U-boat holds on to secrets as opening is delayed: Discovery of vintage wine on wartime German submarine adds to promise of hidden bounty from Third Reich era

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The Independent Online
THE SECRETS of a German submarine, undisturbed for nearly half a century, were yesterday tantalisingly close to discovery as the U-boat's salvagers prepared to tow it to a dry dock where conservationists will work to bring history alive.

The opening of the vessel was delayed as the salvage team tried to reduce its weight. 'The first attempt by two cranes to lift the U-boat on to a submersible barge failed as mud and clay between the inner and outer hulls made it too heavy,' said Per Kluever, a team member.

Watching the submarine surface off the Danish island of Anholt were former members of the U-boat crew and four of the Allied airmen whose Liberator bomber sank the vessel on 5 May 1945.

The promise of hidden treasure and an unparalleled hoard of Nazi documents was heightened by the discovery yesterday of 100 bottles of vintage 1936 wine, hidden in a compartment between the submarine's two hulls.

'The looting of the Third Reich in the last days of the war is legendary. If I'd had access to a 100 bottles of wine in 1945, I would make sure they went with me,' said Jens Kastberg, spokesman for the U-534 Consortium that has financed the salvage mission.

The promise of hidden bounty derives from the fact that U-534, built in 1942, was a long-range submarine capable of ocean voyages. As part of the 20-strong 33rd flotilla the vessel was used to ferry senior Nazis out of Germany in the last stages of the war and is thought to have been carrying a special cargo to Japan.

A U-boat of the same class captured by the Americans was found to be carrying three Luftwaffe generals, the blueprint for the V1 flying bomb and dollars 5m-worth of liquid mercury, explained Mr Kastberg.

It was the catch that nearly got away. Discovered by two RAF Liberators from Scotland as it sailed through the Kattegat between Sweden and Denmark, the submarine replied with anti-aircraft fire. The first Liberator was shot down, but the second scored a direct hit and the submarine sank to a depth of 200ft. Most the 52-man crew made it to safety but the five men in the torpedo room were trapped and only two survived.

'We have traced everyone, there are 14 still alive and they are all convinced there was nothing special aboard, but we are equally convinced that they would not have been told if there had been,' said Mr Kastberg.

Karsten Ree, the Danish newspaper publisher who has paid the Dutch company Smit Tak an estimated 30m Danish krone ( pounds 3m) to salvage U-534 is as old as the submarine he has rescued. 'He is fired by a dream, by a fascination for the past . . . and a good business instinct,' said his spokesman yesterday.

The dream is to see U-534 turned into a museum. But if that is to happen, months of painstaking reconstruction, careful x-raying and piecing together of a giant jigsaw of paper fragments lie ahead.

Last night, the submarine was pumped empty of diesel fuel and its 16 torpedoes and other ammunition made safe ready for the two-day voyage to northern Jutland where, undisturbed by the hoardes of fascinated onlookers who have crowded to Denmark this week, the real work begins.

Under salvage agreements, the submarine belongs to Mr Ree. Objects and documents found inside are the property of the Danish state.

'Third persons could claim property or demand the destruction of some of the documents found there,' said Tina Aagaard of the Justice Ministry. The Defence Ministry would issue a list of items in the U-boat and people will have four months to make their claims, she said.

(Photograph omitted)

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