"I think it was about 14 April when I gave the captain a signal which read:
'U-234. Only sail on the orders of the highest level. Fuehrer HQ'" [cccxxiv
Chief Radio Operator of U-234
"I directed the radar beam directly on the attacker. At 3,300 yards the aircraft inexplicably pulled off its headlong course and turned away.... After thirty minutes there was another approach from the west, but...it disengaged at 3,300 yards.... The game went on all night; three times it was repeated " [cccxxv
Chief Radio Operator of U-234,
Describing a curious event when U-234 and three other U-boats were located at sea by enemy aircraft but inexplicably were not attacked.
Laden with 240 tons of war materials, including, according to the evidence, enriched uranium and infra-red proximity fuses, U-234 was prepared for her maiden - and what would prove to be her only - mission. She had recently been equipped with a 'snorkel,' Germany's newest submarine device that under normal sailing conditions allowed its user to stealthily sail the Seven Seas without the necessity of ascending for air. The 24 mine-laying tubes on the boat had been remodeled as storage compartments. The outer keel plates had been removed and the keel duct was loaded with a cargo of mercury and optical glass before the plates were rewelded into place. Two hundred forty tons of cargo destined for Japan was estimated by U-234's officers to have been loaded onto the boat; and now it stood at the dock in Kiel waiting to make its desperate dash to safety.
The chief officers of the boat, like the boat itself, appear to have been hand picked for the assignment. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a commanding officer who would have been a wiser selection for his mission than Captain Lieutenant Johann Heinrich Fehler.
Fehler, like so many U-boat skippers, had begun his career fresh out of naval school on surface ships. He and his eventual first officer, Richard Bulla, brought a breadth of experience to U-234 that had been gained on one of the most famous war vessels - or infamous, depending on one's point of view -in modern times; that of the German raider Atlantis. [cccxxvi
In the early days of the war, the Atlantis [cccxxvii had roamed the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans disguised as a ship neutral or friendly to Allied countries. Upon locating and approaching a vessel from one of these countries, Atlantis would unloose its six 150mm camouflaged guns and attack with torpedoes and its two deck attack planes, one of which was piloted by Bulla. [cccxxviii The ploy was usually so bold and unexpected that the matter was over in moments and Fehler, who was the munitions officer onboard the ship and who had therefore earned the nickname 'Dynamite,' would then apply charges that would scuttle the captured vessel. By such means Atlantis sunk or captured 22 Allied ships.
Atlantis' modus operandi took daring and cunning, a knowledge of how to execute deception on the open seas, and an understanding of the fine balance between audacity and idiocy that differentiates the successful stratagem that creates a hero from the clumsy ruse, whose outcome is ruin.
The Allies eventually caught on to Atlantis' tactics, however, and, its impact neutralized, the ship was forced to forego its actively belligerent role to be relegated to relieving other front boats with supplies and weapons. Even after Atlantis was converted from rogue warrior to surface supply ship, Fehler quietly carried within him all of those lessons hard-learned in battle, to be used later while commanding U-234.
Atlantis' final foray has become legend. While tied to U-126 in the South Atlantic in a resupply maneuver on 22 November, 1941, HMS Devonshire, a British cruiser, happened upon the boats. Dead still in the open water and intertwined in fuel lines, the two ships' crews suddenly had to race to clear the umbilicals to have a chance at survival. Once free, U-126 dove to safety. With Devonshire bearing down on her, Atlantis was a sitting duck. To avoid capture of the ship according to standing orders, munitions officer Fehler, as he had done with so many enemy vessels before, scuttled his own ship, adding Atlantis [cccxxix to the list of vessels he had sent to the bottom of the sea.
The 100 crew and officers who went into the life rafts were later found on the open sea by U-216, but there was no room in the U-boat for extra hands. Gross Admiral Karl Doenitz thought so highly of Atlantis and her crew, however, that he ordered two additional U-boats to aid the castaways and bring them home alive.
