As World War II groaned painfully to an end, there remained one aspect of the German armoured services that was still virtually intact. This was its submarine service, the dreaded U-Boats. At the command of Grand Admiral Doenitz, all U-Boats were ordered to surrender; many did. Some 156 sailed into allied ports, but a large percentage of the overall U-Boat command, 221 boats, chose another way out of the war. They blew themselves up. Throughout the Baltic Sea and across the North Atlantic, huge explosions ripped the steel hulls, sending the last of the "Wolfpacks" to their watery grave. But there were two, however, that did not meet their end in the frigid waters of the North Sea, for as the explosions shuddered through the deep, U-Boats U530 and U977 slipped away, heading south, acquiring the name that haunts war historians to this day, “The Ghost Convoys”.
The last days of Germany's Third Reich was a chaotic time. The Russians, pouring in from the east, swept into Berlin, defended now by mostly young lads and very old men. As their big guns pounded the once proud city, and as lines of communication and command faltered and finally collapsed, the men and women who had run this formidable war machine fled for safety. Many were mindful of their parts in the atrocities of this terrible war. Many were aware of what their fate would be if they were to fall into the hands of the Soviet Army.
Some escaped through sewers, others slipped through the fog, smoke and rain-soaked clouds in small planes, taking off from the cities exploding streets, others attempted it dressed as civilians, as women, as refugees or in the uniforms of men they had killed. Some headed west towards the British and American lines in the certain knowledge of a more humane reception on being caught. Others waited deep in the cellars of the city for the storm of war to pass, in the hope of living to fight another day.
There were others, who for various reasons had knowledge of where great treasures were hidden in this vast flaming rubble that once was one of Europe's great cities. Great caches of gold ingots, literally bags of precious stones, diamonds, rubies. The trick would be to get it and get through the lines of the artillery and tens of thousand of soldiers.
It is written that U530 under the command of Otto Wehrmuth and U977 under Heinz Schaffer did not obey the surrender order neither did they explode their boats. They decided instead to leave their Norwegian and North Atlantic ports and make their way to Argentina. Sailing separately, travelling at full speed, they undertook a tremendous undersea journey that took them down and across almost the entire length of the Atlantic Ocean. Lt. Commander Gaylord Kelshall in his authoritative "U-Boat war in the Caribbean" writes:
“It was a world record for submarines although it has never been recognized ...
Wehrmuth arrived in Mar del Plata in July 1945 while U977 arrived in August after a harrowing three month journey.”
The U-Boats were welcomed and crews accommodated by the Argentine Navy. It must be remembered that pro-German sentiment was very strong in the South Americas during this war, and that there was sympathy for the Fascists' form of government as existed in both Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany. In addition, many Germans lived in Argentina and had done so for generations.
In any event the United Sates was all-powerful, and both the U-Boats and their crews were handed over to the U.S. Navy. Lt. Com. Kelshall relates:
“An Argentine daily ran a story to the effect that U530 and U977 had been part of a 'ghost convoy' which had brought Hitler, Eva Braun and Martin Bohrmann, plus Nazi treasure to Patagonia and put them ashore before surrendering the boats. The Russians were keeping very quiet about what they found in Berlin, with the result that the British and American intelligence took the story seriously.”
Both U-Boat captains were taken into custody. A few weeks later, they arrived in Trinidad under very heavy guard at Wallerfield. From there they were flown to the United States to be interrogated.
It is ironical: just a year before, both these men were cruising the coastline of this island in search of prey for their torpedoes. The story does not end there and then, however.
As it was at the beginning, so it was at the end. Trinidad's wartime adventure really commenced with the sinking of merchant vessels by a U-Boat right there, in Port of Spain harbour in the first years of World War II. Our wartime experience came to an end with the surrender of the last German U-Boats, again in the vicinity of our capital city. Lt. Com. Kelshall relates it thus:
“In the crisp morning of Tuesday, October 2nd, 1945, there was a considerable gathering of military personnel on the piers of the U.S. Naval Station in Chaguaramas. They represented air, land and sea elements and came from every command in the Caribbean theatre. Along with American, British and local military men, there were Brazilians, speaking Portuguese, Venezuelans and some from Central America, speaking Spanish, Free French representatives from the French territories, and Dutch personnel who fought in the Caribbean.
Near the end of the pier, a small group of important military people were gathered around their host, Commodore Courtlant Baughmann, commander of the U.S. Naval Station in Chaguaramas. This group clustered near the commodore came from three navies, and for the moment they were the centre of attention.
"Captain W. Christiansen was the official representative of the United States Navy. Standing near him were the Royal Navy team, made up of Captain J.H. Breal, with Chief Petty Officer L. King and Mr. C. Penwell from the Admiralty Board of Naval Constructors.
"English, French Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch were the normal languages of the Caribbean Theatre, but on this morning there was an addition. Standing in the group and occasionally exchanging comments in their native tongue were Captain Kadov and Captain Favarov of the Russian Navy. This multinational group were known as the Allied Tripartite Committee and they represented the tail end of wartime co-operation, which would soon degenerate into twentieth century Cold War. However, on this particular morning, they were together on the pier awaiting the arrival of the US Navy Task Group 21.4.
"The conflicts in both the Atlantic and the Pacific were over and the world was winding down from the high tension of a World War, but for the Caribbean this was a very special morning.
"Several Mariner flying boats from VP-213 were airborne, escorting Task Group 21.4 to Trinidad, while the remainder of the pilots from the squadron were on the pier. To the officers and men of the Caribbean Command, the arrival of the Task Group would be the culmination of their war and not many of them would have missed it.
"Precisely at five minutes to seven, the bows of the flagship of Task 21.4 appeared, thrusting through the Third Boca. She was the twelve hundred ton ocean going tug, USS Cheroke. She was especially equipped with salvage equipment and carried a crew of experienced technicians. The two hundred and ten foot long tug cleared the Boca and turned to starboard to allow her charges to take centre stage and a suppressed ripple of excitement greeted the bows of the second vessel of the Task Group 21.4, as it slid through the dark water. U530 had returned to the Caribbean, - for her third visit.
"The long gray forward casing crept into view, glistening with spray in the early morning sunshine. Overhead, the engines of the Mariner thundered, as its arch enemy became the second U Boat to enter the Gulf of Paria. Then the conning tower was visible, followed by the after casing, with white foaming at its stern. Her new American passage crew were on deck, as she turned towards the piers and the waiting crowd.
"But she had hardly cleared the Boca, before the bows of a second U Boat appeared. Following closely behind the Caribbean veteran U530 came the type VIIC U977. As this U Boat entered the gulf, a second Mariner flying boat swept over the ships of Task 21.4 and turned south. The Mariners had escorted the Task Group along Trinidad’s north coast and now their job was Complete.
The U Boats had come from Buenos Aires, where they had been handed over to the American crews by the Argentine Navy. The U Boats’ original crews were far away in a prison camp and the two former commanders, Otto Wehrmuth and Heinz Schaffer were still undergoing special interrogation with their allege involvement with the ghost convoy.”