Chris Durban: I sank a German U-boat in 1943, I was just 20-years-old and terrified

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As we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of The Battle of the Atlantic tomorrow, Nicholas Milton speaks to a 90-year-old naval veteran about the psychological impact of fighting the Axis' stealthiest weapons

The last time Able Seaman Chris Durban saw a U-boat he was ramming the HMS Brilliant destroyer into it in the middle of the Atlantic on Christmas Day 1943.

Now, aged 90, the World War Two veteran is once again staring at the menacing form of a U-boat - although thankfully this time it is U-534 which is safely in dry dock in Liverpool.  

“I never thought I’d see one again, especially this close up,” Durban says. “When I last saw a U-boat 70 years ago they were firing at me as they went down. I was just 20-year-old and I was terrified”.

Although he didn’t come quite as close as Durban, Winston Churchill shared the young sailor’s fears. The wartime Prime Minister wrote in his memoirs: “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril. I was even more anxious about this battle than I had been about the glorious air fight called the Battle of Britain.”

Durban, who also served on the Flower-class corvette HMS Primrose, believes all those who took part in the Battle of the Atlantic should be given the same recognition as those who fought in other services during the war. “It was an absolute disgrace those who took part in the Arctic convoys had to wait 70 years for a medal,” he says. “At least we got the Atlantic star after the war. But still far too few people know what we went through.”

“What made the battle so nerve-wracking was that you hardly ever saw the enemy. But for weeks on end you thought that at any moment you would be hit by a torpedo. It was psychological torture and they knew it. The only time I ever saw a German on board was when we picked up a Luftwaffe pilot we had shot down. But he died a few hours later”.

The Battle of the Atlantic was epitomised in the 1953 film The Cruel Sea starring Jack Hawkins as the skipper of the Compass Rose. At the end of the film he lowers the cargo nets and takes on board the survivors from a U-boat that has been depth charged and forced to the surface. His number one, played by Donald Sinden, remarks poignantly: “Not so very different from us, are they?”

By contrast, when Durban and his comrades rammed the U-boat, the German survivors were left to die in the water. “I can still vividly see their faces. They were waving at us thinking we were going to pick them up. They were just boys fighting for their beloved Führer. But it was us or them.”

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign of the Second World War and was vital to Britain’s war effort. It brought food, supplies and military equipment from the United States and Canada to Liverpool, London and Londonderry. It lasted from 1939 until the German surrender on 8 May 1945, during which between 30,000 and 40,000 seamen died and over 5,000 ships were sunk, the majority by U-boats.

From 1940 to the spring of 1942 U-boats inflicted heavy losses on the Atlantic convoys but then better tactics, training and equipment swung the battle decisively in favour of the Allies. This culminated in what the Germans called “Black May 1943” when the German Navy suffered such heavy losses that they temporarily withdrew all U boats from the North Atlantic on 24 May 1943. Crucial to this was the cracking of the German Navy’s enigma code at Bletchley Park by Alan Turing and his colleagues. Plus the Allies began closing the ‘air gap’ in the mid-Atlantic by using long-range aircraft such as Sunderlands.

Next week in celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic 25 warships will visit Liverpool, the national focus for the anniversary, followed by a march past of veterans and a service at Liverpool Cathedral. “These celebrations will be the last ones,” Durban says. “The average age of the veterans will be at least 90. It will be the final opportunity for society to remember their sacrifice.”

Today there are only four surviving U-boats left in the world and U-534 is the only one in Europe outside Germany. It was sunk just days before the end of the war on 5 May 1945 by RAF Coastal Command and lay buried off the coast of Denmark for 48 years until it was salvaged in 1993.

The salvagers had hoped to find a store of gold and diamonds on board, but were disappointed. Instead they found uniforms, binoculars, documents, medals, games and even bottles of wine, all perfectly preserved by the mud and water-tight compartments.

Surprisingly the finds included a British Admiralty map of Newfoundland and charts with shipping silhouettes issued by Lloyds of London. Pride of place was an enigma machine and a coded message from Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz revealing he had been named Führer after Hitler’s death. 

The U-boat Durban helped sink brought an unexpected bonus. “Usually Christmas Day was just like any other day at sea. But this Christmas to celebrate we got corn dog sandwiches and then the order was given to splice the mainbrace. I’d just turned 20 so got my extra tot of rum for the first time. Before that I’d had to make do with lime juice”.

Churchill, perhaps realising that history would remember the sacrifice of more high profile battles, wrote: “We shall not fail, and then some day, when children ask ‘What did you do to win?’, one will say ‘I was a fighter pilot’, another will say ‘I was in the Submarine Service’ another ‘I marched with the Eighth Army’. A fourth will say ‘None of you could have lived without the convoys and the merchant seamen’”.

If you know anyone who served on HMS Brilliant during the war or can help identify the U boat the Royal Naval Association would like to hear from you. Email nicholasmilton@hotmail.com

70th anniversary celebration of the Battle of the Atlantic starts Friday 24 May to 28 May in Liverpool. For more information visit www.royal-naval-association.co.uk; for more about the U-534 go to www.u-boatstory.co.uk

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