Have you ever served in the Navy?

Berlin : German submariners: For them, moving closer together is everyday business

Of course he saw "Das Boot", the 1981 war film about the "submarine weapon" in World War II. And didn't like it: "They moved from one action scene to the other. It has nothing to do with reality." Horst Böttcher served as a submarine driver in the German Navy from 1941 to 1944. During this time, the now 77-year-old was on patrol five times, a total of almost 365 days at sea. "Sometimes nothing happened for weeks." Böttcher is a member of the "Association of German U-Boat Drivers", whose members have now come together for its 19th national meeting in Berlin. Nevertheless, "Das Boot" is the best that German film has to offer on this subject. Director Wolfgang Petersen found the atmosphere on board well: the claustrophobic tightness in the narrow hull, the dirt and the stuffy air, the tense, concentrated mood of the crew and the constant threat of death.

Most of the almost 200 former and active submarine drivers gathered at the Hotel Hamburg could tell similar stories. They sit tightly together at the tables and tell their life stories soaked in seawater. Tightness is not a problem for these sailors, they are used to it. The 24 submarines owned by today's German Navy are 54 meters long and 4.5 meters wide - not much space to get out of your way. "Every two sailors share a bunk," says frigate captain Siegfried Schneider. If one is on duty, the other can sleep. Only a narrow washroom with shower and toilet is available for the crew of 27. Schneider: "You have to know beforehand what you are going to do and then go forwards or backwards into the room accordingly. Turning is difficult." The frigate captain himself commanded a submarine for seven years before moving to his desk a few weeks ago as deputy commander of the German submarine flotilla. The constant closeness without privacy bonds together: "We are a closed group, something special," says Schneider - and hurries to assure: "But nothing elitist."

This is probably why the contacts among the submarine drivers remain lifelong. In the meantime they even hold regular meetings with their former enemies: French, British, Americans ... In May they were with their Russian colleagues in St. Petersburg. Of course, the submarine drivers are concerned with the fate of their comrades on board the sunk "Kursk". Probably only they can really understand what the men down there felt in their final hours. "There was certainly no panic," says veteran Horst Böttcher. "Submariners are trained to remain calm even in hopeless situations." Probably only with this drill did one of the Russian officers manage to write a farewell letter.

"Such a thing cannot happen to a modern German submarine," affirmed frigate captain Schneider. The pressure hull consists of four cells, even if three are full of water, the boat can be kept on the surface of the water. The philosophy of the German submarine commanders is different from that of their Russian colleagues. "We always bring our wrecked boats to the surface to rescue them. This is not possible with Russian boats the size of the Kursk." The Russian nuclear submarine is four times as long as the types of boat currently in service with the German Navy and, at 18,000 tons, displaces 36 times more water. Such calibers are quickly drawn into the depths when damaged.

Horst Böttcher also often looked death in the eye. The U-618 was his boat, 54 men crew, task: sinking enemy war and supply ships in the Atlantic. Böttcher's longest patrol lasted 14 weeks in a row and led him across the equator. "We sunk five ships and shot down two long-range bombers."

Like most soldiers in the Wehrmacht, Böttcher feels a strong pressure to justify himself. "It wasn't the soldiers who made the war, but the politicians. And for Germany it was a matter of life and death back then." There is the notorious order from the head of the German submarines, Karl Dönitz, from 1942, in which he forbade all submarine commanders to rescue members of sunken ships: "Rescue contradicts the most primitive demands of warfare." And finally, in April 1945, Hitler even made him his successor. Often enough, Dönitz had assured the "Führer" of his admiration and loyalty.

That doesn't change the esteem Dönitz enjoys among German submarine veterans. "At home there is still a picture of him on the wall," says Horst Böttcher. "For all of us he was Dönitz's father." But not everyone in the submarine association shares this admiration for Dönitz. Especially those members who went on German submarines after the war try to straighten the image of Dönitz in the association. "In 1945 he drove young people to certain death with perseverance," says a high-ranking officer. "It belongs to the history of the German Navy, but not to its line of tradition."

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