Alan Roberts tells the fascinating story of Marine Engineer Dietrich:
Marine Engineer Dietrich and the Submarine War
There is great excitement in the air as a batch of German officers is to be paraded through the streets of the small market town of Skipton. The German officers themselves have mixed emotions as they are marched up the High Street. Some feel that they wish the earth would swallow them up, others are defiant. Some take a sideways glance and are comforted by the lack of fresh food on display in the shop windows. The food itself has been replaced by full-size plaster models. This is a sure sign that the Germans are winning the U-boat war. They themselves have been captured, but has not their army defeated the Russians? With thousands and thousands of extra troops flooding towards the Western Front surely they will now win the war! (page 33)
A furious gun battle is taking place between an armed British merchant ship and a German submarine. A shot from the U-boat hits the British ship in a vital place and it begins to sink. The British vessel, a sailing ship continues to fire until the gun jams. The captain orders his crew to take to the lifeboat. They watch as their own ship sinks before their very eyes. They are taken aboard the U-boat to be interrogated. The U-boat captain is convinced that they all belong to the merchant navy and releases them. They are returned to their lifeboat, but the sail and their compass are taken from them. They are left with just two oars to row to safety. They endure two nights in the boat accompanied by some heavy rain before they are eventually rescued.
One of the crew successfully maintained his cover as a merchant seaman, but was in fact a serving Royal Navy gunner. He was Edwin Slater of Lower North Avenue, Barnoldswick (Craven Herald 19 July 1918). The ship was the Vera Elizabeth, a three-masted schooner en route from Vaag in the Faroes to Aberdeen with a cargo of salted fish. The U-boat was U 60, part of a class of ocean-going submarines. The First World War is often cited as an industrial war. Just as the horse was an important mode of land transport in 1914, so the sailing ship was still an important means of transporting goods at sea. It does seem a rather uneven contest: the latest German engineering against a small sailing vessel. However…
Werner Fürbringer is in command of newly built U-boat, UC 70. He comes across a large group of French schooners. He dispatches his prize crews to sink each vessel in turn. He imagines that twelve of these vessels, each with a full hold of fish will make huge inroads into the French supplies of food. A thirteenth schooner comes into view. Fürbringer jokes about this being his unlucky number, and starts to prepare his ship for action. The U-boat is now being chased by a sailing ship with a strong wind behind it. Fürbringer fires a warning shot, but as the French schooner continues to draw near a large canvas sheet is removed from amidships to reveal a deck gun that is turned to point straight at the German submarine. A furious exchange of fire ensues. Suddenly there is a loud hissing sound. The submarine has been hit. The command is given to dive quickly. Blood-streaked figures from the gun deck rush down into the hull of the submarine. The noise is so intense that Fürbringer cannot make himself heard. Eventually Marine Engineer Dietrich understands. ‘Pressure hull undamaged’ is the reply. The wounded are treated as well as possible. The U-boat has sustained a certain amount of damage during the encounter. It has now lost two thirds of its supply of the compressed air, which is necessary to expel the water from the dive tanks and allow the vessel to surface. Despite the crew’s best efforts the top of the conning tower is still only about one metre above the level of the surrounding ocean, and there is quite a heavy swell. The captain can see and hear air escaping into the water below. Fortunately for the crew Dietrich is a master of his craft, and realises that a back-up safety device has been installed for just such an eventuality. By using these ‘emergency shut-off valves’ it becomes possible to force the water out of the tanks so the vessel can surface.
Dietrich and his team spend two days carrying out repairs as UC 70 is left to drift about on the surface of the sea. The boat had been hit six times. The damaged piping has been repaired. The boat can now dive safely if required. The captain reports that Dietrich and his team have done the impossible. Two of the wounded will never serve again. Another man’s wound to his hand turns gangrenous and requires surgery (Fürbringer pages 70 to 77).
Dietrich is subsequently transferred to UB 55. Like UC 70 it is a submarine designed for use in coastal waters. The captain is Ralph Wenninger. The following account of the last voyage of UB 55 is taken from the document ‘UB 55’ Interrogation of Survivors which can be found in the Admiralty section of the National Archives in Kew. The account contains graphic detail of the horrors undergone by the crew, so if you are likely to be upset, please do not read any further.
The section finishes: ‘survivors had lost consciousness by the time they were rescued, and some days after their capture they were still expectorating blood and complaining of deafness.’
Friedrich Albert Otto Dietrich was known as Fritz. He was born on 24 March 1890. He lived at 26 Leipziger Strasse in the town of Potsdam which is just outside Berlin. On 13 May 1918 he became the 548th prisoner to enter Skipton Camp.
The interrogation report for UB 55 tells us that ‘[Dietrich] is 28 years of age, [served] in several submarines of the Flanders Flotilla, and was the last of the original pre-war Engineer Officers there. He is a clever engineer and very experienced, and his services were apparently in constant demand, with the result that he obtained but little leave. At first he refused to answer questions, but this difficulty was eventually overcome.’
Dietrich was admitted to Keighley War Hospital on 28 February 1919 suffering from influenza and pneumonia. He died on 2 March 1919. His funeral took place on 5 March 1919 at Morton Bank Cemetery near Keighley. His remains were transferred to the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase during the 1960s.
A good source for information about life on board a U-boat is FIPS: Legendary U-boat commander 1915-1918 by Werner Fürbringer. This gives a more detailed account of the damage caused to UC 70. Furthermore it tells of Fürbringer’s own capture and interrogation by British Naval Intelligence. The final chapter recounts Fürbringer’s imprisonment at Colsterdale in the Yorkshire Dales. The first batch of officers to arrive at Skipton had previously been imprisoned at Colsterdale (pages 28 to 30). The book appeared in German as Alarm! Tauchen!! – U-boot in Kampf und Sturm.
Note on armaments
UB 55 carried out 5 cruises varying in length from 5 to 21 days. The boat was furbished with just 10 torpedoes. When these torpedoes had been expended the captain was usually forced to return to base for new supplies. The U-b