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Sights and sounds of the final hours of World War I (laphamsquarterly.org)
86 points by lermontov 74 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments

The article is WWI but here is a relevant anecdote.

I have an elderly neighbor who served in WWII.

He was on a battleship when the news came from the radio room that Germany surrendered.

In the midst of the celebrations onboard, the sea broke, and they found that they had been followed and semi surrounded by U-boats.

The submarines were also listening for news, and their commander had said not to torpedo the ship until they know if the war continues.

It hard to imagine the feeling of victory and relief combined with the feeling that one was almost sunk, and only for the goodness of the German commandeer that wasn't looking to kill indiscriminately..

He told me this emotionally, so I take his word for this, but am open to hearing from those more knowlegable about the facts if his story makes sense.

I wouldn't say it is impossible, but it strikes me as unlikely (Though do keep in mind that I am nothing but a guy with an above average interest in history; I'm mostly throwing out my thoughts here to have them vetted by those more knowledgeable than I!)

a) To listen to the radio, the German sub would've needed to keep an aerial above water; this would create a wake which could've been observed, with obvious consequences for the sub. I doubt a commander would have taken that risk.

b) I also doubt he'd risk surfacing near a foe armed to the teeth so shortly after cessation of hostilities - what if the battleship hadn't been notified yet? Or, just as bad - if they had, but assumed the sub hadn't been, and acted accordingly, just to be safe?

c) Further, in the last days of the war, Dönitz (head of the Kriegsmarine) ordered all vessels scuttled, rather than having them fall in enemy hands. I have no idea how many submarines were still operational and on patrol come V-E Day, but presumably most would have been scuttled or headed for South America by then.

So, while I find it unlikely, I wouldn't rule it out, and would love to know more about the incident.

"ordered all vessels scuttled, rather than having them fall in enemy hands"

The Cruel Sea ends with a corvette passing some tied up U-boats - given that Nicholas Monsarrat served in corvettes (as described the in Three Corvettes) I don't think he'd have got that detail wrong.

They where scuttled in the harbour I believe

> presumably most would have been scuttled or headed for South America by then.

My presumption (and I don't know, I'm guessing) would be that most uboat crews would want to go home and would surrender to the (preferably non-Russian) forces.

South America might be an option if you've been a war criminal (think: concentration camp commandant), but I'd imagine not so much if you're a regular German soldier.

Just that - if you were a bona fide war criminal, you'd like to disappear yourself from Europe - but you'd need some assistance in doing so. U-530 and U-977 ended up in Argentina after the war, for instance - who came with them is still disputed. (That being said, I don't buy into the 'Hitler escaped to Argentina in a submarine!' idea - but that some of his henchmen might have? Absolutely.)

a) True, but most uboats needed air anyway. They were viewable by air. (Sure there was a snorkel [1] but they couldn't endure hours using it).

b) "I also doubt he'd risk surfacing near a foe armed to the teeth so shortly after cessation of hostilities"

Ok. This. I would say, yes, they would risk it on the German side. Germans were known to run to American troops for safety. The 'bad war' wasn't between the US and the Germans. The Germans weren't dumb they knew if they surrendered to the US they would have international rights and be treated like POWs.

c) Sure. But that left each vessel to their own devices. I would imagine many surrendering to the US (but still have arms on board).

"I have no idea how many submarines were still operational and on patrol come V-E Day"

I would say not many. Many due to gasoline restrictions. Being a Uboat wasn't hard, it was being an axis allied gasoline tanker that was hard.


Being on a Uboat (or any sub for that matter) must have been absolute horror. I think das boot (the uncut version) does a good job of conveying the insane boredom and long days or months with no communication with the outside world.

Also, the fact that your home also has an insane chance of being your coffin..

Chicago’s Museum Of Science and Industry has a Uboat on exhibit. The first uboat captured by allies during WWII in fact. I went inside it and yeah, it’s pretty depressing. :)

Similarly, the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, TX has a Japanese midget submarine that was part of the Pearl Harbor attack. It's astounding how small it is -- if my memory serves me correctly, I wouldn't have been able to stand up in it.

