Memoirs of a Russian submariner
In high school English class, I was taught about the three general types of conflict that one may encounter in literature: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self. Memoirs from combatants of the Second World War are often as exciting to read as literature because all three types of conflict figure into them on a grand scale. But there is a fourth type of conflict that we didn’t learn about in class but which, particularly for the men and women of the Soviet armed forces, added that extra dimension of drama: Man vs. Machine.
The nation that brought the world Lada and Zhiguli cars–which asked of their owners to spend nearly every weekend under their jacked-up chassis salving their ever-irritated metal bowels–produced submarines during WWII that would never quite pass muster in an American or German shipyard. This run-down state of submersible machinery can be fully appreciated by reading Victor Korzh’s memoir, Red Star Under the Baltic: A Soviet Submariner in WWII.
As the chief engineer aboard these subs, Korzh knew every nut and bolt and describes their mechanical failures with the technical detail befitting a master. But the inability of Soviet designers and shipyards to perfect submarine design is no stain on the reputation of the Russian sailor. On the contrary, the Russian submariners’ ability to not only survive but also sink many German merchantmen in the unforgiving seas of the Baltic is a testament to their boldness and technical ingenuity.
In one story among many, Korzh describes how a shoddy repair job in a Finnish dry dock left his submarine, L-21, with broken stern hydroplanes (which help control the diving and surfacing of the boat) after a nasty storm. To fix this, Korzh kept L-21 resting on the seabed for two days as teams of sailors pounded away with four sledgehammers at the mounting of the stern hydroplanes in an effort to remove enough steel from it to fit in there the still-working control mechanism from the bow hydroplanes (which weighed hundreds of pounds and had to be lugged from the very front of the ship to the back). The ricocheting of the sledgehammers drew inquisitive German submarines like sharks to the scene, but they were powerless to attack L-21 while she lay submerged.
I’ve read more in the past about American fleet boats and German U-boats than about Russian submarines. There are some interesting differences between the conditions and doctrines of these naval services.
Korzh’s memoir begins during the Siege of Leningrad, where the Baltic Fleet’s submarines were relocated after their forward bases in the Baltic countries were captured by the Germans. The dire shortage of almost everything in that city meant that the submarines had to make do with substandard repair work, and the sailors themselves had to scrounge around Leningrad for raw materials to repair their boats. Korzh admits, “we were showing the old ships no mercy; we were repairing their machinery just enough for them to stagger on to the end of the war, creaking and groaning.”
Operating in the Gulf of Finland and Baltic Sea also meant that the subs had to slither through shallow water in enemy territory, which usually spells death for the submarine. Luckily, the German crews weren’t as skillful or equipped for anti-submarine warfare as the British were against the U-boats. There is only one story in Korzh’s account of the Germans ever using active sonar (the ping one hears in sub movies which means another ship is locating the sub). If the British and American hunter-killer groups were chasing these Soviet subs in the Baltic, I think the latter would never stand a chance.
Another amazing difference is how the Russian subs navigated German minefields, which they couldn’t avoid in the Gulf of Finland. These mines would be floating on the surface and have a cable attached to them descending to the seafloor. The procedure for going through a minefield was for the sub to submerge, all of the sailors to be quiet, and everyone to listen for the scraping of a mine cable against the ship’s hull. When they would hear the cable sliding across their hull, the captain would order an emergency turn to avoid snagging it and triggering the mine. Considering that this is the crudest method imaginable for dodging mines, it’s amazing Korzh survived these ordeals.
Korzh was lucky. On his second patrol, his boat S-12 triggered two antenna mines, and the explosions sent waterfalls into the ship. On that same patrol, they also got caught in an anti-submarine net ringed with canisters of explosives (which went off), but they managed to escape. Dozens of situations presented themselves to Korzh over the course of his patrols that would have resulted in capture by the enemy or death if an ingenious technical fix wasn’t found for a critical malfunction. That Korzh survived all of these trials is really amazing and speaks highly of his resourcefulness.
The steel boats hunting alone in ice-rimmed Baltic waters. The men inside shivering from condensation endlessly dripping off pipes onto their damp clothing. The scramble of activity to fix broken machinery, heads and hands submerged in greasy engines and chloric batteries. It’s a story best read while sitting inside of a warm house.