Our U-boat departed Wilhelmshaven on the morning of October 12th, 1917. Rough seas made for an uncomfortable journey, but the crew of the U-333 hardly noticed. They were veterans all, the only exception being myself, newly qualified Navigation Officer Leutnant Hans-Werner Fleischer. I replaced the N.O. who had died of a burst appendix in mid-Atlantic during U-333's last voyage. Perhaps this explained why the crew shunned me; sailors are, after all, the most superstitious of breeds. Rather than permit their unfriendly attitude to dishearten me, I accepted their decision and got on with my job, performing my function as well as I could manage. Thoughts of my dear Brigitte kept me sane during the lonely voyage. In quiet moments I composed poems expressing my love for her. I also kept a diary of events so that she might one day come to appreciate life aboard a submarinea cramped, claustrophobic existence which few men can bear without suffering severe mental strain and exhaustion.
Three days out from Wilhelmshaven, Kapitan von Hausen summoned me to his cabin and showed me his orders. Once clear of the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland, U-333 was to proceed to a map reference that would take us high beyond the Arctic Circle. This concerned me greatly because at this time of year the ice pack was particularly heavy, which fact I conveyed to von Hausen immediately.
"You may be right," he said, frowning. "But nonetheless we shall endeavor to make the rendezvous. Chart a course, and see it is passed to Oberleutnant Klatz."
I saluted and made my way to the control room. Ignoring the hostile glances directed at me by my shipmates, I unrolled the appropriate chart and made my calculations. I double-checked the results, then presented the sheet to Klatz. "Kapitan's orders, sir," I said. "We are to proceed upon this course."
"So, we're not hunting for British convoys this trip," Klatz said, fixing me with a malevolent look that suggested he blamed me for this turn of events.
"Kapitan's orders, sir," I repeated. With greatest reluctance, it seemed, Klatz passed the course to the steersman, then ordered the chief engineer to attain maximum revolutions.
Since the Navigation Officer, having provided the vessel with a suitable heading, really has nothing else to do, I climbed into the conning tower to join the observers already there. U-333 would sail upon the surface of the ocean, powered by her diesel engines, until circumstances forced her to dive underwater, where she would operate on battery power. I liked to look out over the gray sea, feeling the rush of salt air in my mouth and nostrils. It invigorated me, cleared my mind, made the crew's unfair and childish attitude seem unimportant. I spent most of my waking hours up there, which perhaps explains why I was the first to see, some days later, the great icebergs forming ahead, an army of ice giants that seemed to march toward us.
I expected von Hausen to reduce speed, for such hazards were not to be ignored, but he did no such thing. "Maintain maximum revolutions," he told Klatz, who could not conceal his concern. Then von Hausen said to me, "Remain in the conning tower, Fleischer, and speak down the tube. The steersman will obey your instructions. You know where we're going. Guide us through the icebergs."
"Yes, sir." The responsibility weighed heavily upon my shoulders. The slightest mistake could result in collision with an underwater hazard, which might spell doom for U-333 and her entire crew. If she sank, we would have to take to the life rafts in sub-zero temperatures. Our chances of survival, this far off the major shipping lanes, were slim. Taking to the water wearing a lifejacket would be pointless; the water was freezing, death would occur within minutes.
A much larger proportion of an iceberg exists underwater than appears on the surface, thus trying to judge the width of these frigid leviathans was far from easy. Often they were so close to each other that I knew they must be touching, but I had no choice but to direct U-333 between them, hoping and praying that I had chosen the optimum course on each occasion. They reared above us like mountains, emitting sounds unlike any I had ever heard before. They groaned, they muttered, they cried out as if in pain, betraying symptoms of the enormous stresses that must exist within their incalculable depths. The observers stared at their alien surroundings, awed by Nature's titanic creations.
By calculating U-333's speed and heading, and taking into account variables such as current and wind direction, I was able to ascertain that we were nearing our destination. I informed the Kapitan of our position when he next visited the conning tower.
"What exactly are we looking for, sir?" I asked.
"Another U-boat," he replied. "Specifically the U-750, commanded by Kapitan Kurt Waldmar. And, an iceberg." Seeing my confused expression, he added, "Not just any iceberg." He peered through his binoculars, then pointed ahead. "Look, look there. See? It is just as Waldmar described it."
Amid the other icebergs floated a freak of Nature, a vast sliver of frozen water shot through with ore deposits, or so I surmised when I beheld it for the first time. The deposits made this iceberg very different from the rest. They formed intricate networks similar to blood vessels I had once seen in an anatomy volume. The effect was really quite striking, and not a little unnerving.
"Sir," I said, "what brought the U-750 this far north?"
