World War I German submarine found off US coast 100 years after sinking

A team of wreck hunters have discovered an extraordinary sunken ship off the east coast of the United States: the wreckage of a World War I German submarine sunk by American warplanes a century to practice shooting.

According to an exclusive National Geographic report (opens in a new tab), the team confirmed the identity of the wreck in early September as SM U-111, a submarine that served in the Imperial German Navy. After Germany agreed to an armistice in 1918, the submarine surrendered to the British, who rescued a handful of early U-boats in the United States for study and reverse engineering. In 1922, the US Navy deliberately sank the ship, but its exact location has not been revealed.

But in early July, wreck searcher Erik Petkovic and his colleagues found SM U-111 with a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) at a depth of about 400 feet (120 meters) and about 40 miles (65 kilometers) off the coast. of Virginia.

“We got lucky,” Petkovic told Live Science, describing the live video images sent back to their research vessel via the ROV tether. “We were at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and we saw the wreckage. We filmed the camera and the turret was right there.” (A turret is the raised platform above the upper deck of a submarine.)

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SM U-111 was one of five German World War I submarines that were sunk in US waters (there are also eight from World War II) and it is the last to be rediscovered .

When the submarine sank, the U.S. Navy thought the seawater there was much deeper and the ship would sink to the sea floor about 1,600 feet (500 m) below the surface, said Petkovic said.

But knowledge of the depths was imperfect 100 years ago, and so SM U-111 came to rest in relatively shallow water next to a deep abyss. “If it was a mile to the east, it was in the abyss and would never have been seen again,” Petkovic said.

The discoverers revisited the site in September this year in a research vessel equipped with a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to examine the rake with video cameras. (Image credit: Photography by Benjamin Lowy for National Geographic)

Underwater threat

Germany built SM U-111 in the northern port city of Kiel in 1916 and it joined the war at sea in early 1918. The submarine carried out three raids on merchant ships at sea from Ireland and the English Channel, and sank at least three Allied Merchant Ships.

“The first submarine war from 1914 to 1918 is often overlooked,” Innes McCartney, a nautical archaeologist at Bangor University in the UK, told Live Science in an email. “But it is important to recognize that compared to the Second World War, the submarines of the Kaiserliche Marine [Imperial German Navy] sank twice as many ships and suffered only 20% of the losses.”

McCartney was not involved in the rediscovery of SM U-111, but he is discovered other World War I submarine wrecks.

“It is important for the Allies, without the experience gained in 1917 and 1918 in particular, the campaign against U-boats in World War II would have been more difficult,” he said.

After Germany agreed to the armistice in November 1918, SM U-111 was turned over to the British and then handed over to the US Navy; and in April 1919 sailed for the United States with a crew of 32 American sailors – 17 of whom had never been aboard a submarine before, Petkovic said.

To save time, the commander chose the shortest – and most dangerous – northern route across the Atlantic, which was strewn with icebergs and had taken the RMS Titanic seven years previously.

Additionally, the submarine only had German signs, so the American crew did not know how to use the ship’s gyrocompass and had to navigate with a magnetic compass; and a plug in an open valve made of a “hard, gummy substance”, secretly installed by German saboteurs, dissolved in seawater four nights into the voyage, flooding and nearly sinking the ship.

“It’s really remarkable that they survived,” Petkovic said.

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The open hatch on the submarine’s turret reveals an interior ladder. The ship was deliberately sunk by the US Navy after being reverse engineered and then used for gunnery training. (Image credit: Photography by Benjamin Lowy for National Geographic)

submarine wreck

After arriving on the East Coast of the United States, SM U-111 was used to promote a final war bond issue in 1919 in Brooklyn, then tested against the last American submarines. Eventually her engines and equipment were stripped, and in June 1921 American warplanes using her for target practice sank the German U-boat.

But the ship was considered a hazard to navigation where it first sank; and so she was lifted and towed into deeper water in August 1922, where she was sunk for the last time by opening her hatches and setting off an explosive charge nearby. Its exact location has not been made public.

Petkovic had searched for the wreckage of SM U-111 for several years, after noting that the other deliberate US submarine wrecks in US waters had been found in shallower waters than expected. He said the key to the discovery was determining which US Navy vessel towed the disabled submarine to its final destination and then gaining access to its logbook. They found the wreckage of SM U-111 almost exactly where described in the ship’s log. “It was just for the money, very close to the numbers we had,” he said.

Petkovic now hopes to dive to the wreckage summereven if it is at extreme depth even for technical divers with the latest rebreather equipment, which recycles the gases divers exhale and allow them to stay underwater longer.

“It pushes the boundaries in terms of rebreather technology and the limits of human endurance,” he said. “But there are guys in our squad who are capable of doing it…it’s still a dangerous dive, but that’s our goal.”

You can read more about the discovery of the German submarine at National geographic (opens in a new tab).

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