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The U-boat graveyard

Recently discovered WWI SUBS ready to give up their ghostly secrets

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British archaeologists recently discovered more than 40 German U-boats sunk during the First World War off the coast of England. Now they are in a race against time to learn the secrets hidden in their watery graves.

Briton Mark Dunkley is an underwater archeologist who dives for lost treasures. His most recent discoveries were anything if not eerie.

On the sea floor along the southern and eastern coasts of the U.K., Dunkley and three other divers have found one of the largest graveyards in the world's oceans, with 41 German and three English submarines from the First World War. Most of the submarines sank with their crews still on board, causing many sailors to die in horrific ways, either by drowning or suffocating in the cramped and airtight submarines.

Several U-boats with the German Imperial Navy are still considered missing today. Lists provide precise details on which of the U-boats the German naval forces had lost by the time the war ended in November 1918.

But it was completely unclear what had happened, for example, to UB 17, under the command of naval Lieutenant Albert Branscheid, with its crew of 21 men, or where the 27-member crew of UC 21, used as a minelayer and commanded by naval Lieutenant Werner von Zerboni di Sposetti, had perished.

But now things have changed.

Dunkley and his team of divers found UB 17 off England's east coast, near the county of Suffolk. UC 21 sank nearby. The fate of many other submarines, especially those that had suddenly disappeared in the last two years of the war, can now be considered known.

All of the sunken U-boats are relatively close to the coast, at depths of no more than 15 metres. The diving archeologists will undoubtedly find the remains of sailors with the German Imperial Navy inside the wrecks.

"We owe it to these people to tell their story," says Dunkley.

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 the First World War, 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.

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 Second World War, 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 through targeted torpedo strikes against the royal merchant navy. At the beginning of the war, there were only 28 U-boats under the supreme command of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a tiny number compared to the Allied fleet.

At first, many political decision-makers in Berlin were unclear about exactly how the military devices, which were still novel at the time, could be used. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz had such a low opinion of the importance of the steel diving vessels that he even referred to them as a "secondary weapon."

An operations order signed by Kaiser Wilhelm on July 30, 1914, also assigned a secondary role to the U-boats at first. Under the order, they were to be used primarily to engage hostile ships in naval battles with the Imperial High Seas Fleet, which had been upgraded at considerable cost.

But after a German U-boat sank three English armoured cruisers, an unbridled enthusiasm erupted in the German Empire for this still relatively untested form of naval warfare. A large number of volunteers signed up for submarine duty, even though serving in the cramped cabins was practically a suicide mission at the time.

Aiming torpedoes was still such an imprecise science, the submarines had to come dangerously close to enemy warships. And if spotted, they became easy prey: Early submarines moved through the water so slowly, enemy warships could easily take up pursuit and sink the attackers, either with depth charges or by ramming. In fact, some 187, or almost half, of the 380 U-boats used by the German navy in the First World War were lost.

Since the U-boat graveyard at sea is gradually disintegrating, time is of the essence for the archeologists. Under the strict guidelines of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, the First World War wrecks sitting on the sea floor are currently not even considered archeological artifacts deserving special protection.

The disintegrating war machines are currently just shy of the 100 years required to attain this status. For this reason, Dunkley's team is trying to wrest as many secrets as possible in the coming months.

In cases where mines or torpedoes have torn large holes into the vessels, the archeologists can peer inside. When not the case, robotic vehicles will cut open the hatches of the steel coffins and go inside.

"We divers only approach the boats with great caution. Venturing inside would definitely be extremely dangerous," Dunkley says.

-- Der Spiegel

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 $sourceSection0

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