Kapitanleutnant Gunter Rabe stepped aboard his new craft, his crew stood to attention... everything was prepared. All he had to do was to give the order, mooring warps would be slipped and they’d leave the ship’s birth place; but first he wanted to savour the moment. After all, it’s not every day a young 20 something would take command of one of the most sophisticated weapons of war the world had ever seen. As for the regime, well, his thoughts on that were best left private.
It was a strange feeling, stepping aboard this craft, the last known of its type still afloat, in workable condition. I wanted to savour the moment; after all it wasn’t everyday you stepped onto the bridge of what was once one of the most sophisticated weapons of war at the peak, the pinnacle, of marine engineering. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed that echoes from sixty years ago reverberated around the vessel, the murmurings of the dead. Be still, we mean no harm.
It was 1943, the location was Willshelmshaven, and S130, his Schnelleboot of the 9th Flotilla had performed well in her sea trials, reaching an outstanding 42.5knots. He knew the British Royal Navy had nothing, absolutely nothing, that could come close in terms of speed and power; the thought gave him a thrill and he felt proud of this technical tour de force, achieved despite and because of the punishing Treaty of Versailles. The designer, Herr Benje, had done well; the Kreigsmarine’s leading edge engineering had delivered him this incredible craft; an unintended and unforeseen consequence.
It was 2003, the location was Willhelmshaven, and S130 was stuck in a pig of a berth. On a previous visit we’d extricated her for sea trials in the inner harbour; she’d slipped along at 7 knots on tick over with just the one sixteen cylinder engine, instead of the three 20 cylinder Mercedes-Benz monsters which delivered nearly 10,000hp to the three propellors which she’d had as a fighting machine. Phil, our engineer, had done well; his experience with historic naval craft had delivered the goods.
On this somewhat dank October morning, the harbour was an unbelievably busy and noisy place with repairs, building, victualing and loading of munitions; water taxis and service craft buzzed around from wharf to wharf, ferrying personnel hither and thither. Smoke from funnels added to the fug and various hoots and toots from ships’ horns punctuated the general mayhem as they signalled their intentions to manoeuvre this way and that; two blasts for port, one for starboard and once a startled five “what are your intentions!”, or to put it in the vernacular “get of of the bleeding way!”.
On this bitterly cold February morning the harbour was deserted, with none of the hectic noise of an industrious Naval port in wartime with repairs, building, victualling and loading of munitions. Treacherous ice on the deck made us dance carefully and even the brackish water in the harbour had miniature growlers floating in it; the mooring warps were frozen stiff and solid, working them was painful on ungloved hands.
He gave the command to slip, and took the helm. He didn’t have to, but he enjoyed boat handling in confined quarters. He sprung the bow out, reversing on a stern spring, the crew worked well together; the hard graft of the training showed, each crewman in their allocated stations. They picked their way gingerly through the crowded inner harbour to the massive locks through which they would enter the bay and from there the North Sea. As he supped on a mug of fresh coffee he thought about das blonde Madchen he’d been seeing, the dance they’d shared the previous evening, idly wondered whether they’d ever meet again, vaguely hoped so, then dismissed her from his mind.
We were in a race against time. A stable weather system in the North Sea at this time of year was a rare event, it wouldn’t last. Our insurance only covered us up to a Force 5 and in any case we wouldn’t want to be on the end of a tow rope in that, or anything like the usual winter weather in that shallow and deadly sea. Weather may be unpredictable, but the tides are not and the immutable laws of physics dictated that there was a tidal gate which we were in danger of missing. The tug had to get into the port, extricate S130 and tow her out again, within one cycle of the lock gates; otherwise we’d be imprisoned for a tide and risk losing the weather window.
S130, herself 115ft long, was dwarfed by the lock, a sleek and deadly tadpole in a bathtub. Through these very gates, these gargantuan gates constructed by Krupps, had passed that immense Teutonic titan Tirpitz, sister vessel of the ill fated, fatally flawed yet heroic Bismark; Rabe’s thoughts were with those 1,995 lost souls, downed and drowned some two years previously. Grim news indeed.
