Built in 1943, the German U-Boot U-977 was one of more than seven hundred VIIC class ships, the most-produced submarine in history. This particular unit never had the opportunity to fire sharp ammunition at the enemy and did not take part in the fight, because it was rammed three times during the tests after launching. Its construction was weakened and it could not enter the operational service – instead it served as a training unit in the Baltic Sea. For many German recruits the training on the U-977 was an introduction to the later service on other U-Boats, but their little experience left its mark on the ship, because by the incompetent service it was constantly in poor technical condition.
On December 14, 1944 Oberleutnant zur See (Lieutenant) Heinz Schäffer became the commander of U-977. He had four years’ experience at sea, first at U-561 and then at U-445, where he participated in several convoy battles. He was awarded the Iron Cross and, after a year of training, was entrusted with the command of a new U-977 submarine. For Kriegsmarine, which was suffering from human resources problems, an experienced officer like Schäffer was a gold-weighted officer, so the handing over of a training ship to him could not be considered a promotion. Instead of fighting in the Atlantic, he now had to teach boys who had never sailed before inside a submarine.
This is where the history of the U-977 begins. The Third Reich was losing territory to the east and Schäffer, like other commanders, had to withdraw towards Germany. After arriving in Hamburg it was equipped with a device which allowed the removal of fumes from the diesel engine, and air to be sucked in during immersion. In Germany, Schäffer was summoned to the commander of Kriegsmarine, Admiral Karl Dönitz. He ordered the commander of U-977 to prepare himself for the first and most probably the last battle task. Schäffer knew perfectly well that his ship was a floating coffin and wanted to force the admiral to carry out at least a short repair, but he heard an answer:
“Mr Schäffer, I can see from the decorations that you are a veteran, and who else is going to fight now, like not the veterans?”
Although the war was about to end, the U-977 crew was preparing for the only combat mission in their career. On April 13 the ship (and probably two other U-boats) left Kiel and after two weeks sailed to Kristiansund in Norway, in what – considering the huge advantage of the Allies in the sea and in the air – was practically a miracle. On the 2nd of May Schaeffer was ordered to enter the British port of Southampton in order to sink as many enemy units as possible once he had reached his destination. It was clear that this meant a suicide mission from which U-977 and his crew were not to return. Despite the very low morale and poor technical condition of the ship, the ship left Norway and took a course to the British Isles.
The bad luck of the U-977 sailors lasted to the fullest, because as we know from the history lesson, May 8 ended the Second World War. The Kriegsmarine command sent a message to all units that they had to lay down their weapons, but it was not received on Schäffer’s ship. It was only a few hours later that the radio-telegraphic operator came to the captain to present him with an uncoded message about the content:
“German warships have to emerge, state their position, destroy their weapons and fly the white flag. Allied Committee.”
It was clear that the Third Reich surrendered and that there was no point in fighting further.
Unfortunately for the U-977 sailors, the commander decided not to take this command literally. Many years of Nazi indoctrination meant that the German officer did not trust the Allies and was certain of their deception, so he proposed to lay down his arms, but only after crossing the Atlantic and reaching Argentina, a country friendly to the Third Reich. The German crew would probably not even be interned there, and the German minority living there would receive their compatriots with open arms. A vote was launched to decide on the future of the German seafarers. 32 of them agreed with the captain, and 16, mainly married, were against. The second were left on a Norwegian island, and the rest went on a bold voyage towards Argentina.
As the fuel reserves for the U-977 were not large, the ship had to sail as economically as possible, which meant using mainly an electric motor and moving at speeds of up to 3 knots. It took more than two months for them to reach Western Africa… To avoid contact with foreign merchant ships or warships, it emerged rarely, only when it was necessary to ventilate the ship quickly and charge the batteries. The situation was not easy and there were not enough people on board, not to mention too little experience of the crew.
The conditions inside the U-977 were terrible. Everything was missing – from food to fuel, spare parts and even air. Without daylight, crew members turned into thin, dirty and pale zombies. The seafarers also fell into mental decline. Fights broke out on the ship, and a case of claustrophobia was observed. In this dramatic moment, Schäffer decided to stop observing the destructive precautions and allowed the ship to be emptied, which instantly improved the mood of its people. Since then, the U-977 has been sailing underwater only during the day, at night moving faster, in full ascendancy. The morale of the Germans was raised even further thanks to the information received on July 11th, which said that the U-Boot U-530 commanded by Captain Otto Wermuth had arrived in Argentine waters. The U-977 crew became happy because they were sure of meeting with their countrymen.
On the 17th of August, after 107 days of cruising (including 66 days without emerging!), the German submarine U-977 managed to reach Argentina. As the captain supposed, the crew was treated with dignity, although they were interned in the cabin of the old cruiser General Belgrano in the port of Mar del Plata. Nevertheless, the Germans were not spared food and were not treated as enemies.
Here the history of the U-977 could end, but the Allies took an interest in the unlucky submarine. The arrival of the German submarine in Argentina did not go unnoticed and Schäffer and his people were soon accused of sinking the Brazilian cruiser Bahia, which went to the bottom on July 4th under unexplained circumstances. The case was very serious, and the fact that the Germans arrived in Argentina with 10 torpedoes inside the ship, while the U-Boats of this class carried 14, spoke against the fact that the loss of four of them was equivalent to one salvo from the front side. The U-977 seafarers defended themselves by claiming that they had no idea about the sinking of the Brazilian cruiser and that at the end of the war their country suffered from a shortage of ammunition, so their unit was simply not equipped with a full set of torpedoes. In the end, the German commander was saved from the death penalty by the Brazilian Minister for Shipping, who compared the meteorological records of the two ships and found them to be different, thus proving the innocence of the Germans. Later it turned out that the cruiser sank as a result of an accident with its own ammunition.
When the U-977 crew was no longer threatened with accusations related to the sinking of other ships, someone combined the facts about the unit’s departure from Germany and noticed the fact that the U-boat sailed on the day after the announcement of the death of Adolf Hitler. Schäfer and his people were immediately accused of evacuating the fuehrer and his wife. The crew was taken over by the Americans who had confronted Schäffer and Otto Wermuth in the United States, but the interrogation did not result in anything that would confirm the thesis that Hitler (or his ashes) had survived and been safely transported across the Atlantic. After a series of interrogations in the UK, the German sailors were released in 1946 and allowed to return to Germany.
The U-977, one of the most interesting Kriegsmarine ships in history, was sunk in November 1946 as a target ship for the American submarine USS Atule, after taking part in the US Navy victory parade on the east coast of the USA. Heinz Schäffer finally emigrated to Argentina, where he married and started a new life. Until the end of his days, i.e. until 1979, he denied conspiracy theories, which were combined with the U-977 flight across the Atlantic, including the one about the evacuation of Adolf Hitler.