U-534 and the U-Boat Story, Birkenhead

The very first attack by a U-Boat in the Second World War came very early on; in fact, on the very day that Britain declared war on Germany – 3 September 1939.  U-30 fired two torpedoes at the transatlantic passenger ship SS Athenia off the coast of Ireland; its captain, Oberleutnant zur See Fritz-Julius Lemp, claiming afterwards that he believed the ship to be military.  The ship took 14 hours to sink, so thankfully only 117 of the 1,418 on board perished, mostly either when the torpedoes struck or in an unfortunate lifeboat accident; the survivors being rescued by a mixture of Royal Navy destroyers, an American cargo ship, a Norwegian tanker and a Swedish yacht which all responded to the SS Athenia’s distress signal.  The U-Boats were to play a vital role in the war for its entire duration.

Adolf Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945 and, amid power struggles and personality clashes in the fading Nazi leadership, had nominated Groβadmiral Karl Dönitz as his successor in his last will and testament written the previous day.  Dönitz had previously decamped to Plön, in Schleswig-Holstein, in order to maintain some continuity of government – something which was unlikely to be possible in Berlin for very long at all, given the impending arrival of the Red Army and the inevitable splitting of German territory.  The advance of the Allies over following days saw those at Plön flee further north to Flensburg, with their area of jurisdiction contracting accordingly.  Dönitz must have known that time was running out for the Nazis, and concentrated his efforts on ensuring that as many German troops as possible surrendered to the British or Americans rather than the Russians.

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U-534 on display in Birkenhead.

Dönitz had held the position of Oberkommando der Marine – head of the German Navy – since 30 January 1943, and consequently held the U-Boat fleet in particular high personal regard.  With the outcome of the war now all but a foregone conclusion, it must have been particularly galling for him to expect to see them fall into the hands of the enemy.  As a result, plans were drawn up under the name “Operation Regenbogen” for the mass scuttling off the fleet.  This order was actually given in the early hours of 5 May 1945, quickly superseded by the order that all German submarines should surrender to the Allies by 08:00 that day.

U-534 was the last U-Boat to have departed Kiel in the dying moments of the war in Europe.  Kapitänleutnant Herbert Nollau, the captain of U-534, which was sitting on the Danish seabed at the time, failed to obey the order to surrender, and along with two other German submarines, sailed north towards Norway.  Fatally, they were intercepted by two RAF B-24 “Liberator” aircraft, which succeeded in sinking U-534 with a depth charge; the other two U-Boats escaped.  Of her 52 crew, all escaped, although 3 of them died in the water.

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Inside U-534, which spent 48 years (sunk!) at the bottom of the sea.

U-534 was not the only U-Boat to have made a dash for it in May 1945.  Under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Heinz Schäffer, U-977 was in Norwegian waters, under orders to proceed to Southampton to attack Allied shipping, at the time of Germany’s surrender.  Schäffer also elected to disobey Dönitz’s order, and instead to proceed to Argentina.  After first putting ashore the 16 crewmen who did not wish to go – on Holsnøy Island near Bergen, on 10 May 1945 – U-977 then spent 66 days underwater making its journey, finally surrendering at Mar del Plata on 17 August 1945 – the same location that U-530 had previously surrendered on 10 July 1945.  In addition, U-963 and U-1277 continued without surrendering, both crews scuttling their vessels off neutral Portugal with all hands surviving.

The question is of course posed as to what drove these U-Boats to flee.  Did they not receive the order, or did they have something to hide?  Kapitänleutnant Nollau was a prisoner of war until August 1945, and after the war, worked as a postman.  He committed suicide in 1968, having never spoken about why (or whether) he’d disobeyed Dönitz’s order, where he’d been heading, or why he’d ordered his crew to fire on Allied aircraft after the ceasefire had been declared.  Unlike him, Schäffer did write his memoirs, which were published in English under the title “U-Boat 977”.

