Jürgen Oesten and the End of the U-boats

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Jurgen Oesten and the End of the U boats

Jürgen Oesten

Jürgen Oesten, like so many of his comrades, was approaching the end of a war that Germany was bound to lose, and everything in his life was going to change again.

Oesten brought U-861 into the harbor of Trondheim, Norway, on 19 April 1945, after a three-month passage from Penang in Japanese-occupied Malaya. The patrol he had just completed (actually two patrols separated by an extended layover in Malaya for overhaul and provisioning) had been only a partial success. He had sunk four ships, hardly a total for the record books, but his crew was still alive, and crammed into U-861’s hull were containers of opium, rock crystal, rubber in tanks, and 120 metric tons of molybdenum concentrate (whether any of this got from the docks of Trondheim to the factories of Germany is not known, but it is doubtful considering the tenuous condition of the supply lines at that time).

The Reich had less than three weeks to live when Oesten returned, and he stayed with U-861 until its end. There was one close call: Konteradmiral Erich Schulte-Mönting, Admiral Nordmeer, had planned to reassign him as commander of a minesweeping flotilla that was fast disintegrating into mutiny, but Oesten managed to talk him out of it with a large bag of coffee he had brought back with him from Malaya. Was it a bribe? He says no. It was simply a measure of how much things had changed in a year. Priorities had changed. The war was obviously over, and he had survived the worst of it. Better to stay in the relative safety of his own boat, among friends, than to take command of a flotilla of strangers looking for trouble. The imperative of accepting orders without question had been overriden by the more practical notion of using one’s common sense to stay alive.

To understand this mind-set, it is necessary to understand what was happening in the last days of the Third Reich. Allied armies had crossed German borders on both sides and were preparing to link up on the Elbe near Torgau. Refugees were flooding into the west. Adolf Hitler and his government were in Berlin, huddled in underground bunkers and insulated from reality. The fabric of discipline that had held the U-Bootwaffe, indeed the entire Wehrmacht, together for so long was beginning to unravel. Commanders were moved, and moved again, to serve the needs of a confused leadership. Some sought to avoid orders with an eye toward their own best interests; others began to disobey them; and still others were placed in positions of judgment to track these men down and punish them. Many were swept into captivity. Two took themselves and their boats away from the fight entirely. One, having seen defeat, died tragically soon afterward.

In March Karl-Friedrich Merten was forced to close the Twenty-fourth U-Flotilla in Memel, which he had commanded since April 1943, and to evacuate all flotilla personnel to the west. To his credit, he was also able to evacuate a large number of German military casualties and civilian refugees, who would otherwise have fallen into the hands of the advancing Red Army. He was subsequently assigned to what he will only call “Special Duties, Führer Headquarters,” actually a position as Erster Beisitzer on a Fliegendes Standgericht, a special flying court, attached to Navy Group West. The primary duty of these special courts, which consisted of a naval judge and two Beisitzer, naval advisers, was to try and pass instant judgment on naval personnel accused of cowardice, desertion, and other offenses likely to occur when an enemy force is advancing inexorably and withdrawals are either forbidden or heavily limited. Often the men accused were tried and sentenced by the court in a matter of hours, and their punishments, usually the death sentence, were carried out at once. Merten’s record as a member of the Standgericht is not available; it would be wrong to lay at his feet a death resulting from anything other than a fair and impartial execution of his duties, although his performance was good enough for him to be promoted in May 1945, just days before the war ended, to the rank of Kapitän zur See over 179 more senior officers.

Gottfried König was lucky enough not to have to appear before a Standgericht in the last week of the war. He had been away from the front since he left U-181 in October 1943 and was commander of the training boat U-316. On 1 May 1945, after the boat experienced a mechanical failure and could not be repaired, he sank her in the mouth of the River Trave and led his crew onto land and into a desperate search for safety in the plains of Schleswig-Holstein. At one point he was stopped and ordered to form an infantry company for a final defense of the Kiel-Flensburg area. “At the last minute,” he wrote, “a Panzerfaust was pressed into my hands for a final defense against the attacking English forces. I thought it was a crazy idea and refused, and since the English were in Lübeck a few days later I could not be held accountable for it. Of course U-boat sailors are not infantrymen, and could only make a mess of things in land warfare.” Like many others, König elected to follow his common sense rather than orders that were clearly absurd.

