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Joseph M. Scalia. Germany's Last Mission to Japan: The Failed Voyage of U-234. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000. xxiv + 296 pp. Photographs, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-55750-811-9.
Reviewed for H-War by Charles C. Kolb <CKolb@neh.gov>, National Endowment for the Humanities
[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the reviewer and not of his employer or any other federal agency.]
Fortuitous Failure -- The Mission of U-234 from Germany to Japan
Untersee boot U-234 was built between 1 October 1941 and 2 March 1944 at Kiel by F. Krupp Germaniawerft AG. Originally designed in 1938, it was intended to be one of a total of eight Type XB ocean-going mine-layers. It was instead refitted as a transport submarine and assigned to the perilous Germany-to-Japan run. This was the largest type of German U-boat ever constructed at 1763 tons displacement, 2710 tons submerged and fully loaded, and 89.9 meters in overall length. Under the command of Kapitanleutnant (Kptlt., e.g. Lt. Cdr.) Johann-Heinrich Fahler, U-234 was originally designed to carry 66 SMA mines. It had only two stern torpedo tubes and carried a maximum of fifteen torpedoes.
A newly-designed breathing and exhaust mast, the Schnorchel, permitted the U-234 to travel submerged for extraordinary distances. U-234 departed Kiel on its maiden voyage on 25 March 1945, bound for Kristiansand, Norway. There it loaded important cargo and personnel and departed on 15 April for a submerged voyage which was to take them around the Cape of Good Hope, eventually concluding in Japan. That transit was never completed.
Among the three hundred ton cargo was three complete Messerschmitt aircraft, a Henschel HS-293 glider-bomb, extra Junkers jet engines, and ten canisters containing 560 kg (1,235 lbs.) of uranium oxide (U235). The uranium oxide was to be used by the Japanese as a catalyst for the production of synthetic methanol used for aviation fuel. Other cargo consisted of one ton of diplomatic mail and 6,615 pounds of technical material including drawings of ME 163 and ME 262 aircraft, plans for the building of aircraft factories, V-1 and V-2 weapons, naval ships (destroyers of classes 36C and Z51, and M and S boats), and submarines (Types II, VII, IX, X, XI, XXI, and XXIII). German fire-control computers, Lorenz 7H2 bombsights, Lufte 7D bombsight computers, FUG 200 Hohehtweil airborne radars and bomb fuses were also included in the manifest along with other military equipment and personal luggage.
Previous examinations of the voyage of U-234 have centered on the cargo carried by the vessel. The presence of the uranium oxide, for example, has generated much interest and conjecture. Scalia, however, shifts this focus, and argues that the submarine's greatest value lay not in her cargo, but in the individuals who were accompanying the material to Japan.
The twelve passengers included a German general and his staff, four German naval officers, civilian engineers and scientists, and two Japanese naval officers. The latter were Lt. Cdr. Tomanaga Hideo, a naval aviator and submarine specialist who had come to Germany by Japanese submarine I-29 in 1943, and Lt. Shoji Genzo, an aircraft specialist and former naval attach in several European countries.
Luftwaffe General (General der Flieger) Ulrich Kessler, a Prussian-born diplomat and military strategist, was originally a naval officer, but resigned his commission in 1933 and became commander of Luftwaffe Stuka squadrons operating in Poland, Norway, and France. He was disliked by Goering and rumored to have been involved in anti-Hitler activities, including the infamous assassination plot. Kessler was being sent to assist the Japanese in combat tactics using squadrons of ME 262 and ME 163 aircraft against Allied bombers. Oberleutnant (1st Lt.) Erich Menzel, a Luftwaffe navigator and bombardier who was an aeronautical communications and radar expert, also had combat experience against the British, Americans, and Russians. Oberstleutnant (Lt. Col.) Fritz von Sandrart, a FLAK antiaircraft defense strategist, was assigned to enhance Japanese defense systems.
There were four naval officers, each with different responsibilities. Fregattenkapitan (Lt. Cdr.) Gerhard Falcke, a naval architect and construction engineer who spoke fluent Japanese, was to use German naval blueprints to initiate new shipbuilding. Kptlt. (Lt. Cdr.) Richard Bulla, who had the unique distinction of serving as an officer in both the Luftwaffe and Kreigsmarine simultaneously, was an expert on armaments, new weapons, and carrier-based aviation. Oberleutnant Heinrich Hellendorn, a shipboard FLAK artillery officer, served as a German observer, while Kay Niescheling, an ardent National Socialist who was a naval judicial and investigative officer, was being sent to rid the German diplomatic corps in Japan of remnants of the Richard Sorge spy ring.
Among the civilian scientists was Dr. Heinz Schlicke, a radar, infrared, and countermeasures specialist who was the director of the Naval Test Fields in Kiel. His task was to aid the Japanese in developing and manufacturing electronic devices and instruments. Two "men from Messerschmitt," August Bringewalde, Willi Messerschmitt's "right-hand man" who was in charge of ME 262 production, and Franz Ruf, an industrial machinery specialist who designed machines and appliances to manufacture aircraft components, were also among the notable passengers.
