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Report - Kriegsmarine U-534, Birkenhead

Discussion in 'Other Sites' started by snappel, Aug 10, 2007.

  1. snappel

    snappel BMW 4 LIFE
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    Intoduction

    Sometimes an explore means a lot to me, and has so much more to it than just my experience and photos that I feel compelled to write an involved piece about it. Previously I've done this only for the Paris Catacombs, but hope to be able to do it for more places in future. After over a year of speculation and talk, I finally managed to explore one of the very few remaining German WW2 U-boats.

    The Sinking of U-534

    The five tired, frightened but brave figures stood, waiting, as their crippled submarine drifted down to the sea bed. Somewhere above them the other 47 members of their crew were clinging hopefully to their life jackets awaiting rescue by an Allied ship. Down below, however, things weren't looking so good. The aft torpedo compartment had suffered badly from the blast of a depth charge, dropped from the sky by Liberator bomber 'G' for George, and now the submarine was partly flooded.

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    U-534 shortly before the attack​

    Amongst the trapped submariners was the boat's cook, Karl Gernhardt. Perhaps one of the most stressful jobs of all was preparing meals for 52 men in a tiny galley, smaller even than what you'd find in the cheapest of city-centre apartments. Remaining calm, Karl found the escape apparatus and ensured everyone was prepared. This was a very real possibility that they had trained for as new Kriegsmarine recruits, and now they were preparing for the ultimate test, where remaining calm would determine whether they lived or drowned.

    Opening a valve, the compartment was flooded, equalising the pressure both sides of the hatch. With brute strength and determination, the locking wheel was wound and the hatch released. Pushing it open, the men swam out of the submarine. Reaching the surface, they were reunited with the rest of the crew. There were three casualties - one from exposure and two from decompression sickness. For the survivors, now prisoners of war, and for the submarine, almost totally full of water on the sea bed, the war was over.

    Raising

    So why was U-534 chosen as a candidate for 'raising'? What was so special about her that inspired the Danish Publisher, Karsten Rae, to finance the salvage? In 1945, as the submarine sat on the seabed, the wireless operator received an important communication from Admiral Doenitz, himself commander of the U-boat fleet and German head of state after the suicide of Hitler. The message informed the captains of all the remaining U-boats that they were to surrender to the Allies by 0800hrs on 5th May.

    Herbert Nollau, the U-boat's commander since it was commissioned in 1942, made the decision to surface and head for Norway with no surrender flag flying. This was observed and communicated to RAF Coastal Command, and Liberator bombers were quickly despatched to intercept.

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    A captured U-boat in Liverpool's Gladstone Dock​

    So why the decision not to surrender? Why head for Norway at such a desperate hour as the Third Reich fell apart? Rumours and theories suggested that perhaps the boat had been carrying a high-ranking Nazi leader to South America, or was perhaps transporting gold. Unfortunately Captain Nollau had taken his own life shortly after the sinking of U-534, and so the real story will probably never be known.

    On Monday August 23rd, 1993, U-534 surfaced for the last time. Dutch salvage team Smit-Tak had used a giant steel sling to lift the boat, and as she broke the waves once more the progress was watched by 8 members of her last crew and 4 members of the Liberator bomber that had sunk her. Before any real investigation could be undertaken, tons of silt, mud and dangerous explosives had to be removed.

    The Move to Birkenhead

    Searches of the vessel did not produce any gold or diamonds, nor any evidence of high-ranking Nazis. One of the former crew members was asked by the salvage team if he knew of unsual. He said that there was nothing sinister going on with their boat, and that it was likely they would've surrendered in Oslo. Thankfully a home was found for U-534 in Birkenhead, close to where the World's first ever submarine was tested. Liverpool played a significant role in the Battle of the Atlantic, so it seemed a fitting location for the boat.

    On arrival, the submarine was positioned on the quayside of the East Float Dock, next door to the old Spillers Mill. Here the Historic Warships Museum prepared the ship for public tours, first ensuring that any hazards had been removed before installing electric lights and new wooden decking (the original wood had rotted away). A new conning tower had to be constructed, and the original gun was mounted on it.

