Archaeology: German U-boat discovered in British waters after ‘unprecedented’ destruction

Underwater camera explores sunken German U-boat

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During World War 1, the Germans decided to focus their efforts on areas where ships were concentrated. The Irish Sea proved a perfect hunting ground, since they could focus on many ships at once rather than chasing them around the Atlantic. German submarines were so deadly that Allied forces called the Irish Sea “U-boat alley”. Though U-boats hunted in the Irish Sea in abundance, they managed to escape a counter-attack more often than not.

The Allies struggled to contain the U-boat offensive, and were losing up to 100 ships a month, hardly sinking any in return.

Some of the most lethal were the Type UC II minelaying submarines, a specific class of U-boat that is widely considered the most successful submarine design in history.

Marine archaeologist Dr Innes McCartney set to work to find the wreck of one of these U-boats in British waters for the recent National Geographic documentary ‘Ocean Wreck Investigation’.

SM UC-66 was launched on July 15, 1916, and was credited with sinking 32 ships in its five patrols.

Less than a year after its launch, however, it was sunk itself.

Dr McCartney and his team used surveying techniques to analyse a wreck on the seabed off the Isles of Scilly during a 2018 mission.

They successfully identified the six mine tubes set in the bow that were unique to the UC II submarines.

He said: “There’s no doubt at all that this is a UC II class minelayer. The wreck is identified to the class level.”

The documentary’s narrator added: “This U-boat has suffered a catastrophic event that sent it to the bottom of the Atlantic.”

Dr McCartney continued: “So, it’s a UC II class minelayer. And, as such, and at this location, and with the bomb damage, I would conclude that it’s UC-66.”

Lying 100 metres down on the bed of the Atlantic, the wreck is split in two by a massive explosion next to the conning tower — a raised platform from which the officer in charge can “conn” a vessel, controlling movements by giving orders to those beneath him.

The ship lies exactly as it was described in a British pilot’s report. Dr McCartney detailed the events that resulted in the sinking of UC-66.

He explained: “UC-66 had been ordered to lay mines in the Bristol channel, and then to sink shipping along the Irish coast before returning back to base.

“So, when it was passing the Isles of Scilly, it was entering the area where it was going to start going to work.”

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On May 27, 1917, UC-66 opened fire on a nearby Allied ship. The firing was heard on Tresco, the second-largest island on the Isles of Scilly.

Allied forces launched a sea plane off in the direction of the incident. His Majesty’s seaplane No. 8656 arrived on the scene quickly.

Pilot John Hall spotted a dark shadow on the surface of the water. The U-boat spotted the aircraft, and opened fire as the plane swooped low to attack.

Despite the onslaught from the submarine’s machine guns, Mr Hall continued to swoop lower.

He dropped four 100lbs bombs, two of which struck right next to UC-66’s conning tower.

Flight sub-lieutenant John Hoare wrote in his report that the U-boat had sunk by the bows, with the stern sticking out of the water.

Dr McCartney added: “The submarine explodes and it seemed to go nose down and sink.

“It’s the only incident in the whole of World War 1 where an aircraft, on its own, sank a U-boat.

“It was missed from the records. So it’s an entirely unique, unprecedented event.”

The sinking of UC-66 marked a rare defeat for the Germans at a time when Allied forces were struggling to deal with the U-boat offensive.

Many German, and British, wartime wrecks remain off the Cornish coast.

Numerous U-boats including UC-51 and UB-65 can be found, with more in the Irish Sea too.

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