Scuba divers helped solve mystery of World War I submarines in the English Channel

  • This summer, British divers helped solve a century-old submarine mystery.
  • Scuba diving experts working for the Royal Navy examined a wreck off the coast of England.
  • They helped confirm the identity of the submarine and that of a submarine found near France, both sunk during WWI.

Diving experts working for the British Royal Navy recently helped submarine historians solve a century-old submarine mystery, drawing on their past military experience and teamwork to do so. .

In 2004, a German WWI submarine was discovered deep in the English Channel. Experts reduced his identity to one of the two submarines, but until this summer nothing had been confirmed.

An expedition in June was organized by scuba diver Steve Mortimer, his wife Barbara and Michael Lowrey, a naval historian based in the United States. They brought in a larger crew, including two Royal Navy officials and diving experts: Dr Fran Hockley and Dominic Robinson, a retired Army Air Corps lieutenant colonel.

At the time, Robinson and Hockley taught British servicemen to dive recreationally at the Navy Joint Service Diving Center at Devonport Dockyard, as part of the Adventure Training program of the British army.

Robinson himself learned to dive into such a program by flying military helicopters in Germany during the First Gulf War.

“If you have encountered a risk in a safe and controlled environment, then when you encounter it in a more difficult environment [environment], you are better able to deal with it, ”he said.

Which submarine is it?

A diver inspects the wreckage of a submarine

A diver looks out over the wreckage of the U-95.

Dominique robinson

Robinson has been on many dives of military or historical significance, but this one was different, he told Insider.

When submarine experts discovered the wreckage in 2004, they were convinced it was one of two German diesel-powered attack submarines: the U-93 or the U-95. . The problem was that French divers had discovered a similar wreck near the port of Calais in 2003.

Both submarines had prowled the waters around England in 1917 and 1918, during the German submarine campaign known as the First Battle of the Atlantic.

The submarine the French found had its stern ripped off, but date marks on its propeller have led historians to believe it was a U-95, said Lowrey, who helped identify a dozen submarine wrecks and contribute to the website.

A diver inspects the wreckage of a submarine

A diver inspects the mutilated wreckage of the U-95.

Dominique robinson

After the discovery of the second wreck off the Lizard Peninsula, the southernmost point of the English mainland, dives were carried out to identify it in 2004 and 2006. Neither was successful due to the poor video quality and the fact that the dive units did not have equipment to clean the propeller. , Lowrey told Insider.

“The purpose of [June 2021] the dive was, let’s identify this wreck, “Lowrey said.” Let’s solve it once and for all. “

The English Channel has an average depth of just over 200 feet, and specialized equipment, such as drysuits, is needed to dive so deep for long periods of time.

Robinson and Hockley are both certified to use a rebreather, which recirculates gas exhaled by a diver, allowing it to be recycled in part or in whole. Diving with a rebreather is generally more complicated than open circuit diving, in which exhaled gas exits into the water, but it allows divers to stay deeper for longer.

Robinson and Hockley were given the main task of cleaning the submarine’s propeller with large Brillo pads looking for dates to identify the wreckage. “It’s not seen as glamorous work, but it’s most important,” said Robinson.

Ideal diving conditions

A diver and support team aboard the Moonshadow

A diver and a support team aboard the Moonshadow.

Dominique robinson

Conditions on the high seas can vary widely on these types of dives. Fortunately, they were “absolutely breathtaking” on this dive, Robinson told Insider. The team easily identified the stern of the submarine, located the propeller, and cleaned until the marks appeared.

The date on the propeller convinced the team that the boat off the Lizard was in fact a U-95 and that the boat closest to the French coast was a U-93, Lowrey said.

The team still dived a second day to check the numbers and try to identify the cause of the sinking of the submarine.

Using a technique called photogrammetry, a team member created a 3D model based on the videos shot underwater. These models were then shared with experts for review. “It was suggested he had been rammed,” but even after several months of analysis, no conclusions were drawn, Robinson said.

The U-93 and U-95 crews were lost when the submarines sank, according to the Royal Navy. Solving these long-standing mysteries can help close their families, Robinson and Lowrey said.

Since many of the more obvious submarine wrecks have already been listed, it is increasingly difficult for experts to positively identify the remaining submarines, and Lowrey expressed his relief that he finally resolved this mystery of many years.

“Sometimes it’s like a detective story whose last 10 pages are ripped out, where you think you know who did it, but you can never prove it,” Lowrey said.

Help from a military environment

A diver moves around a submarine wreck

A member of the diving team moves around the wreckage of the U-95.

Dominique robinson

Robinson’s background in the Army Air Corps – where he flew anti-tank, reconnaissance and counterterrorism helicopter missions – has served him well on deep-diving expeditions, teaching him to be disciplined on duties. keys and meticulous with his equipment.

“If you’re 80 meters away and your rebreather stops working, that’s a pretty dangerous place,” he said.

Having a diving teammate like Hockley, who also works in a military environment, gives Robinson an added sense of security. “I love diving with her because I know she will be there when I need her,” he added.

These historic dives are privately funded by the crew but can help their work for the British Army, Robinson said. The Joint Service Sub Aqua Training Center may not offer a refresher course, but recreational divers can still benefit from the depth of Robinson’s experience.

“We work for the Royal Navy, but the [diving] we do it privately in our work, ”said Robinson.

A diver inspects the wreck of a submarine in the English Channel

A diver inspects the wreck of a submarine in the English Channel

Dominique robinson

At the end of October, Robinson left the center to become the new head of diving and training for the British Sub-Aqua Club, the UK’s national governing body for recreational diving.

For British military divers, there will be fewer opportunities for diving training next year. The diving training center is expected to close in the spring, as the Defense Ministry reassesses its budget.

A ministry spokesperson said the timeline for the shutdown was not finalized and Britain’s armed forces could still dive into facilities such as the Boot Camp and the Military Institute.

“We have the biggest defense budget in Europe and we are one of the few countries that not only meets but exceeds the NATO spending target of 2%,” the spokesperson said in a statement. -mail. “In the face of escalating threats, we are contributing to the intergovernmental review of national security capabilities and considering how best to spend the increased defense budget to protect our country.

Vivienne Machi is an award-winning journalist based in Stuttgart, Germany. His writings have appeared in media such as Foreign Policy, Defense News, The Counter and Via Satellite. Twitter: @VivienneMachi

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