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A superior tone will airily dismiss the scare story around this WW1 submarine, but it will also avoid explaining the crew's fears while serving on board her. I myself think that many of UB 65's misfortunes were a long series of fatal coincidences. At least some of them may have been worsened by the stress of wartime service in these early subs, and that could have contributed to the mechanical failures on board. But a German naval inquiry into this matter at Bruges would have been as dismissive as any modern reader. Even if they took the very same superior (and official) tone, they decided the boat's reputation could not be removed -- only papered over with a new crew.
As a young boy I first read about "the haunted U-boat" UB 65 in an anthology of historical horror stories by John Canning in the 1970s. Since then there were a few other short tellings, some of them partly fictionalized as sea stories might be. But I kept a copy of the following by a Royal Navy author for the US Naval Institute because it took a sober and detailed look at UB 65's loss as it was known up to that time.
We might like to give the author, an RN museum director, a pass for the moment and assume his article's sources are to be had. Most main sources would have to be German, but the Kaiserliche Marine would have had many natural reasons to keep a distance from the whole affair. Who first told this story, so that it would have come to some wider attention later on? Apparently the other U-boat sailors based at Bruges?
I included a related book excerpt from US naval historian Norman Friedman, from his chapter on US Navy submarine operations in World War I. It mentions the AL-2's encounter with what is believed to be UB 65. In his own article Commander Compton-Hall points out how accounts vary of that U-boat's loss. Although Friedman barely ties the "haunted U-boat" into it, which the American sub could not have known anything about, his account varies too.
At the end is the verifiable report that the intact wreck of UB 65 was finally identified in 2003 off Padstow, Cornwall. While it may rewrite the accepted circumstances of her loss it seems to open as many questions as it answers. Maybe efforts like the on-line U-boat Ehrenmal might help to write a still better theory, since the sub is now an archaelogical study waiting to be done -- as well as an operational one.
Who if anyone could do it?
reprint of article for US Naval Institute Proceedings magazine, Mar 90, pgs 163-65
THE HAUNTED U-BOAT by Commander Richard Compton-Hall, Royal Navy (retired), Director, Royal Navy Submarine Museum
Submariners are not, on the whole, superstitious. Living packed together in a steel tube, they are too concerned with fighting the greatest enemy of all -- the sea itself -- to bother themselves about the supernatural. On the face of it, there is no more unlikely place for a ghost to materialize than in the starkly mechanical and crowded confines of a submarine. Yet, sometimes, odd happenings do occur that cannot be easily explained -- none stranger than the series of weird and tragic events that befell UB-65 some 70 years ago.
For six months, Germany had been engaged in a ruthless, unrestricteed U-boat campaign against merchant shipping, irrespective of nationality, as UB-65 was launched on 20 July 1917. The little boat of the UB-III-class. 55.83 meters (183ft) long, and displacing 647 tons submerged, was commissioned just two months later. Her commander, with two other officers and 51 men, was Kapitanleutnant Martin Schelle.
From the start, UB-65 was accident-prone. While she was still being built in the Vulcan shipyard at Hamburg, a heavy girder fell, killing one workman and fatally injuring another. Then, during preliminary engine trials, carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty exhaust system leaked into the engine room; three more men died. During initial sea trials in the Baltic Sea, a man was swept overboard and lost in rough weather, And on her first dive, exhaust gases again escaped into the boat when the diesels shut down, nearly asphyxiating the entire crew.
Conditions were bad enough anyway. The stench of fuel oil, unwashed bodies, revolting bilges; the single, reeking unsanitary Klosett or head, and in bad weather, slopping buckets half-full of vomit from seasick sailors, pervaded everything on board. Unchanged clothing -- nobody ever changed at sea -- soaked up the hideous fetor, while oilskins and leather jackets, continually drenched by waves breaking over the unprotected bridge, would never dry on patrol. Foul breath was prevalent because of poor food and a natural reluctance to use the dreaded Klosett behind its green curtain. Some officers even used opium pills to avoid visiting what could scarcely be called a convenience. To find a U-boat man on shore, one only had to follow one's nose.
Thus, morale in Unterseebooten depended not on creature comforts but, absolutely, on success against the enemy, trust in the captain, and comradeship. If any of these three factors failed, the crew could not be expected to perform efficiently. But comradeship was dogged by misfortune at the outset of UB-65's brief career. And worse would follow.
