U-boat mine-laying operations off the NE coast 1916-1917
Many people will tell you that there is a wrecked First World War U-boat just off Roker Pier. Some will inform you it is UC-32, sunk in 1917. What is less well known is the campaign which brought it to Wearside in the first place and the role of the UCII class of U-boats in sowing terror and disruption on the NE coast. What follows is the strangely ironic story of SMS UC-32.
Post Jutland the KDM turned its attention to boosting its U-boat wing at the expense of the once vaunted High Seas Fleet. Specialist personnel – torpedo petty officers and engineers were pressed into the vastly expanding U-boat fleet as need arose. Technology and resources were poured into U-boat development. One result of this was the production of a handful of purpose-built experimental mine-laying U-boats which entered service with 1. Flotille. They were big unwieldy craft. The engine compartment was situated ‘midships to make room for the mine-laying equipment located aft of the conning tower, specifically for thirty-four mines. The UE class were comparatively fragile and they were poor depth keepers. After every operation the boats had to spend time in dock under repair. Unsurprisingly the UE class was unpopular with the U-bootewaffen.
Quite apart from the obvious dangers of war, there was a high accident rate among the submarine mine-laying crews. Crews believed there was a mechanical flaw in the mine-laying mechanism which was in turn responsible for premature mine detonation. The German mine-laying crews regarded themselves as a breed apart. Initially they called the UE type U-boats ‘The Children of Sorrow’, then the mine-laying crews adopted the name for themselves. The less lyrical called themselves, ‘The Suicide Club’. The East coast of Britain was a promising place for them to demonstrate the worth of these experimental vessels. In April 1916, UE-74 [Kplt. Erwin Weisbach] was ordered to lay mines in the River Forth.
This was to be the very first mission not just of the U-boat but of the class. UE-74 left Helgoland on 31 March 1916. Right up until the departure the boat was plagued by mechanical problems. It did not end well for the German advocates of a mining campaign in British waters when UE-74 failed to return by the expected date of May 27. Despite this set-back, U-boats of this class were sent out to mine Northern Britain throughout the Summer. In July 1916 UE-76 [Kplt. Bender] successfully laid a minefield off Longstone [No 7 on the Chart]. The U-boat laid thirty-four mines in the coastal channel, each fifty-five yards from the next. UE-76 returned safely but another of the boats, UE-74 was mysteriously lost while laying mines off Kinnaird Head. UE-80 [Kplt. Glasenapp] laid a second minefield off Craster on 12 September [No 12 on Chart].
For all their flaws the UE class had demonstrated that a purpose built mine-laying submarine was possible. Indeed, the most notable success was scored by UE-75 which had laid the mine which sank HMS Hampshire in the Orkneys leading to the death of Kitchener. A new kind of U-boat was developed from lessons learned from the UE type, the UC-boat. The first UC-1 boats were tiny, toy like craft with a very limited range. In terms of technological innovation they were nevertheless ahead of anything the British possessed. The mine storage bins were arranged in the bow section rather than in the stern as with the UE type. The Royal Navy succeeded in sinking UC-2 [and later capturing UC-5 intact] and immediately set about incorporating the mine storage innovations into its own E class boats. By the Autumn of 1916 a new and far more potent U-boat type was becoming available in significant numbers, the UCII class of mine-laying U-boat.
UCII minelaying submarine. Note forward section dedicated to mine storage. UC-32 belonged to this class
Type: UCII coastal mine-laying boat. Builders: AG Vulcan, Hamburg for Kaiserliche Deutsche Marine. Ordered: 29.8.15 within batch UC 25-UC-33
Keel laid: as Yard No.71 Launched: on 12 August 1916
Commissioned: by Oberleutnant zur zee Herbert Breyer.
Combat ready: 27 November 1916 Unit: I. Flottille
Hull: double. Surface displacement: 400-tons. U/Dt: 480-tons. LBDH: 49.45m × 5.22m × 3.68m × 7.46m. Machinery: 2 × 250ps Körting diesels. Props:2-bronze. S/Sp: 11.7kts. Op/R: 9,410-n.miles @ 7kts. Sub/R: 54-n.miles @ 4kts. U/Power: 2 × 230ps electric motors gave 6.7kts.
Batteries: lead/acid/accumulators. Fuel/Cap: 41 + 14-tons. Armament: 2-external 50.04cm torpedo tubes at the bow, one either side of the mine chutes and 1-stern internal tube. Torpedoes: 7 × 50.04cm (19.7in) maximum. Guns: 1 × 88mm (3.46in) forward deck gun. Ammo: 133-rounds of 88mm. Mine tubes: 6 Mines: 18 × UC200. Diving: max-op-depth 50m (164ft) & 33-sec to emergency dive. Complement: 3 officers and 23 ratings.
