|Life as the Chief Diver of the Royal Navys U-Boat Flying Squad was not a settled one. Every report of a submarine sunk meant being rushed with his helmet and all his gear from one end of the country to the other. It was a good thing that Dusty Miller liked diving, even though it meant squeezing in the dark past bodies and other firmer obstacles in the flooded compartments of the Kaisers tin coffins|
Even so, some of the things he saw clearly shocked him. We do not know the number of the next U-boat he dived, and though Dusty Miller undoubtedly knew her identity he never revealed it outside the Admiralty. All he would say about it was that he knew mutiny did sometimes occur on board the U-boats, despite the bravery of their crews.
He told of entering a submarine through the conning-tower hatch and finding the commander caught up on the handle. He had clearly been shot three times from below with a revolver as he either tried to seal the hatch or open it.
Promoted to Warrant Shipwright, Dusty Miller was to remain the lone ordinary diving member of the Royal Navys U-Boat Flying Squad for several months, but his successes and the increasing number of submarines being sunk soon meant that Commander Damant, as well as diving himself, had to ask for more divers.
Two of those who now joined the squad were Leading Seaman Ernie Blackford and Able Seaman Tom Clear. Later in the war, these two were to hold the record for the shortest time taken to reach a sunken submarine UB-109, which they dived only two hours after she was sunk. They found the water inside her was quite hot, due to the seawater mixing with the sulphuric acid of her batteries.
On 23 January 1917, Dusty Millers life took another violent change of direction, for on that day the 14,892-ton liner Laurentic, which had been converted into an armed auxiliary cruiser, hit a mine off Northern Ireland while taking 43 tons of gold in 3211 gold ingots, valued then at£5 million, to the United States to pay for the food, steel and munitions which Britain needed to continue the war against Germany.
Laurentic sank so swiftly that 354 of the 745 men aboard were lost and there was certainly no time to worry about the gold in the strongroom. As a direct result of that sinking, Damant was told he could have as many divers as he wanted straight away. The recovery of the Laurentic gold was to be his top priority and he was ordered to start work immediately.
So instead of probing the interiors of sunken submarines, Dusty Miller and the rest of the U-Boat Flying Squad were now set to work to prise gold ingots from the Laurentic. And they were to do it as quickly as possible, since the British Government feared that aid from America would dry up if there was no gold to back the buying power of the British pound.
On the 14th day of diving, after blasting their way through to the strong room, Dusty Miller smashed open its steel door with a sledgehammer and a chisel. On entering he found himself facing stacks of bullion boxes, each weighing 140lb. Even though he was over his bottom time, Dusty manhandled one of the boxes back to the deck and the next day on his 60-minute shift he got out another three. He had almost single-handedly recovered£32,000 worth of gold!
Then came a series of northerly gales. After a solid week of huge winds and seas, the divers returned to the wreck. Damant went down himself. He found that the storm had turned, twisted and folded the wreck almost in half. The passageway that Dusty had used to bring up the gold boxes was now only 18 inches high and the depth of the entry point had increased from 62ft to 103!
After weeks more work with explosives, Dusty re-entered the strong room. It was empty! All the gold ingots had slipped through holes torn in the walls and floor and had tumbled down into the tangled and twisted wreckage of the bilges. More explosives were used to cut a hole down to the golds new resting place, and by September the divers had recovered more than£800,000. In April 1917, America entered the war, so the urgency of recovering the gold eased. The Admiralty ordered work on the Laurentic to be halted for the duration. (In fact, though Damant and the team started work again in the spring of 1919, the divers did not complete the job until 1924 and they missed only 25 bars after cutting up the whole ship with explosives. They each received a bonus of two shillings and sixpence for every£100 raised.)
So, before the end of 1917, Dusty Miller was back working on what he and his mates called tin opening. His first tin opening on his return from the Laurentic was UC-47, sunk off Flamborough Head on 18 November 1917. Dusty proved he had not lost his touch by entering through the conning-tower hatch and, after tying the bodies out of the way, got the iron box out of her control room in just under ten minutes. It was an even better haul than usual. Inside the box, in addition to the codes and logs, were detailed plans of two minefields she had laid that week!
UC-47 was commanded by Oberleutnant von Wigankow, who was lost with all his crew when he was caught on the surface while radioing his base. He was rammed by the sub-hunter patrol boat HMS P-57, which also dropped depth charges. Dusty Miller was inside her only a day later.
