The Maritime History of Wales 5: The Welsh U-Boat Project 1914-1918

November 2021

In this our final episode dedicated to the maritime history of Wales, Eirwen Abberley Watton finds out about a project which has been documenting and reconstructing First World War stories from the Welsh coast. The project focuses not only on unearthing and recording shipwrecks such as the U-Boats from the war, but also on the the lives of communities and families affected by the war. To find out more Eirwen speaks with Dr Michael Roberts, a marine geologist and research fellow at the Centre for Applied Marine Sciences, School of Ocean Sciences, Bangor University. Michael’s recent research in collaboration with Bournemouth University has focussed on using multibeam sonar data in combination with historical archives/collections to identify offshore Irish Sea shipwreck sites. Between 2016-19, in collaboration with the Royal Commission and Nautical Archaeology Society, Michael led the Bangor team in contributing to the development and delivery of the HLF funded U-Boat project Wales 1914-18, which placed major emphasis on linking maritime collections held by local maritime museums and private individuals with larger national records and archives.

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    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the mariners mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Hello, and welcome to our final episode of this series focusing on the maritime history of Wales. My name is Eirwen Abberley Watton and today I’ll be learning more about well, shipwrecks from the First World War. During my research, I came across a fantastic project called the euro project, which has been documenting and reconstructing stories from World War one off of Wales’s coast. The project focuses not only on unearthing and recording shipwrecks such as the U-Boats from the war, but also the lives of communities and families affected by this event. A History of naval war, including medical ships and importation of supplies like food, has been hugely influential on Wales today and is often overlooked. I was extremely interested to hear more about these diverse communities, and all of the stories that might have remained buried if not for the work of the U-Boat project. Here to tell me all about the project is Dr. Michael Roberts, a marine geologist and research fellow at the Centre for Applied marine sciences School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University. Michael specialises in the application of multibeam sonar surveys to understand physical marine processes, as well as researching sea level change around the Welsh coastline between 2016 and 2019. In collaboration with the Royal Commission and nautical archaeology society, Michael led the Bangor team in the HLF funded unit project Wales 1914 to 1918. This project linked maritime collections held by local maritime museums and private individuals with larger national records and archives. I hope you enjoy the episode. I certainly found it fascinating to learn about how much of Wales’s naval history is yet to be uncovered, and what is being done to change this. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, Michael,

    Dr Michael Roberts
    No problem. Glad to be of help.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    So if you wouldn’t mind, please tell our listeners just a little bit more about Wales’s U-boat project.

    Dr Michael Roberts
    Okay, well, this is taking us back a few years now during the period where we were sort of commemorating the with the World War One for 100 years or so. So obviously, there were a lot of projects underway associated with that. But coming from a maritime background and working in, in marine sciences and living on the coast, it was always something that’s been of interest to me is the sort of elements or aspects of World War One activity that took place in the sea. And I don’t think people are aware or were aware, aware of the fact that you know, much of the activities during World War One. I mean, people tend to think of them happening 600 miles to the southeast of Belgium and France, etc. But you know, there was a lot of activity going on, right underneath the cliffs around our coast. And I mean, literally under the cliffs, which is for me as well. I mean, it was a surprising for me as much as anything else. And all this came about from work that I’d been doing, strangely enough, associated with marine renewable energy. So we’re trying to support that industry and that sector to grow in Wales, because Wales is really well placed for developing marine renewable energy projects, because it has strong tides, you know, it has a lot of waves associated with wind, and big tidal ranges. So there’s been a lot of sort of effort and activity in that sector. But understanding the environment, the marine environment is going to be critical. And I was more interested in the physical processes that are associated with putting things on the seabed, and what will happen to them over time on decadal timescales. And obviously, the industry isn’t created yet. It’s in its infancy. But I did do some work early on in 2013/14, associated with some shipwrecks around our coast. And it struck me that there were a lot of them a lot more than even I appreciated. And so we were looking at structures really to gain insights into how marine processes have interacted with structures on the seabed, as I say, in shipwrecks provided that perfect opportunity because they’ve been there for a long time. They come in many different forms. So they’re all unique, really, I guess they’re different shapes, different sizes, they’re in different orientations relative to the tidal flows, they’re on different seabed types, and they’ve been down there for different periods of time, but also not just from the physical side of it, there was some interest from the biological side of it. So, structures contend to act as artificial reefs. So eventually, they are quite rapidly actually they become colonised by other organisms. And they in turn have predated on off, you know, the organisms feed on them and so fish etc. And then, of course, marine mammals will also feed on the fish and, and so there’s there are huge concerns or issues around the development of marine renewable energy projects in Wales because we have we are lucky to have those kinds of animals in our inbox. And then the last thing you want to do is kind of endanger them or you know, create problems for them. So understanding, as I say, the biological and the physical aspects of structures is critical to that sector. And so that’s where shipwrecks come in, as I said. I started surveying them as a boy back in 2014. And we’ve done a pretty thorough job really, of looking at all the wrecks now, around the West Coast, we’re talking about three 400 different sites. And many of those, the most significant proportion of those are associated with World War One and World War Two. But also, there’s this heritage and cultural aspect. And that’s how I got involved with the U-boat project. So as I say, going back to the commemoration for the World War 1 centenaries, we thought, well, we’ll take a small sample of these racks and try and understand a little bit more about them, their history, you know, their sense of place in terms of the conflict. And it all came from there.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Of course, that’s fantastic. And I’d love to hear a little bit more about what goes into kind of building those stories, and doing that research when you find a particular wreck and to build those individual stories.

