“Shipwreckords” How Music From a Sunken U-Boat Came Back to Life

The German submarine U-534 is a Type IXC/40 U-boat that was launched in 1942. It was used by the German Navy, the Kriegsmarine, mainly for training purposes. Later, it was sunk in Denmark’s Kattegat by RAF bombers after its captain, Oberleutnant Herbert Nollau, had refused to surrender.

The U-534

Although the U-534’s entire 52-man crew managed to escape, three of its crew members died once they made it out. At the time, there had been some speculation that the U-534 was used to carry out secret classified missions. According to some records, Nazi gold, valuable paintings, and other treasures had been on the submarine at its demise.

Interior of U-Boat
It’s amazing that the records survived….along with potatoes! (Image: Dean Paton / Big Heritage)

In 1986, the Danish wreck-hunter ‘Dynamite-Aage’ Jensen discovered the U-534’s remains 67 meters underwater. Unfortunately, when a wealthy investor raised the submarine seven years later, there were no signs of gold or valuable paintings. Still, the submarine’s interior was in excellent condition. Today, the U-534 remains one of only four surviving German WW2 submarines.

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In 2021, Big Heritage, a charity that operates the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool, acquired the U-534 and its contents. The charity plans to conserve and analyze the tonnes of preserved artifacts: “from torpedoes to potatoes and everything in-between.” Perhaps the most interesting of these artifacts are the wonderfully preserved gramophone records.

The “Shipwreckords”

The historians analyzing the U-534’s artifacts have informally dubbed the gramophone records found in the submarine’s radio room as “shipwreckords.” Curious to see if the records could still be played, they set up a vintage wind-up gramophone and a 1960s portable record player.

Remarkably not only do the gramophone records play, some still have their sleeves.

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These shellac records still had their original labels. In some cases, they even had their paper sleeves intact. These records played German orchestral works like Bach’s Air on the G-String, Schubert’s Winterreise, and Strauss’ Künstlerleben. The records also included recordings of famous German singers of the era, like Zarah Leander. Project leader Kyle May called the experiment “an eerie experience” as the haunting music rang out in the operations room, loud and clear.

“We stood there transfixed. In that same room 80 years ago, U-boats were just little markers on the map to be snuffed out. But here we were decades later, listening to the enemy’s records.

“It really hits you how they were just young lads, homesick and missing their loved ones, using music to distract themselves. No different to the Allied veterans we meet, really.

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“You might not expect a crackly old Strauss waltz to stimulate such strong feelings of empathy, but that’s the power of history for you.”

The music has now been digitised for use in future museum projects. Although the submarine had been renowned as “one of the most technically advanced submarines in the world,” Big Heritage MD Dean Paton commented on how “these records show a human side to the U-boat crew… a stark reminder of how normal people can be convinced to do awful things by tyrants.”

The Future of the U-534 Submarine

Although it is not currently open to the public, the U-534 will soon become the centrepiece of a new display. It will be part of a joint initiative between Big Heritage, Mersey Ferries, and Wirral Council. “The new Battle of The Atlantic Centre will be built around Woodside, with the former U-Boat Story Museum being demolished entirely for a new build,” project leader Kyle May told Divernet.

A truly amazing photo of U-534 being attacked by an RAF Liberator.

Liverpool-based vinyl experts Chris Hough and Richie Clark have been consulted for the project to digitise the tracks for use with modern equipment. The newly digitised music is aimed to be a part of the new exhibition in Birkenhead.

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The project is part of a multi-million-pound regeneration scheme funded by the Department of Housing and Levelling Up and is estimated to be completed by mid- to late-2024. In addition, Big Heritage hopes to organise several “shipwreckord” listening sessions for the public in the near future.