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Surrendered German U-boats moored outside the Dora 1 bunker in Trondheim, Norway, May 1945

A submarine pen (U-Boot-Bunker in German) is a bunker which is designed to protect submarines from air attack. The term is generally applied to submarine bases constructed during World War II, particularly in Germany and the occupied countries which were also known as U-boat pens (after the phrase "U-boat" to refer to German submarines).

German submarine pens in World War II


Amongst the first forms of protection for submarines were some open-sided shelters with partial wooden foundations that were constructed during the first World War. These structures were built at the time when bombs were light enough to be dropped by hand from the cockpit. By the 1940s, the quality of aerial weapons and the means to deliver them had improved markedly.[1] The mid-1930s saw the Naval Construction Office in Berlin give the problem serious thought. Various factions in the navy were convinced protection for the expanding U-boat arm was required. An RAF raid on the capital in 1940 plus the occupation of France and Great Britain's refusal to surrender was enough to trigger a massive building programme of submarine pens and air raid shelters.

By the autumn of 1940, construction of the "Elbe II" bunker in Hamburg and "Nordsee III" on the island of Heligoland was under way. Others swiftly followed.


It was soon realised that such a massive project was beyond the Kriegsmarine, the Todt Organisation (OT) was brought in to oversee the administration of labour. The local supply of such items as sand, aggregate, cement and timber was often a cause for concern. The steel required was mostly imported from Germany. The attitudes of the people in France and Norway were significantly different. In France there was generally no problem with the recruitment of men and the procurement of machinery and raw materials. It was a different story in Norway. There, the local population were far more reluctant to help the Germans. Indeed, most labour had to be brought in.[2] The ground selected for bunker construction was no help either: usually being at the head of a fjord, the foundations and footings had to be hewn out of granite. Several metres of silt also had to be overcome.[3] The incessant air raids caused serious disruption to the project, hampering the supply of material, destroying machinery and harassing the workers. Machinery such as excavators, piledrivers, cranes, floodlighting and concrete pumps (which were still a relatively new technology in the 1940s) was temperamental, and in the case of steam-driven equipment, very noisy.[4] Bunkers had to be able to accommodate more than just U-boats; space had to be found for offices, medical facilities, communications, lavatories, generators, ventilators, anti-aircraft guns, accommodation for key personnel such as crew-men, workshops, water purification plants, electrical equipment and radio testing facilities. Storage space for spares, explosives, ammunition and oil was also required.

Types of bunker

Four types of bunker were constructed:

  • Covered lock

These were bunkers built over an existing lock to give a U-boat some protection while it was at its most vulnerable - i.e. when the lock was emptying or filling. They were usually constructed with new locks alongside an existing structure.

  • Construction bunker

Used for building new boats

  • Fitting-out bunkers

After launch, many U-boats were fitted-out under their protection

  • Shelter for operational boats and repair bunkers

This was the most numerous type. There were two types that were built either on dry land or over the water. The former meant that U-boats had to be moved on ramps; the latter enabled the boats to come and go at will. Pumping the water out enabled dry dock repairs to be carried out. Some bunkers were large enough to allow the removal of periscopes and aerials.

There is no truth in the rumour of an underground bunker on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. This 'story' was gleaned from a similar situation in Le Havre in France when captured U-boat men were interrogated by the British.[5]


Pens were constructed in the northern coastal ports of the Reich and in many occupied countries.


Pens protecting construction of the Type XXI submarine were located in Hamburg (Blohm & Voss), Bremen (AG Weser), and Danzig (F. Schichau).[6][7][8]


The "Hornisse" bunker was not started until 1944 in Bremen; it was never completed.[9]

"Valentin" was the largest bunker in Germany. Begun in 1943, it was built to accommodate the Type XXI submarine construction programme. It too was never completed. Post-war, the area was used as a test site for new bombs. Most of the damage done to the bunker was inflicted at this time.[10]

Valentin: 53°13′00″N 08°30′15″E / 53.2166667°N 8.50417°E / 53.2166667; 8.50417 (Bremen - Valentin Submarine Pen)
Hornisse: 53°07′01.5″N 08°44′04″E / 53.117083°N 8.73444°E / 53.117083; 8.73444 (Bremen - Hornisse Submarine Pen)

Being out of range of Allied aircraft, no pens were built in Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland).


