British archaeologists have discovered more than 40 German U-boats sunk during the first World War. Located just off England’s southern and eastern coast, the subs have been disintegrating for nearly a hundred years. It’s now a race against time to examine the wrecks before they vanish forever.
Top image: A German minelaying submarine lies on the beach in Hastings, Sussex, after it ran aground while been towed to France, where it was to be broken up for scrap in April 1919. Credit: Alamy.
The U-boats were discovered by underwater archaeologist Mark Dunkley along the southern and eastern coasts of the UK. It’s the largest conglomeration of sunken subs ever found, consisting of 41 German U-boats and three English submarines — all from World War I.
The subs, all of them near the coast, rest at depths of about 15 meters (50 feet). And because many of the subs sank with crew on board, future expeditions will likely find the remains of sailors inside the wrecks (or “disaster samples” in the parlance of the field).
Interestingly, some of the subs have been linked to several U-boats still listed with the German Imperial Navy as missing, including UB 17, a subway crewed by 21 men under the command of naval Lieutenant Albert Branscheid, and the 27-member crew of UC 21, a minelayer commanded by naval Lieutenant Werner von Zerboni di Sposetti.
Der Spiegel reports:
The British could see it as a peculiar irony of history that these measures are now benefiting the heritage of their former enemy. Since the Germans attacked civilian targets in World War I, British propaganda derisively referred to the submarines as "baby killers."
"Many have forgotten how successful the German U-boat fleet was for a time," says Dunkley — an assessment that is by no means intended to glorify the German attacks. In fact, one of the goals of the most recent English Heritage project is to remind people that, although they might be more familiar with submarine warfare from World War II, the ships also caused considerable devastation in the previous world war.
Indeed, it had practically vanished from popular memory that the Germans caused great losses to their main enemy, Great Britain, in World War I through targeted torpedo strikes against the royal merchant navy.
At the start of WWI, there were only 28 U-boats under the command of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a tiny number compared to the Allied fleet. But by the end of the war, the Germans produced some 380 U-boats — half of which were lost at sea.
The find could also shed some insight into the war itself. It’s interesting to note that two or three German U-boats were often found lying in close proximity to one another — possible evidence of a certain German combat strategy. By early 1917, the Germans began to target British commercial ships on a large scale. In turn, the Royal Navy reacted by providing freighters with warship escorts, along with airships and aircraft to spot enemy subs from above.
"We owe it to these people to tell their story," says Dunkley, who works for English Heritage, a public body that is part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Dunkley and his team will explore the wrecks in the coming months. In some cases, they’ll use robotic vehicles to cut open the hatches of the subs to get inside.