Edit: here it is: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a3/DS...

kinda cool! would love to visit suchs a thing sometime, sadly going to the states is a bit of a large expense to see a uboat..

You can find the occasional showpiece U-boat several other places -


a) While they needed the snorkel if they were to run at any speed submerged (as it enabled the use of the main, diesel propulsion plant), sneaking up on the enemy was often done on batteries (slow; limited duration; no trace on the surface) - but if you were following (as opposed to lurking in front of) a surface ship, you'd definitely have to run on diesels.

The downside to this, of course, being that you'd announce your presence to any competent lookout on the ship you were following.

b) If I was German, I'd definitely prefer to surrender to a western power; I do think it may have been a bit rash to announce my presence in such a spectacular fashion with all the risk that entails, when I could as well have slipped a couple of miles away, surfaced, draped some table linen from the conning tower and radioed my intent to surrender and request instructions; much better than getting rammed or blasted out of the water for my trouble.

c) Three out of four U-boat crewmen got killed during the war, so it could be argued that being on a U-boat had its own risks - besides, this late in the war, the tankers would hardly have had any fuel to ship anyway - the Germans lost their oilfields (primarily in Ploesti, Romania and Maikop, Russia) prior to the endgame and largely relied on synthetic fuels, available in limited quantities.

That being said, I agree with your assessment that the U-boat force had ceased to be a serious threat way before the spring of 1945 - fuel shortages definitely being a major factor.

> but presumably most would have been scuttled or headed for South America by then

I saw a programme a couple of years ago about a port in Northern Ireland which had quite a few U boats moored after the war.

There is a picture here from Lisahally https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205160207

There were also over 30 which surrendered in Loch Eriboll, Sutherland. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/7479898/Mas...

Incredible! Listened to all the Hardcore History episodes about the first world war again recently, very moving and just unbelievable in it's scale, I still don't feel I grasp the immensity. Also saw this[0] colored photo collection pass by on twitter this morning.

[0] http://thechive.com/2018/11/07/ww1-in-color-for-100th-annive...

I listened to that series too ("Blueprint for Armageddon"), and it's incredibly depressing. The big thing I pulled from it is to watch for the Sunk Cost Fallacy everywhere. It was obvious by 1915 that trench warfare and the defensive technology of the era meant that no one was going to gain the upper hand. It was in everyone's best interest to just quit fighting. But no one did, because they couldn't go back to their people and say "Yeah, we lost a million of your sons for nothing, but at least we didn't lose millions more". So instead, they lost millions more.

The "When diplomacy fails" podcast has a series on all the errors that were made during the month before the war started: http://www.wdfpodcast.com/july-crisis-anniversary-project/

That war could have been prevented in so, so many ways it is not even funny. Anyone here could have done it, just by not being able to speak German, or by not getting the Czar involved, etc.

"Since the armies tabulated their casualty statistics by the day and not by the hour, we know only the total toll for November 11th: twenty-seven hundred and thirty-eight men from both sides were killed, and eighty-two hundred and six were left wounded or missing. But since it was still dark at 5 a.m., and attacks almost always took place in daylight, the vast majority of these casualties clearly happened after the Armistice had been signed, when commanders knew that the firing was to stop for good at 11 a.m. The day’s toll was greater than both sides would suffer in Normandy on D Day, 1944. And it was incurred to gain ground that Allied generals knew the Germans would be vacating days, or even hours, later."


My kid is doing a presentation today about his relative who died in the Great War.

We did some research for him, and the guy had fought at Ypres twice, been part of the first gas attack, and got shipped off to Mesopotamia.

A week before the war ended, negotiations were underway but the generals decided they had to kill a bunch of Ottomans before it was too late. So our guy got sent to his death to win a war that was already won.

I just think of the waste of life. Wilfred Owen, the poet who wrote about the war, also died at the very end of the war. His stuff has done much to affect the mood surrounding WWI.

Pershing the American commander in WW1 did some thing similar got just under a thousand Dough Boys killed when he new the armistice had been signed.

