Grey Wolf - A Novel In History

Please enjoy this sample of Grey Wolf.

 

Prologue

 

17 September 1939, 1950 hours HMS Conqueror at sea N 50.10 W 014.45 (Southwest of Ireland)

 

Royal Navy Lieutenant Roger Byrne, aged twenty-four, stood on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Conqueror. He cupped his hand as a shield against the wind and lit a Player’s Navy Cut cigarette with a Great War trench lighter he’d purchased from an antique shop in Plymouth. As he inhaled, savoring the rich smoke, he took in his surroundings.

The day was bright, and a clear sky meant the fly-boys in their Fairey Swordfish and Hawker Osprey scout planes would have an easy time of it. Beneath his feet, Conqueror’s nearly twenty-three thousand ton bulk plied her way smoothly over gentle swells, so that Roger barely perceived the grey ship’s pitch and roll. The day was warm but a freshening breeze cooled him as it passed by his ears and drowned out the sound of the sea some four stories below. As his eyes settled on the older model flying machines assembled on the foredeck, he couldn’t help but be reminded of other biplanes he’d seen in newsreels from the Great War.

As he took another drag on his cigarette, he felt the ship heel over as she turned. Though he wasn’t a pilot, he knew aircraft carriers sailed into the prevailing wind during aircraft operations to shorten the distances required for takeoff and landing. A turn meant they would soon begin recovering, or landing, airborne craft, so he would have only a short time to enjoy his cigarette before being forced from the flight deck by a safety officer. In the few moments he had before that happened, Roger chose to reflect upon how he had arrived at this place and time.

He’d always had a love for the sea. As a little boy growing up in the port city of Plymouth, England, most of his free time was spent poking around the docks. Even in winter, when it was bitterly cold, he would sit on the dunes overlooking the ocean, wrapped in one of his father’s old pea coats, and watch ships come and go while throwing scraps of bread to seagulls and terns as they reeled and screeched overhead. Roger often dreamed about the ships he watched and their far away destinations and tried to imagine what kind of adventures they would have along the way.

As years passed, he grew into a handsome young man. He was tall, just over six feet, and strong, with wavy blonde hair and a long, noble looking nose. His piercing blue eyes matched the color of the sea he loved, and made him popular with the young ladies in town. Even so, his true love was the ocean and Roger soon found himself working on fishing boats sailing out of his home port. Fishing, though, hadn’t quite lived up to the adventures he’d envisioned living out as a boy. The days were as long and hard as the work itself. The boats were old, and leaked, and the constant reek of fish soon disenchanted him. He desired change and, before long, quit the fishing fleet.

His love for the sea and lust for adventure undiminished, Roger decided His Majesty’s Royal Navy was the place for him. After he left the fishing boats he’d spent most afternoons in the local theater watching newsreels of the Battle of Jutland, the campaign in Gallipoli, and other naval engagements from the War To End All Wars. He wouldn’t even stay for the picture show. Some of his school chums had signed up for the Navy and had gone to the farthest reaches of the Empire. Their letters home, combined with the newsreels, only served to stir his passion for excitement. On the day he decided to join, his mother told him he could never support a family in the Navy, which didn’t bother him since a family was the last thing on his mind. She was adamant that he should continue working the fishing boats until he could get a berth on a steamer and work his way up the ladder like Dad. But his father, a Captain of the Merchant Marine (Retired), recognized the longing in his son’s heart. It had been the same for him many years ago when he, too, first heard the ocean’s Siren call.

Able Seaman Roger Byrne had an immediate affinity for the navy. He loved the tradition, the uniforms, and even the discipline. It wasn’t long before his superiors started noticing him. A mere two years after joining, he was sent to officer’s training school where he continued to excel. Now, three years later, he was assigned to one of the navy’s few aircraft carriers. He was the officer responsible for maintaining the ship’s navigational systems, and his quick rise in the service made him confident that he was well on his way up the ladder. Just like mum had wanted. The thought made him smile as he took another drag off his fag.

As he stood ruminating on the flight deck, the clean smell of the sea and the sound of water crashing against the hull some thirty feet below, Roger became filled with a sense of pride. But he was also fearful. War had been declared two weeks earlier, and his was a dangerous profession. Though he knew and accepted this fact, the thought occurred to him that the Merchant Marine wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all.

