As the moon shines over the Atlantic Ocean, an ailing German submarine bobs to the surface. Seizing the opportunity, a nearby Allied destroyer fires on the U-boat, sending it spiraling down into the depths below. The crew abandons ship, soon to be captured and held as prisoners of war. All except the captain, that is, who masterminds an incredible escape.
The ill-fated U-boat in question was U-581, a 220 foot Type VIIC vessel. During their heyday in the ’40s, these were the most common type of German submarine. Even though their range was limited, they were considered to be reliable and durable fighting machines.
During World War II, the Atlantic Ocean had become the battleground for a naval war, as Allied forces maintained a blockade of Germany. Just as the Allies fought the Germans on land and in the air, their combined naval forces battled German U-boats and warships on a daily basis.
Because Germany’s naval forces had been limited by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, the newly-designed U-boats were a vital part of their arsenal. Equipped with deadly torpedoes, they were responsible for sinking almost 3,000 enemy ships.
On September 25, 1940, U-581 joined the fleet. As part of the 7th flotilla, it sailed first for the North Sea and then for the Atlantic, where it docked at St. Nazaire in France. On January 11, 1942, the submarine left the French coast on what would be its final voyage.
U-581 travelled to the Azores, an archipelago in the North Atlantic around 850 miles off the coast of Portugal. After allegedly sinking the British ship HMS Rosemonde, the German submarine headed northwest on the trail of Llangibby Castle, another British vessel.
On the morning of February 2, 1942, U-581 was passing close to the islands of Fayal and Pico when it was forced to make a sudden dive underwater. Alarmingly, British destroyers had been spotted in the area, and the craft was vulnerable when visible on the surface of the water.
As it dove, however, tragedy struck. A rivet on the sub gave way, and water flooded into the vessel. With his crew panicking, Commanding Officer Walter Sitek gave the order to return to the surface – despite the fact an enemy ship lay in wait there.
The destroyer Westcott soon spotted the submarine, and dropped a deadly depth charge on the ailing vessel. Facing certain defeat, Sitek ordered the crew to jump ship and deliberately scuttled U-581 to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
Tragically, four of the submarine’s crew lost their lives as they plunged into the Atlantic. 41 of them survived, only to find themselves captured by enemy forces. Sitek, however, was to experience a very different fate.
As U-581 sank in more than 2,000 feet of water, its Commanding Officer made an unlikely break for the shore. But despite difficult conditions, he managed to swim more than four miles to safety.
Climbing ashore somewhere on the Azores, well-meaning locals came to Sitek’s rescue. Because the islands belonged to Portugal, which had remained neutral throughout the war, the officer escaped the same fate as his crew. Instead, he managed to make his way home to Germany, where he continued to fight in the war.
In the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the battle between Germany and the Allies continued for more than three years. Eventually, on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered. The war was finally over. What U-boats remained were scuttled by the Allies as the world hoped again for a lasting peace.
Sitek himself survived the war, even earning himself an Iron Cross – one of Germany’s most prestigious military honors. Conversely, his faithful submarine seemed destined for a more somber fate. Split in two, it settled on the seabed where it would remain for 75 years.
Fast forward to the 21st century, however, and interest in the sunken submarine began to grow. After trawling through World War II records, a team of researchers from Germany’s Rebikoff-Niggeler Foundation managed to pinpoint the location where they believed that U-581 could be found.
In spring 2016 the team began their search around the island of Pico. Using sonar, they were able to create a detailed 3D map of the seabed, accurately plotting a world thousands of feet below the surface.
Finally, on September 13, 2016, researchers successfully located the wreck of U-581. From a specially made diving boat known as LULA1000, the team was able to snap some incredible photographs of the submarine in its final resting place.
And historians aren’t the only experts who are interested in the wreck of U-581. Over the years since it sank, the submarine has become part of an incredible reef teeming with living coral.
Because researchers know exactly when the submarine sank, they will be able to precisely date the coral species that have formed on the wreck. Usually, it is extremely difficult to date coral. As a result, the discovery of U-581 could herald an extraordinary breakthrough in terms of marine research.
Currently, the foundation is planning a documentary about the submarine and its journey from German fighting machine to hub of rare marine life. Hopefully, it will shed yet more light on a fascinating piece of history that’s been buried in the dark for far too long.