‘An Abomination Polluting the Clean Sea’ – Atrocity off Redcar ?

I recall being shocked when I first read ‘Fips’ Fürbringer’s autobiography ‘Alarm ! Tauchen ! – U-boot im Kamf’ (Published in English as ‘Fips’ – Legendary U-boat Commander’ edited by Geoffrey Brookes and published by Leo Cooper. I was horrified by Fürbringer’s description of what appeared to be the murder of sailors helpless in the water perpetrated by the Auxiliary Patrol. We British did not do things like that, after all and in fairness it should be stated from the outset that such accusations are very rare. I set out to play detective by trying to discover the truth behind the allegations but soon ran into difficulties when I discovered that all the primary documentation was provided by one side.

UB-110

What was the accusation ?

The accusation was that the British Auxiliary patrol had cold-bloodedly murdered more than half of the surrendering crew of a German U-boat on July 19th, 1918 off Saltburn on Sea. The ship usually credited with sinking the U-boat in question, UB-110, was destroyer HMS Garry commanded by Lieutenant Charles Lightoller RNR. This is how Fürbringer described the ramming of his boat, UB-110 in ‘Alarm ! Tauchen !’ At this juncture his men have evacuated the boat and are lining up on the casing:

I counted the heads. Nobody was missing. Everybody bar the commander and watch-keeping officers wore a lifejacket.

I watched as a destroyer built up speed for a fresh ramming manouevre. At the last moment I jumped into the sea to protect myself against the force of the impact. With great presence of mind Förster, one of the engine room hands, leapt up and caught hold of the railing chains of the destroyer. When he attempted to clamber aboard, a British Petty Officer struck him so brutally on the hands with a revolver that he fell back into the sea.

At this point I blacked out momentarily and when I regained consciousness I found myself swimming. UB-110 was nowhere to be seen. The ramming had sunk her. The destroyer was hove to nearby. My crew as in the water waiting to be picked up. But there was was indiscipline aboard the British ship. Men from the destroyer’s engine room fired on the survivors with revolvers, while others hurled large lumps of coal at the heads in the water. The smaller craft had closed and were also exercising their machine guns. Above the fearful chatter of MGs and revolvers screams of pain could be heard.

A little way away my 18 year old steward blond Arndt, a miner by occupation, looked towards me imploringly without making a sound. I realised that he was exhausted. I had started to swim towards him when his skull was split open by a large lump of coal. He was dead before I got to him. Shortly after, Oberleutnant Loebell who was swimming nearby and had no lifejacket, said that he had been shot in the thigh and was having difficulty in treading water to remain afloat. I gave him support by holding up the waistband of his trousers. ‘Let me die in peace !’ he said, ‘The swine are going to murder us all in anyway’. I made no reply and merely held on to him” [Both Oberleutnant Kurt Loebell and Heizer Förster survived]. Fürbringer strongly implies that the firing only ceased when neutral vessels in the convoy hove into view.

Who made this accusation ?

The accusation was made by former U-boat Commander Werner ‘Fips’ Fürbringer in his autobiography, ‘Alarm ! Tauchen ! first published in 1933.

Werner Furbringer in Kriegsmarine uniform

Werner Fürbringer was born in 1888 in Braunschweig. He went on to join the Kaiserliche Deutsche Marine (KDM) prior to volunteering for U-boats in 1907. In 1912 ‘Fips’ volunteered for U-boats as a Leutnant sur Zee. During the First World War Fürbringer commanded UB2, UB-39, UC-70, UB-58 and UB-110. It is the latter which concerns us here. Fürbringer sank 101 ships amounting to 97,881. He is said to have damaged five more amounting to a further 9,033 tons. Until 1917 the U-boats were broadly operating under the constraints of restricted submarine warfare. Many of the ships sunk during his tenure of UB-39 were East coast trawlers. ‘Fips’ would pounce on a trawler, send out an armed boarding crew, then blow the vessel up, before moving on to the next group of trawlers or drifters.

Much touted Image published in ‘Alarm ! Tauchen’. Captives of UB-39 in 1916 taken during the Seaham bombardment patrol. The fear on these men’s faces is real enough. The records prove that Fürbringer was protective of his captives but he was not above giving the enemy a scare.

During his bombardment-of-Seaham patrol alone, Fürbringer sank; Staffa, Dalhousie, Florence, Mary-Anne, Success, Ben Aden, Bute, Girl’s Friend, Langley Castle, Recorder, Braconash, Helvetia, King James, Rhodesia and Tatiana. UB-39 also accounted for Olympia, Smiling Morn, Zeeland, Twiddler, Trawler Prince, Lucania, Merchant Prince, Jagersborg, Stamfordham, Egyptian Prince and St. Olive. Most of these vessels were fishing boats. In keeping with the prize regulations the crews were allowed to evacuate the vessels, unharmed. As proof that the U-boat had captured the vessels, the U-crew removed the bells of each before sinking them. It is also recorded that UB-39 damaged the small steamer Destro off Coquet Island using her deck gun.

UB II crossing the North Sea by Claus Bergen

‘Alarm ! Tauchen !’ contains the following anecdote which sheds some light on the ideology and the humour of ‘Fips’:

On one occasion after sinking a steam trawler I picked up her eight crewmen. One stepped forward from the group on the casing, gave my man a searching look and then demanded to be taken to the commander. I motioned for him to approach the conning tower and asked what he wanted, to which he adopted a semi military bearing and shouted up, ‘I would like to inform you, sir that this is my third time on your submarine, and I thank you for your good treatment’

And I hope to see you many more times in the future’ I responded with a beguiling gesture at which the other fishermen all broke out in roars of laughter”

Fürbringer’s knowledge of the North East coast of England, its ports and its roads and seaborne trade patterns was significant. Oberleutnant Fürbringer was confident enough to plan his own private bombardment of this coast and he selected Seaham Iron Works as his target. Fürbringer concluded this was a viable target because the unit was likely producing armaments. At 22:30hrs on July 11th, 1916 UB-39 was on the surface just South of Seaham Harbour when the crew opened fire with the deck gun. Thirty-nine symbolic shells were fired.