Torpedo load as designed: (4) one torpedo in each tube plus a reload for the stern tube. Storage for an additional dismantled stern torpedo. Two extra torpedoes for the external bow tubes could be carried lashed to the deck.
The UCII U-boats were considered ideal craft with which to mine the British coast. As soon as sufficient entered service in the closing weeks of 1916 the KDM planned a mining onslaught against Britain. The High Seas Fleet, I Flotille UC boats consisted of UC-24, UC-29, UC-30, UC-31, UC-32, UC-33, UC-40, UC-41 and UC-43. UC-32 [Oblt. Herbert Breyer] was selected to lay mines off the NE coast. UC-32 left Helgoland on 11 December 1916 for her first mining patrol, in fact her first ever patrol. Breyer followed the same course as Bender had in UE-76, sailing to 55.22′ N 1. 44’E, then adopting a direct course for the mouth of the Tyne.
Normal procedure was for the boat to creep up to the mining billet on the surface in darkness, ‘conned down’ with just the conning tower showing above the surface to keep the lowest possible profile. Most U-boat commanders preferred to keep as few men as absolutely necessary on the bridge for mine-laying procedure. Key to events was the Steuermann often a reservist officer drawn from the German merchant navy. The Steuermann would take up position on the bridge alongside the commander and maybe a couple of petty officers serving as look-outs. A Steuermann was required to harness his knowledge of harbour approaches to guide the U-boat into its required position. The mines were dropped one at a time from the bottom of the storage bins open at the bottom to the sea. This work was carried out by specially trained mining heizen or stokers. The theory was simple. The mine is dropped from its container. Mine and cradle sink to the sea-bed. A soluble chemical plug slowly dissolves, enabling the boat to clear the area before the mine floats from the cradle up to its allotted depth. Fiendishly clever providing the chemical plug was not defective. The fact that many were corrupted, partly due to material shortages, explains the heavy losses among mine-laying U-boats. Mine-laying was dangerous, agonisingly slow, nerve wracking work under any circumstances but the crews of the UCII mine-layers were trained to lay the mines as close to the mainland as possible.
On December 13, UC-32 succeeded in laying Field 16 consisting of six mines, half a mile NE of Tynemouth Pier, one mile from land. Once again the mines were laid fifty-five yards apart. Overnight UC-32 made the short journey to Roker where twelve mines were laid in a strip across the mouth of the Wear [Field 17].
No such problems marred the patrol of UC-32. By 27 December she had returned to Helgoland, back in time for Christmas.
The Burnett Steamship Company collier Burnhope [Capt. William Saddler] had a harder time of it when she left Hartlepool for London on December 14 with a cargo of coal. Burnhope was altering course to pick up the channel when an explosion tore through the ship. The explosion was so great that it smashed the glass in the wheelhouse windows, and even cracked the glass in the ship’s compass binnacles. A secondary explosion caused the ship to sink by the bows. Captain Saddler remained on board while the remainder of the crew evacuated by lifeboat. Burnhope reached shallower water with the aid of a minesweeper. She capsized just off Longscar. Captain Saddler was picked up but died of a heart attack brought on by exposure.
Tragedy was compounded when the elderly SS Hildawell [Capt. H Ingram] detonated a mine on December 20 off Seaham. The 2,494 ton Hildawell had been transporting a cargo of ore from Bilboa in Spain to Middlesbrough. Like most ore carriers she sank quickly taking twenty-two people, including the Captain, with her.
UC-24 [Kplt. Willich] followed up UC-32 successful mission by laying a field [No.18] between Hartlepool and Middesbrough on Christmas Eve. Schrader’s UC-31 left Helgoland on December 28. The boat took the same route as UC-32 before and laid a field stretching from Hendon, Sunderland to the mouth of the Tyne [Field 19] on December 30. Six mines were laid off the Tyne one mile NE of the bar. Twelve mines were laid off Sunderland in two batches of six, one batch off the mouth of the Wear and the other batch some 500 yards off the entrance to Hendon Docks. After having finished laying the mines, the U-boat headed out to sea with the intention of molesting Tyne-bound Scandinavian traffic.
