Thursday, September 21, 2006

Our coast a graveyard for lost subs


September 21, 2006

THE sea off East Anglia is a submarine graveyard. More British vessels were lost here, during the two world wars, than in any other coastal area.

The authors of a new book point out that “British coastal waters were transformed into a pitiless arena where a deadly struggle was played out between U-boats trying to close the sea-lanes and Allied warships determined to keep them open.”

Of the 150 or so submarines wrecked around Britain, 19 hit trouble off East Anglia. More than half of them were British.

“The proximity of East Anglia to the Flanders bases brought the U-boats to this coast during the First World War,” explain authors Ron Young and Pamela Armstrong in Silent Warriors ­- Submarine Wrecks of the United Kingdom.

“There were other attractions, notably the imperative to obtain a navigational fix. Numerous lightships and buoys such as Smiths Knoll” - more or less due east from Lowestoft - “and Shipwash” - near Harwich and Felixstowe - “drew U-boats like moths to a flame”.

When things went badly, many submariners paid the ultimate price - as testified by the naval graves at St Mary's Church, Shotley, near Ipswich. There were survivors, too - usually with tales of heroism to tell as they literally escaped a watery grave by seconds.

Take courageous Petty Officer William Brown, stranded in the partly-flooded engine room of his submarine, the E41, as it filled with chlorine gas. The vessel had collided with another sub, the E4, during an exercise off Harwich on August 15, 1916. Both sunk. All 33 crew members of E4 drowned, along with 16 on E41.

Brown must have been terrified. He tried to disconnect the torpedo hatch from its gearing and remove the clips - a tall order for one man. Gagging because of the fumes, and with achingly-cold water up to his waist, he was forced to wait until there was enough pressure in the sub to ease the hatch open. It was also pitch black, apart from flashes from shorting fuses.

Eventually he had to flood the boat speedily so the water came up level with the coaming - the raised border around the opening. He could then open the hatch and escape.

“By this time, PO Brown was standing with ice-cold water up to his jaw-line before the hatch would open. One and a half hours after E41 sank, PO Brown popped up on the surface to be rescued,” say Young and Armstrong.

Even when no-one died, the experience was unimaginable.

In May, 1940, the German coastal torpedo patrol sub U 13 left Kiel for operations in the southern North Sea. It was spotted, on the surface, by the sloop HMS Weston. The ship's records report the sub then crash-diving to about 100 feet. Weston dropped six depth charges, half of which exploded fairly close to U 13 - putting its depth gauge out of action. Another six smashed instrument glasses and triggered minor leaks. Weston dropped more; one of which exploded close to the conning tower and did considerable damage inside the U-boat.

Weston lost contact with the sub for a while, which was moving slowly, keeping as close to the seabed as possible and touching it several times. When contact was regained after half an hour, the ship dropped more depth charges.

“The fourth attack put all the lights out in the U-boat and caused leaking to become serious; as Weston turned to pass over the position after the fifth attack, it surfaced right ahead 400 yards away,” say the records.

“Weston was not moving fast enough to ram; she opened fire but the crew were seen to be gathering abaft the conning tower, shouting with their hands up. The U-boat sank within two minutes.”

The 26-strong crew was picked up and British divers salvaged some Enigma coding motors and the operating manual.

A set of Admiral Karl Dönitz's standing orders was also found, and was later used against the German naval leader at the Nuremburg war-crime trials.

“The 'orders' stated: 'Do not rescue any men; do not take them along; and do not take care of any boats of the ship.' Dönitz claimed he was forced to issue such a notice because too many of his skippers were wont to carry out humane rescues, which was 'suicide for the U-boat' in the heavily-patrolled waters around Britain,” the book explains.

The U 13 went down 11 nautical miles south-east of Lowestoft. The wreck now lies on sand and gravel about 28m down. It's upright, with the tower in place and its hatch open, according to Silent Warriors.

There was plenty of maritime activity in Essex, too, where Harwich was home to a major British submarine base in both wars.

