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Adjunct professor identifies missing WWI U-boat

by Chuck Gordon

In July of 1916, two years into “the war to end all wars,” the German submarine U 77 left Heligoland, an archipelago off the coast of Germany, bound for the northern Scottish coast. The U-boat, which carried 33 crew members, was under orders to deposit its 34 mines and return to its homeland. It never returned, and it was never found.

Until this fall.

Michael Lowrey, adjunct professor of economics, played a key role in finding the sunken vessel. He didn’t don a wetsuit, operate a dropcam or even fly to Scotland to oversee a dive. Instead, from his home office in Charlotte, he used his knowledge of naval history, his keen researching skills and his ability to make a convincing argument to point divers to the right location. The vessel was positively ID’d in September.

“It’s very rewarding when you get it right, when you can solve something,” Lowrey says. “It doesn’t happen that often.”

Lowrey’s an economist by trade, but he’s always had a keen interest in history, specifically naval history. About 20 years ago he began corresponding with European U-boat hunters and found he had a knack for identifying the increasingly hard-to-locate submarines. He likes the fact that it corrects the official record and provides closure for the families of former sailors.

Lowrey uses previously published reports – German military documents, British minesweeping reports, the official British history – to piece together a narrative of what likely happened to any particular U-boat. It’s a hobby, so he does his U-boat hunting on his own time, and last year he had more of that time than usual. “This was one of the few good things that came out of the pandemic,” he says. “I was bored.”

Lowrey contacted another U-boat hunter, Kevin Heath, in Scotland, and asked if he had any ideas for mysteries to solve. The low-hanging fruit had long been picked over, but of the 178 U-boats Germany lost in WWI, about 35 still hadn’t been accounted for.

Among them was U 77. The boat was in the UE I class of German subs, which had mixed results as warring vessels. Of the 10 that were produced, U 73 sank the Titanic’s sister ship  Britannic in November 1916, while U 75 laid the mines that destroyed the British cruiser HMS Hampshire in June 1916. Among those killed in the warship’s sinking was Herbert Kitchener, Britain’s War Secretary.

Then there was U 77. From all available data, it appears to have been hoisted by its own petard, and on its first patrol, no less. Analyzing the boat’s German orders, Lowrey discovered that U 77 was working in a very specific area, north of Scotland’s Kinnaird Head. British documents showed that nine mines were discovered and destroyed there, and that a vessel of some sort had wrecked in the area. (Divers knew of a wreck in the area but had assumed it was a sunken trawler.)

Chart showing mine activity of U 77

A wrecked vessel denoted by the UK Hydrographic Office (green star above) sits in the middle of points where U 77 was known to have laid nine mines.

 

Lowrey and Heath put the puzzle pieces together, surmising that, with only nine of its mines having been discovered, the U-boat most likely sank after one of the mines it was laying exploded while being deposited.

“The British didn’t defeat this U-boat,” he says. “It defeated itself.”

Additionally, Lowrey and Heath noted that the Royal Navy had depth-charged the vessel decades ago, and that, when they did, oil rose to the surface of the water. Most merchant ships at the time ran on coal-powered steam.

The weaving together of such clues got Lowrey interested in U-boat hunting in the first place. Over the years, he’s had several wins, including identifying a supposed U-boat off the southern English coast three years ago. Turns out it was a British vessel that the Royal Navy had sunk as a training target.

But he also knows that all of the mysteries won’t be solved. To get complete verification, divers must scrub the correct side of a downed vessel’s propeller to reveal identifying markings. That’s not always possible, and other clues don’t always add up to a consensus ID.

“Sometimes this is like a detective novel with the last 10 pages cut out,” Lowrey says. With U 77, all parties are satisfied that the ID is correct.

Lowrey does manage to integrate his U-boat-hunting hobby into his economics lessons from time to time. He likes to illustrate the scarcity principle by relating the story of the Polish sub Orzel, which went missing in 1940 in the North Sea. That sub is a hot commodity among wreckage identifiers, even though there are more famous and significant wrecks out there to find – including one captained by Walther Schwieger, the commander who sank the Lusitania. “He’s kind of an important dude,” Lowrey says. “Good luck getting anybody interested in doing that expedition.”

Why’s that? “It’s German,” he says. “How many missing German submarines are there? It’s not unique. How many Polish submarines are missing? One. It’s unique. What drives interest? What drives demand? Uniqueness.”

Thanks to Lowrey, unidentified sunken U-boats are becoming more and more scarce, and he’ll continue examining microfilm and toying with theories to whittle that number down even more.

Oct. 29, 2021