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Operation Elster

I was recently contacted by a journalist from Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) in Canada. She was asking if I knew anything about a story about a Nazi submarine being attacked & sunk by the Canadian Air Force.

I replied telling her what I knew about the filming of 49P. P.E.I. is just across the water from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where the submarine scenes were filmed for 49P & I wondered if the making of the film had somehow passed into legend as a real event (it's happened before - see IKWIG trivia).

But no, Mary has just sent me an earlier story she wrote about the submarines and P.E.I.

From: Mary Mackay
Date: Mon, 12 Aug 2002 16:23:17

Hi Steve,
Here is part 2. Hope you enjoy

@* Byline:Mary MacKay
@* BylineService:The Guardian newspaper/Charlottetown/Prince Edward Island/Canada

Headline----Tale of two subs:
Subhead -- Top secret German U-boat mission to rescue PoWs detained on Canadian soil during the height of the Second World War forever intertwined with Prince Edward Island's 1943 legend of a mysterious sunken submarine.

It has all the elements of a great adventure movie.

A carefully scripted German U-boat mission across the Atlantic to the Prince Edward Island coast to rescue PoWs who were to escape from a New Brunswick internment camp during the height of the Second World War.

But it's no movie and it's true.

A twist to this documented 1943 naval drama is that it is a tale of two submarines. Another is that Operation Elster (Magpie in English) is a little-known military chapter in P.E.I.'s history, but one that quite likely initiated one of the Island's most persistent marine legends - the alleged sinking of a mystery submarine by Canadian forces off the coast of North Cape on May 7, 1943.

The spectacular battle is still recalled today by many credible witnesses and was added as a top-of-the-page notation in a diary kept by a prominent MLA and local businessman of the time. German military records confirm that there was indeed a submarine in the area from May 2-6, 1943. The U-262 was assigned the secret 'special task' code-named Elster, which was a simple plan, yet amazingly complicated when one considers the circumstances at the time.

Several German navy officer PoWs were directed to escape from internment Camp 70, near Fredericton, travel by whatever means possible the 250 kilometres (150 miles) to Cape Tormentine, N.B., somehow cross the Northumberland Strait to P.E.I. and make their way to North Cape, where if all went well, a German U-boat would be waiting. The U-262 was there, but the rescue fell through because the escape never happened. 'Broke off search in accordance with orders. It is a pity that I must return without succeeding,' a disappointed Captain Heinz Franke recorded in his log before leaving North Cape on May 6th, 1943, one day before the alleged mystery submarine sinking.

Add to the mix that the U-262 was the backup boat for Operation Elster and the plot thickens. The primary submarine - the U-376 - was dispatched with the initial PoW rescue order, recorded as sunk in the Bay of Biscay, off the coast of France on April 10, 1943. To this day, she and her crew of 47 have never been found.

For the past few years amateur naval and marine historian Paul Lawton of Brockton, Mass., has been intrigued by Operation Elster and more recently its possible connection to the mysterious submarine said to be under 33 metres (110 feet) of water off North Cape.

Last year, Lawton, who is team leader of the U.S.S. Eagle 56 Search Team, which is attempting to locate an American warship sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Maine, visited P.E.I. to probe into the legendary local battle and the historical circumstances surrounding it. 'Operation Elster was actually contrived through coded notes and letters sent home and received by German naval officer PoWs who were interned at Camp 70 near Fredericton, N.B. They used a written code that was known by Allied Intelligence upon breaking it as Irland (Ireland),' Lawton explains.

The cracking of Operation Elster was also bolstered by the fact that the British Allies had already captured a U-boat Enigma code machine, had broke the code and were tracking the German transmissions. 'So they actually knew that an operation was going to occur out there (off North Cape, P.E.I.),' Lawton explains.

On April 6, 1943, Operation Elster's primary boat - U-376 - under the command of Captain Friederich-Karl Marks, left La Pallice, France, and headed into the Bay of Biscay in the direction of Canada. The U-376 was actually preceded by the mission's backup boat. The U-262 had departed the same port for the same destination on March 27, but had to return because of a defective air vent. She sailed again on April 7. Although each U-boat was given identical orders, the mission itself was unknown to backup captain Franke until weeks later.

'All these boats had a vault in which they had a number of sealed orders and they could only open those orders upon being directed to as a security matter by U-boat headquarters (the BdU),' he says. '(In the case of U-262) they would have these sealed orders in case anything happened in the primary boat. . . . In that event, (BdU) would radio and tell them to open these particular orders.' That order came shortly after U-376 reportedly sank on April 10 in the Bay of Biscay with all 47 officers and crewmen on board after being depth-charged by a British Wellington bomber. But Lawton says there is no conclusive proof of the destruction of that U-boat.