The famous pilot cutter, Protector [Capt. Thomas Reed] fell victim to one of UC-31’s mines, lost with all hands on New Years Eve. Contrary to what is often written, the minefield was not specifically laid to sink a specific warship, rather it was part of the general mining campaign on the East coast. Protector had moored at 6.00 a.m to allow a relay of Pilots to board. She then proceeded to board several steamers which were lying near the harbour mouth awaiting daylight. One of these vessels was the regular collier SS Mile End. Protector followed her routine of stopping engines about a quarter of a mile from the piers awaiting the approaching Mile End. The crew of Mile End suddenly felt the shock of a violent explosion and a cloud of smoke like ‘a volcanic eruption’ rise up from the water, leaving just oil and fragmentary wreckage.
Nineteen men died. The oldest was 70 and the youngest, a cabin boy just 16. Quite apart from the human tragedy, the loss of so many Tyne pilots at a time when the river was so busy caused significant delays to coal shipments to the Thames. For three weeks there was major coal trade dislocation as larger ships were laid up off the mouth of the river. Interestingly the loss of Protector on the Tyne was mirrored by the mining of the Mersey Examination, vessel John H Reade to the mines of UC-75 on 28 December 1917. Mile End herself was to be sunk in a collision off the Tees in 1940 with the loss of four lives. Protector was the best known victim of Schrader’s mine field but she was not the only one. On January 4, 1917 the 1294 ton cargo ship Lonclara triggered a mine a short distance East of Hendon Rock buoy. Four men died.
It is unclear whether or not the KDM knew of its success but the mine-laying campaign was set to continue into 1917. UC-43 [Kplt. Sebelin] laid mines off Whitby on January 11 before laying more off Flamborough Head [Fields 28 and 29]. Sebelin returned North to lay six more in two batches off Hartlepool on the night of January 13 [Fields 30 and 31]. Next UC-40 [Oblt. Deuerlich] was sent to lay mines off Blyth [Field 32] on the night of 17 January. Further mines were laid by UC-40 off Coquet Island [Field 33] and the Farnes [Fields 34 and 35]. The Blyth minefield sank the Swedish SS Kamma on 22 January 1917, some one and a half miles off Blyth Pier. On January 28 UC-32 left her base. On January 29 the boat sank the SS Edda while crossing the North Sea. UC-32 laid fields 49 and 50 [Hartlepool and Middlesbrough] and 51 [Flamborough Head] on the nights of January 30 and 31, 1917. UC-32 is also known to have launched a torpedo at Baron Garioch off Hartlepool, at noon on January 31 but the fish ran under the ship. One known victim of UC-32’s mines was the Tug Boat, Ida Duncan [Master: Lionel Duncan]. The ship blew up and sank by the stern on January 31, just off the South Gare Lighthouse. There were no survivors from her crew of six. The Norwegian SS Jerv [Capt. A Bernhard] was torpedoed by UC-32 off Flamborough Head and sank with the loss of one life. The ship was in ballast sailing between Rouen and Middlesbrough when she detonated one of UC-32’s mines on Feb 1.The 2,861 ton SS Apollonia may also have fallen victims to one of the U-boat’s mines. The ship was carrying munitions between Middlesbrough and Lagos when she sank off Flamborough Head on March 1, 1917. Seven men were saved by the Tees local lifeboat but an unknown number perished.
Admiralty was losing the battle with the U-boats. They laid mines unopposed, then disappeared before naval forces could track them down. Every major East coast port [and quite a few on the West coast] suffered interruption, inconvenience and all too often, death, as a result of their activities. The Royal Navy seemed powerless to stop them.
However Admiralty was soon to obtain vital information about the UCII boat operations from a most unexpected source.
On January 22, Schrader left Helgoland, to lay mines off the mouth of the Tyne [Field 46]. This time Schrader adopted a different track, sailing up the Jutland coast as far as the Horns Reef Light Vessel before shaping a course for the Tyne. On January 25 , four mines were laid within a mile of the Tyne bar, in fifteen fathoms on an axis NW and SE. [Field 48] The boat proceeded to lay four more mines just off Soutar Light on a North South axis in twenty fathoms of water. Four more mines were laid off the entrance to the Wear and six more laid off the entrance to Seaham Harbour [Field 47]. UC-31 was not due back at Helgoland until January 30. There was time to do some marauding along the Longstone-Lindesnes route favoured by Scandinavian vessels. Just before noon on January 28, UC-31 held up and sank the British trawler Alexandra, 60 miles East of Longstone with bombs and gunfire. The crew was allowed to transfer to nearby Scandinavian vessels but the master, J. Ives, was seized as a prisoner. Just before midnight three more trawlers were spotted, Petrel, Thistle and Mayfly. Schrader ordered the vessels to stop. The crews quickly abandoned ship when they saw the U-boat. Steuermannsmaat [navigating petty officer] Bernhard Haack, 26, was handed a gun and a sack of bombs. He was ordered to get into Petrel’s lifeboat and sink the fishing boats. The fishermen were allowed to board Petrel while Haack went to work sinking Thistle.
