The River Medway, the rusting, skeletal remains of a German U-boat, believed to be UB122, which broke its tow while on its way to a scrapyard, lie preserved in tidal mudflats

The River Medway, the hulk of German U-boat, believed to be UB122, which broke its tow while on its way to a scrapyard, lies preserved in tidal mudflats © Historic England 27196-027
The River Medway, the hulk of German U-boat, believed to be UB122, which broke its tow while on its way to a scrapyard, lies preserved in tidal mudflats © Historic England 27196-027

First World War: Submarine Wrecks

Historic England’s marine archaeologists carried out a four-year project spanning the 1914-1918 Centenary to exactly locate the wrecks of German U-Boats and British submarines that sank within territorial waters 12 miles off the English coast during the First World War.

Assessing the legacy of the submarine war

Preliminary research by the team studying historical records had already identified 47 submarines known to have been lost in English coastal waters - 44 German and three British. The locations of many had already been established.  Historic England also commissioned a study to assess the potential significance of submarine wrecks.

We enlisted the help of local diving groups and other specialists to help discover more. Some submarines could be added to the list of military maritime graves covered by the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 which ensures that named vessels cannot be disturbed.

Of the forty-seven wrecks identified three were British submarines  44  were German U-Boats. 

11 of the boats have particular special interest on account of their confirmed identity and rarity:

British loss: HMS D5 (off Lowestoft, Suffolk)

German losses:

  1. U-8 (off South Varne buoy)
  2. UB-12 (off Ramsgate)
  3. UB-17
  4. UB-30
  5. UB-55
  6. UB-75 (off Robin Hood's Bay)
  7. UB-109 (off Folkestone, Kent)
  8. UC-6 (Thames Estuary)
  9. UC-46
  10. UC-70

The other 36 submarines are listed below:

After the war

At the end of the war Germany surrendered all her U-Boats. Most were consigned for scrap at naval dockyards, but many components were recycled; engines found peacetime uses providing power in English factories. But, between 1919 and 1921 thirteen met other fates on the English coastline. Stripped of their diesel engines and under tow to the breaker’s yard in heavy weather, a number broke tow and sank or drifted ashore.

Underwater wreck of U86
Underwater wreck of U-boat, U86 sunk in the English Channel © Wessex Archeology

U-118, for example, became a tourist attraction when it ended up on Hastings beach. UB-121 was destined for the French Navy in 1919 when she also slipped tow. She drifted ashore between Cuckmere Haven and Beachy Head, Sussex. Another remains an abandoned hulk in a creek off the Medway, clearly visible from the air, her precise identity unclear.

The remainder, destined for Falmouth in Cornwall, seem only to have got as far as the Castle Beach off Pendennis Point. Their identities and locations were known at the time of stranding, but subsequently only three have been located and identified with any certainty. Ultimately it is hoped that all the lost U-boats can be identified through Historic England’s investigations.

U-boat stranded on Hastings Beach
U-boat stranded on Hastings Beach. At the end of the war, Germany surrendered all her U-boats. Several, while en route to scrap yards, broke their tow. This one, en route to France early in 1919, ended up stranded on a Hastings beach, exciting much public curiosity (BB88_07120)
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