U-118: The Wrecked German U-boat that Washed up on Hastings Beach

shipwrecked-u-boat-sm-u-118-at-hastings-in-1919 (Image: Navy Photos; wrecked German U-boat U-118 on Hastings beach)

The Battle of Hastings (1066), in which the Norman duke William the Conqueror defeated Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson, was a defining moment in British history that placed the Sussex town firmly on the international map. But there’s another event for which Hastings is remembered: the time an abandoned German U-boat washed up on the beach there during the early hours of April 15, 1919.

The First World War vessel, a Type UE II mine-laying submarine, had been launched on February 23, 1918 and took part in the First Battle of the Atlantic. But its career was short-lived and the U-boat, serial number SM U-118, was surrendered to Allied forces exactly one year later at the Royal Navy base of Scapa Flow on Orkney.

shipwrecked-u-boat-sm-u-118-at-hastings-in-1919-2 (Image: via Wikipedia)

Two months after her surrender, U-118 was being towed through the English Channel bound for France for scrapping when the hawser snapped and she was cast adrift. The next morning, residents of Hastings awoke to find the giant form of the abandoned submarine aground on the beach in front of the Queens Hotel.

shipwrecked-u-boat-sm-u-118-at-hastings-in-1919-3 (Image: Hastings Observer)

During her relatively short time at sea, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Herbert Stohwasser, U-118 had managed to sink two British ships: the steamer Wellington and tanker Arca. But on that spring morning in 1919, the once-feared U-boat was poised to become an unlikely tourist attraction on the Hastings seafront.

Various attempts were made to re-float the stranded vessel, ranging from the benign to the extreme. When three tractors failed to dislodge the hulk, a French destroyer gave it a shot – literally – with her powerful guns. But the proximity of U-118 to the town and, perhaps more importantly, the breakfast tables of the Queens Hotel, prevented the use of further explosives.

shipwrecked-u-boat-sm-u-118-at-hastings-in-1919-6 (Image: Hastings Observer)

The stranded submarine, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly popular. People flocked from miles around to gawp at her rusting carcass, and the Admiralty soon gave the town clerk permission to allow people onboard in return for a small fee. Within two weeks £300 (£13,200 today) had been raised for the Mayor’s Fund, to provide a welcome homecoming for Hastings men arriving back from the Great War.

shipwrecked-u-boat-sm-u-118-at-hastings-in-1919-4 (Image: via Wikipedia)

VIPs were shown inside U-118 by local coastguards, chief boatman William Heard and chief officer W. Moore, but tours stopped after both men grew sick and died several months later. The cause was initially attributed to rotting food which remained onboard following the U-boat’s surrender at Scapa Flow. But an inquest later determined that noxious gas released by the U-118’s damaged batteries was responsible for the men’s deaths.

shipwrecked-u-boat-sm-u-118-at-hastings-in-1919-5 (Image: via Wikipedia)

Tours of the sub’s rusting innards were quickly halted. But still visitors poured into Hastings to have their photographs taken alongside U-118. Finally, when local residents became fed up of the intrusion, not least children pelting rocks at the once-mighty German U-boat at all times of day, the decision was taken to break her up.

U-118 was sold for scrap and dismantled between October and December 1919. The town of Hastings was presented with the U-boat’s 5.9 inch deck gun, but before long wave action had covered it in shingle. The weapon was recovered in 1921 and, despite calls for its to be mounted on a plinth and preserved as an enduring reminder of this offbeat slice of Hastings history, it too was scrapped.

shipwrecked-u-boat-sm-u-118-at-hastings-in-1919-7 (Image: via Wikipedia; scrapping of Hastings U-boat SM U-118)

It’s understood that part of U-118’s keel may remain buried beneath the Hastings seafront to this day. But the monstrous form of the abandoned World War One U-boat is now consigned to period photographs, local history and folk memory. With the dismantling of the abandoned U-118, the only German U-boat wreck still visible on the UK coast is that of UB-122, a Type UB III submarine whose deteriorating hulk can still be seen amid the tidal mudflats of the River Medway.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our round-up of abandoned submarines, bases and sub pens around the world. You can also explore more military ghosts here.

 
 


 
 
 

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