“In August 1914 HMS Maidstone and Adamant anchored at the west end of Parkeston Quay, with the submarines of the 8th Flotilla. By July 1916 the depot ship HMS Forth moved form Immingham to Harwich. The 9th Submarine Flotilla was henceforth constituted at Harwich . . .

“Given the presence of the 1st and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas, all elbowing for space, Harwich Harbour must have been crowded.”

Things were less intensive during the Second World War. Early on, the only designated east coast submarine stations were at Blyth (Northumberland) and Rosyth (Scotland). Harwich was added later, following fears about a Nazi invasion of Holland.

“Operational patrols ceased in the autumn of 1940. All that remained were four wooden dummy submarines riding on buoys alongside Parkeston Quay.”

It's interesting that only a handful of the subs lost off East Anglia were victims of direct enemy action.

A significant number of British subs were wrecked in accidents - mostly during the First World War - but it was explosive mines that claimed the most victims.

“Submariners learned to fear mines above all else. A skipper could use his skill to escape ramming and depth charges, but sea-mines were different; like some terrible, mysterious, ancient god, all-powerful and merciless.

“Between 23 and 24 April 1918 the submarine E41 laid a large minefield designed to protect Harwich and the war channel. This field may well have claimed UC 11 [a German sub] - and probably many others stamped as 'verschollen' (missing) in German naval archives - but mines also took the crews of C33, D5, E6, E30 and E37. [British vessels.]

“Both sides liberally mined East Anglian waters in the First World War and there seems little doubt that submarines of both nations were destroyed on their own mines, loose or otherwise. All it took was for the compass to wander (as it inevitably would) as the submarine approached land. The ubiquitous east coast fret [a ruffling wind] would do the rest and under these circumstances charts would be useless.

“In the middle of a minefield, courage and seamanship count for little; a crew could only pray. A few men on watch sometimes escaped from the conning tower of a submarine mined on the surface but, almost invariably, a boat mined while submerged will be a submarine lost with all hands.”

During the 1939-45 conflict, explain Young and Armstrong, the Kriegsmarine - the German navy - tended to leave East Anglia to E-boats (small but fast German torpedo boats), mines and aircraft. A sub, U15, did mine the Lowestoft roads (sheltered water near land, where ships rest at anchor) in November, 1939, however.

German-based maritime historian Dr Axel Niestlé, who has written a foreword for Silent Warriors, explains that interpretations have generally had to rely on written records; these could be missing or incomplete.

It's only advances in technology that has brought many wrecks within reach of divers - and thus allowed experts to more accurately piece together what happened all those years ago.

“The large number of naval sailors who perished or went missing aboard the many submarine vessels now laying strewn on the seabed around Britain deserve to have their final fates and resting places correctly recorded for their ancestors and history,” he says.

(blob) Silent Warriors is published by Tempus at £19.99. ISBN 07524 3876 X. Volume one covers wrecks off the east coast: from north-east England round to Kent.

MOST of the stories told in Silent Warriors demonstrate courage, dedication and ingenuity in the face of terrible and overwhelming odds.

Take the British coastal patrol submarine C16, which on the morning of April 16, 1917, was involved in routine exercises seven miles off Harwich that also featured the sub C25 and the destroyer Melampus.

C16 was meant to make a pretend attack on the destroyer, but hit it and never came to the surface. The wreck wasn't found until about six hours later.

Sixteen men drowned, but it was later found that they had put saving the boat higher than saving their own skins.

The impact had bent the conning tower and periscope. Damaged air pipes stopped the sub surfacing. The crew's initial plan was to fire First Lieutenant Sam Anderson out of a torpedo tube with a watertight bag tied to his wrist. This contained the message: “We are in 16 feet of water. The way to get us out is to lift the bows by the spectacle and haul us out of the boat through the tubes.”

Authors Ron Young and Pamela Armstrong reflect: “The courage required for a man to allow himself to be fired from a flooded torpedo tube defies language and imagination, but this course of action was inspired by German escapes.” This time, however, the attempt failed.