    Dr Michael Roberts
    Right? Well, okay, as I say, I think the one thing that struck us was how many shipwrecks there were, but when we actually went out and surveyed them, and I should just explain, we’re using a survey ship that has a high Well, you know, cutting edge piece of technology called a multi beam sonar, which allows us to build up a sonar derived 3D Point Cloud or image of the structure on the seabed. And so you know, you can see using sound because obviously can’t use optics, because the waters not clear enough, not like Bahamas or the Mediterranean, not around Wales, definitely not. So so. So now as the way we look at these ships in any great level of detail. And as I say, you know, some of the data that we’re getting off the meat, you can, you can see masts and funnels and boilers, and, you know, the shape of the ship, generally, whether it’s been broken up, whether it’s going to torpedo hole in it, which is just incredible to see in some cases. But the one thing that did become apparent very, very quickly was when we went to a certain wreck site, which was purported to be a particular steamship, the general dimensions often didn’t match. They did, they did in certain circumstances. But you know, we have to say a significant proportion of these vessels did not match with the dimensions of the ship that the wreck was supposed to be of. So obviously, it wasn’t that wreck, it was something else. And so, and there are also quite a significant number of unknowns out there. So quite often, based on ancient, older data, you know, and identity has been attributed to some of these wrecks. Probably 30% of the case, the time that they’re correct, 30% of the time, they’re incorrect, and 30% of the time, they’re unknown, something like that, of that old enemy, I hadn’t appreciated fully, that we would obviously need to know what the ship was, because we need to know how long it’s been there. If we’re looking at processes, physical processes, you know, whether it’s settling they’re 70 years, or 100 years or 50 years. That’s critical. And that’s where I started a collaboration with Dr. Innes McCartney, from Bournemouth University, who’s been sort of instrumental in taking this project forward, really so. So I’ve just gone out and collected the data, basically built the pieces for a jigsaw puzzle, but Innes has now been putting together for quite a period of time. And that’s what it is, as I say, these wrecks, they’re, they’re a jigsaw puzzle, you can’t really go out and look at a couple of wrecks and kind of start attributing identities to them, you need all the pieces. And that’s what we’ve been able to do through my project work, the funding that I’ve had so, so we’ve got this lovely data set now of you know, having the surveys of all these vessels in a given area geographical area, but this is just a small area around Britain, you know, with the Irish Sea effectively. And the same will apply around the whole of the UK and wider field, obviously, internationally. So yeah, it’s been a fascinating journey, so far. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the results, the outputs from this later this year or early next year. And I think, you know, they’ve been some fascinating things I’ve been drawn into it, you can’t help but not be drawn. I’m a geologist by trade, but I’ve just become fascinated with the history because each of these ships has its own story, its own sense of place, you know, and identity and the stories are just incredible. And I think that links very closely or strongly to different communities, you know, there are relatives of some of these people who are lost their lives, on some of these ships that are still around want to know, you know, where their ancestors or close relatives lost their lives. I found it quite amazing. I hadn’t realised again, you know, the technology the time 100 years ago to have a U-boat, just patrolling around our coast where everyone’s going, just farming Oh, Have you and literally within a few 100 metres of the cliffs, these U boats were waiting. So obviously in wartime, the ships are transiting through those shipping lanes up the Irish Sea into Liverpool, etc., or down to Cardiff. But they would have to do it, because they knew that there were many U boats around, they would have to do it on the cover of darkness, they wouldn’t have lights on necessarily. So they would be travelling in the dark. And of course, the U-boats then couldn’t see them unless the U boats came in really close to the coast, and then look out to see against the horizon to see a silhouette of a ship passing on the horizon. So that U-boats were even closer than the ships themselves to us. And that I just found that quite, quite amazing.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Yeah, it’s, it’s fascinating. And as you just said, it’s not only the ships that you’re looking at, but also the communities that built up around that. And with any project involved with, you know, the sea and sea travel, you get communities from all over the world, really. So I’d love to hear more about that. Yeah,