Just as he was beginning to enjoy the moment, he sensed someone come up beside him. He looked to his left and saw twenty-two year old Sub-Lieutenant Archibald Leathe. Young Archie was a Scotsman. He was new aboard Conqueror, and had been assigned to the navigational maintenance section a few days before she sailed. Standing just over five feet, with curly red hair and freckles, he weighed perhaps eight stone, soaking wet and with all his teeth. He was a nice young man, and Roger liked him.

“Good evening, Lieutenant. Spare us a fag, sir?” asked Archie.

Roger smiled and handed over a Player’s, and then offered a light when Archie looked up and shrugged. The smaller man cupped his hands around the flame and stooped to use his cap for a windbreak.

He straightened, inhaling, and said, “Nice view don’t you think, sir?”

“Quite,” answered Roger, only a little annoyed at having his moment of solitude disturbed.

“Some of the men and I were chatting about the war,” said Archie. “Some think it will be over in a few weeks. Others are more skeptical. What do you think, sir?”

After a moment Roger said, “You never know, Archie. It may be as long as the last time. Or maybe we’ll give Jerry a right bollocking and it’ll soon be over. We might not even fight him. All this over Poland…?” he trailed off. He took another drag from his cigarette and exhaled emphatically.

Archie looked into the distance and took a draw as well. After a moment he said, “I hope if we mix it up with Jerry it doesn’t turn into the bloody mess it did last time. Ach! I’ve only just got engaged to my Alice before we put to sea! And she’s pregnant with me wee bairn!”

Roger coughed out a cloud of smoke in surprise and smiled at the younger man. “Really? Congratulations, Archie. I certainly hope to be invited to the wedding. Have a name yet?”

“Of course, sir, and no,” replied Archie, pleased with the Lieutenant’s interest. The two men smiled at each other for a moment, but their smiles faded as the implication of a child born at the outset of war sank in.

They stood in awkward silence, smoking their cigarettes and thinking private thoughts, as the ship completed her turn into the wind. The freshened breeze, now the sum of the ambient wind and the ship’s velocity, whipped across the flight deck and deafened the two men. Two Swordfish bi-planes circled the ship at the thousand-foot pattern height. Roger looked up in time to see the leader coming around yet again to over fly the ship in anticipation of his approach and landing.

As Roger shifted his gaze across the flight deck, he saw sailors scrambling to receive the circling aircraft. He also noticed the safety officer, yelling something unintelligible, holding his cap on with one hand against the wind and making his way to where he and Leathe were standing. He felt a tug on his sleeve and sensed Archie leaning close to him so he could speak into Roger’s ear.

“What is that, sir!” yelled Archie as he pointed off the ship’s port side.

Roger followed the line of Archie’s outstretched arm. There, about one hundred yards away, he could make out a faint track on the surface of the sea that could only be generated by the one thing all sailors feared most. His blood ran cold.

Archie’s stomach began to churn as he looked at the expression on Roger’s face.

Byrne’s cigarette butt dropped from his lips and onto the deck as he stared at the triple trails. “Oh… bloody hell!” was all he had time to say. He knew it was too late. The roar of the lead Swordfish’s engine drowned out Archie’s response as it passed overhead.

Conqueror shuddered with the first torpedo impact. The tremendous explosion was followed seconds later by another. Each blast shot water skyward in towering, white geysers. Roger, mercifully, only felt the first impact, it had knocked him unconscious prior to the second. He was shocked back to his senses a moment later as the frigid water cascaded back down upon him. Opening his eyes, all he could see was sky and what his muddled mind thought was rain. He couldn’t hear and everything appeared to move in slow motion. His body tingled, there was a loud ringing in his ears, and the reek of smoke and oil filled his nose. When he sat up and looked around, he realized he was now some ten to fifteen yards from where he and Archie had been standing. As his senses gradually returned, the wail of the general quarter’s klaxon began to replace the ringing in his ears and he was able to make out announcements coming from the ships Tannoy system, though he still couldn’t understand the words being said. His back and knees began to ache and his head was pounding. The thought occurred to him that he might have been wounded so he ran his hands over himself. He looked for any sign of blood on them but found none. As he gradually came back to full consciousness, the announcements became clearer and the world seemed to return to full speed.

He got to his feet, and noted the ship had taken on a decided list to port. “My God,” he thought, “we’re sinking.”

He thought of Archie. The last thing he remembered seeing was the young man’s face bearing an expression of utter disbelief. Archie’s eyes had been as big as saucers, his mouth agape in some unheard shout. Roger looked around to his left and right. Sub-Lieutenant Archibald Leathe, the friendly young Scotsman who had just begun his naval career and had only recently been engaged, was nowhere to be seen. He was simply gone.

