The Long Journey of U-534

Of all the hundreds of U-boats that were built, very few survive. One is the U-534, sunken only to be raised, displayed, abandoned again, and finally being repurposed as a sliced-and-diced tourist attraction on the Mersey River in the northwest of England.

This approximately 20 minute promotional video tells U-534’s story, from its last mission, to its last desperate fight with two Liberator bombers, to its recovery from the bottom of the sea, it’s abandonment to the elements, and finally, to its survival in Liverpool. The boat sank into a fissure deep in the Kattegat, yet all but two of the crew lived — the five or six of them who didn’t get out in time still managed to escape, like a handful of the survivors of the American sub Wahoo, from a torpedo-room escape trunk. A young radio operator was among the escapees, but did not exhale to equalize pressure as he rose, and died horribly as a result.

The attacking Liberators didn’t fare as well — one did sink the U-boat with depth charges, but not until after the gunners on U-534 had shot the other bomber down with the loss of its entire crew.

There is a great deal of information about this ill-fated submarine on the net. For instance, this page is the first of several that show some of the materials recovered from the boat, including documents that were readily restored to legibility. Here’s a report of what it was like to visit the boat during its near-abandonment on a quay in nearby Birkenhead. U-595’s armament was interesting, with lots of rapid-firing AA guns and three new homing torpedoes.

U-595 is one of only four U-Boats to survive. The others include sister Type VIIC/40 U-505 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Technology, which was captured during the war; near-sister Type VIIC/41 U-995, taken by Norway postwar and later acquired by German veterans as a memorial, on the water’s edge at Laboe; and the advanced Type XXI U-2540, which was raised a dozen years post-war (it had been scuttled) and served the Bundesmarine as Wilhelm Bauer.  U-2540 has been restored to WWII condition as a museum ship, and is the only U-Boat still afloat.

There is one mystery remaining: why did U-534 fight? Despite the survival of most of the crew, this remains unclear. You see, the fight took place after Admiral Dönitz had surrendered to the Allies, and instructed all boats at see to fly white flags of surrender and to give themselves over to Allied forces. The captain committed suicide shortly after the end of the war. The most probable reason is prosaic: the boat hadn’t received Dönitz’s message.

17 thoughts on “The Long Journey of U-534

  1. Matt in IL

    Also, it is the Museum of Science and Indistry, not Technology.

    Nonetheless, a very cool museum.

  2. Scipio Americanus

    U-534 was a big girl, Type IXC/40, with about double the displacement of the workhorse Type VIIs (e.g. U-505 or U-995). That larger size gave the Type IXs the range and endurance to patrol off the US eastern seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico, wreaking havoc on American shipping through much of 1942, but it also made them slower to submerge and thus more vulnerable, especially to aircraft. The US solved that problem with it’s own large fleet boats immediately prior to the war, thanks to some clever engineering, and managed to get submergence time down to 30-40 seconds, comparable to that of the Type VII U-boats.

    I can heartily suggest the U-505 exhibit in Chicago, especially because they really do let you into every part of the boat (rare with museum ships). My wife almost ended up locked in the forward torpedo room; she’d gone to investigate the tubes and the guide, who hadn’t seen her slip past him, started closing the hatch.

    For the other side of the Battle of the Atlantic, the USS Slater (DE-766) is a nicely restored Cannon-class destroyer escort in Albany, NY and is well worth the price of admission. No going below, sadly, but you get to take a look at everything from the bridge to CIC to the galley, as well as her armament. The guide even put up with me depressing one of the 3-inch mounts and traversing it to follow a river tour-boat. The passengers seemed only slightly concerned. Usually I’m pretty punctilious about Rule 2, but I am only human.

    For anyone interested in learning more about the U-boat war, the site to go to is Uboat.net. Their database is expansive, with service histories of every U-boat, information on each class, and much more. For instance, here is U-534’s page:

    http://uboat.net/boats/u534.htm

    There are even pages for the sunk merchant ships, complete with pictures.

    For a book introduction to ASW in general, Polmar’s 2-volume “Hunters and Killers” can’t be beat.

  3. Keith

    Very nice history thanks. You have a slight typo calling her “U-595” in two places if that is a mistake.

    My mothers middle brother was on one of the ships that captured U-505.

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

  4. Klaus

    I can feel for that young radio operator. As a 19 year old seaman going through sub school in Groton I got to experience what that’s like in the 100′ water tower. While we all had a great time in that simulator, thinking about that procedure ,of having to escape from your boat for real scared the hell out of me. Good times for sure.

  5. Simon

    There is a submarine open to the public in Lima, Peru as well. You can go anywhere in that one, too. Fascinating for those of us who are not so big, probably just painful for taller examples of humanity. The engineering solutions for the lack of space can keep you astonished for hours. That one is from 1954, I think.

  6. LSWCHP

    There is an Oberon class boat (ex HMAS Onslow) available for public tours in Sydney. These were conventional diesel boats produced post war in the UK and also used by the RAN. They had the U-Boat hull form rather than the current teardrop shape. I’m 6’5″ so when I went through her I was amazed at how cramped she was.

    The small country town of Holbrook is named after a famous Australian submariner. When the Oberons were decommissioned, the town paid to have one of them cut off at the waterline and placed in a local park. I stop off and have a coffee at that park on the way to the ski fields each year, and it’s always a bizarrely impressive sight to see a submarine apparently afloat in rural New South Wales. Google for “Holbrook submarine pics” and you’ll see what I mean.

  7. staghounds

    In Philadelphia there’s a WWII U. S. submarine, the USS New Jersey, and USS Olympia all open to the public. It’s a full day boatgasm if you like old warships.

    1. Hognose Post author

      There’s a similar setup in Fall River, MA, with USS Massachusetts, a DD, a sub, a PT museum with two boats indoors, and an East German little guy… corvette, maybe? Missile patrol boat?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Rick, I was about to respond, “I wrote about this back in…” but I was unable to find the post, ergo, I did not write about it, even though I’ve been to the museum many times. The bookshelf in the museum/shop is hazardous. Can’t wait for it to reopen! Then I’ll do it up for the readers.

      As God is my witness, I was sure I wrote about this sub. I did find a post about a Nazi research sub, the V-80, that mentions Albacore in passing, assuming that everybody knew all about the American research boat from the article that I apparently only imagined writing. Oh, brother.

      There’s a museum on the base, too, but every time I’ve gone there it was closed.

      1. poobie

        Have you done the museum in Groton? If not, it’s worth the drive down. They’ve got some interesting stuff out front; a couple of midget subs, a few bits and bobs from NR-1 and some torpedoes. Nautilus is in really good shape, though. Astonishing how much bigger it is than the Gato class boats I’ve toured.

  8. Larry

    USS Blueback (SS-581) in Portland, Oregon was the last conventional vombat submarine in the US Navy. Other than the hole cut into side as an entrance, it’s in very good condition. Our tour was guided by a former crewman.

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