War brings with it horror, as well as strange mysteries lurking in the cracks behind the scenes of history as we know it. The battlegrounds of World War I painted the landscape red with the blood of fighting, from land to sea as they swallowed countless souls in an orgy of blood and death. However, the ever present threat of death from the enemy was not always the only horror that lied in wait within these battlefields. From the fog of war, blood, brutality and violence of Word War I come bizarre cases of strange mysteries from the sea, involving mysterious disappearances and bizarre monsters from our very nightmares.
World War I broke out across our planet between the years of 1914 and 1918, and spread like a disease from a diplomatic crisis in Europe to infect all the world’s great economic powers of the time with the determination to kill, who were inexorably drawn in to what would be one of the most voracious, bloodiest, and costliest wars in all of history, and which mostly eventually devolved into more or less a battle of attrition and marked the rise of horrific, brutal trench warfare. The world was engulfed in warfare at the time, waged between the Allies, eventually consisting of the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as the United States, Japan, and Italy, and their enemies the Central Powers, including The German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. The carnage that ensued would ultimately change the map of our world, dissolve the German Empire, Russian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and leave an estimated 16 million people dead and large swaths of the landscape in ruin, and it is here from this storm of bloodshed that some decidedly weird accounts originate, with many of them occurring out in the grey, war-torn seas of the time.
One very strange case from the seas of World War I revolves around a merchant ship called the Zebrina, which was a 100-foot, 189-ton schooner-rigged, three-masted sailing barge launched in 1873 at Whitstable, on the north coast of Kent in southeastern England. The ship was originally designed for hauling meat, but in later years was repurposed for carrying other cargo as well, and on October 15, 1917, the Zebrina departed from Falmouth, in Cornwall, England, on a routine supply run towards Saint-Brieuc, France, with a cargo of coal under the command of a Captain Martin. The ship left in good conditions, with an able captain and crew, and there would have been no reason to suspect that this would be anything other than a completely normal, short cargo run, but things were about to get very strange, indeed.
Two days after the Zebrina’s departure, the vessel was found washed ashore at a place called Rozel Point, just south of Cherbourg, in northwestern France. The ship was in pristine condition, with no identifiable damage, and nothing particularly awry other than some rigging that was in a state of slight disarray, but of the estimated 23 crew members that had been aboard there was no sign. When authorities went through the vessel, they found everything to be completely normal, with breakfast set out on the table, the galley fire still burning, and all of the crew’s belongings left behind as if someone would come home at any minute, but no one was there at all. There was no sign of a struggle or anything amiss, and in fact the scene was almost eerie in its tranquility. None of the cargo had been touched. The captain’s log was also rather odd, in that the last entry was just a mundane, routine message that had been made right after the ship had left port. So where was everyone?
The most common theory is that the vessel had been boarded by a German submarine and the entire crew taken prisoner, but the typical procedure for this was for the enemy to torpedo the boat afterwards. The Zebrina was undamaged. There was also the fact that there did not seem to be any signs of panic or struggle, so if they had been taken prisoner then they did so without any fight or fuss whatsoever. There is the fact that the submarine could have escaped an allied vessel before being able to sink the ship, but why was everything in such good condition? Also, the Germans never admitted to having any such prisoners from the Zebrina, and none of the men were ever found, so why should this be? Was the submarine that took them sunk soon after? Another strike against the submarine theory is that such boardings always resulted in the captain’s log being taken, but in this case, it was left behind in full view along with various other documents. Why should this be? There was also apparently no German U-boat known to be in the area at the time, so if it had been a submarine, then where had it come from? No one really knows, and the mystery of the Zebrina’s lost crew has never been solved.
The 1900s brought another rather well-known case, that of the hulking steel-hulled American Naval warship the USS Cyclops. The massive behemoth of a ship was primarily tasked with shipping bulk cargo of various supplies and raw materials for the Navy in the early 1900s, such as coal to be used as fuel. On 9 January 1918, the USS Cyclops lumbered into port at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, after delivering 9,960 tons of coal to allied British ships in the South Atlantic, after which it was loaded up with 11,000 tons of manganese ore to be used for the production of munitions and destined for Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States, with a stop off at Salvador along the way. After this the ship was supposed to head directly to Baltimore, and this is where things began to get strange.