Finally, her sea trials completed, the U-boat was hastily outfitted for active service with provisions, diesel oil, and foul-weather gear. Ammunition for the 10.5cm (4.3in) gun and ten 50cm (20in) torpedoes for the single stern and four bow tubes were being loaded on board when disaster struck.
Nobody knows quite what happened or why, but while Schelle's second-in-command the first watch officer or Eins-WO (eins Vee-Oh}, supervised on the forward casing, one warhead exploded. The blast killed him and four ratings instantly. Several other crewmen, laden with boxes of stores, were seriously injured. One of the inexperienced sailors had apparently shipped the detonator prematurely and, somehow, the one-ton weapon, suspeded from a shoreside crane, went out of control, crashing against the guide rails that led down through the torpedo loading hatch. Alternatively, the magnetic element in the pistol may have activated accidentally. There were safety devices to prevent such happenings, but everything that could go wrong duly did go wrong.
A few days later, while dockyard workmen set about repairing the damaged structure, a seaman rushed down from the casing and along a narrow passageway to the tiny wardroom. He was shaking with fear and shouting wildly: "The Eins-WO -- he is on board, Herr Kapitan! Up there. I have seen him!"
Schelle tried to calm the terrified sailor, who continued to insist that the apparition was real. So, the captain agreed to come back on deck to see for himself but deliberately took his time.
There in the open air, he found a notably steady and reliable man named Petersen cowering behind the conning tower. White-faced, Petersen fully substantiated his shipmate's story. Reluctant to face his Captain squarely, he flatly stated in a low voice, that the dead first officer had just walked up the gangway and stood on the bow with his arms folded. Yes, he was gone now -- but he had been there.
More than an autumnal chill gripped the submarine. In a general air of uneasiness, Petersen awaited his chance and deserted -- a crime punishable by imprisonment or death in the Kaiser's navy. Meanwhile, an ominous hush blanketed the seamen "Lords" in the forward crew space like a cold sea mist. None of the usual healthy banter, none of the smiles that customarily greeted a submariner's greyish attempts at humor, were in evidence.
Schelle must have known that an important element was now missing from the three crucial morale factors -- comradeship. But he believed that personal leadership and success, attended always by shared danger, might weld the crew into a fighting unit again. He was, therefore, relieved when the boat was once more ready for service. On 10 October 1917, he took UB-65 out of Bremerhaven for her first war cruise.
The route assigned, via the Kiel canal, the Kattegat, and the Skagerrak to the Shetland area, kept the U-boat clear of ever-watchful British submarines in the North Sea. But alas, no targets showed up either. The patrol drew a blank, and morale remained dismally low.
The second sortie, out through the dangerous Dover Straits to the Bristol and St. George's Channels, drew blood. A Swedish barque succumbed to gunfire, while torpedoes sank the sloop HMS Arbutus and two steamers -- one British and one Norwegian.
The men in UB-65 responded as expected, although the older Lords, who had been with the boat from the beginning, were still very nervous. Their disquiet evidently reached a climax on the evening of 21 January (dates around this period are still uncertain) when the submarine was on the surface 15 miles south of Portland Bill in heavy weather. The starboard lookout suddenly noticed a figure on the wooden deck, close to the conning tower. He called out, thinking that a shipmate had gone out onto the sea-swept casing -- but when the figure turned to face him, he knew that the dead watch officer was still on board.
The man jumped back with a cry of terror. The present officer of the watch urgently called the captain to the bridge to witness the specter, but it vanished as a wave crashed over the submarine.
The crew, to a man, now dreaded going topside at night when the boat surfaced to recharge its batteries. The bridge watch must have been very inefficient thenceforth. Nevertheless, Schelle sank or damaged five other vessels between February and May 1918.
Meanwhile, distressing incidents continued to plague the unhappy U-boat. One one patrol a torpedoman, screaming that the dead officer was haunting him, leapt overboard and disappeared. A gunner washed away and drowned a short while later. Then, in the Dover Straits, depth charges heeled the boat hard over and the coxswain, striking his head on the Zentrale bulkhead, was fatally injured. In February, a bomb splinter killed one officer while he returned to the boat during an air raid on the harbor. Crew members carried his body on board in somber silence.
