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Intact WWI German U-Boat Found Off the Coast of Belgium

It’s possible that 23 bodies remain inside the main cabin of the submarine, which likely hit a mine

smithsonian.com

Researchers in Belgium have discovered a surprisingly intact German submarine from World War I off the coast of West Flanders on the bottom of the North Sea, reports the Associated Press. The main cabin of the craft has not been breached, raising the possibility that the remains of the 23 people that crewed the ship could still be inside.

“It’s quite amazing that we found something like this,” Carl Decaluwe, Governor of West Flanders tells the AP.

The wreck was discovered over the summer by marine archaeology expert Tomas Termote, who published a book about the Flanders submarine fleet earlier this year. The latest find marks the eleventh U-boat found off Belgium, and is the best preserved of the lot, according to the AP. “We thought that all the big wrecks had already been discovered so this was a total surprise,” Termote says.

This particular ship was a UB-II torpedo boat, produced between 1915 and 1916, roughly 88 feet long and 20 feet wide. The wreck was located 82 to 98 feet below the surface lying at a 45 degree angle. It's exact location is not being disclosed to prevent the looting of this historical artifact, Agence France-Presse reports. 

The damage is limited to the front of the craft and suggests that the ship may have hit an ocean mine with its upper deck, which destroyed two torpedo tubes. The lower tubes and main cabin, however, remain intact.

James Crisp at The Telegraph reports that during World War I, the German submarine base in Flanders was home to 19 submarines, 15 of which were destroyed. Barnacles cover the hull of the recently discovered ship, so it’s not yet possible to determine the exact identity of the boat, but Crisp reports the submarine may be U-boat number 27, 29 or 32, which were all sunk in 1916 and 1917 by British ships and planes.

U-Boats were a new technology in World War I, and Germany’s fleet was the most sophisticated of the crafts—and the Kaiser wasn't afraid to use them. In 1915, Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare, destroying cargo ships and military vessels across the Atlantic. In May, 1915, a U-boat torpedoed the passenger ship Lusitania off the Irish coast, killing 1,198 people including 114 Americans. Germany later agreed to avoid passenger ships, but in January 1917, they resumed unrestricted warfare, sinking the liner Housatonic and several U.S. merchant vessels. Those incidents, along with others, eventually led to the United State’s entry into the war.

Over the course of the World War I, German stationed 93 U-boats in Belgium ports, destroying more than 2,500 Allied ships, Reuters reports. But the cost was high. Seventy U-boats were sunk, taking the lives of 1,200 sailors.

As the AFP reports, Termote plans to clear debris off the ship to find an identification number. Even if bodies do exist inside the hull, he says it would be impossible to refloat the wreck to recover them. Instead, he says the site should be "considered a sea grave for the sailors."

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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