Sunday, December 31, 2006

A voyage to the bottom of the sea


The Boston Globe
By Ralph Ranalli
December 31, 2006

The USS Grunion in March 1942. The submarine disappeared
later that year. (electric boat co./bruce abele).

This summer, Newton resident Bruce Abele, son of World War II submarine commander Mannert L. "Jim" Abele, and his two brothers discovered a wreck off the coast of Alaska's Aleutian Islands that they believe to be the USS Grunion, their father's submarine, which had been missing since its maiden voyage in July 1942.

Aided by volunteers, the Abele family has located relatives of 64 of the Grunion's 70 crew members to tell them about the discovery. In one case, the family of a missing crewman was reunited with a long-lost sister who had entered a religious order after the nun called to inquire about the submarine. The search effort -- bankrolled by brother John Abele, the billionaire founder of Boston Scientific Corp. -- is to resume in August. The wreck, which is about a mile deep, was discovered using side-scan sonar. Bruce Abele said the searchers will use a robotic submersible armed with video cameras for a better look. "I think we'll be able to identify it [the submarine] in black and white," he said, "but I am still not sure we will be able to figure out what happened."


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Futuristic sub was scrapped in 1936


By Sam Burson
December 28, 2006

A WELSH historian is hoping to solve the "political murder" of one of the most advanced submarines of its time, 70 years after the clandestine event at a Welsh port.

The X1, a triumph of British naval engineering, would have been a major force in the Second World War, according to Roger Cook, from Swansea.

But it was dismantled unceremoniously off the Pembrokeshire coast before the conflict even got under way.

Mr Cook, who has become fascinated by the history and demise of the X1, on which he is writing a book, is now hoping people from the Milford Haven area may still be able to offer clues.

He says he has discovered that, despite its size and awesome firepower, politicians were always a much bigger threat to the craft's survival than a depth charge could ever be.

The huge vessel was as big a political embarrassment to the UK's diplomats as it could have been a destroyer of enemy convoys.

Mr Cook, from Sketty, said, "It was too good for its own good.

"It was exactly the sort of thing that everybody had just agreed not to build so the Government at the time was never its biggest fan."

According to Mr Cook, who has recently moved to north-east France to work as a historical tour guide, the mystery began some time after the First World War when the so-called civilised countries were desperate to put the brakes on arms races.

Nations were finding military costs growing out of control.

A reduction in the construction of huge battleships was a major issue in diplomatic deals made at the time.

The destructive capability and massive cost of building them meant they were obvious targets.

Britain signed up to the Washington disarmament treaty, as did all the victorious forces after 1918.

But what UK leaders kept under their hats were details of the Admiralty's latest project.

While submarines were not altogether banned by the treaty, their use against merchant ships was - and it was for just this deadly purpose the X1 had been crafted.

It was armed well enough to take on any warships protecting merchant convoys, before catching and sinking the convoys themselves.

No surprise, perhaps, to find that, after her secret launch in 1923, the Government was forced to take a national newspaper to court over pictures of the new craft.

The blurred photos meant all copies of the paper were seized, as the Government barely managed to keep it under wraps. And it was decommissioned in Milford Haven in 1936, dismantled and largely forgotten by the time global conflict broke out again in 1939. Mr Cook believes it would have been a valuable weapon against the Nazis but the timing was all wrong for the British Government.

"(In the early 1930s) they had just agreed this disarmament treaty and what they did was to go and build the biggest sub in the world," said Mr Cook.

"They were pretty anxious about anybody finding out."

George Malcolm, a spokesman for the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, was thrilled about Mr Cook's book. He said, "Any research done which brings a submarine story before the public is always welcomed by us."

But Mr Malcolm said the X1 is currently remembered as a failure.

He said, "It is remembered mainly as a bit of a white elephant. It was designed to remain at sea for long periods of time and had enough guns to engage a destroyer. It was the biggest submarine in the world at the time but it was tactically flawed."

"If you're going to have a submarine that size, and that well armed, you may as well just have a surface ship."

Constant power failures also hampered the sub's potential.

Its huge diesel engines were forever on the blink and the sub only ever got up to its impressive top speed for a few minutes during its entire time at sea. But Mr Cook, currently completing a book about an alternative ending to the Second World War, is convinced the machine could have been a success, if given just a little bit of TLC.

He said, "What was not foreseen was how much of an impact the X1 could have had just a few years after it was decommissioned in 1936.

"It would have been ideal for use in the Second World War, in the Far East. But it was the unfortunate victim of what looks like a political murder."

Have you known anyone who worked on decommissioning the X1 in Milford Haven in 1936, or where the tonnes of metal and steel went after it was taken apart? Email

The X1 - The silent killer that never was

At the time, it was the largest, fastest, deepest-diving, and most heavily armed submarine in the world.

Length: 363.5 feet.

Maximum Speed: 19.5 notts surfaced, nine notts submerged.

Range: 12,400 nautical miles (surfaced).

Abilities: Could dive with much more control than previous submarines, which often plunged into the sea bed. The craft was much more manoeuvrable underwater than anything that had come before and could surface at will. It was a model which big nuclear subs later came to use.

