Above decks, men were shouting and pointing excitedly at a cluster of small dots, black and ominous against the innocent blue of the sky. The heavy anti-aircraft guns and the light flak opened up and the stink of burnt powder filled the air.
Then, over the industrial thud of artillery and the clatter of cascading shell cases, a different noise was heard. A deep, elemental thunderclap rolled over the decks and echoed through the passageways and stairwells. It was followed by another. It seemed to Zuba that the great craft was ‘staggering’. She was being ‘shaken by giant fists’.
In an instant the atmosphere of quiet efficiency inside the steel walls of his battle station was swept away and everywhere was ‘disorder, confusion, mess, chaos – the bedlam of near and distant noises’. The deck below him began to tilt and he had to cling to a bulkhead to stop falling. He called the central flak control station but got only silence. Nearby, Oberleutnant zur See Ludwig Mettegang, a twenty-three-year-old communications officer was scrambling up the sloping floor to reach the emergency telephone that connected with the bridge. This line was still working. Mettegang demanded information and instructions, shouting to be heard over the din of explosions and the shriek of tortured metal. The thirty men around him, crouching in the gathering darkness as the lights flickered and died, watched and listened. They were on the lowest deck of the ship, twenty feet below the waterline. To reach the outside world meant climbing through four decks up a succession of ladders. Mettegang turned to them with some dismaying news. The orders from the bridge were that they were to stay at their posts. Then came ‘new terrific hits, new gigantic shakings’. Mettegang was shouting ‘get out! Now!’
Zuba ‘tore the phones from my head. I took my gas mask and rushed to the emergency exit. Fifteen, twenty men were standing there. Everybody wants to go up, wants to get out – out to life, to escape from death! But there is only room for one at a time … so we are standing there and waiting for our turn.’
As he shuffled forward he could feel the ‘bottom burning under our feet’. Then it was his turn and he was ‘clambering through, along the pitch-dark narrow hold’ that led to the gun deck. As he reached the next hatchway the ship made another sickening lurch. He slid down the linoleum-covered floor, slippery with oil and water, away from the exit. Water was tumbling into the compartment, ‘black and oily’, reaching up to his chest. He felt ‘death take hold of me with iron hands’. He yelled for a lifebelt but no one could help. He scrabbled on the slick lino as ‘more and more water comes streaming in, holds me tight and does not let me go’. He could feel the shock of more explosions shaking the ship. At last he ‘found a handhold and pulled myself up. A comrade stretched out his hand to me so I could reach a ventilator [pipe].’ The respite was short. The ship slumped again. The pipe that had been upright was now horizontal and he was hanging above the water swirling below. The weight of his sodden clothes was dragging him down and he could ‘literally feel the strength draining out of my fingers’. Zuba had decided that ‘a few minutes then it will be over’ when the ship shifted again. His dangling feet found another pipe and he was standing upright once more. Someone was shouting that everyone should go back through the emergency exit. He could see the opening but to reach it he would have to leap six feet over the inky, freezing water. He braced to jump, knowing that, if he fell short, ‘death was waiting underneath … my knees were trembling’. In this fatal moment an absurd concern floated into his mind. Somewhere along the way he had lost his cap. He pushed the thought aside and jumped. Then he was hauling himself through the hatchway. There was a thud as another man landed behind him, missed his footing and slipped, leaving him hanging there with the water lapping at his feet. Zuba went back to help him. He recognized him, a seaman called Hegendorf. The ordeal was only beginning but Hegendorf had already had enough. ‘He was crying “let me go, I must die.” “Don’t talk nonsense,” I answered. I pulled him out through the hatchway. He was very heavy. Then we closed the exit to stop the water.’
They climbed through the bowels of the ship, collecting other survivors on the way, until they reached a messroom. A young sub-lieutenant, Willi Völsing, the senior officer in the gunnery fire control section, took charge. He told Zuba and the others to stay put while he took a party off to search for a way out. They sat down to wait. At least they were out of the water and had air to breathe. Someone found an accumulator lamp which gave a little light. There was silence. They ‘tried to be calm. Nobody wanted to show what they were thinking about.’ The one exception was Hegendorf who was a ‘bundle of nerves’. Zuba tried to calm him down. He took no notice, only stopping when Völsing returned and warned him that he would shoot him if he did not shut up.
Völsing took Zuba aside ‘and said to me in a low voice, “it’s no use. We can’t get out. We’ve been searching everywhere.”’ For the benefit of the others though, the sub-lieutenant put on a brave face, announcing loudly: ‘“We’ll find some way out. I won’t abandon this fight.”’ Now Zuba took over the search. He and his team found their way into the A Deck radio room where there were more survivors who he led back to join the others. During their search they had found another lamp, and some dry clothes. Zuba stripped off his uniform and put on white underpants, green trousers and a blue mechanic’s jacket, which made him look ‘like a comic actor’. They had also found bread, coffee, cognac, sweets and a large box of cigarettes.
