Thursday, August 26, 1993



I thought it was interesting that even though he was born in Germany, Brinkmann did not think of himself as German but as a Danziger and was very proud of the Baltic city-state's independence.

copyright 1999, 2009 Mark Bellis

WATERLOO, Aug 26, 1993 - A former German officer of a sunken World War II U-Boat rumored to be loaded with gold, art treasures or even escaping Nazi officials says that his boat was on no other mission than to surrender when it was sunk in the last days of the war.
"I don't think any U-boat would have taken a Nazi aboard at that time," says William Brinkmann, 82,who was first officer on board the U-534, which was raised from the bottom of the sea near Sweden by a Dutch salvage company this week. "The Nazis were never that popular among people in the navy."
Brinkmann, who now lives in retirement in Waterloo, was on shore when his boat was sunk by a British bomber in the Kattegat sea, between Sweden and Denmark, on May 5, 1945, a day before the war ended, but spoke to all surviving members of his crew a few weeks after the sinking. "Admiral Donitz (who assumed control of Germany after Hitler committed suicide) wanted to keep the harbors in Germany open - there were millions of refugees fleeing Eastern Europe by boat and some of the Navy commanders had scuttled (deliberately sunk) their ships in German harbors, against his orders - he ordered U-534 out to sea to Oslo, to surrender."
After showing pictures of the boat being attacked from the air while on the surface of the water, taken by the British plane that sunk the U-534 with depth charges, he describes the submarine's last moments. "The U-534 had been fitted with a schnorkel - a device that allowed us to run our diesel motors under the water and remain submerged for a long time - we spent 26 days underwater on our last trip back from Bordeaux (in France) to Germany - but the Kattegat sea was too shallow to go underwater - the boat was hit in the rear torpedo room by a depth charge - three men were killed by the explosion, and one was drowned escaping but everyone else managed to get out before it sank through the two loupes (conning towers) except for six men in the forward torpedo compartment - they were stuck inside but the compartment was sealed, so, you know, when the boat sinks, you have to wait until everything gets quiet, you settle to the bottom, and they got out through the escape hatches in rescue suits with oxygen bottles." The U-Boat had a crew of 52.
Brinkmann doubts that there was anything of value on board his boat. "We were a fighting ship -there really was no room for anything else on board." but remembers that he left a set of drinking glasses on board. "They were special - they were given me by my father, who was a Freemason -when Hitler took power in 33 the Freemasons were banned [and some members were sent to concentration camps] and my father said to me 'here, you better take these'" and gave him a set of glasses with the Freemasons insignia of a compass and a ruler on them. "I saw that they were quite solid so I decided to take them to sea - they should still be hanging up in the officers' quarters!" Brinkmann said he was not worried about having glasses with the outlawed Freemason's insignia on them. "There was a special sort of Kameradeschaft (spirit of friendship) on board the U-boats, everyone ate together, slept together, used the same toilet - everyone was extremely close." Brinkmann still remains in touch with all surviving crew members of his boat.
Salvagers announced yesterday that they had found 100 bottles of wine and 144 condoms on the boat. Brinkmann thinks he knows the reason why. "Alcohol was never allowed on a U-Boat, and we had hardly heard of condoms in my time - there was also some schnapps - I think that the crew had figured out that they were going to surrender in Oslo and wanted to have one last good time! I'm thinking of asking the salvage for some of that wine!"
Brinkmann dislikes talking about the U-534 battle record "I wouldn't like to talk about it - we did some damage." but remembers the fear he felt as the boat dived to 160 metres to avoid allied destroyers and planes depth-charging them. "I still get nervous thinking about it. We were very far down and the vents would start to crumple under the pressure and leak." Brinkman received the Iron Cross, first class, in 1944 for his service onboard.
Brinkmann was born in Hesse, Germany but lived in Danzig Free State before the war, now the city of Gdansk in Poland. "We were a free city for 200 years - we only became part of Germany in 1939 after Hitler had invaded us. We knew what was going on in Germany before the war because we got the papers from Berlin and Sweden." Speaking of life under the Nazis he said " We knew that there was something wrong, but it was a total dictatorship. You were a dead man if you said anything against them."
Brinkmann spoke of the one U-boat he knows of that was carrying special cargo "Near the end of the war, the U-234 was sent to Japan carrying new military technology, periscopes and some A-bomb parts, but it was captured in mid-Atlantic by the Americans. There were two Japanese colonels on board, but they committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner."
When the U-534 was sunk, Brinkmann was in Flensburg, Germany, training to become a U-Boat captain. "If the war had continued, I'd have gotten my own boat - good thing it didn't!" Admiral Donitz,who had been commander of the U-Boat service was also there, and on May, Brinkmann witnessed Donitz leaving the Sportshalle in Flensburg with other German officers under British guard after he had signed Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies, marking the end of World War II.
German admiral Karl Dönitz (in dark coat), followed by Colonel-General Alfred Jodl (at left) and Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer, under arrest by British officers  - Credit CAPT. E.G. MALINDINE/NO. 5 ARMY FILM AND PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIT/IWM, Imperial War Museum