Weaponry: The first hunter-killer submarine, it carried two twin power-operated gun turrets, operated by power hoists and a control tower, as on a surface cruiser. Hydrophones and active sonar could pinpoint enemies. A mechanical computer would control the firing of the 70lb shells. If anything was too big to attack with guns, a salvo of six 21-inch torpedoes could be unleashed from below the water. It also had four machine guns.

Targets: It was designed to target complete enemy convoys. After disposing of the escort destroyers, the X1 was designed to use all engines to outstrip any fleeing ships.


Smiley leading efforts to raise funds for U.S.S. Indianapolis memorial


The Daily World
By Nick Schneider
December 28, 2006

A Linton resident is heading up a national fundraising effort to provide the money needed for the construction of a permanent memorial honoring the U.S.S. Indianapolis SSN-697 submarine.

The proposed memorial would be located near the current U.S.S. Indianapolis cruiser CA-35 monument - the other major U.S. Naval vessel that bears the name of Indiana's capital city.

Bob E. Smiley, Ph.D., a retired Indiana State University business and marketing professor, said $100,000 is needed by the United States Submarine Veterans, Inc. (USSVI) - a Hoosier Base organization to move parts from the decommissioned submarine in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state and mount them on a specially designed memorial along the downtown Indianapolis canal walkway.

Smiley, who has lived in Linton since 2000, is the USSVI-Hoosier Base treasurer and chairman of the monument committee.

The USSVI is an all-volunteer 12,000 member organization based in Silverdale, Wash. The Hoosier base is located in Indianapolis and has 118 members.

“We want to have this monument in place alongside the CA-35 cruiser monument so that the folks of Indiana will know that there was more than one warship named for our capital,” Smiley told The Daily World on Wednesday evening.

Smiley, who served on the U.S.S. Toro submarine from 1957-59, said a “pass-through” account has been established with the Greene County Foundation to accept tax-deductible donations to this project.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis SSN 697 is a nuclear-powered Los Angeles-class submarine that was commissioned Jan. 5, 1980 and decommissioned nearly 19 years later Dec. 22, 1998.

The fund drive, which is being done in cooperation with the Indiana Department of Veteran's Affairs and the Indiana War Memorial Commission, started in November and he hopes to reach the goal by Dec. 1, 2007.

Smiley said the U.S.S. Indianapolis submarine is less famous than the World War II vintage U.S.S. Indianapolis (CA-35) Portland-class heavy cruiser. She holds a place in history due to the notorious circumstances of her loss, which was the worst single at-sea loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy.

After delivering the first atomic bomb to be used in combat to the United States air base at Tinian Island in July 1945, she was in the Philippine Sea when attacked at July 30, 1945 by a Japanese submarine. Most of the crew was lost to shark attacks, as they floated helplessly for several days, waiting for assistance. The Indianapolis was the last U.S. Navy ship sunk by enemy action in World War II.

“We are working to get land near the U.S. Indianapolis cruiser memorial on the Indianapolis canal walk,” Smiley said. “We will bring the external components - that's the sail and the rudder. The hull will be simulated using concrete. It will look like the submarine is sitting there.”

The sea history of the U.S. Indianapolis submarine is somewhat secretive - because it completed its 10 missions during the “Cold War” era, according to Smiley.

This was also the first time that a U.S. Submarine Group Submarine Assistance Team embarked on a British ship in the western Pacific to assist the British in submarine coordination.

After six days of this complex tactical development exercise, three submarines surfaced and lined up with HMS Illustrious for an historic photo. This was a new twist for the submariners, as most are not familiar with steaming in close formation alongside an aircraft carrier. While maneuvering into position, U.S.S. Indianapolis was flying their "INDY 500" checkered flag alongside their United States ensign from their bridge.

To make a donation to the U.S.S. Indianapolis SSN-697 Memorial Fund contract the Greene County Foundation at R.R. 2 Box 38X, Bloomfield, Ind., 47424 or call (812) 659-3142 or e-mail at

The technical numbers behind the U.S.S. Indianapolis-SSN-697

Length: 362 feet (110.3 m) 360 feet (110 m)

Beam: 33 feet (10 m)

Displacement: 6080/6927 tons (surfaced/submerged)

Surface Speed: 15 knots (27 km/h)

Submerged Speed: 32 knots (58 km/h)

Crew: 127-133

Armament: 4 Torpedo tubes for Mk48 or Mk48 ADCAP Torpedoes, Harpoon and Tomahawk missiles, 12/15 VLS tubes for Harpoon and Tomahawk missiles.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Sub to remain untouched


The Sydney Morning Herald
By Bob Wurth
December 27, 2006

The Japanese midget submarine lying five kilometres off Long Reef is almost certain to be left in its underwater grave.

Although a final decision has not been made, compelling arguments against raising the M24 have emerged less than a month after its discovery.

These include the danger of explosives that might still be on board, the potential cost, and the possibility of the wreck disintegrating. As well, it is internationally accepted that battle wrecks should remain untouched on the ocean floor.

