U-118 Ends Up on Hasting’s Beach
After World War 1 ended, the German Navy surrendered, and many of its ships were interned at the Royal Navy’s chief naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands north of the Scottish mainland. The German submarine U-118, however, was destined for France to be broken up for scrap. While she was being towed, a fierce gale snapped the cable, and she ended up like a gigantic beached whale washed ashore on Hasting’s Beach, in front of Hasting’s finest hotels.
An Undistinguished War Record
SM U-118 was one of nine huge ocean-going mine-laying submarines. Launched on February 23, 1918, she was 267 feet long, displaced 1,200 tons and was armed with a 150mm deck gun, 14 torpedoes and 42 mines. SM U-118 had a lackluster career, sinking only two ships, one just off Ireland’s north coast and the other northwest of Spain. She was surrendered to the Allies on February 23, 1919, exactly one year after she was launched.
While being towed to France through the English Channel in rough seas, U-118 broke free. Despite attempts by a French destroyer to break her up, she ended up aground on the beach in the middle of the city of Hastings on the Sussex coast in southern England on April 15, just in time for the Easter Holiday.
Sixpence Apiece, Ladies and Gentlemen
The stranding caused a sensation. Thousands of people flocked to see this monster that had washed ashore, its true size evident from the aerial view taken shortly after the beaching. Three tractors tried to drag it back to the sea but failed. At that point, the city fathers decided to make the best of this instant tourist attraction.
The Admiralty put the local coast guard in charge and allowed the town clerk to charge sixpence apiece to visitors wishing to climb onto the deck of U-118. After two weeks, nearly £300 had been raised for the Mayor’s Fund for the welcome home of troops planned for later that year.
Special excursions inside the submarine were arranged for important visitors. Two coast guardsmen led these, but the visits were stopped after two weeks when both these gentlemen became strangely ill. Instead of getting better, they got progressively worse until, by February of 1920, both were dead. Their autopsies revealed abscesses in their lungs and brains, probably caused by chlorine gas leaking from the sub’s damaged batteries.
The Novelty Wears Off
Eventually, the novelty of the grounded u-boat wore off, and residents tired of the noise made by children throwing rocks against the hull at all hours of the night. The decision was made to break up U-118 and sell it for scrap. Before the official dismantling began, many souvenirs disappeared, but by December 1919, U-118 was largely gone. The town was presented with the 150mm (6-in) deck gun, but they decided to get rid of it in 1921. It is believed that portions of the sub’s keel still sit under the sands.
Another German Sub Washes Up
Oddly enough, U-118 wasn’t the last submarine to wash up in Hastings. On January 9, 1921, another German submarine, UB 131, broke free during a storm and ran aground on another beach at Bulverhythe, Hastings. Little is recorded about this second submarine, which was half the size of U-118, other than that it was quickly broken up.