U 48 – Death on the Goodwins

German submarine U 48 – wrecked on the Goodwin Sands, Goodwin Sands. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the latter part of the First World War, German submariners were feeling the effect of the diligent Royal Navy and losses of U-boats were mounting up. Volunteers for the submarines dried up and the Kaiser had to resort in drafting men against their will into the service. Even the German populaces were feeling the affect of the British blockade and food was in short supply. When America joined the hostilities the war looked to be coming to an end.

The night of 23rd November, 1917, U-48 entered the Dover Straits en-route to intercept American troop ships coming in from the Atlantic. Kapitanleutnant Carl Edeling intentions were to pass over the anti-submarine nets placed beyond the South Goodwins and proceed to the south coast of Ireland. It was never decided if the vessels compass was defective or the navigation officer’s calculations were at fault on that foggy night. Nevertheless, the outcome was that the U-boat ended-up stranded on the north Goodwin Sands.

With daybreak approaching, the captain of the U-48 knew they would be an easy target for warships of the Dover Patrol. Edeling had urged his crew to lighten the vessel and they had discarded sixty tons of fuel oil. Next to be jettisoned was ammunition and three torpedoes. As the dawn light illuminated the Goodwins, it was then that the submarine had just enough buoyancy to release her from the clutches of the sands. However, their fortunes were short lived.

The minesweeping Admiralty drifters that had left Ramsgate harbour were the first to sight the U-48. They sped in to attack the enemy and successfully managed to force her back onto the sandbank. Although the drifters were only armed with light deck guns and rifles they managed to hold their prey at bay until the destroyer Gipsy, alerted by the gunfire, pounded the U-boat with her 4.1 and 22-pounder armaments.

The submarine’s gun was subsequently displayed at Ramsgate

The tired crew of the U-48 determinately fought the Royal Navy vessels, until her deck ran red with blood of the fallen. Kaptaitanleutnant Edeling decided that he was beaten and ordered the crew to abandon the craft after they had set charges in the forward and aft torpedo tubes. As the remaining crewmen swam away from their stricken vessel the twin explosions erupted leaving Edeling, along with half his crew of over 40 men, dead. The explosions awakened the people of Deal on that grey winter’s morning and the survivors were taken back to Dover where the wounded were cared for.

From this action Lieutenant Commander Frederick Robinson RNR, of the Gipsy, was awarded a DSO plus £215 of the bounty paid out for destroying an enemy U-boat. The captains of the Drifters received a DSC apiece and the remainder of the £1000 bounty money.

After the cessation of the war the German prisoners were repatriated and several made claims of British brutality. In April, 1922, U-48s Leading Engineer, Willy Petersen, declared in the Amtsgericht District Court, under oath, that the British ships continued to fire at the German sailors who had abandoned their submarine and were swimming to safety.  He also claimed that he was threatened with a revolver when he was interrogated to give information about other U-boat movements. When he was imprisoned at Lady Dundonald’s stately Welsh house Dyffryn Aled, he received harsh treatment, more threats and solitary confinement – which he thought unworthy of a German Officer.

Some years after the war, the submarine appeared at low tide but has now disappeared gain from sight

Acknowledgment and thanks is given to Alec Johnson for the extra information obtained from Bundesarchiv (National Archives of Germany).