Australian authorities say there is also unlikely to be an attempt to recover any remains of the two-man Japanese crew, Sub-Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban and his navigator, Petty Officer Mamoru Ashibe.

Comments by Itsuo Ashibe, who initially held out hopes that his brother's remains would be recovered, are making the decision to leave the submarine where it is much easier.

Mr Ashibe admitted this week that his wish for a recovery was an impossible dream. His aim now is to sprinkle sake over the sea off Long Reef - possibly on May 31, the 65th anniversary of the submarine attack on Sydney Harbour.

Japan has not called for the M24 to be raised or any remains to be recovered and is interested primarily in securing the wreck site, which is now covered by a Commonwealth protection order under which illegal divers face fines of up to $10,000 or five years' jail.

The project manager for the wreck, Tim Smith, a maritime archaeologist with the NSW Heritage Office, says the final decision will be shared by Japanese and Australian authorities. "Based on international experience, the raising of wrecks is a very complicated and difficult proposition and would cost tens of millions of dollars," he said.

A decision to raise the submarine would be considered only on the basis of a special research angle or a threat to the site. "But no such angle or threat exists at the moment."

Mr Smith said the M24 now lay where it finished its battle, which was an important archaeological consideration. "Leaving a wreck in situ is the first rule of the UNESCO convention [on the protection of underwater heritage]," he said.

Water police are patrolling the 500 square metre protected area and it is hoped that, by the end of January, it will be further secured though the use of remote surveillance devices.

Preparations are under way for a scientific survey of the wreck in a few weeks. An initial survey, based on footage from a navy submersible, said the sub was in generally good condition, bar a large tear behind the conning tower. Its batteries could be seen through the tear and a large section of the front of the conning tower had been ripped away.


U-boats off the North-East


This Is Hertfordshire
December 26, 2006

IN the Astley Arms at Seaton Sluice, between Whitley Bay and Blyth, is a bottle of whisky that's never to be opened. It recalls a poignant episode in the Second World War. On Boxing Day, 1939, sub-mariner ERH 'Tug' Wilson won the bottle of Johnnie Walker in a sweepstake at the pub. Due to leave within hours on a mission to the enemy-controlled Heligoland Bight, in a U-boat from a group then based in Blyth, he handed the bottle to the landlady, Lydia Jackson, for safe keeping.

But Tug's vessel, Seahorse, never returned. Her fate is a mystery, but up to her retirement long after the war, Lydia kept Tug's prize behind the bar, ready for his return. To ensure its future, she then presented the bottle to the Royal Navy's Submarine Museum. But a symbolic replacement, unopened, of course, remains a treasured relic at the Astley.

Telling this story in the superb opening volume of an ambitious record of every known submarine wreck around Britain, Ron Young and Pamela Armstrong reveal that the North-East has exceptionally strong links with the sinister yet also chillingly-heroic submarine warfare. As they declare in only their second sentence: "This spectacular coastline has been mute witness to momentous events.''

On September 5, 1914, just a month and a day after Britain was drawn into war with Germany, the torpedoing of a British cruiser, Pathfinder, off Berwick, gave her the unwanted distinction of being the first warship in naval history to be sunk by a submarine in the open sea.

Fast forward to November 10, 1918, the day before the Armistice. Sunk with all hands off the Farne Isles, HMS Ascot, thus became, say Young and Armstrong, "almost certainly the last British warship torpedoed in the First World War".

Meanwhile, Blyth had been the Royal Navy's main training station for sub-mariners. Still the base for a flotilla of submarines in World War II, it suffered more losses than any other U-boat port.

But near the coast most losses were of German U-boats. And - such are the whims of history - one yielded another "bottle" story.

On April 16, 1945, U-boat 1274 sank a tanker carrying molasses, in a convoy off the Farne Islands. But an escort destroyer, HMS Viceroy, tracked her down and dropped depth charges, which sent her to the bottom. Among the debris was a bottle of brandy, which was later presented to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

All 43 of 1274's crew perished, entombed in the vessel, which is now a war grave. Young and Armstrong report that it is "still intact, except for the stern end, where, it seems, a number of the depth charges exploded. . . The hatches are still sealed". With the end of the war just three weeks away, 1274, noted by Young and Armstrong as "one of the very last U boats destroyed in Home Waters during the Second World War", added another especially tragic distinction to the North-East coast.

Covering the entire East Coast, including Kent, this meticulously-researched account has separate chapters for the North-East (Berwick-Middlesbrough) and Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. The authors have painstakingly pieced together the stories of the 16 U-boat wrecks so far located - seven off the North-East coast, nine off Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

They provide full technical details of the vessels, describe the events leading up to their loss, and list the victims, including, where available, those on ships attacked by the U-boats prior to their own destruction. The present state of the wreck, established by divers, completes the remarkable record.

Prominent in it is a renowned German commander, Werner Furbringer. A brilliant sub-mariner and honourable man, he once nursed his U-boat back to her home port after she had been so severely damaged that she drifted for two days. On July 9, 1918, instructed to attack an ironworks near Seaham, he audaciously took his boat, UB 39, right into the harbour and fired 39 shells, matching his boat's number. He escaped without even submerging.

