The salvage of U-Boat UC44 by HM Salvage Vessel Racer


The salvage of German U-Boat UC44 by

HM Salvage Vessel Racer



Antony Babb BEM



The salvage of UC-44 by HM Salvage Vessel Racer (later to become RFA Racer) in September 1917 was probably one of the most important naval events of World War 1 and yet you are unlikely to have ever heard of this.

After the Battle of Jutland, the German’s unleashed their U-boats on our merchant fleet, to try and starve the UK of food and materials. The salvage of merchant ships became vital and the Royal Navy Salvage Section using RFA’s did more than anyone to keep our sea lanes open.

However, the Royal Navy needed to try and stop the attacks. Room 40 was by this time able to track the U-boats by direction finding their radio transmissions, convoys were then introduced and directed away from danger but ships not in convoy were still in great danger.

At the start of WW1, the intelligence service (Room 40) was given a copy of a radio codebook from the German cruiser SMS Magdeburg by the Russians but this was no longer in use. Naval intelligence was desperate to crack the German codes again. What they wanted was another copy of this vital book and salvage of a U-boat offered some hope of getting one.

When UC-44 accidentally sank itself with one of its own mines in the Waterford estuary off Dunmore East, this provided the opportunity to try and recover a codebook and HM Salvage Vessel Racer was in the right place at the right time. The Salvage Riggers on board had all been involved in the salvage of a British submarine C16 earlier in the year so knew what was needed.

The Captain of UC-44, Kurt Tebbenjohanns was one of three who escaped from his sinking U-boat and was fortunate to be the only one to be saved by 3 local fishermen.

The U-boat was found lying 90ft down and across the tidal stream in a large estuary exposed to the North Atlantic storms. All of this made diving extremely difficult and dangerous. Initially, diver’s tried to enter the submarine and try to find the codebook, but this proved to be almost impossible, which left the only viable alternative being to bring her to the surface.

To lift the submarine, 8 in number 9” cables had to be dragged underneath the wreck and then buoyed in place ready for connection to a lifting craft, however, diver still needed to go down and ensure the cables were in the right place.

A lifting craft was a modified grain barge that could be filled with water, have the cable pinned to the deck and then emptied thus lifting a vessel from the seabed so that it could be towed to shallower water.  The difficulties were enormous, a lot of bad weather, depth, a busy shipping lane, all tried to halt the work but eventually, after six tough weeks, they managed to move the wreck into a more sheltered position. Then they had to rotate the U-boat so that the conning tower was vertical and finally she was taken into the harbour of Dunmore East.

Lifting of UC44

Lifting Craft preparing to raise the U-Boat UC44


30 bodies were recovered from the damaged hull and the Salvage Riggers had the unenviable task of burying them all at sea, a task that few would relish. They also removed the mines, torpedoes and lots of technical equipment which revealed a great deal about the operation of these vessels.



Mine from UC44

A mine being recovered from UC44


Medals were awarded for the recovery of mines but the intelligence was more important.

The intelligence gathered from this vessel was vast, including many submarine operating documents, but by far the most important being the codebook which was taken to London in secret and for the next 10 months Room 40 had all they needed and the threat from the U-boat was countered. In fact, this codebook is preserved in our National Archive at Kew, lying in a folder gathering dust instead of being on display and showing what good work the Royal Fleet Auxiliary has done and continues to do. There are also other items from UC-44 in the Imperial War Museum.

Relations between the crew and the local people in Dunmore East were always excellent, even mementos from the U-boat were sold ashore, the people in the area were pro the Royal Navy.

Room 40 was however extremely concerned that Germany would find out about the salvage of UC-44 from the Irish and demanded that the wreck be taken out to sea and hidden. Unfortunately, the lifting craft was not designed to do this but undaunted the team managed to carry out the instruction. After this, they went back to the still important work of salvaging merchant ships along with their cargoes because by now rationing was in place.

There were half a dozen such vessels like HM Salvage Vessel Racer operating around the UK and a number in the Mediterranean, saving ship after ship, working long hours in very difficult and dangerous conditions. Along with the Salvage Riggers, there were a good number of Motor Engineers who maintained the equipment required and all of these were well supported by a small ship’s company.

The work of the Royal Navy Salvage Section operating under the flag of the Royal Fleet Auxilliary has been relatively unknown for many years and deserves much greater public recognition. Very few people are even aware that there was a U-boat threat in WW1 and just how severe that threat was.

You might wonder why this information has only recently come to light, well that is because most of the documentation concerning Room 40 was destroyed after World War One. The salvage records have been open to the public for many years but whilst researching the salvage of UC-44 I found a direct link to Room 40 in the book ‘Strange Intelligence, memoirs of Naval Intelligence’ which actually mentions UC-44.

Many people have dismissed the book as being fiction but with such a direct link and the finding of the codebook, I am confident that the salvage of UC-44 by HMS Salvage Vessel Racer was the most important Naval event of World War One. If you want to read more about this important work then the book U-BOAT ENIGMAS, Royal Navy Salvage & Secrecy in WW1 has the full story.


© Anthony Babb