"A good question, Fleischer. Although the answer may perplex rather than explain. Waldmar reported sighting what he thought was a British freighter. He ordered pursuit, but no matter how hard he pushed his engines, U-750 could not catch the freighter. Always it remained just out of range, a tantalizing enigma. Waldmar should have broken off and returned to his patrol pattern, but for reasons unknown to anyone but himself, he continued to chase the freighter.
"It vanished, according to Waldmar's radio reports, two days after it was first sighted. By then U-750 had passed into the ice field. Accurate navigation became impossible. Waldmar's compass gave conflicting readings. He could not even take a fix on the sun because of dense cloud. To compound this, his radio developed a faultWaldmar could not receive incoming radio signals. He had no way of knowing whether his own messages transmitted successfully, but he continued to send anyway."
Our vessel emerged from between two icebergs, and I called a course correction to the steersman that took us around another floating city of ice and closer to that which we sought. As we rounded this iceberg, we came within sight of the scarlet-veined oddity.
"This is the very last thing Waldmar reported," von Hausen said. "Radio traffic ceased after he described the iceberg."
Leaving me to ponder this, von Hausen ordered quarter revolutions, which gave U-333 a steady three knots. The waters were calm, strangely so. We sailed across a sheet of glass and approached the iceberg. As we did so it towered above us, growing in apparent size and mass. My neck ached from looking up, but I could not stop myself from staring at the unusual strata. The light played tricks, causing shadows to shift inside the ice. It took on the appearance of a living organism, pulsating with life.
Von Hausen ordered all-stop when we came within 200 yards. The dull pulse of our diesel engines faded and died. Our momentum took us closer. Full right rudder altered our course so we came to drift alongside the iceberg. Oberleutnant Klatz let out a cry, and pointed. We followed the direction of his outstretched finger. There, visible around the curve of the iceberg, was the stern of a U-boat!
"Chief Engineer," Kapitan von Hausen called down the tube. "Slow revolutions."
The engines turned over again and U-333 edged forward. U-750 floated motionless in the iceberg's shadow. Von Hausen lifted his funnel to his mouth and shouted across the shortening distance between the two vessels, asking if anyone could hear him. When no answer was forthcoming, he ordered grappling hooks fetched from below.
"Oberleutnant, a boarding party," von Hausen said.
Klatz selected two of his crew, men he obviously knewand then, to my surprise, he placed his hand upon my shoulder. A sense of elation accompanied me as I followed him down the ladder and onto the forward deck. Klatz expertly threw the grappling hooks. We pulled on the ropes, slowly bringing U-333 alongside her sister ship. Klatz was first aboard. He leapt the gap, then made his way to the conning tower. The other two crewmen went after him without hesitation, displaying the casual nonchalance of sailors who had lived and worked aboard ships their entire lives. How I envied them their confidence! They climbed into the tower after Klatz. Von Hausen was watching me. I steeled myself, and jumped. My boots slipped on U-750's icy deck, a heart-stopping moment, but I regained my balance and did not fall in.
As Klatz and the others had already gone below, and were unlikely to need me, I decided to go forward, allowing intuition to lead me past the deck gun, to the escape hatch located behind the torpedo room. The hatch lay open, allowing me to peer down into the empty escape compartment. Looking further forward, I realized that U-750's bows were touching the iceberg. Where they touched there was an opening of sorts, a fissure in the otherwise smooth surface.
I returned to the vicinity of the conning tower, cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted my findings to von Hausen.
Less than five minutes later we stood gathered upon U-750's forward deck: Kapitan von Hausen, Oberleutnant Klatz, the two sailors and myself. Klatz went forward to inspect the opening. He leaned forward, looking into the fissure. When he rejoined us, his expression conveyed his amazement.
"It is a passageway," he said. "It penetrates the iceberg a considerable distance. Sir, could Kapitan Waldmar and his crew have gone this way?"
Von Hausen pondered this quite unexpected suggestion. Klatz had already reported that U-750 was quite deserted; there was no sign of her kapitan or her crew. All life rafts were in place, all lifejackets were accounted for. The lights were working, which suggested U-750 still had sufficient battery power to start her engines and leave the area. And yet here she was, lying in calm waters alongside this most unusual iceberg. Logic provided no explanation.
"You really think we will find Kurt Waldmar and his men in there?" von Hausen asked. Klatz did not reply. Like the rest of us, he simply waited for von Hausen to make his mind up. "Very well. You," he indicated one of the sailors, "return to the ship and inform the watch officer." I watched the sailor depart with a sense of envy. Was I the only one who perceived the sense of menace that radiated from within the iceberg?
With reluctance, it seemed, von Hausen allowed Klatz to jump into the fissure. Von Hausen, myself and the sailor followed. No one asked the obvious questions: had Waldmar's crew actually created the passageway? Why would they do such a thing? And if they did notthen who did? What had driven Waldmar to embark upon this mission of exploration? Curiosity? Or had he also sensed the malevolence that pressed down upon me as I moved deeper into the iceberg? Von Hausen and Klatz voiced no similar feeling, and the sailor behind me seemed more concerned with keeping his balance upon the smooth ice floor than with such idle thoughts.
