Editor’s Note: This article is reproduced from pages 424 to 431 of The Iron Time.
When Horst von Schroeter first showed us his decorations, something did not seem quite right about his Knight’s Cross. On closer inspection it was revealed that he had actually received a modified Iron Cross Second Class. Some refer to this type award as the Second Class “Übergröße,” or oversized example. Interestingly, Horst von Schroeter’s Knight’s Cross was simply a standard size Second Class that had been modified (see page 306-307). He was asked if he was absolutely sure this is the award he received at the presentation ceremony.

“We were on our way to prisoner-of-war camp in the French zone, near Kreuznach. We were going through the area in a train, very slowly, and had been warned by the population that the French would take from us anything they wanted. And that became true because on the first day we had to get out all of our things, place them out, and take three steps back. The French went along and picked up what they wanted. But because we were warned I handed my baggage to a German civilian. This was in the late afternoon, and it was getting dark. He took it and he brought it to a friend of mine living in his village. And when I came back from the French two years later, I got my baggage back from my friend.

“In this baggage for instance, had been all my medals. My original medals. And so I am convinced I got this Knight’s Cross from Admiral von Friedeburg in June ‘44, because I have all the other old medals with the swastika. Yes, I am absolutely convinced.”

That point settled, the conversation moved on to Schroeter’s experiences during the war.

“The first patrol started on the 13th of January, ‘42. This was the first day we were allowed to torpedo ships. We went out on the 23rd of December, ‘41, from Lorient and the passage took about three weeks in order to spare fuel.

“I was the watch officer on a boat (U-123) of the first group of submarines fighting along the east coast of the U.S. We started right in the neighborhood of New York and went down to Cape Hatteras. There were no defenses or attacks against our U-boats. We had only one bomb thrown by a small civilian boat. And when we where on the way back (to Germany) after firing our torpedoes, we were pursued by a Norwegian steamer. He had seen us on the surface and tried to ram us. It took all our power to get free, and he transmitted continuously, ‘I am pursuing a submarine.’ It took about a half-hour until we saw an airplane. Then we dived and all went fine. This is significant in relationship to our early operations along the East Coast. We could go along, being aware that the enemy was not prepared for our offensive. The commander of the boat, Captain Hardegan, decided that we would, in daytime, spend some time out on the deck with the entire crew sleeping, minus the poor men on watch, of course. Then at dusk, we hurried toward the coast to pick up targets. We would come in so close to the shore that we could see cars driving along the coastal roads at night, their headlights burning. We smelled the forests of the coast, some two, three miles away. The water we were in was only ten to 15 meters deep. We would not have been able to dive, of course.”

It was a fascinating point Horst von Schroeter had made regarding being able to smell the trees. The question was posed if he felt that one’s senses, like smell, might become sharper when at sea for so long. Schroeter laughed for a moment.

“It might be. Maybe you can imagine what it smells like on a submarine with the diesel in it. It smells quite different than trees! We knew we smelled the forest because it is quite different from anything on the boat or in the sea.”

“There was traffic (shipping) running from Cape Hatteras north to New York, and as you know, it runs in an easterly direction. At Cape Hatteras was where our targets assembled. In the night at Cape Hatteras, in this first attack, we had 15 to 20 ships in sight at the same moment with their positioning lamps burning. It was absolutely peaceful. We could choose which target we would like to sink. This was the first trip over there.

“The second patrol started on the second of March and was back in Lorient on the second of May, two months. Our Boat for both trips was U-123. I was Second Officer of the Watch on the first patrol and First Officer of the Watch on the second patrol. On the second trip they had established a defense against submarines. For instance, there was one very dangerous moment for us when we were picked up by an American destroyer. The destroyer was so close to us that we couldn’t do anything but dive. Because of the shallow water, we could only dive to 22 meters (72.6 feet), traveling, more or less, along the bottom. We got a series of depth charges right on the boat. This shocked the boat and we settled on the bottom. The lights went out, water was coming in, and the compressed air was escaping. This was a very bad moment for our boat. We couldn’t do anything but wait for what was next. We put our life jackets on and waited. The destroyer made another run over us but did not throw any depth charges. I don’t remember how long it took, but then it disappeared. We slowly came up a bit and went out into deeper water and had a chance to repair all the damage.”

Horst von Schroeter went on to mention more current events concerning the history of submarine warfare.

“In the later days and patrols of the war, we spent 39 percent of our time above water and the rest below water because of enemy aircraft. This is just part of the information I compiled for a recent report. I have also studied our number of days at sea, the tonnage we sank, the amount of petrol we used. You see, we made a report to the authorities at Lorient, in France recently. The bunkers (submarine pens) that are there cannot be destroyed. The French Navy is no longer using the facility so it was decided to turn the bunkers into an international museum on submarines. I put together a report on the special relation of our boat (U-123) to the bunker. Our boat made the first trial to get up inside the bunker in 1941. As we were told, the idea for these type of bunkers came from Hitler himself. I put the U-123 out of commission in 1944, in the bunker of Lorient, so after the war it came into French hands. The French recommissioned the boat and used it from 1947 to 1959.”

