Albert and the U-Boat
FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS YEAR I didn’t need a woolly hat to keep my ears warm as skipper Jim Easingwood piloted Silver Sky smoothly away from the Eyemouth quayside and out into a rolling North Sea.
Her bow threw shining spray high down her sides as we steamed past St Abb’s Head and through waters dotted white with seabirds.
Gannets wheeled high above; huge, snow-white birds with distinctive yellow heads, their long wings outstretched and unmoving as I found a spot to sit for the ride out to the wreck.
Ninety minutes later, the chart-plotter showed that we were coming into the mark, and skipper Jim knocked Silver Sky down to a crawl. Submarines are small, awkward targets and his eyes flicked between plotter and depth-finder as we ticked-off the last few metres.
The closer we got, the slower Jim went, until a sudden uplift reared a metre or two proud of the seabed and Jim reversed the engines to stop us in the water and drop the shot.
ALAN WAS FIRST IN, with the job of setting a strobe and tying in a distance line to the wreck, though it turned out that neither was required. The shot was almost touching the wreck, and the rope was being gently pushed back across the hull just aft of the bow. It couldn’t have been better placed.
My entry couldn’t have been better set up, either. Jim brought the boat around, gave a yell and I stepped off the platform in sight of the line and was off down it like the proverbial, heart thumping with excitement.
There’s nothing like those moments when the surface has vanished above, the wreck is still out of sight somewhere below and your focus has narrowed to the slender line you’re following down through rapidly darkening water.
Then the wreck came into sight. She’s pretty much intact, and sits upright on a flat seabed at around 42m. On a sunny morning there was plenty of ambient light and the vis was easily 10m.
I pumped a final squirt of air into my drysuit and hovered beside the hull to take a good look around. After a few seconds I slowly reached out to rest a hand on the wreck, disturbing an eel-like butterfish that swam just a few inches away before settling back down and ignoring me.
This was another wreck with a personal connection.
Albert Wade, my grandfather, was 18 in August 1915. World War One had been raging for a year, and he signed on for the Royal Navy to do his bit.
After basic training he was posted north early in 1916 to join the 950-strong crew of HMS Valiant, part of Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow.
Valiant was one of the five spanking new Queen Elizabeth-class super-Dreadnought battleships, the largest, fastest and most powerful afloat at he time.
Each 29,000-ton vessel carried eight 15in guns on a hull boasting armour a foot thick and capable of 24 knots.
BERT WAS STILL FINDING his sea-legs when Valiant and three of her sisters were sent down from Scapa Flow to join Beatty’s Battlecruiser Force at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth, arriving on 22 May.
The following day the German submarine U74e (Wreck Tour 142, October 2010) was ordered across the North Sea to take up station outside the Firth of Forth. Unarmoured, the relatively tiny 755-ton U-boat had a crew of only 34 officers and men.
She carried a single torpedo-tube forward and aft and an 88mm deck-gun aft, but her most potent weapons were the 34 mines carried inside her hull and designed to be laid through two hatches in her stern.
Her job was to wait unseen in the approaches to the Firth of Forth until she was ordered to lay her mines in the path of British warships putting to sea.
Mines were an awesome weapon. Cheap, quick and easy to produce, they lurked invisibly beneath the surface of the water until struck by a passing ship, and then released all their fearsome explosive power below the waterline as they were forced directly into the hull of the unfortunate vessel by the surrounding water.
A single German mine had already been enough to sink the battleship HMS Audacious off Malin Head, a disaster that the British Admiralty refused to acknowledge officially throughout WW1, keeping Audacious alive on paper to avoid damaging morale at home.
For Bert, working deep inside the steel belly of Valiant and well below her waterline, striking a mine would be a nightmare. If he survived the initial blast he might see the frigid waters of the North Sea come pouring into the hull, and the watertight doors closing to trap him below decks to be drowned.
If he was lucky and made it above decks, he would find damage-control parties fighting to keep the great ship from sinking. If they kept her afloat long enough he might be lucky again and be taken off by another vessel.
