Diary of the War: October 1918

The mystery submarine

On this blog I’ve occasionally discussed the ‘fog of war’, whereby participants in a military or naval engagement are unable to make clear decisions or correctly identify friend from foe: their minds are clouded by the rapidly evolving situations they find themselves in without necessarily having all appropriate information to hand to make a fully-informed decision. Those decisions may, in turn, be informed by previous war experience, for good or ill.

Sometimes a ‘fog of war’ situation has the misfortune to take place wholly or partially in a physical weather fog, or even to be caused by it – which naturally then exacerbates the consequences of events as they unfold.

On the afternoon of 15 October 1918 the Q-ship Cymric was on patrol in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast, acting on reports that a U-boat was operational in the area. Having already seen and dismissed two friendly submarines, it was apparently a case of ‘third time lucky’ when a submarine with a U-prefix was seen close by.

Cymric fired at short range and continued firing even as members of the submarine’s crew climbed out and tried to make signals by firing rifles or waving a white cloth. All these were interpreted as deceptive or hostile actions, of which Cymric‘s commander and crew had had prior experience, by the very nature of their Q-ship activity, pitting the wits of one side against another.  The only course of action open to the submarine was to retreat into a fog bank, which only reinforced the impression of suspicious behaviour.

She was pursued by Cymric,  and as they appeared on scene they found survivors coming up alongside their vessel from the submarine, now in a sinking state. As Cymric‘s crew realised the survivors were sporting not German cap tallies, but British ones, their mission turned from war to rescue. However, only 30 men came out alive from HMSM J6, as the mystery submarine proved to be.

It was a case of mistaken identity, stemming from something simple: the crew of J6 were apparently unaware that some debris hanging outside their conning tower mirrored their J prefix, making it look for all the world like a U – which was then fatally misinterpreted by Cymric.

It was a sad example of ‘friendly fire’, made all the sadder by occurring as the long war moved inexorably towards the Armistice just a few weeks later. Ultimately the J6 was forced to contend that day with both a fog of war and a sea fog which hampered visibility. Despite the fact that the Cymric was the author of the J6‘s misfortunes, it is perhaps as well that she did pursue the supposed U-boat into the fog bank, or her victim’s loss might have passed unseen, and it might have been a long time before her crew were picked up, if at all.

The wreck has been located in recent years in the North Sea east of Seahouses: see this BBC report, 2014.



4 thoughts on “Diary of the War: October 1918

  1. A moving account, thank you. The phrase ‘futility of war’ gets overused, perhaps, but friendly fire incidents and the way people could be mortal enemies one minute and then pitiable survivors then next, really does bring home just how awful and pointless it could be.

    In April 1917, the German U81 was sunk by a British sub, HMS E54. Seven of the 36 men in the U-boat survived, and were picked up by E54. The naval intelligence notes about the U-Boat include an English transcript of what seems to have been part of a survivor’s diary, quite possibly that of the U-Boat’s commander, Kapitanleutnant Raimund Weisbach.

    The Germans were given whiskey, food and some dry clothes. The British sailors took some souvenirs such as uniform buttons, but otherwise treated the captives well, fed them regularly and gave them cigarettes. Amongst other things, the German survivor wrote:

    ‘Counted 7 men saved. Depressed. Chatted in English… Wrote down sailors’ addresses, my home address. Write after war. Perhaps’.

    Weisbach was an experienced and successful submarine commander. In 1915, as a junior officer, he had been responsible for firing the torpedo that sank the liner ‘Lusitania’.

    1. Thank you! I absolutely agree. Of all the things I’ve found most moving about the WWI commemorations on both the professional and personal levels (I’ve been inspired to find out a lot about my own family as well), it is that evidence of a common humanity and heritage.

  2. NB. correction; there were 30 survivors from the J6 submarine, not 15 as quoted in this article.
    The Court of Inquiry report quotes Lt Commander Geoffry Warburton as saying ‘On mustering the men, there was 1 officer, and 14 men missing, and the Artificer Engineer was picked up dead.’
    The report lists all the names of the 16 lost.
    The CYMRIC picked up 30 survivors and returned them to Blyth Submarine base.
    The Court of Inquiry was held the next day – 16th October 1918.
    My grandfather was one of those lost.

    1. Thank you very much for contacting us – I’ve updated our records and the text accordingly, so we appreciate you getting in touch.

      Conflicting accounts of the numbers of those lost in any shipwreck are very common, as are reports where the numbers of survivors and dead are transposed, as I suspect has happened in this instance.

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