Schroeter was asked if he had ever received the large formal document for his Knight’s Cross. He had received the preliminary, or Vorläufiges Besitzzeugnis, signed by Admiral Karl Dönitz.

“This first certificate has me with the rank of Leutnant zur See (Ensign). This was incorrect. My rank at the time was actually Oberleutnant zur See (Lieutenant J.G.). When I received my Knight’s Cross, the invasion (Normandy) had already started, and I suppose since I belonged to the Flotilla at Lorient, the formal document was probably sent there and lost along the way. I only received the first one (meaning preliminary document).”

An attempt was made not to overlook any detail when submitting a question to Horst von Schroeter. As the interview went on he took from his pocket a pack of cigarettes and offered them all around. Were the men on the U-boat allowed to smoke?

“On the U-boat you could only smoke on deck in the fresh air. You couldn’t smoke if the boat was under the surface, therefore we had to go these periods without a cigarette. I personally have smoked about 20 cigarettes a day for my whole life, but on board the U-boat, because we were always around petrol, I smoked an average of four a day.”

The tone of the conversation turned to more serious matters. Erich Topp, the famous U-boat commander’s name, came up. It seemed the Topp had been deeply affected over the years concerning the losses he had inflicted. Schroeter continued.

“We looked up to Topp, we all respected him. He was four years older than me.

“We had an expression for the men aboard the ships we sunk. We called them Armen Schweine, “poor boys,” those on the other side. I think it is important to look at basic distances in the navy war compared to the army war. The navy does not fight against men, but material. We speak of those poor boys deaths. Of course, we had a lot of tankers sunk, and tankers blow up anyway. You have a lot of fire and oil and such on the surface and it was very very bad, very cruel.

“After the war we went through a process called ‘re-education.’ We were re-educated about all the cruelties in the war. But in my opinion they only started looking at 1933. And they don’t look, for instance, at Versailles. There is a title of a book, Hitler Born In Versailles. You must look at bit longer into the past to have the real picture. That is the one thing. The next thing, they are only looking at German crimes. And they don’t ask what is correct, or why the Germans did these things. The crimes were done especially in the Russian war, and they were often reactions to Russian actions. You must put these things together to get a clear picture of the past.”

A clear picture of history is often difficult to find. Schroeter witnessed the rapid decline of the U-boat service and is one of the very lucky few who survived it. He saw the war from above and below the surface, as a hunter and the hunted.

Horst von Schroeter began his general officer training in 1937. He participated in the occupation of Norway in 1940 as a midshipman on board the battle cruiser Scharnhorst. After his duties in Norway were over, he was ordered to special submarine training and started seagoing U-boat warfare in April 1941.

Schroeter became watch officer on U-123 from April 1941 to June 1942. Soon he earned a promotion to commander of the same ship at the age of 23 years. He fulfilled that role from August 1942, until June of 1944 with the 2nd U-boat Flotilla based at Lorient. In August of 1944, he took command of the new U-boat type XXI, U-2506. His career with the Kriegsmarine ended in the area of Bergen, Norway. As his ship was heading out on a new patrol, the war was over.

In 1956, Horst von Schroeter rejoined the navy and served for another 23 years. His time in the Bundesmarine was spent training midshipmen ashore and at sea. Schroeter served as head of the Naval Division of the Armed Forces Staff College, as well as Executive Officer aboard the destroyer “Z1.”

On April 17, 1970 Schroeter was promoted to Flotilla Admiral and then, in October 1971, to Rear Admiral. That same year he became Deputy Chief of Staff in the Naval Ministry. His success and the confidence of his superiors was reaffirmed when, in 1976, Schroeter was named Commander of Allied Forces, Baltic Approaches. He would retire with the rank of Vice Admiral in 1979. Afterward, he proudly served as the Chairman of the Naval Officers’ Association from 1982 until 1990. He currently lives in retirement.

In 1942, German shipyards were producing some five U-boats a week. By 1943, two out of every three boats that sailed from U-boat pens never made it back to port. It was a known fact among U-boat men that the greatest danger came from the sky. On a cloudy day or a clear night, the crew had to be exceptionally vigilant. It was recommended that if an aircraft surprised a submarine on the surface, the boat should defend itself using its guns. Some had tried to get away by diving. If a U-boat was hit at the critical moment of submerging, chances are it would never come up again. Off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Horst von Schroeter’s happy hunting ground, there sleep the crews of several U-boats who did not heed the warning. Horst von Schroeter mentioned at one point in the conversation, “I am lucky to be alive.”