'(A) post war assessment determined that the Wellington attack was actually directed towards another submarine - U-465 - which dove, was damaged and returned to base for repairs,' Lawton says. Communication from the U-376 ceased from that day on. Three days later, the BdU listed the submarine and its crew as missing and presumed lost in the Bay of Biscay.

On April 15, Franke was directed to open his sealed Operation Elster orders, but was apprehensive about the journey ahead. On the other side of the Operation Elster coin, a number of incidents were unfolding at the Fredericton Internment Camp, also known as Camp B-70, or 'Ripples' for its remote location by Ripples Brook, between Fredericton and Minto.

The only barbed wire compound of its kind in eastern Canada during the Second World War, in 1943 Camp 70 was a temporary home for as many as 1,000 PoWs. Enclosed by two separate barbed wire barriers, six sentry towers and a dozen searchlights, the camp was difficult to escape but not impossible.

Tunneling was a popular attempt but was never successful. A few PoWs did escape during an outside work detail, but turned themselves in within a week. The conditions that faced anyone who succeeded in an escape were formidable: hoards of black flies, soggy swamps and impenetrable forest.

'That area was complete wilderness. There was just an old farm road out there to get to the camp. And if they (the intended Operation Elster rescue targets) didn't know the area, I don't know how they'd ever get to P.E.I. unless they had someone on the inside helping them,' says Ted Jones, author of the two-volume set, Both Sides of the Wire: The Fredericton Internment Camp, which detail its 1940-45 history.

Inside the camp, crowded conditions and infighting among the PoWs resulted in a riot in February 1943, the instigators of which were moved to the Fredericton county jail for months. Other transferals of temporary and even some long-term PoWs to other internment camps in Canada were a common occurrence, but only intermittently, a few at a time.

However, on May 14, 1943, barely a week after the U-262 called it quits on Operation Elster, more than 100 German merchant seamen and crew members from three ships were relocated to the more impregnable Camp 31 at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ont. Was this massive movement to make more room in the overcrowded camp or was the shift by the Canadian military to remove the intended PoWs escapees' Jones can't say for sure, but adds that in researching the camp's five-year history and interviewing former staff and PoWs, the failed Operation Elster mission has never been mentioned.

In the weeks leading up to U-262's May 2, 1943 arrival off the coast of P.E.I., Captain Heinz Franke was unaware that Operation Elster had already been scuttled. But he was acutely aware of danger overhead as he passed through the narrowest section of the Cabot Strait on April 26/27. 'Four explosions, probably aircraft bombs, roughly five to 10 (nautical miles) distant. I cannot imagine that they were intended for me because I have already been proceeding submerged for two hours. Whether another of our boats is in the vicinity is not known,' the German captain wrote in his log.

To avoid detection, Franke only surfaced at night. He hit a huge snag halfway though the strait when he encountered ice, which dented the door to one of the torpedo tubes, flooding the area. The tube door was made watertight again by using force on it once submerged. Although U-boats were not designed to operate in the extreme ice conditions that faced him, Franke continued under an unmeasurable ice field. When he attempted to surface on April 28, there were a few breathtaking moments.

'Attempt to surface, the conning tower hatch cannot be opened because an ice floe is lying on it,' noted the persistent captain, who succeeded on his second surfacing attempt but not without a price. Ice had taken yet another toll, this time it tore off the bridge rail, net cutter, damaged his guns and three of his four torpedo tube doors were bent and could not be opened. He was virtually defenseless.

On May 2, 1943, at precisely 1:44 p.m. Franke arrived at his pickup destination, roughly four nautical miles off the northwest tip of P.E.I., so close he could see the lighthouse in his periscope. It wasn't the only view to be had - overhead were what Franke thought to be three 'Maryland-type aircraft.' 'It appears very suspicious that all three aircraft are flying surveillance precisely above my rendezvous position. However, it is also possible that there is a training base not too far away in Nova Scotia,' he speculated from his precarious position. Because Maryland aircraft were not used in Canada, it is believed that Franke might have spied a grouping of Avro Anson aircraft from the RCAF-operated General Reconnaissance School in Summerside.

At the time, now retired Lt.-Col. Robert Gurney of Ottawa was a student at the school. According to his flight logbook, the students' four final training trips were canceled in favour of a real hunt for U-boats said to be in the area. After a short briefing, each unarmed Avro Anson crew was given a patrol line to fly. '(On May 2) we did our trip from one to four (o'clock) in the afternoon. And at two o'clock the U-boat (captain) said he had three airplanes circling around him. When I (recently) checked the time in my (1943) log I thought, 'My gosh, that had to be us!' We didn't see him but he certainly must have saw us.

