On the evening of 4th November 1916, the German U-boat U20 ran aground off the coast near Vrist. This was during World War I, and Denmark was neutral. But to prevent the submarine from falling into the hands of the British, the crew blew it up at midday on Sunday 5th November.
The painter Niels Bjerre was living in a cottage near the place where the U20 was stranded. He wrote of his experiences in a letter to his brother-in-law:
Nearly right outside, a submarine had collided with the sandbank. A bit further off there were 3 torpedo boats, and more could be seen on the horizon. Some said they had counted 14.
The beach soon became crowded. The lifeboat went out, but was asked to keep a distance. Before they came with the boat, the rescuers had fired a rocket, which caused something of a shock among the submarine crew. They were probably worried about British forces.
There were a lot of activity on the U-boat. The officers were standing on the conning tower. The periscope was down, but there was a sailor standing at the top signalling non-stop to the torpedo boats, which were working to get the submarine free.
However, they soon had to give up. Parts of the deck canon were removed and quantities of ordnance and much else was thrown into the sea. The vessel was rocking violently and the sailors were clinging to the lines like acrobats when the heavy seas crashed over the boat.
There were about 40 men in the crew, and they were in a hurry to abandon the submarine in small dinghies. They threw their bundled kit down and jumped after. It all happened at lightning speed. They even had a small dachshund along with them.
Unfortunately, I was having lunch at home when the boat was blown up. When I returned, the German war ensign was flying from the stern. Large pieces of iron shrapnel from the blast were lying over the whole beach and a good way into the dunes.
According to many accounts, it was as if a dense flock of black birds had flown up from the beach, and the iron shrapnel had swished about people’s ears just like the beating of wings.
A fishmonger from Berlin, called Winkler, whom I know well, was also on the site. He stood on a cliff top, hat in hand, and cried when the explosion came.
Apart from him, I don't believe anyone felt sorry for the submarine, which probably has many misdeeds to answer for. Your affectionate brother-in-law Niels Bjerre.
The steam-driven ocean liner Lusitania
Niels Bjerre closes his letter by stating that the U-boat probably had 'many misdeeds to answer for' and he was quite right.
U20 was one of Germany's most famous submarines during WW I. It was built at the imperial shipyards at Danzig and was the first submarine to be powered by diesel. By the time of its accident at Vrist, it had sunk no fewer than 36 ships, including the ocean liner Lusitania.
On 7th May 1915 the Lusitania was en route from New York to Liverpool. Somewhere along the south coast of Ireland, U20 launched its torpedoes and the ship sank with 1,198 passengers on board. Among the casualties there were a number of American citizens, and the sinking of the Lusitania came to be one of the reasons that the USA fought in the First World War alongside the British.
Besides her torpedoes, U20 was armed with a 8.8 cm (3.5 in.) deck canon.
Before U20 was blown up, the German crew destroyed the periscope and anything else of value in the conning tower. Afterwards explosive charges were placed in the bows and stern, but only one of these was detonated. Although shrapnel from the explosion was found up to 1½ km away, the submarine was relatively intact.
U20 had been driven so high onto the beach that it was possible to board her without getting wet feet. Souvenir hunters were quick to remove items from the submarine. Everything on the U-boat, from adjustable spanners to the ship’s bell, was marked ”U20”, but this did not mean that everything now bearing that marking is the original article. For example, a number of copies were cast of the ship's bell; one of these was used as a school bell at Vrist School.
However, the hunt for souvenirs was not without danger. There were approx. 300 grenades lying in the wreck, and in one torpedo tube was an unexploded torpedo.
In 1918 the remains of U20 were bought by a shipbreaker from Copenhagen, who entered into a partnership with Jens Rønn, a contractor from Harboøre. Metal parts from the submarine were salvaged and cleaned, then loaded into barrels to be sold.
The wreck of U20 was gradually filled with sand until only the conning tower was visible above the water. Since the wreck, with its munitions, was a danger to local fishermen and the lifeboat, the Navy Ministry decided that it should be blown up. The detonation took place in August 1925.
Items from U20
At the Strandings Museum St. George in Thorsminde, you can see a number of items from U20 on display, including the conning tower and canons.