Kriegsmarine U-Boats in Spain and Portugal during WW II
Millions watched the famous movie by Wolfgang Petersen from 1981 "Das Boot" and saw the replenishment of U-96 by the German merchant vessel 'Weser' in the Spanish port of Vigo at the end of 1941.
Deriving from that, many reports have come up, including several myths, about the use of Spanish or Portuguese ports and territorial waters by Kriegsmarine U-Boats in World War II, either as a planned action or caused accidently due to the operational situation. Top myths are the stories about alleged even underground and underwater replenishment facilities for German U-Boats established at the Spanish Islands of Mallorca and Fuerteventura.
Both, Spain under the regime of General Francesco Franco and Portugal under the government of António de Oliveira Salazar declared their countries to be neutral in WW II, although with varying degrees of actual political behavior. On 4 September 1939 Spain declared its "strict neutrality", which changed from being a pro-German "non-belligerant party" after the truce between Germany and France on 22 June 1940, to change again to executing "vigilant neutrality" but benevolent vis-á-vis the Allies at the latest in January 1944, when allied military successes became more and more frequent [starting with the allied landing "Operation Torch" in French Northern Africa on 08 November 1942].
On 16 September 1940 Spanish Foreign Minister Serrano Suñer travelled to Berlin and on 23 October 1940 there was even a meeting between Franco and Hitler at the village of Hendaye at the Franco-Spanish border. Both meeting did not lead to any progress convincing the Spanish to enter the war on the side of the Axis Powers. Until 1944 Spain remained with its standing of "selective cooperation".
On 12/13 February 1941 Franco met Mussolini at Bordighera, which also did not achieve a general change of the position of Spain vis-á-vis the Axis Powers. The German Reich on the other side did not go beyond initial plans for marching into Spain, including the strategically important Canary Islands and Gibraltar. Thus, the replenishment of German warships, in particular U-Boats, in Spanish ports during the first years of war demonstrated an open cooperation by the Franco regime, which became more and more restrictive, and, at the end of 1944, to eventually change to strict denial of any call by German U-Boats in Spanish ports.
Portugal under Salazar declared itself to be neutral at the outbreak of WW II, including its Atlantic group of islands Madeira, Azores and Cape Verdes. Although showing a political nearness to the neighboring Spain under Franco Portugal never demonstrated any visible military support of German U-Boat operations throughout WW II, not even forms of benevolent tolerance of replenishment maneuvers in Portuguese ports and water, as Spain did. Yet, the Cap Verdes and above all, the Azores, were of significant military-strategic importance at the same time for the Axis Powers as well as the Allies, namely to cut respectively maintain resupply and reinforcement traffic across the Atlantic Ocean.
Other than Spain, the initially strictly neutral position of Portugal soon changed to active support of the Allies, a remarkable example for that was the reception of some 2.000 evacuees from British Gibraltar at Madeira in 1940. Already in July 1941 the Portuguese Air Force executed long range maritime patrol flights with aircraft given by Britain from Lajes Air Base at the Azores to monitoring German U-Boat activities against Allied shipping. And, negotiations led to agreements of 17 August 1943 and 28 November 1944 allowing British and US-American Air Force units to make use of two Air Bases and Allied warships to call as a routine at two ports at the Azores.
The Iberian peninsula and the overseas territories of its states gained greater attention among the political and military leadership of the German Reich only in connection with the conduct of the war at sea in the Atlantic, enhanced by the growing requirements for the support of the Axis-Partner Italy in the Mediterranean. With regard to Portugal the neutrality of the country was respected in principle, only its Atlantic islands received some interest, but did not go beyond initial ideas and have not seen any political and military activities. With regard to Spain things were different, since it was thought to be able to build on the significant support provided for Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
This led to years of political endeavors to convince Franco to entry the war at the side of the Axis powers, at least to reach some degree of active military cooperation. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini ware able to induce Franco to enter the war. Consequently, the importance of the Iberian peninsula and some of the overseas territories of both states led to certain deliberations and initial plans, e.g.the “Führer”-Directive No. 18 of 12 November 1940, or the campaign planning for “Operation Felix” and “Operation Isabella”, aiming at reaching some selected occupation by the German Armed Forces to support the conduct of war against the Allies in the Atlantic and Mediterranean region. However, this was given up in the Spring of 1941, when the focus of German political and military activities shifted to the conduct of war in the East.