The rafts were tied to these U-boats and the U-boats, traveling on the surface and moving excruciatingly slowly, sailed for France. The plan, should it be required by enemy attack, was to release the rafts upon approach of a hostile craft and allow them to float away, their occupants to be killed or captured, as the escorting U-boats dove for safety. Fortunately for Fehler and his 99 mates, the plan was never required to be carried out. The three U-boats, the survivors of Atlantis in tow, successfully traversed thousands of miles of open ocean to ultimately reach France. The recovery of the Atlantis survivors now stands in the annals of naval history as one of the greatest maritime rescues of any military service.
Three and a half years after the return of the Atlantis survivors to Germany, at 3 p.m. on the afternoon of 25 March, 1945, fifty-five days before its dubious surrender and entrance into Portsmouth Naval Yard, [cccxxx U-234 with Captain Johann Heinrich Fehler in command, its devastating cargo and many of its passengers sealed away in its bowels, slipped away from its base in Kiel, Germany. [cccxxxi Once the tending tugboat had drawn U-234 away from the dock, Captain Fehler took over control of the U-boat and raced "with great speed" down the Kiel Fjord.
To reduce the chance of being caught and bombed by enemy anti-submarine aircraft while vulnerable in the narrow, shallow waterway, U-234 sailed surfaced and at near-maximum velocity down the narrow channel. Heading toward the entrance of the harbor, the submarine passed the towns of Laboe and Friedrichsort and then raced out into the open Baltic Sea, where a two-U-boat escort joined it.
In Kiel, the loading of the boat had been completed and her massive hull sealed up for the journey. The crew of 63 [cccxxxii (a very large crew for a U-boat - even of this size) was joined by eight passengers, including the two Japanese officers, Genzo Shoji and Hideo Tomonaga, and enigmatic engineer, Dr. Heinz Schlicke. Dr. Schlicke was dressed in a Luftwaffe (German Air Force) colonel's uniform [cccxxxiii by some accounts. He was identified in other documents, however, both as a navy officer [cccxxxiv (perhaps "honorary" according to U-234 radio officer Wolfgang Hirschfeld [cccxxxv]), and as a civilian specialist in high-frequency and radar technology who was being transported to Japan. [cccxxxvi
Although United States Navy records refer to him unambiguously as a member of the German Navy, with significant references to his involvement there, such references do not preclude the possibility that he actually worked for a different authority. According to U-234 head radioman Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Schlicke was aboard as an advisor/consultant for the U-boat's radar system. [cccxxxvii Schlicke is documented as having shared his substantial intellectual services with Hirschfeld during the voyage. Despite not knowing exactly who this man was, from all of the evidence available, his services extended far beyond submarine radar technology.
Also on board was Nazi bigwig and Naval Fleet Judge Kay Nieschling, who, even as the Reich was falling down around him, was being sent halfway round the world on the now futile mission of trying spies in the infamous case of the Richard Sorge spy ring. [cccxxxviii
Joining Nieschling, Schlicke and the Japanese duo were four others: Naval Lt. Hillendorn, civilian airplane engineer Bringewald, Naval Captain Falk, and civilian engineer Ruf.
Richard Bulla, Fehler's old mate during their daring Atlantis raids and rescue, already had been removed from the guest list and added to the crew as Fehler's second-in-command. When the originally-assigned first watch officer, Alfred Klingenberg, was caught personally by Fehler in flagrante delictato with another crewmember, the Captain removed him from duty and assigned Bulla in his place. [cccxxxix Besides reuniting Fehler and Bulla, the assignment had another fortunate outcome: eliminating one person in the already overcrowded submarine reduced the total number of people aboard U-234.
How Fehler's old Atlantis mate Bulla came to be on the list of high priority passengers destined for Japan can only be speculated upon. Bulla had flown deck planes - short takeoff aircraft - off of Atlantis and had a wealth of experience earned on the raider during daring assaults on enemy targets on the high seas, and therefore was a valued and knowledgeable naval officer and flyer for such operations. U-234 was full of jet aircraft and rockets - and nuclear bomb materials and technical experts of all kinds - destined for Japan. Japan was trying to find a way to deliver an offensive with teeth in the Pacific that could be successful turning the tide of the war in its favor, but the distances involved in island hopping to attack Allied bases were too great for round trip flights from Japan.