 

 

 

*

Chapter One

 

19 August 1939, Kiel-Wik naval base Germany, home of the 7th (Wegener) U-Flotilla

 

Korvettenkapitän Oskar Keppler, 43, used the brim of his cap as a shield to light a Player’s Navy Cut cigarette. He’d grown fond of the English brand after the Great War while working with Royal Navy officers in England’s War Records Department. There, they would peruse their respective records and compare claims of sinkings for the final reckoning. A British officer had offered him one of the mellow cigarettes in passing, and Oskar had never changed back. As he lit the tobacco he ignored the glint of sunlight reflected by the wedding ring on his right hand.

Though the sun warmed the ancient North Sea port, the wind sent a chill through him. Sailors in duty uniforms were going about their tasks. In anticipation of his own obligations, Oskar wore his dress blue uniform resplendent with the Wound Badge, U-Boat service decorations and an Iron Cross, 1st Class won in 1917. His shoes were polished to a fine mirror finish and his white, peaked collared shirt was specifically pressed for the day’s important occasion. A blue service cap with gold braid was pulled tight on his brow to keep the wind from carrying it away. As he inhaled the mellow tobacco smoke, he also breathed the miasma of a naval base: oil, rust, dead fish, diesel fuel (both raw and as exhaust), sea salt, and rotting timbers. The sound of gulls reeling overhead, the occasional clang of marker buoys, and the shouts of longshoremen going about their jobs all reminded him of the last war.

Kapitän Keppler was just less than two meters tall; his identification papers said he weighed seventy kilos, though he thought it was closer to sixty-five. He was graying at the temples and had crow’s feet from too much time squinting at lists and ledgers. Though he had the bearing of someone who spent more time indoors than out, his skin was darkly tanned.

Oskar had just come from a meeting called by Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, Commander in Chief of the Kriegsmarine. It had been termed a reunion of all senior U-boat officers and engineers, and took place aboard the submarine tender Hecht. Standing on the ship’s fantail and watching his cigarette’s blue-grey smoke curling skyward, he appeared troubled as he mulled over what had been discussed.

The meeting had been so quickly planned that Raeder’s subordinate, Kommodore Karl Dönitz, commander of all U-boat forces, had been on leave when it was called and had arrived on base only three days prior. The Hecht’s salon had been brightly lit, comfortable, and well furnished. Wooden chairs, upholstered in black leather, and oaken tables covered with crisp, white linens were arrayed atop a crimson carpet. Food had been served on white china bearing the insignia of the U-boat Waffe in gold trim. The clinking of crystal glassware echoed in Keppler’s ears as officers toasted one another in greeting and the sounds of conversation carried across the salon on a cool breeze blowing through open portholes. Sailors in dress uniforms served champagne and cocktails to accompany a sideboard of canapés.

Oskar recognized many of the nearly three-dozen men from his long association with the navy. All were experienced naval officers, many of whom, he knew, had spent their entire adulthood in the service. Some had served in the Great War. Most had seen action. All found themselves in the U-boat arm. After the usual small talk, Dönitz called the men to order and drinks were topped off, portholes closed and stewards dismissed. Raeder immediately got to the matter at hand.

“Gentlemen, I have called this meeting to inform you the Führer has ordered us to prepare for imminent operations against Poland.” Raeder allowed the stunned officers a moment to gather themselves, and as the murmurs faded he continued: “The Führer believes Poland will soon attack the Reich. As you are aware, Britain and France have mutual defense treaties with Poland. The Führer expects neither country to come to Poland’s aid, but Kommodore Dönitz and I are not as confident.”

Raeder turned to Dönitz, who nodded and then took over the meeting. “Many of you served in U-boats in the last war. Some of you I know well…”

Oskar caught the look Dönitz flashed him. They’d served together on U-39 under Walter Forstman in 1917. It was because of his long friendship with Karl Dönitz that Oskar found himself here.

“We haven’t enough boats for a long conflict and even fewer experienced officers to command them,” Dönitz continued. “I know many of you are, shall we say, ‘senior’ officers.” Nervous laughter emanated from the gathered men, many of whom were in their forties or fifties. “Since you are our most experienced officers, I must utilize your many talents to most efficiently prepare the men who will soon join our elite fraternity. This is why some of you will be asked to serve as Initial Training or Gunnery Officers. Some of you will stay on as Engineering Instructors while others will be reassigned to Headquarters for planning and logistics duties. A few of you will continue as Navigation and Torpedo instructors to prepare the next generation of U-boat Aces. Those of you currently in shakedown or refit will go to sea in the boats to which you are presently assigned.”

