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UC 61 centenary event
Posted by: Chris Heal ()
Date: August 02, 2017 04:32PM

In this time of centenaries, some of you may be interested to know of an event held at Wissant, south of Calais, France, on Wednesday, 26 July to mark one hundred years since the stranding of UC 61, Kapitänleutnant Georg Gerth. The boat went ashore and stuck fast at 0420 in thick fog. After setting bombs to the engine compartment and firing the diesel oil, the crew surrendered to a French customs officer.

I am within sight of the end of a book (250,000 words and eleven out of fourteen chapters completed) on the lives of George Gerth and his brother, Erich, in their naval historical setting. Erich was also a u-boat commander in the last days of the war in the Mediterranean. Titled ‘The Sound of Hunger’, the book has two chapters on UC 61’s stranding; the first on the last voyage, and the second on the huge, but largely covert, intelligence haul gleaned from the wreck and the interrogations of the crew.

Although the book is unfinished it seemed inappropriate to let the anniversary go by unremarked. Some thirty archivists, historians, translators, enthusiasts and family members who have helped me piece together the Gerths' story were invited to attend the day-long event and despite holidays and other commitments, about twenty people from Belgium, France, Germany and the UK agreed.

Pride of place went to Frau Christa-Maria Gerth, the last-surviving child of Georg Gerth, and her two sons, who travelled from Bavaria for their first visit to the area. Other important guests were Alain Richard, diver and u-boat wreck historian and writer, who produced the 1977 wreck report on UC 61 for the Service d'Hydrologie et d'Océanographie de la Marine, and his wife Ingrid, who is curating the current travelling exhibition ‘La Grande Guerre sous La Mer’, which deals with wrecks of the first world war, many of them u-boats, on the Opal Coast. The exhibition is now in Étaples-sur-Mer until 25 September.

The UC 61 commemorative party met in the morning inside Wissant Marie where to the hour one hundred years before, the crew were stripped of the personal documents (but allowed to keep their bread and sausage) and received their first cursory interrogations. These documents were recently found in Paris and I was able to share them with the party. Everyone then walked along the beach to the wreck site which was found using GPS and a metal detector. The wreck rises and falls within its covering of tidal sand. It was visible last autumn, but this year is under 1.5 metres of sand. Here, on the exact spot, we discussed the circumstances of the grounding.

The group then had lunch in a nearby restaurant when they were joined by town dignitaries and historians. About 100 pictures associated with the crew and the stranding were played on a looped slide show as a wall background. Commemorative t-shirts were distributed. Christa Gerth, as a survivor with her father of the loss of their home to WWII carpet bombing, gave a short, and poignant speech on international friendship.

The party then drove the twenty kilometres from Wissant to Calais Citadel, walked by the crew under the guard of Belgian lancers, where the main interrogations and first imprisonment occurred. I was also able to share details of the interrogations from original documents found recently in Cherbourg.

That evening, the Art and History Society of Wissant managed a conference, ‘La mission inachevée de l’UC-61’ which was attended by almost 200 people. Christa Gerth was introduced by the society’s president, M. Jean-Marie Ball, to a round of applause. Lieutenant-Colonel Henri Lesoin outlined the course of the naval war in the North Sea and the Channel with particular emphasis on the submarine war. I was then invited to give a presentation, with live translation by Jacqui Squire, on four points: a description of the last voyage, theories on the reason for the stranding with emphasis on the cannon hole found in the conning tower; the secrets of the wreck; and the fate of the crew, three of whom died during imprisonment, and the rest held until March 1920. Local historian, M. Gallois, finally introduced some documents and photographs about the final life of the wreck which were discovered only the week before.

If anyone would like any more information, please make contact.

Best wishes
Chris Heal

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Subject Written By Posted
UC 61 centenary event Chris Heal 08/02/2017 04:32PM
Re: UC 61 centenary event Caroline Abate 01/30/2018 11:23PM
Re: UC 61 centenary event chrisheal 01/31/2018 07:24PM

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