We supped on fresh coffee; the tug finally arrived and we set to, connecting lines such that the tug could tug S130 out and through the inner harbour to those immense, impressive, sliding lock gates. The threat of losing the tidal gate added an urgency to the task. As we approached the inner lock gate, we passed modern Naval vessels to port, cruisers which seemed so massive, yet which would have themselves been dwarfed by their ancestor Tirpitz, which herself had passed through these gates all those years ago.
Like every sailor he longed to be free of life on land; those lock gates opened onto more than just the Jadebusen; life at sea was so much simpler, so much less complex and impenetrable, so much more vivid in every detail and somehow more meaningful. As the lock gates slid shut behind them, the air seemed purer, the unbreakable bonds between the crew began to make themselves felt, wreath-like fingers wrapping themselves around each of them, from the lowly but essential Matrosengefreiter, or Seaman First Class, to himself as Skipper; the dangers of enemy submarines, aircraft and ships added a piquancy that could be felt by all and being “on watch” really had meaning.
The outer lock gate slid shut behind us and we relaxed, we’d made it; we were headed out to sea. I’d sailed with Kevan for years, he was my Yachtmaster Instructor, and I’d had no hesitation at all in recommending him as Skipper for this job; competent, calm and with a great sense of humour. We shared that love of being at sea where life was so much simpler, so much more understandable, so easy. As we were pulled along by the tug, we settled into our routine and the bonds that hold together a crew started to make themselves felt. A problem with the stern gland, overheating till it was red hot, helped bring us together and we shared accommodation with the ghosts of the Kriegsmarine.
His orders were pretty straightforward: to join the rest of the 9th Flotilla, led by Korvettenkapitan von Mirbach on S150, in the French port of Cherbourg. Other than perhaps dodging the enemy, he didn’t expect any trouble on the way there; the forecast was OK, not the best, but she was a dry boat in a seaway, even at speed, so if it cut up rough they’d still make good time. A distant droning became louder and louder and they were buzzed by a Fieseler Storch reconnaissance plane; he gave the order to cruise at a fuel efficient 17 knots, the course chosen taking them outside of the chain of low-lying islands to port.
Our plan was pretty simple; to get at least to Den Helder, further if the weather allowed. Other than the weather, which would do its own thing, we didn’t expect any trouble and if it cut up rough there were some other bolt holes we could run into. We believed that S130 had been into Den Helder and Ijmuiden too; both ports had been used by Schnelleboot flotillas, although the 9th Flotilla’s home port was Cherbourg. Our course would take us around the outside of the chain of low lying islands of Wangerooge, Spiekeroog, Langerroog, that strange Dutch language impossible to pronounce. A distant thrumming became louder and we were buzzed by a Coast Guard helicopter, dramatic video footage indeed.
As he pulled a fine long light browny blonde hair (was she Dutch, perhaps or Swedish?) off his sleeve and let it flutter away in the breeze, he heard the radio operator working the Enigma machine, an incoming message. It was from his friend and brother in arms, skipper of S207, Hans Schirren. It read “Happy Hunting”: no one then knew just how successful that hunting would prove to be.
By early the next morning it was clear we weren’t going to make it all the way to Southampton. The weather was deteriorating at an alarming rate, the stable high pressure system was losing its battle with an incoming low, the wind and waves were increasing; the boat, so light compared to its original format, was bobbing around like a cork and was beginning to snatch at its tether. As dawn broke we were well inside the entrance to Den Helder and looking forward to a shore-side breakfast. I heard a cell phone ringing below and it was a text message from John, the owner. It read “Well done!”.
When we moved S130 in 2003 Gunter Rabe was still alive, though his health was failing and I believe now he has passed away. I’d have like to have met him, it would have been a privilege; besides there is a connection between us now, S130 herself: we are crew mates. By all accounts he was a great Skipper, not only devising a new method of using these amazing and deadly craft, but also in the steps he took to protect his crew from their enemies and also from the elements.
The chain of command: As far as I understand it, Rabe reported to Korvettenkapitan von Mirbach, who in turn reported to Korvettenkapitan Rudolf Petersen, leader of the S-Bootewaffe. In my records I have a photograph of Petersen with Admiral Donitz dated June 1943 and Donitz reported to Hitler; so that’s just five degrees of separation between Hitler and me, something I find difficult to grasp.
In memory to all who perished during those dark days.