The Devil Ship

Recently we ran across a story that intrigued us no end.  You, no doubt, have heard of the legendary ghost ship called the "FLYING DUTCHMAN" manned by a crew so unspeakably evil that it can never make port.  In this story, it is not the crew but a "devil ship" hounded by ghosts.

It is backed by no less than the official documents of the German Navy - 1916 to 1918.  Yes, those somewhat stolid, Prussians who commanded in those days were absolutely the last ones you would believe would accept and record for posterity these facts but they did.

Our story starts in 1916 when the German Naval Command issued orders to build 24 coastal type submarines.  Their design was a long established one and had-rated high in survival tests in battle.  One of these 24 was given the number 'U 65".  Why her character became so malevolent, nobody knows.  Her 23 sisters were built and sailed the seas, then met their ends either at sea or were interned at Scapa Flow when Germany surrendered, all very normal for a ship of a fighting navy.

The, 'U 65", however was different. It seemed as if she did not want to be built.  When she was only half assembled, a steel girder fell from a sling killing two workmen. How it happened could never be explained.  The slings were intact and thousands of bars had been handled the same way and nothing had ever fallen out of the slings.

After launching, with all the sacred taboos fully served, she was put in dry-dock for the finishing work.  Suddenly the after engine room's door shut and could not be opened.  The door had to be cut open and the three men who had been working on the motors were found dead from a deadly gas.  Carbon monoxide was ruled out since the motors were not running, chlorine gas from the batteries was ruled out since she was high and dry in the dry-dock.  More surprising, when the door had been opened there had been sufficient oxygen in the room to exist. The high German naval officers and scientists forming the investigating committee could not even make a determination on what gas did kill them.

Then they took her out for her first practice cruise and on her first submergence she went all the way down to the bottom and stayed there, .despite frantic efforts by the crew and shore parties to raise her.  Then just as suddenly, it surfaced after everybody aboard her and on land had given up hope.  The crew were almost asphyxiated since 12 hours submerged was the absolute limit in those days for the oxygen aboard a submerged boat.  So they put her in dry-dock again, examined everything, and could not find one thing that would have made her act in this fashion.  Now, the crew, even as you or I, would have been a little skeptical that all was not as it should be.  For the Fatherland, they would die gladly, but this was not the same as dying for the Fatherland.  However, the war was not about to wait for anyone or their fears, so they were ordered to prepare for patrol.  Then while loading the torpedoes, one slipped from the sling and exploded killing 1 officer and 4 ratings.

Back to the dry-dock to be investigated and repaired.  The questions were easy.  Why did the torpedo slip from the slings?  Why did the torpedo explode since it must run a certain distance before arming itself?  The answers were hard to come by as in her other accidents.  Again no reason for it but it happened. Every thing had been done by the book and yet it had happened.  Replacements arrived and now they were as ready as any 31 frightened men could be.

The new captain was in his cabin when an almost incoherent petty officer came running to him and said that he and his messenger had just counted 32 men coming aboard when there should only be 31.  When they asked the 32nd man to look up and be recognized, it turned out to be the officer killed in the torpedo explosion and he was now sitting on the forward bollard.  When the captain investigated, he found the petty officer's messenger completely insane crouching behind the conning tower but no sign of the ghost.

They finally sailed and for almost 18 months all their problems ceased except those of any submarine fighting a war.  They were bombed, shot at and depth charged but these were natural risks not supernatural ones.  She had some modest success in sinking allied ships and the previous dread was gradually being erased from their minds.

Then the ghost caught up with them.  On their next patrol, a lieutenant and two seamen who had never known the dead officer saw him while they were on watch. He was as usual sitting on his favorite place on the forward bollard. They called the captain and the four men watched him for about a minute before he disappeared.  Although apprehensive, the patrol was completed without further incident.

Upon returning to its base the captain started for the officer's club just as the air raid siren went off.  He immediately turned to rejoin his boat and as he turned a piece of shrapnel neatly cut his head off. Now the fat was in the fire for sure.

The German High Command took two steps to stop this thing dead in its tracks.  They sent a new, no nonsense, captain who refused to believe in ghosts and a delegation of high-level officers interviewed the crew.  Those who were affected were sent back for reassignment and new less susceptible crewmembers were assigned.  Then, as if to show that they were not above a bit of hysteria themselves they brought in a priest to exorcise the boat.  This gave official credence to the whole horrible situation. In one stroke, they confirmed that the U 65 was indeed an official devil ship.

At that time, casualties on this bizarre ship had reached 11 dead and 36 wounded, too close for comfort.  Further, the German High Command had just confirmed that she was a devil boat by having a priest exorcise it.  The fact that the priest exorcised it meant little, the fact that the German Admiralty had it done said volumes.

The war, however, could wait for no man or his fears, so the U-65 was readied, crewed and sent on patrol again.  After two days at sea, one seaman went crazy and had to be sedated.  The next day when he seemed normal, they sent him on deck with another seaman for a breath of fresh air.  He promptly jumped overboard and never surfaced.  The Chief Engineer, an indispensable man aboard a submarine, fell and broke his leg.  Another seaman disappeared while they were shelling an unarmed British tramp steamer.  Nobody heard him shout, he was just there one minute and gone without a trace the next.

Then while on the way back to Zeebrugge they met a British patrol craft, which they could outrun and did.  However, the last shell fired by the British boat neatly and effectively decapitated the coxswain ( regardless, whether you believe in ghosts you must agree that they played fast and loose with heads.  Sounds a little like Washington Irving's, Ichabod Crane meeting up with the headless horseman).

Now to this point in our story we are indebted to one of the original petty officers that had sailed on her since her launching. It was he who fleshed out the dry official reports and indicated how fear was built on fear until it became unbearable.  Death by depth charge, by ramming, by mine and by shell was understood and faced bravely. Death by the supernatural could not be tolerated. He had been sent to the hospital at the conclusion of her next to last patrol and missed the last cruise.

On July 31, 1918 the German Admiralty' announced that the U-65 was missing and presumed lost. Usually this was the final word on fighting submarines during hostilities. In this case, it was not.

An American submarine, whose patrol area was off the coast of Ireland, returned to the base and announced that they had seen the U-65 running on the surface while they were submerged.  They had made no mistake about her number it had been the U-65 painted in large numbers on her conning tower.  Several of the crew was brought to the periscope to verify its number for the log.  Then while maneuvering to get into attack position, the U-65 suddenly blew up in a frightful explosion.  It could not have been a mine since the water was too deep for mines.  The sub was in the proper patrol area so it could not have been another submarine since two submarines were never sent into the same area at the same time.  The American captain concluded his report by saying, "She couldn’t even wait for us to do it for her."

So there we are. Was it a devil ship?  Was it haunted?  Or was it just an amazing series of events that could be charged off to coincidence with each adding, to the susceptibility of the next? Or was it a mind boggling fear hysteria?  You be the judge.  While you are doing that, we are going to give U-65 top billing in the category of "UNLUCKY SHIPS".

We thank John Canning and his book titled, "Fifty True Mysteries of the Sea" for bringing this tale to our attention. We are also indebted to the Time-Life "Seafarer Series" and the "U-Boat" by Rossler for additional material. About 10 years after we had written this article, the head of the British Historical Society writing for the United States Naval Institute wrote an article confirming all the facts as we have enumerated them here. He came to the same conclusion that we did, that she was a ship which did not wish to be born and had committed suicide.

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