Islay and U-boats during 1914-18 war

The following story, written by Tim Henderson, was published in the Ileach of 3 July 2009

Chas Batchelor asked me if I knew anything about a German U-boat going into Clas Uig, Islay during the 1914-18 war. As I did not, he gave me a copy of 'Hidden Harbour' written by Rosemary Hamilton and published in Scottish Field. This told the story of a U-boat commander returning to the White Hart Hotel, Islay in 1921 and wanting to go to Clas Uig, where, during the war, he had taken his U-boat and sent his crew ashore to shoot sheep. Chas also gave me a copy of a letter that he had received from Sir John Mactaggart, which told a similar story about a U-boat commander met by a shepherd walking near Clas Uig on the Ardtalla Estate in late 1940s. These stories caught my interest; so in July 2008, I decided to visit Clas Uig in my yacht 'Blue Iris'.

U-77 The submarine responsible for torpedoeing the Tuscania

The little bay is not obvious when approaching from seaward. We anchored in four metres in the middle of the bay, which penetrates the land, some 200 metres and is only 50 metres wide at the entrance. On the south east side of the bay there is a nearly straight rock peninsular on which there is an old sheep droving jetty with water depth of some four metres alongside the jetty. This is sufficient depth for a surfaced U-boat type U, UB or UC with overall lengths from 36 to 70 metres and beam up to 6.3 metres. Once tied up alongside the rocks it would be difficult to see the U-boat. A U-boat could also have sat on the sandy bottom partly submerged in the middle of the bay. The bay is remote from human civilisation and a U-boat in the bay could only be observed from the top of the surrounding steep sided hills. Continue reading......

I now wanted to know who were these bold U-boat commanders. My letter published in 25th April issue of Ileach resulted in a letter from Harry Gardner, who in the early 60s had been staying in Miss Nora McAdams guest house in Machrihanish. One morning he was discussing binoculars with an elderly fellow guest. This guest told Harry that he had been a U-boat commander towards the end of the first world war and had often sheltered on the coast of Islay and towards the end had felt safe enough to post look-outs at the entrance to the anchorage and slaughter a few sheep before leaving for home.

German U-Boats
At the outbreak of the war in 1914, Germany had 16 commissioned U-boats with kerosene engines. These had a surface range of up to 3400 miles and the exhaust smoke from this type of engine was visible from a great distance. On 22nd September, 1914 U9 commanded by Otto Weddigen sank no fewer than 3 British Cruisers in less than an hour. This attack showed for the first time the capabilities of submarines in war. Due to their limited range, these boats patrolled only in the North Sea. (Image right: Scottish sheep carcases hanging from the conning tower of a U boat during WW1)

U19 was the first of the U-boats to have diesel engines with greatly increased surface range of 5200 miles. This boat survived the war and for some time was commanded by Johannes Spiess, who had previously commanded U9 after Weddigen. Spiess wrote a book titled 'Sechs Jahre U-boot-fahrten' about seven years in a U-boat. This book mentions landing on St Kilda and North Rona to shoot sheep.

In October 1914, U20 circumnavigated UK via the English Channel and returned around the north of Scotland. So, from this time U-boats started to come to the western waters of the UK around the north of Scotland. Later diesel powered boats had greater range and patrols extended to Gibraltar and the Atlantic coast of America.

At the end of the war 390 U-boats had been built and of these 178 were lost in action. In 1914, up to five boats were at sea in North Sea. In 1915, up to 10 boats were at sea in North Sea and western UK waters, increasing to 17 in 1916 and 30 in 1917 & 1918.

