An intriguing but unattributed account on a Canadian website suggested that HMS Tweed – the ship Hatfield and District sponsored in WWII – had drawn first blood during the Battle of the Atlantic. But books on the subject didn't appear to support the claim. Finding out the truth has solved one mystery, and possibly another (although it's not entirely clear which one!).
The initial feature on the mystery was published in November 2009, new information has come to light since. However, readers who came directly to this page may wish to start with there first.
The account on the Canadian Virtual Museum has since been confirmed as originating from HMS Tweed's ship surgeon, the late Surgeon Lieutenant Dr Tony Fairrie.
In essence, it gave the date of the attack on the u-boat as October or November 1943. Contact was made by radar and they followed behind until such time it became visible. HMS Tweed rammed the u-boat and scored a hit on its conning tower with her twin 4-inch guns, and then depth charged it. The submarine was apparently blown to the surface briefly behind the ship as the depth charges went off and then disappeared from view. The location of this encounter was given as being nearer Iceland (than Newfoundland). HMS Tweed sustained damage that forced her to return to Derry for repairs.
Ship movements supplied by the National Museum of the Royal Navy suggested that the action, if it had happened, took place between 20-29 September 1943.
The trail ran cold until a message from our friends at the Crow's Nest Club. They had been contacted by a care worker acting on behalf of an HMS Tweed survivor now resident in Australia, and they kindly directed her to the author.
The survivor, corresponding through the care worker, identified himself as Leading Seaman Robert William Stobart (JX 149790) of Sunderland. He confirmed that HMS Tweed had rammed a submarine, and said that they had picked up survivors but later corrected himself and said it was not immediately after the ramming. Aged 90, and over 67 years after the events, it was not surprising that he was having difficulty in recalling the precise details of the action.
Indeed, the problems of ageing and the passage of time on the memory was eloquently summed up by the former head of U-Boat Command, Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral) Eberhard Godt in the book on the submarine war written by Jak P Mallmann Showell. Konteradmiral Godt said: "with some things I cannot remember whether I experienced them, whether some one told me, whether I read the information or whether it was a dream".
Armed with apparent confirmation of the action, another approach was made to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, who kindly directed the author towards specific files at the National Archives in Kew.
War Cabinet Weekly Resume (No.213) of the Naval, Military and Air Situation. Covering the period from 07:00, 23 September – 07:00, 30 September 1943. Under 'Anti Submarine Operations' (Point 11 on page 3): "A U-boat was rammed and possibly sunk by H.M.S. Tweed (frigate) in mid-Atlantic".
Contained reports of various rammings – including some very detailed reports with blueprints and photographs. However, in keeping with HMS Tweed's disappearing act from history, there were only four pages on this ship – mainly copies of signals. While there was some important information it was also slightly contradictory. The time frame for HMS Tweed's voyage was 20-29 September 1943. However, one signal indicated that she docked at Londonderry at 09:00 on Thursday, 30 September 1943.
The key information was a signal from SO EG5 (presumably Senior or Signals Officer, Escort Group 5) relaying information received from HMS Tweed. Following radar contact they had attacked a u-boat. One hit with HE (high explosive – a shell type) at the base of the conning tower. Followed by two depth charges attack F ('F' most likely being the attack pattern – prearranged number of depth charges and the depths they were set to detonate). The submarine's course was given as 110 degrees. Crucially, the date and time of the attack was 25 September at 0401Z (04:01 Zulu time). Location was 051 degrees 35 minutes North, 031 degrees 22 minutes West.
HMS Tweed sustained the following damage in the ramming: No.8 bulkhead and three frames bent; leaking forward magazine, No.1 and No.3 fuel tanks.
With the mystery as to whether HMS Tweed had drawn first blood solved, there remained the question as to whose 'blood' had been drawn. Finding out the truth was not likely to be easy given it had been a mystery for so long.
When it comes to wartime records, particularly those relating to events over 60 years ago, there are a number of factors. Were accurate records kept? Did they survive? Questions which were particularly relevant to those records of the losing side, as organisations broke down and chaos reigned. Often records would be destroyed before retreating from an advancing enemy. Sometimes, soldiers and civilians celebrating victory got carried away and had the same effect. Fires, and the water used to put them out, could damage or destroy records – not only during the conflict but during their many years of storage afterwards. As could the attentions of pests like rats and insects.
The passage of time has not been all bad – it has also worked to researchers' advantage. The work of predecessors has resulted in the compilation and cross-referencing of lists; technological advances like computer databases and the internet mean knowledge can easily be found and shared. Also, secret and sensitive information has since been declassified – particularly the work of the intercept and codebreaking services.
In the mixed blessings department, the passage of time has also revealed potential problems with surviving information. At a reunion in 1982, the former navigator of U377, Fahnrich zur See (Midshipman) Fritz Beske, is reported as admitting he had once made a mistake in his calculations which meant the boat was around 100 miles out from its reported position. Rather than own up to the error he simply kept issuing false position reports but reduced the difference between their real position and the reported one until the error was cancelled out. However, this case pales into insignificance when compared to what happened with another u-boat.
