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Thread: Salvage from U-859, 1973.

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    Salvage from U-859, 1973.

    Has anyone more information on the salvage operation that took place on the U-859 outside the port of Penang in the Malacca Straits such as who the salvors were or any published reports?

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    Hello Newforest,
    The salvage operation on U 859 took place in 1972. It did not take place outside Penang harbour. It took place in international waters approximately 20 miles NW of Mukka Head.

    The submarine lay in 120 feet of water, not the various depth as have been subsequently reported. The vessel was lying in two halves, having taken a torpedo just aft of the conning tower, the two sections being about 60 feet apart.

    There were six of us involved in that salvage, all commercial divers, three Brits, one Australian and two Malaysians. We were working from a small vessel “Bluff Creek” which we had chartered in Singapore.

    We initially recovered 12 tons of liquid mercury which, in accordance with international law, we declared to the nearest “Receiver of Wreck” and duly handed it into his care.

    That was the last we ever saw of it. We were at that time naive enough to believe that there was some relationship between 'Justice' and 'The Law'. Big mistake.

    In the course of further salvage work a Malaysian naval gunboat arrived on site and ordered us off the location, threatening us with arrest (in international waters?) if we failed to comply. In turn we accused them of Piracy on the high seas. The standoff was resolved when the Navy threatened the master of the “Bluff Creek” with unspecified repercussions if he did not quit the wreck site. In view of the fact that if we had prevented the master from sailing we would have been guilty of mutiny and therefore legitimately liable to arrest by the Malaysian Navy. We had no choice but to return to Singapore.

    So, there you have information by someone who was on the job. I have newspaper cuttings from that time. What’s your interest?

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    Hello Newforest,
    The salvage operation on U 859 took place in 1972. It did not take place outside Penang harbour. It took place in international waters approximately 20 miles NW of Mukka Head.

    The submarine lay in 120 feet of water, not the various depth as have been subsequently reported. The vessel was lying in two halves, having taken a torpedo just aft of the conning tower, the two sections being about 60 feet apart.

    There were six of us involved in that salvage, all commercial divers, three Brits, one Australian and two Malaysians. We were working from a small vessel “Bluff Creek” which we had chartered in Singapore.

    We initially recovered 12 tons of liquid mercury which, in accordance with international law, we declared to the nearest “Receiver of Wreck” and duly handed it into his care.

    That was the last we ever saw of it. We were at that time naive enough to believe that there was some relationship between 'Justice' and 'The Law'. Big mistake.

    In the course of further salvage work a Malaysian naval gunboat arrived on site and ordered us off the location, threatening us with arrest (in international waters?) if we failed to comply. In turn we accused them of Piracy on the high seas. The standoff was resolved when the Navy threatened the master of the “Bluff Creek” with unspecified repercussions if he did not quit the wreck site. In view of the fact that if we had prevented the master from sailing we would have been guilty of mutiny and therefore legitimately liable to arrest by the Malaysian Navy. We had no choice but to return to Singapore.

    So, there you have information by someone who was on the job. I have newspaper cuttings from that time. What’s your interest?

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    Why would a U-Boat be carrying 12 tons of liquid mercury?

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    A lot of thermometres?

    Or maybe they were going to assist the the poor, unhappy hat makers of Japan...

    Wiki says:

    In 1972 a total of 12 tons of mercury were recovered from U-859 and brought into Singapore. The West German Embassy claimed ownership of the mercury. The Receiver of Wreck took possession of the mercury, and the High Court of Singapore ruled that "the German state has never ceased to exist despite Germany's unconditional surrender in 1945 and whatever was the property of the German State, unless it was captured and taken away by one of the Allied Powers, still remains the property of the German State..."
    Greenwood, C.J. (1980). International Law Reports: v.56. Cambridge University Press. pp. 40–47. ISBN 0-521-46401-3.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_submarine_U-859

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    Quote Originally Posted by hampden98 View Post
    Why would a U-Boat be carrying 12 tons of liquid mercury?
    It is an essential war material and one of the few raw materials that Nazi Germany could supply to Japan in return for other raw materials coming the other way...

