In which local historian Chris Sams digs into an overlooked tale of Medway history..
The Tory led council are very proud of our heritage and landmarks and well they should be. However you would not be considered foolish if, as a tourist you got off at Chatham station and only went to the Dockyard, Fort Amherst. or soaked in the carefully engineered aesthetic that is Rochester town centre.
The other Medway towns also have a rich and forgotten history and landmarks that are being allowed to rot that could be used as tourist attractions.
So what else is there to see within the Medway towns?
Well, we also have the Palmerston forts: Luton, Horsted, Borstal and the river forts at Hoo and Darnet. Twydall has the remains of recounts that were pioneered in Rainham and copied across the country for national defence. Lidsing is also the sight for the Royal Engineers first steps into military aviation with the Balloon Corp’s test field near the Harrow Inn where James McCudden (future VC) used to watch his brother. There was a gruesome unsolved murder of Emily Trigg near the Bridgewood roundabout in 1917, the fire at Gillingham bus depot in the Blitz and many more interesting things.
In recent weeks something that has lay hidden beneath the shifting tidal sands off the French coast near Wissant has risen to the surface to remind people of a long passed conflict.
The wreck of the German Coastal mine laying U-boat UC-61 is now visible again for the first time since the 1930s and is drawing a certain amount of curiosity from tourists and naval historians. The UC-61 had had quite a successful career during the First World War and had undertaken five patrols between her commissioning and her loss (13 December 1916 – 26 July 1917) under Kapitanleutnant Georg Gerth as part of the Flandern Flotilla, sinking some 11 ships, including the French Armoured Cruiser Kleber which struck one of the vessel’s mines off Pierres Noires near Brest, and HMS Ettrick which had her bow blown off by a torpedo near Beachy Head for the loss of 45 men though the ship survived.
On 26 July 1917 the raider’s career would come to an end with the U-boat becoming lost in heavy fog in the Channel and running aground on a sandbank off the coast of Wissant. The crew sabotaged their vessel so that it would not be used by the Allies and surrendered themselves to the French military authorities when they arrived sitting out the rest of the war in a Prisoner of War Camp.
“So what has this got to do with Medway?”, I hear you ask.
We have our own U-boat and it is in much better condition, and I don’t mean the Russian submarine Blackwidow currently rusting in Strood.
Resting out in Humble Bee Creek in the Medway estuary is the remains of another such craft but how it got there is slightly more mundane.
At the end of the First World War, the German Imperial Navy was to be cut down to near ineffectualness with the majority of its large warships and cruisers confiscated by the Allies and transferred to Scappa Flow to await either reassigning to victorious Allied navies as reparations or scuttled. The U-boats, which had wreaked havoc upon the Royal Navy and merchant marine of many nations were to be seized and scrapped.
One enterprising company bought up twenty two U-boats which had been decommissioned and towed them to Chatham for breaking up and the sale of valuable raw materials in 1921. Several engines from these vessels were used locally including at the cement works at Halling. During the towing of this batch of U-boats one broke her tow and ended up stranded on the mud flats off the Isle of Grain. Unfortunately for the company the sheer number of U-boats and other war materiel being scrapped from 1919 onwards including another eighty U-boats being scrapped in Chatham alone, meant that the bottom fell out of the market and it was next to worthless so they cut off the nose cone of the stranded U-boat and took anything of value that could be carried and left the hull to rest out on the marshes where she has lain to this day.
No one is quite certain as to which U-boat she may be though. When I first came across the wreck some ten years ago there was a lively debate as to whether it was the U-122, U-123 or the Ub-122 but according to an expert from English Heritage it is most likely the latter. Unfortunately anything identifiable has long since been removed or rusted away so a positive identification is difficult though from photographs of the wreck and of the UB III class I am inclined to agree with him.
The Ub-122 had a less than glittering career under its Commander, Oberleutnant zur see Alexander Magnus who commanded the ship on patrols between 7 July and 11 November 1918 as part of the III Flotilla. Its primary purpose, like the UC-61 was to lay mines in coastal waters and attacks of opportunity on enemy shipping in coastal waters. The Ub-122 was built by A.G. Weser in Bremen having been ordered 28 February 1917 and laid down 21 May. With the war going badly for Germany at this stage and the British Naval blockade leading to shortages in raw materials which in turn caused prioritising of other projects including new classes of Battle-cruiser, as well as for the embattled soldiers fighting on the Eastern and Western Fronts, Italy, the Balkans and as far afield as Mesopotamia meant that the hull was not launched until 2 February 1918 and she was not commissioned into the Navy until 4 March.
The U-122 under Kapitanleutnant Alfred Korte served with the I Flotilla between March and November 1918 sinking the Icelandic fishing trawler Njordur with shell fire on 18 October 1918 about 120 miles from Southern pike of Hebrides and north west of Ireland.
The last option is the U-123 which served under Oberleutnant zur see Karl Thouret who had sunk two, neutral, Dutch steamers on the 12 and 15 January 1918 whilst Commanding U-79. U-123 was to have a completely different career though and did not take on any active war patrols or score any victories at all.
Whichever craft she is, she still lays forlornly on the Medway mud slowly breaking up as the years roll by, and only accessible by a small community of canoeists and sailors who like to explore the estuary. There are people who will take you out to the wreck for a fee but I would advise not doing so on your own as the shifting tides may see you stranded alongside her or stuck in the quick mud.
A good drone video of the wreck can be found here:
The lost U-boat is an example of how the council continues to be Rochester/Chatham-centric with its heritage policies even when there are many other stories to be told. A richer diversity of attractions or tours would attract more people, stimulate more business and therefore money.
Sure, come for the Dickens but take a look at what else there is to offer.