Although the attack cost the life of a woman walking on the cliffs, Young and Armstrong say: "There is convincing evidence that the humane Furbringer deliberately fired his symbolic barrage over rather than at the town.''

By coincidence, Furbringer and his UB 39 take a starring role in another intriguing drama, seemingly overlooked by Young and Armstrong, but showcased in a small booklet by John Howard, a retired Scarborough headmaster with deep roots in Staithes.

On July 13, 1916, UB 39 surfaced amid a handful of Staithes' fishing boats, one of which sank after the intruders, probably checking that the boats had no spying equipment, tore it apart.

Furbringer assembled a couple of the crews on the deck of UB 39 and took a photograph. The group included a sturdy Staithes character, William Francis Verrill, who, acting as leader, asked Furbringer: "Do you like herring, maister? Francis, chuck him a warp of herrings (clutch of four) ower."

As the U-boat veered close to his coble he warned Furbringer: "Fend off, maister. Ah deeant want mah bit o'coble screeaped. Ah've nobbut just had her pented.''

When Furbringer offered the men a drink of water - after apologising for the lack of coffee or cocoa - William Cole, another redoubtable Staithes figure, a staunch Methodist, chipped in: "You've just sunk their bit o'cobles. Are you trying to corrupt 'em wi' strang drink an all?''

Donating the profits from his booklet to charitable causes in Staithes, including the War Memorial and Memorial Hall, Mr Howard says the U-boat story has been much embellished down the years. But Furbringer emerges as much the same "humane" man painted by Young and Armstrong. Mr Howard writes:

"The submarine commander bade his erstwhile prisoners farewell with the words: "Goodbye gentlemen, I have done with you now.' The Staithes fishermen commented afterwards on Herr Furbringer's unfailing courtesy throughout the whole of this episode." He survived the war, wrote what is now a classic book on his war experiences, and lived to be 93.


Friday, December 22, 2006

Divers find U-boats wrecked by secret wartime minefield


Times Online
December 22, 2006

NEWQUAY Divers have uncovered the wrecks of three Second World War German submarines off the British coast, shedding light on a British operation that has remained secret for more than 60 years.

Historians were amazed at the discovery of the severely damaged U-boats, which are lying close to each other seven miles off Newquay, Cornwall, because none had ever been recorded as being lost there. After extensive research it was found that they had been sunk in a secret minefield laid after the British intercepted a radio message from a U-boat commander.

His boat had sunk a British destroyer after discovering a gap in the Irish Sea minefield that allowed supply ships in to Cardiff and Bristol. He radioed the news to Germany but his message was deciphered by British Intelligence. The British then laid deep mines to allow ships through but trap U-boats.

Historians were unaware of the minefield until recently, when the relevant documents were declassified.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Quest for WW II closure

By Jim Brown
December 21, 2006

I read a book a few weeks ago. Not a small accomplishment considering my recent track record at that kind of endeavor.

It was a book about World War II, but it brought back to me the day in 1972 when we got word that my brother Tom had been wounded in action in Vietnam. Until it's happened to you, you can't begin to understand the gut-wrenching dread a message like that evokes.

The book was about the the Gudgeon, a U.S. submarine in World War II. A bit gut-wrenching itself, the book is full of very humanized, personal stories from the ship's 12 wartime patrols deep in enemy territory.

The dictionary says a gudgeon is a "small European bait fish." What an awful name for a ship.

Granted, the Gudgeon was small as warships go, but it certainly wasn't small to the thousands of enemy military personnel who lost their lives to it, nor to the Imperial Navy whose ships it sank.

The Gudgeon and its crew were big, too, to the families of those who sailed aboard it.

But at the end, those families' messages in 1944 were similar to the one we received in 1972, except theirs said their loved ones were "lost at sea and presumed dead."

We only had to wait a couple weeks to receive the good news that Tom was recovering. Then he got better, we heard his story and everybody went on with their lives

The loved ones of those who died on the Gudgeon were not so lucky. Those men became missing and were believed dead, and that is how they stayed. The best the Navy or anybody else ever knew was that the Gudgeon went on patrol in enemy waters one day and simply didn't come back.

Now, Mike Ostlund, author of the book I read and a nephew of one of the men lost aboard the Gudgeon, has unraveled the mystery of the ship's disappearance.

He recounts how he researched everything from old sea dogs' stories to records he had translated from the Japanese war archives and finally found authoritative accounts that agree as to where and when the Gudgeon went down.

The Japanese records even identify the aircraft that dropped bombs through the ship's deck and conning tower on that sunny day in April 1944. They produced a huge geyser of saltwater and fuel oil that ended in a single moment, the last patrol of the little sub and its crew.

Ostlund has become more than the teller of a remarkable story, however. He has become a detective, seeking out surviving families of the Gudgeon's wartime crews. Ostlund's mission now is to tell those families what he has learned about the boat.

