Coastguard Sonar Survey Nets Two WWI U-Boats Lost Off Orkney Isles

By Richard Moss | 17 November 2006
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sonar image of a seabed in green with a small shape outlined by a square towards the top

The initial image that identified one of the submarines. © Maritime and Coastguard Agency

The wrecks of two submarines discovered off the Orkney Islands approximately 70 miles east of Sanday Sound, may turn out to be hitherto lost and uncharted German U-Boats from the First World War.

A survey team working on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) vessel, Anglian Sovereign, made the discovery during a routine sonar survey of the coastline earlier in the year around the Shetland and Orkney Isles.

Now, according to reports in the Orkney daily newspaper, The Orcadian, a group of experts have been comparing plans of two U-Boats reported missing in the area in 1918, and identified the wrecks as U102 and U92.

“It’s early days but some people have been doing some detective work and it looks like they are German U-boats sunk in 1918 on the Northern Barrage, a series of mines which was laid east of Sanday Sound,” said Rob Spillard Hydrography Manager of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

a pixelated sonar image showing a submarine shaped object on a seabed

The view of one of the submarines from the side. © Maritime and Coastguard Agency

“One of the subs, it seems, was commanded by quite a famous commander - the man who sunk the ship that Lord Kitchener was on – so this is his watery grave so to speak.”

On May 23 1916 U-Boat U102’s commander, Kurt Beitzen, took his then submarine U-75 on a deadly mission around the waters of Orkney and secretly laid a carpet of mines around the coastline. Less than a month later Secretary of War, Lord Kitchener, ran into the mines and was lost at sea together with most of the crew of the cruiser HMS Hampshire, which was transporting him to Russia.

Beitzen later transferred to U102, which was on its way back home to Germany in autumn 1918 when it was lost with all 42 hands somewhere on the Northern Barrage – the deadly string of mine defences laid by the Royal Navy around Orkney and Shetland.

By examining records, the researchers - Bobby Forbes of SULA diving in Stromness, together with Kevin Heath of Stromness and Mike Lowery, an American author and authority on WWI U- boats - also believe they have identified the second submarine as U-92, also 'missing' since 1918.

a pixelated sonar image showing a submarine shaped object on a seabed

The view from above. © Maritime and Coastguard Agency

Forbes was one of the team involved in the recent ScapaMap survey, which successfully mapped the locations of the remains of the German fleet scuttled at Scapa Flow in 1919.

However, contrary to some reports in the press, the discovery of the U-boats was not part of the Scapa Flow project, but rather part of an ongoing process by the MCA that undertakes hydrographic surveys around the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

Operated for the MCA by a company called NetSurvey, surveyors found the wrecks of the submarines earlier this year whilst the tug was undertaking one such survey to the east of Sanday Sound.

"The main task of the vessel that did the surveys is to act as an emergency towing tug, responding to vessels which get into distress and towing them to safety before they run aground," explained Rob. "In-between this work, it is put to good use keeping the nautical survey around the coastline up to date."

a pixelated sonar image showing a submarine shaped object on a seabed

The view from the front © Maritime and Coastguard Agency

"Our main task is to get pukka data about the seabed for safe navigation - what we're interested in is the nature of the wrecks and whether they pose any danger to shipping. The subs are in about 70 metres of water so there’s no real danger to passing shipping but fishing boats could snag their nets on them,” added Rob.

The data will in due course be sent to the Hydrographic Office for inclusion on the next edition of the charts to ensure the safe navigation about the coastline. The Receiver of Wrecks at the MCA will also be looking into questions about the ownership and scheduling of the wrecks, which as German vessels will probably be a decision for the German government.

In the meantime there is still work to be done to positively identify the submarines, which are effectively German war graves.

"If they are those two U-boats it's clear that there were no survivors," added Rob, "it might also be the case that as well as being the graves of their crew, the submarines will still have live ammunition in them."

Plans are afoot for a dive on the sensitive wrecks with specialist dive teams using mixed oxygen to make the perilous 70 metre dive together with ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles) that will film the vessels in detail.