One theory which has been aired on a number of occasions (admittedly with minimal evidence to back it up) is that they were conveying Nazi luminaries making a last minute attempt to escape the clutches of the advancing Allies.  The name that has most often been mentioned is that of the head of the SS; Heinrich Himmler. Himmler had been immersed in the aforementioned power struggle, and in his arrogance, had attempted to make secret peace dealings with the Allies in anticipation of his success.  These were published by the Allies and Dönitz had to dismiss him from all posts.  The accepted version of events of what happened next is that Himmler continued “incognito” with the vague destination of neutral Switzerland in mind, was arrested in Bremervörde, and committed suicide by concealed cyanide capsule in British custody in Lüneburg.  The “conspiracy theory” is that Himmler actually made his escape from Schleswig-Holstein in a U-Boat, and the man who was arrested at Bremervörde was in fact a ringer……

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Some of the damage sustained by U-534 leading to its sinking in 1945.

What is definitely true, however, is that Nollau’s vessel, U-534, remained at the bottom of the Kattegat for 48 years, being salvaged in 1993 and later transported to north-west England.  It now forms the centrepiece of an exhibition adjacent to Woodside ferry terminal in Birkenhead, the U-Boat Story, where it has been sectioned in order to show visitors the inside of the submarine more clearly.

Entry to the exhibition costs £7.50 for adults and £5.00 for children, although there are some good combination deals available – for £10.00 I was able to get a day ticket for the Mersey Ferries that also included the U-Boat.

Each cross-section of the U-Boat makes it easy to see inside the vessel, and is well labelled and interesting.  Purists may lament the fact that the U-Boat has been cut open, however it certainly enables the telling of the story to be done far more effectively – and, most importantly, it makes the attraction fully accessible.  I really would recommend a visit.

U-534 is one of just four German U-Boats that can be seen and visited around the world.  The other three are: U-505, which was captured by the US Navy off Africa in 1944, and is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Technology; U-995, which saw post-war service in the Norwegian Navy right up to 1971, is now on display at the Laboe naval memorial near Kiel in northern Germany; and U-2540, which has led a remarkable existence.  Still to properly enter service, it was scuttled off Flensburg on 4 May 1945 as Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces in north-west Germany.  However, 12 years later, it was raised, refurbished, and joined the post-war Bundesmarine as a research vessel.  It is now on display at the Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum in Bremerhaven.

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Of course, many more remain beneath the waves, and a good number have been found and explored by divers.  Some may yet be raised – in the mid-2000s it was suggested that U-778, one of those taken for scuttling off Northern Ireland by the Allies under their “Operation Deadlight” in 1945, might be brought back to the surface; it had sunk whilst being towed, so is in far better condition than those that were used for target practice.  However, this plan was dropped by Derry City Council due to the costs involved.  As nobody was on board the scuttled vessels when they went down, they are not classified as war graves, so would theoretically be far more straightforward to obtain permission to raise than those that were sunk in action.

Until such a day as that may happen, though, there remain just the four.  This is an astonishingly small number given that the Germans commissioned approximately 1,250 U-Boats into the Kriegsmarine in the Second World War era – of these, 783 were lost to enemy action, 220 were intentionally scuttled as part of “Operation Regenbogen”, 156 fell into Allied hands at the end of the war (most of which were then also scuttled), 50 were declared missing and 6 were captured in action.  The human cost was much dearer; almost ¾ of the men who served on U-Boats during the war were never to see it end.

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The Fehmarnsundbrücke, and the Cold War Threat

I recently wrote about the Rødby to Puttgarden train ferry, linking southern Denmark to northern Germany.  This route opened in May 1963 and slashed journey times for both rail and road transport between København and Hamburg.  Yet it was also a lesser-known part of the Cold War story.

The two ferry terminals were built at the points of each country nearest each other, which both happened to be on islands in the Baltic.  One of the consequences of this is that any journey from Denmark to Germany via this route not only necessitates a ride on a ferry – well, for the foreseeable future at least (construction of a fixed link will begin in 2018) – but leapfrogging a number of islands along the way.

