Condoms to secret documents: Nazi U-boat items to go on display for first time

Condoms to secret documents: Nazi U-boat items to go on display for first time

Exclusive: Liverpool exhibitors hope artefacts from sunken submarine may hold clues to end of regime

Items found include an air-testing kit, with glass tubes still containing pink liquid.

There are two enigma machines, dozens of bottles of French wine and about 200 condoms – alongside toothpaste that’s still minty, and coffee which has retained its aroma.

A trove of extraordinarily well preserved Nazi artefacts, recovered from a sunken U-boat in the 1990s after nearly 50 years at the bottom of the ocean, are to go on public display for the first time.

Historians are sifting through thousands of previously unseen artefacts left untouched since 1945, hoping to find new insights into the lives of those who spent months aboard German submarines during the second world war.

Visitors to the Secrets of the Last U-Boat exhibition at Western Approaches museum, a former secret underground war bunker in Liverpool city centre, will be among the first people in 80 years to see the discoveries which will be added live to the exhibition as they are unboxed.

A cloth badge from a tropical uniform.

“We’ll be looking at it on the Monday and it will be on display on the Friday. This is fresh stuff that no one has seen,” said Dean Paton, the founder and director of Big Heritage, a social enterprise specialising in education and heritage.

Among the objects, which were remarkably well preserved by the cold water and layers of silt, are boxes of toothpaste and coffee, alongside postcards with Hitler stamps and hundreds of pages of secret Nazi documents.

When translated and analysed, these could hold the answer to why this particular U-boat did not surrender at the end of the war, a mystery that has long puzzled historians.

As well as going on physical display to the public, the discoveries will be shown on Big Heritage’s social media channels under the name How To Fix A U–Boat, with hundreds of amateurs and experts assisting in translating German documents and lending their knowledge and insight to help put the findings into context.

Inside the U-boat

Paton said: “It’s amazing to have this massive following. It’s an internationally important project and that’s reflected in the fact that people from around the world are getting involved.”

Surviving copies of confidential Nazi documents are rare, so the team hopes the folders of papers recovered from the U-boat could help understand what happened at the end of the regime.

“This is a long-term jigsaw puzzle, or a game of Cluedo, where we’re putting all the pieces together,” Paton said.

A postcard found on the sunken U-boat.

U534 was the last U-boat to leave Germany in 1945 and historians suspect it could have held high-ranking Nazi officials who were planning to escape to another part of the world before it was sunk by two RAF Liberators in May 1945, 20km off the Danish island of Anholt. Of the 52 members of crew, 49 survived and none were left onboard.

Paton said: “There was an Argentinian radio operator on board, and this had the fuel and the range to go to Argentina. They had tropical uniforms but they were in the North Sea, so where were they headed?”

After being raised from the depths in 1993, U534 has been owned by Merseytravel and was on display at the Woodside ferry terminal as the U-Boat Story until its closure in 2020.

It was taken over by Big Heritage in November last year and is in the process of being redeveloped. The boxes came as a surprise to Paton and the team, who did not know they existed as they were packed in 1993 and remained untouched by the submarine’s previous owners.

The plan is to reopen the U-Boat Story in late 2023 to encourage more local people to take an interest in history and to attract tourists to a part of Merseyside that is often overlooked.

A handmade wooden ‘sausage dog’.

Paton founded Big Heritage 11 years ago “because I felt there was a gap for normal working-class people to understand and engage with heritage”, he said.

The organisation has received grants from naval charities and the Levelling Up Fund, as part of the regeneration of parts of Birkenhead, a cause about which Paton is particularly passionate.

“I’m a Birkenhead boy born and bred, so this is a labour of love,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a renaissance of Birkenhead and that’s a massive driver for us, using heritage to regenerate.”