Interview with Arthur Baudzus
Q: How did you come to enter the Kriegsmarine?
A: I volunteered. I did not have to join the armed forces during the War because I worked as a civilian at the U-boat base at Pillau, doing maintenance repairs on U-boats and, as such, was undraftable (unabkömlichl).
Q: When was that?
A: In September 1943.
Q: How did you end up as an electrician. Did you have prior electrical training, ask for that training when you entered the Navy, or were you simply told that this was what you would be doing?
A:As a rule, the Navy decided what a man was best suited for after he finished boot camp. In my case it was easy. I was an electrician before I joined the Navy.
Q: What made you decide to volunteer for the U-boat service?
A: In hindsight, it sounds stupid, but at that time the U-boat dilemma was not publicized, the newsreels told us that U-boat men were heroes, and the indiscriminate bombing of our cities made me angry, rather than quell the nationalistic spirit in me. And, with my qualifications, I expected quick promotions. I was 21-years-old.
Q: How many boats did you serve in? How many patrols did you make?
A: I was only in U-859. The patrol to Asia was my only one.
Q: Other than being sunk near Penang in U-859, what was your most frigtening experience during your service?
A: Standing on the bridge in the waters off South Africa with an armful of ammunition and looking up at a Catalina, which was diving down on me and shooting from all barrels.
Q: Most of the characters in U-859 obviously had real-life counterparts. Particularly the officers, and the gunner who was killed in the Catalina attack, could easily be identified with their real-life counterparts. How closely does the behavior of the fictional characters correspond to the real people?
A: The characters are as genuine and close as I could assess them after living with them for six months in those cramped quarters. I was also in the captain's (Kapitänleutnant Johann Jebsen's) home in Kiel and met his wife when he asked me to repair his radio.
Q: Where did McKay (a British prisoner aboard U-859) come from? Is he entirely fictional, or based on some real incident?
A: Lieutenant McKay is entirely fictional. I invented him to give the story contrast, and to unravel our way of thinking as opposed to that of our [Allied] counterparts.
Q: The character of Adam West seems mostly to be you. Is that true?
A: Yes, the Adam West character would be me. His way of thinking corresponds entirely with mine.
Q: In your novel, Adam becomes a member of U-859's crew after missing his previous boat's sailing when his train is delayed by Allied bombing. Now, you've said that U-859 was your only boat, so how did you happen to join her?
A: The crew of a new boat was subjected to a one year training period on the boat. After U-859 was finished and about to sail on her maiden patrol, it appeared that one electrician was unsuitable. Now Jebsen needed an electrician who could step in without prior training. They picked me out of the transit pool.
Q: During the course of your novel, U-859 sinks several ships, including the John Barry, which went to the bottom carrying millions of dollars worth of silver coin and bullion. The previous day, U-859 claimed a tanker, which no one has ever been able to confirm.
A: I was there and I can swear we torpedoed and hit a tanker on 27 August 1944, but nobody confirms it. Maybe the tanker limped home. I was not at the periscope.
Q: Can you remember your first thought after Trenchant's torpedo struck? How did you react?
A: U-859 had only one battery, in the front half of the ship. The deadly torpedo broke our boat into two halves. So with the ear-shattering explosion there was no power and instant blackness. There was only one way out of the boat and that was through the tower.
So, there is a deafening Bang! and instant blackness. I am thrown out of my bunk and realize this is the end (there is no time to ponder what has happened). The moment I hit the deck I bounce up like a tennis ball toward the exit hatch of the compartment. In total darkness, my hands claw at the handles above the hatch, but other forces prevented me from proceeding any farther.
Q: What were those forces?
A: First, on the other side of that bulkhead was a compartment filled with fire from the exploded torpedo. And, immediately after, an ocean full of water sluiced through the hatch into our bedroom.
Q: Many current submariners think of escape gear as something that's mainly of psychological value, but unlikely to be of much practical use if anything really happens. Was the same sort of attitude common in U-boats, and did it become worse as the War progressed and fewer boats returned safely?
A: We were all thoroughly trained in the use of the escape trunk. We took it as a matter of course that, in an emergency, we would grab our Tauchretter and escape as instructed. We gave no thought to the fact that most of the time we had many thousands of feet of water under the keel. We knew that sometimes U-boats were sunk, but we didn't dwell on it. It didn't worry us.
Q: When you realized that your boat had actually sunk in water shallow enough to escape, what did you do?
A: As a technical person, at first I did not know how deep the water was and lived only for the moment. Then I screamed into the blackness, "What was the last depth sounding?" "Fifty meters," somebody answered. Thereafter I was completely calm and purposeful. As it turned out later, not purposeful enough, because I decided to exit naked, without salvage equipment. Only luck kept me alive after I reached the surface.
Q: How long were you adrift in the Malacca Straits before the Japanes arrived to pick up you and your fellow survivors? (Note: Of the 20 survivors, HMS Trenchant picked up eleven immediately after the sinking. The remaining nine, including Mr. Baudzus, were picked up by the Japanese.)
A: We were adrift in the Malacca Straits for 24 hours.
Q: You were still in Asia when Germany surrendered. What sort of treatment did the German personnel receive from the Japanese?
A: I remained in Penang until January 1945, then I was transferred to Djakarta (Batavia). There I managed the wireless workshop. Before the German surrender, I was ordered to cut the short wave out of all German radios. I did so, except for my own. Besides the base commander, I was the only one who knew what was happening in Germany.
After the German surrender, all of the base personnel went into a voluntary encampment at a tea plantation. Knowing that Hitler was dead and the German Navy dissolved, I was no longer under oath. I refused to comply with orders and wanted to be free to start a civilian life. The Japanese object to this and, together with three like-minded men, I was incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp together with Dutch and Australian prisoners of war.
After the Japanese surrender, I walked out and was free for six glorious months, until someone dobbed me as an ex-Navy man and I was reunited with the other Navy men from Djakarta and Penang.
Q: Between the Axis and Allied navies in World War II, around 1,000 submarines and some 35,000 men were lost, the overwhelming majority of them German. Out of all of those loses, only a handful of men were able to successfully escape after their sunken submarine hit the bottom—most of them from your boat. What does it feel like to be a member of that tiny group of seamen singled out by luck or fate to swim up to the open air from what by all rights should have been their tomb?
A: I count my birthday from the 23rd of September 1944, when I was practically dead for ten minutes, incarcerated in the blackness of hell with 66 of my comrades at the bottom of the sea. That I should ever rise from there to a new life is truly a miracle worth remembering.
U-859 Book Page