The city was the site of two structures, "Elbe II" and "Fink II". The Finkenwerder bunker was constructed by 1,700 slave labourers over four years. After capture, it was demolished with 32 tonnes of bombs.[11]

Elbe II: 53°31′43″N 09°57′08″E / 53.52861°N 9.95222°E / 53.52861; 9.95222 (Hamburg - Elbe II Submarine Pen)
Fink II: 53°32′28″N 9°51′14″E / 53.541°N 09.854°E / 53.541; 09.854 (Hamburg - Fink II Submarine Pen)

The "Nordsee III" bunker was one of the oldest, being started in 1940. It was left alone until near the end of the war when it was attacked by the RAF. It was also used after the end of the war for testing new weapons. No trace of the pen has survived.[12]

54°10′38″N 7°53′37″E / 54.177199°N 07.893521°E / 54.177199; 07.893521 (Helgoland Submarine Pen)

This town was constantly bombed in World War II, the targets often being the "Kilian"and "Konrad" bunkers. They were started in 1941 and 1942 respectively. The latter was used for the construction of Seehund midget submarines.[13]

It was in "Kilian" that U-4708 was probably the only submarine to be lost in a bunker. Misguided bombs from an air raid on the town caused what might today be called a tsunami to cross the Förde and enter the bunker. Oberleutenant zur See Hans-Gerold Hauber, the captain of U-170, had courted ridicule by ordering all hatches on his boat to be closed, despite being in the bunker. "This simple precaution saved U-170 from sinking while lying next to U-4708".[14]


A U-boat bunker in Wilhelmshaven was planned but never got beyond the preliminary stage.[15]


The German occupying forces built many U-boat pens in the Atlantic ports of France in Bordeaux, Brest, La Rochelle/La Pallice, Lorient and Saint-Nazaire. Almost 4.4 million cubic metres of concrete was used.[16]


Submarine pen at Bordeaux

An unnamed bunker and bunkered lock were constructed in Bordeaux, the fourth largest French city at the start of the war. Both structures were started in 1941; the bunkered lock was not finished by war's end. The main building was larger than those in other locations; this was to allow supply boats and minelayers to use it. The Italian Navy established the Betasom base at Bordeaux. The port was also the target of a British commando raid - the so-called Cockleshell Heroes.[17]

44°52′11″N 0°33′31″W / 44.86972°N 0.55861°W / 44.86972; -0.55861 (Bordeaux Submarine Pen)

U-boat pens at Brest

The Brittany port only had one bunker, but it was the largest; it was also unnamed.[18] Started in 1941, the plans were modified many times before completion a year later. By February 1942 the RAF had lost interest in the area; most of the town had already been destroyed and they did not possess large enough bombs to seriously threaten the bunker. Between February 1942 and early 1943, apart from a few American aircraft, the place was left alone. The German garrison surrendered to US forces in September 1944. They had had sufficient explosives to cripple the bunker but did not use them due to the proximity of a hospital.[19]

48°22′00″N 04°31′20″W / 48.3666667°N 4.52222°W / 48.3666667; -4.52222 (Brest Submarine Pen)
La Rochelle/La Pallice

The U-Boat pens at La Rochelle

Construction of the U-boat base at La Pallice, 1942

Only six kilometres separate La Rochelle and La Pallice so they are usually considered as one port. An unnamed bunker was built at La Pallice; it was started in April 1941. Similar building techniques to those used in St. Nazaire were employed. Due to the relative ease of construction, the main structure was ready for its first U-boats six months later. A bunkered lock was begun in June 1942. It was completed in March 1944. Scenes for the film Das Boot (1981) were shot in La Pallice.

46°09′31″N 01°12′34″W / 46.15861°N 1.20944°W / 46.15861; -1.20944 (La Pallice Submarine Pen)

Keroman I and Keroman III, Lorient

The largest U-boat base was in Lorient. Three bunkers, "Keroman I", "II" and "III", the "Scorff" bunker and two "Dom" bunkers, east and west, were all begun in 1941. Two more were in the planning stage.

