Thursday, November 09, 2006

Mystery submarine wrecks could be German U-boats


By Ian Johnston
November 09, 2206

ORKNEY, Scotland -- Wrecks of two mysterious submarines have been discovered off the coast of Orkney in an area where there were no reports of wartime sinkings, a coastguard official said yesterday.

A survey team examining the sea floor around the islands discovered the wrecks lying in about 70 metres of water to the east of Sanday Sound.

Grainy images of the submarines were captured using the latest three-dimensional sonar device, but their identity and nationalities are not known.

An Orkney diver speculated that the vessels might have been German U-boats sunk during the Second World War. There were reports that the Royal Navy had successfully depth-charged U-boats, but this took place several miles away.

The wrecks were found during work surveying the seabed around the islands, which also produced new images of captured German ships that were scuttled by their crews at the end of the First World War.

Rob Spillard, hydrography manager of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said the sunken submarines were something of a mystery.

"We have no idea which subs they are, which nationality or who died in them," he said.

"We have passed the details on to various divers and there has been a bit of interest. But the subs are in about 70 metres of water, which is really pushing it for divers to get there.

"Whenever you go surveying, you get reports of what they know has sunk in the area. There are a number of reports of subs being depth-charged [during the Second World War] but those reports don't seem to correlate with where the wrecks are.

"Whether it was a German sub that was depth-charged and then struggled off or something else is impossible to tell."

He said while Britain had been a great naval power and was a world leader in underwater survey techniques, parts of UK waters had still not been surveyed.

"It is really surprising. We have managed to survey most of New Zealand and Australia's waters, but haven't done some here," Mr Spillard said. "Probably about 90 per cent has been done, but Scotland has a large number of areas that haven't been surveyed."

Bobby Forbes, of Sula Diving, said it would be possible to attempt to identify the submarines. "You don't have to dive them, you can send an ROV [remote operated vehicle] - it's a lot safer at those depths."

Mr Forbes said he suspected the submarines were German U-boats. "Vessels and ships can be quite a distance from where they are reported to have sunk," he said. "They may have lost some material, giving an indication they had sunk, but may have just been badly damaged and glided down to the sea bed."

Mr Forbes and Mr Spillard were both involved in the ScapaMAP consortium, which included Historic Scotland and New Hampshire University in the United States, which also carried out the second major survey of the scuttled German fleet at Scapa Flow.

More than 50 ships were sunk in June 1919 on the orders of Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter to prevent the German fleet falling into Allied hands. Nine German sailors were shot by the British as troops tried to prevent the scuttling, which was highly successful with only one capital ship saved.

After numerous salvage operations and the effects of 90 years under the sea, there are only seven main wrecks left and these are now officially protected.

Mr Spillard said he was thrilled as the ghostly shapes of those wrecks began to appear on the scanner of the coastguard tug Anglian Sovereign.

"It was really impressive," he said. "Vessels are almost more exciting when they are on the seabed than when they're floating on top of it. It really was nice to see something out there, especially something with a story behind it."

It has been claimed that senior British officials had in some way colluded with the Scapa scuttling operation to avoid the ships being handed over to the US, Italy or France during peace treaty negotiations at Versailles, a claim perhaps prompted by the decision to send away most of the guarding fleet.

Mr Spillard, who has looked into the history of the scuttling, said he doubted this but added: "I believe the British may have turned a blind eye. The higher echelons probably weren't too bothered and weren't trying too hard to stop it happening."



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