(In 1997, Shaun Carr and a team of local divers found her in 51m at 54 01 00; 00 20 00E, in an area of sandhills. She is nose down into the sand, with only the conning-tower, gun and her fully extended radio mast clear. The stern is 6m clear of the seabed, with both props (marked UC-47) still on the shafts. The stern torpedo tube was blown off and lies empty on the starboard side. More depth-charge damage can be seen at the stern, where a large hole has been blown in the port side. The aft hatch is closed, but Dusty left the conning-tower hatch open and her control room is now full of sand and silt.)
The second submarine that Dusty visited after his return to tin opening was one which had been forced by patrol vessels to dive into one of the minefields of the Dover Barrage, which was rightly called The Submarine Graveyard. At first, Dustys dive went well. The U-boat UB-56, which had been sunk three days earlier on 19 December 1917 was down at 121ft. But, even so, Dusty found the visibility good, light reflecting well from the whitish sand of the seabed.
He landed on her near the stern, which was badly damaged where she had hit a mine of the deep net-barrage across the Dover Straits. Dusty noted that she had net and mine wire wound round one prop shaft, and this had obviously pulled a mine into her stern.
As he moved forward towards the conning-tower, he was alarmed to see a second mine streaming out in the tide and swaying within an inch of the subs hull!
Any diver would have been forgiven for abandoning the dive at once, but not Dusty. He pulled the mine away from the sub by its mooring wire and, ever so gently, removed the detonator! He then entered the sub through the conning-tower, but could not reach his main target, the code-book box, as it was buried under wreckage from the mine damage. However, sketches he made later of equipment in the interior of the boat and other new items he brought up pleased the Admiralty no end.
One small wooden box and its contents gave the Royal Navy its first-ever sight of a magnetic pistol-firing mechanism for a torpedo, which would detonate the warhead when close to or under the metal of a ships hull. It was the forerunner of the magnetic devices to be heavily used in the torpedoes of World War Two.
The U-boat Flying Squad was kept hard at it by the growing number of submarine sinkings. But it was never easy work. Here, for example, is Commander Damants report of the diving on UB-109:
She is lying in 14 fathoms on a sandy bottom, heading NE, 30 degree list to starboard. Fore hatch and conning-tower open, no buoyancy remaining, about 20ft abaft conning-tower the damage begins and from there aft the vessel is shapeless wreckage. The damage is far more severe than that generally met with in deep minefield cases.
The forepart of the boat is quite intact, for instance the large mirror on door of captains wardrobe is not even cracked. For this reason and because the depth was moderate I decided to work aft from the fore hatch without cutting any plates by explosives. Owing to muddy water, it is generally quite dark on the highest parts of the wreck. While inside it is of course always so and all work must be done by touch and hand lamp.
To get to their objective, divers had to negotiate a chain of five narrow apertures: (1) fore hatch; (2) watertight door in fore bulkhead of officers quarters; (3) partition between officers and captains quarters; (4) watertight door in fore pressure bulkhead of control room; (5) door of watertight cabinet. Between 4 and 5 are awkward obstacles formed by the compass and steering pedestals in the control room.
Afternoon on day of sinking, fore hatch was cleared of bodies, bedding, etc, and some personal material sent to the Admiralty. On 30th and 31st, much important material was recovered, although weather allowed work only on one tide. Divers had by now got as far as the control room.
On 1 September, again only one tide could be worked, but the control room was passed, the watertight cabinet entered and much valuable material found. On 2 and 3 September, weather remained unfit, but on 4 September a whole days work was got in, completing first part of the programme. I do not propose sending men inside during spring tides, but there is work outside the hull that can be done then.
The inside divers Leading Seaman E Blackford and Able Seaman T Clear have shown much skill and determination in squeezing through these narrow places and making such a cool and thorough search.
In fact, the two divers brought up the subs entire stock of charts, complete with new amendments, one of which marked her last cruise from the Channel to the Azores and back up the coasts of France and Spain and into the Straits where she was sunk.
UB-109 was commanded by Kapitanleutnant Ramien, who having sunk nearly 100,000 tons of shipping was rated by the German High Command as one of its aces. He was sunk on 29 August 1918 after being detected moving through an electrically controlled minefield off Folkestone. When the mines were fired, only Ramien and seven others out of the 34 men aboard survived a free ascent from the conning-tower.
(Club divers recently found her at 51 03 41; 01 14 14E, blown in two with the stern section 30ft to the west of the main part of the wreck. Her hatches are open and her periscope fully extended. Her props have been salvaged. One bore the number UB-109; the other was marked UB-104. This shows that the Germans were so short of spares by this stage of the war that they were replacing damaged propellers with any that would fit.)
