Peter Cremer was a lucky man. As a U-boat commander, he defied the odds and survived the war to write his memoirs. He did so after surviving a series of very close encounters with the Royal Navy. In 1942 he had been badly wounded in an engagement with HMS Crocus in October 1942. After recovering from his wounds he returned to command U-333.
On U-333’s 10th patrol they came up against a formidable adversary – the 2nd Escort Group under the command of Captain Walker, the most successful of all the U-boat hunters in the war. Walker’s group of ships was returning to port when they were alerted to a possible U-boat spotted by an aircraft. After the war, the Royal Navy examined the records of the Kriegsmarine and speculated that the 2nd Escort Group might have attacked U-333. Cremer was able to set the record straight in his memoir:
In English opinion ‘the move could well have taken the Group across the path of U 333, to which I can only say ‘it certainly did’, for our courses definitely crossed.
After the reconnaissance plane had observed and reported me in the early morning of 21 March, at about 1100 strong propeller noises were heard approaching in a broad spectrum extending from west to south.
I tried to outmaneuver the enemy and breakthrough to the south-west but it was a hopeless enterprise. The weather itself was bad. A long Atlantic swell was running which even at 40 meters depth made itself unpleasantly felt and swung the boat to and fro.
This Group came at U 333 from two sides in the attack formation preferred by Walker. In broad line abreast the ships dropped depth charges at very short intervals. As prelude numerous samples were dropped in a few minutes, their explosions merging with one another so that it was impossible to count them.
Their pressure waves were so enormous that the conning-tower hatch began to shudder and we were all thrown about. Then it became suspiciously quiet until the odious ping – ping – ping of a searching ship was first heard thinly, then louder. Then that, too, broke off and there was another pause, explained perhaps by the fact that the enemy did not succeed in locating us with certainty.
It may be that the weather was responsible. At any rate, it was a situation of ‘no reports being made since their contact was not firm enough.’
This probably saved our lives, for suddenly all hell was let loose again. But now they were throwing them without aim, on suspicion. Escaping was not to be thought of. The ocean was too shallow here and the slightest of our machinery noises would have betrayed us.
It was best to play possum and let nothing be heard of us – come what might. So I laid the boat on the bottom where it bedded itself softly in sand and mud. I ordered the crew to rest and as far as possible not to think of depth charges, though it was impossible not to hear them. I thought: whoever throws so many will soon have none left. Meanwhile, the hands of our clock kept moving, the search dragged on and lasted into the night.
It was deathly still in the boat if that does not sound macabre. As distinct from in films and many a book, the U-boat men controlled themselves in precarious situations and only seldom lost their nerve. There were neither cries nor groans and even orders were passed in a whisper from mouth to mouth. Pst! The enemy is listening! Water is an uncanny conductor.
I myself crouched in the control room, knees and stomach wrapped in soft catskins. It was cold and old wounds were hurting.
The propeller noises of the destroyers sounded muted, then clearer. They came closer, moved further off, sometimes singly, sometimes several together. Time passed. The air was used up, the potash cartridges were nearly expended and I had to supply oxygen. Everyone was breathing in short, heavy gasps. After ten hours (but what hours!) I was forced to go up.
All hands — Action stations — Surface! At once they were wide awake. ‘Blow tanks!’ A high-pitched hissing noise. That was all – nothing else. The boat would not budge, an invisible hand was holding it down. This was something quite new. Again, the same maneuver. ‘Blow tanks!’ Nothing moved.
U-333 had bedded itself only too well into the sand and mud of the ocean bottom. There was an even more nerve-racking period as they tried to free the U-Boat from the bottom of the ocean.