Thursday, December 07, 2006

 

Toxic shield guards U-boat's secrets

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Globe and Mail
By Estanislao Oziewicz
December 07, 2006

Pollution fears stymie search for truth behind U-864's mission

The remaining secrets of an extraordinary Second World War death duel between a German U-boat and a British submarine are being shrouded by its toxic legacy.

Split in two deep off the North Sea coast of Norway is U-864, which in early 1945 was on an ultra-clandestine mission when it was attacked by the British submarine Venturer.

The sinking has left an enduring ecological time-bomb, which is also impeding a more complete understanding of the U-boat's high-tech war cargo and the nature of its stymied mission, code-named Operation Caesar.

Was it, as some suggest, Hitler's futile gambit to reverse the course of the war?
On Feb. 9, 1945, the Venturer's commander, Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, 25, had stalked his elusive quarry for several hours before firing four torpedoes, one of which hit midship, marking the first known time that a submerged submarine had sunk another submerged vessel.

The explosion destroyed the captain's bridge and conning tower, but the rest of the sub is intact.
Tonight, History Television Canada is broadcasting a riveting docudrama -- U-864: Hitler's Deadly Last Secret -- about what has already been unearthed about the encounter, including interviews with two surviving combatants.

Harry Plummer, who lives in London, fired the fatal torpedoes.

"It was a relief that you got rid of," he says. "And then the next minute I realized it was another submarine, and more submariners were being killed. . . . We realized it was nothing to be jubilant about."

There have been rumours aplenty about U-864's secretive cargo, including a now-debunked legend that Hitler's last will was on board.

And there has been speculation that Operation Caesar was one of his last, desperate acts to alter the course of the war, which had turned sharply in favour of the Allies.

That is why there is equal interest in examining U-864's entire cargo, which was being delivered to Germany's ally, Japan: the latest Messerschmitt jet engine parts, missile guidance systems, construction documents, as well as Japanese scientists and German Luftwaffe officers and 65 tonnes of highly toxic mercury.

All 73 on board perished, making the wreck a solemn graveyard.

But it's the inclusion of the mercury stored in the keel that is slowing, and potentially blocking, the unlocking of U-864's final mysteries.

Prompted by a local fisherman, the wreck was found by the Royal Norwegian Navy in early 2003, lying 150 metres below the sea in two sections, about two kilometres from Fedje, a tiny island about 320 kilometres northwest of Oslo.

Coincidentally, a German engineer conducting archival searches discovered that U-864 was carrying 1,857 steel canisters containing the liquid mercury.

Preliminary samples collected in silt around the wreck show high levels of mercury, which, if absorbed by fish, can be passed on to humans. Norwegian authorities have banned fishing in the immediate area.

For several years, the Norwegian Coast Administration has been trying to figure out how best to deal with the wreck: raise it, which at present poses a high risk of further toxic contamination, or entomb it to prevent toxic leakage.

The coastal authority is now studying the results of an underwater expedition in September that used deep-sea robots to examine the wreckage area more closely, to map it and to take further samples. The coastal authority said it would be making a recommendation to the government by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Operation Caesar continues to intrigue, including the revelation that Venturer was ordered to hunt for U-864 after British code breakers at Bletchley Park had intercepted radio messages from Germany to Tokyo about the mission.

And the human cost of the war remains in many people's memories.

The docudrama includes the story of Willi Transier, a mechanic aboard U-864 who was engaged to be married to his childhood sweetheart, Edith Wetzler, now 84.

Ms. Wetzler is shown pining for her lost love. Not a day goes by without her thinking about him, she says.


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