The Tripartite Pact of 27 September 1940 for military and technical cooperation between Germany, Italy, and Japan required reciprocal exchanges of raw materials, equipment, and personnel. Germany and Japan encountered difficulties in their attempts to carry out this exchange, though. Axis blockade running vessels were being sunk with increasing frequency thanks to MAGIC intercepts and decrypts. When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, shipping war material and personnel via the Trans-Siberian Railway ceased abruptly as Russia became an Anglo-American ally. The fragile Japanese-Russian non-aggression pact forced a maritime exchange, although there was an alternative plan to fly the precious cargo and personnel across Russia to Japan in three Junkers aircraft.
Between December 1940 and June 1941, five German merchant vessels departed Japan, with three arriving in Bordeaux. By February 1942, nine German and three Italian vessels had made the voyage, but three were sunk en route. Fifteen Axis blockade runners departed the Far East in the winter of 1942-1943, but only seven reached Europe, while in 1944 only one of five ships departing Japan reached Nazi-occupied Europe. In 1942, a Japanese submarine cruiser completed a mission from Japan to France and back but fell victim to a mine in Singapore harbor.
Hence, by July 1943, Axis submarines were pressed into transport service. Allied antisubmarine countermeasures resulted in severe losses, however. Three of seven reconfigured Italian submarines reached Japan from Bordeaux, but only one of four Japanese submarines sent to Europe completed the round trip. Because it was too late to build new transport submarines, other large U-boats were refitted. One reached Japan and was commissioned into the Japanese Navy, five boats out of eleven arrived at Penang, Malaya, and only six of eighteen Type IXD/2 boats that departed Penang from 1943 to 1945 ever reached Europe. (Roskill and Niestl provide additional documentation of these events [4, 5].) U-boats made the trip from the Nazi-held ports of Kiel, Bordeaux, and Kristiansand to Kobe, Japan via the Cape of Good Hope. On 9 February 1945, the U-864, which carried similar cargo and personnel to that of the U-234, was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of all hands off Bergen, Norway by the British submarine HMS Venturer. Raw rubber, molybdenum, tungsten, tin, zinc, opium, and quinine were typical cargoes destined for Germany.
On 8 May, during the final days of the Third Reich, U-234 was ordered to either return to Bergen or continue to Japan, but when the European war ended, the Japanese severed relations with defeated Nazi Germany. On 10 May the Allies ordered all U-boats to surrender. Because U-234 had two Japanese nationals aboard and Japan had already bought and paid for the uranium oxide, Kptlt. Fahler faced a dilemma. He conferred with General Kessler and the two Japanese officers. The latter had the knowledge to scuttle U-234, but had been deeply affected by German comradeship and goodwill. Fahler decided to bypass the Canadian Navy and Halifax where he had been ordered, and chose instead to surrender to the Americans. The Japanese committed suicide by ingesting lethal amounts of Luminal and were buried at sea with full military honors along with their secret papers and Tomanaga's samurai sword.
Fahler jettisoned all of the new acoustic torpedoes and microfilms of sensitive documents to prevent the Americans from obtaining them, but failed to dispose of secret war documents or the U-234's war diary (Kriegstagebuch), which was later recovered by the U.S. Navy. The USS Sutton (DE-771) stationed at Argentia, Newfoundland, was on antisubmarine warfare patrol and intercepted U-234 on 15 May. Four days later the Sutton turned the U-234 over to the USCG Cutter Argo which escorted her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which also was the port of surrender for U-805, U-873, and U-1228. Because of the intelligence potential of U-234's cargo and passengers, the surrender of this boat was classified, but information leaks caused press sensationalism and media frenzy. The Navy spent two years disassembling and recording in detail the technical equipment aboard U-234.
The book has chapters devoted to most of the principal characters, providing mini-biographies that emphasize the efforts of these men during the war, their cooperation with the Office of Naval Intelligence and Office of Naval Research, and subsequent repatriation to Germany in 1946. Project Paperclip also came into play. Many of the repatriated had lived in what became Soviet-occupied Germany and, therefore, chose to return to the United States. Schlicke, for example, had worked on sound and electrical absorption materials (early stealth technology) for submarines, and infrared detectors and homing devices. After 1946 he continued these efforts at the U.S. Office of Naval Research and later in the private sector. Bringewald and Ruf also returned from Germany to America. The former had assembled the ME 262, which flew at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio in May 1945, and became significant to the American effort to develop jet-powered aircraft. Bringewald became the project manager for the American F-105 Thunderchief. Likewise, the HS-293 glider bomb and V-weapons were indispensable to the American effort to develop guided missiles.
