If you were one of the 17,000 German submariners stationed on a U-boat during World War I, chances weren’t good that you’d make to the end of the war alive.
The 35 men aboard the WWI-era U-31 didn’t survive the war. Their watery grave was just identified three years after being found 100 feet at the bottom of the North Sea off the coast of Norfolk, England, a century after it sunk.
The WWI U-boat wreck was found by workers with a Scottish renewable energy company combing the North Sea near Norfolk for a new wind farm site. Instead, they came face to face with history. Project director Charlie Jordan told Agence France-Presse that learning about the U-boat’s past has been interesting.
“Unraveling the whole story behind the submarine has been fascinating. It’s heartening to know that the discovery will provide closure to relatives and descendants of the submariners lost who may have always wondered what had happened to their loved ones.”
In the years of the first world war, 11 of this type of U-boat were built; the U-31 was the first, BBC News reported. The entire fleet was commissioned by the Imperial German Navy between 1912 and 1915, and according to Deutsche Welle, their purpose — like all U-boats — was to attempt a naval blockade of Britain. The news agency noted that these submarines were “the sole weapon Germany had” for this purpose.
The submarines were numbered 31 to 41 — the U-boat found near Norfolk being the first — and out of that number, three surrendered and eight sank. Until now, two of them had never been found; with this recent discovery, only one still remains an enduring mystery.
In total, 202 of 375 German submarines were lost in action during WWI. And of the 17,000 men who served as their crew, 5,100 were killed.
With a range of 8,000 nautical miles, this U-31 U-boat left Wilhelmshaven for a routine patrol on January 13, 1915, but was never seen or heard from again, Sky News reported. It had been commissioned in September of the previous year, and after its disappearance, it was widely believed to have struck a mine off the coast of England and sunk to the bottom of the North Sea, said marine archaeologist Mark Dunkley.
Four officers and 31 men were lost.
Fast forward to 2012, and workers with ScottishPower Renewables found the first in this special fleet of WWI subs lying at the bottom of the ocean, about 56 miles from Norfolk. But they didn’t think it was a German U-boat at first.
It just so happened that the Royal Netherlands Navy was in search of its own missing military sub, which disappeared in June 1940. So a team of Dutch divers headed out to examine the 190-foot-long wreck and filmed it where it had lain, undisturbed, for a century.
It took several dives for them to finally realize what they’d found was a WWI-era U-boat. After three years, the wreck was finally identified (murky waters were to blame for the delayed identification). Its bow was damaged and partially buried, the conning tower could be seen, and the sub was surrounded by debris. The U-31 was 190 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 19 feet high.
And it was in remarkable condition, Dunkley said.
Over a two-year period, this spot in the ocean off the coast of Norfolk has been scanned numerous times, and 60 wrecks have been found. This WWI U-boat was an “entirely unexpected” discovery, the wind farm developers said.
There are apparently no set plans for the wind farm just yet, but if they do build it, this wreckage near Norfolk will be undisturbed. The U-31 is an official military maritime grave and will remain as a reminder of everyone “lost at sea, on land and in the air during the first world war,” Dunkley said.
“Relatives and descendants of those lost in the U-31 may now take some comfort in knowing the final resting place of the crew and the discovery serves as a poignant reminder.”
[Image via Everett Historical/Shutterstock]