FUJAIRAH : The Gulf of Oman's pithy-black deeps have finally surrendered secrets of the mystery sinking of Nazi submarine U-533 during the Second World War, XPRESS has learnt.
Several years after the discovery of the U-boat on the seabed 108 metres below by Dubai shipwreck hunter and diver William Leeman, a new deep-sea mission in October to the U-boat's final resting place has confirmed a fatal blast hole was ripped into her rear port side, dooming the twin-screwed 76.8-metre-long vessel and 52 crew members to a watery grave.
Capitalising on clear waters and armed with electric underwater scooters and high-powered spotlights, Leeman and his team of recreational divers discovered the two-metre gash near her propellers, confirming reports by RAF (Royal Air Force) Squadron 244 that a British light bomber aircraft had scored a direct strike on the submarine on October 16, 1943.
"This is where she was hit by a depth charge by a British Blenheim that struck from the air," said Leeman, 52, an electrical engineer. "During our last dive, we could see the jagged edges of the hole where she was blown up. That was the moment of truth - the ship then sank to the bottom in a forward motion marking the epic death of 52 German mariners."
Only one U-533 survivor somehow scrambled to safety from the submarine. Records show mechanic Gunther Schmidt bobbed in heavy seas for more than a day after the sinking and made it to shore only to be taken prisoner, Leeman said.
"How the survivor got out, we can't say," he added.
Discovery of the fatal laceration across the sub's double-hull is an undeniable last link in a chain of clues that Leeman says can now close the book on the demise of the long-range U-boat off Fujairah shores.
"A lot of people have told me I don't have proof that the ship we found is the U-533. If you look at the British and German military records, they confirm this is the submarine that sank. The British recorded a direct hit on the sub, we have a German survivor, and we have dived it."
After more than 10 dives in recent years with seven recreational members of the Desert Sports Diving Club of Dubai, often in poor conditions, Leeman said October's visit led to unbelievable visibility and afforded virtually unobstructed views of the U-533.
"We could see the outline of the submarine from 50 metres," Leeman said. "It was so clear, we didn't even need torches. I could see the snorkel, the gun, the conning tower. It was breathtaking."
After a sweep of the sub's length and breadth, Leeman confirmed that her "back wasn't broken" from the rapid descent and violent collision with the ocean floor. The intact U-boat, however, did slide nose-first into the sandy bottom, leaving her bow partially submerged and stern and propeller exposed.
Given the limited time available and expertise needed to dive at such depths, Leeman said no attempts had been made to enter the submarine's hold, but said all of the boat's contents are presumed to be intact.
In a strange twist, in 1993 the sub's identical sister-ship, U-534, was pulled out at a cost of Dh17.9 million ($4.8 million) from waters between Denmark and Sweden, partially restored, and is now on permanent exhibition near Liverpool, UK.
Long regarded by historians as the last U-boat to leave Germany, the U-534 was said to have evacuated members of the German elite.
Meanwhile, Leeman hasn't ruled out organising a future memorial service at the U-533 wreck site off Fujairah that will hopefully include relatives of the 52 lost U-boat crew members whose bodies remain on the Gulf of Oman seabed to this day.
Leeman's next hunt - lost Italian sub
In the new year, William Leeman and team will embark on a new deep-sea expedition in search of the Galvan, a sunken Italian wartime submarine now resting in very deep water on the ocean floor not far from the Straits of Hormuz.
"No one has laid eyes on the Galvan since she went down decades ago and we want to be the first to locate and confirm her resting place on the bottom," Leeman said.
"I've got the actual position where it sank, so we want to go out there and be the first to confirm the site," he said.
Historical wartime records chronicling the patrols of the Italian submarine are difficult to come by, Leeman said, making her physical discovery even more precious to historians.
U-533's mission in Arabia
Launched on September 11, 1942, the U-533 was attacked several times by British and American navy planes during its first two patrols and 42 days of manoeuvres, before it started its third and final patrol to the Middle East where it roamed the Gulf for 104 days.
According to German records, the U-533 was one of five U-boats sent from Europe in mid-1943 to the Arabian Sea region where the submarine group reportedly sank six enemy ships estimated at 33,800 tonnes.
The U-533 was one of 87 IXC/40 type vessels. However, the design was known for its less agile diving controls under emergency conditions, making it more vulnerable to air attack.
U-533 is hit!
"U-533 was on the surface making eight knots when first seen. The pilot lost height and manoeuvred his aircraft to such a position that he was able to make a head-on attack. The U-boat quickly submerged but 10 feet of the stern was still showing as the Bisley made its approach. Four depth charges were dropped, bow to stern, and two were seen to fall in the swirl. The Bisley circled the area and after five minutes the crew were rewarded by the sight of oil rising to the surface. As the oil patch increased, air bubbles and two or three white objects were seen. The pilot also thought he saw a survivor."
(Source: 244 Squadron Newsletter No 33)
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