The bomb did not destroy her and the U-boat crew had to deploy their deck-gun to finish her off. Haack was heading towards Mayfly when the sound of shellfire broke out. The Granton-based armed trawler Speedwell II had been patrolling nearby when alerted by the U-boat’s gun fire.
A gun duel developed between the U-boat and the Auxiliary Patrol vessel.
Speedwell II fired with accuracy. She had the U-boat’s range and was closing fast. Haack could only watch helplessly from Mayfly as the shell splashes drew ever closer to his U-boat. UC-31 appeared to list then dive. The U-boat was undamaged but there was no question of the U-boat resurfacing to rescue Bernhard Haack. He was alone.
Speedwell II landed Haack at Granton where he was taken into captivity. Under gentle interrogation he proved willing to talk [although he lied about the identity of his U-boat claiming it had been UC-32 not UC-31]. Haack had been an officer [First Mate] in the German mercantile marine and had been based in Hamburg. He had been pressed into U-boats and drafted to UE-76 to study mine-laying. He had been on the boat during her first mining mission off Longstone. In his former life as an officer in the merchant navy Haack had made several commercial trips to the Tyne. His assumed knowledge of the roads apparently qualified him as an steuermannsmaat. As a warrant officer he was rejected by both the KDM regular petty officer caste and the commissioned officers. It was clear to the British naval staff interrogating him that his time in the KDM had been both lonely and frustrating. Haack provided a wealth of information, describing procedure, navigational and mine-laying techniques in his previous boats UE-76 and more importantly, the UC-II class. The staff officers had sufficient information to deduce the likely frequency of UC-mine-lays and the routes taken.
Meanwhile the crew of UC-32 prepared for their next patrol, another mine-laying patrol to the NE coast.
UC-32 left Helgoland on February 17 for her third and last patrol. Breyer appears to have taken the route North up the Jutland coast before altering course for the Wear. Shortly before 18:00 on 23 February, Breyer ‘trimmed’ UC-32 down so that only the conning tower remained above water. Breyer, Obersteuermann Zahn, Steuermann Wilhelm Skau took up position on the bridge. Zahn giving instructions down the speaking tube to the helmsman and Lt. Falcke the IWO [First Lieutenant]. The coast was bathed in darkness but the noise of the waves was audible as they broke against Roker Pier some 328 yards away. UC-32 was on a course parallel with the Pier. The U-boat was perilously close to the Wear Examination vessel. It came as a relief when Zahn whispered that they were in position on the Fairway. His mouth close to the voice-pipe, Breyer gave orders for the first mine to be dropped.
A few moments later there was an explosion. Once they had recovered from their shock, the crew of the Sunderland Examination vessel leaped into action stations. Searchlights stabbed into the darkness revealing three men struggling in the water. The three men, sole survivors from UC-32, were assisted on board.
In the days that followed, Heizer [Stoker] Reinhard ‘Reinie’ Schirm described his remarkable escape from within the U-boat in a letter to his mother.
“…everything went well until Friday evening, about 6:15, when we were about to lay mines off Sunderland. Suddenly our boat was blown up by an explosion and then drifted. Fortunately we were proceeding on the surface at the time. I was in the control room. The explosion extinguished the lights immediately and I was hurled forward. Owing to the pressure of the water flowing in (for the boat had been torn in half) I was driven upwards. I should have perished miserably if the instinct for self-preservation had not made me gather up all my strength and hold my breath. At the same moment bottles containing compressed air burst and I was thrown into the conning tower. As for the moment the pressure was greater from inside than from outside, I could take breath again. The boat in the meantime had sunk to the bottom. I let go and was at last hurled out of the boat. I swam about on the surface 200 metres from the coast. I shouted for help at once as I felt my strength failing me. I had not slept for 28 hours and I had swallowed a good deal of the oil which was on the surface. Also I had my heavy leather clothing on and my boots. Fortunately the straps had come off some time ago, so that I could slip them off. But I still had my leather breeches on…I had to drag the trousers off me…At last I saw a light and soon after, a second one. The first was the Sunderland Lighthouse, the second, the light of a patrol vessel. I swam towards the latter as it was the closest but I was getting weaker every moment. When I was about 20 metres from the steamer, somebody threw me a lifebelt and I clung to it. Then I saw a lifeboat coming towards me. A sailor extended an oar and I was dragged into the boat with it. ‘Hello Schirm, you here too ?’ said a voice from the boat and I recognised the Captain. I then fainted. I found myself onboard the steamer and heard that only three men had been saved out of twenty-five. We were very well looked after on board the steamer and provided with dry clothes. In the evening we were taken to the hospital. We were very kindly treated there and well fed. We were strictly guarded however, all the time. Even when we went to the toilet. We were allowed a hot bath too which we enjoyed very much. On Sunday morning we were taken to the train station, still strongly guarded. We were not exactly looking our best. You should have seen the curiosity of the crowd, especially the women…”
The British naval staff officer responsible for interviewing Schirm later in London added the following observation to the file:
‘The stoker was obstinate, ignorant and of a low type. Since joining the navy in April 1915 he had spent a considerable time in hospital under treatment for venereal disease‘. The staff officer was clearly unfamiliar with submariners. He was far more impressed with Herbert Breyer and the Steuermann, Wilhem Skau  ‘Both the commanding officer and the navigating petty officer are of the average naval type and made a very good impression’. Skau told him that he had been on the bridge when Oblt. Breyer had given the order to drop the first mine. The boat had suddenly heeled over, the stern seemed to break away from the rest of the boat. Skau found himself in the water. He could give no explanation nor could he remember an explosion.
