Sunday brought glorious sunshine to the beautiful stretch of white sandy beach on the Baltic Sea of Germany where we were camping. Instead of motivating us to get out and explore nearby sites, it was all we could do to tear ourselves away from the sand, sun, and surf. We lounged around on our Family Fun Blanket, sipping coffee and devouring nearly an entire loaf of raisin bread until the morning had long passed. We would have hustled out of camp earlier had we known that a town just 2 kilometers up the coast also offers pretty beaches, along with the Laboe Naval Memorial, home to the last surviving German submarine of its kind – U-995.
During WWII, Germany launched over 1200 submarines to prowl the seas in search of Allied targets. Typically referred to in English as U-boats, their name was derived from the German origin, Unterseeboot – literally “under sea boat.”
Of these deadly hunters, about 800 were destroyed during the war. Over 200 were scuttled by their German crews. Naval officers surrendered another 200 or so to the Allies after the war, most of which were subsequently torpedoed to a watery grave at the bottom of the ocean. As many as 50 simply vanished. Allied forces captured only six at sea.
Astonishingly, out of all the U-boats the Germans put to sea during the war, only 5 remain today, four of which are on display to the public. One is in Chicago while another is in Liverpool, though it was scuttled and later salvaged and is no longer intact. Visitors can visit the remaining two in Germany: U-2540 in Bremerhaven and U-995 in Laboe.
Put to sea in 1943, U-995 successfully sank several warships and cargo vessels before surrendering off the coast of Norway in 1945. The Royal Norwegian Navy refitted the submarine and put it into service for the next twenty years. Norway then offered to return U-995 to Germany as an act of reconciliation. The price? A single Deutsche Mark.
The German Naval Authority claimed ownership of the U-995, making arrangements to transport the submarine via a massive floating crane from Norway to the northern coast of Germany. A channel was dredged in Kiel Fjord to allow beach access for the boat’s delivery, and U-995 was officially laid to rest where she’s remained since 1972.
Just across the road from U-995 is the Laboe Naval Memorial. Completed in 1936, the imposing 279-foot tower was originally intended as a memorial to German sailors killed during WWI. After the Second World War, in the wake of waning German nationalism as the country struggled to reconcile the horrors of the early 20th century, the memorial was expanded to honor sailors from all countries who died during both world wars.
The Prinz Eugen, Germany’s “lucky” warship, was not only one of two to survive WWII, but she then withstood two detonations during atomic testing by the US Navy. When she later capsized in the Pacific, the US returned one of her still-intact propellers to Germany, where it now stands on display at the Laboe Memorial.
Hundreds of thousands of naval mines were anchored in the Baltic and North Seas during WWII. The mines were detonated when an object hit a depth charge floating just below the water’s surface.
After the war, teams of mine sweepers painstakingly cleared the seas of bombs.
Visitors can climb the stairs to the top of the memorial tower for sweeping views of the Baltic from the observation tower.
Near the tower just across a large circular brick plaza, the memorial also has a naval museum that’s worth visiting. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours wandering through displays showcasing phenomenal replicas of German naval ships, primarily from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Launched in 1906 by the German Empire, the SMS Scharnhorst successfully sank two British cruisers – killing over 1600 men – during the Battle of Coronel in 1914.
In direct retaliation, the British Royal Navy sent a convoy to destroy the Scharnhorst, sinking her entire squadron of five ships and 2200 men.
A sister ship to U-995, the similarly classed U-977 fled to Argentina after the war. It was later captured and turned over to the US Navy. She was sunk in 1946.
At the time the largest ship in the world, the Bismarck was put into commission in 1940. A year later, she sank the HMS Hood in just 8 minutes, triggering a massive pursuit by the British Royal Navy, which dogged the Bismarck for days before sinking her in a protracted attack.
Though not a military ship, the München was unique in that she was the only one of her kind in Germany. Used commercially to load barges, she mysteriously disappeared at sea in 1978. Considered to be nearly unsinkable, experts ultimately agreed that a rogue wave roughly 90-100 feet tall must have swamped her before she disappeared beneath the waves.
Feeling the tug of the sea just beyond the museum, we didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked. Drawn back to the beach, we grabbed some fantastic cajunized french fries – oddly referred to in Germany by their French name, pommes frites – and enjoyed them next to the hulking remains of U-995.
The ticket booth for both the Laboe Naval Memorial and U-995 is right across the street from the submarine below the memorial tower.
Price – A single adult ticket to tour the interior of U-995 is €4.50. It’s possible to walk around the exterior for free. A single adult ticket for the naval memorial is €6, which includes entry into the tower and the observation deck on top, as well as the adjacent naval museum. You can also buy a Kombi-Karte (combo ticket) for entry to U-995 and the memorial for €9.50 for an adult ticket.
Some of the information in the museum is in English, but it’s primarily in German. Had we known that audio guides were available, we would have opted for them. We didn’t see signs for them at the ticket booth and staff didn’t offer them when we bought tickets, so make sure to ask for them if you’re interested!