Accordingly, the infrastructure that required constructing in 1963 was not confined to the ferry terminals and their associated roads and railways, but also two substantial bridges.  On the Danish side, there was the Frederik IX Bridge linking the islands of Falster and Lolland; on the German side, there was the Fehmarnsundbrücke linking the island of Fehmarn, on which Puttgarden port stands, and the German mainland.

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The Fehmarnsundbrücke carries a two-lane road, a single-track railway, and a pedestrian walkway.  It is 963.4m long and is high enough for ships to pass under, and was built as a replacement for the little ferry that used to shuttle from the mainland to Fehmarn.  It was formally opened on 30 April 1963, although when severe weather had caused the suspension of the Fehmarn ferry three months previously, people had been permitted to use it at their own risk.  Its engineers were G. Fischer, T. Jahnke and P. Stein from the firm Gutehoffnungshutte Sterkrade AG based in Oberhausen, with architectural design overseen by Gerd Lohmer.

Lohmer (1909-1981) was a renowned West German architect who specialised in bridges.  In the wake of World War 2, he found gainful employment in bridge design – either on the reconstruction and redesign of bridges damaged in the conflict (e.g. the Nibelungenbrücke in Worms), or on brand new ones (e.g. the Konrad-Adenuer-Brücke in then-capital city Bonn).  In recent years, it has been granted the status of a protected national monument, and is well-loved by locals, who have nicknamed it the “Kleiderbügel” (clothes hanger) due to its distinctive shape, and adopted it as a local symbol.

The story would probably end here, were it not for the complicated and heated political environment which existed at the time of the bridge’s construction.

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Photo from Bahnbilder.de by Matthias Mueller (http://www.bahnbilder.de/bild/deutschland~dieselloks~br-218/747468/auch-50-jahre-nach-dem-bau.html)

In 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis had only just passed and the Cold War was still at very real risk of turning “hot”.  The threat of a Soviet invasion of West Germany was one which was taken very seriously.  The area to the east of Fulda – termed the “Fulda Gap” – was generally considered to be the route the Soviets would most likely take if they invaded – as there was little by way of natural barriers to a massive tank attack.  However it was not the only possibility.

Denmark’s stance in the Cold War is a complex but interesting topic.  Breaking a tradition of neutrality, it was a founding member of NATO in 1949, which meant it courted hostility from the Soviet Union who now treated it as an enemy.  Denmark could well have held strategic importance for the Soviets – not least could it have constituted something of a stepping stone to Greenland, from where its nuclear warheads could have reached the USA – but also a way into neutral Sweden – from where Norway, and thence the North Atlantic, would have been feasible targets.  Sweden boasted strong coastal fortifications, intended to defend it from a Soviet attack, therefore an “entrance” via Denmark would have been a clever way for Warsaw Pact forces to circumnavigate them.

Occupation of Denmark would have put West Germany – and from it the rest of Western Europe – within easy reach.  The existence of the newly-constructed train ferry would have made the movement of rail based forces, armaments, supplies, and so on much easier.  Equally, it could have formed a route for Soviet forces that had already conquered West Germany, into Denmark.  In either event, the Fehmarnsundbrücke may have taken on an immense strategic importance.

As a result, the design of the bridge featured six “Sprengschächte” – or “explosive vaults” – beneath the tarmac of the road’s surface.  In the event of an invasion, explosives could be placed into the vaults by soldiers and then detonated remotely (from a military location approximately a mile away), thereby causing significant disruption and delay to the advance.  Fortunately, this was never required.  However, the remnants of the Sprengschächte can still be seen today – in the form of six patches of darker tarmac on the surface of the road, at the mainland end of the bridge.  You can actually see them in very brief passing on my video above – although here is a far more useful photo!

These were by no means the only Sprengschächte that were placed on German roads for this purpose.  Indeed, whole hosts of them existed in the Fulda Gap and were officially maintained up until the early 1990s and the reunification of the two Germanies.  However the fact that these existed within the design of such a famous structure makes them noteworthy indeed.

Today, trains from Hamburg and Lübeck to Puttgarden (most of which continue across to Denmark via the train ferry) as well as high volumes of road traffic, continue to thunder across the bridge, their passengers most likely unaware of what used to lie beneath.

