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Devonport divers help solve WW1 U-boat mystery

21 June 2021
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Divers from Devonport Naval Base have helped solve a 100-year mystery and identified a U-boat sunk off the Lizard.

The divers – including members of the Joint Service Sub Aqua Diving Centre – plunged 70 metres into the Channel to positively id the wreck of U-95, settling a debate between historians.

The team scrubbed more than a century of marine life and growth off the propeller of the sunken boat, compared the information on it with official records, and confirmed the identity.

All other U-boats of the U-93 to U-98 type either surrendered at the end of the Great War or their location is known – helping historians to narrow down the identity to two craft.

Official Royal Navy records reckoned the boat was U-93, rammed and sunk by merchant ship SS Braeneil on January 7 1918.

Except that U-93 was assigned to operate off Brittany and subsequently sank two ships.

Meanwhile another, near identical wreck was found off Hardelot on the Pas-de-Calais and estimated by some experts to be the boat’s sister U-95.
US-based submarine historian Michael Lowrey, a WW1 expert behind the world-renowned Uboat.net website and database, asked local divers to solve the mystery.

Using the dive boat Moonshadow, a team organised by diver Steve Mortimer overcame the challenges posed by the wreck’s depth and strong currents off the Lizard to conclusively prove the German submarine’s identity.

Bitterly cold January sea water flooding into the open hatches must have been unimaginably horrendous for the crew and even those who managed to escape wouldn't have lasted long in the water.

Lt Col Dom Robinson, JSSADC

Among the divers, Dr Fran Hockley and retired Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel Dom Robinson, civil servants employed at the Joint Service Sub Aqua Diving Centre in Devonport Dockyard.

Photographs and video from the dives are still being analysed to try to confirm the cause of sinking.  The original ramming claim remains a real possibility – although there was also a deep minefield laid not far from where U-93 was destroyed.

"Although there is damage to the port side it wasn't particularly conclusive but we did find open hatches in the conning tower and engine room,” said Dom.

“We think this confirms that it was sunk by ramming which destroyed the submarine's buoyancy system while concurrently pushing it under.

"Bitterly cold January sea water flooding into the open hatches must have been unimaginably horrendous for the crew and even those who managed to escape wouldn't have lasted long in the water.

"Reports from the steamer told of foreign voices in the darkness but in a period of unrestricted submarine warfare I can't imagine there was much sympathy for them."

All crew on both sunken U-boats were lost when the craft went down.

When not helping to identify U-boat wrecks, JSSADC delivers recreational and technical diver training to members of the Armed Forces as part of the Joint Service Adventurous Training (JSAT) scheme. Course spaces can be booked through the Online Booking System on the Defence Gateway.

Pictures: Lt Col Dom Robinson

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