THE SALVAGE OF U-534: 1993-2022
German U-boat U-534 (Type IXC/40) was sunk in the final days of WW2, and raised 48 years later by an enterprising multimillionaire who thought it might contain Nazi gold and other treasures.
Spoiler warning: it didn’t.
But it contained treasure of a whole other kind; history. The low-oxygen environment of the seabed silt preserved the sub incredibly well, with countless artifacts aboard. The salvage by Smit Tak was a remarkable operation by skilled divers and engineers, lifting the 1500-ton boat from 200ft deep and clearing it of several tons of still-deadly explosives, along with accumulated decades of sea goop. This video gives a fantastic insight:
Sadly, the dreams of Nazi treasure were unfounded and so the boat was ultimately sold to the Warship Preservation Trust in Birkenhead. They rebuilt the conning tower and made the boat safe enough that brave members of the public could take a tour inside. U-534s rusty hull loomed menacingly over the museum until 2008, when the dock was acquired for development and the museum was forced to close. The only options for U-534 were to move it, cut it up to make tin cans, or drop it back in the sea. As it’s one of only 4 Unterseebooten left in existence (out of over 1100), the idea of it being scrapped was unthinkable.
Fortunately, common sense prevailed and a new home was found at Woodside ferry terminal. Less fortunately, the only affordable way to move it there was by slicing it into pieces. Turns out a 11100-ton, 250ft U-boat simply doesn’t fit in the back of a courier’s Transit van (not even the really big one with the lift at the back!). So it was carefully sliced into sections, moved piece by piece on a barge and turned into a lovely little museum.
The ‘U-Boat Story’ museum was run by Merseytravel, and despite their gallant efforts in saving the boat, maintaining it and running a museum was a big commitment. Ultimately they wanted to find someone with the experience, knowledge and ambition to transform it into a top-tier heritage attraction.
That’s where Big Heritage comes in.
But first, a little history…
U-534 AT WAR: 1942-1945
U-534 was a type IXC/40 submarine, built at Deutsche Werft and launched in September 1942. The Type IX boats were the Kriegsmarine’s long-range workhorses, bigger than the common Type VII (of Das Boot fame) with more torpedoes, fuel and provisions.
Each version squeezed more range out of the same basic Type IX shape, with the C/40 having enough range to travel more than halfway around the globe without resupply. U-534 had six torpedo tubes (4 at the front, 2 at the back) and a total of 22 torpedoes, plus an extensive range of anti-aircraft guns.
It’s worth mentioning that submarines in those days didn’t actually spend much time underwater. Their primary mission was to sink merchant ships carrying vital supplies, and they mostly cruised on the surface using powerful diesel engines, looking for prey. Diving was a tool used to hide from aircraft and enemy ships, or attack completely unseen. Once below the surface they were limited to using slow electric motors running on limited batteries – and battery tech in the 1940s wasn’t exactly on par with your neighbour’s Tesla*.
*For starters they liked to explode on contact with seawater, which isn’t really ideal in a boat.
By the end of the war U-534 ended up with some of the best tech available, however – a Schnorkel to run the diesel engines underwater without asphyxiating the crew, some of the biggest, meanest anti-aircraft guns ever put on a U-boat, and groundbreaking new homing torpedoes.
So that’s the boat, but what about her captain? U-534 was commanded by one man for the whole of her career – Kapitänleutnant Herbert Nollau.
The U-boat service was looked upon as an elite force, and the most successful commanders became celebrities. The more ‘tonnage’ – ships – sank, the more your fame would grow. Captains who hit 100,000 tons of shipping were presented with the Knight’s Cross Of The Iron Cross, a prestigious medal worn around the neck (sailors joked that commanders eager to hit 100,000 tons were suffering from a ‘sore throat’).
Herbert Nollau was not one of these elite U-boat aces. In fact, he and U-534 sank no ships during their 4-year career. Their missions were mostly training and weather reporting, though the boat shot down two British aircraft attempting to attack her.
It would unfair, however, to assume that KptLt Nollau was not a brave or skilled seaman. He was the second-in-command of U-505 during three very successful patrols, 180 days at sea. In fact, on the third patrol the captain fell ill with appendicitis, and Nollau informally took command of the boat and got her home safely. After returning home from this show of skill, he was sent to commander school and then given U-534.