"Keroman I" was unique in that it required its U-boats to be "hauled out of the water, placed on a many-wheeled buggy and then transported into the bunker on a sliding bridge system." This arrangement might have been more vulnerable to air raids, but damage was minimal and it had the advantage of the U-boat not needing a dry dock. "Keroman II", being landlocked, was served by the same system.

Keroman I: 47°43′45″N 03°22′12″W / 47.72917°N 3.37°W / 47.72917; -3.37 (Lorient - Keroman I Submarine Pen)
Keroman II: 47°43′52″N 03°22′18″W / 47.73111°N 3.37167°W / 47.73111; -3.37167 (Lorient - Keroman II Submarine Pen)

"Keroman III" was more conventional, as was the "Scorff" bunker. The two "Dom" bunkers, (so-called because of their resemblance to the religious building, Dom means 'cathedral' in German), were located around a massive turntable which fed U-boats into the covered repair bays.

Keroman III: 47°43′38″N 03°22′02″W / 47.72722°N 3.36722°W / 47.72722; -3.36722 (Lorient - Keroman III Submarine Pen)
Scorff: 47°45′02″N 03°20′53″W / 47.75056°N 3.34806°W / 47.75056; -3.34806 (Lorient - Scroff Submarine Pen)
Dom (East): 47°43′56″N 03°22′02″W / 47.73222°N 3.36722°W / 47.73222; -3.36722 (Lorient - Dom (East) Submarine Pen)
Dom (West): 47°43′55″N 03°22′07″W / 47.73194°N 3.36861°W / 47.73194; -3.36861 (Lorient - Dom (West) Submarine Pen)

Karl Dönitz, head of the U-boat arm and later the chief of the German navy, had his headquarters at nearby Kernevel.


Roof of the U-boat base in Saint Nazaire.

Construction of a no-name bunker was commenced in 1941, as was a bunkered lock.[20] (But it should be noted that elsewhere in the reference, it states that "the excavations" for the bunkered lock were begun in October 1942).[21]

47°16′33″N 02°12′09″W / 47.27583°N 2.2025°W / 47.27583; -2.2025 (St.-Nazaire Submarine Pen)

The pens were not affected by the British commando raid in March 1942, whose main objective were the Normandie dock gates.


Norway is to some extent ruled by its weather. Building submarine pens was often hampered by snow and ice; the ground might have been chosen, but the occupation of France only a few months after Norway's surrender rather overshadowed the Scandinavian country as far as bunkers for U-boats was concerned. Nonetheless, a requirement for protection was identified. With the liberation of France in 1944, Norway regained its importance, but for barely a year.

The Norwegian bunkers in Bergen and Trondheim were originally designed to have two floors, the lower one for U-boats, the upper one for accommodation, workshops and offices. However, with the project running six months late, plans for the second storey were abandoned.[22]


Control of the Bergen project came under the German Naval Dockyard. Construction of "Bruno" commenced in 1941, with a Munich-based firm taking the lead. A shortage of labour was, along with the acquisition of raw materials in sufficient quantities and poor weather was always going to cause problems. Specialised machinery had to be imported, as did accommodation that could stand up to the harsh Norwegian winter.

In a bid to increase its protection, the bunker had granite blocks, each about a cubic metre in size, positioned on its roof. The shortage of cement ensured that the blocks could not be properly stuck down.[23]


Work on "Dora II" started in 1942. It was not completed. "Dora 1" had started the previous year, shortly after Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. This was fortuitous, as a ready supply of Russian prisoners of war (POW)s (all volunteers), became available. Despite any number of precautions being taken when putting in the foundations, Dora I developed a noticeable sag of 15 cm (5.9 in). It did not seem to bother the submariners as much as the builders.[24]

The Allied bombing offensive

U-boat facilities first became a bombing priority in March 1941 [25] and again during the Combined Bomber Offensive. The bunkers did not suffer as much as their surroundings until August 1944 when a new type of bomb was used against them, the "Tallboy".[26]

U-boat yards and pens were the primary objectives for the US Eighth Air Force from late 1942 to early 1943.[27][28] In the course of the war, the Allies used Operation Aphrodite radio-controlled aircraft, "Bat" guided bombs, "Disney" rocket-assisted bombs, Tallboy and Grand Slam deep penetration bombs to attack the U-boat pens.