The destruction of the U-boats continued apace. More than one hundred boats were lost in the first four months of 1945, most of them with their entire crews, for negligible returns in tonnage and no strategic benefit whatsoever. There was one glimmer of hope in 1945. Toward the end of the previous year the first of two new U-boat types were commissioned: the small type XXIII and the large type XXI. Both were revolutionary; the latter in particular was as different from existing U-boats as the jet engine was from the propeller and was comparable in many respects to a modern submarine. Hull design was improved. New electric motors reduced sound signatures, and increased battery capacity raised maximum underwater speed to seventeen knots. Improved fuel economy and better snorkels allowed the type XXI to make an entire patrol without surfacing. They were indeed the miracle boats for which the U-Bootwaffe had been waiting so long; in spring 1945, after years of development and months of testing, they were beginning to arrive at the front, manned by veteran crews and commanded by the most experienced U-boat commanders still available (no matter how long they had been absent from the front). Adalbert Schnee, for example, Karl Dönitz’s operations officer since 1942, was given U-2511. Erich Topp, head of testing for the new boats and a staff officer for almost three years, finished the war in command of U-2513. Peter Cremer was moved from U-333 to U-2519.

It would have been interesting to see how these boats fared in battle; had they appeared a year or two earlier, they might have had a real effect (although probably not the desired one of turning the war around). As it was, few of them reached the front. Dozens were sunk in their berths. U-2519 was bombed and damaged beyond repair on 5 April; she remained in commission, but Cremer elected to scuttle her shortly after the surrender. Topp took U-2513 out of Kiel on 1 May and headed for Norway. He heard of Hitler’s death as he sneaked through the Skagerrak and was informed of the surrender as soon as he put into Horten. Schnee had managed to initiate an operation patrol on 30 April from Bergen but received the order to cease fire just after he had found the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk in his crosshairs, which he had been able to approach without detection. A later comparison of both logs showed that the Norfolk would have been destroyed; instead, Schnee broke off the attack and returned to Bergen. The type XXI miracle boats had not sunk a single ship. Neither they, nor the type XXIII boats, nor any of the other boats lost at sea since January had any effect on the course of a war whose death rattle now echoed in the discharge of a small pistol clutched in the hand of Adolf Hitler.

Before Hitler died, he designated his successor as head of the German state and commander in chief of her rapidly fading armed forces. To almost everyone’s surprise, this man was not Heinrich Himmler or Hermann Goering but Karl Dönitz, the Kriegsmarine chief and U-boat admiral. Dönitz, who had by this time become a somewhat fey and gloomy figure, received notification of Hitler’s death and of his own inheritance in the tiny Schleswig-Holstein town of Plön, where he had just relocated from Koralle. Shortly after that he moved again, to Flensburg, where the new center of government was set up in the gymnasium of the Marineschule. A new guard unit, Wachtbataillon Dönitz, was created from the crew of Peter Cremer’s boat U-2519 to protect it, and Cremer himself was made the commander of Wachtbataillon Dönitz, responsible for security around the gymnasium and the school compound.

One of Dönitz’s first acts in his new capacity was to recall his boats. There is some confusion even now about the number of transmissions, their originators, or even the sequence in which they were sent, but there is no doubt that on the afternoon of 5 May 1945 Dönitz made a signal to all U-boats that began: “My submariners: six years of submarine warfare lie behind us. You have fought like lions. An oppressive superiority in material has driven us into a corner. From the remaining ground a continuation of the fight is no longer possible.” It was signed “Your Grand Admiral.” It was a historic order, if perhaps not Nelsonian. “If the English sounds stilted,” wrote Dan Van der Vat rather cattily, “the reader need only consult the German to understand why.” Nevertheless, its meaning was clear: the U-boats were to cease all offensive action.

With this signal World War II ended for the U-Bootwaffe. It had not been an easy battle or a satisfying one. They had indeed fought like lions: sinking twenty-eight hundred ships of fourteen million tons, tying Allied supply lines into knots, causing their enemies to fear, more than once, that the war would be lost because of them, all with scant resources and only grudging support on their own side. But the other side of the ledger was so dismal that one is led to wonder whether it was worth the effort. Almost twelve hundred boats were commissioned in six years, and almost eight hundred were lost. Of the forty thousand men who served in them, almost thirty thousand were killed, most of them after the Battle of the Atlantic was irretrievably lost.

For these reasons the reaction to Dönitz’s signal was mixed. Herbert Werner was relieved, if not delighted, to hear it. “This,” he wrote in Iron Coffins, “was the message that put an end to the suffering. . . . My death in an iron coffin, a verdict of long standing, was finally suspended. The truth was so beautiful that it seemed to be a dream.”6 Not everyone was so enthralled. Heinz Schaeffer, commander of U-977, was incredulous when he picked up Dönitz’s recall signal in the English Channel. He did not believe that Dönitz was responsible for it; it was the work of an impostor, or the Grossadmiral had been forced to do it. “I couldn’t conceive it possible that our leaders had sunk so far as to send out official orders to surrender.” When, the next day, he received another signal from Dönitz stating that all boats still at sea were to hoist a black flag and put into the nearest Allied port, Schaeffer knew the war was lost. The thought of defeat was unbearable. He decided to do something that would take him away from it and from the suffering that would inevitably follow. He disappeared, and nobody could find him. In the surge of events it was assumed that he had been lost. Few mourned.