Instead of going straight to Baltimore as scheduled, the USS Cyclops deviated from its course to end up in Barbados in March of 1918. This was not a scheduled stop, well off course in fact, and it was reported that the deviation had occurred because they were overloaded with cargo. However, an inspection of the vessel showed that it was in perfect order, that she was not overloaded as feared, and that all of the cargo was safely secured and nonthreatening. The USS Cyclops then departed for its final destination of Baltimore on March 4, 1918, to go on and apparently vanish from the face of the earth, with the last known sighting of the vessel allegedly made on March 9 off the coast of Virginia by the molasses tanker the Amolco, although this sighting has been disputed as this date and location does not match up with where the ship would be expected to be considering its scheduled arrival at its destination on March 13th.
Regardless, the fact of the matter is that the massive USS Cyclops never made it to its destination of Baltimore, and no trace of it, or even a scrap of debris or wreckage was ever found even after the area was thoroughly scoured by search ships and aircraft. The loss of the 306 crew members who had been aboard was, and is to this day, considered to be the largest noncombat loss of life in U.S. Naval history, and the vessel’s vanishing has become a great maritime mystery which has been pondered and speculated on ever since. With no clues to really go on, this speculation has run all over the place. Perhaps the most rational explanation is that a series of unfortunate factors led to the ship’s doom. It was known that the USS Cyclops had been having engine difficulties at the time due to the fact that one of its cylinders had been reported as having a crack in it, which would have reduced its overall seaworthiness and speed. On top of this, although the inspection at Barbados had been all clear, the ship is suspected to have taken on even more cargo and left overloaded after all, a problem only exacerbated by the fact that the USS Cyclops had no prior experience shipping ore, which was denser and more volatile than its usual cargo. Additionally, it was suspected that the vessel had suffered extensive cumulative hull damage over the years due to a coal fire, shifting cargo, and the corrosive nature of its cargo.
It has been surmised that these factors could have all conspired with a bout of foul weather to bring the steel beast down. The problem with this theory was that the vessel had not once issued a distress call, and the only bad weather capable of potentially sinking the ship or causing it any problem at all along its scheduled route occurred with a typhoon off of Virginia a day after the Amolco sighting, but with a bad engine and overloaded state it is considered unlikely the USS Cyclops could have made it that far by that date. Another theory is that the ship was sunk by German forces, but again there was no distress call, and furthermore the German government at the time insisted that they had not attacked the vessel, and to this day has adamantly denied any involvement in the disappearance. Of course, it has not been lost on many that the USS Cyclops happened to have disappeared in the notorious area known as the Bermuda Triangle, which opens up all sorts of less conventional explanations such as UFOs, inter-dimensional portals, and sea monsters. However, the disappearance has never been solved and no scrap of the ship ever found. For their part, the U.S. Navy has said of the matter of the vanished USS Cyclops: “Many theories have been advanced, but none that satisfactorily accounts for her disappearance.”
It has often been brought up that these mysteries could have been brought about by very mysterious means, and there are some cases from World War I that truly take us into the strange, involving actual alleged attacks on vessels by sea monsters. Certainly, one of the most well-known accounts of an alleged sea monster attack on a submarine occurred during World War I, when German submarines prowled the waters of the Atlantic looking to make trouble. For one German submarine, the UB-85, on April 30, 1918 it was trouble that found them. The story goes that the submarine was discovered floating on the surface by the British patrol boat Coreopsis. At the time the U-boats, as the German submarines were called, were a fairly novel and highly feared weapon of war, known for being invisible, deadly killers of the high seas, so it was quite a fortunate turn of events for the British to come across one that was basically a sitting duck out in plain view. They immediately fired upon it and the submarine began sinking without any attempt to retaliate. Things became even weirder when the British vessel approached and the submarine crew quickly surrendered without any resistance. The crew of the British ship was mystified. The only time most crews saw a U-boat coming was when a torpedo was snaking through the sea towards them, and to have a whole submarine just sit and wait to be sunk and its crew apprehended without incident was mind bogglingly strange.