A U boat pen concrete target had been built in the at Ashley Walk bombing range in the New Forest, Hampshire, to assist in preparation for these raids. It consisted of a concrete roof covering three shallow "pens". After the war it was buried in an earth mound, although its edges are once again visible in places due to weathering.

Bombing of U-boat pens and yards during World War II
Target Date Details
St-Nazaire February 15/16 1942 10 Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and six Handley Page Halifaxes; only nine aircraft bombed St Nazaire, in cloudy conditions. No aircraft were lost but three crashed in England[29]
St-Nazaire March 7/8 1942 17 aircraft bombed St Nazaire[30]
St-Nazaire March 25/26 1942 Minor Operations: 27 aircraft to St Nazaire—one Vickers Wellington lost[30]
St-Nazaire March 27/28 1942 35 Whitleys and 27 Wellingtons bombed German positions around St Nazaire in support of the naval and Commando raid to destroy the Normandie dock gates in the port. The submarine pens were incidental to the raid which was aimed at preventing use of the dry-dock by capital ships. The aircraft were ordered to bomb only if the target had clear visibility. Conditions were bad, however, with 10/10ths cloud and icing, only four aircraft bombed at St Nazaire. Six aircraft bombed elsewhere. One Whitley was lost at sea[30]
St-Nazaire January 3, 1943 The first use of Lieutenant Colonel Curtis LeMay's modification of formation bombing to stagger three-plane elements within a squadron and stagger squadrons within a group was the "sixth raid on Saint Nazaire". With LeMay in command of the 305th Bomb Wing, 76 of 101 dispatched aircraft found the target and used a straight and level bomb run. Seven machines were shot down and 47 were damaged. The majority of bombs hit the submarine pens
Lorient January 15, 1943 The 317th air raid on Lorient dropped 20,000 incendiary bombs[31]
St-Nazaire January 16, 1943 Two waves of B-17 Flying Fortresses inflicted major damage and killed 27 people[31]
Wilhelmshaven January 27, 1943 The US VIII Bomber Command dispatched ninety-one B-17s and B-24 Liberators to attack the U-Boat construction yards at Wilhelmshaven, the very first 8th Air Force heavy bomber attack directed at Germany itself.[32] Three bombers (one B-17 and two B-24s) were shot down, only 53 aircraft actually dropped their bombs on the target due to bad weather conditions
Lorient January 23 and 26
Feb 3, 4, 7, 13 and 16
Mar 6
Apr 16
May 17, 1943
Lorient was bombed and the city was evacuated[31]
Bremen June 3/4 1943 170 aircraft attacked in the first large raid on Bremen since October 1941. 11 aircraft - four Wellingtons, two Halifaxes, two Avro Lancasters, two Short Stirlings and one Avro Manchester were lost. Bremen recorded this as a heavy attack, the results of which exceeded all previous raids. Housing areas were badly hit with six streets affected by serious fires. Damage to the U-boat construction yards and the Focke-Wulf factory was described as "of no importance" but there were hits in the harbour area which damaged a pier, some warehouses and the destroyer Z-25.[Clarification needed] 83 people were killed, 29 were seriously injured and 229 slightly injured (Bremen's third heaviest casualty toll in the war)[33]
Wilhelmshaven June 11, 1943 VIII Bomber Command, Mission Number 62: 252 B-17s were dispatched against the "U-boat yard at Wilhelmshaven" and the port area at Cuxhaven; 218 hit the targets; VIII Bomber Command claimed 85-20-24 Luftwaffe aircraft, with the loss of eight aircraft and 62 damaged. American casualties were 3 KIA, 20 WIA and 80 MIA. The raid on Wilhelmshaven demonstrated the difficulty of operating beyond the range of escort fighters as enemy fighter attacks prevented accurate bombing of the target[34]
Bremen and Kiel June 13, 1943 VIII Bomber Command, Mission Number 63: 151 B-17s were dispatched against the Bremen U-boat yards; 122 hit the target, claiming 2-2-1 Luftwaffe aircraft, with four lost and 31 damaged; casualties were eight WIA and 32 MIA. A smaller force of 76 B-17s was dispatched to the Kiel U-boat yards; 60 hit the target and claimed 39-5-14 Luftwaffe aircraft; Bomber Command lost 22 aircraft, one was damaged beyond repair and 23 were damaged. The heaviest fighter attacks to date against the Eighth Air Force accounted for 26 B-17s, mostly of the force attacking Kiel[34]
