When I started the compile data after being released as PoW the situation with regard to possible sources and access to was almost non-existent. It was laborious to create at least some basic data bank on information about U-boats and their crews.
Understandably, I started with my boat U 288. Then, I intended to continue with U 287, our sister boat. Nothing was really there about her. All I could recall was that the Commanding Officer was Heinrich Meyer. As I did not manage to find our more I gave further research a rest. In the early 1950ies I received news from my comrade and friend Werner Lips from Berlin that U 287 had struck a mine at the Elbe estuary with just four sailors surviving. He knew the names of three of them: Gerhard Koop, Hans-Detlef Tamke and Martin Wefing. He did not remember the fourth name. This name I learned of much later: On 17 May 1989 my comrade Rainer Kersten visited me at the archive, who was Chief Engineer of U 287 at the end of war – he was the fourth man!
Now, I have to squeeze in another story. My friend and long term “deputy” at the archive was Werner Techand, former Commanding Officer of U 731, who was at Flensburg at the end of war. The English, having occupied Schleswig-Holstein, the northern most province of Germany, allowed the members of the Wehrmacht (= German Armed Forces) almost complete freedom in continuing administrative services as deemed necessary, we all know of the activities of the last German government under Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz at the Naval Academy at Flensburg-Mürwik.
Some members of the Wehrmacht were even employed by the British Forces of Occupation, our friend Werner Techand being one of them. Werner had enough opportunities to gain access to files and documents seized, which he thought to be of interest for archiving Naval history. He was of the opinion: “Of what use are they for the English, but they might be of importance for us sometime in the future…” So, he picked file per file and, hidden under his coat, brought them to his bride who live at Flensburg at this time.
One day in 1983, – I had moved to Westerland at the island of Sylt after my retirement as teacher in Berlin- , he presented me the immensely valuable files during a visit. Dear friends from the UK, please, forgive me, but that should have been barred by the statute of limitation meanwhile! Among other things there was a “red list” in these files containing the data of all losses of German U-boats at the end of war. Now, I was able to compare my rather complete data with those of that list. With regard to U 287 I was surprised: “16 May 1945, lost by mine on the river Elbe…” Therefore, my first U-boat data sheet about U 287, noted as cause of loss: “Struck mine on 16 May 1945 on the river Elbe”.
This was the official statement in German and foreign sources. However, I was somewhat puzzled about the date of 16 May 1945, because there were several truces signed between the 04 May and 08 May 1945, which required all serviceable Kriegsmarine U-boats to being surrendered and handed over to the Allies.
Meanwhile I had established contact to several other crew members of U 287 apart from the above mentioned four, but none of the survivors would tell me the true run of events with regard to the loss of their U-boat. Only the visit of Rainer Kersten brought light into the darkness. This brings me back to the story of the beginning.
In fact, on the 16 May 1945 U 287 had been scuttled by its crew in the Elbe estuary at Schelenkuhlen/ Altenbruch anchorage, where the river bed is some 23 meters deep. Before that, part of the crew were put ashore at Altenbruch per dinghies and taken care of by the local population, which provided them with food, civilian clothes and other necessities enabling them to make it to their families. Another group was disembarked at the right banks of the river Elbe into Schleswig Holstein, to proceed to their families from there as “civilians”.
The group of four that remained on board to scuttle U 287 was taken prisoner by the British Forces of Occupation, were interrogated pretty rough and put into solitary confinement. During the interrogation they were very much aware that they and their comrades had violated the Forces´ of Occupation ban on unauthorized scuttling. But, they vowed not to betray their comrades at large, since these were mainly family men or men with firm relations. All of these would have been subject to long terms in prison, as many other examples of such scuttling measures have demonstrated. Therefore, these four remained rock-solidly stuck to their statement: “Our U-boat struck a mine, all but the four of us were killed“!
Why have all these people I or others have asked kept silent, even long after the end of war? Well, before they scuttled their boat and dispersed they have promised one another to keep the true circumstances of their boat´s sinking secret by all means.
The four remaining men that were taken prisoner made sacrifices for the rest their crew and kept strictly to their version of the sinking due to having hit a mine – to eventually being taken “under the wings” of the British Forces of Occupation for some four years. The determination and the bravery of these men are a good example for heroism to me, because they rather put up with rough condition of detention, interrogation and long term imprisonment before betraying their comrades.
Obviously, their identical statements during their time of detention were so convincing that the official British list of German U-boat losses marked for U 287: “Struck by a mine at the river Elbe on 16 May 1945”. The German lists simply took over this version. Only because of the events at the U-boat Archive new findings could be introduced. Irony of history: The scuttling occurred in May 1945 off Altenbruch nearby Cuxhaven where the German U-boat Museum and Archive found its new home some 43 years later.
The “Being for one another” among U-boat crews is a phenomenon one cannot describe, and we know of many similar stories of crews tied together as a blood brotherhood under all circumstances.
Until a few years ago the U-boat Museum has hosted several hundred reunions of former U-boat crews that had survived the war and captivity, where often children of former U-boat men came along as well. Again and again they asked me:” How is that possible, decades ago you have lived in such an iron tube during times of war under horrible conditions constantly facing death and wound – and you keep meeting further demonstrating such an aura of oneness!”
Over and over again I only could answer that I could not explain it, although I myself am living in this “esprit de corps” of comradeship, having devoted my work to my comrades.
Written by: Horst Bredow on 15 August 2012