A £1 billion project to lay one of the world’s largest subsea power cables, connecting Scotland and England, has led to a historic discovery which could finally help solve one of WWI’s strangest naval mysteries.
Marine engineers working on the Western Link project – a joint venture between Scottish Power and National Grid which will take renewable power from Scotland to homes and businesses in England and Wales – found the wreck of a German U-boat while surveying the sea bed off the coast of Wigtownshire.
Sonar images show the 100-year-old vessel largely intact and attempts to identify the wreck have led experts to conclude that it may be that of UB-85.
Official reports from the time tell how UB-85 was caught on the surface during the day of 30 April 1918 and sunk by HMS Coreopsis, a patrol boat built on the Clyde near Glasgow by Barclay Curle. The German submarine crew had surrendered without resistance to the surprise of their British counterparts.
However, another story has long been associated with the U-boat and its commander, Captain Krech. An old sea tale, widely shared online, recounts that the Captain, when questioned about why he had been cruising on the surface, told how the U-boat had been recharging batteries at night when a “strange beast” rose from the sea. He is said to have described a “beast” with “large eyes, set in a horny sort of skull. It had a small head, but with teeth that could be seen glistening in the moonlight”.
The animal was so large that it is claimed it forced the U-boat to list greatly to starboard. “Every man on watch began firing a sidearm at the beast,” Krech is believed to have said, telling how the battle continued until the animal dropped back into the sea. In the struggle, though, the forward deck plating had been damaged and the sub could no longer submerge. “That is why you were able to catch us on the surface,” the Captain is said to have concluded.
Innes McCartney is an historian and nautical archaeologist who has been working with the Western Link team in a bid to identify the wreck and concludes that the mystery of UB-85 could be one step closer to being solved.
He said: “In the waters of the Irish Sea there are at least 12 British and German submarines known to have sunk and potentially others whose actual sinking area remains a mystery. The features of this particular wreck, which is largely intact, confirm it as a UBIII-Class submarine, of which we know of two which were lost in the area – the UB-85 and its sister boat UB-82.
“While I can conclude that this wreck is likely to be one or the other, they would be practically impossible to tell apart, aside from the numbers painted on them in service, now obviously long gone.
“Unless a diver can find a shipyard stamp, we cannot say definitively but yes, we’re certainly closer to solving the so-called mystery of UB-85 and the reason behind it’s sinking – whether common mechanical failure or something that is less easily explained.”
Graham Edwards, of Western Link partner National Grid, said: “The Western Link is a very significant project for the UK and has required careful planning in all aspects, but particularly in the laying of high voltage cables in the sea, where we are working hard to minimise our impact on the environment.
“During construction we take great care over archaeology, whether on land or at sea, and it’s always exciting to record a significant find and help to shed new light on our history – especially one with such an amazing tale involved!”
The subsea marine cable is around 385km long, the longest of its type in the world, and when in place it will run from Ardneil Bay in North Ayrshire in Scotland to the Wirral peninsula in north west England.
The submarine wreck is approximately 120m north-west of the centre of the planned cable route, off the Stranraer coast. The survey shows the vessel is largely intact and is approximately 45m long, with debris spilling out of the stern.
See also: Scottish Power engineers find wreck of German WW1 submarine