In wartime there are some vessels whose fate seems to involve one thing after another, exacerbated by the ‘fog of war’ in which events are not wholly clear even to those who have taken part in them: War Knight during the First World War was a case in point, and U-16 on 25 October 1939 another.
The news of U-16‘s loss followed the recent tragedy of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed in the apparent safety of the Scapa Flow anchorage, Orkney, on 14 October 1939, by U-47 under the command of Günther Prien. Barely six weeks into the war it was already apparent that the U-boat threat to Britain was significant.
On the afternoon of Tuesday 24 October 1939 an anti-submarine indicator loop at St. Margaret’s Bay, Kent, picked up suspicious activity in the Straits of Dover. The Kingfisher-class patrol sloop HMS Puffin and the requisitioned trawler HMS Cayton Wyke were sent to investigate. So far the defence of the Straits of Dover differed little from the previous war in the use of loops (see post of August 1918), of smaller patrol vessels in the form of naval and requisitioned fishing vessels, and of a mine barrage.
As their counterparts had also done in the previous war, one after the other, the two vessels dropped depth charges in the vicinity of their target some three miles east by south of St. Margaret’s Bay. (1)
It seems that the effect of this was to disable the submarine, but not so severely that communications were disrupted: the U-boat was able to send a radio message in the early hours of 25 October 1939. (2)
On Thursday 26 October, a German U-boat was discovered stranded on the Goodwin Sands but with no explanation of how it had got there. A statement prepared by the Admiralty and widely disseminated in the press, said:
‘How the submarine went aground was not explained last night. Gunfire was heard off Deal on Wednesday, when it was believed that an enemy submarine might have been attacked, but nothing could be seen because of mist.
‘Another theory is that the submarine may have been sunk a few days ago off Folkestone and may have drifted or bumped along the sea bed and become fast on the Goodwins.’ (3)
There was not only a sea haar, but also a smokescreen thrown up by the Admiralty. Both ‘theories’ allowed to materialise in the press certainly had a germ of truth to them – an enemy submarine was certainly attacked ‘a few days ago’ somewhere between Deal and Folkestone barrage. An emphasis on ‘gunfire’ nicely side-stepped the use of depth charges or the presence of a mine barrage, although some further conjecture from Deal also made it into the press release, albeit still carefully worded:
‘It is thought possible at Deal that the U-boat did not go on to the Goodwins under her own power, but was sunk in deeper waters by depth charges or bombs and that some of her bulk heads may have remained undamaged, permitting her to bump along the seabed, carried along by the current.‘ (4)
To coin a phrase apt in the maritime context, the waters were muddied by a claim that ‘a large German submarine has been sunk by the French. This is confirmed by the finding of the bodies of the crew. A message from Dunkirk states that the British Admiralty was represented when the French authorities gave a Naval funeral yesterday to a U-boat officer and five German sailors . . . ‘ (5)
This funeral was well attended by both French and British naval representatives, and jointly led by both Protestant and Catholic clergy to cover Germany’s two principal religions. (6) The Yorkshire Post was of the view that the funeral was ‘almost the last flicker of chivalry in warfare’.
The German High Command admitted the loss of three U-boats. (7) Five are recorded as lost for the month of October 1939, but none of these are attributed to French action. Two were depth-charged by British ships in the North Atlantic south-west of Ireland on 13 and 14 October respectively (U-42 and U-45) , and three in the Straits of Dover: U-12, which was mined on 8 October; U-40, which also fell to a British minefield on 13 October; and U-16, attributed to a British minefield. (8)
Could French action have contributed to the demise of U-16? The French press reported that their Navy had recently been active and that a patrol vessel had recovered some bodies from a submarine sunk off Dunkirk. (9) That patrol vessel was the Épinal, which had launched a night attack on a submarine on 26 October (presumably in the early hours of that day), while acting on intelligence that U-boat activity was expected in the Straits of Dover on 26-27 October. (10)
It thus seems that the Épinal might have been the last on the scene, which is also suggested by her crew recovering the U-boat commander alive. (11) Action by British and French patrols, unknown to each other, would also account for the actions reported in the press as heard at different times in different places. Some sources suggest that the Épinal was first on the scene, with the British second, but this fits less well with the time frame and the known actions of Puffin and Cayton Wyke.
