Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ex-sailor wins fight to have submarine he sank declared a war grave

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The Scotsman
By Gerri Peev
April 08, 2008


AS A teenage navy seaman, four hours into his maiden voyage, he fired the depth-charge that sank a German U-boat off the coast of Scotland.

Yesterday, Roger Williams quietly honoured the lives of the 50 men who lost their lives as his campaign to have the wreck declared a protected war grave was finally won.

The U-boat U-714, which went down eight miles off St Abb's Head, Berwickshire, on 14 March, 1945, is one of ten sites to be given protected status by the Ministry of Defence, it was announced yesterday.

Mr Williams struck up a friendship with Axel Schwebcke, the son of the 27-year-old skipper of the U-714, and the two began their campaign. Mr Schwebcke, a retired journalist who is now 64, met his father, Hans-Joachim, only once.

Yesterday, Mr Williams said his fight to see the site designated a military grave was not about guilt, and he insisted: "We have respect for seamen of all nations; that is part of the brotherhood of the sea."

He was just 18 when the South African frigate Natal fired on the German sub, during the final weeks of the Second World War.

Both Mr Williams and the ship were on their first voyage, setting off from Newcastle upon Tyne where the vessel had been built, when they received a distress signal from the Danish ship Magne.

Speaking to The Scotsman from his home in Cape Town, Mr Williams recalled: "As we passed the Firth of Forth, a Danish merchant ship was torpedoed and sank. We were just five miles away, so we went at full speed to rescue the crew.

"We found some survivors bobbing in the life rafts," he went on. "While we were rescuing them, we picked up a very positive underwater signal."

The radar signal was from U-714 and the depth-charge mortar team wasted no time in firing their weapon, sending the submarine to the seabed. Mr Williams said: "It was billed as a feat unique in the annals of naval history, and it still is."

But he insisted there was no sense of euphoria at the time, as the crew were aware "we could have been the ones being torpedoed".

Mr Schwebcke is coming to Scotland next month to pay his last respects at the site where his father perished. But his mother, who is in her eighties and never remarried, will not be making the trip.

Stevie Adams, from South Queensferry Sub Aqua Club, along with divers from Marinequest, discovered the wreck nearly 18 months ago. He has kept the GPS co-ordinates of the sitesecret, as he is anxious the site is not disturbed by looters, not least because the boat's pressure hull is still sealed, meaning the remains of the crew are probably lying there.

He said: "This protected status is great, because it does mean that people are told they can look but not touch anything at the site."

Derek Twigg, the defence minister, said he was pleased to be able to extend protection to the ten wreck sites, which will come into force on 1 May.

He said: "I hope this will be of some comfort to the families of those who lost their lives on board these ships."

The other sites include the Atlantic Conveyor container ship sunk by the Argentines during the Falklands War, the HMS Curacao, a cruiser sunk in the Atlantic during the Second World War with the loss of 338 men, and HMS Amphion, which was the first British warship to be lost in the First World War.


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