Launched from the Blohm and Voss yard in Hamburg on 4th November 1917 UB-116 was a steel UBIII class submarine. She measured 55.3m x 5.8m x 3.7m and displaced 649 tons (submerged). Her twin Man-Vulcan 4 stroke 6-cylinder diesel engines delivered 1086 bhp when she travelled on the surface at speeds of up to 13 knots and her twin AEG electric engines delivered 780 shp under water giving her a speed of 7.5 knots. She had 4 x 50 cm bow torpedo tubes and a single rear facing 50 cm torpedo tube. She carried 10 torpedoes. She also had a small 8.8 cm forward deck gun.
In the last desperate days of the First World War the German High Command plotted a final futile effort to avoid defeat or, at least, to ease the terms of peace. Indeed the Kaiser had already asked the Allies for an armistice but had been refused by President Wilson of the United States unless the Germans agreed to stop U-boat attacks on passenger ships. On 20th October the Germans agreed to these terms and withdrew the U-boat fleet to their bases. However, this agreement did not include attacks on warships and Admiral Scheer, supreme commander of the German Navy, planned one final flourish with the British to ease the pain of defeat. His plan was to draw the British Fleet out from its base at Scapa and to engage in a rerun of the indecisive confrontation at Jutland. This time he hoped to annihilate the British.
The trigger to his misguided plan was a U-boat attack on the British Fleet itself in the heart of its stronghold at Scapa Flow. The choice of UB-116, a brand new untried U-boat with a young inexperienced commander, was a strange one but perhaps indicates that a more seasoned and knowledgeable skipper might have resisted the orders which were tantamount to a death sentence. Surprisingly, the German’s intelligence on the defences at Scapa was seriously flawed. When Ober-Lieutenant Hans Joachim Hermann was given his secret mission he was told that the southern entrance to the anchorage, through Hoxa Sound, was relatively unprotected with no nets or mines. In fact the Sound was very well protected with not only mines and nets, but also by sophisticated hydrophonic listening devices capable of picking up engine noise at a great distance.
Even Hermann could not believe his mission would be easy. Before he set off from Heligoland on 25th October he apparently admitted to a colleague that it was unlikely that he would return. Despite his misgivings, he set sail for Scapa with his thirty three crewmen determined to carry out the orders received from Commodore Andreas Michelsen two days earlier.
They arrived off the west coast of Orkney on the 28th and surfaced briefly to take a final bearing before heading into Hoxa Sound itself. Their fate was sealed when the U-boat was spotted and the defences at Scapa put on full alert. At 22.21pm the hydrophone station at Hoxa picked up the sound of the submarine’s engines and the floodlights illuminating the entrance switched on. For an instant, the tell tale white trail of the U-boat’s periscope was caught in the dazzling glare before it disappeared beneath the surface for the last time. Eleven minutes later UB-116 was detected crossing the defensive minefield and the order was given to detonate the mines. UB-116 had no chance. She was battered by a huge explosion and immediately fatally damaged. The next day oil and air bubbles were seen on the surface and the British Navy finished the job by dropping a pattern of depth charges on the sunken German ship. A huge escaping air bubble boiled to the surface and the ship and its crew were gone. In a final attack the U-boat was then depth charged as she lay on the seabed ensuring the fate of all of the crew.
The final irony of the ill-fated mission was that the British fleet were not even in Scapa Flow as they had been sent to Rosyth in June of 1918 and that, only two weeks later, on 11th November, 1918, the war was over. The thirty four men’s lives had been wasted in a last, crazy scheme of the German High Command. Later that day a team of divers were sent down to the wreck and succeeded in entering the ship retrieving the submarine’s log. Some of the bodies were recovered by naval divers in 1919.
The wreck then lay undisturbed until she was purchased for salvage by Metal Industries in 1968. By this point the wreck had deteriorated to the extent that it was not possible to raise her so explosives were used to break apart the wreck and some volume of metal was raised to the surface. The broken scattered remains lie in position 58°50.075’N, 03°04.196’W at the mouth of Pan Hope Bay in 26 metres – a tangled mass of torn metal and bent piping that bears little resemblance to a submarine.