mom and pop shops that baked sweets and what would today be fast food. I will tell you too, Germany had many foreigners that came to help us, you would see them all over, they came from South America, all over Europe, and the east.

I never saw any harassment, roundups, or anything of that nature, you would see police directing traffic or walking a beat, nothing unusual. Life was just like it is here today, except we had no crime or slums in Germany. This was a well oiled country with a high sense of order and cleanliness. It was thought it should be better to be a lowly chimney sweep in the Reich, than a King in another country. Germany really didn't get bad until late 1944, due to the bombings food and water became hard to get and many people became sick. We had a very bad winter in 44/45. It killed many refugees and the frail that could not get the care they needed.

What was life like for you in the Kriegsmarine during the time on land?

Ernst: Yes, it was filled with lots of training and shore duties. As I mentioned in 1942 I was an instructor at the first training course in Pillau. This was only temporary, but I was able to see a lot of Prussia and the coast. I had friends drive up from Dresden and we had beach parties at night, drinking good beer and talking about the future. [Grand Admiral Karl] Dönitz and our leaders made sure that wherever our bases were, we had lots of things to take our minds off the war. We had bowling alleys, pool tables, clubs and free tours we could take. A favorite spot for many was the south of France, and seeing the endless beaches, where many pretty ladies were to be found. The life of a U-boat man was very dangerous, yet had great rewards.

I will tell you during all my training and lectures, I met many of the famous aces, [Günther] Prien, [Wolfgang] Lüth, [Erich] Topp, [Otto] Kretschmer, and so forth. They were very brave men, who all liked to frolic and have a good laugh too. I remember Prien speaking to our class in July of 1940; I was able to ask him many questions. He was a National Socialist all the way through, his greatest achievement he said was meeting the Führer, and speaking about the U-boat war with him. We spoke once, after a class. He told me Hitler was humbled by not having enough boats to carry the fight properly to England, and wished the war to be done. He never wanted war, and was slow to build boats as he wanted to show Germany wanted peace. In 1939 the whole Wehrmacht was very under strength. These words ring very true to me today, and I am glad to tell you I had the chance to speak to great heroes like them. I once accidentally took [Erich] Topps hat, he still remembers this very clearly. We were all brothers and still hold our time together very dear. I speak to him and many other comrades often, as you know.

[Above: Aces of the sea: (left to right) Günther Prien, Wolfgang Lüth, Erich Topp, Otto Kretschmer. All of them were Knight's Cross winners, all of them won the Oak Leaves, and all of them except Prien won the coveted Swords to their Knight's Crosses. There is little doubt Prien would have won them too, but he tragically was killed in March 1941. Lüth went further then them all, winning the astounding Diamonds to his Knight's Cross! Click to enlarge.]

How did the U-boat arm view Hitler? In Das Boot he is made fun of and mocked.

Ernst: The movies are very dishonest, you know that. He was our leader and even though at the end there was much frustration, he was still respected. I think I feel sorrier for him today, now that I know [Wilhelm] Canaris and others actively worked to betray us all. We did not know he had people working from within aiding the enemy; this became evident on July 20 [1944 failed Hitler assassination]. It explains why Germany failed in some early battles, and in the Atlantic. The average soldier knew he was just a cog in the wheel, but he was patriotic and would do his duty to the end. To insult the leader of our country was not something that happened very often. I saw it once in 1945, a man blamed Hitler for the destruction, and a fight almost broke out because of it. We knew the war was forced on us, and we had no choice but to stay in it and fight. I think at the end we understood the war got away from him, and spiraled out of control.

I understand there were peace overtures made even in 1943 to end it all, Stalin wanted out but the Allies kept him in. Hitler only went into Poland because we were protecting Germans, and war started, imagine that. We had great respect for Hitler, for what he created and how he clearly loved Germany. We knew it was something special to have such a leader that money could not buy, and who was uncorrupted. We can not say that today of our leaders. There was a reason why we fought until the last breath, we believed in our cause, and our leader. There are indeed plenty who say they critiqued him under their breath, for fear of being arrested, but I believe they are grandstanding to gain Allied praise. I heard anger in my men at what was going on, but never anything negative about our leader.

How do you respond to the Allied claims that the U-boat was criminal, and the Kriegsmarine committed war crimes?

Ernst: To be blunt, the Allies are the only ones I know of who broke the laws of war. From the beginning, in training we had classes specifically on laws of war, and treatment of the enemy. Ship identification was drilled into us as well, but mistakes did happen, as in WWI. Germany always addressed those mistakes with either money or apologies, and the culprit would face a court of inquiry. When sinking a ship, we were obliged to surface, aid the wounded, and provide any needed supplies if practical. Our boats did this often in the beginning, and then the British started using the Q-ship ruse of WWI fame [a Q-ship was a heavily armed ship disguised as an unarmed vessel-Ed.]. They were accused of shooting unarmed sailors in the water; POWs and survivors saw this and testified. They also broke neutrality laws to hunt our ships. In this war there were many times laws were broken. Let me mention the Laconia also, the US attacked and killed many unarmed civilians, and this prompted Dönitz to forbid us to surface and render aid any longer [the British RMS Laconia, carrying 2,732 crew, passengers, soldiers, and prisoners of war, was torpedoed and sunk by U-156. German U-boats rescued survivors and radioed Allied boats and planes in the area, whereupon the Allies viciously attacked the Germans and their own survivors. Of 2,741, only 1,083 survived-Ed.].