Oskar felt an odd combination of relief and envy. He felt that as a headquarters Staff Officer he would remain safely ashore, but he also felt a tinge of regret that he would not be going to sea. As Flotilla Training Officer, he was required to oversee the instruction of Commanding Officer candidates and had sailed aboard every boat assigned to the base. He had also personally handled the training of older officers in new tactics and equipment. The experience of re-training those senior officers made him remember the way he felt in 1917: the sea air, the boat’s motion under his feet, the thrill of his first dive, the stark terror of a depth charge attack, the unspeakable odors, and the ever-present cold and damp. Above all else, he thought of the inescapable assault of reeking diesel fumes on all of one’s senses.

He took a sip of Moët champagne as Dönitz continued: “We feel that Great Britain, in particular, will be unable to stay out of any conflict to come. It is their belief that German supremacy on the Continent is unacceptable, and a grave threat to their own preeminence on the world stage. Admiral Raeder and I are of one mind on this. Though we are ready for action against Poland, we must also keep a close watch to the stern. Toward England.

“Accordingly, those of you assigned to the fleet are to prepare your boats for departure as soon as possible. Types VII and IX are to leave beginning tonight to be followed by Type II’s on the twenty-third. You should prepare for up to four weeks on patrol. Extra stores and food have been arriving all day, and their loading should be completed within the next few hours. Chief Engineer Thedsen will make sure your boats are mechanically sound and armed as requested by your own Engineers.” He nodded toward Thedsen, who acknowledged the gesture with a raised glass.

“At your service, gentlemen,” he said.

Dönitz continued: “He has made arrangements with shipyard personnel to get things moving as smoothly as possible. Staff officers are to report to the Flotilla Adjutant for your assignments, Kapitäns to your boats. Time is of the essence, gentlemen, so this will conclude our briefing. If there are any questions, now is the time.”

The assembled officers remained silent, and it became apparent no questions would be asked. Oskar knew there would be many over the next few days, weeks, or perhaps years, but no one spoke.

“Very well. Carry on, gentlemen, and good luck,” said Dönitz, and the men knew they’d been dismissed.

The stewards were brought back in, glasses were collected, and goodbyes said as the officers quietly filed out of the room. Just as Oskar approached the hatch, Dönitz caught him by the arm. “Oskar, a word.”

Oskar stopped and followed the Kommodore to the salon’s bar. They were alone; even Raeder had filed out with the others.

“How have you been?” asked Dönitz in a friendly tone.

“Well, thank you,” he answered. “How is Ingeborg?”

Dönitz smiled and said, “She is well, thank you. By the way, I have a special favor to ask you.”

“Name it.”

Dönitz poured two glasses of brandy. “I have in mind the new Wolfpack tactics,” he said as he put the crystal cork back in its decanter. “We need a commander at sea who can coordinate group attacks on enemy shipping. I feel eyes on the battlefield are the clearest, yes?”

Oskar nodded his understanding and took the glass he was offered as Dönitz continued: “The situation with Poland is not what concerns me. Berlin believes we are to be attacked first, and that may be. The Poles cannot resist us and the brunt of any campaign must surely be borne by the Army and Luftwaffe. Irrespective of the source of tension between our two countries, we both know the British can’t afford to look the other way while an ally, to whom they are bound by treaty, is involved in armed conflict. I don’t think Britain will care which of us shoots first and, where naval tactics are concerned, will quickly adopt convoy operations to counter our U-boat activity. It cost them a great deal to learn the “convoy lesson” last time and they won’t have forgotten it. This is why I asked a few of you Old Hands to come back to the navy.”

Keppler took a long sip from his snifter. The salon of the Hecht suddenly seemed very much smaller as he waited for his commander to get to the point.

“Kapitän Keppler, I want you to go to sea as Wolfpack Leader. Kapitän Sobe will remain in overall command of the Flotilla and will remain in Kiel. I need you to take these men to sea, test the new Wolfpack tactics, and bring as many home as you can. We sailed together. I know your heart, your courage, and your skill. I would not ask this of you if I did not think it necessary. What do you say?”

Oskar considered his friend’s question.