St-Nazaire June 28, 1943 VIII Bomber Command, Mission Number 69: 191 B-17s were dispatched against the "locks and submarine pens at Saint-Nazaire"; 158 hit the target. Bomber Command claimed 28-6-8 Luftwaffe aircraft, for the loss of eight B-17s and 57 damaged[34]
Deutsche Werke, Kiel December 1943 B-17 and B-24 bombing destroyed one workshop (100%), another workshop and storage building (80%), a factory workship and boat building (67%); a number of other buildings were damaged; a submarine under construction and workshops for engines and engineering were hit[27]
Deutsche Werke, Kiel July 23/24 1944 In the first major raid on a German city for two months, 629 aircraft - including 10 de Havilland Mosquitos - were dispatched in this first RAF (since April 1943) and heaviest RAF raid of the war on the target. In less than half an hour, all parts of Kiel were hit but the bombing was particularly heavy in the port areas and all of the important "U-boat yards" and naval facilities were hit. The presence of around 500 delayed-action or unexploded bombs caused severe problems for the rescue and repair services. There was no water for three days; trains and buses did not run for eight days and there was no gas for cooking for three weeks[35]
Brest August 5, 1944 15 Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF, with two supporting Mosquitos, attacked the U-boat pens and scored six direct hits with Tallboys penetrating the concrete roofs. One Lancaster was shot down by flak. Subsequent attempts to reinforce other sites with even thicker concrete diverted resources from other projects.[36]
Lorient August 6, 1944 617 Squadron attacked Lorient again, with two hits.[36][37][38]
Lorient August 7, 1944 The Tallboy bombing mission to Lorient was scrubbed[37]
La Pallice August 8, 1944 Iveson dropped one Tallboy[37]
La Pallice and Bordeaux August 11, 1944 53 Lancasters and three Mosquitos of No 5 Group RAF attacked U-boat pens at "Bordeaux and La Pallice" with 2,000 lb armour-piercing bombs, but the bombs did not penetrate the roofs. No aircraft were lost[36]
Brest, La Pallice, and Bordeaux August 12, 1944 68 Lancasters of No 1 Group and two Mosquitos of No 5 Group attacked "pens at Brest, La Pallice and Bordeaux" without loss. A U-boat was believed to have been hit at La Pallice[36]
Brest August 13, 1944 28 Lancasters and one Mosquito of No 5 Group attacked the "U-boat pens and shipping at Brest". Hits were claimed on the pens, on the hulk of an old French battleship, the Clemenceau and on a medium-sized tanker. The object of the attacks on ships was to prevent the Germans using any of the vessels in Brest to block the harbour just before its capture by American troops[36]
La Pallice and Bordeaux August 16, 1944 25 Lancasters and one Mosquito of No 5 Group to attack the U-boat pens at La Pallice found the target was cloud-covered and only three aircraft bombed. No aircraft were lost[36]
La Pallice August 17, 1944 Mission 559: A B-17 dropped "Bat" guided bombs on La Pallice.[34] One impacted 1 mile (1.6 km) short and the second about 1 mile to the right of the target[39][40]
IJmuiden August 28, 1944 Iveson dropped one Tallboy[37]
Heligoland September 3, 1944 The US Navy controller flew the Operation Aphrodite SAU-1 drone (B-24D 42-63954)[41][42] into Duene Island by mistake
Heligoland September 11, 1944 During the first Castor mission of Operation Aphrodite, the pilot of B-17 42-30180 (Guzzlers) was killed when his parachute failed to open on bailout[43][44]
Heligoland October 15, 1944 Mission 678A:[45] Two B-17s[46] of Operation Aphrodite attacked the Heligoland U-boat pens[43]
Bergen October 28/29 1944 237 Lancasters and seven Mosquitos of No 5 Group attacked the U-boat pens at Bergen. The area was cloud-covered, therefore the Master Bomber tried to bring the force down below 5,000 ft but cloud was still encountered and he ordered the raid to be abandoned after only 47 Lancasters had bombed. Three Lancasters were lost[47]