Riding the rails of a lost country

Ironically, “Ostalgia” is big business.  Over a quarter of a century since Communist East Germany ceased to exist, nostalgia for it has never been more popular.  It seems that, with almost as much haste as the traces of the former country were wiped away following the fall of the Berlin Wall, people are now scrambling to experience what life was like behind it.

You can drive a Trabant car in convoy around East Berlin on an innovative sightseeing tour, then stay at painstakingly styled themed hotels.  You can purchase clothes, food and all manner of other items of “reborn” Communist brands, recreated by popular demand.  You can have your photo taken at Checkpoint Charlie in front of a replica border hut, with men dressed up as border guards.

Yet all of these experiences are in some way synthetic. This part of the world has experienced so many changes since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, that it is nigh on impossible to recreate “everyday life” in any setting.  After all, this was a country where you could realistically expect your intercity train to be powered by steam right up until the late 1980s.  Today you can flash through the Sachsen-Anhalt countryside on some of the world’s most modern trains at speeds of up to 300 km/h.

Stepping off the modern electrified German commuter railway at Freital-Hainsberg station, though – a mere 12 minutes’ ride from the centre of Dresden – is like stepping back in time.

As the crowded electric trains zip in and out upstairs, an altogether slower pace of life exists at the station’s lower level.  Every two hours or so, every day, a narrow-gauge steam train quietly slips away, often fairly empty – especially out of season.  However, this is no tourist-orientated recreation of days gone by.  This is an operation that has remained largely unchanged since it opened in 1882.

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Awaiting departure from Freital-Hainsberg

The former East Germany retains a number of these tiny steam railways – but most have only survived by switching their focus to catering for tourists; the sound of the steam engines being accompanied by the excited laughter of children and the snapping of the shutters of countless coach tour passengers’ cameras.  Some others use modern diesel trains on some services as a more cost-effective method of operation.  This, the “Weisseritztalbahn”, has largely escaped that, and thus retains that Holy Grail of “Ostalgics” – genuine authenticity.

The railway winds its way for 14 kilometres up the narrow, heavily forested valley into the scenic East Ore Mountains, criss-crossing the river as it goes.  The train makes five intermediate stops along its way – largely wayside shacks at which nobody boards and nobody alights – before skirting the reservoir at Malter and pulling into the station at Dippoldiswalde.  This village, of only 140 inhabitants, is an unlikely terminus, and serves mainly as a popular base for mountain walks.  Indeed, the East German leadership placed a great deal of emphasis on encouraging outdoor leisure activities, and even in the technological age, this is something that many here still like to do.

The railway formerly continued for a further 12 kilometres from Dippoldiswalde to the one-time tourist resort of Kurort Kipsdorf – however this section still awaits reopening after it sustained severe damage during the catastrophic Central European floods of 2002.

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Heading up the valley

The last round trip of the day departs from Freital-Hainsberg at 18:42, and although sacrificing some of the scenery, a trip on it as dusk gathers is very highly recommended indeed.  The virtually empty, atmospherically illuminated train eases its way up the valley, the only sounds being the cacophonic echo of the engine’s roar, the gentle drum beat of the wheels on the rails, and the rushing water of the river.  In that moment, it might not be 2016 at all; this is exactly the experience of everybody who has travelled this route by train before – not just during the years of German division, but indeed back though two world wars and as far as 1882.  Suddenly, you are a world away from the bustling city centre of Dresden, in spite of it being still only a handful of kilometres away.

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Inside the Weisseritztalbahn train

Ultimately, the hordes who hope to experience a slice of life from the time of the Berlin Wall will most likely spend far more than the €15 Weisseritztalbahn fare, for a far less authentic product.  Yet everyday life for most East German citizens was not necessarily the clichés of Stasi persecution and political propaganda.  For a small investment of time and money, here you are offered the sounds, sights and indeed smells of days gone by – and little could be more “East German” than a ride on some authentic public transport, through some idyllic countryside, in order to enjoy some relaxed outdoor pursuits in a tranquil and scenic environment.