I happened to be looking at pics of the War Memorial in the village I'm from (which I walked past multiple times every day for many years) and I noticed an odd thing - WW1 is "The World's War" and 1939-1945 is "The Great War"


That's interesting, as in the UK I've always heard the term Great War for the First World War. Sometime the Second was known as The Last War, which always confused me as a child as I knew there had been wars since.

It's a shame that war memorials site doesn't have a copy of the inscription on the memorials - it would be interesting to do a frequency analysis of the terms used.

I guess there have always been "Great Wars" in history - I remember reading that the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 was called that for generations after (probably in Michael Wood's superb book In Search of England: Journeys Into the English Past). Now we don't even know where Brunanburh took place!

World War II was the last war of that scale, though. May that always continue to be true.

Thats weird. In Australia at least, "The Great War" is how WW1 was described. In that the war was so great (in its terribleness) that it would be the last war of its type.

As the line in the previous series of DR who said "what do you mean "first" "

This is a fascinating article, but it really strikes me how quickly the past fades.

To a friend who’s currently deployed I sent the following message (we’re both Americans for context):

> I’ve always thought the civil war was a long time ago - it finished a bit over 100 years before I was born. I never thought that to our parents, they probably considered what their grandparent’s childhood was like - those were their grandparents first memories after all. For our kids, that’s about the same for WW1.

And that’s why rememberance is so critical, the severity of WW1 is all too often forgotten.

i disagree with this, atleast from my experience. World war 1 is heavily discussed in schools, (considering it resulted in massive social and political changes around europe, that is not weird)

Technically speaking, these were the final hours of the First World War in Europe. Fighting continued in East Africa for a few more days owing to delays in communication.

It was only on 14 November 1918 that the German commander in East Africa Gen von Lettow-Vorbeck was informed under a ceasefire flag by Lt-Gen van Deventer, the South African commander of all allied forces in East Africa, of the armistice signing. His formal surrender only occurred some days later, on 25 November.

The Chambesi Monument in Zambia commemorates the moment the news was communicated and thus the final cessation of hostilities of WWI.

I'm currently reading Martin Gilbert's "The First World War: A Complete History". It's been a great read so far. Although there are very many sad and tragic parts, one section put tears in my eyes:

“As [Friedrich] Feuchtinger’s regiment reached the Russian trenches, the Russians turned to flee. One of them, being closely chased, and apparently without his rifle, stopped all of a sudden, turned round, held out his right hand, and put his left hand into his tunic pocket. As he did so, Feuchtinger plunged in his bayonet. ‘I see his blood redden his uniform, hear him moan and groan as he twists with the bayonet in his young body. I am seized with terror. I throw myself down, crawl to him, wanting to help him. But he is dead. I pull my blood-stained bayonet from the dead body. Wanting to fold his hands, I see in the left hand a crumpled photo of his wife and child.”

It doesn't seem to be mentioned anywhere: the reason this article has emerged right now probably has to do with the 100 years since the end of World War I coming in a few days - November 11th according to Wikipedia (interpretation varies), also Independence Day for many countries.

Anyone who lives in the West who did not already that Sunday is the 100th Armistice Day must be living under a rock.

I doubt most here in Denmark know it. The war ending was horrible for the country (we were neutral war profiteers and sold to both sides at extremely inflated prices). The war probably only matters to the older generations, if at all, because for the rest of us it is overshaddowed by the second world war.

It also marks the centennial of Poland's return to the map after 123 years of partition and foreign rule.

One of America's most famous battles - the Battle Of New Orleans, was fought well after the treaty ending the War Of 1812 had been signed

News travelled slow

If you want to hear for yourself, the Imperial War Museum has used contemporary records to recreate the sounds of the end of the war:

https://metro.co.uk/video/imperial-war-museum-approximate-en... (audio)

https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/arts/imperial-war-museu... (more information)

great timing, i was actually reading a wonderful book about wwi called “a world undone” by g j meyer, probably one of the best books about the war out there.

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