Did sunk submarines release Birling Gap’s gas cloud?

A German World War One U-Boat under tow broke loose and drifted ashore at Hastings in April 1919. Large crowds turned out to see the vessel. Poison fumes inside the submarine were blamed for the death of two local men.
A German World War One U-Boat under tow broke loose and drifted ashore at Hastings in April 1919. Large crowds turned out to see the vessel. Poison fumes inside the submarine were blamed for the death of two local men.

I’ve heard an interesting theory about the possible origins of the obnoxious gas cloud that recently rolled in from the sea at Birling Gap.wreck out in the English Channel.

It seems the mysterious mist may have emanated from the hull of an old shipwreck out in the English Channel.

One suspect is the “SS Mira”, a British armed trawler sunk by a mine laid by a German submarine four miles off Beachy Head on 11th October 1917. Perhaps the wreck shifted on the seabed and leaked a toxic vapour that bubbled to the surface and formed the cloud.

It is only a supposition but in the absence of any other explanation it may just turn out to be true; even if the source was not the “Mira” there are plenty of other wrecks off the Sussex shore that could be responsible.

Oddly enough, a German U-boat did once emit a poison gas powerful enough to kill two people in the seaside town of Hastings. The circumstances of the deaths are bizarre indeed. The story begins with U-118, a submarine of the Imperial German Navy.

U-118 joined the enemy fleet in May 1918 and went on patrol in the eastern North Atlantic. She claimed her first victim on 16th September around 175 miles off Spain, when she torpedoed the British steamer “Wellington”. Five of her crew died. Sixteen days later the submarine sank the tanker “Arca” off the coast of Donegal. Fifty-two of the ship’s crew perished. Within six weeks, on 11th November 1918, the Armistice came into effect. The treaty terms called for the surrender of the Imperial German Navy; U-118 was transferred to French custody in February 1919.

The vessel was to be broken up for scrap metal. On the night of 15th April, however, while U-118 was being towed up the English Channel, the weather turned stormy. The unmanned submarine broke loose and ran aground on the beach at Hastings.

Initially, there were attempts to recover the vessel. Tractors made unsuccessful efforts to push the submarine back into the sea and refloat it. Then a French destroyer closed inshore intending to use her guns to smash the ship apart. Fortunately for Hastings, the threatened action was aborted!

Stuck firm on the beach, U-118 became an instant tourist attraction drawing thousands of sightseers. The Admiralty authorized that the seaside resort could charge a fee to people who wanted to climb on the submarine’s deck. Within a fortnight over £300 was raised, a sum equivalent to about £13,000 in today’s money. It was earmarked to help fund a fitting welcome for the town’s servicemen returning home from the war.

Chief Boatman William Heard and Chief Officer W. Moore of the local Coast Guard gave important visitors guided tours of the inside of the submarine. This is where the story takes a tragic turn. The visits were abruptly halted in late April, after the two erstwhile guides both went down with a mysterious sickness that proved fatal. Moore died in December 1919, followed by Heard the following February. Post-mortems showed they had abscesses on their lungs and other organs.

At first it was thought that old food rations inside the submarine had rotted and poisoned the air. However, an inquest concluded that the deaths were down to prolonged inhalation of a noxious gas, the most likely source being something slowly seeping out of vessel’s batteries.

After the pair fell seriously ill there were no further forays made inside the submarine although people still flocked to the beach to view U-118 from the outside, most opting to keep a safe distance away. By December 1919, U-118 had been broken up in situ and sold for scrap. Only the deck gun remained and was kept on display. It was taken away in 1921 but local gossip persisted that the gun had in fact been buried deep in the shingle where it remains to this day.

The fate of U-118 makes for a fascinating story especially as we have been left an excellent photographic record of the event. In World War One no less than 44 U-Boats and three British submarines sank within our country’s territorial waters. Indeed, a second U-Boat came ashore in Sussex: U-121 was also on her way to the scrap yard at the same time as U-118 but she too slipped her tow in the storm and ended up stranded beneath Beachy Head. A third U-Boat being towed was swamped and sank at sea around 10 miles south of the Seven Sisters. The deck gun of U-130 was recovered by divers in 2001 and is now on display outside Newhaven Museum, Paradise Park, Newhaven.

A final thought about the mysterious Birling Gap gas cloud. Many witnesses spoke of a strong smell of chlorine. Now it is a fact that Great War submarines (and for that matter those of the Second World War) had a potentially deadly design flaw in that if damaged undersea by a depth charge or hit by machine-gun fire while surfaced, there was a danger of seawater mixing with the sulphuric acid in the vessel’s batteries. The result would be the formation of deadly chlorine gas that could kill everyone on board in just a few minutes.

We may never know the truth about the Birling Gap phenomenon … but it does make you wonder.