Divers explore ‘eerie’ wreck of WWI German U-boat sunk off Shetland

A diving team has explored the final resting place of a German U-boat that sank off the coast of Shetland during the First World War.

SM UC-55 lies on the seabed some eight miles south-east of Lerwick. She was sunk by the Royal Navy in 1917.

Although the wreck site has been known since the 1980s, divers aboard the Stromness boat Valhalla were the first to inspect her wreckage earlier this summer. The team described the site as ‘eerie’.

Sunk on 29 September 1917, SM UC-55 was attempting to lay mines off Lerwick. A technical fault forced her to surface, after which she was spotted. Two British destroyers, HMS Tirade and HMS Sylvia, were sent with the armed trawler Moravia to sink her.

Above and below: A torpedo tube of SM UC-55 and the possible remains of a periscope. The German submarine was sunk in September 1917. Image: Martin Mako Janecek, Kapr Divers

On seeing the approach of the destroyers, Oberleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) Horst Rühle von Lilienstern destroyed sensitive papers onboard, and ordered that the boat be scuttled.

Von Lilienstern was killed when a 12-pdr shell from Sylvia hit the base of the conning tower during her sinking. A further 11 members of his crew perished, while 17 were taken prisoner.

More than a century on, the wreck was dived on 21 July this year in a trip that took a decade of planning, according to Valhalla owner Hazel Weaver.

‘This has been known about for a long time,’ Weaver told the BBC. ‘The question was: is this the wreck we thought it was?’

‘After three and a half hours of divers being in the water down to 110m, they came and confirmed: yes, this is the UC-55,’ she added.

Diver Jacob MacKenzie described the experience of exploring an underwater war grave. ‘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,’ he said.

Despite the prevalence of U-boats during both World Wars, only four examples remain intact today, while others – like SM UC-55 – lie on the seafloor.