The E-49 was a steel E-class fleet submarine built by Swan Hunter & Wigwam Richardson of Wallsend. Launched on 14th December 1916 her dimensions were 176′ x 22.5′ x 12.5′ with tonnage of 673 dt. (surface), 820 dt. (submerged). She was powered by twin diesel and twin electric motors and had twin screws. Her armament was 5 @ 18″ torpedo tubes, 2 bow, 2 beam, 1 stern, and 1 × 12 pounder deck gun.
Hidden in darkness UC-76, commanded by Oberleutnant Wilhelm Barten, slipped undetected through the channel at Balta Sound and dropped its deadly load of mines close to the entrance of the harbour. Unaware of the danger, the crew of the British Patrol Submarine E-49 slept peacefully in their berths after a pleasant evening ashore in the village hall. They had returned from their North Sea patrol duty and were en route to the base at Scapa Flow but had stopped off in Shetland to enjoy an evening relaxing with the locals before returning to the rigours of the base in Orkney.
The morning of Sunday 12th March, 1917 dawned. It was a beautiful, cold, clear winter’s morning. E-49 slipped her moorings and headed south towards the main channel. The ‘E’ class boats were popular with their crews and very successful in their role as patrol vessels. Below decks, like most submarines of the day, conditions were cramped but the added safety and stability feature of transverse bulkheads added to their appeal to the crews. However, on this particular morning, nothing could save her and her crew from the deadly affect of the German mines lying in her path.
The loss of the ship was described later by a local man named Hughson and his son who were walking close by that morning. The E-49 eased away from her mooring and began to build speed as she headed between the islands of Balta and Huney. Without warning, the peace of the Sunday morning was shattered by a loud explosion as a huge plume of spray leapt from the bow of the submarine. The ship rolled and heaved for a few seconds but then plunged beneath the surface taking all her young crew of three officers and twenty four ratings with her to the seabed. Within minutes the sea was calm and undisturbed again. If Mr Hughson and his son hadn’t been watching at the time the fate of the E-49 would have been a mystery and perhaps would have remained undiscovered for many years.
As it was, the ship was declared a war grave and, apart from a single visit by a salvage diver from the Scapa Flow Salvage Company in 1923 (the company had an application to salvage the wreck refused), she lay completely undisturbed until local divers relocated the wreck in 1987. They reported that the ship lies in position 60 44.209 N, 00 47.930 W in 32 metres of water on a sandy seabed. Much of the wreck is covered in sand and indeed the inside is now fairly well filled as the tide has washed the sand into the wreck as she breaks up. The conning tower itself has broken off at the base and leans precariously to the starboard side. The divers respected the fact that the ship was a war grave and left her in peace. Unfortunately not everyone has been so respectful. A few years later a team of divers from England were charged and convicted of taking numbers of items from the wreck.