    In February 2006 the museum was forced into closure. The redevelopment of the mill into new apartments had claimed the land for a carpark, and it wasn't feasible to relocate the museum. Aside from a loss of jobs, Merseyside had lost an important reminder of it's fascinating naval history. Luckily for me I'd been to the museum in 2001, seeing Onyx and Plymouth. In January 2006 I went on one of the last U-534 tours, but wasn't able to take many photos as these had been banned by the then owner of the boat.

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    U-534, just before the museum closed​

    With the museum closed, the submarine had to be moved. About a year ago a complex operation saw it transported to the neighbouring quayside, where it has remained since. As the days passed and nothing happened to it, I wondered if the submarine would ever be opened to the public again, or worse perhaps it would even be cut up for scrap. This was a big shame, considering the vast sums of money being injected into Liverpool development projects.

    A Potential Explore?

    With the future of U-534 in doubt, I started discussing it as a potential explore with Frank. We decided it would be possible to get up on it, but it would need some ropework. On an impulse, I bought a full complement of SRT (Single Rope Technique) gear to remove one of the 'barriers' of the project. After that other things took our attention, and the submarine was partly forgotten about.

    Suddenly news arrived that the boat was to be moved to nearby Woodside ferry terminal to be put on display, by new owners Merseytravel. Good news, I thought, until I read that the submarine would have to be cut into three parts to be moved. Although it was intended to put perspex over the ends and build viewing platforms, I couldn't help but think it was a waste. One of very few 'intact' U-boats left, and here it was about to be sawn into pieces. It just wouldn't look the same in three bits. I later found out that this possibility had been investigated over 6 months ago, and so it's very likely that this is what will happen.

    With only a few months until the work was proposed to start, I knew that if I wanted to see it properly then I would have to act fast. The kit list was more or less complete, but with Frank moved to London some new 'team members' were required. I'd talked to reefdog about it before at some point, and explored some fairly difficult stuff with him and TristanJay in the past. They were more than happy to join me - the next step then was a recce.

    Recce

    With other business on the Wirral, myself and reefdog stopped by the U-boat for an evening look. Negotiating the fences wasn't difficult, and this brought us within touching distance of the submarine. On the ground was a big heap of electric lights, which I recognised from the tour. Preparation work for the 'disection', perhaps? Also spotted was a CCTV camera on the forward deck, but this was probably from the U-boat's time at the museum, where it was actually cared for.

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    Being close to the boat reminded us just how high it was, and just how difficult it would be to climb. Nevertheless, an attempt would be made, but after darkness on another day in the near future. For the time being I was happy to photograph the outside, especially as the setting sun caught the colour of the rust hull so nicely.

    Preparation

    On the night of the planned attempt, the first task was to prepare the kit. It's too easy to forget things, so myself and reefdog, who were providing the rope gear, decided to lay everything out on his living room floor. As shown in the photo below, there was lots to carry...

    [​IMG]

    Most important was the rope gear. Good quality climbing rope was needed, plus full-body harnesses, ascenders and a range of karabiners, slings and shorter ropes. To get the rope up on the 'sub' we were going to use a tennis-ball on some nylon cord. And so a tennis racket would be needed to get the ball and string over the boat. It would be a long night, so food and drink was included in the planning. Next on the list were torches. A search beam torch, a reliable Maglite and some backup torches. Also a head torch and LED hand torch.
     

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  2. snappel

    snappel BMW 4 LIFE
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    Re: Kriegsmarine U-534, Birkenhead - REPORT

    Least important of all was the camera gear. This was to document the explore if we managed to get in. Light would be down to the torches, so tripods were an absolute must. Reefdog chose to take a digital and his trusty Canon AV-1 35mm camera with an ultra-wide lens. I took my workhorse Nikon DSLR and a couple of flash guns and stands, plus radio triggers to fire the flashes remotely. Spare batteries and cards, remotes and wires were thrown in too. Despite the large weight and extra bags, we didn't have to travel too far on foot to get to the sub so it wasn't much of a problem.