    Dr Michael Roberts
    I mean, that was fascinating, I thought, you know, World War One, British and it’s Germany, it’s Britain and Germany fighting together. But in the in the marine environment, that’s not the case at all. So, you know, a lot of these ships had international connections, a lot of them are French, Spanish, Norwegian, Russian. Obviously, they were German U boats out there, but, you know, Greek registered vessels, you know, just astounding, that European kind of international dimension in terms of the where the ships were from and who they were own, who owned them, etc. But then you start looking at the crew lists as well. And then, and that is just even more diverse. I mean, as is the case today, I mean, a lot of the crews were made up of people from Africa, you know, the Indian subcontinent Far East. All these people that were hundreds of 1000s of miles away from their homes, who were on the ships travelling around the UK keeping a supplied and they lost their lives here. You know, and I think, you know, we’ve got to, as I say, I think it’s important that we kind of recognise their efforts, the only way you can do that is try and work out what’s what. So hopefully, this is just a pilot in the Irish Sea, and the start something much bigger for the future. And I think I think one of the important things to remember about all this work is that we’re really fortunate that we have that technology now to do this. So the sonar technology, and that hasn’t been around all the time. So we couldn’t have done this in the 1950s. And 60s, it was, just wasn’t there. But unfortunately, all these racks are degrading as well. So the clock is really ticking. So although technology is getting better all the time, the condition of the racks is deteriorating quite rapidly. So I think we have a small window here now to kind of take this forward, build on it, and survey all these other vessels around the world and, you know, apply our learning, share our learning with other organisations, so that so that we can try and do this before, you know, 50 or 100 year’s time, all that you’ll have left on the seabed, most locations will be just that indistinguishable mound of, you know, broken metal and ballast and what have you. So, so really, this has to happen in the next decade or so I would suggest before it’s too late to make any sort of reasonable, you know, 80 to 90% kind of identities on some of these ships, which is, which is the object exercise.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    It’s incredible how much has been overlooked, as you were saying, and in terms of the families involved in maritime history of the war, another overlooked group are women really? Then how did they feature in the kind of research that you’re doing?

    Dr Michael Roberts
    Yeah, well, well, obviously, there were many women who were passengers, because there were Passenger Cargo ships, ships weren’t just exclusively ferries, they obviously transported goods. So you would often have people, you know, travelling to and from ports. And so I think I think from just looking at this sort of, I’ve done some ballpark calculations in terms of these ships that we’ve looked at 300 sites or something, we are talking about the loss of over 3000 people, you know, on average, it’s 10 people per share. Sometimes nobody perished, fortunately, but sometimes they would casualty that were, you know, in the 70s, or even the hundreds, you know, where people were lost in one event. Also, there are hospital ships out there, we surveyed one of the hospital ships that is located further. So there were nurses on board who kind of you know, come across from, you know, West Indies and things like that. And so, you know, they were professionals working on these ships as well. So yeah, certainly women featured very strongly in this.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Definitely. The hospital ships is something that I wouldn’t think about immediately when I do think about the First World War. So it’s really interesting to hear about, and these projects are so community based, for the people listening, is there any way that they can get involved if they think their community might have played a role?

    Dr Michael Roberts
    Oh, absolutely. I mean, the information that’s out there now as you think might be just sitting there in someone’s house that relates to some say, long lost uncle and what have you, and At the time at sea, and what have you, some of the information that’s come out of out of the blue book project, for example, was just astounding. This is, as I say, this small project, relatively speaking, but they were using social media. And obviously, these museum exhibits and things to kind of communicate what we were doing. But social media, it don’t underestimate that because I think somebody in Germany picked up on the project. And I think this is not my work directly, but it was associated with the kind of you know, that, you know, the people’s stories associated with these racks. But I think in one instance, a U boat surfaced and told everyone to get off very politely before they sank the ship, everyone got off safely, thank goodness. And then the Germans came on to destroy the ship with explosives. Rather than use a torpedo, there was a dog still on the boat. So they took the U boat, crew took the dog off this vessel that had been left, put it on the boat, destroyed the ship and then sailed off home. And, you know, when the crew of the vessel that was lost, got back to shore, this killed a dog. You know, we lost a dog and everything was quite sad. Lottie, I think the name of the dog was lucky. So this is a story. And then just coincidentally, someone in Germany kind of got back to us and said, I recognise that Doc, and she actually had pictures. So the yearbook commander took the dog and took it home back to Germany. And I think it was his granddaughter, great granddaughter, had photographs of the dog with her inner garden in German

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    is such an incredible story.

