More than one hundred years after what was known then as the Great War, divers have found one of the vessels that America and its Allies feared the most: a German U-boat. While the diver -- Belgian Thomas Termote -- was not able to determine the U-boat number, he did find out that it was a German type UB-II submarine. It is the 11th German U-boat from the First World War to be found in Belgian waters and the best-preserved.
The sunken sub appears to be in fairly good condition at the bottom of sea near Ostende. West Flanders governor Carl Decaluwé said: “In such a submarine there were as standard 22 crew members and a commander. All the hatches are still closed. This suggests the wreck has not been discovered before and moreover that the 23 crew members are still inside. We need to see what we can do.”
The exact location of the wreck remains secret but it is known to be lying in 100 feet of water. Diver Termote, who is also a marine archaeologist, said of this summer’s find, "We thought that all the big wrecks had already been discovered so this was a total surprise." Termote described the sub as 27 yards long and six yards wide with a stern that is partially detached. The head of the Flanders Marine Institute Jan Mees said "The submarine is very intact, everything is still closed -- that's what he [Termote] saw during his first visit this summer."
The 46-year-old Termote has been diving with his father from a young age. The pair have made over 1000 dives. Another dive will help to reveal the identification number of the sub so that relatives of the lost crew can be contacted. Because human remains may be on the sub, Germany’s embassy in Brussels has been notified. The wreck is considered an inviolable human grave.
Photos taken at the scene show that the sub may have struck a floating mine with its upper deck. Two of its torpedo tubes were destroyed but a lower tube is intact and closed. Video taken on the scene shows that the submarine is encrusted with barnacles and seaweed, along with fishing nets and other gear. The two periscopes appear to be intact.
The German Empire used Belgium’s port at Zeebrugge as its submarine base to attack Allied shipping in the North Sea. To combat the threat, the British Navy sought to block the port in April 1918 by scuttling obsolete ships in the entry channel. German subs wreaked havoc on Allied naval vessels and civilian shipping, which were easy pickings as they tried to navigate the English Channel and the North Sea. The famous British passenger ship, the Lusitania, was sunk by a U-boat. Carrying passengers and munitions, it was torpedoed in 1915. The loss of 1,998 lives, including 128 Americans, galvanized world opinion against Germany and set the United States on the war path.
One hundred years later in 2015, the wreck was discovered by sonar from a passing ship that found indications of a sizeable wreck near Ostend. Investigating the find, Termote found the wreck on his own initiative. Further dives are planned so as to find the sub’s identification number so that German authorities can identify the dead crew.
While it is possible that the sailors’ bodies can be retrieved, it is unlikely. Termote said on September 19 that raising the sub to the surface is nearly impossible. By leaving it on the bottom, it would be considered a sea grave for the sailors, he said. Germany lost about 1,200 men in 70 such U-boats off the shore of Belgium over four years of warfare, just a small portion of the millions who died. There were 93 U-boats stationed in Belgium at the time. Germany lost 5000 submarine sailors during the conflict and a total of 178 U-boats. During the war, German U-boats sank 5,000 Allied ships and took thousands of lives.