It wasn’t until the Germans were brought aboard and the U-boat captain, a Captain Gunther Krech, was questioned that the reason became both clearer and more bizarre. Krech allegedly reported that the submarine had surfaced during the night for the purpose of recharging its batteries, during which there had been a violent surge of frothing water off the starboard bow. When Krech and some crew members had gone to investigate, a creature the captain described as a “strange beast” had suddenly erupted forth from the cold, dark water and begun clambering up the side of the ship, which had caused the whole submarine to start listing to the side. The beast was described as being enormous, with a small head with large eyes deeply set in a horned skull and a large mouth with sharp teeth that glinted in the moonlight. This strange monster was then claimed to have reached the forward mount gun and to have begun ferociously attacking it, chomping down on the weapon with its formidable jaws and thrashing back and forth.
Fearing that the submarine would continue to tilt under the creature’s weight until the open hatch hit the sea and sank the sub, all available crewmen had opened fire on the mysterious attacker, yet the thing had refused to let go of the gun mount. It apparently had taken a sustained, intense volley of gunfire to finally make the monster relinquish its iron grip, after which it disappeared into the black sea, its ultimate fate unknown. Inspection of the submarine in the aftermath of the sudden, brutal attack showed that in addition to the gun being mauled, scratched and twisted, there had also been enough damage to the forward hull plates to prevent the submarine from submerging again. This was why they had been helplessly sitting out on the surface for their enemies to find them. The crew, weary and terrified by their encounter, had had no fight left in them when the British vessel had come for them, and had been almost grateful to have been relieved of the ordeal.
It is a frightening and dramatic account to be sure, but interestingly the official report logged by the British concerning UB-85’s capture makes no mention of such a creature, reading simply “UB-85 Krech, Kplt Gunther April 30 off Belfast Lough Gunfire Sunk by the drifter COREOPSIS. Crew taken off before boat sank.” There have been several theories offered as to why this might be the case. It has been suggested that the British navy may have been attempting to cover up the real circumstances surrounding the incident. Perhaps more plausible is the idea that the British simply did not believe the ramblings of the distressed German U-boat captain or that the report of the sea monster was completely fabricated after the fact. The story has very little hard evidence to back it up and indeed could very possibly be heresy or merely a scary war story or tall tale embellished over the years to become maritime legend more than anything else.
The veracity of the UB-85 encounter may be in question, but it is amazingly not the only meeting of sea monster and submarine to come from World War I. The cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans made mention in his book In the Wake of the Sea Serpents of yet another such violent altercation involving a German submarine, this time involving the U-boat U-28 Schmidt. The report apparently comes from a former German U-boat captain who recounted his terrifying ordeal in 1933. According to the former U-Boat captain, Commander Freiherr George G von Forstner’s testimony, on July 30, 1915, the U-28 Schmidt was prowling the waters off of a place called Fastnet Rock, 60 nautical miles south off the coast of Ireland, when it came across the British steamer Iberian, which was carrying a valuable cargo of mostly trucks and jeeps. Upon seeing such a choice target, the U-28 Schmidt immediately engaged, launching a torpedo which spectacularly blew an immense hole in the vessel, causing it to sink so fast that it was reported that its bow sprang up vertically into the air as it went down. Within moments, the Iberian had sunk beneath the rough seas of the North Atlantic, taking all of its 61 crew members to a watery grave.
Around 25 seconds after sinking, there was an immense explosion underwater, thought to have been caused by some kind of explosive device onboard or perhaps an exploding boiler. Whatever the cause, the enormous detonation sent a huge plume of water into the air, as well as an eruption of debris from the ship, some of which pelted and damaged the U-28 Schmidt badly. Amongst all of the flying water and wreckage, the explosion threw up something else from the depths; of all things a giant, seagoing reptile of some sort. The explosion was so violent that the alleged sea monster was reportedly hurled completely out of the water 80 feet into the air, after which it plummeted back into the sea to thrash and writhe about in the wreckage as the horrified crew looked on before sinking into the depths, presumably dead. The monster was described as a being an “aquatic crocodile,” around 60 feet long with a head that tapered to a point, a long, pointed tail, and four legs with webbed feet.
There is not much to corroborate this account, and it remains firmly lodged within the annals of the unknown mysteries of the war. In the end, all of these cases are, none of them solved and all of them serving to stimulate speculation and debate right up into the present day. It certainly seems that war can be a wellspring of such mysteries, with bizarre tales and strange accounts managing to hide out in the periphery past what conventional history tells us. It is likely that we will never truly know the answers to all of the questions we seek on such cases, as so much time has passed and the details remain lost to the mists of history. What was going on in these cases and what do they all mean? The answer to this will likely remain unanswered.