88mm gun of UB-39, the gun used to bombard Seaham

Unfortunately one shell exploded in the pit yard of Seaham Colliery, fatally wounding Mary Slaughter who died the next day. Ironically Mary had moved to Seaham to escape zeppelin bombs following the zeppelin bombing at Hebburn. Oberleutnant Fürbringer was appointed to command UC-70 one of the new breed of UCII minelayers capable of mining the British coast. UC-70 spent most of Fürbringer’s tenure operating in the Channel and off the French coast. The established pattern continued with many small vessels sunk and a sprinkling of steamers, mainly French. Fürbringer further enhanced his reputation following a bloody encounter with a French ‘Q’ ship. He was given command of the UB III class UB-58 in August 1917 and went on to sink a further eight vessels in the Channel. Tomas Termote the expert on the Flanders Flotille. maintains that the pressures and angst of penetrating the Channel mine barrage caused Fürbringer to suffer a mental breakdown at this juncture. UB-58 was lost on her next patrol under a new kaleunt. Kapitänleutnant Fürbringer, who had a premonition of disaster, wrote that when he heard the news of the loss of UB-58, he felt like a part of him had died with his crew, was soon given command of the new UB-110. The boat was lost on her first patrol, with Fürbringer spending the remainder of 1918 as a prisoner of war. Fürbringer was awarded the Iron Cross, First and Second class for his war service.

In 1933 ‘Alarm ! Tauchen !’ containing the atrocity allegations was published. At the outbreak of the Second World War Fürbringer was appointed commander of Submarine Defence Department within naval High Command (OKM). In 1942 he was promoted to Konteadmiral and made Inspector of Armaments in the Eastern territories. He left the Kriegsmarine in 1943. Werner Fürbringer died in 1982.

Fürbringer was a submariner of immense skill and ability. His book reveals a humane mariner who went to great lengths to preserve the lives of his enemies as well as those of his crew. English speaking and urbane, in common with Ernst Hashagen, Fürbringer characterises the good U-boat man, as far removed from the crop-haired, heel-clicking Patzig (Llandovery Castle murders) as can be imagined. There is no evidence that he held Nazi sympathies – though he was evidently content to serve the regime. As Steve Dunn author of ‘Southern Thunder’ has pointed out, the date of publication for ‘Alarm ! Tauchen !’ should of course ring alarm bells. It is feasible that the atrocity episode was fabricated to curry favour with Germany’s new Nazi masters. On the other hand the book was published by Mittler in January 1933 at a time when the next election (March) result could not be foreseen and judging from the 1932 electoral outcome, the future seemed unlikely to bode well for the Nazis.

Who was said to be responsible for carrying out the alleged atrocity ?

Fürbringer describes how his U-boat was rammed by a destroyer. The destroyer crew is accused of beating a man trying to save himself with a revolver, then hurling him back into the water. The crew is charged with hurling coal down on the heads of men fighting for their lives in the sea. The strongest charge is that the destroyer crew opened small arms fire on helpless men and only ceased when neutral vessels steamed into view.

The destroyer which rammed UB-110 and garnered the credit for sinking the U-boat was the 1905 vintage River class destroyer, HMS Garry (Lieutenant Charles Lightoller RNR). At the time of the incident Garry was serving as an East coast convoy escort with the Seventh Destroyer Flotilla based at Immingham.

Lt. Charles Lightoller RNR

What Fürbringer did not realise at the time was that his opponent in command of the old destroyer HMS Garry was Charles Lightoller, one of the few surviving officers of the Titanic. Lightoller’s testimony played a pivotal role in establishing the facts behind the loss of the ship, though as Second Officer he did not escape his own judgement being questioned with regard to his allowing partly filled lifeboats to leave the sinking vessel. A family man with a passionate interest in Christian Science, Lightoller had been a pre-war member of the Royal Naval Reserve, it was not surprising that he should seek to serve at the outbreak of war.

He was awarded a DSC in 1915 for engaging the Zeppelin L31 over the mouth of the Thames, while in command of Torpedo Boat 117. The Torpedo Boat scored a hit on the L31′s tail forcing her withdrawak. Prior to his appointment to Garry, Lightoller had commanded the 1899 vintage HMS Falcon one of the regular escorts on the East coast War Channel (introduced in April 1917). Falcon sank on April 1st 1918 following a collision with the escort trawler, John Fitzgerald when both were based at Immingham. It says much about the bargain basement hardware that Admiralty was forced to bring into service as convoy escorts when we learn that the trawler, John Fitzgerald collided with destroyer, HMS Falcon and it was actually the destroyer which sank. Leading Stoker George Laycock of South Shields died two days later as a result of this incident. Lightoller, who was rightly exonerated from blame, was afterwards given command of the 1905 vintage River class destroyer, HMS Garry operating with the Seventh Destroyer Flotilla. Six days after the incident Lightoller relinquished command of the severely damaged destroyer. He was appointed instead to the armed boarding vessel, Carron, a position he held to the end of the war. After the UB-110 sinking Charles Lightoller was awarded a bar to his DSC. Charles Lightoller DSC*, RD, RNR retired with the rank of Commander on March 19th, 1919. His adventures were not over. Charles Lightoller provisioned his own motor yacht, Sundowner and as one of the little ships rescued 127 servicemen from the beaches of Dunkirk. The character of ‘Mr. Dawson’ in the Christopher Nolan film ‘Dunkirk’ is sketched on Charles Lightoller. The amazing seventy-eight year long journey of Charles Lightoller reached its destination in 1952.

A Night to Remember 1958 was largely based upon the account of Charles Lightoller

If an Edwardian school boy was asked to draw an identikit picture of a hero, that picture would look much like Charles Lightoller. Long before the 1958 film, ‘A Night to Remember’ and Kenneth More added lustre to his legend, Lieutenant Charles Lightoller RNR lived up to his heroic reputation and his ship handling skills were universally recognised as being second to none. There was another side to Charles Lightoller which may shed some light in events off Redcar in July 1918, revealed in his 1935 book ‘Titanic and other Vessels’:

I left the rescue work to others who picked fifteen out of the water and then took stock of the damage we had sustained’…I refused to accept the ‘hands up in the air’ business…In fact it was simply amazing that they should have had the infernal audacity to offer to surrender, in view of their ferocious and pitiless attacks on our merchant ships. Destroyer versus Destroyer, as in the Dover Patrol, was fair game and no favour. One could meet them and take them on as a decent antagonist. But towards the submarine men, one felt an utter disgust and loathing; they were nothing but an abomination, polluting the clean sea”.

As Lightoller lets his psychological slip show, suddenly Fürbringer’s accusations do not seem so outrageous. If his ideology now repels us, we should bear in mind that Christian or not, Lightoller was a product of his times and merely reflects the views of many of his contemporaries regarding U-boat crews. The past is a foreign land. But this trenchant and distasteful (to me) ideology does not necessarily make Lightoller and the crew of Garry guilty of committing an atrocity even if it does make it more likely.

A Word on Sources

While several files in the National Archive relate to the sinking of UB-110, including interrogation transcripts written in the third person, apart from notes on the U-boat’s movements, there are no surviving German primary sources describing the sinking, anywhere. The nearest we have is the account provided by Spindler in Band 5, ‘Der Handelskrieg mit U-booten’ first published in 1932. It is clear that allegations of atrocity were already current in German U-boat old comrades circles before ‘Alarm ! Tauchen !’ was published. This does not make these allegations true. The difficulties of coming to a conclusion when all the available evidence was collected, compiled and written by those being accused of atrocity, should be borne in mind when deciding how much weight to give to various pieces of evidence. In this context we must turn to the Log of HMS Garry for an unadorned account of what took place in ADM 53/42459 presumably, as per fleet orders, written immediately after Lightoller’s attack:

HMS Garry – breaker’s yard dodger. Her bows were possibly more formidable than her twelve pounder gun

Log of HMS Garry 19.7.18 Location given as; 54° 39. 20′ N, 00° 54 40’E

‘10.45 Sighted periscope on port side. Dropped 4 depth charges

13:37 Heard ML 263 sound 6 blasts

Full ahead, dropped 2 DC one at 150′ the other at 50′

Submarine broke surface 100 yards away off port bow

Rammed sub at right angles and passed over him

Sub again broke surface.

Turned guns firing 12 pounder and port waist gun hitting sub and rammed again

tearing all superstructure open. Sub heeled over and sank

Proceeded in direction of beach until damage was ascertained

Down by the head but not sinking’

The Log, which shows no evidence of interference. contains no reference to the fate of the U-crew but given the extract from ‘Titanic and other Vessels’ this should not be surprising. In the book extract Lightoller merely states that he ‘left the rescue work to others‘ The Log records that Garry opened fire with waist and twelve pounder guns. There is no mention of small arms fire as the German alleged. We must presume that the Seventh Flotilla writers and quartermasters would have held Lightoller and his officers accountable for all munitions expended, including small arms.

Fürbringer assures us in his narrative that all the crew was present on the casing at the time UB-110 was evacuated. This may be significant in view of what may, or may not have transpired. Lightoller claims that fifteen German survivors were rescued by the other British escorts. The UB III class was designed to have a complement of thirty-four. This raises the question as to how many Germans survived this encounter ? The answer is twelve according to official British records. Spindler notes thirteen survivors and names twenty-three dead. The UB-110 Memorial Panel at Möltenort gives the same figure. What is certain is that the majority of the U-crew died in the incident. What follows is an attempt to establish what happened, first however, some essential information.

What kind of U-boat was UB-110 ?

UB III class

Type: UB III torpedo attack boat Builder: Blohm and Voss for KDM Ordered: 23.9.16 within the batch UB 103- UB 117
Keel Laid: Yard No. 316  Launched: 1.9.17 Commissioned: Kapitänleutnant Werner Fürbringer, 23rd March 1918

Technical Specifications of UB 110
Hull: double Surface Displacement: 519 tons Underwater Displacement: 651 tons
LBDH  55.30m x 5.80m x 3.68m x 8.25m  Props: 2 bronze Machinery: 550ps MAN/Vulkan diesels
Surfaced Speed: 13.3k  Underwater speed: 8k   Operational Range:  7,420 nautical miles at 6 knots
Submerged Range:: 55 nautical miles at 4k U/power: 394 ps electric motors providing 7.5 k Batteries: Lead/acid accumulators Fuel/Cap: 35-36 tons
Diving: Max Operational Depth of 50m (164′)  30 seconds to dive
Armament: 4 bow and 1 stern 50.04cm (19.7″)  torpedo tubes  Torpedoes:  10 Deck Gun: 1 x 105mm bow mounted   Ammo: 160 rounds of 105mm 
Complement: 3 officers and 31 ratings

Unit: Flandern II Flotille.

By 1918 the U-boot waffen had expanded exponentially. Personnel, including skilled rates, were conscripted from High Seas Fleet warships to serve in U-boats, though significant numbers volunteered. Experienced U-boat men were cycled through boats as mentors to train new entrants to the U-boats. Michelsen in ‘U-bootskrieg’ estimated that 20% of all non-commissioned personnel had received no submarine training whatsoever by 1918. Conscription, training cuts and the recycling of key personnel all played their part in enabling the waffe to cope with manpower dilution resulting from unparalleled expansion. UB 110 was fortunate in also having a qualified Engineering Officer (Ingenieur Ploen) appointed to the crew. More often than not, by 1918 a U-boat engine room was likely to be in the hands of a capable Obermaschinist or an as yet unqualified Aspirant. UB-110 was deficient in commissioned line officers but Fürbringer could rely on support from Oberleutnant Kurt Loebell serving as First Officer (IWO) and Reservist Leutnant Ottoker Tietze. As regards the petty officers and ratings, the interrogation notes made by British naval intelligence contains the following observation:

With but few exceptions, their experience of submarine warfare was limited to the one incomplete cruise in UB-110. The disastrous ending of this cruise appeared completely to have quenched any ardour for the work that they may have possessed. They expressed the conviction tat sooner or later most of the crews of submarines would meet a violent end and they were most thankful to have been made prisoners and thus escaped from a service leading to almost certain death

Clearly the crew of UB-110 had not yet had an opportunity to gel on this her first patrol. The individuals were likely no more or less experienced than any other U-crew of the period. In order to understand what took place it is necessary to reconstruct her last patrol.

U-64 shortly after launch. The sleek UB III was the direct antecedent of the Type VIIc of the Second World War

The First and Last Patrol of UB-110

UB-110 left Bruges on July 4th, 1918 for a billet off the North East coast of England. Now a regime of unrestricted submarine warfare prevailed. The kid-gloves were off. The U-boats were permitted to sink on sight, without giving warning and without safeguarding those on board. Sinking vessels from periscope depth was the routine procedure.

It would take an estimated two days for the boat to reach the East coast War Channel. It appears that Fürbringer sailed via Haaks Light then Terschellbank Light before sighting the Dogger Bank Lightship prior to shaping a course for Spurn Light. UB-110 now crept North towards Scarborough by skirting the seaward flank of the War Channel. By this stage in the war a vast coastal minefield was slowly being laid off the East coast between Robin Hood’s Bay and the Humber. It is not clear how Werner Fürbringer penetrated this mine field but quite possibly slipping through via the Humber estuary.

Room 40 decrypts relating to the last patrol of UB-110 can be found in ADM 137/3917:

9 July Left…undecipherable’

10 July 22:10hrs Torpedoed oiler Sprucol in 54° 20′ N, 0° 25’W

‘12 July 18:21hrs Reported in 54° 20′ N, 0° 20’W

14 July 13:15hrs  D/Fd at 54° 20′ N, 0° 25’W

18 July 12:20hrs Reported in 54° 35’N, 0° 44’W

19 July 13:13hrs  torpedo fired at SS Jolande in 54° 40′ N, 0° 59’W missed’

River Class destroyer HMS Garry

These decryptions indicate that the boat sailed Northwards towards Whitby after sighting Spurn Light. On July 10th UB-110 spotted a ship under trawler escort which could only mean it contained an important cargo.

At Noon on July 10th the 1,137 ton tanker Sprucol was off Robin Hood’s Bay escorted by three trawlers. They could not prevent Fürbringer from firing a torpedo into her starboard side, ‘midships, blowing a huge hole through the ship. Despite the damage and the loss of 950 tons of oil, the tanker managed to limp back to the Humber where she was then towed to Earle’s Shipbuilding and Engineering Company at Hull. Sprucol spent the next four months in dry dock being repaired before rejoining the fleet.

No depth charge attack followed, allowing UB-110 to slip away, with the crew confident that more convoys would appear. During their interrogations the captured crew of UB-124 provided Admiralty intelligence with information as to how U-boats of the period stalked an oncoming convoy:

Inside out. Sprucol showing extensive damage, starboard, ‘midships.

When columns of smoke are sighted, their bearing is immediately taken. The submarine continues on the surface at slow speed, taking a fresh bearing of the approaching vessels every 10-15 minutes, until the speed of the convoy and his approximate course can be judged. If the convoy is zig-zagging, each alteration of course is carefully noted during a period of at least an hour and sometimes even for two hours, until the mean course of the convoy can be definitively ascertained.

The submarine then proceeds to close on a course differing by about 45 degrees from the estimated mean course of the convoy and endeavours to reach a point about a mile ahead of the convoy on this mean course; ie with average visibility she submerges as soon as there is danger of being sighted, ie when the funnels can be distinctly made out above the horizon.

On reaching the required position, the submarine turns and proceeds at low speed towards the convoy, in a reverse direction to its mean course. She is thus in a favourable position for attack, whether the convoy continues on the same leg of the zig-zag or alters to the opposite leg.

The leading wing ship of the convoy is generally used by the submarine as an ‘observation ship’ or mark for getting into position for attack. The actual attack is more usually delivered against the second or a later ship in the line.

As regards the further attack, information stated that the submarine, if possible passes down between two columns of the convoy keeping at periscope draught. As a rule she will turn roughly at right angles to the course of the convoy and endeavour to fire a bow shot at a vessel in one column and a stern shot at a ship in the other column. If however there is not sufficient room to manouevre in this manner and the convoy is on a steady course at the time she may remain on an opposite course and fire two bow shots, each angled for 90 degrees at ships on either side of her ie one in each of the columns” ADM 137/3060

Convoys using the War Channel as re-organised in June 1918, were coded TU (Southbound from Tyne to the Humber) and UT (Northbound from the Humber to the Tyne). By July 16th UB-110 had returned to Robin Hood’s Bay when a Northbound UT convoy steamed into view. U-boat commanders were confused over the sailing of East coast convoys but according to the Technical History Series it had been agreed in October 1918 that they would sail every two days instead of daily as before.

The damaged Sprucol in dock. Note the dazzle paint

The 3,709 ton Southborough (Master: W. Eade) was on passage from La Goulette, Tunis to the Tees with a cargo of iron ore. At 13:43hrs the convoy was five miles off Hayburn Wyke when Southborough was hit on the starboard side of the forward bunker. Given the nature of her cargo it is not surprising that she sank at once taking thirty of her crew with her. The seven survivors were rescued by one of the escorts and landed at Middlesborough. UB-110 was treated to twenty-six depth-charges but dived to eighty-two feet then crept away to safety.

Southborough was struck on the starboard side by a single torpedo but she went straight to the bottom. Thirty died and only seven survived.

This was clear evidence that a U-boat was operating in the War Channel. In fact there were three U-boats prowling. On July 18th the boat was surfaced some fifteen miles off the coast when a second submarine was sighted. The gun was manned as a precaution and the challenge was issued. The correct code, ‘W’ was made, followed by the response ‘Q’. The other submarine was UC-70 (Oblt. K. Dobberstein) one of ‘Fips’ old boats. The following morning at 10:00hrs UB-110 exchanged signals with UB-77 (Lt. z. S. Maurer). The two boats then met up. Attention was drawn to the Admiralty yacht, Vanessa which was visible to seaward leading a unit of the Auxiliary Patrol. Suggestions that the yacht should be torpedoed were briefly discussed but dismissed by Fürbringer on the grounds that they were out to sink mercantile tonnage rather than shallow draught warships. The submarines parted, with UB-110 sailing North towards Hartlepool and the Tees.

UB-110 in Swan Hunter’s Yard. The bow casing around the tubes has been destroyed. It is not clear whether this is due to the initial sinking or to later salvage efforts. Franks Album, Tyne Wear Archive and Museum

Three miles South of Hartlepool a Southbound convoy consisting of twenty-nine ships was sighted in the War Channel. What follows is the account of events as filtered by Admiralty intelligence in ADM 137/3060 following the interrogation of Fürbringer and his officers.

Sinking of UB-110′

On 19 July at 15:30 (CT) when about three miles south of Hartlepool and a little outside the War Channel a South going convoy consisting of twenty-nine steamers was sighted.  Furbringer wished to attack a big vessel in the van to the convoy but the large number of escorts prevented him from getting into a position for attack and he therefore turned his attention to the 3,000 ton ship in the rear of the convoy (Jolande).  He believes that while carrying out this attack, UB-110 was sighted by aircraft which signalled the submarine’s presence to the accompanying vessels; for suddenly a motor launch (ML 263) was sighted heading straight for the submarine.  Furbringer gave the order ‘Quick to 17m (55’) but before the boat had dived sufficiently deep a depth charge exploded under the bows forcing her up and jamming the forward hydroplanes to ‘rise’.  Another depth charge exploded by the stern about the same time.  Some of the survivors stated that the port main motor short circuited and that No 2 fuel tank, starboard, was damaged as a result of one of these explosions.

Stern view of the salvaged UB-110. Just to the left of the ladder a distinct tear can be seen through the casing level with the aft starboard hydroplane. This may have been caused by a depth-charge. The Photographs were taken by Frank and Sons of South Shields. Tyne Wear Archive and Museums

The crew was rushed forward in order to force the bows down but about this time UB-110 was rammed by a destroyer which struck her conning tower the port side giving the boat a list to starboard.  Immediately afterwards another depth-charge seems to have exploded right underneath the submarine forcing her to the surface.  All efforts to dive the boat were unavailing.  Finally the commanding officer gave orders to blow the tanks and then try to abandon ship.  Meanwhile the destroyers had opened fire: it was stated  that the conning tower of UB-110 was hit three times, one shell passing right through it without exploding.  The clips of the conning tower hatch which had jammed on account of excessive air pressure in the boat were finally prised open and the crew tried to escape through this and the forward hatch.  The combined effect of the gunfire and the heavy list of the boat seem to have lead to a panic.  The crew tried to force their way through the hatches in a body and it was probably due to this that a large number failed to escape.

Shortly after UB-110 came to the surface a destroyer again rammed her with such force that she capsized and sank.

This is the nearest we have to an account by Fürbringer of the sinking of UB-110. It was written down by a British intelligence officer within days of the sinking. Fürbringer makes no mention of the atrocity allegedly meted out against his crew. On the other hand it could be argued that an intelligence officer was hardly likely to investigate or even record such a hugely embarrassing allegation. We know that the Red Cross was in contact with the German prisoners on August 2nd. It should be added that there is no indication that Fürbringer or any of the other survivors made a complaint to them, though it is not difficult to think of reasons why, as prisoners of war, the opportunity to raise the subject of atrocity should have been waived. Yet the account is riddled with inconsistencies. In ‘Alarm ! Tauchen !’ as we have seen, Fürbringer was adamant that all his men were present outside on the casing and wearing life-jackets but the British interpretation given above offers the following explanation for so many deaths:

  ‘…The combined effect of the gunfire and the heavy list of the boat seem to have lead to a panic.  The crew tried to force their way through the hatches in a body and it was probably due to this that a large number failed to escape’.

It is therefore strange that if the crew did not succeed in making an escape from the boat as the British account alleges, no mention of bodies is found in Commander Wheeler’s otherwise comprehensive salvage files. On the other hand there are no records of bodies being washed up in the vicinity of Redcar which might be expected had the Germans been shot while in the sea. Of course the bodies could have been dispersed then swept out to sea. A reasonable person might conclude that either Fürbringer was lying or Admiralty intelligence was attempting a cover up, yet the truth may lie somewhere else. It is possible that Garry was not even present when the majority of German sailors were killed. The same file contains the following narrative note which may be key to understanding what really took place:

Lt. Chick RNR on ML 263, one of the convoy escorts, slightly astern of the convoy on the port beam, sighted a periscope fifty yards on the starboard bow. ML 263 dropped two depth charges set for 100′. ML49 dropped one depth-charge. Fifteen seconds later the submarine surfaced, her forward hydroplanes were possibly jammed. ML 49 opened fire with machine gun and three pounder, scoring hits on the conning tower and on the waterline, forward.’

Torpedoraum of UB-110. The discovery that the torpedoes detonated by reason of magnetic pistols came as a shock to the Royal Navy. These torpedoes could explode under a ship rather than following direct contact with the side of a vessel. Fortunately for the British many of these torpedoes turned out to be unstable. Tyne and Wear Archive and Museums

There were serious disciplinary and training issues throughout the Auxiliary Patrol. These problems are described in the correspondence of Rear Admiral East Coast, who was responsible for providing convoy escorts, to Admiralty. Some of the problems are sketched in ‘Blue on Blue – The Sinking of J6’. The reservist crews of the East Coast convoy escorts were rugged, independently minded ex-fishermen who did not take kindly to either orders or authority. The training of these men was ad hoc at best. They were given the very worst equipment, negligible training and told to get on with it. The three pounder guns fitted to their vessels could not always be depressed or elevated. This did not prevent them from enthusiastically attacking the submarines of the Tees and Blyth flotillas even though correct recognition signals had been exchanged. The chances are that none of the reservists had ever seen a U-boat apart from a fleeting glimpse as a trimmed-down submarine dived to safety but they knew only too well the names of Reaper, Strathrannoch and Border Lads, Auxiliary Patrol vessels recently sunk with all hands. And they would have been aware of the fate of the Humber based Ethel & Millie crew, captured in by UC-63 in the Summer of 1917 then left on deck while the submarine submerged, allegedly. But this was not the full story, there is evidence that other U-boat crews attempting to surrender were the victims of atrocity at the hands of the Auxiliary Patrol.

The crew of U-48 evacuated their fatally damaged boat boat when shelled by an Auxiliary Patrol unit off the Goodwin Sands, Kent on November 24th, 1917. The Auxiliary Patrol maintained machine gun fire on the men in the water on the grounds that the red cork location buoys thrown over the side by the Germans, might be bombs. Others noted that the Imperial ensign tied to the U-boat’s periscope had not been hauled down and the U-boat therefore still posed a threat, even though it was obvious the U-crew was in the water pleading for help. At any rate more than half the crew of U-48 died that day. The skippers of the Auxiliary Patrol vessels involved had no hesitation in claiming the £1,000 bounty.

UB-110 Torpedoraum looking aft to Zentrale (Control Room). Most of the crew lived in this space. Note the wooden lockers for crew belongings incorporated into the panelling Tyne and Wear Archive and Museums

Returning to UB-110, quite apart from any motivation to kill Germans rather than take them prisoner, the reader should consider the difficulties in ascertaining whether the enemy is actually evacuating the boat to surrender or rushing to man the deck gun ? We now know that the crew of ML 49 sprayed the conning tower and forward casing with machine gun bullets before Garry entered the scene to ram the submarine. It seems likely that many of the Germans died in this most dangerous phase, before the officer on the Launch had ascertained that all resistance was over and issued the ‘cease fire’ order.

Zentrale (control room) depth control wheels. The compass can be seen on the far left Tyne and Wear Archive and Museums

ADM 137/4150 ‘Assessments of results of attacks on German submarines’ contains the following narrative which significantly enhances the role played by Lightoller and Garry over that of the two motor launches. If we believe Fürbringer, UB-110 was already hors de combat by the time Garry steamed in to ram:

HMS Garry and ML 263 and ML 49, 19.7.18

‘While escorting convoy ML 263 sighted the periscope of a submarine at 13:42, 50 yards on her starboard bow.  She immediately headed for it  and when over the position dropped two ‘D’ type depth charges set at 100′. ML 49 who was astern of ML 263 also proceeded to the spot and dropped a depth charge set at 100′. About 15 seconds later submarine came to the surface and was attacked by gunfire from ML 49 who claims two hits with her three pounder gun

Elco Motor Launches. Outboard is ML28. Note depth charges on stern. There is no throwing mechanism, the depth charges were simply rolled off from the racks.

HMS Garry who was zig-zagging to the Eastward of ML 263 on hearing six blasts from her siren, immediately increased to full speed and steered towards her dropping one depth charge set to 100′ and half a minute later another ten to fifty feet.  The submarine broke surface about four points on her port bow 300 yards distant and Garry opened fire, scoring a hit with each round.  The submarine was making about six knots and evidently  attempting to submerge.  At 13:37 Garry rammed submarine (who was then showing the fore-part of her conning tower above water) at right angles and passed right over her.

Half a minute late submarine again broke surface.  Garry immediately swung round (forward 12 pdr and 6 pounder port waist gun meanwhile firing at short range, all shots registering hits) and again rammed her – this time squarely – tearing her upper works open.  The submarine thereupon heeled over and sank

This final report is for me the most interesting.  It is written by Rear Admiral East Coast and was incorporated into the Admiralty Staff Technical History Monograph on East Coast Convoys  ADM 275/19, Vol1, Part 8. It has never been published beyond this restricted document:

July 20 1918

Convoy TU 71 consisting of 20 ships sailed from the Tyne at 1940 on 19 July 1918, escorted by HMS Garry, HMS Flying Fish, HMS Sylvia, HMS Stour, Arctic Whaler and seven trawlers. These escorts were relieved by the following vessels in Area VIII; HMS Bionetta, ML 263 and ML 49.

At 13:32 deckhand William Robertson of ML 263 (Lt. H. Clark acting CO) which was stationed on port beam and slightly astern of centre of the convoy sighted the periscope of a submarine, thirty yards off her starboard bow.  This was promptly reported to her commanding officer who at once altered course and dropped two Type D* depth charges.  ML 49 who was stationed on port quarter of the convoy and astern of ML 263 observed the dropping of the depth charges and at once proceeded to the spot where she dropped a Type D* depth charge set at 100′.  About 25 seconds after this depth charge exploded the submarine was brought to the surface damaged by the depth charges (as later stated by her commanding officer).  HMS Garry and HMS Bionetta immediately headed for the submarine with the intention of ramming.  HMS Garry struck the conning tower, forcing Bionetta to use her helm hard to avoid collision.  Garry then turned, opened fire and rammed a second time, completing the destruction of the enemy.

ML 49 picked up two officers and eight men from the submarine and transferred them to HMS Stour, HMS Bionetta rescuing the remaining survivors, namely the commanding officer and five men, one of whom died of  wounds 20 minutes after having been picked up. HMS Bionetta returned to the Tyne and handed over prisoners.

HMS Bionetta

It is considered that this attack reflects great credit on all concerned and particularly ML 263 by whose prompt action the submarine was undoubtedly damaged and brought to the surface to be finally destroyed by HMS Garry. HMS Garry docked at Immingham on July 20th after collision with enemy submarine suffering extensive damage to stem above and below water, also side plating above water’

A Conclusion of Sorts

Let’s retread a few points. All the written evidence comes from the British side. No complaint was ever made so there was no British investigation, nor was the matter of atrocity even reported to the Red Cross with regard to UB-110. These are salient factors behind this case. Much of the recorded evidence is contradictory. Take the numbers of German survivors for instance.

Bionetta picked up six men and HMS Stour rescued ten. We are also told that one man died en route to South Shields, making fifteen survivors. Yet the list passed on the the Red Cross names only twelve survivors, if we remove the name of ‘Karl Bute’ which has been double-counted in this list. Fog of war ? perhaps but there are sufficient inaccuracies and inconsistencies – the panicking crew spin for instance to suggest that something deeply unsavoury took place off Redcar, though not necessarily constituting an atrocity. The Germans did not have a monopoly on brutality as events from the Baralong affair to the destruction of U-48 demonstrate.

Having presented the evidence it is up to the reader to decide whether an atrocity was perpetrated against the U-crew. Any reassessment is bound to be speculative and and stands or falls on this basis. It is my conclusion that the majority of the UB-110 crew died before the ramming as they stood on the fore-casing, not mown down by the crew of Garry but by the machine guns fired by the crews of ML 49 and ML 263. In other words Fürbringer’s crew may have died in the heat and tension of battle, a battle that was over as far as the Germans were concerned but still of uncertain outcome as far as the men on ML 49 viewed matters. Add in a certain over-enthusiasm/indiscipline on the part of the Auxiliary Patrol men and the scenario becomes quite believable. Fürbringer admits he was floundering in the water by this stage and had briefly passed out. It could be argued that he did not have the best viewpoint to judge events. The interrogation file contains the following observation:

Most of the officers and men spoke freely within the limits of their knowledge and it considered that their evidence may be relied upon. They were most favourably impressed with the treatment they received and our hands, and there is not doubt that this is the main reason for their willingness to impart information”

The officer carrying out the interrogation described Loebell as:

having a pleasant and gentlemanly manner and spoke freely during his interrogation. He of course avoided giving any information which possessed obvious military value but he discussed without reserve matters which he considered of only minor importance. He strongly condemned the acts of cruelty committed by some commanding officers of submarines”

Lieutenant der Reserve Oscar Tietze ‘made a very good impression and behaved well during his interrogation‘. It should be noted that very similar notes recording the apparent gratitude of survivors to the British are found in the U-48 interrogation file. The crew of U-48 was certainly machine gunned while trying to stay alive in the sea. I leave it to the reader to decide how much weight to give to the evidence of these interrogation notes though it should be observed that it is highly unlikely that men on the receiving end of an atrocity would have shown such willingness to talk. Fürbringer on the other hand was:

most reticent during his interrogation, being apparently under the impression that if he answered the most simple and harmless questions he might betray valuable naval secrets’

The Report of Rear Admiral East Coast, a secondary source written within days of the action but a document compiled from a range of reports clarifies the situation. Garry only came on the scene after the real damage had been done by ML49 and ML 263. The ramming manouevre forced Bionetta to swerve violently to avoid a collision and riding over the back of UB-110 caused grievous damage to Garry. The double ramming may have been dramatic – it certainly displayed significant seamanship – but it amounted to little more than melodramatic overkill and Rear Admiral East Coast knew it.

The crew of Garry may have behaved in a barbarous fashion if their ideology mirrored that of Lightoller. A few points arise here. Lightoller was not the man to lose control of a crew but a commander on the bridge, harnessing his skills in attempting to ram a submarine using a clapped-out, clumsy destroyer would be pre-occupied with this task. He could not have held an immediate awareness of events transpiring in ‘midships and stern. Likewise the acting chief engine room artificer would be absorbed with engine control at this time of tension. Reservist engine room staff including petty officer artificers did not routinely carry revolvers which were kept in the wardroom magazine which were only unlocked following permission from the Captain or the First Lieutenant who held the keys. There would likely be only one or two hand guns onboard a ship crewed by reservists and they were for the sole use of officers. A plausible scenario is that the stokers took matters into their own hands, animated by over-zealousness fuelled by hate and perhaps only equalled in their ardour by a lack of discipline which Lightoller and his officers may not have felt inclined to rein in. Killing or injuring prisoners was emphatically contrary to Admiralty orders if only because naval intelligence always prized U-boat survivors for interrogation purposes but as Arthur Clough observed in ‘The Latest Decalogue’ of 1862, ‘Thou shalt not kill; but needs’t not strive officiously to keep alive’. After five long weary war years it is open to question whether any contemporary authority would have regarded pelting even the most helpless men with lumps coal as a war crime, is rather open to question.

Image 76 shows the stern torpedo tube of UB110 while Image 30 depicts the diving/surfacing valves in the Zentrale. Colour coded handwheels used to dive or surface the boat. Tyne and Wear Archive and Museums

We know that Garry docked in South Shields for urgent repairs and that Fürbringer was taken to HMS Satellite, the hulk functioning as the base of SNO Tyne, Captain William Bowden-Smith. Contemporary newspaper reports trumpet that several of the German prisoners had been taken to Harton Hospital with ‘gunshot wounds’.

HMS Satellite

Fürbringer was later transported by rail down to London. He described how the local community gave him a very hostile reception as he was escorted from the landing stage in Jarrow Slake to the station.