That U-boat commander subsequently died despite being taken to hospital. He was identified as Kapitänleutnant Horst Wellner and, it seems, the loss may have been attributed to U-14. It is possible that his lifejacket was marked U-14, which he had commanded up until two weeks previously, his service aboard U-14 ending on 11 October 1939, before taking on the command of U-16 the following day.
The British and French press widely reported the discovery of ’50 or 60′ bodies, surely a conjecture or an exaggeration for propaganda purposes, since the normal crew complement was 22-24. (12) In total 19 bodies washed ashore or were picked up at sea on the Kent coast, near Dunkirk, and Ameland, Netherlands. (13) It seems likely that four bodies were recovered from the wreck by the British, since four German seamen whose date of death is 25th October 1939 are buried in Cannock Chase German Cemetery, namely, Paul Hanf, Hans Keil, Rolf Krämer, and Friedhelm Mahnke, and these four, together with the other 19 bodies, would fit with a crew complement of 23. (14)
Did the Goodwin Sands themselves play a part in the U-boat’s loss? It would have been all too easy for a disabled submarine to drift helplessly and become ensnared upon the sands, an easy prey for any patrol vessel happening by. The ‘Demon Sands’ headline in the Manchester Evening Press made good copy and the article rehashed the many legends of the Goodwin Sands: though fanciful, it almost seems to suggest that the Sands themselves had reached out to snare the enemy. (15)
The expression ‘ships that pass in the night’ reveals a fundamental truth about not only shipping movements but also shipping losses: a spider’s web spins out interconnecting one wreck with another. Wellner in U-14 (which would be scuttled in 1945 off Wilhelmshaven as the Allies closed in on Germany) had been responsible for the reconnaissance mission which had led to the very recent loss of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. (16)
Similarly, U-16‘s British attacker HMS Cayton Wyke would herself be lost to war causes on 8 July 1940, near the U-16 on the Goodwin Sands: her position of loss links her both to her victim and to the landscape of war in which she served as patrol vessel. HMS Puffin would survive the war, closing the war as she had begun, by accounting for a German submarine.
By the end of October the U-16 was regarded as unsalvageable: ‘The submarine is little more than a shattered wreck, and the remains are gradually sinking into the sand owing to the continuance of the bad weather.’ (17)
Fairly unusually for the Goodwin Sands, where even very recent wrecks have disappeared completely, the site of the U-16 has a secure charting history since early 1940 as the location of a submarine, although the identity of the site is not confirmed. (18) However, the description of her position ‘near’ two other wrecks, now among those which have disappeared, may provide a clue to their location: the uncharted Sibiria and the Val Salice, both lost in the same storm in 1916, whose charting is now regarded as ‘dead’. (19) This suggests that in 1939 either that they remained partially visible or at least their positions were still within living memory among the seamen of the Kent coast.
(1) based on the location of the vessel identified as U-16, UKHO 13666.
(3) or example, in The Scotsman, Friday 27 October 1939, No.30.083, p9, and elsewhere in the British national and regional press.
(4) Birmingham Mail, 27 October 1939, No.22,988, p9
(5) Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1939 [no issue number] p5, and also reported elsewhere in the British press.
(6) Nord-Maritime, 29/30/31 October 1939, repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French) ; Yorkshire Evening Post, 27 October 1939, No.15,302, p6
(7) Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1939 [no issue number] p5
(9) Nord-Maritime 29 October 1939, repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)
(10) ibid; also an article from 11 years later in Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950, clearly commemorating the anniversary of previous events, similarly repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)
(11) Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950, repr. in http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm with further commentary on the same link (in French)
(14) Commonwealth War Graves Commission
(15) Manchester Evening News, 27 October 1939, No.21,989 p1, p6
(16) Konstam, A. 2015 U-47 in Scapa Flow: The Sinking of HMS Royal Oak 1939 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd) p20
(17) The Scotsman, 31 October 1939, No.30,086 p11
(18) UKHO 13666
(19) North-Eastern Gazette (later Middlesbrough Gazette), 27 October 1939 [no issue no.], p1; Val Salice, UKHO 13729