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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Production Administrator

    £17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest ...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sunroom / Conservatory / Extension Designers

    £16000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Planning Assistant

    £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working for one of the count...

    Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger Administrator

    £5120 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working for one of the countr...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence