Wednesday, December 27, 2006

U-boats off the North-East


This Is Hertfordshire
December 26, 2006

IN the Astley Arms at Seaton Sluice, between Whitley Bay and Blyth, is a bottle of whisky that's never to be opened. It recalls a poignant episode in the Second World War. On Boxing Day, 1939, sub-mariner ERH 'Tug' Wilson won the bottle of Johnnie Walker in a sweepstake at the pub. Due to leave within hours on a mission to the enemy-controlled Heligoland Bight, in a U-boat from a group then based in Blyth, he handed the bottle to the landlady, Lydia Jackson, for safe keeping.

But Tug's vessel, Seahorse, never returned. Her fate is a mystery, but up to her retirement long after the war, Lydia kept Tug's prize behind the bar, ready for his return. To ensure its future, she then presented the bottle to the Royal Navy's Submarine Museum. But a symbolic replacement, unopened, of course, remains a treasured relic at the Astley.

Telling this story in the superb opening volume of an ambitious record of every known submarine wreck around Britain, Ron Young and Pamela Armstrong reveal that the North-East has exceptionally strong links with the sinister yet also chillingly-heroic submarine warfare. As they declare in only their second sentence: "This spectacular coastline has been mute witness to momentous events.''

On September 5, 1914, just a month and a day after Britain was drawn into war with Germany, the torpedoing of a British cruiser, Pathfinder, off Berwick, gave her the unwanted distinction of being the first warship in naval history to be sunk by a submarine in the open sea.

Fast forward to November 10, 1918, the day before the Armistice. Sunk with all hands off the Farne Isles, HMS Ascot, thus became, say Young and Armstrong, "almost certainly the last British warship torpedoed in the First World War".

Meanwhile, Blyth had been the Royal Navy's main training station for sub-mariners. Still the base for a flotilla of submarines in World War II, it suffered more losses than any other U-boat port.

But near the coast most losses were of German U-boats. And - such are the whims of history - one yielded another "bottle" story.

On April 16, 1945, U-boat 1274 sank a tanker carrying molasses, in a convoy off the Farne Islands. But an escort destroyer, HMS Viceroy, tracked her down and dropped depth charges, which sent her to the bottom. Among the debris was a bottle of brandy, which was later presented to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

All 43 of 1274's crew perished, entombed in the vessel, which is now a war grave. Young and Armstrong report that it is "still intact, except for the stern end, where, it seems, a number of the depth charges exploded. . . The hatches are still sealed". With the end of the war just three weeks away, 1274, noted by Young and Armstrong as "one of the very last U boats destroyed in Home Waters during the Second World War", added another especially tragic distinction to the North-East coast.

Covering the entire East Coast, including Kent, this meticulously-researched account has separate chapters for the North-East (Berwick-Middlesbrough) and Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. The authors have painstakingly pieced together the stories of the 16 U-boat wrecks so far located - seven off the North-East coast, nine off Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

They provide full technical details of the vessels, describe the events leading up to their loss, and list the victims, including, where available, those on ships attacked by the U-boats prior to their own destruction. The present state of the wreck, established by divers, completes the remarkable record.

Prominent in it is a renowned German commander, Werner Furbringer. A brilliant sub-mariner and honourable man, he once nursed his U-boat back to her home port after she had been so severely damaged that she drifted for two days. On July 9, 1918, instructed to attack an ironworks near Seaham, he audaciously took his boat, UB 39, right into the harbour and fired 39 shells, matching his boat's number. He escaped without even submerging.

Although the attack cost the life of a woman walking on the cliffs, Young and Armstrong say: "There is convincing evidence that the humane Furbringer deliberately fired his symbolic barrage over rather than at the town.''

By coincidence, Furbringer and his UB 39 take a starring role in another intriguing drama, seemingly overlooked by Young and Armstrong, but showcased in a small booklet by John Howard, a retired Scarborough headmaster with deep roots in Staithes.

On July 13, 1916, UB 39 surfaced amid a handful of Staithes' fishing boats, one of which sank after the intruders, probably checking that the boats had no spying equipment, tore it apart.

Furbringer assembled a couple of the crews on the deck of UB 39 and took a photograph. The group included a sturdy Staithes character, William Francis Verrill, who, acting as leader, asked Furbringer: "Do you like herring, maister? Francis, chuck him a warp of herrings (clutch of four) ower."

As the U-boat veered close to his coble he warned Furbringer: "Fend off, maister. Ah deeant want mah bit o'coble screeaped. Ah've nobbut just had her pented.''

When Furbringer offered the men a drink of water - after apologising for the lack of coffee or cocoa - William Cole, another redoubtable Staithes figure, a staunch Methodist, chipped in: "You've just sunk their bit o'cobles. Are you trying to corrupt 'em wi' strang drink an all?''

Donating the profits from his booklet to charitable causes in Staithes, including the War Memorial and Memorial Hall, Mr Howard says the U-boat story has been much embellished down the years. But Furbringer emerges as much the same "humane" man painted by Young and Armstrong. Mr Howard writes:

"The submarine commander bade his erstwhile prisoners farewell with the words: "Goodbye gentlemen, I have done with you now.' The Staithes fishermen commented afterwards on Herr Furbringer's unfailing courtesy throughout the whole of this episode." He survived the war, wrote what is now a classic book on his war experiences, and lived to be 93.



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