In 1991, an American fishing vessel lost its net on an unknown underwater obstacle 60 miles east off the coast of New Jersey, USA.
Divers sent down to investigate were startled to find the obstacle was the wreck of an unknown u-boat.
Initial inquiries indicated that there was no record of an attack on a u-boat in the area.
Although it was highly intriguing that a mystery u-boat should be found that close to the American coast, there didn't appear to be much interest in the find from the authorities. However, the divers were keen to resolve the identity of their sunken u-boat and embarked on their own quest – one that would take several years, cost the lives of three divers but would rewrite naval history (although not for the last time).
The wreck was located on the seabed some 230ft (approx. 70m) down, which meant it required advanced diving techniques. It also limited the amount of time divers could stay at the bottom, with access to the dive site (which took around 8 hours to reach) already restricted by weather conditions.
The dive team led by John Chatterton with Richie Kohler and John Yurga operated from the dive boat Seeker (captained by William Nagle). They made several dives during the summer months for several years.
Fairly early in their quest a crewman's knife with the name 'Horenburg' was recovered. Inquiries at the U-Boot Archiv (U-Boat Archive) in Germany showed that there was only one man with that name who served in the submarine service during WWII. That was Funkmeister (Radio Operator) Martin Horenburg. He was listed as being lost on board the U869. Unfortunately, the U869 was listed as being lost off the coast of Morocco / Gibraltar (the other side of the Atlantic) in February 1945.
Back to square one, the divers renewed their quest but not without casualties. In the worst incident, a father and son team – Chris Rouse and Chris Rouse Jr – were lost due to the bends (nitrogen bubbles forming in the bloodstream due to ascending without decompressing). Another diver, Steve Feldman, also died while diving on the wreck.
Finally, in 1997, after an extremely hazardous dive into a badly damaged part of the wreck with a tangle of debris to negotiate, John Chatterton recovered a box of spares which bore the vessel's number.
It was the U869 after all.
Now came the equally challenging though decidedly less hazardous task of explaining why this u-boat was on the bottom of the wrong side of the ocean.
U869 was a Type IXC u-boat that set sail on her first (and only) operational patrol on 8 December 1944, under the command of Kapitanleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) Helmut Neuerburg (there are conflicting reports of his age: 27 and 28). The boat was equipped with the new Kurier high speed / short burst radio transmitter. Initially, U869 was tasked with taking up station off the approaches to New York harbour. Contact with U-Boat Command was fragmentary, and when they learnt of the boat's fuel state it was instructed to patrol off Gibraltar. Online entries for the Kriegstagebücher (War Diary) only go up to mid January 1945. However, Clay Blair, former wartime submariner and distinguished historian, in his detailed two volume Hitler's U-Boat War, revealed that U-Boat Command believed they had received B-bar messages from U869 on 18 February and possibly again on 16 March 1945. The first being a convoy contact and report of a sinking off Gibraltar.
German Beta messages (called B-bar by the British) comprised of around 27-letters (including two identifying the sending submarine). These were usually sent by u-boats reporting a convoy sighting.
Historians were able to establish through the transcripts of Allied codebreakers that the U869 never responded to the order to reposition itself off Gibraltar. Probably they never received it.
Given the apparent lack of an attack by any Allied forces and the extent of damage to the U869 wreck, it was concluded that the submarine was probably destroyed after the steering mechanism of one of its own torpedoes malfunctioned and it circled back.
In a twist of fate it turned out that the family of Seaman Otto Brizius, a diesel mechanic and one of the 56 crew, had moved to the USA. His half sister, who lived in Maryland, was understandably moved to learn that the brother she never knew was resting in the ocean not far (by US standards) from where she lived.
The latter part of the divers' search was filmed and the footage was used in documentaries shown in the USA, Germany and eventually in Britain (Channel 4, To the Ends of the Earth: Mystery of the Missing U-Boat; broadcast in 2000).
After the programme was broadcast in Germany in 1999, a man came forward and identified himself as a surviving crewman – saved from sharing the fate of the others by having contracted pneumonia and avoiding its doomed patrol. But now haunted by the memories triggered by the programme.
An incredible story but even though the credits had rolled U869 was not finished with wreaking havoc on official histories.
Historian Harold Moyers was able to shed new light on the sub's destruction. He successfully established that there had been an Allied attack on a submarine in the area U869 was found. On 11 February 1945, USS Howard D Crow, a destroyer escorting a convoy had picked up a sonar contact, fired their hedgehog (a forward firing 24-rocket spigot mortar) and then launched a depth charge attack. Responding to radio calls for reinforcements the USS Koiner joined in the attack. Although oil and air bubbles were seen at the surface the contact was later dismissed as probably being an unknown wreck.
Thanks to his work the destruction of U869 was credited to these two vessels in 2005.
Hopefully, all the ghosts of the U869 have now been finally laid to rest – but you'd have to be brave to bet on it.
Back to: Features on Hatfield11 March 2011