Otus: The Portsmouth submarine that refused to die...

Former News defence correspondent TIM KING could not believe his eyes when he stumbled across an old acquaintance on Germany's Baltic coast

Friday, 2nd December 2016, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th December 2016, 12:32 pm
Touching farewell: Otus at John Poundss scrapyard supports a sister ship, believed to be HMS Onslaught, before being towed away
Touching farewell: Otus at John Poundss scrapyard supports a sister ship, believed to be HMS Onslaught, before being towed away

THEY lay side by side as hulks for years at John Pounds’ scrapyard beside the M275, an eyesore blighting the gateway into the city.

Then, in May 2002 one of the two rusting ex-Royal Navy submarines was towed out of Portsmouth Harbour, presumably to meet her ultimate fate in a breaker’s yard somewhere over the horizon and was quickly forgotten.

But not gone forever...

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Saved: Arriving under tow at Stralsund

During a caravanning holiday along Germany’s Baltic coast in September, I drove on to the island of Rügen and stopped for a coffee break at the port of Sassnitz.

I wandered across the square to where an impressive spiral walkway led down to the harbour 100 feet below the cliffs.

Suddenly, to my astonishment, the familiar shape of a British submarine appeared, afloat alongside a jetty and proudly wearing the Union Flag, but now bearing the title ‘U-Boot Museum’.

Eight hundred miles from where I’d last seen her, HM Submarine Otus had ‘resurfaced’ and she had a miraculous survival tale to be told, as I discovered after buying a ticket to go on board.

Floating museum: The bows had to be rebuilt

Franka Strübing, of Erlebniswelt U-Boot (submarine experience), told me: ‘The buyers of Otus had a shipping company in Sassnitz, which attracted many tourists, but only in good weather and they were looking for a tourist attraction in bad weather.’

The company’s ships ran cruises to Peenemünde on the nearby island of Usedom – infamous as the site where Dr Werner von Braun developed the wartime V1 and V2 rockets – where there is another submarine museum, a Cold War Russian missile boat U-461 with the NATO codename ‘Juliet’.

Franka continued: ‘When they saw how many tourists wanted to go to the submarine in Peenemünde, they decided to open a museum themselves, so they hired a broker to look for submarines all over the world and he found Otus in Portsmouth.’

It took two tugs to drag Otus off the mud on a spring tide at John Pounds’s scrapyard, followed by a week-long tow across the North Sea and into the Baltic via the Kiel Canal to Stralsund for restoration.

Seeing is believing: Tim stands on Otuss deck 800 miles from Portsmouth

Otus, one of 13 Oberon-class boats decommissioned by the Royal Navy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was in bad condition. Her bows had to be rebuilt, many holes in the hull repaired, rust removed and certain parts demilitarised.

She emerged almost like new from the Stralsund ’yard just six weeks later and was towed the short distance to her permanent berth at Sassnitz where she opened for visitors in 2003, and now attracts 80,000 annually.

I understand the museum owners are a German couple who so far wish to remain anonymous.

Down below, the Germans have accomplished a magnificent refit job from stem to stern, with equipment restored or replaced, the torpedo, engine, sonar and ops rooms ready almost to go to action stations.

Wir haben Kontakt! German amateur radio hams Mario Kricheldorf (right) and Rüdiger Hagemann calling up HMS Collingwood, Fareham

Even the original ‘Watch and station’ board is in its place with names of what was probably Otus’s last ship’s company before she paid off.

There was another surprise in store when I reached the main mess space.

I met two members of the German Amateur Radio Club, Rüdiger Hagemann and Mario Kricheldorf from Neubrandenburg, who were on board with their equipment for a 24-hour worldwide contact session.

They raised 184 stations in 39 countries but at that precise moment Mario said: ‘We are trying to contact HMS Collingwood and HMS Belfast.’

They were equally stunned when I told them I lived at Fareham only four kilometres from Collingwood, which until then they believed still to be a warship and not a shore base. In fact, their brochure mistakenly displayed a picture of HMS Hood!

Mario added: ‘Next year we are planning the participation of Otus in the international museum ship weekend and it would be nice to have former crew members of Otus taking part. We could provide accommodation.’

Final duties: The watch & station board

As I bade them auf wiedersehen, a saying sprang to mind... that if these episodes could be summed up as a mathematical equation, the value of coincidence equals the degree of its improbability.

HMS OTUS FACT FILE

Built: Scotts’ Yard, Greenock

Commissioned: 1963

Decommissined: early 1990s

Surface displacement: 2,030 tons

Length: 295ft

Submerged speed: 17 knots

Armament: 22 torpedoes

Company: seven officers, 62 ratings

13 Oberon-class boats were built for the Royal Navy between 1960-67.

Apart from Otus, only Onyx and Ocelot survive, the former as a museum in Barrow-in-Furness, the latter as a museum at Chatham.

GERMAN AMATEUR RADIO

Mario Kricheldorf (DJ8NU) would welcome former Otus crew members and ex-RN radio enthusiasts to contact him.

Address: Anna Saur Weg 6, D 17033, Neubrandenburg. Germany

Tel: +49 395 5683 258

Saved: Arriving under tow at Stralsund
Floating museum: The bows had to be rebuilt
Seeing is believing: Tim stands on Otuss deck 800 miles from Portsmouth
Wir haben Kontakt! German amateur radio hams Mario Kricheldorf (right) and Rüdiger Hagemann calling up HMS Collingwood, Fareham
Final duties: The watch & station board