I have a fairly unique relationship with a former German Naval training ship and a sunken Nazi U-Boat; I served as Sailmaster on the US Coast Guard Barque Eagle, which was used by the Kriegsmarine to train U-Boat crewmen for WWII as the Horst Wessel and I have dived on the wreck of the U-853, in which 39 of my former “shipmates” are entombed, close to the coast of Rhode Island.
USCGC Eagle was launched on June 13, 1936 at Blohm&Voss Shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, as Segelschulschiff Horst Wessel, with Adolf Hitler and Deputy Fuhrer Rudolph Hess in attendance. The Kriegsmarine made Kiel her homeport, where she trained naval officers and petty officers on voyages in the North Atlantic. With the outbreak of WW II in 1939, she was decommissioned and moved to Starlsund for use by Hitler Youth. Re-commissioned into active naval service and armed with anti-aircraft weapons in 1942, she cruised the Baltic with recruits fresh out of basic training until being awarded to the US Coast Guard in 1945 as a war reparation.
Horst Wessel and her sisters were Gorch Fock Class vessels which closely followed the design of the great Cape Horn windjammers such as Peking and Potosi. Their sailing rigs are among the strongest and most efficient ever built, and may never be duplicated.
Four of the surviving Gorch Fock Class sailing school ships became famous as the “Four Sisters” at various Operation Sail events after 1960:
Gorch Fock, launched 1933, later Tovarishch (Russia)
Horst Wessel, launched 1936, later Eagle (US)
Albert Leo Schlageter, launched 1937, later Sagres (Portugal)
Mircea, launched 1938, was built for and retained by the Romanian Navy.
However, there were actually six vessels of the class:
Construction started on the Herbert Norkus but was never completed. This vessel was to be named for a 15 year old Hitler Youth who was made a martyr of the Nazi Party after he was stabbed to death by communists while distributing propaganda. HN was scuttled in the Skagerrak in 1947.
Though for some reason she was never considered a “sister” by the Op Sail PR people, Gorch Fock II was launched on August 27, 1958 and is virtually identical to Horst Wessel and her sisters. GF II was built by Blohm&Voss from parts assembled for a ship which was never completed during hostilities, and she became the first Naval vessel constructed in Germany after WW II.
Segelschulschiff Horst Wessel was named for a martyr of the Nazi Party. His life was marked by violence, petty crime and extreme racism. He wrote propaganda songs for Nazi rallies, one of which later became their anthem. After Wessel was murdered by communists in 1930, Joseph Goebbels made him a propaganda symbol.
On May 5th, 1945, days after Hitler’s death and the fall of the Third Reich, Karl Doenitz gave the order for all U-boats to cease offensive operations and return to their bases. U-853 was on its third wartime patrol that same day, and either did not receive, or ignored, Donitz’s order. After the sinking of the S.S. Black Point within sight of the Point Judith Lighthouse in Rhode Island, many US Naval units descended on the U-853 and sank her 7 miles east of Block Island, with all 55 crewmen remaining aboard. Sitting upright in 120 feet of water, the wreck is a popular dive destination.
Ironically, many of the U-853 crew trained aboard the Segelschulschiff Horst Wessel, which often sails nearby on training cruises from the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, as the USCGC Eagle.