He was tried for that order after the war, but the Allies directly caused it by not honoring the Red Cross flag, and open calls for aid. This was one of a few that happened in both the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. From what I hear from American sub vets, it was common for them to shoot Japanese sailors who they had sunk. I am certain this was prevalent in the Allied navies sometimes, but we had a better code of honor. I have never met a comrade who spoke of shooting men in the water. Speaking of crimes, I will tell you the British usually have a reputation for fair treatment after the war, but that was not my experience. After we surrendered our boat, a man under my command told them I had a brother working for Heisenburg on a super weapon. Due to this they interrogated me night and day, when that did not work they beat me, knocking out my teeth, and busting my knee.

This went on for a few days, and then when they were convinced I was telling the truth they sent me to get checked out. I was not able to communicate with family; it took a year to receive anything from my parents. It is a joke to me that they act as if they were humane and followed the rules of war. I am hearing more and more that other German POWs were abused, and some even killed after it was all over. I love this country [USA], but it is full of hypocrisy when it comes to the war. After awhile I was finally sent to Wales to be housed in an officer's camp, which was quite nice, even though we were being held prisoners after peace was made. I met very nice people who hated the English and favored us, many men found life long friends, and even wives among the Welsh people.

Do you think Germany ever could have won the war? At what point could it have turned?

Ernst: Yes, we could have won quite easily if we had been better prepared. Our soldiers were instilled with a strong sense of duty, and would do anything asked of them. In 1939, when we fought Poland, the Wehrmacht was not ready for this type of war. We took punishing blows from Poland, and they had a few better tanks than we did. We outclassed them in aircraft and communications, which made the blitzkrieg work. Every country Germany invaded was either at war with us, asked for assistance like Yugoslavia, or made it clear they favored the Allies. Russia, it is my opinion, was going to attack west at some point and we hit first.

During the opening of Barbarossa if our focus was taking the oil fields, as Hitler wanted, we would have secured victory. Someday he will go down as a very good commander who was handicapped by his snooty Generals, who always thought they knew best. He did not want to attack at Kursk, they did, he wanted to take the oil first and foremost, they did not, yet they say he was a bully and incompetent. If we could have had more U-boats built in 1939 it would have made a huge difference. If we could have taken the oil fields it would have forced Russia out. If we did not stop at Dunkirk and took the whole BEF [British Expeditionary Force] prisoner it would have made a huge difference. I would end this by saying if Germany had really been geared for war, as the Allies claim, we would have crushed them. We did not start getting serious until 1943. By then it was too late.

[Above: Symbols from some of Schmidt's U-boats (from left U-1231 & U-821).]

Did you ever meet Admiral Dönitz? What was he like?

Ernst: Yes, I met him a few times, even after the war. He was very friendly and always liked having a conversation about our service time. He was always among his men, watching training and even sitting in on courses. He said he followed our boats like we were his children. The losses were hard on him I know; he would write personal letters to the many children of fallen U-boat men. I showed you one of these I bought at the OVMS [Ohio Valley Military Society] show of all places. I have started collecting German orders and badges as a hobby. In Germany this has now become a big hobby also, I had the chance to hold his Knight's Cross and other decorations he was awarded. I would say he was a very good commander of men, and a good person. The Allies never should have put him on trial, or kept him in prison.

He told me once that if only we could have won, we could have made the real criminals pay. But he had no hatred of the former enemy, in fact, until he died he wrote to a few Americans who asked for more information. I am very proud to say I called him a friend. I have been able to stay in touch with many former comrades, and met a few others like Hans [Göbeler] of U-505. That old salty dog has done alright for himself with his pretty young German Frau.

What was life on board a U-boat like?

Ernst: This is where Das Boot got it right. We were in tight spaces, it was cold and damp, and we all smelled of sweat and smelly feet. We had to share berths [sleeping space], so you literally had to crawl into the other man's stink. Nothing fancy or easy, we lived like Spartans on a U-boat. One thing I will tell you, you asked about the boat raised off Denmark, and the condoms, those were not condoms they paraded on TV, they were protective sleeves for sensitive electrical sensors, we had to keep them dry in rough seas.

Most of our traveling was done on the surface so water was ever present in the boat; we had pumps to pump it out. I mention the condoms as the news made it look like we were all homosexuals and needed condoms for a pleasure cruise. When we came into the ports, the men could go get them for the many girls who made themselves available but we did not need them on the boat.

How was the relationship with the civilians in occupied ports?

Ernst: Considering we were in their country uninvited, it was remarkably good. Of course we had to be aware of spies and such, but most people were very friendly. In France the men really looked forward to meeting French girls, you would often see our men on walks, at the beach, or having a picnic with a pretty French girl by his side. We were asked to help after bombing raids by the Allies, which hit France badly, killing thousands. The people were very thankful for the aid we offered.

We helped with food distribution, road clearing, and moving the sick or wounded. The French would curse the English terribly for the destruction they caused. We had very strict code of conduct orders regarding treatment of the civilians in both Germany and occupied areas. Our Admiral did not want any issues with underage, married, or forbidden females. I do not recall any major instances in France or anywhere else of misconduct, but I am sure it did happen as it does in all navies.

[Above: Back of photo at top of interview, written and signed by Ernst Schmidt.]

[Above: Other papers with dedication and signature by Ernst Schmidt.]

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