A small memorial service was held in February 2017 over the wreck site that had, over the course of nearly eighty years, caused so much anguish. The remains of the German U-boat U-864 have now been entombed on the seabed. Imagine you were the first person to view the wreck of the U-boat after almost seventy years. Lying on a slope some one hundred and fi fty metres beneath the waves, she had all the tell tale signs of reclamation by nature. Barnacles and sea growth had started to disguise the distinctive layout of the submarine. If nature, however, knew of the submarine’s deadly cargo it wouldn’t be trying so hard to reclaim it. The story of U-864 is as intriguing as her cargo of 67 tons of mercury which is lethal to the environment.
U-864 was a Type IXD2 U-boat constructed as part of Nazi Germany’s final push against the might of the Allied Forces. She was powered by two MAN M 9 V 40/46 supercharged four stroke, nine cylinder diesel engines with an additional pair of MWM RS34.5S six cylinder four stroke diesels for cruising on the surface. For underwater operations U-864 had two Siemens-Schuckert 2 GU 345/34 double acting electric motors. She was armed with six 53.3cm torpedo tubes, a single 10.5 cm SK C/32 naval gun and a 3.7cm machine gun.
From her completion to her ultimate fate, U-864 was under the command of Korvettenhapitan Ralf-Reimar Wolfram as part of the 4th U-boat Flotilla. In early November 1944, she was reassigned to the 33rd U-boat Flotilla. She sailed from Kiel on 5 December 1944 on her last mission to transport desperately needed war supplies to Japan having first been fitted with a snorkel mast, which proved troublesome. On board were parts and engineering drawings for the latest German jet aircraft for Japanese engineers to copy and build and there was also 67 tons of mercury.
By this time of the war, German industry was suffering daily bombing raids and the supplies onboard could easily have been used within Germany itself. This lack of material also had a part to play in the ultimate fate of U-864. Her route took her from Kiel to Horten Naval Base. The passage was eventful as she ran aground en route to Bergen and had to make repairs at Farsund. She eventually made it to Bergen on 5 January 1945. She was then subjected to aerial attack on 12 January when 32 Lancaster bombers and a single Mosquito fighter bomber attacked the U-boat pens in which she rested.
At Bletchley Park, German communications regarding U-864 had been decrypted and accordingly HMS Venturer under the command of Lieutenant James S Launders was ordered to patrol the area around Bergen. There, the British submarine lurked waiting for her German counterpart to emerge into open water. On 9 February Lieutenant Launders spotted the telltale sign of an enemy periscope in the water a short distance away from his boat.
Launders, rather unusually, calmly waited forty five minutes before going to action stations. He had hoped that U-864 would eventually surface and make for a much easier target to attack. U-864, now aware of the British submarine, was not going to oblige him and neither commander risked using his periscope again. U-864 started a zig-zag course but couldn’t shake off his pursuer.
After three hours of manoeuvres, at 12.12 Lieutenant Launders finally decided to fire a spread of torpedoes in the relative direction of the German U-boat at 17 second intervals.