    First Attempt

    The submarine looked even more imposing as we quietly moved towards it's silouetter on the quayside. Taking care not to fall in the dock, we navigated our way to the boat and put down the bags. First step was to unpack the climbing gear - in particular the static climbing rope, the tennis ball and nylon cord, and of course the tennis racket. The plan was simple - coil up the cord, and then smack the ball over the top of the boat, tie on the SRT rope and pull it over.

    Unfortunately the cord was too heavy, and the ball kept falling short, not making it to the ground on the far side. On about the tenth attempt, the ball got caught on the deck and couldn't be pulled down. With no more cord and no more tennis balls, we had to think up something new.

    Thanks to the ingenious of TristanJay, an alternative method of pitching the rope was found. After one minor setback, we had the rope up and I was getting kitted out for the ascent. Full harness and two ascenders, plus my camera back on my back. Starting off was difficult, and it was with some effort that I finally made the deck.

    Once up there, I was amazed at how badly the metal structure had rotted. This was obviously why the museum had built a new wooden deck by the conning tower. Carefully negotiating the remains of the deck, I eventually made it to the first hatch. Locked and stuck fast. A survey of the other hatches revealed that none of them would budge. Perhaps they were welded, secured from the inside or just rusted shut? Whilst I was up there, I thought I may as well take some photos, and also climbed onto the top of the conning tower and looked at the gun.

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    With bad news to report, I abseiled back down to the ground. Agreeing that there wasn't much point the others going up for the minute, we quietly packed up the kit. We were all tired as we'd wasted so much time setting up the rope. We had that bit cracked now, so with a return trip we would be able to get two of us on the deck to try and shift one of the hatches.

    Third Visit

    Resisting the temptation to go back the very next day, we took stock of the situation, and decided there was nothing for it but to try again. A date was decided on, and when the day arrived the rope kit bag was checked. Some additional ropes, a second harness and some more karabiners were thrown in. I was more hopeful of an entry this time, so added some extra camera gear. Having eaten beforehand, the food was cut down to save precious weight.

    Unfortunately TristanJay had to pull out of the trip at the last minute. As we were prepared to go and were set on giving it another attempt as soon as possible, reefdog and myself decided to continue. A second visit with TJ would give him a chance to see inside, that's if we were successful this time anyway.

    Getting to the boat was tricker this time, with lots of activity on the dock road keeping us waiting for more than half an hour. And then, just as we were about to get the rope up, the Police helicopter started circling. Not good so far, but we persevered, getting the rope ready for use and once again getting kitted out for the climb.

    Again I went first, getting stuck partway with a jammed ascender. Having fixed that I made it up onto the deck and then pulled up the rope and tied it in securely so that nothing would be left dangling down when we went inside. Next job was to get all three bags up, pulled up one by one on the end of the rope. Finally reefdog completed his ascent and the climbing kit was packed away.

    Arriving at the first hatch, the securing arrangements needed a closer look. Unfortunately just then it started to rain, and then it really started tipping it down. In seconds we were soaked through, but still determined. reefdog managed to find a torch, and investigating the padlock, it was clear that the loop connected to the hatch had at some point been cut and bent out of the way, and so the hatch wasn't even locked anymore. The lack of shiny surfaces suggested this had taken place a considerable time ago, perhaps when the submarine changed owners? But still, the hatch would not budge. Trying a last time with two pairs of hands, the hatch slowly began to move. The hinges must have been seized from the weather and lack of oil. Carefully pushing the heavy hatch right back, we could smell the musty odour from deep within the boat.

    Before moving any kit inside, I went down with the big searchlight to have a look around. The smell and appearance of the sub were pretty much exactly the same as when I'd been on the tour 18 months ago. Aside from the removal of the lights, nothing else seemed different. Giving reefdog the all-clear, bags were passed down and camera kit assembled. Thankfully it was totally dry inside and also a bit warmer.