Schelle maintained an air of stolid skepticism throughout; but he was, on more than one occasion, greatly agitated by the experiences.
Discrepancies in the various accounts -- times, dates, and positions -- do not by any means invariably tie up, despite an investigation by the famous German psychologist Professor Hecht. But the fact is that UB-65 gained an evil reputation, which lost nothing in the telling when circulated among other crews in port. It is conceivable that British agents had a hand in spreading this tale. Although there is no evidence to substantiate the possiblility, rumors of all kinds were habitually fueled by both sides in an escalating war of nerves. Even the renowned British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote a widely-published tale, "The Lusitania Waits", in which the ghostly figures of drowned passengers tap insistently on a guilty U-boat's hull.
However that may be, it seems that Fuhrer der U-Boote Flandern (Commander of Submarines, Flanders area), Korvettenkapitan Bartenbach, a hard-headed man who certainly did not believe in ghosts, decided, in light of sworn testimony by men of good character, to take UB-65 temporarily out of commission -- probably for the month of June 1918. Most of the crew were transferred and replaced, but Schelle remained in command.
At the same time, a Lutheran pastor accepted an invitation to exorcise the devilish influence brooding over the submarine. All too clearly, the service failed.
The U-boat sailed westward from Heligoland for her sixth -- and last -- war patrol on 2 July 1918. This is where the most baffling mystery -- ghost or no ghost -- commences.
Only one event can explain why Schelle and his crew never returned to the Fatherland. This took place 15 miles south of Fastnet Rock, Ireland, late in the afternoon of 10 July.
The American submarine L-2 (known in the Allied fleets as AL-2 to distinguish her from British L-class boats) was patrolling on the surface when her officer-of-the-deck sighted something that looked like a buoy a mile or two away. Her commanding officer, Lieutenant Foster, altered course to investigate, but had proceeded for only five minutes when his boat shook from a tremendous explosion. A high column of water shot up 80 yards off the bow. When it fell back, AL-2 could see six feet of periscope 100 feet beyond. Foster dived immediately and maneuvered to ram what had to be a U-boat. It was a dangerous and desperate measure, but he was too close to fire torpedoes. He could hear propellers running at high speed nearby,
After a few minutes, the C-tube (sonar) listening apparatus reported not one, but two submarines in the vicinity -- one fast and very near, another slow and probably distant. Some twenty minutes later, the faster contact went silent and its screw noises were not heard again. But for another twenty minutes what seemed to be the other submarine (the presence of which cannot be explained by postwar analysis of German operations), transmitted oscillator calls on Morse -- dash-dash-dash-dot (OE), which represented no known message.
Foster concluded that the faster U-boat had sunk after struggling to keep up following the observed explosion; the submarine could not blow main ballast and surface because of the American submarine's presence. He reported accordingly upon return to base at Bantry Bay, Ireland.
There, the staff told him that two U-boats had exchanged messages by radio an hour before the encounter involving his submarine. Moreover, they said, at about midnight on 10 July, the assumed surviving U-boat made a signal that probably reported the sinking of a sister boat. This simply does not tally, however, with either German or French radio-intercept records positively ascribing this signal to U-92, which was damaged and in trouble far from the scene. Nor do the records reveal any messages from UB-65 after 4 July, when Schelle reported that an enemy submarine (HMS G-6) had fired two torpedoes at him that missed. No other U-boats were deployed to UB-65's area, and there were no other losses anywhere near that position. What, then, did the mysterious series of "OE"s in Morse indicate?
The likelihood is that the second "slow" contact heard by AL-2 was a non-submarine (classification by underwater sound was rudimentary in the extreme), and that the Morse -- which is presumed not to be a figment of the imagination, although that is not entirely inconceivable -- actually came from a stricken UB-65 on the bottom. At about 100 meters, the charted depth, she might well have held together for a short time before being totally flooded. The standard diving depth for a World War I U-boat was 60 meters, but that figure included a substantial safety margin. It is quite possible, then, that there were some survivors -- although they could not have lived long under the mounting pressure, as seawater at 135 pounds per square inch inexorably poured in.
