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The Haunted Submarine of World War I

During the hellacious and bloody battles of World War 1, a terrifying new enemy was unleashed beneath the waves of the sea; the submarine. Never before had these new weapons of war seen such deadly and widespread usage. The Germans in particular put submarines to spectacularly lethal effect. Silent, stealthy, appearing from nowhere from under the dark waves to ravage their victims, the German U-boots or U-boats, a shortened version of Unterseeboot or literally “undersea boat,”were feared by seafaring vessels, in particular the merchant and supply ships which would go on to lose millions of tons of cargo by the time the war ended. Yet although these undersea specters of death terrorized the enemy, it would prove that there were mysterious forces at work aboard one U-boat that would go on to terrorize the crew just as much as anyone else, and propel it into the long maritime pantheon of undersea mysteries and cursed vessels.

The submarine UB-65 was a Type UB III U-boat built by the German Imperial Navy in 1916, and before it was even completed and launched to seek havoc upon the enemy, it had already acquired a dark, ominous reputation for death. The construction of the sub was plagued by numerous freak accidents and horrific deaths. In one instance while the hull was being laid, a huge steel girder that was being lifted by chains and swung into position crashed to the ground when its sturdy chains inexplicably snapped. Two workers were unfortunate enough to be below the massive girder when it fell and were subsequently horrifically crushed beneath it. One of the workers was killed instantly but the other was not so lucky, writhing in agony as colleagues tried desperately to free him before he finally succumbed to his grievous injuries two hours later. It would later be established that the chains seemed to be in perfect working condition and no explanation could be found for how they might have suddenly broken as they had. In another incident, three engineers were in the newly built engine room doing a routine test of the dry cell batteries when they were overcome by sudden noxious diesel fumes. The deadly fumes quickly incapacitated the men and they had all asphyxiated by the time their bodies were dragged up into the light of day. Again there was no explanation for what had caused the fatal leak.

German U-boat

German U-boat

These ominous portents of doom and spooky freak accidents would not stop with the completion of the submarine’s tumultuous construction. During a test run with the aim of establishing the sub’s seaworthiness, the UB-65 encountered a fierce storm that brewed out of nowhere and violently swept one crewman overboard with an enormous wave. The crewman’s body was never found and it was assumed that he had died. Not long after this, as the sub was doing a test dive, the ballast tank was damaged and the dry cell batteries flooded with seawater, which again filled the engine room with poisonous gas killing two additional crew members. When the captain ordered the sub to the surface, it refused to do so as the deadly fumes continued to spread throughout the ship. The crew were luckily able to repair the malfunctioning sub and get to the surface before any more crew were lost to the toxic gases.

On another test run meant to test the sub’s diving ability, a fracture occurred in one of the ballast tanks yet again. Inundated with a sudden deluge of seawater, UB-65 sank in short order, finally resting upon the bottom with its crew in a mad panic and doubtlessly wondering how long they’d last before they all suffocated. The crew, now stranded at the bottom of the sea in a steel coffin, desperately worked to repair the sub and bring it to the surface as their limited oxygen supply dwindled. After 12 perilous hours under the sea, UB-65 was finally fixed and was able to surface before everyone aboard perished. It was considered almost a miracle at the time that no one else had died in the incident.

These accidents and incidents quickly imbued UB-65 with the malevolent reputation as a cursed vessel. In 1917, despite all of the problems and spooky rumors being whispered amongst sailors, UB-65 was scheduled to embark upon its official maiden voyage. If there was truly some sinister force infesting the sub, then it showed no signs of waning. As the torpedoes were being placed prior to this first real mission, one of them inexplicably exploded, which damaged the ship, seriously wounded several crew members, and killed the sub’s second officer, a Lieutenant Richter. Despite the tragedy, the Germans were desperate for more ships and hastily repaired and launched UB-65 again.

A German U-boat

A German U-boat

Not long after this, UB-65, already known for being a cursed vessel, would earn itself the title of a haunted one as well. One of the earliest ghostly sightings aboard the sub was made as UB-65 was scouring the English Channel for enemies to decimate, by a lookout stationed up in the ship’s conning tower. The lookout was allegedly up in the tower when he noticed someone standing down on the deck directly below him, which was unusual since all of the hatches had been battened down and there should have been no one there. When the mysterious figure looked up, the lookout could clearly see that it was Lieutenant Richter, the second officer who had been killed in the freak torpedo accident. The ghostly Richter reportedly shouted some sort of warning and disappeared when the lookout began screaming in terror. Shortly after this, a panicked crewman ran to tell others that he had seen the dead Richter casually strolling about on deck. The captain thought the crewman was just seeing things, but nevertheless went to investigate the deck, where he found another crewman cowering in fright near the conning tower. This terrified crewman confirmed the story and explained that the dead second officer had sort of hovered off of the ground up the gangplank, along the bow, and had stopped to look out over the sea before simply vanishing into thin air.

From these initial sightings, the dead Lieutenant Richter began to make regular appearances aboard UB-65. He was seen by one engineer in the engine room, where he seemed to be examining the instrument panels before fading away into nothing. On another occasion, the spectral second officer was seen standing atop the conning tower in the middle of a violent storm, seemingly oblivious to the howling winds and enormous swells churning around him. In other instances, the ghost was seen roaming around the darkened, claustrophobic passages below decks and even phasing through walls. Richter would apparently gain some company when a crewman was killed in an air raid while on shore leave and his ghost began to be sighted aboard the sub as well.

