Image: Photograph of a similar U9 class submarine. Copyright Graeme Govenlock.
While naval battles between stalwart British destroyers and wily German U-boats during World War II have entered popular imagination thanks to countless Holywood films, the major role played by U-boats in World War I is much less widely known.
In a new programme, The Hunt for U12, a unique insight is given to this chapter of World War I and the story of how, after 93 years, the location of the U12 was discovered.
Video: The Sept 2008 dive to the wreck of U12. (Courtesy of Graeme Govenlock).
Assassins of the Sea
Throughout the course of the war German U-boats targeted merchant ships in an effort to starve Britain into surrender by cutting off vital supplies of food and resources. Such was their effectiveness that it has been estimated that by the end of the war the U-boats accounted for the sinking of over 11 million tonnes of shipping.
Furthermore, the appearance of this new weapon prompted claims among the allied powers that the use of U-boats in the theatre of war should be outlawed under international law. Seen as little more than pirates the British Admiralty refused to accord the captured crew of U-boats the same rights as other prisoners of war - treating them instead as murderers. Such was the nature of the threat and outrage at this new type of warfare that private citizens offered small fortunes to the crews of any British ship that sunk a U-boat. In the words of the MP and retired Admiral Lord Beresford the u-boats and their crews were little more than assassins of the sea.
The Sinking of U12
It was against this backdrop that a ferocious naval battle occured off the east coast of Scotland. On morning of the 10th March 1915 U-boat U12 was spotted by the trawler May Island east of Fife Ness. Three British warships, the Acheron, the Attack and the Ariel, were sent to track it down and engage it. Having earlier attempted to torpedo the HMS Leviathan, U12 would not be allowed to escape.
Image: The HMS Ariel. Copyright Graeme Govenlock
According to the Admiralty logs, at 10.15am the Ariel, the Attack and the Acheron found and attacked the U-boat. After being strafed with machinegun fire U12 submerged. The Ariel spotted the periscope of the vessel submerged just under the surface. At full speed the Ariel rammed the U-boat. The boat resurfaced to a hail of gun and shell fire which damaged the conning tower and killed the U12's captain, Hans Kratzsch.
Image: A postcard commemorating the sinking of the U12. Copyright Jim MacLeod, reproduced by kind permission.
Badly damaged and under fire, several crew of the U12 appeared on the deck of the boat and surrendered. While these men were rescued, many other were not so fortunate. With the conning tower hatch jammed, 19 men went to their deaths as U12 sank within minutes. The crippled Ariel was towed back to Leith docks after the engagement.
The surviving crew of the U12 found themselves in the middle of a diplomatic row upon their capture. With U-boat crews perceived to be little more than pirates by the British authorities, there was a popular clamour in the press to see the crew hanged. Instead they were kept in solitary confinement and denied any privileges of rank - a fate not shared by other prisoners of war from more traditional forms of combat. The German authorities responded in kind with British prisoners of war. With the intervention of the Swiss the diplomatic row was eventually resolved.
The One That Almost Got Away
For one of the surviving crewmembers of the U12 the adventure did not end there. The U12's war pilot, Völker, escaped from imprisonment near Maidenhead via an escape tunnel cunningly dug under a flower garden. Evading recapture he made his way to Hull where he signed up on a Swedish ship, the Jonstorp, as an able seaman.
In October of 1915 the Jonstorp was stopped on its voyage by the U16. Volker joined the u-boat and returned to Germany. His daring escape from death and imprisonment was to be short-lived however. He returned to duty as war pilot on another u-boat - the U44. On the 12th August 1917 U44 was sunk off the coast of Norway. Völker was one of the fatalities.
The Discovery of U12
The rusted remains of the U12 and her crew remained undiscovered for 93 years. For many years numerous locations for the wreck had been reported. All proved fruitless. Finally, after a five year search, the U12 was rediscovered off the coast of Scotland 25 miles east of Eyemouth.
After poring through the logbooks of the destroyers involved and plotting the routes and manoeuvres of the combatants a new location was identified. Worryingly, no wrecks had ever been reported there. In January 2008 a dive was organised to explore the location.
Image: The dive crew comprising (left to right) Paul Dustan, Nigel Goodman, Derek Sutton, Graeme Govenlock, Martin Sinclair, Anne Dustan, Iain Easingwood, Jim MacLeod.
Video: U12 is discovered in Jan 2008. (Courtesy of Graeme Govenlock).
The hard work paid off and U12 was discovered lying upright at a depth of 47m. Despite showing the effects of its final battle and years of corrosion, the U12 was still recognisable and more or less intact.
The discovery of the wreck has made the location a popular spot for experienced divers. The wreck of the U12 is now listed as an official war grave and as such it will remain untouched and undisturbed as a legacy to the dead of a little known but important chapter of the Great War.
There is also an intriguing footnote to the U12 story. Some 18 hours prior to her final battle, the U12 successfully sank the Aberdon. The same team responsible for the U12 discovery now believes that they have found the wreck of her final victim.
The Hunt for U12 was originally broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on 5th March at 11.30am.
Many thanks to Graeme Govenlock for his kind permission in allowing the use of the images and video content in this article.