    ...plus it is compact enough to transport useful amounts on a U-Boat (outside the pressure hull)!


    Possibly for fulminate-of-mercury? An essential primary explosive for everything from bullets to bombs?
    Last edited by Creaking Door; 10th November 2016 at 22:35.
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    So, there you have information by someone who was on the job. I have newspaper cuttings from that time. What’s your interest?

    Thanks for the update, I don't mind waiting nine years for a reply, especially when it is so accurate! I guess you would be the Scottish contributor for the adventure.

    My interest was, I believe that I was reading a book about U boat operations and this one would have left me with questions unanswered about the outcome of the operation. Presumably there are still 19 tons of mercury awaiting salvage?
    http://www.flightmemory.com/ I have been round the world 11.83 times!

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    I am guessing, from how the Uboat was sunk, having been transported outside the pressure hull and the sub having split it two, what was salvaged was still containerised and the rest was lost in the destruction.

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    There was a documentary fairly recently on TV about a U-Boat sunk at the end of the war in Norwegian waters that was also carrying mercury to Japan.

    The mercury was sealed in metal cans and was used to replace the steel (or lead?) ballast inside the keel of the U-Boat that it needed to be heavy enough to dive; there was some excellent underwater footage of the submarine and the cans on the seabed. The wreck was being surveyed to see if the mercury was leaking into the environment.

    The U-Boat was also carrying a 'complete jet aircraft' and plans for constructing them in Japan.
    Last edited by Creaking Door; 11th November 2016 at 11:03.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Newforest View Post
    So, there you have information by someone who was on the job. I have newspaper cuttings from that time. What’s your interest?

    Thanks for the update, I don't mind waiting nine years for a reply, especially when it is so accurate! I guess you would be the Scottish contributor for the adventure.

    My interest was, I believe that I was reading a book about U boat operations and this one would have left me with questions unanswered about the outcome of the operation. Presumably there are still 19 tons of mercury awaiting salvage?
    Newforest – Sorry to hear that you have had to wait 9 years for feedback.

    No, I’m not the ‘Scottish Connection’. Sad to say that he died earlier this year. Lost a good pal.

    It was our understanding that there was a total of 33 tons aboard of which we recovered approx 12. Logically there remained 20 or so tons, as you say. However therein lies a story.

    Having been chased off, ripped off, and declared without any rights whatever over what we had salvaged by the Singapore court, we received absolutely no compensation for our efforts. On the contrary, we were threatened with persona non-grata status in Malaysia should we persist. This operation wiped us out financially.

    We learned later that the West German authorities awarded salvage rights to a so-called salvage company based in Ulm but registered in Luxembourg.

    We also learned that these folk later turned up in a Yugoslav-registered trawler with a German dive crew aboard and proceeded to utterly destroy the wreck with explosives – one wonders why?

    Stranger than fiction, is it not?

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    How ironic, when you consider how critical some Germans have been over the treatment of German U-Boat 'war graves' in Brtish waters.

    I guess there are only three things that you'd be desperate enough to use explosives to try and recover: mercury, uranium and 'Nazi gold'!

    You'd have thought that using explosives was totally counter-productive; I know mercury has a cash value but surely the most important thing is to protect the marine (and human) environment from mercury getting into the food-chain. I can't imagine explosives are the best way of doing that! The same goes, even more so, for uranium.
    Last edited by Creaking Door; 11th November 2016 at 12:50.
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    Your point well taken with reference pollution etc. However you have to bear in mind that we are talking about the 1970s. Ecological awareness was not high on the agenda at that time. In any event one suspects that this was not a case of wanton vandalism - some well-placed interested parties at governmental levels wanted to eliminate this wreck entirely. One can only speculate as to the reasons for this …….

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    Maybe Hitler was on board...;o)

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    I was forgetting this was in 1972; I guess the German government may have been more forward thinking than the rest of the world when it came to polluting the environment, or the cost of compensation and clean-up?