Which brings us to the Milwaukee connection: The Gudgeon's commanding officer on its last patrol was a Milwaukee native named Robert Alexander Bonin. He graduated from Boys Tech High School in Milwaukee and the U.S. Naval Academy. His wife, Regis, lived here while he was at sea.

Ostlund is looking for anyone with information about the ill-fated skipper's surviving family or friends. He would like to pass on what he now knows about the last days of the man and his ship.
Yes, it happened a long time ago, but to someone out there, it seems like only yesterday.

So, does anyone have even a tiny clue as to who Robert Bonin was or where his survivors might be? If so, contact me and I will pass on any information I receive.

Maybe it will mean closure at last for a nephew or son or daughter somewhere.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Toxic timebomb surfaces 60 years after U-boat lost duel to the death


Times Online
December 19, 2006

Sixty-one years ago a U-boat slipped out of the Baltic port of Kiel, sent by Hitler on a secret voyage to Japan in a mission to avert Germany’s looming defeat.

U864 never reached her destination. She was sunk by the British in the only known case of one submarine destroying another while both were submerged. It is a remarkable tale of wartime derring-do — but one with a sting in the tail.

The wreck now lies, in two pieces, 152 metres (500ft) beneath North Sea waters off the Norwegian coast, and contains 65 tonnes of mercury in 1,857 corroding canisters. It is a toxic timebomb, and today the Norwegian Government will announce plans to entomb it in a sarcophagus 12 metres thick.

“The potential for pollution is unlike anything we have seen in Norwegian history,” said Ane Eide Kjaeras, spokeswoman for the Norwegian Coastal Administration.

The mercury, which was used in weapons production, was U864’s secondary cargo. Her most important load when she left Kiel on her maiden voyage on December 5, 1944, was made up of advanced Messerschmitt jet engine parts, for use in Japanese aircraft.

Hitler apparently believed that if Japan could regain air superiority in the Pacific the United States would have to divert resources from Europe.

British codebreakers at Bletchley Park learnt of Operation Caesar in time, and the Allies dispatched HMS Venturer, a V-Class submarine commanded by Lieutenant Jimmy S. Launders, 25, from the Shetland Islands to intercept U864 as she headed south from Bergen.

Venturer could not use sonic waves to hunt her quarry for fear of betraying her own position and U864, commanded by Captain Ralf-Reimar Wolfram, was able to slip past, only to suffer serious engine trouble later.

Shortly after 9am on February 9, 1945, Venturer detected U864’s engine noise using hydrophones and then spotted her periscope.

The hunt was on.

“We felt a bit shaky because it could sink us the same as we could sink them,” Harry Plummer, an able seaman on Venturer, told a forthcoming BBC Timewatch documentary on the subject.

For three hours Venturer stalked the 87-metre U864 as the German submarine zig- zagged to make herself a harder target. Then Launders gambled, deciding to fire all four of Venturer’s torpedoes even though this would leave her defenceless if they missed.

He calculated U864’s course as best he could, then fired at 17 second intervals. Each torpedo took more than two minutes to reach its target. The first three missed but the fourth broke U864 in half. There was a “loud, sharp explosion followed by breaking-up noises”, Launders wrote in the ship’s log at 12.14pm. Mr Plummer said that it sounded like someone crushing a box of matches.

“It was a relief,” he recalled. But “the next minute we realised it was another submarine and more submariners had been killed . . . When you reflected afterwards you think to yourself, ‘Poor bastards’.”

U864 lay undisturbed on the sea bed, about two kilometres off the island of Fedje, until discovered by the Norwegian Navy in 2003. Underwater pictures show the ghostly wreck covered in seaweed, her bow and stern lying 40 metres apart, her rudder locked in an emergency dive position.

What alarmed the Norwegian authorities were the dangerous levels of mercury contamination on the surrounding seabed, and the discovery of documents indicating that U864 had 65 tonnes of mercury on board. Traces of mercury were also found in fish, raising fears that the cargo could contaminate the food chain.

The Norwegian Coastal Administration monitors about 2,500 wrecks, 400 of them from the Second World War, but this is the most threatening, Gunnar Guellan, the project manager for U864, said. Fishing and boating in the immediate area have been banned and islanders have been told not to eat local seafood. Attempts to dig into the half-buried keel using robotic vehicles were abandoned when the unstable wreck shifted.

The Norwegian Coastal Administration has dug up near the keel a single mercury canister. Its 5mm-thick steel wall has been eroded in places to less than a millimetre. The administration can only guess at the condition of the other canisters still inside the wreck.

The islanders want the wreck to be removed altogether, but authorities deem that too dangerous — the wreck, which still contains torpedoes, could break up and the canisters might disintegrate.

Entombment is the only option. The wreck will be covered with up to 100,000 cubic metres of sand and gravel, or possibly even concrete, to a depth of 12 metres because the seabed there is unstable. The cost could exceed £8 million.

Entombment would also be an appropriate way to deal with what is, after all, a war grave. Somewhere in that broken U-boat lie the remains of Captain Wolfram and his crew of 72.