For a while their fear lifted and their spirits rose. ‘Suddenly someone said, “Good Lord, today is my birthday.” We all congratulated him.’ It seemed to Zuba, though, that many were thinking ‘let us hope your birthday is not your death day as well’. The ‘birthday boy was allowed to take the first big swig. Then it was the turn of the others.’
They sat, warmed by the cognac, chewing coffee beans. One of the wireless operators ‘a regular brick, calmness itself’, gave an optimistic assessment of their situation. He was sure that everything was being done to save them – they would have to be patient until the cutting gear arrived. The ship was thirty-six metres wide and the water she lay in was shallow. Now that she had turned turtle, ‘there is always going to be a bit sticking out of the water’.
Soon afterwards the wireless operator’s prediction seemed about to come true. Zuba heard ‘a knocking somewhere – bang, bang, bang’. Someone seized a fire extinguisher and began knocking back, but the noises got weaker and faded away. Their hopes subsided again. They sat in the cold metal box, each alone with his thoughts. Zuba worried how his mother would take the news of his death. His brother had been killed a year and three days before on the Eastern Front. What would the effect be on his fiancée Ruth who, when he had told her that he was being posted to Tirpitz, ‘was glad because she thought that being on a battleship was safer’?
Someone blurted out, ‘“if I get out of here I will get married at once.” Now they all start saying what they intend to do if they get out.’ Hope ebbed from Zuba. He could hear the rush of invading water. Then one of the radio operators noticed it, too. He began asking ‘again and again, “is the water rising?”’ The others told him to shut up.
In the silence they heard men calling out. They shouted back together, ‘where are you?’. A chorus of voices came back but the reply was indistinct. The yelling continued. Finally they understood what they were saying. Their unseen comrades were trapped in Switch Room 3. Zuba and his companions shouted back that they were in the forward mess, but there was no answering call. They sank back into silence.
Then, someone thought they heard other voices, and a sharp hissing noise. It sounded, he said, like gas from an oxyacetylene torch. To Zuba, though, it seemed more likely to be the rush of invading water. Others, though, seized on this rope end of hope. A leading seaman took the fire extinguisher and smashed through the compartment wall nearest to where the noise was coming from, only to be faced with a slab of thick steel. Zuba could hear the hissing more clearly now. It was stopping and starting. He began to think that ‘it could come from cutting apparatus … again there is hissing, crackling and banging’.
They started yelling again, ‘shouting “hurry up, the water is rising”’. Their room was still dry but they could see the compartment below them filling up. Zuba felt they were ‘in a running race with death’. The torch noises were getting closer, though. Someone ‘puts his hand on the steel wall. It is quite warm. “Hurry!” we shout.’
Then, a molten red spot appeared on the wall, followed by a shower of sparks. They shouted with joy ‘like little boys’, as the glowing line crept along the wall. They were ‘staring at it, drinking in every centimetre of its growth’, when ‘suddenly the hissing stopped. We heard voices moving away. There was a deathly silence around us.’
The captives shouted in dismay. They screamed and banged on the cold steel walls of their prison, but ‘there is no answer, only the echo of our desperate shouting’. In the darkness below they could make out a ‘mirror of black gleaming water’ rising towards them.
Just as despair settled over him, Zuba heard more banging and sparks sprayed from the wall. A molten spot reappeared and slowly traced a glowing rectangle. There was a clang of falling metal and faces appeared in the hole. Their saviours looked ‘as if they had come from another world’. The hole was only sixteen inches wide. Each man had to be pushed and pulled through it. They emerged into another space with a ladder leading upwards. When Zuba reached the top he saw a square in the metal above him and, through it, the sky. It was evening. The stars ‘were twinkling, a sight I will never forget.’ He climbed up, and out into freezing night, ‘standing free and saved and sucking … air into my lungs’.
He was standing on a vast expanse of red-leaded metal. It took him a moment to realize it was the hull of the ship. As he was led away a soldier told him why the rescue had been broken off. Working in the cramped space between the hull and the lower deck, the welders had started to pass out from lack of oxygen. The twenty survivors were put on a launch and taken off to another ship, where they were fed and bathed and clothed. Zuba was anxious to know the fate of the men he was with when the ship began to topple. Leutnant Mettegang was still missing, believed trapped with twenty-four men. Next day, when Zuba asked again for news, he was told they were dead. According to the story that went round , the rescue team had been able to hear the trapped men but not to reach them. They had been singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles’ before they suffocated.