    I can't think of anything else that would make somebody want to break-up a U-Boat wreck, except to access (or destroy) a cargo that it was carrying? After all, it was no secret, even during the war, that these U-Boats were making these journeys to Japan.

    Ironically, I think I'm right in saying that, some of the uranium for the Nagasaki bomb was manufactured in Germany for their own atomic-weapon programme; when Germany collapsed it was sent in a U-Boat to Japan but the U-Boat was intercepted and the uranium ended-up in American hands!

    I suppose I should add the recovery of lead and brass from submarines as a reason for somebody to 'salvage' them. Every time the price of metals gets really high somebody proposes salvaging the 'Operation Deadlight' U-Boats from the Irish Sea. However, I don't think it would ever be worth it to recover the brass; I was lucky enough to take a look inside U-534 before she was put on her current display and there was precious little brass in her, it had all been replaced by less scarce iron and steel. I expect there would be some copper in the motors / dynamos but I doubt enough to ever make it worth salvaging.
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    Suart48 does not say the latter crew did salvage it, just that it was 'destroyed with explosives', which gives the impression of smashing the remains - human and vessel - to pieces and (probably) distributing the remaining 20-odd tons of mercury across the area. As they say...different times.
    I have no more than a general idea about what happens when mercury is let loose in a fluid; being heavy does it pool in dips, or would it be affected by tides and get pushed around? Would it eventually dilute, or just become many smaller and smaller 'blobs' until absorbed into the local wildlife?

    Not sure there would be enough precious metal on a submarine - any generic submarine - for anyone to want to try any form of salvage other than for historic purposes, and these days there are all sorts of one off (in cost outlay but still expensive) equipment to help them, which obviously implies there would be no profit in it, even with the fact that the metals recovered would be pre radiation era...

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    There is probably something like 200 to 300 tons of lead in a submarine of that era, in the lead-acid batteries and keel weights; not sure if that is economic to recover as it would be extremely difficult to access in an intact wreck.

    I cannot think of anything that anyone would want to hide, or could effectively hide, by destroying a wreck with explosives. I can't imagine that any commercial diver would want to enter the wreck of a sunken U-Boat either, unless they had too; but the submarine in question was torpedoed in half anyway so that would be less of an issue that if it was relatively intact.

    Why would anybody want to destroy human remains, further than the sea had already destroyed them in twenty-five years? I'm afraid I'm always very sceptical of 'Nazi' conspiracy theories; usually the answer is far more prosaic, and usually bureaucratic indifference, parsimony or ineptitude...

    ...either that or it is to hide secret UFO technology captured by the Nazis from aliens!
    Last edited by Creaking Door; 12th November 2016 at 14:00.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Creaking Door View Post
    There is probably something like 200 to 300 tons of lead in a submarine of that era, in the lead-acid batteries and keel weights; not sure if that is economic to recover as it would be extremely difficult to access in an intact wreck.
    No, church roofs are a lot easier to access.

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    How did the sub meet it's end? Was it torpedoed by another sub or did it torpedo itself (not that uncommon) ?

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    As post 2 reports, torpedoed, not by itself!
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    ...;o)
    Last edited by snafu; 16th November 2016 at 01:04. Reason: Me being stupid.

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    From my understanding of Mercury, and it isn't that great (never really studied it during my contaminated land studies), is that elemental Mercury as it would be in the steel containers is not too much of a problem in so far as it is not easily absorbed into the natural environment. It is heavy enough that if a lot were to escape most would settle to low spots but it could be distributed by ocean currents and wave action and become broken up into lots of small beads which gives a greater surface area on which reactions can take place with other elements/compounds in the sea. If it reacts with anything around it to form compounds then it can usually be easily absorbed into living organisms and being a persistent poison does not leave again and then accumulates in larger predators. That is why eating a lot of Tuna can lead to raised levels of heavy metals, especially Mercury, they feed on the fish which feed on the shrimp which feed on the plankton which are the first to absorb Mercury from the sea. You certainly wouldn't want to touch shellfish from somewhere which was contaminated with Mercury.