To enable the support capacities envisaged in Spain during the early years of the war it was reached to station German merchant vessels as supply ship in those three Spanish ports, a similar arrangement was agreed later at Las Palmas at the Canary Islands. The B.d.U. took these supply facilities clearly into account for its operational planning of U-Boat employments. In the case of Portugal no plans by the B.d.U. became known yet with regard to the supply of its U-Boats in the country and its overseas territories.
There are four categories [replenishments, emergency repairs, special missions, abandoning of U-Boats by their crews and internment], when and under what circumstances Kriegsmarine U-boats actually have penetrated Spanish and Portuguese waters and ports.
A number of regular replenishment maneuvers for U-Boats were carried out between 1940 and 1942 using German merchant vessels in Spanish ports [more exact: at anchorages]. For this purpose a number of German merchant vessels were re-deployed to selected Spanish ports before the outbreak of war, among others the 'Thalia' [1,122 GRT], 'Bessel' [1,878 GRT], 'Max Albrecht' [5,824 GRT], 'Corrientes' [4,656 BRT] and for some time the 'Charlotte Schliemann' [7,747 GRT].
In literature about U-Boat replenishment in Spanish ports often the 'Corrientes' [Codename="Lima"] and 'Charlotte Schliemann' [Codename="Culebra"] are mixed up, as both vessels were in the port of Las Palmas for some time together. There are at least 23 cases of scheduled U-Boat replenishment in Spanish ports documented. In contrast, only two cases of intentional penetration of Portuguese territorial waters at the Cape Verdes Islands are documented.
Deliberate use of Spanish and Portuguese waters and ports by Kriegsmarine U-Boats for replenishment purposes can be observed in Spain only, given its policy of tolerated cooperation, i.e. tolerating replenishments of U-Boats by German merchant vessels in Spanish ports/waters. However, this can be observed generally only up to the end of 1942, with a minimum of 23 of such replenishment maneuvers. Beyond that there were only a few cases of active support of German U-Boats exclusively by Spanish authorities and facilities documented.
After 1942 there were only situation-related emergency penetrations of Spanish waters and ports, up to scuttling of stricken U-Boats by their crews in Spanish waters as a result of combat actions at sea.
Concerning Portugal, no form of cooperation in support of German U-Boat operation can be identified throughout WW II. However, there were few cases of circumstantial use of Portuguese waters by German U-Boats. The replenishment maneuvers documented prove that the alleged support facilities at Fuerteventura and Mallorca are mere phantasy. In the case of Mallorca even simplest geographic calculations are sufficient enough to establish that neither logistically nor operationally any additional support facility for German U-Boats besides the existing bases in the Mediterranean would have been necessary.
With that, the myths about secret or even open support of Kriegsmarine U-Boats in WW II, at least for some time, in Spanish or Portuguese ports and waters can be answered rather definite. Moreover, those few cases of replenishment maneuvers documented in Spanish ports and waters were rather insignificant for the operational freedom of U-Boats during the first years of the war at sea, and can be, therefore, neglected in the overall strategic assessment.
Germany’s U-Boat Bases and Pens after the War
The end of hostilities in Europe also marked the end of the once powerful U-Bootwaffe’s hold on some of Europe’s most important naval bases. Some of those bases were demolished, others were used for a transition period and some are still in operation today.
When hostilities ceased in 1945, the famous Elbe II Bunker fell to the British armies racing across the fatherland. On 11 November 1945, Royal Engineers from the Imperial British Army detonated several well placed sets of explosives [mainly discarded Luftwaffe ordinances] in an attempt to implode the whole complex. The resulting explosions shocked the dividing wall between the two pens weakening it to the point that a few minutes after the main explosion, the complete wall collapsed and the structure’s roof partially caved in. As a result of the collapsing wall, the pens’ roof collapsed crushing the Type XXI U-Boat U-3506. Two additional boats, U-2505 and 3004, although sunk by the incoming roof, survived the crash almost intact. In 1949, the first official salvage operation commenced. The three boats were pumped dry and stripped of their cells accumulators, copper wiring and Diesel engines. U-2501, which had been sunk by the collapsing rooftop in May 1945, was raised and scrapped in the early 1950s.
