This much is beyond dispute: that on the afternoon of 31 July 1915, in the first year of the First World War, the British steamer Iberian was shelled, torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine U28. This much is disputed: that when the Iberian went down, there was a large underwater disturbance – caused, it is supposed, by her boilers imploding. Quantities of wreckage were hurled into the air, and there, amid the debris, six members of the U-boat’s crew beheld “a gigantic sea-animal, writhing and struggling wildly”, which “shot out of the water to a height of 60 to 100 feet.” [Source: Bernard Heuvelmans, In the Wake of the Sea Serpents (London: Rupert Hart Davis, 1968) p.395]
This sea-monster yarn first saw light nearly 20 years later, in the autumn of 1933, at a time when the Loch Ness Monster was much in the news. It was told by the U-boat’s skipper, Georg-Günther Freiherr (Baron) von Forstner (1882-1940), an old U-boat hand who had formerly commanded SMS U1, and who wrote an article about Loch Ness for a German paper that dragged in his own sighting. According to Von Forstner, the creature had also been seen by five other members of the submarine’s crew, all standing in the conning tower. It “had a long, tapering head and a long body with two pairs of legs. Its length may have been some 20 metres [roughly 65 feet]. In shape, it was more like a crocodile than anything else.” [Source: Deutschen Algemeine Zeitung, 19 October 1933]
Since Von Forstner first mentioned it, the story of the U28‘s strange sighting has been frequently repeated, and the U-boat’s “giant crocodile” now ranks among the most iconic of all monster reports – no mean achievement for such a definite oddity, or for a creature that bears practically no resemblance to the received notion of what a sea serpent should look like. Von Forstner’s account has been influential, too, for it forms a central plank in the skimpy evidence for one of Bernard Heuvelmans’s celebrated nine species of sea serpent: an animal the Belgian authority on aardvark dentition labelled the “marine saurian” and speculated was “a surviving thalattosuchian” – in other words a giant sea crocodile from the age of the dinosaurs. Heuvelmans’s database of 587 sea serpent reports contains only four “certain” encounters with marine saurians, of which Von Forstner’s is by a distance the most dramatic and most definite. Without the U28‘s sighting, evidence for the existence of any such animal looks patchy indeed.
What made Von Forstner’s sighting so memorable? The strange circumstances, for one thing, and the fact that the animal was supposed to have been flung far into the air for another. That gave the surprised members of the U28‘s crew a rare and unsurpassed opportunity to inspect the whole of a “sea serpent’s” body, making their report of unusual interest and significant potential value. Then there was the chief witness’s apparently impeccable credentials – it is hard to imagine a more ostensibly sober and reliable witness to strange maritime events than a German baron who was also a career naval officer. To this list I would add the illustration Heuvelmans printed alongside the U28 report (right): a crude but memorable etching showing a surprised-looking giant croc eternally suspended in mid air above a small scattering of wreckage.
For all this, though, there are good reasons to doubt that Von Forstner’s encounter was anything but a figment of an over-active imagination – and it is to these reasons I now want to turn. It is, to begin with, apparent that the circumstances under which the baron made his report were less than ideal. The sighting appears not to have been set down in writing until more than 18 years after it occurred, and at a time when marine monsters were frequently discussed; plenty of time had elapsed in which memories could have become distorted or confused, and it’s even possible to suggest an element of nationalism may have crept into the reports; Scotland had its famous lake monster, but here, in a country rapidly gaining in self-confidence, and in which Hitler had become Chancellor at the beginning of the year, was a German report more spectacular than anything yet heard of at Loch Ness – one that had been published, moreover, in a right-wing, pro-government newspaper. (Von Forstner’s pre-1933 silence, incidentally, stretched to not mentioning the story in a 1917 booklet he published about his U-boat experiences, which covers in some detail several other, less dramatic encounters with enemy ships in that same year.)
