The end of the war seemed a foregone conclusion to Kaleun Johann 'Viking' Hopfe and his crew aboard U-103. As the U-boat charged through the fading evening light, each man had his own bleak opinion of what fate he would meet in the days ahead.
U-103, a Type IX-B named 'Drakkar', had been their protective mother for 4 years. She was also a very successful hunter - even during this stage of the Atlantic war. But she was no fair match for the Allies' modern anti-submarine technology. The battles had become harder and harder to survive. No easy kills to feed her crew's spirit.
Several days earlier, U-103 had claimed numerous tanker victims in the seas north of Ireland, but she had also taken a severe beating from an Allied air attack. Luck played its part and an increasingly violent sea swept U-103 northwards, away from the clutches of the British. Despite her depth-charge wounds she was mostly operational, but had a serious diesel oil leak. The return trip to Germany was now impossible. The Chief, Matthias Kaeding, and the Kaleun calculated that Bergen was within range. The boat tore through the North Sea, cloaked by the heaving waves and smothered by the thick, grey air.
The Kaleun had succesfully negotiated a stop at Bergen to re-fuel. Time was running out for the remaining German forces in Norway's U-boat bases, so a hasty repair and replenishment of the fuel tanks was all that U-103 could receive. If only the Kriegsmarine had been been able to hold out the ports in Norway for another day or two... Perhaps U-103's battle-hardened crew could have taken command of one of the few Type-XXI's that were stationed there? Perhaps, with an elektro boat, they would have been able to continue the hunt? This frustrating question repeated itself in the mind of Kaleun Viking, as U-103 sailed out of the fjords into the North Sea, and then down past Denmark into the Baltic.
The following day, broken news broadcasts from Germany spluttered through the radio set. Despite the poor signal, it was not difficult to get a sense of the way the war was going at home.
As the night gave way to the dawn, Viking half-expected some form of surrender orders from BdU - but no such message was received.
On the morning of May 4 1945, U-103 sailed cautiously home into Flensburg docks. To the amazement of Viking and the other watch crew officers, the port seemed almost unscathed by the air-raids that had laid waste to so many other German cities. Was there still hope for their homeland?
The Kaleun and his crew were hurriedly disembarked and accompanied by two flotilla officers towards an office in the dock area. The crew were ordered to assemble outside, whilst the Kaleun was taken into the building.
Stood in the dusty room was a group of ten men - torpedo mechanics, engineers, flak gunners, radio/sonar operators and a leutnant, Gert Carlsen. All were from the 5th Training Flotilla, Kiel. They stood to attention when they saw Viking and the flotilla officers coming through the door. After some polite introductions to the group, the officers presented the Kaleun with a Deutsches Kreuz medal.
Viking asked about news of the war and the surviving U-boats, but the officers avoided the questions awkwardly and only spoke of the flotilla's pride in U-103's long history of success. They explained that the ten men were now under Viking's command and would join his existing crew. Before he could speak, the flotilla officers quickly congratulated the bewildered Kaleun on his Deutsches Kreuz, saluted and left the building.
Looking somewhat intimidated, the ten U-boat men from Kiel waited for Viking to say something. He looked over to them but said nothing and gestured the group to stand at ease. As he turned his attention to the documents, Viking noticed a procession of dock workers outside the window, walking past his crew with crates of food. After reading his new orders, the Kaleun immediately ran outside to speak to his men, who had been waiting in anxious, weary silence. The ten new crewmen, led by Carlsen, followed Viking outside with a sense of urgency and stood uncomfortably next to the veterans.
The Kaleun stood before them all, contemplating what he had just read. He now realized that his wish had been granted.
"They've given us a new boat. U-2525. Elektro boat. We sail in four hours."
The Chief immediately responded. "But Herr Kaleun, we have no training on this type of U-boat."
"Leutnant Carlsen and his comrades from the Keil Training Flotilla will be joining us on our voyage. I am assured they are experts on Type XXI's. We must learn from them as we go."
Carlsen saluted the Kaleun.
For once, the dreaded news of another trip into the enemy's nest was mixed with the hope of a real chance of survival.
Viking and his crew of fifty-nine men followed the line of dock workers towards the new boat. The veterans amongst them eyed up the sleek vessel with the combined appreciation of a submariner, engineer and hunter... Six forward tubes... Acoustic-homing torpedoes... Fast automatic torpedo loading... Unprecedented underwater speed and range... Latest radar detection equipment... Powerful AA turrets...
...There was still hope! The hunt will continue!
No-one can explain what happened next.
U-2525 rocked idly in the sea, stationary, the morning sunlight streamed over her hard metal casing.
All was quiet on-board. Not at all as it should be. Viking was the first to open his eyes and stumble carefully to his feet. The entire crew was unconscious, slumped around the various quarters and compartments, almost as if there had been a very drunken party the night before. What had happened?
Viking went frantically around the boat, urging the men to wake up and help him understand their situation. No-one could. The Kaleun struggled to prevent widespread panic among the crew. Each man remembered preparing to board the U-2525 on a cool spring day in Flensburg, but had absolutely no recollection of setting sail. Viking reminded them to be thankful that they were all alive and unharmed, and that their boat appeared to be perfectly intact.
The radio operators made repeated attempts to communicate with BdU - but received no reply. Crewmen attended to instruments and gauges, checking for any clues that would help them understand what had happened.
With some measurements and educated guesswork, navigation officer Oscar Bargsten estimated their position. It was impossible... 0° North, 0° East. They were on the equator, west of Africa, with full fuel tanks!
One of the petty officers confirmed that a full inventory of torpedoes, spare parts, medicines and food supplies was on board.
There was only one way to discover their true whereabouts, their situation and, ultimately, their fate. From U-2525's armoured bridge, Kaleun Viking called down to Carlsen and the Chief in the control room. "Engines full ahead!"
from Kaleun Viking's SH3 Commander personnel file:
"After a year in captivity, Viking returned in May 1946 and worked on the salvage of sunken ships in the Rhine river.
In 1948 with three comrades he built the sailing ship Magellan. They sailed together to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they started a great regatta. Later he was skipper on several trade ships.
In March 1959 he showed great courage as skipper of the freighter Inga Bastian when he and his crew saved 57 survivors from the burning Brazilian ship Commandante Lyra.
In 1961 he became captain of the German nuclear research ship Otto Hahn, a post which he held for more than ten years.
For his outstanding merit after the war he was decorated in 1974 with the Bundes-Verdienstkreuz am Bande (Federal Merit Cross on ribbon).
He was for long years the chairman of the U-Bootskameradschaft Bremen, which bears his name to this day. He died on 18 April 1986 in Bremen."