As for the U-boat, oil was issuing from the wreck of UB-110 so she was not difficult to re-locate. The decision was taken to raise the U-boat in the hope of finding code books, cyphers and the like. Commander Wheeler’s diving team commenced work on July 29th. Next day Wheeler made a preliminary report. The boat lay in twenty-four fathoms. The bottom of the boat was painted ‘a dirty green’. Both gun and most of the conning tower casing had been ripped off and lay on the seabed nearby. The boat had been rammed twice, he reasoned, once abreast of the gun and again level with the conning tower.

Stern-on view. After having been raised, UB-110 was towed by floating dock to Whitby in September 1918

A more detailed report followed:

She has been rammed again aft the starboard side, the destroyer passing over her, but I do not think this has done more than crush the hull. She has had a depth charge underneath her forward which has probably pushed her up and she has had one shot through the conning tower casing on the fore side and another shot right through both the inner and outer hulls in the conning tower on the after side. Both upper and lower conning tower hatches were open” ADM 116/1851

Now we have proof that depth-charges dropped by the launches led to the sinking of the U-boat. The damage caused by Garry was administered after the boat had been crippled, although every published source gives credit to Lightoller and his destroyer while ignoring the key role of the motor launches. Admiralty Lifting barge YC10 was summoned. Diver Yates from Swan Hunter’s Yard on the Tyne joined Admiralty divers Hommet and Morris in their work to salvage the boat. The boat was successfully raised in late September. Towing commenced on September 19th with the submarine hauled in to Whitby Harbour. On October 5th 1918 the barge bearing the wrecked U-boat reached the Tyne.  Initially the boat was lodged in Admiralty Dock off Jarrow slake. The Royal Navy toyed with the notion of restoring her to viable state to operate under the White Ensign and she was later taken to Swan Hunter’s Yard for assessment.

On October 9th codebooks were found, as were cypher tables. It was quite extraordinary that the crew had not destroyed them or thrown them overboard in advance of escaping the boat. The most valuable find was probably the Allgemeines Funkspruchbuch containing cypher conversion tables. It is debatable how much of this information was new to naval intelligence. In the post-war period an eminent journalist name of Hector Bywater would claim that a chart found in the wreck showed bottoming out zones off the East coast such as Flamborough Head and Soutar Point. Bywater maintained this information resulted in the loss of five more U-boats. In September 1918 the East coast mine barrage was extended from Robin Hood’s Bay to the Tees but given the time scale between the salvage of UB-110 and the loss of these boats, it is doubtful whether this was done as a result of intelligence recovered from UB-110. This chart, if it ever existed, is not among the material in file ADM 137/3900 with the other speed tables, the Log and other miscellaneous data recovered from the wreck. British and German naval authorities were roundly dismissive of Bywater’s assertions.

As for UB-110 on December 19th 1918 the boat was towed from Wallsend to the Northumberland Dock at Howdon and was subsequently sold as scrap. 

So there we have it. There is no evidence that Werner ‘Fips’ Fürbringer was an Anglophobe. Indeed, after his treatment at the hands of the folk of Shields he wrote:

On the morning of the second day I [Encarcerated within Satellite] noticed a large crowd beginning to congregate. Later an armed troop of British soldiers arrived and erected barricades between the crowd and the exit from the landing stage…On disembarking the crowd, which was probably composed of fisherfolk, broke out into loud howls and whistles. We could hardly blame them for their expression of hatred for U-boatmen, since we had deprived so many of them them of their boats and livelihoods thorough our activities all along the English east coast. We realised now that the large armed escort was more for our protection than to prevent our escape…if the crowd got really ugly we might easily have been lynched. The soldiers could do nothing to protect us against a shower of rotten eggs, fish and sputum…My army officer escort was most attentive, asking if he could buy me some reading matter, was I hungry and did I need a cup of tea ? I could see that these inquiries were an unspoken apology for the behaviour of the mob. I acknowledged his kindness but politely declined every offer”

Fürbringer was a conservative paternalist but not a Nazi. In the final analysis he remains an enigma. There is no reason why Fürbringer would have invented a dark narrative of atrocity but there is one final twist to this tale. The crew list of survivors and dead of UB-110 is given below. It has been cross-checked with German records held by the Möltenort Memorial. The name of ‘Arndt’ the eighteen year old murdered by a lump of coal, whose death so moved Fürbringer, does not appear on the UB-110 death list. In fact the name does not appear in any list…

Survivors of UB-110

Werner Fürbringer, Kapitänleutnant

Kurt Loebell, Oberleutnant (IWO)

Ottoker Tietze, Leutnant D Reserve

Emil Hellmann, Maschinist

Joseph Rottgers, Dienstruender Steuermann

Emil Redepennig, Oberbootsmannsmaat

Emil Eilers, Oberbootsmannsmaat

Karl Bock, Maschinistenmaat

Karl Bute, Maschinistenmaat

Wilhelm Altenburg, Maschinistenmaat

Walter Siersleben, Oberheizer

Konrad Förster, Heizer

The Dead of UB-110

Max Brenzel Mts

Wilhelm Burkhardt FT Gast

Herman Eskerski Mts

Johann Freisinger Ob/Mts

Bernhard Ibele FT/Ob anw

Theo Ingenhaag Masch Mt

Joseph Iserhardt Heizer

Franz Jessberger Heizer

Klein Masch Mt

Ludtke Mts

Masuhr Mts.

Merkle Masch.Mt

Neuhauser Masch.Mt

Bernhard Ollegott Mts

Georg Oswald Mts

Albert Ploen Mn.Ing

Johann Roosen Heizer

Ferdinand Rosenbluhe Mts

Martin Sauter Heizer

Karl Schmidt Masch.Mt

Heinrich Stein Heizer

Walter Strauss Mts

Max Trager Heizer

 ADM 137/2241-2 Records of Admiral commanding East Coast, ADM 116/1851 Admiralty Salvage Section records, ADM 137/4225-38, ADM 137/4377, ADM 240/54/205, ADM 137/4150, ADM 137/3900,ADM 137/3917 .

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