By Belfast Telegraph
11 February 2008
For years, German submarines U-19
were a terrifying presence beneath the waves, preying on British
and Russian shipping. Then, 60 years ago, they suddenly vanished
to the bottom of the Black Sea. Now the hulk of one of the
lost submarines has been found by divers who are confident
they can pinpoint the other two boats too.
The fate of "Hitler's
lost fleet" was the talking point of a conference on
international shipwrecks at Plymouth University at the weekend,
when the Turkish marine engineer Selcuk Kolay described his
painstaking search for the missing wrecks.
The search began along the Turkish coast near the town of
Zonguldak in 1994, after the Turkish navy complained that
it was having difficulty conducting minesweeping operations.
Local people had known for years that the submarines were
out there under the water somewhere, though the remarkable
story of the U-boats is one of the lesser known episodes of
The three submarines were originally part of a six-boat flotilla
harassing Allied shipping around the North Sea. U-23
had patrolled the Spanish coast during the civil war, under
the command of a young Sea Lieutenant, Otto
, who was to become Germany's top U-boat ace.
He was known as "Otto the Silent" for his mastery
of silent running and his reluctance to make radio contact
with Germany while he was at sea.
His career almost finished before it had properly begun when
a British submarine spotted U-23
off the Danish coast in October 1939 and fired three torpedoes
at it. All three missed. Before he was transferred to another
scored his first hit of the war in U-23
when he sailed into the Moray Firth and sank a 10,000 ton
Danish tanker on 12 January 1940.
The U-boats of the 30th flotilla were small by Second World
War standards only 140 feet long which made
them popular with the Kriegsmarine when it was rearming in
the 1930s. The Type
, nicknamed Einbaum (dugout canoe), were cheap to
build and could be run off an assembly line quickly. Once
war began, the smaller submarines were taken out of action
in the Atlantic and North Sea as soon as larger boats could
be built to replace them.
But their size was an advantage when choosing craft for their
next deployment. After the invasion of the Soviet Union in
June 1941, the German high command decided that it needed
the flotilla to attack Soviet ships in the Black Sea.
To have taken the subs by sea past Great Britain and Gibraltar
would have been hazardous. And they would then have had to
go through Turkish waters, violating that country's neutrality.
So it was decided they would go by land. Each weighed just
under 280 tons, making it easier to convey them on their 2,000
mile (3,300km) journey overland.
The submarines docked in Kiel and were taken by canal to the
Elbe, then upstream to Dresden. There they were dismantled
and taken 85 miles by lorry to Ingolstadt, on the Danube.
They were then ferried hundreds of miles through Germany,
Austria, Hungary and Romania, to the Black Sea port of Constanta.
Over the next three years, the flotilla sank 45,000 tons of
Soviet shipping, while losing three boats.
But in September 1944, the Red Army entered Romania, its government
switched sides, and the remaining three subs were stranded.
Their crews were ordered to scuttle their boats and try to
make it home by land. They rowed to Turkey, but were interned
for the rest of the war.
Mr Kolay used German divers, interviews with survivors, and
sonar soundings in his search for the three sunken U-boats.
His divers have found U-20
which is two miles off shore and about 80 feet under water.
"It's in wonderful condition, still fully intact,"
He believes he has also pinpointed U-23
under 160 feet of water three miles off the coast, and thinks
he knows roughly where U-19
is, further out and more than 1,500 feet down.
Only 20 Type II-B
submarines were ever built, and just one survives, making
the prospect of retrieving three of them in good condition
an enticing one for naval historians. And as the 25 man crew
of each ship got out alive, they are not considered to be
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