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'Best exhibit' weighs in at 750 tons

The British Museum may have some large Greek marbles, the Louvre its smiling lady and natural history museums a dinosaur or two, but few can match, weight-wise, what is considered to be one of the best exhibits in the US heartland city of Chicago, the 750-ton U-boot, the Type IX U-505. Additionally, that over-sized museum artifact is apparently 'by far' the Museum of Science and Industry's 'most popular exhibit and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year' to Chicago. Perhaps we should ask for its repatriation to this shores, for the U-505 spent almost twenty per cent of its 'working life' holed up under canvas in sight of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, wedged between moored vessels at the US Naval Operating Base until the end of the war in mid-1945.

Mind you, we might have to argue the toss with Germany, where the 'boat' (submarines are called such, although they are larger than many surface vessels) was built in the northern city of Hamburg. The significance of the U-505 lies in part that it is one of but four such boats that exist above the waves from the Second World War (193945). At the Naval Memorial at Laboe in Germany can be seen the U-995, a Type VIIC 'Attack Boat', one of the class of submarines that comprised the workhorses of the Kreigsmarine U-boat fleet. The other intact boat is the U-2540, one of the very advanced Type XXI Elektroboat, which entered service in the last five months of the war, but was scuttled by her crew on 4 May 1945. Amazingly, she was raised and returned to service, as the Wilhelm Bauer, a research submarine in September 1960, later decommissioned in 1982 and transferred to the Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum at Bremerhaven, Germany. Had that type of long-range, more silent-running sub come into service earlier, it may have greatly affected the course of the war in favour of Germany. The last of the boats-above-water is the U-534 (Type IXC), which was raised from the sea after 40 years, but in 2009 it was put on exhibit at Merseyside, England, having been cut into five sections 'to allow visitors better visibility without entering the U-boat'.

For some 50 years, the U-505 was displayed out of doors and out of the water at the museum in the Windy City, roasting in summer and frozen in winter. However, the boat is now a magnificent indoor exhibit, placed within a faux U-boat 'pen', such as those built at Atlantic ports of France (e.g., Lorient), which had concrete roofs over 20 feet thick, to protect the submarines at dock from bombing from Allied airplanes. The last intact Type IXC boat, a tour of the interior of the submarine is now possible by two doorways cut through the port side of hull. Surrounding the U-505 are exhibits explaining its significance, including a panel entitled 'Voyage to Bermuda' (great free advertising).

The U-505 was the first foreign warship taken by the US Navy since the War of 1812 and that fact was memoralised in a painted executed for its captor Captain Daniel V. Gallery USN some years after the event, which took place on 4 June 1944, eleven months before the end of the Second World War in Europe. The story of the capture of the U-505 was kept quiet until the end of the conflict, with the submarine secreted at Bermuda and its crew kept under wraps at a prisoner of war camp in Louisiana, communication verboten, contrary to the Geneva Convention on the rules of war.

The story of the capture of the U-505 off West Africa is a remarkable one, which had its beginnings in the development of 'Hunter-Killer' task groups in the Allied naval forces. This was coupled with the breaking of the codes of the Enigma signal machines, following the 'acquisition' of one from Poland and another that was taken off U-110, captured by the British on May 1941 and then sunk. (That boat had two weeks prior to its demise sunk an English cargo ship, Henri Mory, with Bermudian Howard Sinclair Burgess on board, who was lost with the ship, which was not in convoy to the west of Ireland.) Additionally, the Americans had set up a secret U-boat tracking operation, known only as 'F-21', which used the unchanged coded Enigma transmissions to locate and plot the whereabouts of such submarines.

Task Group 22.3, under the command of Captain Gallery, was on patrol off the west coast of Africa, when it was alerted to the possible presence of a U-boat in its search area and located the U-505 under the command of Oblt.z.S der Reserve Harald Lange. After a series of depth charges jammed the rudder, Lange had no choice but to surface, finding himself the subject of gunfire on the bridge, which later cost him his right leg. Against overwhelming forces, the boat was abandoned and US Navy personnel closed an open sea strainer intended to scuttle the U-505; its capture was thus effected. The submarine was towed to Bermuda by the USS Abnaki, under the command of an officer who later married into a Bermuda family. Used up and down the East Coast as a trophy after the war, the U-505 was slated for scrapping, when Captain Gallery resurfaced and had it donated to the Museum of Science and Industry: and the rest, they now say, is their best piece of history on display.

On the other hand, a small but possibly significant bit of history has surfaced in the collections of Horst Augustinovic, a postal envelope addressed to a lady of Bermuda by U-505 commandant Harald Lange, posted in Germany on 11 November 1946 and arriving on the island just in time for Christmas. Aside from indicating a postal service as efficient after five years of war as some today, one wonders if the envelope contained but a card for the Nativity or a letter of more intriguing social interest. Unfortunately the addressee has departed on her longest sea voyage, as has Lange's nurse at Bermuda, Shirley Jones (Mrs. James A. Humphreys Jr), either of whom might have shed some light on the matter. On another hand, the romantic might like to think that the recovering commander of the now-famous U-505 might have found considerable personal solace amidst the generality of renowned Bermudian hospitality to 'they who go down to the sea in ships', as well as 'boats'.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.

Captions for photos

1. The envelope of a communication sent to Mrs. Kate Perinchief by U-505 Captain Harald Lange in late 1946; perhaps the letter survives in family archives (courtesy Horst Augustinovic).

2. A splendid reproduction of the painting given to Captain Gallery to commemorate the capture of the U-505: the square-rigger in the heavens symbolizes that the submarine was the first warship taken by the US Navy since the War of 1812 (given to the National Museum by friends of Richard and Helen Fraser).

3. Eminent Bermudian marine artist Stephen Card donated his painting of the capture of the U-505, with ships of Task Group 22.3 in the background, to the National Museum.

4. A chart of the ocean off western Africa where the capture of the U-505 was effected on 4 June 1944 by Task Group 22.3 (chart by Theodore P. Savas).

5. A rare colour image of the U-505 alongside a dock in an American city; the 'U-505' on the conning tower would have been added by the US Navy, as it was not part of the original markings of the boat.

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Published May 18, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 16, 2013 at 8:46 pm)

'Best exhibit' weighs in at 750 tons

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