"Up ahead," Klatz called back to us. "An opening."
Moments later we four found ourselves standing on a shelf of sorts, looking down upon as odd a scene as could ever have been devised by any demented artist. The passageway gave access to a chamber as large as a cathedral hall, cut out of the ice. There were other openings, above and below and on the wall opposite our position.
"Heaven have mercy upon us," von Hausen said. I could well understand why he uttered these words as a kind of prayer. The floor below held a curious fascination for all of us. At first glance one might easily have mistaken it for a natural geometric pattern, such is often created by swirling current passing over sand. Closer inspection, however, revealed that the bizarre mosaic was created by the placement of fifty-seven bodies in a sequence of two circles, one within the other, their feet all pointing toward the hypothetical center of the circle. We had found the crew of the U-750, although not as we had hoped. The temperature inside the iceberg was well below freezing. These men could not possibly still be alive, as they were each covered in a heavy layer of frost that obscured every inch of their flesh.
"What the devil is that?" Klatz said.
From out of another of the openings crawled a creature of the deep ocean, a squidlike thing that pulled itself into the chamber using its tentacles. It stopped at once and regarded us balefully with a huge eyeball. By comparing it with the frozen bodies laid out in circles, I estimated its length to be six feet, half of which was taken up by thick tentacles. Its bulbous head might well house a large brain. I say this because I sensed the intelligence that radiated across the distance between us, an almost tangible energy that swept over me like a chill wind. The thing was studying us, that much was obvious. I did not know what reaction our presence might provoke, if any, but I could not guess that it would push itself up using its lower tentacles, and open its upper tentacles in a fan to reveal a cavernous mouth equipped with a huge beak. The beak opened and as alien a sound as ever assaulted the ears of men burst forth: "AA-KAA-KEE!" it shrieked, over and over, so loudly that I clapped my hands over my ears. "AA-KAA-KEE!" it cried again, and with this, shadows stirred in many of the other openings, shadows that suggested others of its strange ilk had been alerted by the warning.
"We must return to the U-333," Klatz said. "Sir!" He shook von Hausen roughly by the shoulder. "We must return to the submarine!"
Von Hausen stirred from his shock. "Yes," he said. "Yes, get out of here."
The sailor needed no second telling, he turned and hurried back along the passageway with considerably more speed than he had come in. Klatz was about to push von Hausen after the sailor when he looked past me screamed in horror, forcing me, against my will, to glance back over my shoulder and witness that which transpired.
The squidlike creature had approached the nearest human body. Its tentacles played over the frost-covered form, gradually revealing the flesh beneath. And then, its eye closed, the creature shuffled forward over the top half of the body, so that head, shoulders, chest and upper arms disappeared beneath its tentacles.
I could not imagine a more horrid fate and was thankful that the crewman must already be dead. But events had not yet played to their conclusion. The squidlike creature shuddered, and wrapped its thick arms around the torso. At the same time, the crewman's legs twitched. The crewman, his top half engulfed by the creature, sat up! He rocked forward, his knees bending and then straightening, pushing him into an upright position. He stood, his captured body supporting his own weight plus the weight of the thing that rode him.
"God in Heaven," von Hausen whispered.
The frightful transformation complete, the huge eye opened again. The creaturenow half man, half squidtook a hesitant step toward us. Then another. The creature was gaining mastery of its human carriage, forcing the legs to work. And now I saw how a ramp gave access to the shelf, allowing the creature to reach us. I might easily have stood there, transfixed by this ghastly impossibility, had Klatz not screamed again. Von Hausen and I grabbed hold of him and together we plunged back along the passageway. I held onto Klatz the entire journey, and managed to stop us both before we tumbled out of the fissure and missed the U-750's bows. Von Hausen and the sailor helped us to climb out without mishap. From behind us, from the chill chamber at the end of the passageway, came that dreaded noise, repeated over and over again. We hurried to the base of the conning tower. Klatz was in a terrible state, rambling incoherentlyor worse, silently mouthing a sound composed of three syllables. His wide eyes and fluttering hands indicated how the sight of the squid creature possessing the crewman had affected him. How I succeeded in retaining my sanity when presented with the same horror, was beyond explanation.
"We must get the Oberleutnant back aboard U-333," von Hausen said, but his expression betrayed his uncertainty. We could not leap the gap between the U-boats burdened with Klatz. And time, as the increasing volume of those inhuman voices indicated, was clearly of the essence. They were coming after us. We could not wait for a gangplank to be maneuvered into place.
"You must go, sir," I said. "I shall remain aboard U-750 with the Oberleutnant."