With carbon dioxide levels rising, another plan was drawn up, but the crew found they couldn't open or close the hatch properly and, tragically, the North Sea flooded in.

Lieutenant Harold Boase and nine crew are buried in the “submarine enclosure” of the Royal Navy plot at St Mary's, Shotley.

A dramatic account of what it was like inside a fatally-damaged submarine filling with water is given by Oberleutnant zur See Kurt Utke, sole survivor when the mine-laying sub UC 11 went down in 1918, about 13 miles east of Landguard Point, Felixstowe.

It had sailed from Zeebrugge to lay mines near the Sunk light vessel. On June 26 it was submerged, at about 15m, when there was an explosion. They'd hit a mine.

Utke had taken command of the sub only on June 17. Silent Warriors gives extracts from his account of the incident.

“Down, down we went. Hansen was chanting the rosary; others were resigned to death like the good U-boatman ought to be . . . Men cried out as the water covered their heads. I was proud to call them my crew.” Utke managed to lift the clips on the hatch “and 'Whoosh!'; I was blown out of my dying boat. I too resigned myself to death. I thought of my parents, my dog and all the things I would never live to do. I thought my lungs would burst long before I ever reached the surface. Suddenly I was there, on the surface, alone.”

About half an hour later he was picked up by lifeboat. The book says UC 11 - which had sunk 29 vessels - had almost certainly hit a mine it had laid on an earlier operation. Nineteen people died.

MANY of those who perished in the North Sea found a final resting place within the Commonwealth War Graves Commission naval cemetery at St Mary's Church, Shotley.

Ron Young and Pamela Armstrong put it poetically: “German and Briton, veteran and novice, their voyages ended here, at this tranquil maritime Valhalla beside the Suffolk marshes.”

Among them is Leading Seaman W Barge, whose efforts with a machine gun to repel a German seaplane attack on the sub C25 in 1918 were captured on a series of much-reproduced German photographs. The sub was towed back to Harwich with the sailor fatally wounded.

Authors Ron Young and Pamela Armstrong believe that E4 Boy Telegraphist J. Denison, aged 16 and from Leeds, was the youngest British submariner to die in war.

The commission says there are 235 identified casualties at St Mary's: 201 Commonwealth burials from 1914-1918, eight of them unidentified, and 34 from the Second World War - two of which are unidentified Royal Navy seamen. There are also 13 Germans from the First World War - one of them unidentified.


War History: Filmmaker to give talk on lethal German U-boat activity along N.C.'s coast


Journal Now
By Stephanie Stallings
September 21, 2006

During six months in 1942, German U-boats sunk or damaged 397 ships, killing 5,000 people off the eastern seaboard of the United States. More people were killed on the Atlantic Ocean during that time than died at Pearl Harbor.

Yet many people have never heard that the East Coast, and particularly the area off the North Carolina's Outer Banks, was the theater for one of the Allies' worst defeats of World War II.

Kevin Duffus, an independent maritime historian and award-winning documentary filmmaker, will talk about this subject at the Bermuda Run Country Club in Advance on Sept. 27. He will speak from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. as part of the "Lunch and Learn" seminar program.

The Davie Campus of Davidson Community College will sponsor the program. The final day for registration, which is $20 a person and includes lunch, is Friday.

"One of my greatest joys is meeting wonderful people, interested in learning about North Carolina history," Duffus said in a telephone interview at his Raleigh office.

Sixty five German U-boats hunted predominantly merchant vessels, virtually unopposed by the U.S. Navy, for six months in 1942, many in view of coastal communities off the Outer Banks, Duffus said. Their goal was to choke Great Britain of direly needed oil and food imports.

Duffus' program, illustrated with a PowerPoint presentation, will focus on eyewitness accounts of these attacks. Duffus also will discuss rumors of German sympathizers, spies and attempted saboteurs that survive, some as urban legends, to this day.