In a curious coincidence, his former boat U-505 also survives to this day, preserved in the Chicago Museum Of Science and Industry after being captured by American forces. With only four U-boats in existence today it’s remarkable than both of the surviving Type IXC boats were connected in this way. U-505 also achieved infamy when her commander, one of Nollau’s classmates, fatally shot himself during a depth-charge attack.
U-534’s war was a slow
After being used for training and weapons testing for several years, the boat was sent out for war patrols in 1944. Despite some difficult challenges these missions were ultimately of little consequence, aside from shooting down an RAF bomber. It’s unknown whether this was due to Nollau’s performance or simply a lack of opportunities. By this time, Germany’s submarine force was facing horrific odds; 231 U-boats sunk in 1944 alone, with 7,800 of their crew lost. A submarine sent out on patrol probably had around a 1 in 4 chance of ever making it back.
Fate finally caught up with U-534 in May 1945, in the closing days of the war. On the 1st May she was the last ever U-boat to leave Germany, slipping out of Kiel harbour and arriving in Copenhagen the next day. She left Copenhagen on 5th May in charge of a small submarine convoy. heading north through the shallow waters of the Kattegat to hopefully continue the war from Norway.
By this point Hitler had been dead for several days, and his successor Admiral Donitz had begun negotiating for peace. Donitz was the head of the submarine service throughout the war and his crews looked up to him with great respect. He was nicknamed ‘The Great Lion’. However, he ended the war as the final leader of Nazi Germany and in the early morning on 5 May, 1945, he transmitted an order for all boats south of 56 degrees latitude to surrender. ‘Regenbogen‘ was the codeword ordering crews to scuttle (intentionally sink) their boats in deep water so they didn’t fall into enemy hands.
However, boats capable of making it to Norway were omitted from this final act of defiance. And so a few hours, U-534 slipped out of Copenhagen harbour and sailed north with two highly advanced new Type XXI ‘Electro-boats’ for company. A third joined them out in the bay and together they made a break for Southern Norway. Unfortunately a pair of RAF Coastal Command ‘Liberator’ bombers spotted the small convoy just two miles north of the 56th parallel…and what exactly happened next is a bit of a mystery. It may be that KptnLt Nollau never heard the order to surrender, or that he chose to ignore it, or simply decided that it didn’t apply to him since he was technically outside the ceasefire zone. He refused to discuss his actions after the war, and took the secret to his grave.
Whatever the exact reason, the ceasefire was ignored and a brief battle ensued between the surfaced submarine and the Liberators above. Within a few minutes, one of the Liberators had been shot down and U-534 was on her way to the bottom of the sea.
A depth charge dropped from the Liberator scored a lucky direct hit and wedged itself on the hull, without exploding. However on bomber’s second run, it came loose and detonated in the water directly under the rear of the boat, causing immediate flooding. All 52 men aboard managed to escape, though some had to wait until she settled on the seabed and then use their escape apparatus to exit through a hatch. Tragically, one of these young sailors died shortly afterwards from the massive change in pressure.
The other 51 sailors were promptly rescued by lifeboats from a nearby ship, though a further two sailors had already drowned in the frigid waters of the Kattegat. The remaining 49 submariners survived to see the end of the war in Europe just three days later, and spent only a few months as prisoners of war.
The RAF squadron that sank U-534 had a successful week. An attack the same day damaged nearby U-1006, and the next day it had to be scuttled by the crew. Also on the 6th May, the same plane responsible for sinking 534 added another kill to the tally – U-3523. This highly advanced new Type XXI was sadly lost with all hands, and the wreck was rediscovered in 2018. In total, 86 Squadron were responsible for the sinking of 14 U-boats.
U-534 remained undiscovered until 1986, when Danish wreck hunter Aage Jensen found her sitting intact in around 200ft of water.
(For a more detailed account of U-534’s last days, The Enigma Project has done a remarkable job piecing together coded Engima messages to figure out the timeline. They’ve even managed to crack some of the undeciphered messages recovered from the boat! )