On 14 May 1945, one week after the German surrender in Rheims, Wolfgang Lüth died. Still the commandant of the Marineschule, he had survived six years of war and sixteen war patrols without as much as a scratch only to be shot dead by one of Cremer’s sailors on sentry duty. It was late at night in stormy weather, and Lüth was walking from Dönitz’s headquarters in the school gymnasium to his home in the commandant’s quarters along a narrow walkway called the Black Path. The sentry, young and nervous, challenged Lüth but heard no response; he fired once. Lüth was struck in the head and killed instantly. Since Lüth was the man who gave the order for the sentries to shoot, and since he kept walking even after the sentry had screamed three times for him to stop and identify himself, it was thought at first that he had committed suicide. This theory was rejected by a board of inquiry, and the shooting was ruled an accident.

Lüth believed in his country, her leadership, and National Socialism until the last days of the war, but he died knowing that Germany was defeated, Hitler was a fraud, and National Socialism was a bankrupt ideology responsible for untold suffering. We cannot know whether he rejected them before he died; Erich Topp believes that he would have done so had he lived. Nevertheless, Karl Dönitz requested, and received, permission from occupation authorities to bury Lüth with the military honors of the Third Reich: an honor guard of Ritterkreuzträger, an armed escort in his cortege, three volleys of rifle fire over his grave—and a swastika ensign on his casket. His story ends at that point. Dönitz never made much of his relationship with the man he buried so ceremoniously and mentions him only briefly in his memoirs. Other histories deny him the credit and the notoriety he deserves for his part in the Battle of the Atlantic. Lüth died, a talented officer, a confusing man, and vanished into time.

As Lüth lay on a bier in the memorial hall of the Marineschule, arguably a victim of the last bullet fired in Europe, other U-Bootwaffe officers more fortunate than he were contemplating an unlikely and often unexpected survival and a new life in an unrecognizable world. The country was devastated and lay in pieces. Of her once proud armies only dregs remained. Her people were exhausted, hungry, and homeless. In some cities, quite literally, there was no stone left upon another. One might say they had brought it on themselves; if so, they were paying for it. The families of U-Bootwaffe veterans suffered as much as anyone, in many cases even more because an abnormal number of their husbands, fathers, and sons had died at sea, and many others were still prisoners, their futures unknown.

More than six thousand U-Bootwaffe officers and men were registered prisoners of war. Most of them were in North America, and there were no immediate plans to send them back home. Hundreds more were interned when they brought their boats into Allied ports after the war. Captivity took on various and fickle forms, and if a man was lucky he might remain free. Peter Cremer should have been arrested in Germany but was sent home after the camp he was supposed to be housed in was found to be full. Gottfried König was not arrested, nor was Karl-Friedrich Merten. Victor Oehrn was spared; as it happened, he was in the hospital again for another operation on his damaged hip. And finally, as of 21 May, two weeks after the armistice, Karl Dönitz was free, albeit under close supervision and without any real powers as the German head of state. The Allies put up with him because they needed someone in his position to deal with. He was a useful tool, but he knew his usefulness would not last much longer, and he said as much in a somber conversation at Oehrn’s bedside. “Soon they will come to arrest me,” he said toward the end. “I will be tried and sentenced, and I won’t make it out of here alive [man wird mich einen Kopf kurzer machen].”

Oehrn found this very hard to believe. “How can you say that? Why would anyone treat you—a blameless naval officer—in such a way? It won’t happen!”

“You are still young,” said Dönitz matter-of-factly, “and you can’t see it. The victors are in charge. It is a political thing now, and there will be a political trial. I can count on being sentenced to death, and I only hope that I will have the strength to see it through without making a mess of things. Everyone will condemn me in the end; I only hope that my U-boat men will stand by me.”                                                        

“I can’t believe it will be that way,” replied Oehrn. “But whatever happens, the U-Bootwaffe will always stand by you. You can be assured of it.” Dönitz left then, “completely relaxed and calm,” and Oehrn, helpless in his hospital bed, could only reflect on Dönitz, on the U-Bootwaffe, on his own career, which, for someone who had always thought of himself as a staff officer, “a man without a name,” had been much more exciting and more fulfilling than he had a right to expect. The magnificent Tatars of the Caucasus. Mecklenburg Bight. The Schnorchelbude and Prien. “Five days, Herr Admiral.” Rome. Renate. “I can’t make a cabinet matter out of it. There is a war on, and I have to follow orders just like you do.” The magnificent Rommel. Dein Wille geschehe. “We are Australians. Are we good fighters?” Two grains of sand in the desert. “You will know later that I have never lied to you.” He had come such a long way from the Dänholm. And yet he was only thirty-eight.

