Silver and mercury. Covert operations of World War II

Thirty one tons of mercury

In April 1944, a large ocean-going submarine U-859 (type IXD2) sailed from Kiel, carrying a secret cargo (31 tons of mercury in metal flasks) and heading for Penang, occupied by the Japanese. Less than an hour before its destination, after six months and 22,000 miles, U-859 was sunk by the British submarine HMS Trenchant. Of the 67 crew members, only 20 people were able to rise to the surface from a depth of 50 meters.

Mercury was transported in large quantities by submarines within the framework of the German-Japanese agreements on the exchange of materials and technologies necessary for military operations. Some of these submarines reached their destinations, others were sunk en route (like U-864) or surrendered with cargo on board at the end of the U-234 war.

The IXD2 boats had the longest cruising range in the German fleet. The navigation endurance was 23,700 miles at 12 knots, 57 miles at 4 knots under water. The maximum immersion depth is 230 m.

They were powered by two powerful MAN supercharged diesel engines. Also installed are two additional diesel engines used for cruising on the surface. To shorten the dive time, the superstructure in the bow was cut. The U-859 was armed with six torpedo tubes (four at the bow and two at the stern), 24 torpedoes, one SK C / 32 10.5 cm naval gun, Flak M42 3.7 cm, and two 2 cm (C / 30 ) anti-aircraft guns. The U-859 was equipped with a snorkel.

On some of the submarines operating in the Monsun group (a group of German submarines operating in the Pacific and Indian Oceans during World War II, organizationally was part of the 33rd submarine flotilla), a small single-seat folding gyroplane Focke-Achgelis Fa-330 ” Bachstelze “(” Wagtail “), capable of rising to a height of 120 m.

On April 4, 1944, submarine U-859, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Johann Jebsen, left Kiel, carrying 31 tons of mercury in metal flasks on board, as well as critical radar parts and equally important technical information. After a short stop in the Norwegian Kristiansand, the boat continued sailing, passing between the Shetland Islands and Greenland, then leaving for the Atlantic. Lieutenant Commander I. Jebsen avoided shipping routes during his stay in the North Atlantic. The boat remained under water 23 hours a day, moving under the snorkel, surfacing for only one hour at night.

Jebsen was a careful and methodical man. He used the radio only for listening and did not tell the location of the boat. He had strict instructions: his first priority was to secretly reach the destination of Penang and not reveal himself in any way. Why Jebsen decided to attack the Panamanian freighter Colin on April 26, which had fallen behind the SC-157 convoy as a result of a ruptured steering gear, is anyone’s guess.

After sinking Colin with three torpedoes, U-859 continued south. After two months, the submarine rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean.

On April 5, U-859 was seen and attacked by Lockheed Ventura (according to other sources, the attacking aircraft was a Catalina). Again, instead of diving, Jebsen decided he could easily shoot down the plane using the weapons on board.

– Flieralarm! He shouted, and the team took up their combat posts.

Both C / 30 anti-aircraft guns opened fire, but the 3,7-cm jammed. The plane flew over the submarine, firing at it with machine guns. The Flak M42 crew tried to fix the problem. The plane turned around and went on the attack again, firing at the submarine. Jebsen decided that he was no longer going to participate in this deadly competition, and ordered an emergency dive. As U-859 slipped under the water, five bombs fell nearby, shaking the boat. As a result of the attack, three members of the submarine’s crew were injured, one was killed, and the snorkel was seriously damaged.

The second victim of U-859 was the “silver” John Barry, a ship of the Liberty series. There are several versions about how much silver this ship was carrying. One of them: in addition to the three million silver Saudi riyals, minted in Philadelphia at the request of Saudi Arabia, there were on board a significant amount of silver bars destined for the USSR, worth 26 million dollars, equivalent to about 1,500 tons of silver at 1944 prices.

At sunset on 28 August, U-859 surfaced as usual to determine coordinates and recharge its batteries. The following approximate coordinates were established: 15 ° 10`N. and 55 ° 18`E. And then Lieutenant-Commander Jebsen was incredibly surprised and at the same time delighted: he saw an enemy merchant ship, not accompanied by an escort and sailing an irregular zigzag course in almost complete blackout mode. Three torpedoes, and “John Barry” sank with treasures to a depth of 2600 meters.

Three days later, another ship, the British Troilus, loaded with tea, copra and coconut oil, was also sunk by U-859.

22,000 miles behind. Remaining 20

At dawn on September 23, 1944, U-859 rose from the warm Indian Ocean midway between Langkawi and Botong. The submarine covered 22,000 nautical miles, of which 18,000 were under water. She was on the road for five months, two weeks and five days.

Jebsen contacted Penang and was told that due to worsening weather conditions, he would have to go to the harbor unaccompanied and unprotected. U-859 was located 20 nautical miles northwest of Penang in the Strait of Malacca, moving along the surface at a speed of about 14 knots.

German observers were unable to locate the British submarine HMS Trenchant or the approaching torpedoes. The commander of HMS “Trenchant” Arthur Hezlet made a surprise attack using his stern torpedo tubes.

U-859 sank immediately, killing 47 people, including its commander.

Twenty crew members were still able to escape. Eleven of the survivors were picked up by HMS Trenchant immediately after sinking, the remaining nine were picked up by the Japanese after 24 hours of drift and brought ashore.

(The most significant victory for HMS Trenchant was the sinking of the Japanese cruiser Ashigara on June 8, 1945. It was the largest Japanese warship sunk by the Royal Navy during the war. Arthur Hezlet was promoted to vice admiral.)

Instead of an epilogue

In 1972, a total of 12 tons of mercury were lifted from the site of U-859’s death by commercial divers and transported to Singapore. Soon, representatives of the Malaysian Navy arrived at the scene of the sinking of the submarine and prohibited further work.

The Singapore Supreme Court ruled:

“… the German state never ceased to exist, despite the unconditional surrender of Germany in 1945, and what was the property of the German state, unless it was captured and seized by one of the allied powers, still remains the property of the German state …”

(Reports on international law. V. 56. Cambridge University Press, 1980. S. 40–47.)

Subsequently, the wreckage of the boat was destroyed by explosives by a German dive team.

In November 1989, Shoemaker, Fiondella and two Washington-based lawyers won the right to investigate the John Barry. In 1994, after four years of testing, preceded by years of painstaking archival research, one and a half million Saudi riyals, weighing 17 tons, were recovered from the scene of the death of “John Barry.”

Based on materials from:,,

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