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Divers find historic WW1 U-boat at 120m

U-111 U-boat
U-111, the U-boat that made the USA’s first solo Atlantic submarine crossing (National Archives)
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Technical divers have located U-111, the final “lost” WW1 German submarine wreck in US waters, at a depth of 120m – confounding US Navy records that placed it four times deeper. 

The discovery was made on 5 September some 40 miles off Virginia’s Atlantic coast by technical divers and wreck-hunters Erik A Petkovic and Rusty Cassway, using an ROV from the latter’s 13m dive-boat Explorer. Their expedition was supported and reported by National Geographic

Completed by the German Imperial Navy in January 1918, U-111 went on to sink three Allied merchant ships during its Atlantic patrols. After the Armistice, the 72m U-boat was one of a number that surrendered to the Royal Navy and were laid up in Harwich, where many were scrapped. 

U-111 was retained for technical analysis before becoming one of six U-boats to be sent to the USA. The plan was for the submarine to tour Atlantic ports as a fund-raising public attraction before being mechanically analysed and eventually scuttled.

A US Navy crew of 32 under Lt-Cdr Freeland Daubin set out to sail the unfamiliar vessel across the Atlantic in April 1919. After being delayed by repairs they started behind the rest of the convoy so decided to risk taking the shorter “Titanic” northern route. In doing so, they made the USA’s first solo transatlantic submarine voyage.

Lt-Cdr Daubin and his crew were fortunate to reach the USA, because four days out a plug secretly installed by German saboteurs dissolved, and only a gunner’s mate’s individual heroism saved the submarine from catastrophic flooding. Despite shortages of food and fuel and other challenges, U-111 completed the crossing in 12 days – arriving two days before the convoy. 

U-boat U-111
U-111 on public display in new York in 1919 (National Archives)
U-111
Visitors try out U-111’s guns in New York (National Archives)

The submarine completed the public tour, footage of which is on YouTube, and underwent mechanical efficiency experiments off Florida and Cuba. It was eventually scuttled 100 years ago at the end of August 1922, but only following a series of unintentional sinkings.

Towed south from dry dock in Maine, U-111 was to have been used for target practice off North Carolina but foundered and was left half-submerged at a depth of 10m off Virginia Beach. 

The U-boat then had to be raised and taken to Norfolk, Virginia but sank and had to be raised again before being towed far out to sea and explosive charges detonated. Naval archives recorded it as coming to rest way beyond scuba-diving depths at almost 500m but Petkovic doubted this and began expanding on earlier research by technical diver Gary Gentile.

He and Cassway believed that U-111 had ended up further landward on a diveable shelf, eventually confirming this suspicion by analysing local fishing vessels’ snag records. The ROV soon found the wreck, with images of its distinctive 10cm fore and aft guns and conning tower indicating a match.

The team then planned to return and drop in three technical divers along with the ROV, only to decide against scuba diving late on because of the coincident deaths of two other wreck-divers. However, the ROV’s images of open hatches along U-111’s hull and other details were enough to confirm the earlier identification.

The team hope to send divers down to the wreck next year, and to capture images to create a 3D photogrammetric model.

Also on Divernet: Divers Solve Two U-Boat Puzzles, Lethal WW1 U-Boat Surveyed Off Yorkshire, The U-Boat Coast, U-Boat Wreck Brought To Life Online

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