And Allied air superiority was keeping Japan's less capable planes from having their way against them. At the same time, Germany was developing plans for its V2 rockets to carry nuclear warheads [cccxl and to be launched from surface ships. And, according to General Kessler's and Judge Nieschling's later interrogations, Japan was modifying V-1 bombs with kamikaze pilot cockpits built into them, [cccxli and were quite possibly thinking of doing the same with V-2 rockets.
Germany also had devised another plan for piggy-backing a modified Messerschmidt 262 - the same type of jet that U-234 was transporting to Japan - as a bomber on a long-range Henkel aircraft for long-distance delivery of a bomb. [cccxlii Might Bulla's naval piloting experience be valuable in devising a platform for launching German-made atomic weapons toward Allied bases in the Pacific - part of what might have been a last-ditch, but potentially unstoppable, effort made by the Japanese to win the war?
As U-234 raced out of Kiel Fjord into the Baltic, she turned West into the open bay leading to the mouth of Eckern Fjord. [cccxliii There she waited until dark to begin the first leg of her run for freedom.
Shortly after midnight, in the early morning hours of 26 March, U-234 and her two-U-boat escort joined with three smaller Type XXIII U-boats and turned its course toward Norway. Her orders were to remain in the company of the three smaller boats until they reached the Norwegian coastal town of Kristiansand. The small flotilla traveled East below the island archipelago of Eastern Denmark, then North up the narrow neck of water between Denmark and Sweden. They passed Copenhagen while it was still dark and entered the wider body of water between upper Denmark and Sweden known as The Kattegat. Here the two-U-boat escort broke off and U-234 and her three smaller shadows crept up the Swedish coast, U-234 slowed by the 10 statute-mile-per-hour top speed of the Type XXIIIs.
At 3:00 p.m., chief radioman Hirschfeld requested permission from the bridge to discontinue radar operations momentarily in order to change out a malfunctioning component. The bridge, after reconnoitering the surrounding sea and sky for enemy aircraft or warships, gave the all clear. The radar had been out of service barely 10 minutes when sirens screamed throughout the boat that enemy aircraft were approaching. Aware that the newly installed component had a recommended 15 minute warm-up time, and not knowing whether the aircraft had spotted them yet, Hirschfeld turned to Dr. Schlicke, who had been observing the radioman's maintenance procedure, and asked if it would be permissible to power up the radar system. Schlicke simply nodded.
By the time the system was activated, the aircraft were within 5000 meters, and by the time Hirschfeld sent word to the bridge, they had closed to 3000 meters. Fehler, who had already ordered the anti-aircraft guns manned, now gave the order to fire at will. Nobody responded. In the din of battle preparations they had not been able to hear the Captain's command.
As the air armada flew overhead 2000 meters to starboard, Fehler personally went to take control of the anti-aircraft guns for the return engagement. But the airplanes never came about; presumably, according to Hirschfeld,Hirschfel,H having never seen U-234 and its triple tail (which is doubtful since the radar of Allied aircraft flying at 10,000 feet could spot a normal sized - much less triple sized - surfaced U-boat as far away as 80 miles [cccxliv). The enemy air patrol may have been on a dedicated mission elsewhere and simply was not interested in the mini-armada. Or the aircraft may have been ordered only to reconnoiter the U-boats, an odd but plausible possibility given ensuing events. Whatever the case, the U-boats continued their course toward Norway.
Just before midnight of the same day, the U-boat brigade passed behind a southbound convoy of German torpedo boats. Shortly afterward, those on the bridge of U-234 saw the convoy attacked by enemy aircraft and the resulting firefight was apparently quite a spectacle. The screen of U-234's radar glowed with swarming enemy aircraft attacking the small armada of surface ships. Fearful that the planes would turn on them, and unable to dive because of the shallow, thickly mined waters, the crew of U-234 would have liked to race away; but obedience to the order to remain with the smaller, slower U-boats kept her at their sides.
