Five months after the Armistice and with the Great War finally behind them, the last thing the townspeople of Hastings expected to see from their elegant promenade, just in front of the Queens Hotel and lying like a monstrous metallic whale, was a U-boat.
But on the morning of 15 April 1919, after a storm had caused the submarine to break free from its tow, that is exactly what they saw.
U-boat 118 had been launched in February 1918, and in the last couple of months of the war dispatched two British ships – the Wellington, a steamer, and the Arca, a tanker.
In February 1919, with the war now over, it was decided the vessel should be taken to France to be scrapped – but during a violent storm, it broke free, and despite attempts to break it up before it got to shore, U-boat 118 was swept on to the Sussex shingle.
As it became clear that the German craft was staying put, people came from far and wide to view this former scourge of the Royal Navy. During the Easter holidays, the Coastguard and the Admiralty even allowed the Town Clerk of Hastings to levy a charge to climb on deck, raising an impressive £300.
The proceeds went towards a celebration of the town’s returned soldiers at the end of the year. This seaside tale had a tragic ending, however. Two of the group who originally explored the U-boat, and later guided VIPs to view its interior, succumbed to a mysterious illness in late April. They later died as a result of gas poisoning – the likely cause being chlorine that had leaked from the batteries of the defunct sub.
By the end of the year, the seemingly endless procession of tourists, who continued to arrive to be photographed alongside the craft, proved irritating to the population of Hastings. U-boat 118 was finally broken up for scrap, with the deck gun being offered to the town as a memento of an unlikely celebrity visitor.
This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.