    [​IMG]
    Aft torpedo compartment​

    The first task was to walk the length of the hull and make sure there were no big holes to fall down or anything else dangerous that hadn't been there during the days of the tours. Using bright torches we worked our way to the opposite end, amazed at the cramped conditions. The myriad of remaining gauges, dials, controls and German labels and panels was stunning. In a way it reminded me of watching videos of the discovery of Titanic as a child. The eerily preserved details being picked out of the gloomy darkness by a single search beam.

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    Ceiling preserved by an air pocket​

    Upon reaching the end we turned and went back to get the cameras. Photography here turned out to be difficult. The tripod legs wanted to slide through the mesh floor, the conditions were cramped and lighting was down to a flash gun and torch. Using long exposures it was possible to 'paint' light over the interior to try and get a reasonably balanced image. Again we went the length of the boat, trying not to get in each other's way.

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    Reefdog getting to grips with his new camera

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    Controls and dials with German text

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    Engine room

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    Engine room

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    'Workshop' area

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    Control wheels for altering the submarines movements

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    Galley or kitchen for preparation of 50+ meals

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    Storage areas for food and provisions

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    Walkways and corridors were tight

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    Ladder up into the conning tower

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    Inside the conning tower

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    Submarines main control area

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    The periscope viewer

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    Yet more dials and controls

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    Wireless operator's room

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    Shortly before leaving​

    As we emerged onto the deck, I was hot and sweaty despite the rain now soaking us again. I'd got quite frustrated trying to move around inside the submarine, with my tripod becoming cumbersome and getting in the way. Fatigue was setting in and I just wanted to go home. I sat and thought about this, and realised that it's just what the crew must've felt like all the time. But they couldn't go home, they had to keep living in the small boat for day after day, week after week.

    Tired and soaked as we were, our work was not done yet. We had to make sure our rope for the descent was properly tied in and safe. Then we had to make sure that nothing was left behind. Setting up the rope once more then for the descent, reefdog double checked the knots before abseiling down to the ground below, taking care not to let his feet slip on the slippery hull. Then the other end of the rope had to be thrown over the other side of the submarine and tied off, so that once I was down it would be possible to pull the rope down. Checking one last time that nothing had been left, I dropped off the side of the boat and lowered myself down into the darkness, meeting the cobbled ground below with relief.
     
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  3. snappel

    snappel BMW 4 LIFE
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    Re: Kriegsmarine U-534, Birkenhead - REPORT

    And so then it was off home to clean the kit, shower off all the rust and dirt and try and claim 2 hours sleep before getting up for work. But at least it was a warm comfortable bed, not a small cramped 'bunk' in a loud, grimey submarine. When my alarm woke me, still tired and hungry, I was thankful that it was 7 hours in front of a computer that awaited me, not a long day of warfare deep below the cruel sea.

    Epilogue

    If the photos above don't convince you about just how grim the task of the U-boatmen was, then consider this: 73% of the men who manned these boats were killed in action. So that means that as a submariner statistically you had about a one in four chance of surviving the war. The crewmen knew the odds were stacked against them, and surely they must have thought about this as they pulled the hatch shut, watching that last glimpse of daylight disappear and wondering if and when they would next be coming up for air.

    Last Words

    Thanks to Frank for helping with the initial planning (sorry you couldn't join us) and also reefdog and TristanJay for their ideas, improvisation and company. I think the Historic Warships Museum (now closed) deserve some recognition for their part in helping to preserve the ship. I hope Merseytravel don't take too much offence from our exploration of the submarine, but I didn't want such a rare opportunity to pass. Once cut into three, it'll never be reassembled. Finally thanks to Jack Higgins for his excellent novel Thunder Point, which inspired my fascination with the possibility of mysterious submarine escape attempts in those final desperate days of the crumbling Reich.

    Sources & Further Reading

    http://uboat.net
    http://www.bignotion.co.uk/~kemble/uboat534.html
    http://www.submerged.co.uk/u534.php
    http://www.geocities.com/lostnprofound/u534.htm
     
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