In the early years of the 1960s, attempts were made to clear the dislodge Bunker area. Although some success was achieved during these clearing projects, the ever escalating cost of the program dampened further development. It was not until 1995 when the decision was made to permanently shut down the pen area. By October of that year, a survey found that the two U-Boats [2505 and 3004] were completely submerged in a sea of sand and debris from which they could not be salvaged. As for the Bunker structure itself, no serious effort was made to clear the debris. The cost associated with the program was cited as the reason to terminate the effort. Today the surviving Bunker structure lies near the main port Hamburg, on the south bank of the River Elbe.
The huge U-Boat bunker at Bremen was one of a number of German-built structures that were used by the victorious allies as practice target areas. Both, the Royal Air Force as well as the United States Air Force used the Bremen pen area as one of their main practice facilities in Europe after the war. The Bremen structure is unique to most of the German U-Boat pen in the fact that the occupying British forces made no effort to demolish or destroy the Bunker. Between March 1945 and the spring of 1946, the Bunker suffered many bomb hits from low-flying RAF and USAF bombers and although some damage was done the outer structure, the complex remained almost unscratched. No effort was made to destroy the facility in the Allied occupation years. The pen was officially returned to the German forces in the autumn of 1964. The Bundesmarine still operates the facility today.
After the collapse of Nazi Germany, the British Royal Engineers Corps proceeded to demolish a large part of the Bergen Bunker. But by the summer of 1949, the Royal Norwegian Navy refurnished the structure and refitted its dry dock facilities. As of today, the Norwegian Navy still operates the facility.
The Helgoland facility remained almost intact after the war. On the day of cessation of hostilities in Europe, this impressive facility was occupied by almost 4,600 German military personnel as well as a number of civilian workers. In August 1945, a group of German demolition experts commandeered by the British Royal Navy began the process of preparing the whole complex for demolition. By 18 April 1947; with all the chargers and explosives in place, the British detonated them causing what was at the time, the largest non-atomic explosion in history. Almost nothing remains of the once powerful symbol of Nazi power. The only semi-structure still standing, a partially completed observation tower, serves today as a light house.
Trondheim’s main Bunker facility, the Dora II complex, was completely destroyed by the British Royal Engineers Corps after the end of the war. Only a small workshop still remains of the once vaunted complex. On the other hand, the Dora I survived the war effort almost intact. It was taken over by the Royal Norwegian Navy which continued to use the facility as a submarine pen until the spring of 1954. In 1955, the complex was decommissioned by the Navy and handed over to the Norwegian civilian authorities. In 1988 a permanent parking lot was erected on the roof of the Bunker. Today, the U-Boat pens can be accessed with relative ease by tourists.
In September 1945, the main facility of the Kiel bunker complex, the Kilian pen area, was prepared for demolition by the British Royal Engineers Corps. Un-used Luftwaffe free-fall bombs were employed in the effort. The resulting explosion collapsed the main diving wall between the two major pen structures. As the roof collapsed, the sole submarine, a Type XXI boat, U-4708 which was seated inside the pen, was crushed by the caving roof. The boat’s remains, as well as that of the structure itself, laid there until 1959 when a major effort to clear the Bunker was undertaken. Although much of the remaining debris from the Bunker was cleared out during the late 1950s and early 1960s, some structures still remains visible today. The roof and walls are gone and the pen area is flooded, but the silhouette of the pen’s pillars is still visible. Today, visitors can see what a German submarine pen was like in the 1940s just by visiting the Dora I remains.
The other Bunker of the Kiel complex, the Konrad, was blown up in the fall of 1946. The remains were finally cleared by the mid 1960s. Nothing of the Konrad Bunker remains today.
There are many other German-utilized submarines pens around Europe. Most of them are inside formerly occupied France.