Q. What do a WW2 submarine, an 85m high Naval Memorial and a stretch of beautiful coastline have in common ?
A. They can all be found in Laboe, about half an hour outside the German port city of Kiel.
This week was Autumn half term and as we all had a weeks leave, a family trip was in order. Well, any excuse, right? As much as we love our adopted home in Germany and have enjoyed exploring all that Deutschland has to offer ( Frankfurt, Hannover,and Dortmund …and Berlin. my beloved Berlin.) we were in the mood for something a little different. With this in mind, we booked a mini cruise to Norway sailing out of the Northern German city of Kiel. And being the family that never knowingly turns down the opportunity to explore, we stuck on an extra night in Kiel to see what we could see.
The first thing we did see was U-955, a German submarine that served as part of Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine during in WW2. I had expected something that had been employed as an instrument of war to be an ugly sight, to look out-of-place. But U-955 is actually quite beautiful in its own way, perched quite unobtrusively on the shore of the Kieler Fjord.
If the well cared for exterior inspired any romanticized notions about serving in one of these machines, the reality if the interior soon put such ideas to rest. Conditions were cramped and basic, to say the least. The comfort of the crew was not the priority here. Functionality, all the way.
A rudimentary kitchen consisted of a small stove and little else. This to cater to the needs of a crew of fifty or so men. Sleeping arrangements for the general crew were equally lacking in luxury, being made up of long communal bunks with a tiny locker space for each man. Commanders bunks were slightly more comfortable, but not by much. Interestingly , there were only enough bunks for half the crew, so each bed space was shared by two men. The crew operated so that at any time, half the crew worked whilst half rested. It is difficult to imagine the physical and mental strength required to deal with the rigours of serving in such an environment, let alone in the theatre of war. Visiting U-boat 955 left me in awe of what man can create in order to wage war, and with a new-found respect for submariners past and present.
Having seen a vessel designed to go down, it was time to go up. 85m up actually, to explore the Laboe Memorial. Originally built-in the late 1920s in memory of German sailors killed in WW1, the memorial is now an internationally recognised peace monument. In the 1990s the tower was rededicated as a Memorial those who “Died at sea and for peaceful navigation of free waters”. In keeping with the monuments evolving role, this is now a place of both remembrance and education. Nowhere is this more evident than on the first floor where several walls are lined with tributes laid by cadets and Sailors from all over the globe.
Other walls are carved with the silhouettes of different ships and lists the losses of both World Wars. It’s a visual, sobering summary.
An unexpected feature of the memorial is the subterranean cavern. The crypt like room is reached via a wreath lined tunnel and is brimming with tributes from across the globe. Flags of all nations are proudly displayed here. This is a place of Remembrance, but also of reconciliation and unity.
If you are feeling energetic you can take the stairs to the top of the tower, to the observation deck. I did and I can tell you, whatever energy I had at the bottom was gone by the time I reached the top. For the less able or those who don’t fancy the climb, there is a lift. However you get up there, its worth the effort. The views are incredible, even on a day when the weather is a bit temperamental, as it was for us.
Along with the rooms of memorial and remembrance there are a couple of museum style rooms, with information about the modern-day German navy and lots of model ships. The Little Dude enjoyed the models and we are now more knowledgeable about propellers, life boats, and funnels than we ever thought we would. I wonder who is teaching who sometimes.
As we left the Memorial, I just had to stop and get a picture of the gate covered in love locks. The aspiring writer in me cant help but wonder at the stories behind the padlocks. Were any of them placed by a sailor and his sweetheart? I don’t know. Being a bit of an old romantic, I just hope most of them had a happy-ever-after. Although given the old saying about sailors having a girl in every port… what are the chances?