The fate of the U-234 was less glorious. After dismantling, the hull was taken to a location forty miles east of Provincetown, Massachusetts where, on 19 November 1947, she was struck by two torpedoes from the USS Greenfish (SS-351), and sank to the ocean floor six miles below. The story of the fate of the uranium oxide has never been clarified. Scalia notes that one rumor holds that it was used in American atomic research at Oak Ridge, while another contends that it was sent to a warehouse in Brooklyn or a storage facility in Kansas (one has visions of the "Ark of the Covenant" being stored at the climax of Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Scalia provides some very new and exciting facts, observing that the primary records themselves differ as to when the containers were unloaded, where they were sent, and even if the supposedly gold-lined containers held refined uranium oxide ore or fissile material, or as Scalia conjectures, a radium compound or cadmium alloy which would have required such lined containers. We are still uncertain, although transfer to Oak Ridge seems likely, though likely too late to process into components for the atomic weapons used against Japan in August 1945.
The story of U-234 has been told before by a crew member, Oberfunkmeister (Chief Radioman) Wolfgang Hirschfeld in German and English-language editions , and by former Royal Canadian Navy corvette commander James Lamb [6, 7]. Also available is a biography of Kptlt. Fehler by Arthur Sellwood, and a summary of the story by Busch and Roll [8, 9]. A 1990s television documentary, "The Last U-boat" (co-produced by ABC in the United States, NHK in Japan, and ZDG in Germany) provides a distorted popularization of the event. However, Scalia's new volume adds immeasurably in fact and clarity to these important treatments.
Scalia, a former USNR SeaBee construction diver (1989-1997), holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from Louisiana Tech University. This book derives from his 1997 Master's thesis entitled "The Failed Voyage of U-234: The Intelligence Value of Germany's Final Technical and Diplomatic Mission to Japan, 1945". He has consulted an astonishing number and variety of sources and corresponded with a number of the principles including Schlicke, Menzel and Hirschfeld. The breadth of his research includes documents in the German Bundesarchiv-Militararchiv in Freiberg, the U-Boot Archiv in Cuxhaven-Altenbruch, the National Archives and Records Administration [NARA] microfilm and text collections in College Park, MD, Waltham, MA, and New York City, and collections in the Naval Historical Center in Washington, DC. His primary sources include eighteen books and sixteen articles (mostly newspaper accounts), while secondary sources incorporate 94 books and fourteen articles published through February 1999. Much of the original research is drawn from NARA Record Groups 38, 165, and 181. The volume contains a total of 804 endnotes and 25 black-and-white photographs, most never before published.
In spite of the voluminous print and electronic literature on U-boats (for example, the web site U-boat Net  contains profiles of 1,168 boats and 1,411 commanders) and the irreplaceable original materials in the U-boot Archiv (complete records of all the German 1,171 WW II U-boats ), Scalia adds to an under-researched topic covered by neither U-boat.net or Nihon Kaigun: Imperial Japanese Navy . Scalia does not, unfortunately, mention volumes written by David Jenkins or David Stevens  telling of the voyage of U-862 to Australia. The story of the Monsun boats (U-boats in the Indian Ocean and in the Far East) is barely mentioned (p. 17). There were at least 98 different U-boats at one time or another, and Japanese I-boat voyages to Germany (I-29 and I-30, among others) are research topics that Scalia or another investigator may wish to undertake. The story of the transfer of German and Italian boats to the Japanese would, itself, make a splendid topic for research. As an example, RO-501 under the command of a Japanese officer, Kptlt. Norita from 15 February to 13 May 1944, was sunk in the mid-Atlantic near the Cape Verde Islands.
There are some minor points in Scalia's work that require clarification. The amount of cargo is reported variously as 300 or 162 tons (p. 35, 185), "Bruce," (p. xi) should be "Brice," "Isoraku" (p. 215) is "Isoroku, and U-234 is listed as 1600 tons on the dust jacket and 1763 tons in the narrative. Some of Scalia's statistics don't match those of other sources.
For example, Scalia states the sinking of U-234 as occurring on 19 November, but the archives give the date as 20 November [10, 11]. Scalia, I believe, is correct.
The role of Japan's Ambassador Oshima in Germany is mentioned but underrated (p. 9). Readers seeking fuller accounts should see Boyd  and Meskill's assessment of Axis diplomatic-military activities. Robert Wilcox has written about Japan's atomic energy research and attempts to develop weapons and raises the question of whether the uranium oxide was actually destined for use as a catalyst for the production of synthetic methanol or, perhaps, for other purposes known only to the Japanese themselves . Scalia does not mention these sources. In addition, the reader is not informed about the reactions of the British Admiralty and our Canadian allies regarding the American "coup" in capturing the U-234, its cargo, crew, and personnel, since the Americans had been responsible for jamming Canadian radio traffic in order to mislead the Canadian Navy and allow the USS Sutton to intercept U-234. Lamb has a few words on this topic .
Nonetheless, the U-234 episode is a remarkable story very well told -- how proud military and civilian personnel coped with defeat as the U-boat failed in its mission to Japan. The crates of "aeronautical marvels" would prove to be indispensable to American military and space research in the post-war era, hence, a "fortuitous failure" had untold positive impacts and benefits to America and her allies during the incipient Cold War (p. 73). Joseph Scalia tells a splendid tale eloquently. He has evaluated a wealth of materials, and in his well-written and highly-recommended treatise he demonstrates that there are wonderful stories yet to be revealed about submarines in World War II.
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