As for the messages credited by AL-2 to the "slow" contact, it would have been all too easy for underwater listening apparatus, at that state of the art, to mistake bearings. Whether or not "OE" was a recognized call cannot now be confirmed, unfortunately.
What caused the explosion in the first place? It could only have been one of UB-65's own torpedoes. At that position, south of Ireland, mining was out of the question. Bearing in mind the accident that triggered the whole chain of uncanny events, it could be that the fairly sensitive magnetic pistol in one torpedo functioned before the torpedo left the tube. It certainly appears that the explosion was internal, and exploding hydrogen gas from the batteries, a common culprit, could not have given the same result. Another suggestion at the time, which cannot be lightly dismissed in view of quite common torpedo failures, was that a weapon circled and hit the firing submarine. On the whole, an explosion in the tube is the most likely cause.
The reason for this particularly ill-fated U-boat's loss will probably never be established with certainty, but U-boat veterans from World War I had their own theory. Many were convinced that UB-65 went to the bottom carrying a member of her complement who had long been struck from the Fatherland's list of officers. His malevolent shade was doomed to repeat, in the dark world underwater, the tragedy which ended his young life along the harbor wall.
The following was excerpted from Norman Friedman, US Submarines through 1945: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute Press, 1995, pg 153:
... on 15 August [1917, the US] Navy Department formally decided to send a submarine flotilla to Europe ... [including Submarine Division 5 which] would patrol the Irish Sea from Bantry Bay [on the south Irish coast]. The submarines would be towed across the Atlantic to spare their machinery, so they would be ready to operate on arrival.
SubDiv 5's L-boats were renamed AL-boats to distinguish them from the altogether unrelated British L-class. The first two submarines left for patrol on 5 March and the British soon left Bantry Bay entirely to the US force ... A boat generally patrolled a billet with her periscope raised. If weather was so rough that she could not maintain periscope depth she cruised at 60ft, stopping occasionally to listen and sometimes porpoising to the surface to sweep with her periscope. Whenever propellers where heard, the boat prepared to fire and came to periscope depth. SubLant ordered all submarines to carry four ready torpedoes in their tubes, three set for 8ft (ie, for a surfaced U-boat) and one set for 18ft (for a U-boat at periscope depth).
Although SubDiv 5 [submarines] spotted several U-boats, it sank none. AL-11 fired two torpedoes in rapid succession at a surfaced U-boat, but one exploded prematurely 100yds short and apparently damaged the other. It seemed that she would have done better to fire a full four-torpedo salvo. On the other hand, AL-1 missed ahead by 1-2 yds with her first half-salvo, then also missed with the other half-salvo fired slightly later. On their first contacts with U-boats AL-1, AL-4, and AL-11 all failed to fire full spreads, presumably because of torpedo tube problems.
AL-4 once spotted a U-boat in the mist. It crash-dived and immediately put up a periscope to take a shot. AL-4 also crash-dived and the crew heard the whine of a torpedo passing overhead. Near the Fastnet [Rock,] a lookout aboard AL-2 spotted a periscope on the port bow, and a torpedo (set deep) was prepared for firing. Suddenly there was a violent explosion about 80yds off the starboard quarter, with 5ft of periscope visible. AL-2 crash-dived. When submerged and stopped level, she heard submarine propellers spinning rapidly and the call letters J-U-B on the typical German underwater signal set (from another direction). The propellers were interpreted as a damaged submarine trying to drive herself to the surface. It appeared that a single U-boat trying to torpedo AL-2 had torpedoed herself, but it was also possible that the U-boat had been mined. The underwater signal had suggested that two U-boats were present. After a time, AL-2 tried to simulate the German oscillator signal but got no reply. UB-65 was lost about there that day.
This news item points to what seems to be the more final story of UB 65's end, and credits her one more known Allied sinking after 10 July 1918. Yet u-boat.net still gives tells the standard account of her loss off Fastnet Rock, it places it about 180mi west of there, off the Cornish coast -- on the other side of the Celtic Sea! Granted, there can be gaps or inconsistencies in wartime operational histories. Might this be open to further research, if that is at all possible?
The German on-line U-boat memorial Ehrenmal also gives both the accepted and archaeological evidence of the sub's loss, and adds a roster of her last crew.
