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.