Heligoland October 30, 1944 Mission 693A:[34] One Castor Operation Aphrodite drone lost contact, went out of control and crashed near Trollhättan, Sweden. The other drone was B-17 42-3438[Clarification needed][43]
IJmuiden[Clarification needed] December 15, 1944 17 Lancasters attacked with Tallboy bombs but the target was obscured by a smokescreen[37][48]
IJmuiden December 30, 1944 13 Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron set out to bomb the "U-boat pens at IJmuiden" but the raid was abandoned because of bad weather[48]
IJmuiden January 12, 1945 No. 617 Squadron attacked the U-boat pens with Tallboys,[37] but smoke obscured the results[49]
Bergen[37] January 12, 1945 32 Lancasters and one Mosquito of No 9 and No. 617 Squadrons attacked "U-boat pens and shipping in Bergen harbour". Three Lancasters of No 617 Squadron and one from No. 9 Squadron were lost; the Germans told the local people that 11 bombers had been shot down. A local report says that three Tallboys penetrated the 3½-metre-thick roof of the pens and caused severe damage to workshops, offices and stores[49]
IJmuiden and Poortershaven February 3, 1945 36 Lancasters attacked "U-boat pens at IJmuiden" (No. 9 Squadron) and "Poortershaven" (No. 617 Squadron) with Tallboys without loss. Hits were claimed on both targets[50]
IJmuiden February 8, 1945 15 Lancasters of 617 Squadron dropped Tallboys on the "U-boat pens at IJmuiden" without loss[50]
IJmuiden February 10, 1945 Mission 825: nine of 164 B-17s on a 92nd Bombardment Group mission against the U-boat pens at IJmuiden, the Netherlands, first used the Royal Navy Disney rocket-boosted concrete piercing bomb[34]
Oslo Fjord February 23/24 1945 73 Lancasters and 10 Mosquitos carried out an accurate attack on a "possible U-boat base at Horten on the Oslo Fjord". One Lancaster was lost[50]
Bremen (Farge)[51] March 27, 1945 20 Lancasters of 617 Squadron attacked the Valentin submarine pens,[52] two Grand Slam bombs penetrated two metres and detonated[53] which rendered the shelter unusable. No aircraft were lost.[50]
Bremen March 30, 1945 303rd BG (H) Combat Mission No. 348: 38 aircraft were dispatched to bomb Bremen. The "submarine building yards" were the first priority target (PDF)
Hamburg/Finkenwerder April 4, 1945
Hamburg April 9, 1945 17 aircraft of 617 Squadron, with Grand Slam and Tallboy bombs, successfully attacked the "U-boat shelters". No aircraft were lost[54]
Kiel April 9/10 1945 591 Lancasters and eight Mosquitos of Nos 1, 3 and 8 Groups attacked Kiel. Three Lancasters were lost. This was an accurate raid, made in good visibility on two aiming points in the harbour area. Photographic reconnaissance showed that the Deutsche Werke U-boat yard was severely damaged, the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer was hit and capsized, the cruisers Admiral Hipper and the Emden were badly damaged. The local diary says that "all 3 shipyards" in the port were hit and that nearby residential areas were severely damaged[54]
Kiel April 13/14 1945 377 Lancasters and 105 Halifaxes of Nos 3, 6 and 8 Groups attacked Kiel for two Lancasters lost. This raid was directed against the port area, with the "U-boat yards" as the main objective. RAF Bomber Command rated this as "a poor attack" with scattered bombing[54]
Heligoland April 18, 1945 969 aircraft - 617 Lancasters, 332 Halifaxes and 20 Mosquitos of all groups - successfully attacked the "Naval base, airfield, & town" "almost [creating a] crater-pitted moonscape".[54] Three Halifaxes were lost,[54] the islands were evacuated the following night
Heligoland April 19, 1945 No. 9 and 617 Squadrons used Tallboys against "coastal battery positions"[54][Clarification needed]


Entrance to submarine pen on Vis, Croatia.

Jugoslav People's Army used submarines as well, one of the pens is located on island of Vis; it is carved inside natural hill and is now abandoned and freely accessible from sea or by foot. Location: 43°4′41.26″N 16°10′53.01″E / 43.0781278°N 16.1813917°E / 43.0781278; 16.1813917


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