Sixty years later, an underwater research group has discovered U-196 partially submerged, stern down, in the sand and apparently not fully flooded in 15 meters of water.
It is surmised that U-196 refuelled from the German convoy raider ‘Orion’, somewhere near Palau, before the German surrender brought inevitable internment, then headed south as the Japanese navy was preparing for a general withdrawal to the home islands. Approaching New Zealand from the north, the German U-boat slipped into the Tasman Sea, well clear of the American supply lines running from Fiji to Townsville. Submerging during daylight hours to avoid the air and sea patrols, the submarine, her batteries almost exhausted and air rapidly fouling, carefully surfaced to continue towards New Zealand. Wartime submarine crews will never forget that first, ear popping, rush of fresh, clean air, as the diesels restart. By dawn, she had recharged her batteries and air supply to return to the depths and continue her slow crawl south.
May in northern New Zealand waters is generally fine and warm, but cool after dark. The U-boat had reached the coast just north of Dargaville, in the early hours of the first available moonless night, some time in mid-May. Everyone aboard understood Germany had surrendered on May 8th, but their former ally, Japan, was still at war and the U-boat was likely to be mistaken for a Japanese submarine. They could not relax their guard for a second.
By the end of the fifth day at sea, the boat was preparing to make landfall near Dargaville. After a long dogleg west out into the Tasman, to avoid the air patrols from Waipapakauri, the boat made best speed due east towards the planned rendezvous. Everyone not needed below was ordered on deck, to watch stations and make ready to leave the boat. After three nerve-wracking hours, the sandy beaches of the Dargaville coast suddenly appeared through the sea mist. They had made it. But what next?
The crew immediately took to the life rafts, taking only small personal possessions with them. With a final check, the captain and chief engineer set scuttling charges, and, with a last glance at an old comrade, joined the waiting crew. Within half an hour they had reached the beach. They never saw U-196 vanish beneath the waves when the explosives tore open her forward compartment to the sea. The last thing they heard was a series of dull thuds, and silently marked her passing. But U-196 was not to die that day.
U-196 was a Type IXD 2 submarine, launched at Bremen from the AG Weser shipyard on April 24, 1942. At just over 287 feet long and some 1800 tons fully loaded, she was specifically designed as a long range convoy raider. Under Korvet-kapitan Kentrat, she completed the longest patrol achieved by a submarine during WWII - 225 days at sea from March 13, 1943 to October 23, 1943. On completion of this patrol she was stripped of her armament and converted to a specialised cargo boat. She was supposedly lost in the Sunda Strait on November 30,1944 – to unknown causes. In other words, she failed to make a routine report to U-boat headquarters in Berlin and was presumed lost.
From 1942 the Germans had been producing uranium 235 oxide, in cake form, deep underground in Czechoslovakia. This programme was known only to a very few within the Reich. Even Albert Speer allegedly had no knowledge of the project, which was exclusively controlled by the SS under Dr Hans Kammler. Deputy-Reichsfuhrer Goering had hoped to produce a nuclear weapon – either an atomic or neutron bomb - by early 1945, and had commissioned the Horten brothers to build an upscaled version of their Ho229 tailess jet fighter to deliver a ‘special weapon’ to the United States east coast. This was known as the ‘America Bomber’ project, a jet bomber designed to fly at 1000 kilometres per hour for 11,000 kilometres and deliver a 3000 kilogram weapon. It was also required to reach 40,000 feet in altitude, which was beyond effective American radar range. But where did U-196 fit into all of this?
Unbeknown to Allied intelligence, the Japanese had established a nuclear research facility in Northern Korea, which they had occupied since 1910. Under the German-Japanese technical exchange programme, Germany supplied enough technological aid to ensure the Japanese could manage their own domestic bomb project. This included supplying a number of scientists and technicians. Some time during the middle of 1944, U-196 set sail from Germany bound for Japan. However, on May 5, 1945, while still in Asian waters, she, along with all other German naval vessels, was recalled to Germany. Many of the U-boats didn’t comply with such an order. Commanders, untypically, organised a vote about what the crew should do. Many opted to sail for South America.
But U-196 appears to have taken a very different course. It arrived some time during mid-May 1945, off the Northland coast near Dargaville, with a crew that made no operational sense at all. They made an attempt to scuttle the boat and came ashore. Sixty years later, the underwater research group discovered the boat, partially submerged, stern down in under 15m, in the sand and apparently not fully flooded… And what happened to the crew?
According to locals, the crew had made their way ashore, probably at night, where there appears to have been a dispute immediately after landing, during which one of the crew was shot. Why, is not known. But even more strangely, the crew, enemy aliens, were permitted to settle among the locals, where their grandchildren live today. Why?
As none of the original crew remains, it is here we must again make assumptions. The Allies were unable to complete the manufacture of an atomic bomb before September 1945. The problem was that the American fusing system was incapable of igniting the low grade uranium oxide the Manhattan Project had produced up to that time. Testifying before the US Congress, Dr Robert Oppenheimer, senior scientist in charge of the Manhattan Project, stated the uranium 235 cake used to produce the first two bombs on Japan was recovered from a German Type X-B U-boat (U-234) carrying 80 gold-lined cylinders containing 560 kilograms of uranium oxide. It had sailed into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, arriving May 16, 1945, where it surrendered to the US navy.
The Americans immediately produced the bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But where had U-196 been on May 5, 1945, when Germany recalled her navy? It’s believed that she was in Korean waters delivering technical support to the Japanese research facility. While the Germans had been defeated, they had hoped the Japanese may have produced a nuclear weapon before the Americans. The Russians were in receipt of accurate information about the Manhattan Project, from pro-Soviet sympathisers who had infiltrated the operation. But they were unaware of the Japanese project. Moreover, the Japanese were not at war with the Soviets and trade had continued between the two throughout the course of the Pacific War.
The Japanese had gambled that Soviet forces would be deployed in the west against a possble combined Allied-German offensive to recover eastern European territory overrun in the advance to Berlin. They believed it was possible to retain their Manchurian possessions, from which they could defend the Japanese home islands until they could complete their own bomb. But the Russians were already planning a massive invasion that was to overrun the Japanese Manchurian empire in a matter of two weeks, beginning in July 1945, finally advancing to within 10 kilometres of the Japanese home islands.
It’s thought that the Germans who arrived on U-196, were part of the Japanese and German nuclear programme, which was considerably more advanced than the American. The Allies were not prepared to allow such valuable specialists to fall into Soviet hands. So, they arranged for them to disappear… and what better place than New Zealand. It would allow them to be debriefed in complete secrecy, then vanish into obscurity.
U-196 was discovered by accident after she had moved inshore from where she was scuttled, during a storm. The dive team that located the hulk, some 15 metres below the surface, was able to establish the engine room was either clear or only partially flooded. This has made the boat slightly buoyant and allowed it to shift in heavy seas. The intention of the dive group was to gain access to the engine room and attempt to refloat the U-196. However, they needed to ensure there was no radiation risk before entering the vessel.
To be continued…