Two days later, Dönitz joined his men in captivity when he and his cabinet were arrested by representatives of the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. By all accounts, he conducted himself with dignity, and the arrests took place without incident. “Words,” he said, “would be superfluous.” Six months after that he was on trial at Nuremberg, along with twenty other senior party and Wehrmacht officials, including Hermann Goering and Erich Raeder (Goebbels and Himmler were both dead, suicides like their leader). He was, of course, entirely correct in his predictions to Oehrn. The world wanted his head.

Jürgen Oesten, still in command of U-861 but marooned in Trondheim with his crew, could only watch as the events of April and May flashed before him. When the British finally came for him, he surrendered his boat quietly, having no idea what would come next. There was no rhyme or reason to the fates of U-boat crewmen in Norway. Erich Topp, for example, turned U-2513 over to the British in Horten and was unconditionally released several weeks later in Germany. Herbert Werner, in contrast, captured just down the road from Oesten in Bergen, was turned over to the French army, which shipped him with a large number of POWs back to France. After three attempts, he escaped in October 1945, hopped a train back to Germany, and fled into the woods outside Frankfurt.

Oesten was sent neither to Germany nor to France, although he was promised the first option. The British wanted his boat in Northern Ireland, and since they did not have the expertise to do it themselves, they asked Oesten and his crew to take it from Trondheim to Londonderry. Oesten declined; the war was over, he announced, and he wanted to go home. Negotiations began, and a deal was eventually worked out with Oesten and several other commanders in the area: if they would sail their own boats to Northern Ireland, they would be rewarded with early repatriation to Germany. The boats were duly delivered. As Oesten sailed into the harbor, shepherded by British destroyers, he flashed a message: “Thank you for the escort.” The reply, “It was a pleasure,” was followed with arrest and internment. The agreement had been overruled somewhere up the line. It was an act of bad faith for which Oesten is still bitter, for it meant that he too was a prisoner of war.

Oesten’s first stop was a tiny POW camp of two Nissen huts and a barbed wire fence in Lissahally. Theodor Petersen was in one of the huts when he got there. Petersen was commander of U-874 when the war ended, and he surrendered his boat under similar circumstances. The two were sent to London—to the London District Cage (LDC) in Kensington, to be precise—for formal questioning. All U-boat officers captured by the Royal Navy passed through the LDC, which continued to operate for some time after the war ended. The interrogators at the LDC were excellent at their work; they invariably impressed their guests with an encyclopedic knowledge of the U-Bootwaffe and a detailed outline of their own personal lives. Oesten appreciated that Kensington was a dangerous place, but he gave nothing away and “cannot recall anything unpleasant.”

At the LDC a prisoner would be classified as to his political persuasion: the usual designation was white for apolitical or anti-Nazi, black for Nazis, gray for those in between. On this basis, he was assigned to a permanent camp for internment, and in due course, after the usual administrative red tape and paper chase in London, Jürgen Oesten and Theodor Petersen were classified and sent to POW Camp 18, Featherstone Park, located on the banks of the South Tyne in Northumberland. There they were put in with several thousand other prisoners, officers and men, to await the pleasure of the king.

Featherstone Park was a large camp. It would eventually house many thousands of German prisoners from every branch of the Wehrmacht. The camp spokesman was a Luftwaffe colonel. There was an army contingent led by several other colonels, a sprinkling of Kriegsmarine surface officers, a horde of U-boat crewmen, and almost seventy commanders. Like many such camps, Featherstone Park was a depressing place. Until the end of the war it was a typical POW camp in which the prisoners were treated as dangerous men. It was divided into three major areas, each identified with one of the color designations described above, but the camp leadership was in the “black” range. It was heavily guarded, and prisoners were allowed out of their huts only for exercise in ranks. Hostility and mutual distrust were the norm. When the war ended, this mood did not improve but merely changed into one of sullen indirection. “Ideologies fell down like a house of cards,” wrote Matthew Barry Sullivan, author of the best book on prisoner of war camps in postwar Britain. “There was a parting of the ways between those who wanted to work for the future and those who endlessly mulled over the past.”