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    Hampden98 - sorry. I went back and realised that the story just says it was torpedoed, and I've been back and forth over the Wiki page a few times, knowing it had been sunk by another sub and assumed that this was all on the page. Once again, sorry.

    On 23 September 1944 U-859 was running on the surface, within 23 nmi (43 km; 26 mi) of Penang and the end of her voyage, when she was intercepted in the Malacca Straits by the British submarine HMS Trenchant, which had been forewarned of her arrival date and route by decrypted German signals.[8] In difficult conditions with a heavy swell running and a second U-boat thought to be lurking, Trenchant's commander Arthur Hezlet carried out a snap attack using his stern torpedo tubes, hitting U-859 amidships. The U-boat sank immediately in 50 m (160 ft) of water with several compartments flooded, and 47 men drowned, including her commander.

    Twenty of the crew did manage to escape however, opening the hatch in the relatively shallow sea and struggling to the calm surface. Eleven of the survivors were picked up by HMS Trenchant immediately following the sinking, and the remaining nine were picked up by the Japanese after being adrift for 24 hours and were taken ashore to await repatriation.[9]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_submarine_U-859
    The Allies were determined that cargo of important stuff was not to get to Japan - there had been blueprints and aero engines sent, amongst other things, so it would be important to make sure that German submarines did not get through, even to the point of trying to track them down using Allied subs, essentially giving away the fact that the Ultra codes were broken should the U-boat be able to report the utterly coincidental interception(!).
    It could be, thinking about it, that the cargo manifest was not known and there could have been on board uranium, beryllium, thallium, zirconium and other bits and pieces apparently needed for atomic enrichment/production (none of this is understood by me, the names are familiar-ish but the stuff could have just as easily been used to make gonks to hang from Japanese rear-view mirrors if you are relying on me for intricate insight) as well as mercury.
    Maybe the West German government was trying to destroy any possible evidence?

    If this stuff was on board what would happen to it when the sub was sunk? And what would happen to it over the near 30 years of sitting on the bottom in a wreck?

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    The extent to which cargo would be affected while on the bottom would depend upon what it was and how it was being transported. The example of the Mercury being carried in the U-boat which was torpedoed off Norway showed that the Mercury was being carried in sealed steel containers, but exposure to sea water for now over 70 years has lead to the metal virtually disappearing, some were recovered so they could be tested and it was found that the steel was under 1mm thick and was perforating allowing it leak out on to the seabed. Given that the rate of reaction between iron and available oxygen in sea water is in part temperature dependent it would be reasonable to assume that similar containers in the South China Sea would not fair so well being in much warmer water and subject to a higher rate of reaction. As with Mercury the path along which other metals enter the environment would depend on whether or not they were in a bioavailable form (ie can be absorbed into living organisms). A radioactive cargo would not just pose a radio-logical hazard but as many are heavy metals it would present much the same potential dangers as the likes of Mercury and Lead.

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    Quote Originally Posted by snafu View Post
    Hampden98 - sorry. I went back and realised that the story just says it was torpedoed, and I've been back and forth over the Wiki page a few times, knowing it had been sunk by another sub and assumed that this was all on the page. Once again, sorry.
    Np.
    The reason I asked if it torpedoed itself was because several German U-Boats fell foul of torps that, once fired, malfunctioned and described a large arc before hitting the unfortunate sub.
    I forget the type of torp that did this.

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    Except the sub was in 'friendly' waters and not very likely to be firing off its torpedo stocks...?

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    Quote Originally Posted by snafu View Post
    Except the sub was in 'friendly' waters and not very likely to be firing off its torpedo stocks...?
    - 859 was on the surface awaiting a Japanese escort to take her into their naval base in Penang.

    - HMS TRENCHANT, on patrol from its base in Ceylon, put a torpedo into
    her breaking her in half.

    - The mercury was packed into her keel in steel flasks, weight approx. 75lbs each.

    - The explosion broke several flasks and a considerable quantity of mercury lying inside the keel was recovered using a ladle.

    - As regards pollution …. Who knows? The stuff is so heavy that it would simply sink into the mud once clear of wreck. Don’t see too much risk in that.