The Treaty of Versailles, which effectively ended the Great War, limited Germany to a total naval strength in personnel of 15,000 men, only 1,500 of whom were officers. Two of the 1,500 were Karl Dönitz and Oskar Keppler. During the tumultuous days of the Weimar Republic the people blamed much of the harshness of Versailles on the wartime, and post-wartime, actions of the Navy. The hostile environment drove Oskar to resign his commission in 1924 and go into banking. Despite the financial disasters taking place in Germany during those years, he became very successful, rising to president of the Munich branch. On June 18th, 1935, Germany and Great Britain concluded a Treaty enabling the Third Reich to reconstitute her naval forces. The agreement had been reached after years of political wrangling and secret military build-ups in Germany. In a continuation of the appeasement policy adopted by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s government, the Anglo-German Naval Treaty enabled Germany to legally increase her military strength for the first time since the Treaty of Versailles. It had been Oskar’s old friend Karl Dönitz that Admiral Raeder tasked to rebuild the U-boat arm of the newly christened Kriegsmarine. During the four years leading up to this moment, many of the old navy men, including Oskar, returned to serve again.

Oskar knew that U-boat service was strictly voluntary. Even so he thought, “What the hell can I say?” He was a sailor. In his heart, he'd always been a sailor. During his years behind a desk in the bank he missed the sea. The only reason he left the Navy was because the lack of opportunity in what had become only a shadow of its former self had disheartened him so. The Ghost Navy of Versailles held no future for him. But since 1935 things were different. He kept in touch with Karl Dönitz over the intervening years and followed his friend’s career with interest. Resurgence of national pride and the new naval agreement actually prompted him to call Kommodore Dönitz’s office shortly after his wife of twenty years, Magda, had died of cancer in February of that year. They had no children. Even his parents were long dead.

The choice seemed simple. “Of course I will go to sea, sir,” he answered.

Oskar thought of Dönitz’s smile when he gave his answer. “I knew you would, Oskar,” the Kommodore had replied, “I will give you two gifts to help regain your touch: your choices of boat and executive officer. You should choose a boat you are familiar with. Also, you should choose a man you believe will make a great U-boat commander and will be able to succeed you when the time comes. I may eventually need you at headquarters if this escalates.”

The last words had given Oskar pause. As Flotilla Training Officer, he had indeed trained most of the Flotilla’s active and prospective skippers. Was Dönitz now asking him to deny one of these young officers, one of his students, a chance to command in what could be a very short campaign against a technically inferior navy? Oskar knew better than that. Raeder and Dönitz did not believe this conflict would be short, nor did they agree with High Command that the British would stay out of any new war involving Germany. England had been the principle naval foe in the last war and it stood to reason they would play the same role again. Oskar hadn’t wanted to consider the possibility of France, or even the United States entering a protracted war. His old friend Karl, he thought, wanted him to take someone special under his wing and groom him for the future.

A name sprung to Oskar’s mind as though it were a bolt from the blue. Axel Eugen Hartmann, Oberleutnant zur See, crew of 1937, as the Flensburg Naval Academy graduating classes were referred to. He had distinguished himself in all aspects of naval training. Always at the top of his class at the Academy, his scores were excellent in navigation and seamanship, as well as torpedo and gunnery exercises. But Oskar had seen Kadet Hartmann in training and if he had a weakness it was a lack of patience. Oskar needed to teach him the value of this virtue or Axel Hartmann’s first patrol could easily be his last. Oskar’s dilemma was that Hartmann had already been told of his promotion to command of the new Type VIIC U-115. He'd even spent the whole weekend celebrating with his new officers after the announcement.

It would be very difficult to take this able young officer’s first command away so soon. Never the less, Oskar was sure this was the man he wanted. He was an Ace in the making. However, top scores in a classroom or training environment are no substitute for real battle experience. The object had not been to deny a talented officer the opportunity for glory and fame on his first command, but teach him how to keep himself, his men and his boat from being lost in the process. In time Axel Hartmann would be a great U-boat skipper. Of that, Oskar was sure, but not yet. It hadn’t taken him long to make his decision.

“I have just the boat in mind sir, as well as the officer. Also a few men, if I may take such liberty, sir,” said Oskar.

“You may have whatever you need. See Thedsen if anyone gives you trouble. Otherwise feel free to contact me. And Oskar, good luck and good hunting.” With that Dönitz finished his brandy, placed his glass upon a table and walked out of the salon.

So it had been with a mixture of fear and excitement, Korvettenkapitän Oskar Keppler went back to war.