Searching for U-Boats
At first light on a cold November morning, I paddled out into the mist and mud flats of the Medway Estuary, with the aim of finding the last visible U-boats wrecks in the UK. Exactly a century before, on 21 November 1918, an armada of German U-boats had converged on Harwich and surrendered to the British.
The submariners were unceremoniously packed on to transport ships and sent home without being allowed to set foot on British soil. There was no celebration and tensions were high as the armistice was a truce, only days old, and a formal end to the war had yet to be negotiated.
This formidable and successful fighting fleet was gradually sold on, stripped down for scrap or just scuttled. All were lost, except three, which supposedly lay scatted and semi-submerged amongst the salt marshes of the Medway Estuary.
The exact identify of these U-boats is still debated. To give them context, over 120 were surrendered in 1918; 44 have been located in deeper waters but these three, are supposed to be the only U-boats in the UK that are exposed when the tide recedes. I knew that the largest and best preserved could be found in Bee Ness Creek, next to a small island that has been unofficially named after Alfred Korte the Captain of U-122. And there were anecdotal tales of two further U-boats beneath a jetty near Kingsnorth Power Station.
Stoke Saltings is a maze of shallow, muddy creeks and low lying islands, that are inaccessible at low water and fairly indistinguishable from each other. I initially aimed for Oakham Ness Jetty, which extends seaward from Kingsnorth Power Station, and on a rising tide edged into Slede Creek, quickly spotting the keels and base outlines of two submarine wrecks. Little is recorded about these, but they are believed to be UB76 and UB93.
To my untrained eye, they looked like the remains of U-boats as they were long and slender, made of metal and looked very different from the numerous wrecks of barges and fishing trawlers that can be found elsewhere in the estuary. But unfortunately, the tide was still rising and I couldn’t quite get close enough to examine them. Conscious that I wanted to properly explore the larger wreck before it got submerged, I paddled back across East Hoo Creek and under the battered and twisted Bee Ness Jetty. This jetty, built in 1937 on shifting mud banks, is a pretty impressive feat of engineering, extending 2.5km out into the mist. It’s now disused but remains one of the longest jetties in Europe and provides a useful navigation aid when trying to find your way around the saltings.
Soon afterwards I spied the larger U-boat wreck. One of the unique aspects of packrafts is their incredibly shallow draft, which is perfect for exploring a muddy estuary. I got as close as I could and then lay back and drifted, waiting for the tide to rise.
There has been some debate over the identify of this U-boat. The two strongest candidates appear to be UB 122 or more likely U112. Members of Kent History forum have identified that U112, UB76 and UB93 were sold to a cement works just up the Medway in Haling, where their engines were striped out and used to replace an ageing steam engine. Anything of value was removed and one theory is that whilst being towed away for scrap, they broke free and drifted onto the mud, where they have remained ever since.
U112 is actually sat directly adjacent to the barely visible wreck of the Swale, a 37 ton wooden sailing barge built in 1864, which made me wonder whether it happened to drift free, or was actually purposefully tied up alongside the Swale and left to rust.
The bow has cleanly sheered off and now sits at an angle to the clearly visible twin torpedo tubes.
At the start of the war, submarines on both sides were supposed to abide by the Cruiser Rules, under which they would allow the crews of merchant ships to safety disembark, before their vessels were sunk, however in 1915 a U-boat sunk the Lusitania with the loss of 1,198 civilian lives and subsequently Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare. The success of German U-boats was arguably the deciding factor that brought America in the war and hastened its end. By the end of the WWI, these U-boats are estimated to have sunk 5,000 merchant ships.
When to Visit - UB76 and UB93 are best visited on a rising tide 2 1/2 hours after low water and the U112 is best visited 2 1/2 hrs before high water (Sheerness is the nearest port with tidal predications). This gives you just enough water to paddle a packraft up to, and into the larger U-boat.
Ownership of Adjacent Land - Kent Wildfowlers state that they own the vast majority of Slede Marshes and that visitors should request permission to land at the U-boat, however it is widely-recognised that all tidal rivers, estuaries and the open sea carry a Public Right of Navigation (PRN). In other words you would appear to have every right to paddle up to and into the U-boat wrecks, but it is less advisable to go ashore on the island.
Charts - The Admiralty Charts of the saltings are hopelessly out of date, showing creeks and islands that no-longer exist (they are made to facilitate navigation of larger boats). Google satellite imagery clearly shows the tidal creeks. UB76 and UB93 are here. U112 is here.
Access to the Estuary - Access to the Stoke Saltings is limited and extremely difficult at low tide. I would recommend trying the slipway at River Maye Cottage. There is a public right of way leading from Stoke, over a railway crossing to the waters edge, though it would be polite to ask permission of anyone at the slipway before launching. I was able to park my car nearby in Stoke.
Background - I’d highly recommend reading Chapter 19 (p229 onwards) of A North Sea diary, 1914-1918 by Commander Stephen King-Hall. It gives a brief and fascinating, first hand account of the surrender and includes some interesting stories about U-boat crews stealing sheep and two American officers that emerged from a German U-Boat.
As always please do your own research to ascertain your right to paddle this area, ensure you have suitable experience and equipment and beware of hazards such as deep mud and strong tides.