So far this seems to disprove the accepted version of UB 65's loss after meeting AL-2, let alone the fictionalized ones. What would be the likliest problems in trying to reconcile the two accounts, or looking it up in naval or maritime records? It sounds like the 1991 finding of an unexplained Type IX U-boat wreck off the New Jersey coast. This was not positively identified until 1997 as the U-869, previously thought sunk off the Azores by US and French warships in 1945. Leaving aside errors or mistaken assumptions in wartime reports or postwar study, the mystery remained -- why and how was U-869 lost in American coastal waters? Something similar seems to have happened to the "haunted" UB 65, that was apparently not caused by torpedo accident.
But what, then, could AL-2 possibly have encountered on 10 July 1918?
Could it have been that UB 65, if indeed it was her at all, had not suffered an explosion in the tube -- but instead simply fired a torpedo at AL-2 that detonated prematurely? And then she managed to escape, only to be lost to other unknown causes soon afterwards? From Friedman's account at least, the American boat may have been spotted first by the German who made ready to attack, and not the other way around.
There is no published mention of AL-2 surfacing again where the engagement took place off Fastnet Rock. Maybe not, if she believed that more than one enemy sub was nearby as both Friedman and Compton-Hall tell it. No oil or debris was reported either because none was to be seen, or AL-2 did not or could not look in any case.
Although Friedman suggests that the enemy sub was could have been mined, Compton-Hall states that that was impossible. Would that have been true in the Celtic Sea? They also differ on the German signal reported by AL-2. Compton-Hall brings up the horrifying idea (now ruled out) that UB 65 could been intact long enough to suffer her last minutes below crush depth. But even if it had been so, and "OE" or "JUB" an actual code -- they still had electric power for those moments -- the not-long-to-survive crew's frame of mind would have been awful terror, let alone that of a radioman who would have had to be frantically keying the letters.
I thought only the Roman Catholic Church still had the rite of exorcism in its ritual. But if a Lutheran pastor was called in for that -- the Catholic Church might have to act officially on such things and not on demand -- it implies naval concurrence that something was indeed haunting UB 65. Even if it had been done just to repel her bad reputation, the implication would still be there. To placate anyone this way, the exorcism would have had to be made known in port, after her recommissioning.
Naturally the finding of UB 65 in 2003 made no mention of her sinister reputation. Her wreck seems to be in good shape and showed no signs of obvious damage, whether from battle or otherwise. However, her open hatch (which one?) suggests an accidental sinking if scuttling can be ruled out. We will probably never know just what did it. Only Kapitanleutnant Schelle and maybe some few others knew about the boat's ill history and the talk of her "haunted" reputation. If her loss was accidental it would have set seal to that, though only he and a few others might have known it as she sank..
If any historic naval wreck is identified in another country's waters, are there things potentially set in motion, so long as there is no navigational hazard? Even as a purely historical matter, and however long it takes? All I have heard is that international maritime law provides that all naval wrecks remain the properties and possible war graves of their respective governments and successors in state. Would a German naval attache be notified first, for example?
Divers have been down to the WW2 Japanese maru wrecks at Truk lagoon in the Pacific, even seeing skeletal remains although by law these are not disturbed, and maybe there are more restrictions today. Are there any circumstances, or none, under which UB 65 could be entered? I realize that entering any shipwreck is hazardous under the best of circumstances and a cramped U-boat especially so, if it isn't overgrown or full of silt moreover. Maybe very little could be learned from inside how she was lost, that could not be learned from the outside.
Whatever became of the World War I U-boat pen at Bruges after the war? It had eight bays with heavy colonnaded fronts as shown in Keith Mallory and Arvid Ottar's book The Architecture of War (US: Pantheon Press 1973, but originally UK-published as Architecture of Aggression), page 70. UB 65 was based here and apparently took one of her casualties there in an air raid. Only in Compton-Hall's account why would the dead man have been returned to the boat, rather than kept ashore just afterwards?
Why would a U-boat's propeller have some kind of identity number on it that named the wreck? Was this a normal thing? However fortunate it was for her marine archaeology today. Was the number engraved on the hub, as I expect?
I wonder if a then-obscure Kapitanleutnant named Karl Doenitz -- skipper of UB 68 -- had heard the dark story of his boat's sister. Although he and his boat were in a different flotilla, submariners often form a close community.
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