Theodor Petersen does not appear to have been overly affected by his bad fortune, but Jürgen Oesten was a nervous wreck when he arrived. His condition did not stem from defeat; unlike many in the camp, he was able to deal with the fall of National Socialism and the defeat of Germany. But the experience of war had left him emotionally exhausted; the sound of the guns, now silent, was deafening. He later described his mental state in a letter to an English friend, allegorically rather than literally, by using the image of a confused traveler in a strange land:

Once upon a time there was an odd-job man, who by chance got to a place in Northumberland to do some wood-cutting. He was a bit clumsy, handled the language roughly . . . and [he was] a bit curious about the situation and the new experience. The war had spit him ashore in this country and he was somehow drifting between two entirely different lives, the one behind and the one ahead. Few things had kept their value. The times that passed had left their marks. To be married to uncertainty for a bit too long a time had made him somehow hard-boiled and less sensitive. There were some undigested sensations and experiences hanging around still.

He was on the brink, and what happened to him in the months after his capture would probably affect him for the rest of his life. His “hard-boiled and less sensitive” veneer might have been very much exacerbated had Featherstone Park continued as Sullivan describes above; indeed, in many camps that did not change for the better, he would probably have become even more insensitive to life and perhaps been permanently scarred by bitterness and distrust. For such has happened to others in his position—men who are even now immersed in the gall of the past.

As Oesten prepared himself for the long Northumbrian winter, the world received its one final jolt of U-boat intrigue. On 17 August 1945 Heinz Schaeffer suddenly reappeared in Buenos Aires. By a remarkable feat of navigation, he had managed to take U-977 and most of her crew all the way from Norway to the River Plate without being detected. The journey had begun the day he received the second signal from Dönitz. Most of the married men were put ashore in Norway, a detour that meant U-977 would have to make a long and hazardous dash past the British Isles to Gibraltar through waters still vigorously patrolled by enemy ships and aircraft. The first sixty-six days of the journey were spent underwater. The crew became ghostly and listless; tempers were frayed; small incidents of theft and insubordination occurred. It is a tribute to Schaeffer that he kept everyone together until U-977 sailed into Argentine waters.

Things did not work out as Schaeffer had planned, however. He was accused after he arrived in Buenos Aires of having smuggled Adolf Hitler out of Europe, and for that reason he was interrogated at length by both Argentine and American authorities. Such a possibility seems patently ridiculous now, but many otherwise sensible people were prepared to believe it in the months and years after the war, and Schaeffer’s voyage has since provided a flimsy historical basis for wild tales of Adolf Hitler founding a fourth Reich in South America or Antarctica. For all his troubles, unfortunately, Schaeffer became a prisoner of war, first in Argentina, then in the United States, and the boat he had shepherded all the way to Buenos Aires was destroyed.

Oesten’s first winter in Featherstone Park was not as bad as he might have expected. The cheerless air of the previous summer improved markedly during that time so that by the spring it seemed a different place. When Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg, the ranking survivor of the sunken battleship Bismarck, arrived from Canada in March, he was surprised by what he saw. “When, as a member of a large group, I first glimpsed Camp 18,” he recalled, “something unusual was immediately evident. There was no barbed wire; no watchtowers; British guards were nowhere in sight. I saw German prisoners leisurely strolling outside the camp area; completely without British ‘supervision’; their simple word of honor sufficed now.” Taken inside, he found less a prison than a small German city: a city that bragged a newspaper, two theaters, a university, a library, a working population, and a surprising level of trust and goodwill. For von Müllenheim-Rechberg, who had known both good camps and bad in his five years of captivity, Featherstone Park was a new experience.

It was a remarkable transformation, and several factors were involved, but Sullivan gives most of the credit to three men: the camp commandant, a new camp spokesman, and an unusual interpreter whose talents lay far beyond his duties. The commandant, a bluff and practical lieutenant colonel named Vickers, arrived at the camp just before Oesten. A prisoner himself in World War I, he realized at once that the men in Featherstone Park were being handled improperly. The war was over, and the purpose of the camp had changed; he “could see that. . . what his Germans needed was to be trusted, to feel less hemmed in and to have ways of relieving their cramped feelings and muscles.” As if to underscore this point, he removed the watchtowers and barbed wire fences surrounding the camp.