Very soon the airplanes did, indeed, spot the U-boat convoy - again with curious results. Flying very low to avoid radar, but according to Hirschfeld not succeeding, a group of enemy aircraft headed directly for U-234 and her diminutive detail. Hirschfeld recorded the event:
"I directed the radar beam directly on the attacker. At 3,300 yards the aircraft inexplicably pulled off its headlong course and turned away.... After thirty minutes there was another approach from the west, but...it disengaged at 3,300 yards.... The game went on all night; three times it was repeated " [cccxlv
What could have caused the apparently willing and able assault aircraft to approach the small group of vulnerable U-boats but not attack? Under normal circumstances any U-boat, but most particularly a group of U-boats, could expect a full confrontation in such circumstances. In addition, if Allied intelligence knew about the important passengers and cargo on board U-234 - and intercepted radio transmissions suggest they were very aware of U-234 and its passengers and some of its cargo, [cccxlvi but not the uranium - no doubt every effort would have been made to sink the boat.
When American forces in the Pacific had intercepted a report of a Japanese general traveling by aircraft, a squadron of fighters was sent to find the plane and shoot it down. Certainly if the identity of U-234 was known by those controlling the attacking planes, the same would have been done for U-234, which was carrying a general and several other high-ranking German and Japanese officers who were escorting known high technology, war making cargo.
That no effort was made to sink U-234 suggests the U-boat was being monitored and its passage protected, for some unknown reason, at a higher level within Allied command. Obviously, U-234's progress being tracked by the Allies would probably not have been known by the crews of the attacking aircraft. But those who knew the possibilities of U-234's cargo certainly would have kept a close eye on its whereabouts and the conditions under which it was traveling - and had channels to the proper authorities necessary to divert disaster if so desired.
Without further information, one can only guess what those conditions were that caused the planes to approach three times and then cancel the golden opportunity to eliminate four enemy vessels at once. Fortunately, further information is available and will be reviewed later within these chapters. At any rate, U-234 was allowed to proceed, and the tiny armada slipped safely into Oslo Fjord just before sunrise of 27 March, and anchored at Horten, Norway.
At Horten, U-234 began trials of its newly installed snorkel device. Two days after arrival, during one of these trials the U-boat was accidentally rammed by another U-boat that was also undergoing trials. Both boats were slightly damaged. A dive tank and a fuel oil tank of U-234 were punctured but the boat was able to continue its testing for four more days, at the end of which Fehler steered his charge to Kristiansand in hopes of making repairs. A problem arose when it was realized that placing the boat in dry-dock while it was full of cargo may stress the hull to the point of further damage. A resourceful solution was found. Since the damage was to the aft of U-234, the forward diving tanks were flooded, forcing the nose of the boat to submerge and the stern to rise out of the water. The innovative idea worked wonderfully and the necessary welding was completed without further problems.
In the meantime, the last of the passengers arrived in Kristiansand, [cccxlvii including, according to Hirschfeld, General Kessler and his retinue, Colonel Fritz von Sandrath; Lieutenant Mensel, an airplane torpedo expert; and an engineer Klug. Including the two Japanese officers and other previously boarded guests, U-234 now contained 12 passengers and a crew of 63, a total of 75 people - almost 50 percent more than the average personnel load of a U-boat.
Chief radio operator Wolfgang Hirschfeld reported that during the repair time in Kristiansand he personally traveled each day to pick up radio messages intended for U-234. He offers no explanation as to why these messages could not be received by U-234 itself, since the radio did not appear to be damaged. During one of these visits he received the following transmission: "U-234. Only sail on the orders of the highest level. Fuehrer HQ." [cccxlviii What occurred before and after receiving this cryptic correspondence, and what went through Hirschfeld's mind as a result, he doesn't say, but certainly such a communication from the Fuehrer's bunker directly to a specific U-boat is startling.
When Hirschfeld returned to U-234 with the note and handed it to Fehler, the Captain's immediate response, understandably, was to call for Kessler. The General perused the puzzling order and calmly predicted that someone was coming from Berlin. [cccxlix "Probably the Fat One," he lamented, immediately remarking that, if so, he (Kessler) would have to leave the boat. Hirschfeld, whether having heard it from Kessler's lips or otherwise, suggested in his writing that the allusion was probably to Goering, at that time Hitler's heir apparent - though not for long.