The U-Boat service had the highest casualty rate of all German wartime forces - 72.8% of their crews did not survive the war.

Addendum 2013 - I notice that the website for the exhibit of the U-534 in England claims that the captain of the U-534 refused Donitz's order to surrender - Donitz had not ordered the surrender of U-boats on May 4, just that they stop all "hostile actions" and he ordered them to go to their bases in Norway. 
  •  From a decrypted message found on U-889
    1614/4 May.  To be decyphered by officer only (time of receipt not recorded):
    "Following order of the Grand Admiral has been issued.  To all U-boats, including East Asian and FEHLER:  Suspend forthwith offensive action.  Begin return journey unseen.  Observe absolute security.  Order may not be divulged for the present."
    Urgent addendum by F.D.U. West:
    "On return avoid any possibility of attack by hunt groups, etc.  Enter Norwegian U-boat base."
 The U-534 only fired its anti-aircraft guns in self-defence against attacking RAF planes. Donitz only gave orders for the U-boats to surface and surrender on May 10. 
The U-534 seemed to have following Donitz's orders when it was sunk en route to the base in Oslo - there is no report of the captain being arrested by the Germans after they were rescued, which should have happened if he had disobeyed orders. Also, it was sailing in a convoy of four U-boats - that would mean that four captains decided to disobey orders, but none of them were charged - the captain of the U-534 was rescued by the German warship that was guarding the channel and let the convoy go by and the three surviving U-boats sailed to Norway which was still under German occupation.
Brinkmann said that he'd spoken to all surviving crew members, including the captain, and never said to me they had disobeyed any orders from Donitz or had decided to sail to Norway or anywhere else on their own initiative. As Brinkmann said to the CBC:" It was just a normal command to bring the boat from the German port of Kiel to Oslo, in Norway.''SUNKEN GERMAN SUB DIDN'T HAVE VALUABLES ON BOARD: OFFICER

Nor is there any record of Donitz making any comment that the four boats disobeyed orders, even though he lived until 1980, wrote his memoirs, and answered questions from correspondents about the war. 
I'd asked about the boat sailing to Japan - Brinkmann said it did have the operational range to get to Japan, but he said it was not going there, and then told me about the U-234.
There has been the idea raised that the U-534 was going to sail to Japan and give them the torpedoes which were of an updated design that had never been used in combat, but the torpedoes were derived from a design the Japanese already had, and the photos of documents salvaged from the boat only show charts for Northwestern Europe and nothing for Africa or Asia, which would have been needed to get to Japan.
I should also say that Brinkmann said that he was a personal friend of one of Donitz's sons, and did not think it was fair that Donitz was imprisoned for 10 years after the war by the allies for his actions.

Addendum 2023 - I found a story on Lexikon der Wehrmacht , which said that Brinkmann nearly died on his way back from Bordeaux when his boat had to dive to avoid an air attack. He was in the conning tower and got stuck and couldn't get into the main part of the submarine and ordered the sub to submerge. Fortunately the conning tower didn't completely flood and he survived. He didn't tell me this story so I don't know if it was something too traumatic to talk about, or it isn't true.