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The captain for his part did his utmost to try and discourage the stories, imposing heavy punishments on those who dared speak of the ghosts, but this failed to dispel the spooky rumors and the legend of UB-65’s curse continued unabated. The captain’s own viewpoint would change somewhat when he saw the ghost of Richter one night with his own eyes. During one storm, the sub was ordered to surface in order to survey the situation of the rough seas. As a crewmember peered through a hatch to scan the horizon, he was shocked to see a lone figure standing out on the deck, which was lurching madly in the stormy grey waters. The sight was strange not only in that only a madman would be standing out on the deck in the middle of such foul weather, but also because every other hatch was battened down, leaving no way for whoever it was to have gotten there in the first place. The figure then turned around to reveal that he was Richter, after which the frightened crewman shouted down to the others that he could see the ghost. The skeptical captain, sick of all of the nonsense about ghostly apparitions and eager to dispel the stories, rushed up to the hatch but when he arrived he too saw the specter. The hatch was promptly closed and the whole crew was in a panic.

These eerie stories spread quickly among the fleet and it did not take long for UB-65 to become infamous far and wide as a cursed and haunted sub. Many sailors outright refused to serve aboard her, and the ones who did wanted very much to get off. Crew morale spiraled downward in the face of these paranormal occurrences and everyone was fairly exhausted and shaken. Many of the crewmembers were reassigned to other vessels in the face of their growing dread. The German Imperial Navy even went as far as to have a Lutheran pastor perform an exorcism on the vessel in order to dispel the crew’s fears. In an effort to get to the bottom of what was going on, the German’s assigned a commodore to UB-65 in order to investigate the situation. After carefully interviewing the crewmembers, he became convinced that they were telling the truth. Nevertheless, the Imperial Navy decided that enough was enough and assigned a new captain to UB-65. This new captain was very no-nonsense and determined not to allow any hint of ghost stories, imposing harsh discipline on those that spread such tales or even mentioned them. After the change of command, UB-65 completed two tours of duty without incident, but whatever force was lurking within the confines of the sub was merely dormant, not gone.

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In May of 1918, UB-65 was engaged in the task of patrolling the supply lanes in the English Channel off of Spain. During this mission, an officer reported seeing a shadowy figure enter the torpedo room, but when he went to investigate there was no one there. Another crewman claimed that the ghost of Richter appeared and walked straight through a massive iron bulkhead into the engine room. In yet another incident, the torpedo gunner claimed that the apparition had been harassing him for several nights in a row. The experience reportedly drove him mad, and during one particularly animated episode when he was ranting about ghosts the other crewmen tied him to restrain him. One night the disturbed crewman climbed out onto the upper deck as the sub surfaced to recharge its batteries and hurled himself into the sea. His body was never recovered.

Despite all of these strange incidents, the UB-65 had a fairly successful career, sinking 6 merchant vessels and damaging 6 more during its days of active service. However, the various mysteries surrounding it would continue right up until the UB-65’s final engagement, which would prove to be just as bizarre as its dark history. On July 10, 1918, off Padstow, Cornwall on the Irish coast, an American submarine came across UB-65 as it was at the surface. This is a very compromising position for a submarine as they are basically sitting ducks open to attack when they are at the surface. Additionally, the captain of the American submarine noticed that the German sub was listing as if it had been damaged somehow. Recognizing their good fortune to come across the enemy in such a vulnerable position, the American sub immediately prepared for attack. Yet bizarrely, as the torpedoes were being loaded and prepared to fire, UB-65 spectacularly exploded into a rain of debris for apparently no reason at all. The perplexed Americans had certainly not fired and there were no other vessels in the immediate vicinity at the time that could be blamed. It was presumed that UB-65 had experienced a malfunction of its weapons systems and had been sunk by its own torpedoes, but no one knew for sure what had caused the explosion. All of the UB-65’s crew of 37 was killed and none of the bodies were ever found. Adding to the mystery was the account of one American officer who reported seeing a lone figure in a German officer’s overcoat standing on deck with its arms folded shortly before the mysterious explosion, leading to speculation that this was Richter’s ghost serving as an omen of destruction.

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For a long time, the wreckage of UB-65 could not be located and the mystery of its explosion and sinking over the years became a perplexing maritime mystery. The wreck was finally found and identified by underwater archaeologists in 2004. Examination of the UB-65 wreck showed no signs of being heavily damaged by a weapon attack, which conflicted to official German Naval records which list it as having been destroyed by its own torpedoes. The aft hatches of the wreck were also found to be open, an apparent indicator that some of the crew had made attempts to escape. The sinking of the sub was eventually attributed to “accidental causes” although the exact cause is still not known for sure and it is still not clear what the explosion was that the American sub reported. It is thought that perhaps the explosion could have been caused by a depth charge which detonated near the doomed vessel and caused enough internal damage to sink it without leaving any obvious major hull damage. However, in the end, even with the discovery of its wreckage the exact fate of UB-65 remains as mysterious as the ominous phenomena that hung over it throughout its career.

What was it about U-65 that made it such a magnet for unexplained bizarreness? What were the circumstances surrounding its ultimate demise? Was this all just bad luck mixed with sailors’ tall tales or was there some enigmatic and sinister force permeating this submarine’s steel innards? If so, one wonders was this force dispelled upon the sub’s final destruction or is there still a cloud of evil hovering about its sunken wreckage to this day? World War I brought its fair share of hell to both sides, and in the case of UB-65, perhaps a bit of hell was brought to it as well, infesting it, pervading it, and locking it into the annals of great unexplained mysteries of the sea.