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Germany's Last Mission to Japan

The Failed Voyage of U-234

Scalia, Joseph M.

2000, United States Naval Inst.
ISBN 1557508119
272 pages, 25 b&w photos

Type. General History
Pros. Well-written and researched
Cons. None to speak of

This fascinating book gives a detailed account of U-234's mission to Japan, aborted before it reached its destination, in the last days of World War II. When transfer between Germany and Japan of large amounts of war materiel and technology became impossible due to increasing Allied control of the seas, a plan to use U-boats to carry scientists, plans, prototypes and samples, as well as small quantities of ready materiel, was developed and set into motion. U-234 was the second U-boat to be dispatched on a delivery mission to Japan; the first, U-864, was sunk en route and lost with all hands. U-234 was fitted out to carry cargo; was loaded with 500 tons of documents, mail, and war materiel, including half a ton of uranium oxide; and was to carry ten German technical specialists and two Japanese military officers returning to their homeland. Only one chapter is devoted to the actual journey; the others give background on German-Japanese relations, describe the U-boat's cargo and passengers, and relate what happened upon the order to surrender and fate of the crew and boat. An appendix examines possible answers to questions about the uranium cargo that have occupied minds for decades: Was it refined or unrefined, and if the former, in what reactor had it been processed? When exactly was it unloaded from U-234? Where was it taken and what was it used for? Was it used in the bombs dropped on Japan?

After a foreword by J├╝rgen Rohwer and a preface by the author, Chapter 1 examines German-Japanese relations and cooperation throughout the course of World War II. The next chapter focuses on U-234, her difficult road to operational readiness, and her journey. This is possibly the most interesting chapter in the book, and packs a lot of detail into a short space. It outlines the career of her commander, Johann Heinrich Fehler, including his service as mines and explosives officer on the famous Schiff 16 (Atlantis). After the Atlantis was sunk and her survivors, including Fehler, were rescued by U-126, Fehler attempted unsuccessfully to transfer to the U-boat service; more than a year of persistent requests passed before his wish was finally granted. The chapter describes U-234's long working-up period, during which the inexperienced Fehler and his crew, largely green (with the exception of the noncommissioned officers, including Oberfunkmeister Wolfgang Hirschfeld), had to return their boat to the yard many times for repairs of malfunctioning systems. This chapter also briefly outlines the cargo and passengers the boat was to transfer; the measures Fehler took to ensure as secret a departure as possible; and the long journey itself, which was to be carried out completely submerged to the equator (a fire on board and bilges blocked by rotten potatoes however necessitated a brief visit to the surface).

Chapter 3 details the command decision which faced Fehler when Germany's capitulation brought him conflicting orders. The varying recommendations of the officers and passengers, suicide of the Japanese officers, and the boat's eventual surrender to USS Sutton are recounted. Chapter 4 describes the media circus which greeted the Germans and their treatment while detained by US authorities. This chapter also covers the circumstances surrounding the unloading of the boat's cargo, and concludes the first section of the book.

The remaining 60% of the book explores the significance of U-234's cargo and passengers, devoting five chapters in all to discussing the careers and specialties of the passengers, the roles they were to fulfill on reaching Japan, and the technologies they were to demonstrate. The Conclusion evaluates the possible impact of U-234's mission, had it been successful, and the effect of its capture, especially in terms of intelligence value. The Appendix uses reasoned arguments in an attempt to lay to rest the rumors that have arisen surrounding the boat's cargo of uranium oxide.

The author uses Hirschfeld's memoir, Fehler's own biography, a number of contemporary newspaper articles, and many archival sources to put together a clear, concise, yet detailed narrative. A very interesting and well-researched book.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 18 Dec 2000.

This title is highly recommended.

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