Von Hausen stared at me, perhaps surprised by my willingness to face the creatures alone. Had he asked, I would have told him that my oath of loyalty to the German Navy and to the U-333 motivated my actions. He hesitated, but then made the only decision he could make: "Very well. Thank you, Leutnant Fleischer. Is there anything?"
"I should be obliged, sir, if my diary and the poems therein are delivered to my fiancÚ. Her name and address are contained within the book."
"I'll see to it," he promised. He turned away and leapt for U-333's deck. The relieved sailor quickly cut the grappling ropes with his knife and went after him. They swarmed into the conning tower, from where von Hausen bellowed orders. U-333 reversed away, leaving Oberleutnant Klatz and I to our fate.
We took refuge in U-750's forward escape compartment, the only place I could think of to hide in. Lowering the weeping and utterly helpless Klatz into the space proved a struggle, but I managed this task with seconds to spare. As I reached up and pulled the escape hatch down, I saw movement at the fissure opening. The creature we had seen came into view, using the crewman as transport. It paused there for a moment, then toppled forward into the water. Another appeared, and did the same. Then another. I kept the escape hatch open just a fraction, as much for Klatz as to maintain a view of what was happening. The creatures tumbled from the opening, a veritable avalanche of slithering tentacles merged with human flesh. I turned my head to see where they were going. With single-minded purpose, they swam in pursuit of U-333. I could not see what became of the crewmen, but imagined they might have been abandoned as soon as they hit the water. If they were still alive then they would freeze, or drown, or both.
I heard the report of a rifle. Then a revolver fired six times in rapid succession. Von Hausen and my shipmates were giving a good account of themselves! Twice more, a rifle discharged. Then, silence. A silence broken only by footsteps upon the deck of the U-750.
I stared through the tiny gap between hatch and seal, at the feet of a sailor who no longer possessed control of his own body and limbs. I could not see higher than his waist, for which I was grateful. Truthfully, I had not expected to elude capture, or death. I had no desire to die and much desire to live, to return to Dorfund, to my Brigitte. I closed my eyes and saw her clearly. The footsteps stopped. I tensed, expecting the creature to wrench the hatch open and drag me out, along with Klatz. Instead, the footsteps receded, moving back toward the scarlet-veined iceberg.
We huddled together in the escape compartment for another ten minutes, shivering with the cold, before I dared move a voluntary muscle. I opened the inner hatch and made my way through the U-boat's corridors, past its empty, haunted cabins. I climbed into the conning tower and peered over the side. From my vantage point I could see U-333. She had stopped quarter of a mile away and was drifting without power. Her conning tower and decks were devoid of life. I looked toward the fissure in time to see the last of U-333's crew dragged out of the sea and up the angled passageway, into the heart of that darkest of icebergs. It might have been von Hausen; I cannot say for certain.
We had U-750 all to ourselves. I put Klatz to bed after forcing him to drink several cups of hot coffee to bring up his body temperature, and wrapped him in blankets. He awoke late the next day, less manic but still only a shadow of his former self. He accepted more coffee, and a plate of stew I had found in the pitifully small kitchen.
"What are we to do, Fleischer?" he said, almost whispering the words.
"We can stay here and die, sir," I replied, "or we can sail this U-boat back to Germany, if it is possible for only two men to do so. The fuel tanks are one-third full, and we have battery power."
I am convinced that no other sailor in the entire German Navy could have done what Klatz did. His intimate knowledge of every aspect of the U-boat allowed us to start the engines and move away from the iceberg before the squid creatures could organize a pursuit. I helped him wherever and whenever I could, and charted a course that took us south of the Arctic Circle, into warmer waters where no icebergs could exist for long. It was there that Klatz died, an old man, his hair turned white and his eyes filled with a terror too great for words.
Alone, I could do very little. The engines stopped some hours after Klatz expired, and I could not restart them. U-750 drifted for two days, punished by high seas, then a Swedish cargo ship saw the white flag I had tied to the radio mast and stopped to pick me up. Before I climbed up the rope ladder that took me to safety, I opened the forward and aft escape hatches. When I looked back, U-750's bows were already under water.
My rescuers delivered me to the Swedish authorities, who turned me over to the German consulate. It was only a matter of time before I returned to Dorfund, where I saw my Brigitte briefly and affirmed our love before senior officers from the Kreigsmarine questioned me regarding the fate of the U-333 and Kapitan Waldmar's U-750. When I told them of the iceberg, and of the creatures we saw, they said nothing. Perhaps they thought me mad; perhaps I was. They ordered me to take a long convalescence in the military hospital outside Messengart. There I saw out the war, playing chess with limbless patients who wondered why someone as healthy as I was not permitted to return to combat. I could have told them, but they would not have believed me either. As for myself, I was far from the sea, and that was all that ever mattered.