U-boat Patrols
Books have provided much information about individual U-boat attacks on shipping and the website provides detailed information on U-boats, commanders, ships hit with locations. From these sources, I have been able to create a database on U-boat activities in western UK waters. This has allowed me to establish patrol areas of individual U-boats based on ships hit. Although this database does not include every incident, it clearly shows passages of boats from bases in Germany to patrol areas. (Image right: A schematic of Glas Uig showing how the U-boats may have berthed in its sheltered waters)

Towards the end of the war, most U-boats passed around the north of Scotland and then proceeded south off the western coast of the UK. In these later years of the war, passage through the English Channel became very difficult for U-boats due the extensive nets and mine fields and, as a result, a great number of U-boats were lost to these defences. U-boats heading south from north of Scotland would either pass down west coast of Ireland or pass through the North Channel into the Irish Sea.

The island of Islay was strategically placed 20 miles north of Ireland at junction between routes west or east of Ireland. Clearly there was a lot of U-boat traffic passing the island in addition to boats patrolling the North Channel. One must conclude that once the Hidden Harbour at Clas Uig had been found by the first bold commander, he probably told his fellow commanders about this harbour where they could restock their boats with fresh mutton; so it is likely that many commanders could have visited Clas Uig and some of these on more than one occasion. Had the first visitor learned of Clas Uig while cruising on the West Coast of Scotland before the outbreak of war?

Ships and U-Boats lost near Islay
More than 24 ships were sunk within 50 miles of Islay. Eight of these ships were of more than 10,000 tons and included 'Laurentic' sunk by U80 (Glasenapp), 'Devonian' sunk by U53 (Rose) and 'HMS Drake' sunk by U79 (Rohrbeck) in 1917 and 'Andania' sunk by U46 (Hillebrand), 'Tuscania' sunk by UB77 (Meyer), 'Amazon' sunk by U110 (Kroll), 'Calgarian' sunk by U19 (Spiess) and 'Justicia' sunk by UB124 (Wutsdorff) in 1918. 'Laurentic' was a 14,892 ton Armed Merchant Cruiser sunk on 25th January off Malin Head with loss of 345 lives. She had a cargo of gold bullion and salvage of this continued until 1924 with all but 225 of 3211 ingots being recovered.

'HMS Drake' was an Armoured Cruiser sunk on 2nd October off Rathlin Island with loss of 18 lives. 'Tuscania' was a 14,348 ton Troop Ship sunk on 5th February seven miles north of Rathlin Island. She was carrying 2397 US troops and 266 lives lives were lost. In 1920, the American National Red Cross erected the American Monument on Mull of Oa in memory of those who died. This memorial also includes 431 people who died as a result of a collision between HMS Otranto and HMS Kashmir.

'Calgarian' was a 12,515 ton Armed Merchant Cruiser sunk on 1st March off Rathlin Island with loss of 49 lives. 'Justicia' was a 32,234 ton Passenger Steamer hit by four torpedoes from UB64 (Schrader) and one from U54 (Ruckteschell) on 19th July and finally sunk while under tow the following day by a sixth torpedo from UB124 12 miles NNW of Inishtrahull Island with loss of 10 lives. At the end of 1917 only one U-boat had been sunk in the Irish Sea and North Channel; however, six were sunk within 50 miles of Islay in 1918. These were U89 (Bauck) with loss of 43 lives, U110 (Kroll) with loss of 39 lives, UB82 (Becker) with loss of 32 lives, UB 85 (Krech) with no loss of life, UB119 (Kolbe) with loss of 34 lives and UB124 (Wutsdorff) with loss of two lives.

Henderson’s yacht ‘Blue Iris’ at anchor in Glas Uig on Islay’s southern coast

Tim Henderson
The Royal Western Yacht Club

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

Tag: history war tuscania submarine

Comments are closed

Sandy Wilson

Tuesday, 12 January 2010
What a very interesting story. Thank you and well done Tim and Chas for getting it on record. I have been most keen to learn as much as possible of the Islay U boat story since Chas and I spoke of it during a trip to Scotland in 2006. Even though I live in New Zealand, Chas has been very good about keeping me up to date on progress via email. I look forward to visiting Glas Uig on my next trip to Islay.