Duffus' presentation is encapsulated by the story of two births: the first, the remarkable birth of a baby at sea in a lifeboat after a German U-boat torpedoed a passenger ship.

The program ends with the story of a British lieutenant and friend of a Coast Guard member, who lives on the Outer Bank. The officer learned of the birth of his son just before he was killed by a German torpedo.

Duffus later met the lieutenant's son when he came to America to see his father honored in an annual ceremony, held every year on the second Friday of May on the Outer Banks at a place called the "British Cemetery."

The ceremony, which was first held in 1976, honors the lives of British soldiers who gave their lives defending U.S. ships and shores from German U-boats.

Duffus said he was inspired by the Outer Banks when he was 15 and read Graveyard of the Atlantic by David Stick. The stories of pirates, shipwrecks and the many mysteries of the Outer Banks captivated Duffus.

Duffus later met Stick, and today the two are close friends. This book planted the seed for what would later become Duffus' life work, he said.

The documentary film, War Zone: World War II Off North Carolina's Outer Banks, chronicles the actions of the German U-boats on the East Coast, and serves as the basis for his lecture. Duffus produced, directed and edited the film. Based on photographs from the National Archives, the film uses more than 400 images from World War II and interviews with residents, sailors and coast guardsmen.

Joe Brandt, a former local radio broadcaster, narrates the film. The North Carolina-based Gregg Gelb swing band performs the soundtrack, which uses Big Band swing music.

Duffus has recently published a book titled Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: An Illustrated Guide. The book, Duffus said, gives a general perspective about the culture and maritime history of the N.C. coast.

Other accomplishments for Duffus include several award-winning documentaries, a new discovery about the pirate Blackbeard and solving the mystery of the whereabouts of the lens from the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.

Duffus, who spends about 25 percent of his time giving talks and discussions about the material he has written or filmed, said, "As an independent author and filmmaker, going around and speaking is the best way to promote what I do."

All of his work is published through his own company, Looking Glass Productions.

Duffus is a member of the N.C. Humanities Council speakers' board, which includes 63 people who speak on various topics about North Carolina.

To register for his lecutre or for more information, call 751-2885.

The program is paid for by a grant from the N.C. Humanities Council.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Unexpected USS Monitor artifacts turn up during cleanup

By Mark St. John Erickson
September 17, 2006

Four years after Navy divers pulled the USS Monitor gun turret from the ocean's grasp, the historic Civil War artifact has compiled a long record of surprising conservators with its secrets.

But few revelations have been more unexpected than the artifacts that turned up during seemingly routine excavations inside the new conservation facility at The Mariners' Museum this summer.

Probing though some of the last deposits that remain after the removal of tons of sediment, concretion and sand, conservators David Krop and Susanne Grieve knew their chances of coming across any overlooked finds were slim. Yet hidden under layers of accumulated grit that now measure as little as 2 inches thick was an assortment of unanticipated artifacts, including a trio of buttons, a mysterious iron crank and a piece of chalk that once stroked messages to the ill-fated vessel's sailors.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was a quartet of brass-jacketed bullets that seemed to come out of nowhere. Not only were they the first examples of ammunition found on the famous warship but they also emerged in an entirely unsuspected location.

"I must have had my nose pressed against that exact spot on at least a dozen different occasions," says Jeff Johnston, the historian for Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, describing a familiar site on the turret's interior wall.

"But it just shows you why we don't want to go in there and start chipping away until we hit bottom. You never know what's in there under the surface - or what you're going to expose when you remove the next layer."

Recovered from the ocean floor off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in August 2004, the famous iron cylinder has required a lengthy and often complex series of conservation steps as the Newport News museum and sanctuary office - which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - have labored to preserve it.

Immersed in the Atlantic for more than 140 years, its chloride-contaminated iron plates will spall and rupture disastrously if allowed to dry out. That means constant interruptions from a system of overhead water sprinklers whenever the conservators drain the turret's immense, 95,000-gallon tank in order to carry out their work.