    Dr Michael Roberts
    But I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of some of the stories that that haven’t been told yet, you know, the, this kind of work has the potential to tell. And I think, you know, that’s really quite, quite powerful, as well as interesting, you know, about just humanity in that we sort of go through these awful things, and we’re told to do what we’ve got to do. Yeah, but I think we’re so just the iceberg, I’m sure there are many, many untold stories still out there. But it is critical that we identify the ship so that we have this kind of focal point really, to bring these stories out. Because we can talk about the ships and will last, but you can’t really relate them to anything until you actually have something tangible, associated with, you know, a physical structure on the seabed. I think that’s, that’s, that’s important. The other thing I have to say about our sonar work is me. So now is just sort of as giving a shape and an image of the ship as to how it is now. But there’s lots of other information that’s critical to supporting identification, it’s, and that’s marine archives. So we need plans of the ships, for example, to reconcile the identities and this is where his expertise comes in. With all this, I mean, he’s who worked on the marine archives and positional data, you know, as well to records, even Kriegsmarine U-boat Records effectively, to bring them all together to kind of give that really strong evidence base to identify what a ship is, potentially. But by no means that’s not a guarantee, still, I mean, it raises the possibility that this is the right shape, the right size, the right location, it’s probably, but never definitely, until you actually have physical proof. And that’s the one thing we haven’t, because you can never be able to get that for some of these racks are in 100 and 150 metres water plus. So they’re beyond, you know, need the resources of NASA to get down to each one. And basically, that will never happen, because just economically it’s not viable. I don’t think so. But being able to get to within, you know, a reasonable degree of confidence to kind of say that’s probably that ship is better than what we’ve got at the moment. And so that that’s what we’re aiming for. So isn’t it, I must emphasise that it’s not, you know, work with science and absolutes. It’s almost, but not quite, it’s better than what we’ve got.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Sure of course, and it is so important that we do kind of record the history and share it as well, because it’s an important part of who we are and our national identity. Obviously, you have a lot of information on your website, is there anywhere else that people can go to see findings physically?

    Dr Michael Roberts
    Well, as I say, hopefully, um, you know, we’ll try and expand on this. I mean, we’re obviously thinking World War One, but it won’t be too long before we start thinking about World War Two. So I’m hoping there will be other opportunities to get some funding to kind of, you know, bring the data out the data is the data on me, you know, there’s, there are ways and means we can make that available. But I think it’s the stories that kind of bring these things to life as well. And it’s just finding ways and means to do that. I can say that today is actually fortunately we’re talking today because I’m part of a project that’s just been awarded a large bit of funding. It’s through the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and evolving 15 universities across the UK. And it’s called towards a national collection. And part of our work or contribution to one of the projects under that funding will be to connect all these disparate Museum and heritage collections. And it’s kind of bringing all these collections together. So someone has a focal point, which is that sonar survey the identified rec in the in the Irish Sea. And then from that a kind of, you know, range of different links to all these, as I say, disparate collections. And I think if that works is, as we hope it will, you know, as I say, it will link all these individuals and communities to these physical structures, which will be great.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Yeah, that’s fantastic news. Very exciting. I’ll keep an eye on the website. It sounds like there’s lots of interesting stuff on its way. And thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today. It’s been really, really interesting. And I always love to hear the work that’s being done to uncover some of the history that has been overlooked.

    Dr Michael Roberts
    No problem, grateful to and happy to share all interesting research because it’s so rewarding as well. So we do get a lot.

    Eirwen Abberley Watton
    Thank you for listening. That’s it for today. If you enjoyed this episode, and indeed the whole series, please do go and find us on Instagram and YouTube and show your support. Please particularly take the time to check out the YouTube page where we are doing fabulous things to present the maritime past in new ways. I particularly like the video that uses artificial intelligence to bring ships figureheads to life. And of particular relevance to this episode is the video that animates a really complex technical plan of a first world war submarine so that it made sense. To even more involved you can go and join the Society for nautical research for a small annual subscription fee. You receive four copies a year of our mariners mirror journal, and you become part of a community dedicated to preserving and celebrating our maritime history. As always, we’d love to hear from you. So please do get in touch with any questions, comments or thoughts about our podcasts. It has been a pleasure to delve deeper into whales as maritime history with you. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have

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