The Catastrophe of the Nazi Submarine Full of Toxic Explosives: A Chernobyl Under the Sea

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The U-864 was sunk in 1945 by a British submersible after a battle worthy of a Hollywood movie.

Norway has reported that it will allocate one and a half million dollars to create a concrete sarcophagus to prevent the spread of its cargo.

On February 9, 1945, during the last death throes of World War II, the captain (Korvettenkapitän, to be more exact) Ralf-Reimar Wolfram had to face the greatest test of his life when the British submarine HMS Venturer attacked his ” U-864 “. That day, both the officer and his nemesis of the ” Royal Navy ” staged a contest more typical of a Hollywood movie than the reality off the coast of Norway. That sad game of cat and mouse ended, after several hours of contention, at the moment in which the English sent the bottom of the waters to their enemy.

The logical thing would have been that this battle lost in the vicinity of Bergen, in front of the Norwegian island of Fedje, would have been forgotten in the history books. After all, it was just another battle between underwater weapons at the end of World War II ( Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker just two months later). However, the load that hoarded the ” U-864 ” inside it soon converted its wreck into a true ” underwater Chernobyl ” (as some international media now call it).

What was the “U-864″ carrying in its warehouses that was so important and dangerous? As Iain Ballantyne explains in his work ” The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare From Archimedes to the Present “, a curious charge destined to swell the arsenals of Japan. In his words, he carried pieces of the new aircraft Me 262 and Me 163, lead, steel and sixty tons of mercury in metal warheads. An ideal material to manufacture explosives and which, today, remains at the bottom of the waters.

Therefore, the dangerousness of the remains of the wreck of the “U-864″ has caused many controversies in recent years. For two decades, health authorities have proposed all kinds of solutions to avoid contamination of the area’s fish. However, Norway has surprised Europe this week by reporting that it has destined one and a half million dollars to build around it a concrete ” sarcophagus ” similar to Chernobyl that will cover an area of approximately 47,000 square meters.


Understanding this tragedy requires us to go back in time until 1944. The same year Adolf Hitler was anxious to get the Japanese the latest technology weapons and various materials necessary for their military industry. The objective was for its allies to regain air supremacy in the Pacific and force the United States to send even more troops to this front. That would cause a decongestion of pressure in old Europe. From this idea was born the Operation Caesar, and one of the submarines destined to carry it out, the U-864 of the captain of 33 years Ralf-Reimar Wolfram.

In the words of Ballantyne, ” Operation Caesar ” was organized in December 1944. With his established orders, the “U-864″ departed loaded to the brim with mercury (in addition to 73 crew members and 3 guests) on January 1, 1945 Everything seemed to be going well but, soon after, the captain realized that he needed to repair several damages in Bergen. As if that were not enough, the Allied bombings on the area delayed further repairs and allowed the British to decode, as of January 5, several messages sent from the submersible.

Thanks to those deciphered reports the British were able to know the details of the ” Operation Caesar ” and made the high command decide to send the submarine ” HMS Venturer “, under the command of 26-year-old captain James Launders, to the vicinity to try to intercept the «U-864. “The” Venturer “left Lerwick on February 2 – three days after the” U-864 “did it from Norway. The British believed that the U-boat would probably pass through the island of Fedje, so they patrolled the northwest entrance of Bergen,” the author adds in his work.

The detailed cargo of the ship has been explained in several works. “The submarine left Bergen on February 5 with a shipment for the Japanese that included plans and parts for the Messerschmitt ME-163 Komet rocket-propelled interceptor and the ME-262 double jet fighter , as well as signed contracts authorizing the Japanese to legally manufacture these aircraft; planes for other planes ( JU-1 to JU-6 and “Campini” ); plans for the ” Caproni -” and ” Satsuki ” submarines ; radar plans manufactured by the company Siemens; and 1,857 flasks of mercury, “reveals Clay Blair in his book” Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunted 1942-45» In addition, among the passengers there were some German and Japanese aeronautical engineers.

The Catastrophe of the Nazi Submarine Full of Toxic Explosives: A Chernobyl Under the Sea

Combat in the sea

The first measure that Launders took was not to emit any active signal from SONAR and just listen and raise the periscope to find the ” U-864 “. The truth is that it was not a bad idea because, as explained by ” The Finer Times ” in his article ” The sinking of the submarine U-864 “, the U-Boat emitted more noise than usual due to repairs. That slight advantage allowed the captain of the ” HMS Venturer ” to locate his enemy on February 9 and start a hunt. “The” Venturer “caught loud noises and, shortly after, the periscope saw a” thin mast “. And then two masts or periscopes, “adds Ballantyne.

Instantly the hunt began, which lasted for no less than three hours. However, and as explained in the aforementioned dossier, the Germans realized that they were being persecuted and carried out several diversionary maneuvers.

Unfortunately for Ralf-Reimar Wolfram, everything ended in disaster for him when the small “HMS Venturer” (barely 600 tons) fired his torpedoes. “With extraordinary skill, the Launders men loaded and fired four torpedoes guided by the passive SONAR and at intervals of eighteen seconds from 3,000 yards, with a depth of 40 feet,” the author concludes.

Although the first three projectiles failed, the fourth hit the “U-864”. The ship then became the tomb of the more than seventy passengers.

As revealed by Harry Plummer, one of the eyewitnesses of the event, to the BBC, the captain of the English submarine recorded in his log book that the enemy had been sunk at 12:14. The U-Boat was destroyed “with a sharp and sharp explosion, followed by a breaking noise”. It was not for less, because the vessel broke in two before sinking. ” It was a relief,” Plummer explained. Although, just a minute later, he could not help but think that those who had fallen were, in the end, fellow submariners.

The low of the ” U-864 ” joined other so many occurred in the British waters during the month of February. This is what José Manuel Gutiérrez of Cámara Senán says in his work ” Underwater warfare, the Battle of the Atlantic ” (Nowtilus, 2018): “In February there were 55 submarines that operated in waters near the British coasts and, although they managed to sink more than in the previous month, they suffered twelve casualties, mostly by surface ships, largely due to projection weapons from the bow. ”

Search for the wreck

As collected by the newspaper Der Spiegel, the search for this submarine began in the nineties and lasted until 2003, when the Norwegian navy found the remains. However, it was not until 2005 when the divers found the first mercury warhead inside the submarine.

At that moment the alarms jumped due to the proximity of the wreck with the island of Fedje (located barely four kilometres). From then on, the fear that the intoxicated flesh of the North Sea fish could reach human beings triggered all the alarms.

Norwegian food authorities issued a warning later to prevent children and pregnant women from eating fish and shellfish in the area. A scientific study published in the journal ” Chemosphere ” further increased the fear by arguing that cod from the Atlantic Ocean had elevated levels of mercury in the liver and gills. However, despite this, the warning was eliminated in 2015 due to lack of evidence.

To this day, and according to the newspaper ” IFL Science!», Solving the problem seems difficult since the shipwreck rests on a very inclined seabed of sediments. That would imply that, if you wanted to move the submarine or remove it from the sea, it could cause a landslide that would lead to an even greater disaster.

What is clear is that it is necessary to be careful with the load. “We have to assume that there are still torpedoes aboard, at least two. There is a much greater risk that they will explode if a rescue operation is carried out “, explained Ane Eide Kjeras in statements to” Der Spiegel “in 2006.


Source: ABC History