Sunk U-boat a time bomb for Norway


December 19, 2006

HORTEN, Norway -- Norway will entomb the wreck of a U-boat sunk in the North Sea during World War II in hopes of averting an environmental catastrophe,

Ane Eide Kjaeras, spokesman for the Norwegian Coastal Administration, said, 'The potential for pollution is unlike anything we have seen.'

The German vessel U864 was sent by Adolf Hitler to Japan with a cargo of mercury for weapons production and engine parts for aircraft in 1945. The British submarine HMS Venturer sunk the U-boat.

The wreck of U864 was found by the Norwegian navy in 2003. Authorities found toxic levels of mercury contamination. The wreck cannot be removed because the mercury canisters might disintegrate.

NCA says entombment is the only option, The Times of London reported. Aside from safety, entombment would be appropriate for the captain and his crew of 72, killed when the boat sank, the newspaper said.

The cost of the project could exceed $15 million.


U-boats and spies invade museum


Ottawa Sun
By Denis Armstrong
December 19, 2006

Like many Canadians, I learned about World War II from the point of view of the English. We learned how brave Canadian soldiers valiantly liberated Europe from the Nazis.

What we weren't taught was how boldly Canadians defended their own country when the Germans targeted the St. Lawrence River.

That historic chapter of Canadian history gets its due in a new exhibition called Canada Under Attack: The Battle of the St. Lawrence (1942-1944), which opens Friday at the Canadian War Museum.

The exhibit is anything but a dry academic look at a chapter of Canadian social and military history. This unassuming but nonetheless highly theatrical exhibition features recreated samples of homes under siege, with samples of daily radio broadcasts, propaganda films and anecdotes that give the displays real humanity.

375 killed
There's also a storyboard on the life of Maureen Spence, whose Scottish father was one of the first casualties of the conflict in the St. Lawrence when the liner Frederika Lensen was torpedoed in 1943, one of 23 ships sunk in which 375 lives were lost.

"We give the viewer a taste of what daily life was like in the Gaspe during this time, the daily blackouts and precautions that they would have to take," said curator Jeff Noakes. "When word got out that Nazi spies were planted throughout Quebec, people became very suspicious of strangers."

The exhibition isn't without a sense of humour either, with reconstructions of the eccentric defence projects created by fishermen and farmers.

It runs until April 15.


Saturday, December 16, 2006



The Santiago Times
By Benjamin Witte
December 15, 2006

Juan Enrique Benítez shows where he believes
the submarine to be.

Sub Seekers Narrow In On Lost 1866 Prototype
Somewhere below the surface of Valapariso Bay, hidden in the harbor’s dark, frigid waters and half-buried in murky sludge, is a unique 140-year-old object that, for more than a year now, has been filmmaker Juan Enrique Benítez’ consuming obsession.

“I’ve put everything else aside,” said Benítez, a wild-haired, middle-aged man with a real flair for story telling. “It’s been like an addiction. A drug. I feel like this is something very important, although since it’s been there so long, 140 years, nobody believed me at first.”

The addiction, Benitez’ “drug,” is a one-of-a-kind submarine, the first ever designed and built in Latin America. In 1866, just days after its unveiling, the prototypical sub sank precipitously to the ocean floor. Aboard the vessel were its designer, a German immigrant to Chile named Karl Flach, his 11-year-old son and nine other crew members – all of whom were condemned for nearly a century-and-a-half to Davey Jones’ proverbial locker.

For the past year Benítez has worked feverishly with one clear goal in mind, to find the lost submarine and rescue it not only from the depths of Valparaiso Bay, but also, as he claims, from historical obscurity. It appears he’s now closing in on that goal.
Earlier this month, after spending more than a year on detailed preparations, Benítez and his collaborators finally took their search to the water. Those collaborators include maritime historians, a group of highly trained Navy divers and academics from the Santiago-based Universidad Internacional SEK, which happens to have a department dedicated exclusively to sub-aquatic archeology.

Over the course of four days the team scoured Valparaiso harbor using state-of-the-art equipment: high-frequency sonar to detect objects above the ocean floor, a low-frequency depth profiler used to locate objects buried below the muck, and an electromagnetic scanner used for identifying metallic objects. Based on that survey, according to Dean Pedro Pujante of the Unversidad Internacional SEK, the team was able to narrow its search down to 12 specific points of interest.

Among the dozen hot spots is one particularly interesting find, something that shows up in computer-generated images as a type of cone or obelisk, protruding from the harbor floor at a slightly inclined angle. The image, if it in fact turns out to be the missing submarine, corresponds nicely with historical information about how exactly the vessel sank – lodged at an angle, nose first, in the ocean floor.

Between 1864 and 1866 Chile and Peru were embroiled in war with Spain that began when the later seized Peru’s guano-rich Chincha Islands. As part of the war effort, then Chilean President José Joaquín Pérez commissioned the construction of a submarine, only a few of which had ever been built anywhere in the world.
The president’s request actually resulted in two submarine prototypes--one designed and built by a man named Gustavo Heyermann, the other by Flach. Heyermann’s vessel, unfortunately, sank on its maiden voyage. Flach’s sub, however, seemed to work quite well – at least during several days of initial testing.