Theodor Petersen helped to tear those fences down. When he arrived at Featherstone Park he had seen only the wire, but when the wire was gone he was able to look around him, and he saw, perhaps for the first time, the beauty of the area, the flowers along the Tyne, the deer in the fields. Petersen’s image calls to mind a book by C. S. Lewis called The Last Battle. In it he describes two soldiers, both of whom believe they are imprisoned in a cage. One soldier will not be told that the cage is an illusion, and so he remains imprisoned; the other opens his eyes, looks around, the cage disappears, and he is free. In fact, he has been free all along. This is what was happening to men in Featherstone Park: for some of them the place was no more than a prison and it stayed that way until the day they left. For others, like Petersen, the prison disappeared when they opened their eyes and looked around.

In January 1946 the interpreter arrived. His name was Herbert Sulzbach, and his background was as interesting as that of anyone described in this book. He was a German Jew, born in Frankfurt and a veteran of the German army in World War I. In 1938 the political climate forced him and his family to flee to Britain, and when the war began he was interned on the Isle of Man. He joined the British Army in 1940, received a commission, and by 1946 had risen to the rank of captain. He became a British subject during the war, but he held an undying love for Germany and never stopped believing in the underlying virtue of his former countrymen. His posting was not accidental; he was not sent to Featherstone Park because of his skill as an interpreter but because of his extraordinary ability to console, to advise, to counsel, and, if necessary, to admonish those who in his judgment had been temporarily misled by National Socialism. As Vickers improved the material lot of the men in Featherstone Park, Sulzbach improved their mental and emotional condition.

Sulzbach achieved an immediate affinity with almost every German in the camp. Such was his ability to comfort and to assure that they lined up outside his tiny office to talk to him. Said one former Featherstone Park prisoner (a farmer) in 1976, “Even now, if it were necessary, I would sell half my cows and drive over half the world just to be able to talk to Herbert.”  Unfortunately, one of the few men who could not get along with Sulzbach was Jürgen Oesten. “[Sulzbach] did a tremendous lot of good handling POW affairs in a sensitive and fair way,” he wrote. “Why did we not like each other? I think he thought me to be arrogant and I did not take his camouflage seriously.” Paradoxically, the differences between the two men helped Oesten more than they hurt. They may even have been the key to his survival.

Shortly after Oesten arrived, he was made deputy camp spokesman, but the position did not seem to work out, at least not insofar as he used it to help other prisoners. “As a born man-manager,” wrote Sullivan “[Oesten] quickly asserted his force of character and ability at Featherstone Park. He was not, however, widely popular. He tended to bear rather heavily on the younger naval men . . . and he was not behind the new spirit that was being created in the camp.” Oesten concedes that he might have been unpopular, but he professes to be unconcerned: “Whether I was popular or not did not worry me overmuch as long as I could achieve more freedom for the camp inmates by cooperation with and suggestions to the British authorities. Of course for some of the diehard boys who were prisoners [for] many years this was going too fast and I may not have been popular with them.” In either case, Oesten’s leadership style did not appeal to Sulzbach.

Oesten had accepted defeat, and he felt it his responsibility to convince the men around him to do the same. “Based on an education by broadminded parents,” he wrote, “I was in a position to help many younger prisoners to see the era of Hitler and Co. in the proper proportion and to regard the defeat in its proper value.” For him it was a logical process. Once they were shown that the Third Reich was an evil institution, they would realize that Germany’s defeat was necessary and perhaps even a good thing. Unfortunately, the human mind does not work that way, and very few German soldiers of any political stripe would have accepted such an argument. Sulzbach had the same goal as Oesten, but his methods were entirely different. Rather than argument or logic, he used persuasion, trust, understanding, and humor. Compared to Oesten’s confrontational style of argument, Sulzbach could be disarming as well as direct. “His approach was very personal. It was as though he had his own dowsing technique into a person’s true feelings, into his quality as a human being.” Not surprisingly, Sulzbach succeeded where Oesten had failed, and Oesten’s influence began to fade.

Oesten was also a loner. He had his own agenda from the start, and he went along with the routine only reluctantly. Every prisoner in the camp, for example, had to undergo regular interviews and psychological testing to monitor his progress. Oesten, never interested in National Socialism, jaded by nature, and doubtless annoyed at being a prisoner in the first place, was not impressed by any of this and adopted a supercilious attitude toward the entire procedure. During one such interview he proposed that he be evaluated by three different officers because he could predict ahead of time how he would be evaluated. Unfortunately, he wrote, “The camp authorities did not have sufficient sense of humor.”24 Such an attitude may well have seemed arrogant to Sulzbach or to anyone else who had the misfortune of conducting an interview with Oesten.