Whether he was playing the old salt to impress some inquisitive landlubbers, or whether he was passing misinformation to the Germans long after the end of World War One, Dusty Miller told this strange tale in 1926 to a journalist who had been given permission to interview him about his exploits.
He says he was told to dive on a submarine sunk in the northern mine barrage off the Orkneys. The weather was bad and the electric instrument for locating metal at the bottom of the sea gave no result for some unaccountable reason. (This would seem to be a reference to the new Anglo-French invention of echo-sounding called ASDIC, first used in 1917.)
However, two trawlers working together made figure-of-eight sweeps for the whole of the next day until they caught into the submarine. Dusty Miller went down. He said he blasted open the conning-tower hatch and then went inside. It was pitch black and he kept bumping into bodies. His torch lit only a few feet ahead of him, but something about the dead bodies was more worrying than usual.
It was some time before he realised what it was all the bodies were in officers uniforms, and he thought the whole crew were officers. Near the control room, he found a stack of neat leather suitcases. He prised open several of them and was surprised to find that all the contents were the same a couple of suits of smart civilian clothes, shirts, collars, cravats and shoes, together with sums of money and other things.
Infuriatingly, Dusty Miller said little more about this, except that his Admiralty masters were just as puzzled as he was when he reported it to them. The journalist adds in his article that it was obviously the intention of the mysterious crew to land somewhere on the British coast, but their motive remains a mystery. He hints at some great plot, perhaps an attempt to bring the war to an end by assassinating the King!
However, it is more likely that the German crew, knowing that Germany was on the brink of defeat, intended to try to get their boat interned in Spain once they had completed their mission, and that the civilian clothes were for a return overland to Germany.
Not surprisingly, the Admiralty and German archives of the time do not mention the incident. Captain Damants log says that cases were recovered, but were taken away by the local Naval authorities. He made no mention of an all-officer crew, and names the U-boat with the suitcases as UB-116 the last U-boat to be sunk in World War One.
Commanded by Oberleutnant Hans-Joachim Emsmann, with a crew of 35, UB-116 was a new boat with a new skipper. Fully laden with 10 torpedoes, he was told to enter Scapa Flow by Hoxa Sound, which he was also told wrongly was not mined or netted.
When he sailed, on 24 October, Emsmann told a colleague ashore that he knew he would not return.
The Hoxa entrance was both mined and netted, and Emsmann was spotted on the surface to the west of the Orkneys before he attempted to enter Scapa Flow. They were waiting for him when he did come in. They picked him up on the hydrophones, waited until he was right over a line of mines, then just before midnight pressed the button.
At dawn, oil globules laid a trail back to the grave of UB-116. And though there is a tale that tapping noises were heard from the submarine that morning on hydrophones, the duty destroyer dropped depth charges on her.
(Today, the wreck of UB-116 at the entrance to Pan Hope Bay could hardly be called a great dive. She was sold for salvage in 1969 and later her own torpedoes were used to blast her apart. Sections of plating, twisted out of shape, together with pipes, wires and broken switch-boxes are all that remain and are unlikely to be much help in solving the mystery of UB-116.)
With the war over, Dusty Miller returned to recovering the Laurentics gold, but the work he had done down in the dark interiors of Germanys U-boats was not forgotten. In the New Year Honours List of 1 January 1919, Warrant Shipwright Ernest Charles Miller RN was awarded the MBE, but more importantly in July that same year he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for distinguished services in connection with dangerous and important salvage work.
Dusty, now Commissioned Shipwright Miller, went with his wife to Buckingham Palace to receive his decorations from King George V. But this was no quick pin-on-and-out investiture. Dusty had to answer question after question from the King before being allowed to leave.
Did he tell the King about the mystery suitcases of the crew of UB-116 and the possibility that their real target was the King himself If he did, Dusty Miller never told anyone else!
|It has not been possible to guide todays divers to all the U-boats explored by Dusty Miller, as the Official Secrets Act and Admiralty instructions made him reluctant to give the identity and number of some submarines when recounting his experiences. However, many of the U-boats have been pinpointed and they are named here, together with todays diving information about them. Anyone who dives these German U-boats, which were first examined by Dusty Miller and the World War One Royal Navy Diver Flying Squad, commanded by Captain G C C Damant, should not enter any of these sunken submarines as they are considered to be war graves.|