Despite such obstacles, the museum and the sanctuary - with the help of engineers and riggers from Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard - have successfully removed the heavy but fragile iron beams that braced the bottom of the turret and supported its pair of 9-ton Dahlgren guns. They also have hoisted both of the historic cannon as well as their ponderous carriages, completing the delicate move from the turret to individual conservation tanks without causing any damage to the inscribed surfaces on the 13-foot-long barrels.

Since completing that task in late 2004, much of the conservators' efforts have focused on documenting the turret's newly cleared and stabilized interior, which they mapped with the aid of digital laser scanners. In August, they began a new excavation campaign aimed at clearing some of the last bits of sediment and concretion from the walls and ceiling - which now forms the floor of the upside-down cylinder.

Using their hands to probe the softer deposits and pneumatic air chisels to peel off the concretions, Krop and Grieve - joined by three East Carolina University students working as NOAA interns - spent four weeks removing and then sifting through the seemingly unpromising accumulations. But it didn't take long for the first discovery to galvanize their attention.

"We were looking at areas that had been gone over before," Krop says. "And then, all of a sudden, there was a button - and then this piece of chalk in the remaining sediment.

"It's always great when you find things like this - and this was really unexpected."

Krop's surprise was intensified by the personal nature of some of the objects that emerged.

The buttons, in particular, provide a concrete link to the stormy Dec. 31, 1862 night when the Monitor sank - and many of its crewmen struggled to remove their heavy winter coats before leaping to the deck and attempting to reach the lifeboats.

"You can just imagine them standing there inside the turret - tearing things off before they jumped into the water," Krop says. "These guys really were scrambling for their lives - and some of them didn't make it."

Almost as evocative is a chunk of chalk once used to scribble out messages to the officers and crew on a slate board. According to accounts of the sinking, the captain used one such board to communicate to an escort ship alongside the ironclad, saying that he'd hang a red lantern as a distress signal if the Monitor started to go down.

Other artifacts, including a simple wooden handle, may have great historic value because of their use during the Monitor's pioneering clash with the CSS Virginia - also known as the Merrimack - in the March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads.

"We've found lots of handles," Krop says. "Some are bone and were parts of silverware. Some are iron wrapped in canvas - and they were parts of the gun tools. But the lanyards for the Monitor's guns had a simple handle that looked a lot like this."

Even such seemingly nondescript finds as the brass-jacketed bullets can have important documentary value, Johnston says.

In an era when most small firearms still used percussion caps - and required their users to ram Minie balls and paper gunpowder cartridges down the muzzle into the barrel - these self-contained breech-loading projectiles represented unusually advanced technology.

"Breech-loaders were state-of-the-art - so it's just the sort of thing that you'd expect on the Monitor," he says.

"They were taking state-of-the-art firearms and putting them on their state-of-the-art vessel. There wasn't much that was old-fashioned about this ship."


Monday, September 04, 2006

Old Subs Do Eventually Die


Strategy Page
September 04, 2006

The U.S. Navy is taking it's oldest, and only diesel-electric, submarine out of service. The USS Dolphin (AGSS-555) is a research sub that entered service in the late 1960s. It can dive to a depth of 3,000 feet. Displacing only 950 tons (about half the size of diesel electric combat subs), it has a crew of 66. The Dolphin just underwent a $50 million, three year, round of repairs and upgrades (2002-5), but the sub costs $18 million a year to maintain, and the navy can no longer justify the expense. Since the end of the Cold War, the Dolphin has been used more for civilian science projects. Again, the high cost of maintaining the Dolphin will probably prevent any civilian scientific organizations from stepping forward to pick up the tab.

Over the last thirty years, the Dolphin was used as a test bed for many new submarine technologies. However, because of its unique design (especially the internal structure), it could not operate much like a conventional diesel-electric combat sub. However, the diesel-electric power plant did leave the navy with some sailors and officers familiar with this technology, despite the rest of American subs being nuclear powered.