This conflict was unfortunate for Oesten, especially in his position as deputy camp spokesman. He would have benefited from Sulzbach’s friendship. For soon afterward Sulzbach initiated a shakeup in the camp leadership structure that left Oesten completely out of the picture. Both men considered the camp spokesman all wrong for the position. “He was a dead duck,” wrote Oesten, “and the situation was hopeless.” But rather than replace him with Oesten, Sulzbach convinced Vickers to bring in a new spokesman from a different camp: an army general named Ferdinand Heim. Vickers, Sulzbach, and Heim would effectively run the camp from that point on, and Oesten no longer played an active role.

In the end he went quietly. He gave up the role of counselor to Sulzbach, who seemed to be having more success than he, and he paid less attention to his position as a camp spokesman. Instead, he threw his efforts into a new responsibility he had been given. One of Vickers’s ideas was that prisoners should be able to work outside the camp during the day (an arrangement that had already been tried with great success in North American camps). It allowed the prisoners to get out, and it enabled the local community to benefit from an extraordinary collection of talents which otherwise would have gone to waste. Oesten was made the officer responsible for forming the various work details that walked, rode, or drove out of Featherstone Park’s main gate every morning. He supplied laborers to Northumberland farms for the harvest, masons for repairing walls, carpenters, electricians, even a gaggle of shovel bearers for an archaeological dig along the Roman Wall. Officers, ordinarily exempt from manual labor, often volunteered for these jobs. Von Müllenheim-Rechberg, a hereditary baron, took the “greatest pleasure” in draining peat bogs. It was a job Oesten turned out to be very good at, and it seemed to satisfy his need to keep occupied, to focus on something other than his captivity.

It helped that captivity had become a rather abstract concept. It was hardly imprisonment in the classic sense. Military discipline, such as it was, had become the province of the German chain of command rather than the British. There was free communication to points outside the camp; the German cooks in the bakery, for example, could send packages of homemade chocolate bars back home to impoverished families. There were two camp newspapers and unlimited access to outside media. A program of higher education was instituted, with classes in almost every subject imaginable (most of these were later accepted for credit by German universities). There were two theater groups, one for serious theater, the other for lighter fare, and a camp orchestra. Bus tours to various scenic spots in northern England were arranged. Debates, organized and otherwise, raged within the camp: politics, religion, and social affairs were freely discussed.

Oesten could come and go as he pleased. He could use public transport; he could visit businesses in town or deal with local merchants. He was even able to remain outside the gates of Featherstone Park overnight and was a guest for some time at the home of the British archaeologist Eric Birley, who lived not far from the camp (it was to the Birley family that he addressed the letter quoted above). Under the circumstances, it would not have been difficult to escape, and some did, but when Oesten was asked about it later he stated that escape would not have made sense for him. In any case, by the end of 1946, he was a free man in every sense but the strictly legal one, and to leave Featherstone Park for Germany on an “unofficial” basis would have caused more problems than it solved.

Such an atmosphere was based on trust on both sides. It could not have existed in many postwar POW camps. Once Jürgen Oesten was sent away for a “sort of re-education course,” and instead of returning at once to Featherstone Park, he was held temporarily at another camp, Lodge Moor, near Sheffield. He believes this was to test his reaction to Lodge Moor, or perhaps to test the reactions of the Lodge Moor prisoners to him, for it was “rather black and primitive compared to Featherstone Park.” Prisoners from POW camps in the United States and Canada were sent to Lodge Moor on their way back to Germany. Their attitudes, he found, were frozen more or less at the point of their capture, and although he tried to convince several of them that things had changed, they were not interested. One of these officers was Otto Kretschmer, who had just arrived at Lodge Moor from Bowmanville POW camp in Ontario, Canada.

Otto Kretschmer had been in various forms of Allied imprisonment for five years and had not played an active role in the Battle of the Atlantic since early 1941. But as a POW he had pursued a war of his own and had become almost as famous for what he did after his capture as for what he did before. When U-570 was given up by Hans-Joachim Rahmlow in August 1941, her officers (minus Rahmlow himself) were sent to Grizedale Hall, a POW camp in the Lake District. Otto Kretschmer, the senior German officer in the camp, held a secret “court of honor” and found the first watch officer, Bernt Bernhardt, guilty of cowardice before the enemy. Bernhardt was given an opportunity to redeem himself by escaping from the camp and scuttling U-570 at her berth in Barrow-in-Furness, but he was shot and killed in the attempt. In 1942, after the failed Allied landing at Dieppe, Canadian soldiers were held in handcuffs, a violation of the Geneva Convention. German POWs at Bowmanville were ordered to don handcuffs in retaliation. Kretschmer, once again the senior German officer, refused and started a riot in the camp that has since become known as the Battle of Bowmanville. And it was Kretschmer who engineered the abortive escape attempt from Bowmanville in which a U-boat was to creep into the St. Lawrence River to pick up the escapees and ferry them to safety. To his men, he was magnificent; to his captors, Otto Kretschmer was a problem child who never got with the program.

