26 July 2023
The wreck that was discovered in the 1980s has been confirmed as a WWI-era German U-boat.
A wreck some eight miles southeast of Lerwick has been identified as U-boat SM UC-55 which was sunk by British destroyers in 1917. The U-boat was engaged in laying mines on the fishing lanes between the Shetland Islands and the great naval base at Scapa Flow on the Orkney Islands when it developed a fault with the trim and exceeded its dive depth. This caused it to spring various leaks and it started shipping water into the battery compartment. This caused chlorine gas to be released so the Captain ordered the U-boat to surface but discovered the helm was now unresponsive. While trying to vent the gas the submarine was spotted and Royal Navy ships were ordered to the area. HMS Tirade, HMS Sylvia and the armed trawler Moravia closed with the submarine and opened fire. As the ships approached the Captain, Oblt. Horst Rühle von Lilienstern ordered his classified documents to be destroyed, scuttling charges be set and the crew to abandon the vessel. However, at this point a 12pdr shell from HMS Sylvia hit the conning tower killing the Captain and other shells hit the hull causing the U-boat to start sinking. As it went down, and with the crew in the water, the British ships dropped depth charges to finish it off. 17 Germans were taken prisoner but 11 were killed in the action.
The wreck was originally discovered in the 1980s when scanning equipment revealed the location but it was only now when the ship Valhalla sent divers down to investigate that the identity was revealed. Hazel Weaver, the owner of the Valhalla said it had taken 10 years of planning for the dive. She commented on Radio Shetland, “This has been known about for a long time, the question was, is this the wreck what we thought it was. After three-and-a-half hours of divers being in the water down to 110m (361ft), they came and confirmed yes this is the UC-55.”
Jacob Mackenzie was one of the divers and commented, “It certainly didn't sink by accident. This was wartime and if you haven't been to those depths before you won't appreciate that it's pitch black, it's very quiet, it is quite eerie when you swim around doing this. In the back of your mind as well you have to remember the fact that this is essentially a grave for probably 20 men who didn't make it out alive unfortunately.”
The wreck was identified because the damage on the U-boat was recorded by the RN destroyers that sank it.
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