If she went down quickly, he would have to go into the sea and hope against hope to be spotted amid the debris and the waves before hypothermia set in.
This time the nightmare was visited on the crew of U74e. On 27 May she was spotted on the surface to the east of Dunbar by four Royal Navy trawlers, Sea Ranger, Kimberly, Oku and Rodin, and sunk by gunfire with the loss of all hands.
When Valiant put to sea during the night of 30-31 May, she carried Bert safely over the area where U74e’s mines should have been laid.
ALMOST A CENTURY LATER, I had left the line to arrive on the wreck of the U-boat on its port side, just behind the bow, and swam slowly aft to the deck-gun, variously reported to be either 105mm or 88mm.
The bore was almost exactly the same size as the reflector on my flashgun, so it’s an 88. The gun seemed smaller than others I’ve seen, but it would still have been a potent weapon in the right circumstances.
Aft of the gun, the wreck is buried in silt and there’s nothing to be seen of its stern section or cargo of mines. Maybe next time I’ll run a line and take a look.
Turning to swim forward, the conning-tower stands upright and intact, with both the attack periscope and search periscopes to be seen. On the front face of the tower are two small portholes complete with windscreen-wipers, which would have allowed U74’s officers to command their vessel from inside with the pressure-hull awash and only the tower exposed.
In use, however, that would have meant a larger target than necessary, making it easier for the enemy to spot them without the blessed relief of fresh air that was the primary reason for surfacing.
The true usefulness of such portholes is probably best illustrated by their total absence from the overwhelming majority of submarines.
A FEW FEET FORWARD of the conning-tower, the frames of the hull-cladding were surprisingly intact and full of fish life and dead men’s finger-shrouded ventilators and access hatches on the swim to the bow.
This made it hard to see what was metal and what was marine growth.
The bow itself was knife-like, upright and undamaged. In the excellent vis, it was possible to back off a few feet and then look along the length of the wreck, imagining the U-boat slicing silently out of the darkness and sweeping past as she went on her way, her deadly cargo of mines resting in her steel belly until they were ready to be deployed and she was free to hunt for victims for her torpedoes.
The single forward torpedo-tube is on the port side, a little below the top of the wreck and above the forward hydroplanes. The skipper had been told to go hunting with torpedoes only after the mines had been laid, so a deadly German eel presumably still sits behind the closed door.
The reload that should have been on deck is nowhere to be seen, probably lost as the sub sank and therefore buried somewhere in the silt nearby, although “nearby”’ covers an awful lot of flat seabed.
Then it was time for the ascent back up the line, rising up through the stops and the years to a sunny peacetime morning where the sea-birds wheeled and swooped, and the post-dive tea and cake were already being handed round.
It was time to find myself somewhere comfortable to take a decompression nap before the next dive, much as Bert had probably done on that May morning almost a century ago.
After their early start the day had turned out warm and sunny, and many British sailors had taken the opportunity to find a sheltered spot for a snooze.
Bert’s day didn’t end so peacefully.
On 31 May, 1916, both the British and German fleets were at sea in full strength, and before dark Valiant was in action with German dreadnoughts at the start of the Battle of Jutland.
Mike Ward dived U74e with Marine Quest out of Eyemouth. It runs two boats fitted for diving, skippered by father and son team Jim & Iain Easingwood.
Each boat has an indoor dry area, toilet, kitting-up space and stern diver-lift. Tea and coffee are available all day with homemade cake post-dive included in the price of a day’s diving.
U74e’s remains lie in about 44m a little south of May Island just outside the Firth of Forth. Diving conditions are good and the wreck is small enough to navigate easily.
Marine Quest classes this as a shallow wreck, usually offered as the first of two dives, often paired with the Glanmire, lying in 30m off St Abbs Head 10 minutes from harbour. A two-dive day costs £55.
Marine Quest offers air, oxygen and helium, including banked trimix, and on-site overnight accommodation with breakfast at its own Café Questo, www.marinequest.co.uk