A chief engineer on a German U-boat at the age of 20, Werner Hirschmann later wrote a book about his naval career.
Published as a 255-page autobiography, ‘Another Place, Another Time,’ it is not a history of submarine warfare in the Second World War, wrote his editor Donald E. Graves. It is not a history of the German U-Boot-Waffe.
It is a story of a young man, Graves wrote, who cherished a lifelong ambition to be an officer in his country’s navy – and attained that ambition.
On Sunday, September 15, Hirschmann will be sharing some of his U-boat stories at the Tillsonburg Station Arts Centre, starting at 2 p.m., and everyone is invited. Organized by the Tillsonburg Military Club, admission is $5 and proceeds will go toward Week of Remembrance activities.
“It’s open to anyone interested,” stressed Robin Barker-James of the Military History Club.
“Werner has a very unique perspective, I think, on the whole experience. As you read his book you realize he represents the average German who was trying to serve, and trying to defend his country.”
There was nothing ‘average’ about U-boats, however, and their impact on naval warfare.
“Winston Churchill, in interviews and his autobiography, stated flatly the only thing that terrified him in the war was the U-boat war,” Barker-James noted. “That was the one thing he thought the whole thing could be lost to.”
Sixty-eight years after the end of World War II, there are fewer and fewer veterans left – on either side of the Allied-Axis war – and Barker-James stressed how important it is to listen to their stories. To learn from them. And to remember them.
Ken Koprich, a two-member of the Tillsonburg Military History Club who has enjoyed the club’s monthly speakers, the documentaries and visits to museums, actually knew a U-boat chief engineer, and suggested Hirschmann as a speaker.
“I thought, what about Werner?”
Koprich had an ‘in.’ His daughter had married Hirschmann’s grandson, making the 90-year-old Hirschmann, who lives in Toronto, an in-law.
“I’ve only met him a couple of times, but I didn’t really know who he was at the time,” admitted Koprich, who recently read ‘Another Place, Another Time – A U-Boat Officer’s Wartime Album’ (2004).
“Now I’ll look at him with new eyes.”
Koprich emailed Hirschmann, who in 1945 was onboard the German submarine ‘U-190’ when it sank the last Canadian warship lost in the Second World War, about visiting Tillsonburg.
Hirschmann’s Canadian connection resulted from an extended mission off the coast of Halifax in 1945, a confrontation with the minesweeper Esquimalt, and subsequent surrendering to Canadian ships at the end of the war.
“They thought they had been discovered by this Canadian warship (Esquimalt),” said Koprich. “They heard the pinging and thought, ‘they got us.’ In desperation, they fired one torpedo and high-tailed it out. The torpedo hit… and about 40 of the 70 onboard survived.”
Hirschmann later connected with Esquimalt survivors, eventually becoming an honorary member of their veterans association.
“It seems that naval people on either side are ‘naval people first,’” said Koprich. “Politics wasn’t his thing – he was being trained as a mariner. He didn’t know what Hitler stood for and what the Nazi Party was. They were on ships all the time, and when war broke out they were given missions. He was a normal person, like all of us.
“They were mariners first and it was a hard life on the sea. They understood each other. The sea was their real enemy… each other, that was just incidental.”
Koprich expects Hirschmann will share what it was like to live and work on a submarine.
“That’s really what the book’s about it,” he said.
“And the common bond between the Allied and German sailors, a bond of respect,” said Barker-James. “I think he’ll be talking quite a bit about that.”
People involved with Project Ojibwa in Port Burwell have been invited to Hirschmann’s talk.
“If I know navy guys, they’ll try to corner Werner and trade stories,” Koprich laughed. “And try to get him out to see the Ojibwa, I’m sure. I’ll bet that happens.”
“They are very interested in meeting him,” said Barker-James. “The Ojibwa is an Oberon class submarine, and its design was based on the most up-to-date U-boat designs at the end of World War II. You could say the Oberon is the final flourishing of U-boat technology. The Germans came up with a submarine at the end of the war that could be as fast underwater as it was on water. Over 20 knots in speed, which was quite amazing. Allied bombing interrupted its production in places like Hamburg – very few of them got to sea but… they had a very direct impact on modern diesel submarines like the Oberon.”
After the war, said Barker-James, Hirschmann became an exemplary Canadian citizen, and a computer expert.
“Why did he come back? He was here as a prisoner-of-war here until he got back to Germany in 1947, and he… fell in love with Canada.”
STILL A SAILOR
Hirschmann still sails at a 26-foot yacht in Toronto Harbour, said Koprich, and he’s still ‘old school.’
“He still does it, he still follows the old protocols with flags, positioning and such,” Koprich laughed. “Mariners know how to do that – but those club members in Toronto, they don’t know what they’re doing.
“They had so many rules in the German navy. Dress codes, who you dated when you were in port, what you wore – the tie, the jacket – and the one story I laughed at, Werner said ‘you never spoke to an officer with your hands in your pockets.’ He said, over here we do that all the time, and after being in Canada for a while, he got used to this casualness.”
ANOTHER PLACE, ANOTHER TIME
By Werner Hirschmann, with Donald E. Graves
Robin Brass Studio Inc, (2004)
(From the backpage)
As a boy growing up in Germany, Werner Hirschmann dreamed of going to sea. In 1940 he was accepted as an officer cadet in the Kriegsmarine, the German navy, and after years of rigorous training became an engineer officer in the elite U-Boot-Waffe or submarine service.
Using his wartime diaries and his remarkable photograph albums, as well as historical documents, Werner Hirschmann recounts the many interesting episodes in his naval career, including serving on a destroyer that escorted the Bismarck on its last operation, U-boat operations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and his last patrol into Canadian waters in 1945, during which his submarine, U-190, sank HMCS Esquimalt, the last Canadian warship lost during the war.
Werner Hirschmann provides a unique view of the day-to-day life of a U-boat officer who, like young men on both sides, did his best to enjoy life while trying to do his duty. An epilogue describes his post-war life as a prisoner-of-war in Canada, where he later pursued a successful career and eventually became an honorary member of the veterans’ association of HMCS Esquimalt.