Designed to protect Valapariso harbor from attack (the Spanish fleet in fact bombarded and leveled the city on Jan. 31, 1866), Flach’s pedal-powered submarine was equipped with two cannons, one built right into the nose of the vessel. Constructed entirely of steel, it was 12.5 meters long, 1.5 meters wide and weighed an estimated 100 tons.

Then, on May 3, 1866, Flach, his son and nine crewmembers boarded the doomed submarine for what would be its final voyage.
Something went horribly wrong, and the heavy machine sank to the ocean floor. Two days later, a diver from the English frigate HSM Leander successfully located Flach’s submarine, reporting that in its fall the vessel had buried itself nose-first in the sediment below. The diver, a man named John Wallace, later drew a picture of the sunken submarine, a picture that in many ways resembles the enigmatic computer image that now has Benítez and his colleagues so excited.

It wasn’t until nearly 140 years, while working on a program called “De Mentes Geniales” (From Brilliant Minds) that Benítez first learned about the tragedy.

“There you have a play on words. Spanish wordplay,” said Benítez. “Dementes (demented people) means crazy. But de mentes geniales means something else. It’s an interesting play on words, because what interested me was looking at Chilean creativity, and new, non-traditional businesses that people here are coming up with.”

While working on the program Benítez met a man named Salvador Villanueva, a Chilean inventor who had constructed a submarine of his own, a sort of winged vehicle used for underwater exploration.
“He seemed to me to be a demente genial (a cool mad man), someone who would be perfect for the show, and I told him so,” said Benítez. “Then he said to me, ‘no, there’s something every crazier, even more brilliant that’s located in the middle of Valparaiso Bay. It’s Latin America’s first submarine, which sank 140 years ago with 11 people on board, and no one has ever looked for it.’”

Benítez, attracted in large part to the sheer madness of it all, decided to do just that – set out in search of the sub. The result has been months and months of research, fund raising, filming, interviewing and, most recently, actual exploration of the bay. He convinced companies like Subaru and Lider to invest. He brought the Chilean Navy on board. At one point he even visited a psychic, to bring in, he said, a paranormal angle to the story.

“The psychic corroborated everything,” said Benítez. “She said to me, ‘I don’t look for objects. I don’t have that ability. I don’t look for trucks, or cargo containers. I don’t look for treasure. And I don’t look for submarines. Because I can’t perceive objects, only people.’ And I said, ‘Inside this submarine there are 11 people who have been dead for 140 years.’ Then she was able to corroborate exactly the same information that we also had; that it was located 50 meters down, that it was near the coastline, etc.”
Next up is what Benítez and his colleagues are calling the visual identification phase, which begins Friday – today. For the next four days, the team – equipped with video cameras – will investigate targeted spots in an attempt to finally locate the missing submarine.

If they do find the sub, Benítez, Pujante and the others are under strict orders from Chile’s Council of National Monuments not to touch or move anything. So far there’s no consensus about what actually will be done with the sub once and if it’s located. Raising it from the ocean floor, furthermore, would be no easy task.
And finally there’s the very delicate question of what should be done with whatever human remains may be found inside. “It’s not an easy subject to deal with,” said Dean Pujante.

No matter what happens, though, Benítez is convinced he and his colleagues have already accomplished an important feat, not only in bringing public attention to this fascinating bit of Chilean history, but also in encouraging a collaboration between the military, civil society, intellectuals and artists. The Flach submarine, after all, is a symbol of Chile, according to Benítez.

“Since Chile was founded it’s boasted certain characteristics, all of which are represented by the Flach submarine,” he said. “First, that immigrants are accepted. Immigrants have been integrated in this country. Second, that this is a country that since the beginning didn’t allow others to step all over it. And third, that we care about creativity and the importance of technological development.”


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Midget sub discovery stirs ghosts of the past


The Sidney Morning Herald
By Bob Wurth
December 13, 2006

KAZUTOMO BAN, 74, a retired doctor, remembers going to the train station with his mother to see his brother, Sub-Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban, off to war in 1941.

It was a scene being repeated all over Japan, but the older brother, from a proud Imperial Navy family, already knew he would never return.

The discovery of the midget submarine off Sydney last month has brought mixed emotions for Dr Ban, who lives in Hekinan, a small city 40 kilometres from Nagoya, surrounded by water. "I feel relieved that we now know the exact place he died, [but] now I think we should leave him to rest in peace," he told the Herald.

"I don't see the point in raising the vessel and disturbing his peaceful sleep. What will be found? Probably nothing. It benefits nobody."

But as Australian and Japanese authorities consider what to do with the remains of midget sub M24, Itsuo Ashibe, 84, brother of the other submariner who died on board, says he is "filled with a hope" that the vessel will be raised. "As a member of a bereaved family - and someone who lost four brothers during the war and as a man who has nothing to show for any of them - I pray it will happen," he said.

"I know it is likely that nothing remains, but nonetheless, I want to know.