The water almost completely covered with ice floes. We just didn't think that a U-boat would be operating in that type of situation.' For four days, the U-262 surfaced at night and remained underwater during the day.

On May 6, Greenmount radar station near Tignish observed a questionable slow-moving blip on the radar screen, as did personnel at the radar filter room in Halifax, N.S. A plane was sent out from Summerside to investigate and the 17th Reserve Armoured Regiment in Charlottetown was put on 24-hour alert.

At high noon on May 6, with permission from BdU, Franke pulled the plug on Operation Elster and pointed the U-262 in the direction of home.

One day later, numerous residents in the North Cape area witnessed a heated anti-submarine naval battle that involved a Canadian destroyer or corvette and a slew of smaller support boats. Depth charges were said to have been dropped, forcing a submarine to the surface where it was hit and sank stern first.

The Canadian Navy has no record of any anti-submarine action reports in that area on that date, although a naval training exercise in the area cannot be ruled out. Fishermen in the area continue to tell of a large underwater object that snares their nets. In 1995, The Guardian was on board a Canadian Navy minesweeper which performed a side-scan sonar search in the general area of the underwater anomaly and witnessed battle.

That day, a diver discovered two large boulders the size of a severed submarine lying on the bottom, which sprouted a theory that in 1943, a Canadian warship showed up shortly after the U-262 left and detected and depth-charged the same leviathan stones.

The other remote but not implausible theory focuses on the Operation Elster's primary submarine. The U-376 could have survived the Bay of Biscay, continued on in radio silence and arrived at the North Cape rendezvous point on or around the time of May 7. 'The simple lack of radio communications did not mean that the boat wasn't operating,' Paul Lawton says.

'Quite often German U-boats would sustain irreparable radio damage either making them incapable of receiving or transmitting. You have to remember they used vacuum tube technology at the time and those things break under extreme pressure and vibration, particularly if you get a couple of close depth charges,' he adds, reminding that the last radio contact with the U-376 was before the depth charge battle in the Bay of Biscay.

'Another thing, simply because a boat lost radio function did not mean that they were to return to base and scramble the operation because they didn't have enough fuel to do that. They had to be out on the front lines at all times, taking out as much (enemy) tonnage as they possibly could.' After interviewing witnesses and reviewing local records of these alleged events, Lawton, who is also lawyer, is convinced that the North Cape area residents did witness something on May 7, 1943, but adds that the weight of evidence is still slightly against the presence of U-376. However, he adds, 'the coincidence that the U-376 was the only other boat dispatched to that precise location at roughly the same time however is compelling, particularly since the people of North Cape could not have known anything about Operation Elster at that time.' Michael Hadley's U-boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters, which extensively details the U-262's Operation Elster mission, tells that on May 16th, long after the U-262 had left the area, a Charlottetown-based Anson training aircraft dropped two depth charges on 'a stationary submarine at periscope depth' between the eastern point of P.E.I. and the Magdalene Islands. The attack produced 'some wreckage and oil slicks.'

Sightings continued for the next few days. On May 21, a Catalina flying boat of 117 squadron at Gaspé, Que., reported that they attacked a submerged U-boat northeast of the Magdalenes. Hadley points out that German records shed no light on the very remote possibility of there having been any other U-boat in the area. 'Certainly nothing on record explains the bravado with which the NOIC (Naval Officer in Charge) Gaspé logged the inflated battle action in his War Diary for the month of May: 'Enemy submarines made several appearances in the Gulf area.

The excellent co-operation of the RCAF gave these visitors a warm welcome and it is regrettable that in the one case when surface vessels were near enough to the scene of a sighting to join in the hunt, no contact could be obtained.' Speculation aside, Operation Elster survives as Hadley best describes it: 'one of the finest failed operations on record.' Heinz Franke and the U-262 survived the Second World War. The captain went on to become one of the most respected U-boat commanders of his time.

The Fredericton Internment Camp or Camp 70 no longer exists. It was bulldozed flat after it closed in 1945, but in 1997 the New Brunswick Internment Camp Museum was created in the Minto municipal building to house memorabilia from former PoWs and staff. Although nearly 60 years have passed, P.E.I.'s North Cape saga of the battle between the Canadian military and the mystery submarine persists. And the U-376 and its 47 crew are still missing.

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