Engineers surveying the seabed of the Firth of Clyde and the North Channel on the route of a planned undersea power cable recently came across a wreck. It was identified as that of a First World War German submarine, or U-Boat, either UB-82 or UB-85. Much press coverage resulted, due to the bizarre claim made by the captain of UB-85 when he surrendered to a British warship. A sea monster, he said, had attacked his vessel and damaged it so badly that it was unable to submerge. It seems more likely that human error was actually to blame, and that the captain did not care to admit this.
The war saw the transformation of the submarine from coast defence novelty to wide-ranging commerce destroyer. The wreck discovery is a reminder of the threat posed by these craft in the waters to the west of Ayrshire’s southern tip, where the shipping lanes in and out of the Irish Sea, the North Channel and the Firth of Clyde all converged. This was the closest to Ayrshire that the shooting war came.
On 11 March 1915 the auxiliary cruiser HMS Bayano, a converted merchant vessel, was sunk by U-27 about seven nautical miles south west of Ballantrae. 195 men were lost, and 20 of the 26 survivors were landed at Ayr.
Some classes of U-Boat were equipped to lay mines, and many commercial craft including Clyde Coast paddle steamers were hastily converted to auxiliary minesweepers. The Ayrshire shipyards at Ardrossan, Irvine and Troon constructed a total of 31 purpose-built minesweepers.
Concern that U-Boats would use lights on shore to navigate after dark led to a blackout being imposed in coastal areas around Britain. When a U-boat fired shells at a chemical plant at Whitehaven in Cumbria in August 1915, it raised fears that Ayrshire’s greatest contributor to munitions production, Nobel’s British Dynamite Factory on the coast at Ardeer, might be similarly targeted or attacked by saboteurs coming ashore. A permanently-garrisoned fortified perimeter was constructed around the works with small coast-defence guns emplaced on the seaward side.
Not long after the sinking of the Bayano, a Royal Naval Air Service base for anti-submarine airships was established at West Freugh on Luce Bay, Wigtownshire, and these craft would have become a familiar sight off Ayrshire’s southern coast. Unlike the huge and complex German Zeppelins with their rigid framework, they were simple gasbags with a rudimentary compartment for crew and engine slung beneath. Their main weapon was the radio with which they could summon patrolling warships if they sighted a submarine. In November 1916 airship SS-23 force-landed near Girvan due to engine failure. Its gasbag was deflated, and it was taken to West Freugh by road to be put back into service.
The French merchant ship Longwy was heading into the Firth of Clyde with a cargo of iron ore from the Spanish port of Bilbao when she was torpedoed by UC-75 on the night of 4 November 1917. She went down in the same area where the Bayano had been lost. The weather was rough and none of the 38 on board survived. The bodies of three of the crew, including the captain, Joseph Huet from Saint-Malo, were washed ashore near Girvan and were buried in the town’s Doune Cemetery. The following appeal appeared in the local press: ‘It would be a graceful thing on the part of this community, if there were a representative attendance at the interment’. Captain Huet’s remains were later returned to France, but at Girvan, crosses bearing the legend ‘Mort pour la France’ mark the graves of Adolphe Harre and S. Brajuel. Telegraphist Harre was one of an eight-strong French Navy detachment on board.
Although it eventually brought America into the war, the German U-Boat campaign took Britain to the brink of starvation before shipping convoys were belatedly introduced.