Kessler's comment about disembarking U-234 if Goering was going to be along for the ride validates the authenticity of Hirschfeld's account of U-234, since it is a true, if little known, fact that Kessler and Goering disliked one another intensely. [cccl To put it bluntly, Goering was 'out for' Kessler and, in fact, had demoted him five years previously from a diplomatic position to commander of an air wing during the attack on Poland. Traveling with Goering would have been a very unsatisfactory condition for the General, indeed, and one can be certain that Kessler did not look forward to a voyage halfway round the world that was bound to take months, stuck in tight submarine quarters with "The Fat One." Still, Hirschfeld makes the unlikely but accurate statement regarding enmity between Kessler and his superior that validates what he has written.
On that same afternoon, Hirschfeld and Second Watch Officer Karl Pfaff were ordered to appear before the Flotilla Chief. After scavenging a pair of acceptable uniforms to wear before the Flotilla Commander, they made their appearance. The Commander placed a code green - top leadership frequency - transmission on the table before them and asked what the transmission was and how did it get on a high-priority frequency.
The message read:
"To head radio chief Hirschfeld on U-234, for your last trip, much luck and healthy return home. Your Bubbi"
"Who is Bubbi?" asked the Flotilla Commander. Hirschfeld told the commander that Bubbi was "the head radio man of 10th Flotilla in Lorient, Bernhard Geissman," apparently a lie intended to protect the identity of Bubbi.
For Hirschfeld then explains in his narrative that the U-boat base in Lorient, France had been captured by the Allies by this time, so it would be impossible to verify who had actually sent the transmission and therefore determine who Bubbi was. Such an explanation was strange and unnecessary if Geissman, if there was such a person, truly was Bubbi.
That Geissman was Bubbi, therefore, seems as doubtful as Hirschfeld's suggestion that a captured Geissman would have known Hirschfeld was on his last voyage. If Geissman had been captured at Lorient, it also would be a safe bet that the occupying forces were not allowing German radiomen to send and receive unscreened and/or personal messages on high-priority frequencies.
Bubbi may indeed have been a friend of Hirschfeld's playing a mischievous joke. But considered in combination with these other facts and the day's previous transmission received, and future radio signals yet to come, it seems more likely the message from Bubbi was some sort of coded communiqu=C8, camouflaged to look innocuous.
What was the origin of the cryptic communiqu=C8? Arrangements may have been made for any high-priority transmissions between U-234 and the Fuehrer bunker prior to the U-boat leaving Kiel to be sent to a communications center at Kristiansand specially equipped to receive such high-level messages. Apparently these transmissions were sent to a specialized communications center the frequencies of which U-234 was incapable of receiving, or to keep the confidential communiqu=C8s from the knowledge of the regular U-boat command.
Once the initial contact had been made, per plan, then Hirschfeld could inform the sender in the Fuehrer bunker of U-234's location and provide contact information for keeping in touch. In response, the mysterious messenger in the Fuehrer bunker could then define a plan for further confidential communications on more open channels - using a code name, Bubbi, for identification without revealing the sender's actual identity. The reference to a "healthy return home" may also have been a pre-arranged signal to 'return home' to Germany for some secret purpose, according to a previous directive.
Shortly thereafter, apparently still on the same day, Hirschfeld was called to return to the radio station for yet another message. This one read: "U-234 is to leave under my command only. After you have made your calculations, leave. BdU." BdU was the personal command designation of none other than Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander of the German navy. This transmission is documented not only by Hirschfeld, but in the United States National Archives by OSS records of intercepted German transmissions. [cccli Doenitz's message makes clear that a struggle for control of U-234 was taking place between the supreme U-boat commander and the Fuehrer's top brass. In fact, Hirschfeld identifies this struggle directly, commenting that Doenitz "doesn't let himself be submitted to the top leaders' orders."
Apparently, Doenitz by this time had become aware of the plan to use U-234 as an escape vehicle for very high-ranking Party officials at the Fuehrer's headquarters. Possibly the communications center commander had seen through the inconsistencies in Hirschfeld's story about the mysterious 'Bubbi' message and informed Doenitz. Whether Doenitz's determination to keep control of the boat was an effort simply to maintain proper chain of command while still helping to implement the escape plan, or whether his efforts to control the U-boat were to obstruct the plan, is unknown. The latter is doubtful given later history.