    - There were sealed tube containers running under the deck casing. It was assumed that these contained cargo. Never got the chance to recover them so contents are open to speculation.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Stuart48 View Post
    As regards pollution …. Who knows? The stuff is so heavy that it would simply sink into the mud once clear of wreck. Don’t see too much risk in that.
    The pollution risk comes from the mercury being reduced to miniscule 'spots' (for want of a better word) absorbed by the local wildlife/fauna and causing harm that way, very much like the recent alarm over dumped plastic, which is worn down to dust before being eaten by small creatures, that gets into the foodchain by such 'absorbtion'.

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    Quote Originally Posted by snafu View Post
    The pollution risk comes from the mercury being reduced to miniscule 'spots' (for want of a better word) absorbed by the local wildlife/fauna and causing harm that way, very much like the recent alarm over dumped plastic, which is worn down to dust before being eaten by small creatures, that gets into the foodchain by such 'absorbtion'.
    I can’t argue with you on that point, however first hand experience with this stuff indicates that it has a natural tendency to ‘puddle’ into pools rather than to disperse into the miniscule droplets you describe. But this is merely a personal observation and whilst I certainly don’t discount your opinion I would point out that at that time the stuff had already been lying on the seabed, in highly fished waters, for some 28 years without any noticeable ill effects on the fauna.

    On the subject of salvable material to be found in a submarine of that period – The pressure hulls were of superior quality nickel steel and, as pointed out in an earlier thread, this was steel produced in a pre-nuclear era thus contamination-free. At the time the intention was to raise the hull for the scrap value of that steel, and of course any other ferrous or non-ferrous content. This was not to be.

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    Hi Stuart,
    Just came across this thread by chance. This is Liew here, it's been more than 40 years since we were together on this project. Sorry to hear about Henry. Albert is doing very well in the O&G Diving Industry. I am retired now and was the Diving Advisor for one of the major International Oil Company in Malaysia. Hope you are still accessing this thread.

    Here is some additional info for the others on this thread. I was the first diver to dive on U-859 with the previous company when we first discovered it with the help of local fisherman. As previously mentioned, the sub was in two sections with a clean cut immediately astern of the conning tower. There was no access into the sub. We had info that there was still a torpedo in the S/B tube. What we did subsequently, was to place a box of explosive in the external tube opening and blew the bow section open. I did access inside this bow section but due to very poor visibility, did not do a thorough search. Some background history: This Malaysian/British Company had the rights to all the wrecks in Malaysian waters at that time (late Sixties) and no one is aware of the value of wrecks. The company even got information of U-859 from the German Government. However, this support was later withdrawn and told not to work on the wreck. I understand from the local divers working with the German company diving on the wreck after the second project mercury recovery, only German divers were allowed to access inside the sub??? I don't believe they did any actual salvage recovery.

    Mercury recovery: This was a real risky operation (we were very young and did not realised it at that time). The sub was in an upright position and partly buried in the seabed. We were aware the mercury was stored inside the keel of the sub. We had to tunnel down the side of the hull and along the keel (The tunnel could collapse anytime) to access the inside of the keel by burning off the side plate. The mercury was stored inside flask-like steel containers, roughly 4" diameter and 12" high, weighing roughly 90 lbs. There was also loose mercury liquid inside the hull which we scooped up and stored in a site-fabricated open top steel container (roughly 2ft square and 3ft high). Here is the interesting part with regards to mercury poisoning. We have open cuts and scratches on our feet and hands from working on the wreck. We were not aware of mercury poisoning etc and we thought it was comical that it was not easy to stand inside a bucket of mercury. We were also handling it with bare hands without any protection. Currently, Albert and I (coming into our 70 years of age) are still in excellent health and not affected by any effects with direct exposure to mercury. ???

    BTW I was also involved in the salvage of the French destroyer, Mousquet that was sunk in the first World War (North of U-859 location) and the Japanese Troop/Transport Carrier (Awazisan Maru) that was sunk in Kelantan, Malaysia during the initial invasion of Malaya during WW2 in 1941.

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