Daily Event for January 31, 2012

SMS U-31 was the lead submarine in an eleven boat class, she was built at Germaniawerft in Kiel, Germany. The boat was launched on Jan. 7, 1914 and commissioned on Sept. 18, 1914. She was placed under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Sigfried Wachendorff. Her beginnings are well documented, her end however is a different story.

Wachendorff, thirty crewmen and U-31 departed Emden on Jan. 13, 1915 or Borkum on January 31, 1915 for a patrol in the North Sea, the boat and the men were never seen again...or where they. It was not until 1923 when a most extraordinary account of what happened to the boat appeared in the book Der Krieg in der Nordsee (The War in the North Sea) was published. In this book the author, Otto Groos, claimed that in August of 1915 U-31 was found in perfect condition aground at Yarmouth. There was no damage to the boat, but the whole crew were found in their bunks dead.

In 1928 a second account was published, this time with more details. KpLt. Freiherr Edgar von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim, commanding officer of a sister boat, U-32, gave an interview to author/broadcaster Lowell Thomas for his book Raiders of the Deep. In von Spiegel's account U-31 departed Wilhelmshaven with two other boats (von Spiegel's U-32 and Bruno Hoppe's U-22) on Friday, Jan. 13, 1915, that's right, Friday the 13th. Spiegel claimed to be superstitious and seems to indicate that he was not in favor of the departure date, he is quoted as saying; "Friday the 13th is unlucky. Perhaps you [Mr. Thomas] are a landlubber and don't believe it. Go to sea and you'll find out". What Mr. Thomas did not find out was that Jan. 13, 1915 was actually a Wednesday. This he could have checked easily, the fact that all three boats did not sail from Wilhelmshaven at the same time may have been information he could not have learned so easily.

Herr von Spiegel related the details of his patrol as being unproductive due to severe storms for the whole cruise and several men breaking bones due to being tossed against the interior of the boat. He returned to port on Jan. 22 with no combat victories or even sighting a single ship. He then told Thomas about the other two boats, Hoppe and U-22 returned under a black cloud because on his cruise he sank SMS U-7 in error, but U-31 failed to return.

Spiegel then relates the story of U-31 to Thomas, saying; "Six months later she created sensations as the phantom submarine". He claimed that U-31 was found aground on a sand bar, again in good order with the whole crew dead in their bunks. In his version the U-boat's KTB (Kriegstagebuch) showed the last entry to be six months before the boat was found, after that date nothing. The British towed her to an unnamed port (where the bodies and the secret papers and ciphers were presumably removed). Spiegel states she was towed, but the statement in parentheses is my own as von Spiegel did not mention this, or if he did Thomas did not put it in his book.

The former U-boat commander did offer an explanation as to what had happened, and Thomas wrote: "Naval men could find only one explaination for the unearthly phenomenon, and this explaination is no doubt the true one". It was von Spiegel's contention that U-31 had gone to the bottom for the night and that the crew had gone to sleep, he said that one man would have been left on guard duty, but that he may have taken a nap as well. The boat filled with poison gas and suffocated the crew. The boat then lay on the sea floor for six months, during this time compressed air leaked into the ballast tanks until enough air filled the tanks and the boat surfaced and was carried by the tide to where it was found and recovered.

A fanciful tale for sure, but totally false. There is no evidence that the British, or anyone else, found U-31 aground or anywhere else, in fact to the best of my knowledge she has still not been found. No graves have been located for the crew on British soil, and if they had been found in the boat, they would have been buried somewhere in the U.K., probably not far from the unnamed port that the boat was towed into. What probably happened was that she struck a mine or sank from a mechanical failure or accident, she will be found someday and we will then know what caused her loss.

As for the rumor, well wartime is filled with rumors, some were just stories, some were misinformation that was deliberately circulated and some were the truth with some embellishment or misinterpretation mixed in. How the story of U-31 got started and exactly when in and may be forever unknown, but it did make a good story to tell many generations.

Of the other ten U-31 class boats, four were confirmed sunk in combat, one was lost to a mine and one, like
U-31 herself, sailed from port and was never seen again. Four were surrendered after the war, one of these,
U-35, had once been commanded by the most famous U-boat man of all, Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière.

(Note, von Spiegel was in command of SMS U-93 on Apr. 30, 1917 when she was sunk by the Q-Ship
HMS Prize Q-32. During the gun battle he went overboard and was recovered by Prize and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. Later in 1917 he wrote his own book, The Adventures of U-202, the contents of which should be scrutinized before taken as truth. The title alone misleads the reader as there was no U-202 in the Great War.)
© 2012 Michael W. Pocock

Roll of Remembrance

Zum Gedenken an die Gefallenen des Unterseeboot SMS U-31

"In the memory of the fallen crewmen of submarine SMS U-31"

Baumann, Anton
Bode, Heinrich
Brunne, Wilhelm
Dettbarn, Reinh
Dohse, Friedrich
Leutnant zur See
Harbaum, Otto
Hauck, Konrad
Herz, Adolf
Hingst, August
Jennewein, C.
U-Maschinistenmaat d.Res
Käss, Karl
Kerner, Bruno
Kloos, Georg
Köpeke, Waldemar
Lenzner, Bruno
Magath, Paul
U-Obermaschinisten Anw
Meier, Ernst
Meyer, Karl
U-F.T. Gast
Middendorf, Paul
Marine Ingenieur
Niemann, H. K.
Rausch, Johann
Reichle, Hermann
Schönemann, F.
Schönnagel, A.
Schumacher, Heinrich
U-Obermatrose d.Res
Stang, Johann
Stiehler, Friedrich
Marine Ing. Asp
Wachendorff, Sigfried
Oberleutnant zur See
Commanding Officer
Weinhardt, W.
Zerweck, Max
Zöllner, Fritz

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