Oblt. Breyer said very little to his captors. He stated that after issuing the order to release the first mine he heard a loud noise. He refused to say whether he thought it was one of the mines which had exploded. If the British wanted to discover what had happened to UC-32 they would have to look for themselves.
The day following the sinking, the wreck was located by a chain sweep. Divers were sent down but the ‘soup-like’ visibility in the Wear roads prevented an examination of the U-boat. On February 27 the divers noted the distinctive grilles covering the bow casing. The gun and its mountings were said to be intact. Although the conning tower hatch was open, it was far too narrow for a suited diver to enter. The stern was shattered, casing and pressure hull within. At least thirty feet of the stern appeared to be missing. It was not discovered until March 1. The wreck was deliberately surrounded by nets lest any of the confidential material float away. By March 18 the celebrated Lt. Cdr. Damant had surveyed the wreck. A machinery manual was recovered but further salvage operations were suspended, not least because the wreck lay in the fairway and contained six torpedoes, Damant having removed one of the external torpedoes for analysis.
So what had happened to UC-32 ? Clearly she had shared the same fate as the antecedent UE boats. The corrupt chemical plug governing the release of mine from its cradle had dissolved far too quickly. Instead of allowing time for the U-boat to clear the mine, the mine had ascended towards the the surface within minutes of having been dropped. It had struck the underside of the engine room. The resulting explosion had ripped part of the stern off, probably killing everyone in the engine room, motor room and accommodation sections. The UC-boats had been rushed into service before the problem with the mines could be ironed out The problem was endemic to the EM mines carried by the UCII class. Several U-boats including UC-41 and UC-44 were likely destroyed in the same fashion.
The biter had been bitten and injected with its own venom. These set-backs did not stop the UC boats from coming. More would be committed to ever more audacious mining missions as the War ground on.
UC-32 was completely forgotten until sports diving became popular. The boat was rediscovered. Lying in just thirteen metres the wreck became the the great time had by all who dived on her. Everyone came back with something. The bridge telegraphs, the periscopes, valves, voice-pipes, the gun and its fittings, inevitably the propellers stamped with the Vulcanwerke makers mark dated ’29/7/1916′ were ripped off. Eventually someone in authority heard the rumours, maybe read the ADM files and worked out that the wreck lying in the fairway contained torpedoes and quite probably mines. In 1994 Specialist divers from Rosyth were brought in to ‘deal with the wreck’. Normally that meant explosive dispersal but in this instance, UC-32 was a war grave. The German embassy became involved. A compromise was reached The bow section containing the ordinance was duly ‘dealt with’. The rest was left. One torpedo did remain however, resulting in controlled explosion carried out by HMS Blyth on 29 June 1916 with local media recording the unspectacular results.
Very little remains of UC-32 today. Certainly nothing intelligible beyond a few twisted brackets and battery casings. Everything that can be wrenched off, has been wrenched off.
This pathetic metal shard is however the only grave for twenty-two men.
What can be said of them ?
That they were a resourceful enemy, that a significant number of these men were volunteers but quite a few were conscripts, That they died for country and kaiser – and that they were very, very brave.
THE MEN WHO DIED ON UC-32 23.2.1917
Sources: Spindler Handelskrieg mit U-booten, Band 3, ADM 137/3897, ADM 137/4150, ADM 137/3897, ADM 137/3918, KTBs T-1022, Roll 85, PG61944, Young and Armstrong Silent Warriors, Vol 1, Koerver German Submarine Warfare 1914-1918
© P Armstrong