August 15, 1939 German Grand Admiral Erich Raeder sends a communiqúe to U-boat fleet commander, Karl Donitz. In it all senior submarine officers were summoned to a ‘reunion’. But the word ‘reunion’ had an altogether different significance. It was the codeword for the beginning of a naval war just four days later. Among the officers was Jurgen Oesten, 27. The officer had served more than a year on two of the flagships of German power, the Admiral Graf Spree and the Karlsruhle.
From August 19, 1939 until the war’s end in 1945 German U-boats stalked the deeps of oceans across the world. They inflicted and sustained huge casualties as a deadly game of cat and mouse unfolded over the course of six years.
A patrolling U-boat had a limited chance of survival when it left base. As the end of the war the job of the U-boat commander was even more perilous. Jurgen Oesten’s vessel U-861 was one of just two boats to return safely from the far east. Of the 40,000 German submarines who went to sea, a mere 10,000 would return. The remainder lie in watery graves.
Jurgen Oesten’s boat now lies in three sections on the seabed at Inishtrahull Sound off the coast of Malin Head. During an interview with former Journal reporter Eamonn Houston in April 2003, the then 89 year-old asked: “Is Derry the same as Londonderry in my old maps?” Herr Oesten died on August 5, 2010. This is the story of his command, U-861.
Slumbering beneath Atlantic waves at a depth of 46 metres, its hull broken in three sections, lies one of the most important boats of the German U-boat fleet.
The story of U-861 is a drama that spans the dangerous days of World War II, takes us to Lisahally, Inishtrahull and the modern German City of Hamburg.
Speaking to the ‘Journal’ in 2003 Jurgen Oesten was looking forward to the next reunion of the crew of the 87ft long U-boat. The surviving crew meet each year on the banks of the river Elbe but their numbers are now dwindling.
Oesten was one of the most decorated U-boat commanders of WWII, winning the highest honour of his country’s armed forces, the Knight’s Cross. The U-boat arm, (Kriegsmarine) in which he served, held the grim distinction of having the highest mortality rate of any military service from any of the countries involved in the conflict.
U-861 was one of 30 vessels of its kind commissioned in the early 1940’s. Twenty four of the boats went to sea. Now U-861 is home only to shoals of Atlantic fish. It’s not known how many of the original crew of 64 are still alive although 22 were alive in 2003.
He recalled the days when they prowled the depths of seas stretching from Malaysia to Brazil. They remembered vividly the loneliness, seemingly endless periods of damp stillness, the absence of privacy, and times when life and death stood uncomfortably side by side.
U-861, under the command of Oesten, left the German port of Kiel on April 20, 1944. By the end of the war its captain, revered as a U-boat ‘Ace’ had sunk - in different boats - a total of 18 Allied ships and severely damaged another four.
Oesten’s boat would meet its fate at the hands of a Polish destroyer at the close of hostilities, during the huge Allied scuttling programme ‘Operation Deadlight’.
Chief Engineer, Panknin, had guided the boat to Lisahally port from the Norwegian base of Trondheim on its last voyage. U-861 was to be Oesten’s last command and the long-range U-boat’s final journey would take the crew from Germany to the Asian base of Penang and back again. Known as a ‘Monsun’ boat, U-861’s cargo holds were packed with vital raw materials for the Japanese war effort. Her first missions saw her stalk the waters around Brazil, where Oesten and his crew sunk two ships. Oesten found his next victim to the south of Madagascar. Before U-861 reached the Penang base on September 23, 1944, it had claimed another ship off the coastline of Somalia. By then the crew had spent five months of their lives submerged under hundreds of meters of water.
Its return journey would be fraught with danger. In the early days of the war the German U-boat flotillas, hunting in so-called ‘Wolfpacks’, terrorised and harassed Allied military and merchant shipping convoys. But as the war in the seas across the world progressed, advanced Allied radar would put the U-boat crew’s chances of survival at frightening odds. There were two clear-cut options: surface unscathed, or perish in a metal tomb beneath the waves.
At the age of 89, Oesten still spoke with the precision of a military commander. His mastery of the English language was impressive. His memories of the days in the 1940’s when U-861 dived into the waters of the far east on its final journey to Norway were vivid. The post war days would see Oesten trade the dehumanising environment of the U-boat for woodcutting and raising turkeys in the North of England before his return to his homeland.
But the three massive chunks of metal that hug the seabed off Malin Head galvanised the surviving crew in a spirit of comradeship for many years. “U-861 was a very special boat in those days - it had a very large range of 32,000 nautical miles,” he said. “At the end of the war there were four of its type still afloat, two in the hands of the Japanese, one on the way out and my boat was in Norway. “The rate of loss of the boats was 50 per cent, right from the very beginning.”
U-861 was brought into commission by Oesten in the Autumn of 1943. He says that, from the outset, he endeavoured to assemble a crew he knew to be experienced, men in whom he could rely on during periods when life and death decisions had to be made. “I used all of my connections,” Oesten said, “that was the only life assurance you had, In a U-boat, it all comes down to a matter of nerves of course. I always called it a question of ‘mental hygiene’ - you had to treat people according to their particular mentality; the more sensitive members of the crew had to be wrapped in cotton wool, so as to speak. Life on a U-boat is not so easy.
One has to apply ‘psychic hygiene’ in order to make life bearable for the crew - there is no patent medicine - you have to make the best of each situation. “It requires a particular mentality. There is no privacy or private life, whether you like it or not, and there are no normal procedures for handling people, even though you have authority.”
Oesten was proud of the fact that, when U-861 surfaced, at the Norwegian port of Trondheim, all of his crew were physically unscathed. They had endured the privations and mental claustrophobia of life beneath the waves for months on end.
U-861 began its final journey at the Indonesian port of Soerabaya on January 15, 1945. Its hull was loaded with precious metal, rubber, fuel and a clutch of torpedoes for self-defence on the return journey. As Oesten navigated the boat without the aid of a snorkel - a piece of equipment developed by the Kriegsmarine that allows a U-boat to remain submerged - the boat struck an ice floe in the Denmark strait. The boat hugged tightly to the ice to avoid Allied bombers and destroyers. Drawing on all his expertise and embracing good fortune he brought all of his crew to safety at Trondheim on April 19, 1945. There were just five barrels of fuel left. By then the fresh faces that sailed from Kiel emerged on deck haggard, bearded and drawn.
After the German surrender the British took U-861 to the port of Pembroke where it was studied and stripped of its precious cargo. Oesten would remain in England for two years. He recallee a chance meeting with the commander of a ship he crippled on his adventures. “With U-106 in 1941, I managed a torpedo hit on the foreship of the old battlewagon ‘Malaya’ in convoy SL 68 from Freetown to the North. They had to dissolve the convoy and four destroyers took the Malaya to yard in New York for repairs where she stayed for nine months. “Some years later I met a British Lieutenant Commander who was aboard the ship as a midshipman during the war. “He was especially grateful to me as he said he spent the time of his life in New York while his ship was in the yard for three-quarters of the year!”
On war itself, Oesten stated: “In the beginning a war is exciting: towards the end it is a bloody gamble in which you try to achieve the maximum result with an acceptable risk so as to have some chance of staying alive.” If the U-boat commander had the ability to detach himself from the actual situation, if he had been able to look at himself as though on a music screen and judge on that basis, his decisions might have been better.