By ADM Staff Writer Vic Verlinden
ollowing the Battle of Jutland, Reinhardt Scheer, Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Navy, recommended that Germany’s U-boats wage unrestrained warfare upon all ships in the trade routes of the British Isles. His goal was as much to reduce the number of British ships, as it was to reduce all ships that might bring aid and supplies to the island. The policy of sinking any and all ships within the declared war zone of Britain, France, and in the Mediterranean would commence by official German decree on February 1, 1917. Attacking all merchant ships had the significant drawback that the ships of then-neutral America would be targets as well….

Barely 45 days later, the American tanker Illinois would be one of many vessels that would find herself in harm’s way.

With a crew of 26, U-boat UC-21 left the port of Zeebrugge with instructions to drop its eighteen sea mines at strategic spots. In order to accomplish the goal of sinking as many enemy ships as possible, the U-boat had seven torpedoes and an 8.8 cm canon on deck at its disposal. The UC-21 was part of the Flandern Flotilla, and had a very wide radius of action that allowed the submarine to go hunting as far as the southern approaches, i.e. southern Ireland.
The mood of the crew was very upbeat because they had been quite successful on this mission so far. On March 16th, the U-boat was near the island of Ouessant, Brittany, when the captain, Oberleutnant Reinhold Saltzwedel, gave the order to proceed steering at periscope level. A few hours later, they caught sight of an interesting prey: a freight ship of 3000 tons sailing towards them. The captain gave the order to load the first torpedo and make it ready to fire. Patiently, he waited for the target to come close enough to have a high chance for a hit. When the ship was within 3000 feet, he fired and the torpedo hit the boat broadside. The following explosion made a giant hole in the flank, and the ship started to sink almost immediately. Saltzwedel saw through his periscope that the freight ship disappeared into the waves. Only after the war would they know that it was the Swedish cargo vessel Ronald that they had scuttled, the 69th ship destroyed by UC-21 since her maiden trip on April 1,1916.
Archive image of the UC21 type U-Boat
The Next Prey

Oberleutnant zur See Saltzwedel was still as eager as ever to find new victims, and gave the order to steer to the English Channel. This was a very busy route for cargo ships, and so would make it easier to attack without taking too many risks. During the night, the U-boat advanced very well and the batteries were charged. The crew also took advantage of the comparative safety of the darkness to recharge and refresh in the cool night air on deck. In case of imminent danger, the submarine could dive in 35 seconds to its maximum depth of 50 meters.

The next day, the watchman announced a ship at a distance of five miles. The captain watched the approaching ship through the periscope. He could see very clearly the giant white letters on the side that indicated the name and the nationality of the vessel. Nevertheless, Saltzwedel decided to attack because it was a tanker with fuel and supplies for the enemy, notwithstanding that it was a U.S. flag merchant ship. The Illinois was a large ship at 5225 tons, and a target that would be much appreciated back home. He decided not to use his torpedoes, but to attack it with the 8.8cm deck cannon. He ordered the UC-21 brought to the surface, and the formidable gun readied.
The Propaganda Photos

On the bridge of the Illinois, the commanding officers were very surprised when the U-boat surfaced. Undoubtedly, Captain Iverson assumed that they would get away because the U.S. was not yet involved in the war. However, a few minutes later his hopes were proved groundless when they got a salvo from the deck gun of the submarine. Since they were unarmed, the captain of the Illinois could only order to abandon ship and watch from the lifeboats as the Illinois began sinking, bow first, to the bottom of the North Sea.

Several pictures were taken of the sinking ship from the deck of the UC-21 before the sub disappeared into the waves. The images of the sinking Illinois were used by the German propaganda machine to illustrate the effectiveness of their submarine fleet.

Reconnaissance of the Wreck

The wreck of the Illinois is located more than 30 miles off the coast, so it is recommended that the diving charter be chosen very carefully. We picked the Skindeeper, a catamaran with two powerful engines that wouldn’t have any problems with the considerable distance. The boat is also equipped with an elevator, making it very easy to get back on board.

The skipper and owner’s name is Ian Taylor. He is one of the best in the business, and throws the shot line right on the wreck. The Illinois is located at a depth of 70 meters, with the highest point at 56 meters. This is a dive that needs careful preparation. I check my rebreather and my camera one last time, and I’m ready to go. My buddy, who will tie the anchor of the shot line, and I are the first team to go down.

Dive team member preparing for a deep video dive on the Illinois.
Rebreather diver David Cantin exploring the deck of the wreck.
The weather hasn’t been very good since we arrived almost a week ago, but the visibility is excellent today. At 50 meters, we recognize the first dark lines of the wreck. We are near the rear side of the boat and start moving towards the bow. We soon recognize the enormous holds beneath us and continue swimming along the pipes, tubes, and taps that were used to pump the oil. In the middle of the wreck, we see more construction on deck and recognize a few entrance doors to the holds. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time left and decide to move on.

We pass a few boulders used to immobilize the boat in the port. It is amazing that a ship of WW I is still in such splendid condition after so many years on the bottom of the sea. Right at the end of the bow, we recognize some huge winches, probably used to retrieve the anchor.

An Underwater Museum

We have now reached the far end of the bow; and because there is hardly any current, I decide to check whether the anchors are still there. When I descend three more meters along the flank, I notice that one of the anchors is intact. I take several pictures with my buddy in the background before commencing our return. In some of the holes, we see several congers hiding. While swimming back, I cannot help thinking that this wreck is a true underwater museum. One of the parts that I recognize is a spare propeller. I really feel sorry that we have to start our ascent and long decompression.
This ship is in exceptionally good condition considering almost 100 years in the seawater. Everybody agrees that the Illinois is truly an exceptional wreck. After a week of spectacular diving on wrecks in the English Channel, we are now heading back to Cherbourg.

Bed & Breakfast

During our stay in Weymouth, we lodged in the bed & breakfast belonging to Margaret and her daughter, Cathy. These ladies have worked with Ian Taylor for years now, and are widely known for their excellent cooking. Every morning we enjoyed a breakfast fit for kings, and we were provided with a lunch package to take on board. In the evening, there was a three-course meal waiting for us. In addition, the shuttle to and from the boat was taken care of as part of the amenities provided. This is an excellent place to stay, if you want to do some serious diving on the spectacular wrecks around Weymouth.


Technical Information:

Name: Illinois
Type: Tanker
Builder: Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock, Co., Newport News, Virginia
Homeport: Port Arthur Texas, USA
Installed power: Steam/Propeller
Size: Length 130 meters; width 17.5 meters
GRT: 5225 tons

Team diver illuminates one of the massive anchors located on the bow of the wreck.
Diver explores one of the empty cargo holds along the wreck.