"There is probably little interest - in Japan, at least - to raise the vessel, and realistically there is probably nothing remaining inside. But if there were just something, a shoe, perhaps, or even if I could have a rusted piece of the sub that I could bury inside my brother's grave, I would be happy."

The discovery of midget submarine M24 has ended a 64-year mystery but is now the subject of delicate discussions between Japan and Australia on how to determine if there are remains inside and, if confirmed, how they might be brought to the surface.

The last 12 months have been an emotional time for the two surviving brothers of the submariners who rode the M24 to their deaths. A year ago they were informed that an Australian filmmaker, Damien Lay, was claiming, in a live television broadcast, to have discovered the M24 near Palm Beach. But Mr Lay's discovery was disproved.

Then on November 26, almost a year later to the day, a diplomat from the Japanese embassy in Canberra telephoned Dr Ban to say there had been another discovery, and this time it looked like the real thing.

Within a few days the discovery of the M24 was confirmed by the Royal Australian Navy.

Sub-Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban and his navigator petty officer, Mamoru Ashibe, initially had not been selected to be in the Sydney attack force, but were on standby on the mother submarine I24 in case they were needed. They were thrust into the operation after an accidental blast aboard the mother sub, less than two weeks before the Sydney attack date.

When the decision came, Katsuhisa Ban knew his duty. He wrote to his mother in beautiful calligraphy, saying he would drive his submarine "into the heart of an enemy battleship". He came near to achieving a naval victory.

The midget submarines had a reputation as being ineffective and dangerous after their failed part in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, but elements in the Imperial Navy continued to push for their use.

When the decision came, Katsuhisa Ban knew his duty. He wrote to his mother in beautiful calligraphy, saying he would drive his submarine "into the heart of an enemy battleship". He came near to achieving a naval victory.

The midget submarines had a reputation as being ineffective and dangerous after their failed part in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, but elements in the Imperial Navy continued to push for their use.

In Sydney Harbour, alive to the presence of enemy submariners, the boyish 23-year-old Katsuhisa Ban fired two torpedoes at a cruiser, USS Chicago, at anchor off Garden Island. Both torpedoes missed. One ran up on to the shore and failed to explode. The other exploded on the seawall alongside the Kuttabul, sinking the old ferry, which was being used as a barracks, killing 21 men, mostly Australian naval ratings.

Deep in the sea off Sydney on May 31, 1942, the two submariners prepared to leave the mother submarine for the M24 attached to the larger vessel. Katsuhisa Ban prayed, shaved his hair off, gave money to the sailors who had assisted his preparation and then wrote one final message indicating that death was expected: "Nations that fear death will surely be destroyed - it is necessary for the youth of Japan to take notice of this."

Underwater he and Mamoru Ashibe clambered through to the midget riding on the mother sub, and headed off at sunset to join the other two ill-fated midget submarines, each with their crew of two.

Petty officer Ashibe, 24, also knew that his chances of survival were slight. His surviving brother lives quietly in retirement in Wakayama city, on the Seto Inland Sea. "Should the vessel be raised and remains found, I have no hope or desire that any kind of military ceremony, like that held [in the 1940s] for the other four [Japanese officers killed in Sydney Harbour] will or should take place," he said.

The Curtin government allowed the Japanese ambassador, Tatsuo Kawai, to take home the ashes of the four submariners, whose wrecked submarines were recovered in 1942.

Mr Kawai's arrival with the remains of the four aboard the Kamakura Maru at Yokohama pier in October 1942, where the ship was met by the friends and relatives of the four submariners, created a great outpouring of national pride. The event was heaven sent for wartime propagandists after Japan's naval war was in decline. Japanese newspapers were full of the deeds of the submariners.

The ashes of the four naval men were in white boxes on a huge altar before the Rising Sun flag aboard the Kamakura Maru. The grieving relatives of the submariners came aboard the ship and placed bouquets and sakaki branches on the altar.

Mr Kawai then invited the relatives to a lounge downstairs, where they were seated, as the press crowded around. "Let me recount the scene of their heroic end," Mr Kawai said. "Glorious indeed was their end. Look at this photograph. It is of the naval funeral held by the Australian Navy. Even the enemy was moved by the daring of the heroes."

Mothers and fathers listened attentively with deep nods, tears filling their eyes. Mr Kawai related how the mother and father of one of the submariners came to see their son off. When they learnt that their son was determined to make the supreme sacrifice, they gave up their plans of finding a bride for their beloved son and spent the last night with him in a small boarding house room.

"Such father. Such mother." Mr Kawai said, moved to tears himself.

In 1943, shortly before his own death in action, the Japanese naval commander-in-chief, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, announced that Emperor Hirohito had granted a citation to the submariners in the Sydney raid and another that took place at the same time in Madagascar.

The men were elevated to "Hero God" status and each was posthumously elevated two ranks, which meant a larger payout to the relatives.

The two missing submariners Katsuhisa Ban and Mamoru Ashibe, whose bones today may still be in the M24 off Sydney, also became "Hero Gods."


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Toxic shield guards U-boat's secrets


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.