Oesten will not discuss his conversation with Otto Kretschmer, except to say that it was contentious. Kretschmer had no love for National Socialism and at the time of his capture at sea expressed himself bored and disillusioned with the war. But National Socialism—and its effects—had done nothing to dim his love for Germany or his pride in being a German. Presumably Oesten tried to convince Kretschmer that Germany’s defeat was necessary to end National Socialism and that the country would benefit from it in the long term. Kretschmer would hear none of this, nor would two of Oesten’s classmates, members of Crew 33 he also met at Lodge Moor. The reason for these negative reactions, he believes, is something he calls “barbed wire disease,” an emotional condition brought on by prolonged confinement. “I studied the barbed-wire phenomenon to a certain extent, as I met many different types. . . . One thing seemed to me the same for all of them. The period of being [a] POW is like a black hole in their mental development. They stop in the position when they were taken prisoner, even if the possibilities for information and education are first class.”

Oesten had struggled to ensure that this did not happen to him. It had not always been easy. When he arrived, he was a nervous wreck, married, as he wrote, to uncertainty, a large chip on his shoulder. His position as a camp spokesman did not work out: he alienated more than a few of the men he had tried to help. He had his problems with Sulzbach, a man who seemed to have very little trouble dealing with anyone. His future was as cloudy as his new landscape.

But human beings are resilient by nature, and in the end, he did not allow any of these things to bother him. He began to improve. He knew he was getting better; he could see it in himself and by looking at other people, like Kretschmer, who had not changed. He had become more relaxed, more circumspect. He dislikes the term “cynical” and denies that it ever applied to him, but he was more open and willing to take at face value the opinions of other people, and he found that others were listening to him again and paying more attention to what he had to say. As he traveled around rural Northumberland matching men to jobs, he could see beauty in the country and in the daily lives of its people. “Lots of things happened,” he continued in his letter to Eric Birley. “He met a milkman at the same corner at the same time early morning, walking through that rough and hilly countryside breathing in plenty of fresh air. Some of the country folk he met were not at all surprised but fitted him somehow into their picture of the globe, which was sensible and uncomplicated.”

A passage from Jürgen Oesten’s last evaluation, signed by an interrogator at Featherstone Park named Philip Rossiter, is worth quoting. If, as Oesten believes, Herbert Sulzbach had anything to do with it, the evaluation can be regarded as reasonably accurate and very perceptive. “Oesten,” wrote Rossiter, “used to be an enthusiastic sailor who did not worry his head overmuch about politics. He has come to his present positive but very realistic attitude by slow but sure steps. He is most strongly recommended for a job in youth or adult education where his outstanding ability to influence people has scope. He would also make an excellent [leader] of some rehabilitation group. Above all, Oesten is a very decent chap.” Clearly, he had recovered.

In early 1947 Jürgen Oesten was moved from Featherstone Park to Camp 168, a transit camp, to prepare for repatriation. From Camp 168 he would be sent to Hull, then placed on a ship for Bremerhaven, and finally, after eighteen months of questionably legal confinement as a “prisoner of peace,” released. Most German prisoners of war came home between 1946 and 1948. Oesten believed they were released with the same mind-set they had when they were captured. If this is true—and the point is debatable—many of them were ill-equipped to handle freedom in a country that was very different from the one they had left so many years earlier. The Nuremberg trials were over. National Socialism had ostensibly been purged from society. A postwar government was in place and a new constitution was being written. Soviet control of Eastern Europe was complete and the first major confrontation of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift, was under way. The country was still poor, but the first stirrings of a tremendous economic revival could be felt in the air. Everything had changed; a man who still believed as he had in 1940 or 1941 would be out of place in such an environment, like Oesten’s woodcutter, “drifting between two entirely different lives, the one behind and the one ahead.”

Happily, this was not the case with Oesten himself or with most of his fellow prisoners at Featherstone Park. Because of the camp’s enlightened management, its open walls, and its wealth of diversions, the men who eventually emerged from it were better adjusted and more prepared than most to deal with the changes they encountered. When Oesten arrived at Featherstone Park, he was a tired, bitter man, confused, apprehensive, and emotionally drained. When he left he was spiritually refreshed, self-confident, and at peace with himself. Any physical confinement is unpleasant. Becoming a prisoner in a foreign country, without a crime, without a trial, with no indication of a release date or even a condition for release, can destroy a man. Jürgen Oesten did not allow this to happen and ended his captivity in triumph.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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