Ultimately, history records that Martin Bormann, from the besieged bunker in Berlin, spent considerable attention on negotiations with Doenitz in order to effect his escape from the strangling city. And it records that Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, without political experience or, indeed, any political following, eventually, and very unexpectedly, replaced Hermann Goering - whom Bormann had succeeded in bringing down as Hitler's successor - and Doenitz succeeded Hitler as Chancellor of the Third Reich.
cccxxiv Geoffrey Brooks and Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld: The Story of a U-boat NCO 1940-1946, p. 203; also see Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Feindfahrten, p. 357
cccxxv Geoffrey Brooks and Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld: The Story of a U-boat NCO 1940-1946, p. 202
cccxxvi Report On Interrogation Of The Crew Of U-234 Which Surrendered To The USS Sutton On 14 May, 1945 in Position 47(-07'N - 42(-25'W, U.S. National Archives, Washington, D.C., Declassified Authority NND873022, date 12/31/91
cccxxvii Robert K. Wilcox, Japan's Secret War, pp. 141-143
cccxxviii Sharkhunters KTB 105, p. 21
cccxxix Sharkhunters KTB 106, p. 9
cccxxx Report On Interrogation Of The Crew Of U-234 Which Surrendered To The USS Sutton On 14 May, 1945 in Position 47(-07'N - 42(-25'W, U.S. National Archives, Washington, D.C., Declassified Authority NND873022, date 12/31/91
cccxxxi Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Feindfahrten, p.354
cccxxxii Passenger and Crew List Of U-234, U.S. Archives, Washington, D.C.; Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Feindfahrten, p.357
cccxxxiii Peter Hansen, Sharkhunters KTB 107, p. 11
cccxxxiv General Ulrich Kessler, interrogation report #5236, 28 May, 1945, National Archives, Washington D.C.; USS Sutton "Passenger and Crew of U-234" receipt, National Archives, Washington D.C.; Sharkhunters KTB 112, p. 31
cccxxxv Geoffrey Brooks and Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld: The Story of a U-boat NCO 1940-1946, p. 200
cccxxxvi Peter Hansen, Sharkhunters KTB 107, p. 11
cccxxxvii Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Feindfahrten, p.355
cccxxxviii Sharkhunters KTB 103, p. 8
cccxxxix Peter Hansen, Sharkhunters KTB 107, p. 11
cccxl David Irving, The German Atomic Bomb, p. 185; Geoffrey Brooks and Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld: The Story of a U-boat NCO 1940-1946, pp. 212, 213; Don Angel Alcazar de Velasco, Sharkhunters KTB 111, p. 15;
cccxli U.S. Archives, Washington, D.C., Report of Interrogation of Lt. Gen. Ulrich Kessler, 21 May, 1945, RG 165 Box 495 and Report of Interrogation of Kay Nieschling, 24 May, 1945,
cccxlii David Irving, The German Atomic Bomb, p. 236; see also U.S. Archives, Washington, D.C., Report of Interrogation # 5399 of Lt. Gen. Ulrich Kessler, 25 June, 1945, RG 165 Box 495
cccxliii Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Feindfahrten, p. 354
cccxliv Sharkhunters KTB 112, p. 6
cccxlv Geoffrey Brooks and Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld: The Story of a U-boat NCO 1940-1946, p. 202
cccxlvi U.S. National Archives, signal intelligence summary titled Additional to our ?1???/45 Secret. Additionally shipped aboard (U-234), declassified #NND957001 NARA date 9/15/97
cccxlvii Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Feindfahrten, p. 357
cccxlviii Geoffrey Brooks and Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld: The Story of a U-boat NCO 1940-1946, p. 203; see also Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Feindfahrten, p. 357
cccxlix Wolfgang Hirschfeld, Feindfahrten, p. 35
cccl Report On Interrogation #1540, of P/W KESSLER, Ulrich, Gen. der Flieger, U.S. Archives, Washington, D.C.
cccli Top Secret ULTRA intercept, 12 April 1945 and 13 April 1945, National Archives, Washington D.C., declassified NND957001
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