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Written by David Mills
Thursday, 25 June 2009
Unterseeboot 77 (U-77)
Last Monday was the first day that the documentary team assembled by TV director Fernando Navarrette had the opportunity to look at the U77. The German submarine was sunk nine nautical miles off the Peñon de Ifach during World War II by British aircraft operating out of Gibraltar.
Expert divers, this time armed only with cameras, will investigate the wreck with the aid of remote controlled ‘robot’ devices that can penetrate the hull via the holes created by the bombs. The wreck, most of which is approximately 95 metres below the surface, is thought to contain gold bars either belonging to Field Marshall Erwin Rommel or Adolf Hitler. Mr Navarete has already interviewed Ernst Peter, one of the survivors from the submarine, and plans to go to the UK to interview Edgar P Castell, who was on board the aircraft that sank the submarine in March of 1943.
As dawn broke on Monday, 29th March 1943, local fishermen operating out of the port at Calpe were concentrating on sorting and boxing their meagre catch of the day. Times were hard for everyone as the war raged around the globe; however the fishermen did not expect to become involved in any way. With just 13 kilometres to go before getting to their home port, the Blai Agulló, skippered by Andrés Perles García and his crew became involved in a rescue operation. They were the last hope for the nine survivors of the U-77 submarine that had been bombed and sunk the previous afternoon by four depth charges and a bomb from a pair of British Hudson aircraft patrolling out of Gibraltar. The aircraft had managed to intercept and destroy the U77 and the majority of the 47 man crew.
The following day, just nine of the crew managed to escape their watery graves and be rescued by the fishermen. They were gently lifted from their upturned survival raft, exhausted, covered in fuel oil and desperately clinging to life as they were assisted aboard the small fishing craft.
The first encounter took place at 11:25 the previous day when the planes strafed the sub with machine guns, causing it to submerge and flee. Superficial damage meant that it was forced to surface for repairs 50 kilometres northwest and near the Calpe Rock, where apparently it tried to take refuge. Pilot Castell relocated it and, from just 30 meters, dropped four depth charges that opened the hull ‘like a knife’ and she sank beneath the waves. (What happened between that time and the rescue is shrouded in mystery and it is hoped that this and the whereabouts of the gold will be revealed after a full survey and investigation).
Following the first rescue, other fishing boats joined in the search for survivors. However, it was only the Atea Mauritius and Mari-Paqui which found five corpses: two more bodies were later recovered from the coast around the Villajoyosa and El Campello area. In total 36 men died, two disappeared and nine survived. Over the years, the official historian for Calpe, Pedro Shepherd, has collated information on the incident. In his book ‘Calpe, People and Places’, he describes how the fishermen started the day in the usual quiet fashion, fixing their nets and carrying out general maintenance. As word spread of the incident and the first of the German survivors limped ashore, more boats joined the search. Shepherd also commented on how the sailors were, “Still formidable despite the effects of the cold, wet and being agotados (knackered)." After rescuing them, the fishermen provided hot coffee, food, dry clothes and accommodation in their homes and the Querol boarding-house. A few hours later, they were met by the German Consul Joachim Von Konoblock, and the naval attaché' from the German Embassy before being taken to Alicante.
The German submarine fleet maintained their supremacy at sea in the early years of World War II and in doing so, torpedoed and sunk hundreds of ships containing millions of tons of fuel, food and weapons. But the tide of war turned in 1943, when British aircraft began to command air superiority and gave ‘no quarter’ to the German U-boats, sinking them, like the U77, one by one.
Unterseeboot 77 (U-77) was a Type VIIC U-boat of the Kriegsmarine, built by the Bremer Vulkan-Vegesacker Werft, Bremen-Vegesack. The boat was sunk on 28th March 1943, at 37º42’N, 00º10’E and 37ºN, 0.167º. Skipper, Oberleutnant zur See Otto Hartmann, 2nd September 1942 – 28th March 1943, went down with his ship. The sub belonged to the 29th Flotilla of the Kriegsmarine, which was based in La Spezia (Italy), from where she operated with great success until the fateful day.