To make matters worse, there are also several versions of Von Forstner’s story, which vary one from another in subtle but significant ways. The first account to appear in English was published by Rupert Gould, who corresponded with Von Forstner, and translates the baron’s article from the Deutsche Algemeine Zeitung in his The Loch Ness Monster and Others (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1934) p.187. The key points, as given in this article, can be paraphrased as follows:
The Iberian was sunk off the west coast of France [sic]. The steamer sank very rapidly, with her bow in the air. Some time after her disappearance – at least 25 seconds – there was a “moderately-loud” explosion underwater. “Immediately,” wreckage flew into the air, and the monster was seen among it. The witnesses were Von Forstner, officer of the watch Dieckmann, Chief Engineer Ziemer and engineer officer Romeiss, Cox’n Parisch and Able Seaman Bartels. The “Deep-Sea crocodile, as we named it, was flung some 20 or 30 metres [65 to 100 feet] into the air, [and] disappeared under water again after some 20 or 30 seconds.”
Compare this to the Heuvelmans version, vaguely attributed to “a newspaper” [Heuvelmans p.395]:
The Iberian, which was about 600 feet long, was intercepted in the North Atlantic and “sank quickly… towards the bottom a thousand fathoms or more below. When the steamer had been gone for about 25 seconds, there was a violent explosion at a depth which it was clearly impossible for us to know, but which we can reckon, without risking being far out, at about 500 fathoms [3,000 feet/915 metres]. A little later pieces of wreckage wreckage, and among them a gigantic sea-animal, writhing and struggling wildly, were shot out of the water to a height of 60 or 100 feet.”
Naming the same six witnesses as Gould, Heuvelmans continues Von Forstner’s account:
“We were, alas, unable to identify it. We did not have time to take a photograph, for the animal sank out of sight after 10 to 15 seconds… It was about 60 feet long, was like a crocodile in shape and had four limbs with powerful webbed feet and a long tail tapering to a point.
Whether or not Gould and Heuvelmans based their English-language accounts on the same German source is uncertain, but there are enough similarities in the phrasing to suggest they did – in which case it is disturbing to see so many more-or-less significant differences between them. A length of 600 feet would be a huge size for a merchant vessel, for one thing* – it is nearly a hundred feet longer than the battleship HMS Dreadnought – and even Heuvelmans, who is by no means much of a sceptic, draws attention to the fact that the doomed Iberian would have had to be sinking at a speed of 90 miles per hour to reach a depth of 3,000 feet in only 25 seconds. Fortunately a third, more authoritative account is also available. This appeared in the German-language edition of Gould’s The Case For The Sea Serpent, a volume published in 1935 as Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn (“Encounters With Sea Monsters”) by Grethlein & Co. of Leipzig. This book incorporates some notes from The Loch Ness Monster and Others and additional material by Von Forstner, who is listed as co-author.
According to Von Forstner’s own account [Begegnungen pp.9-10 – see right], he published in the Deutschen Algemaine Zeitung
die Beschreibung jenes Tieres von 20m geschätzter Länge, das von mir und Teilen der Besatzung des mir seinerzeit unterstellten Unterseebootes “U28” am 30. Juli 1915 im Atlantischen Ozean etwa 60 seemeilen rechtsweisend Süd von Fastnet Rock, der Südwestecke Irlands, nach der Versenkung des englischen Dampfers “Iberian” gesichtet wurde. Dieses Tier war durch eine Unterwasserdetonation ungefähr 25 Sekunden nach Sinken des genannten Schiffes in voller Länge aus dem Wasser etwas 20 bis 30 metre in die Luft geschleudert worden. Es ist möglich, dass diese nicht allzu starke Detonation von mitgeführter Sprengladung herrührte, die uns in den übernommenen Schiffspapieren verheimlicht wurde, oder von einer kleinen Kesselexplosion… Ebensogut konnte diese Detonation aber meiner Meinung nach auch nur durch das Bersten der auf Tiefe durch Luftdruck gesprengten Schiffsräume erfolgt sein.
Das etwa 20m lange Tier hatte krokodilsähnliche Gestalt, je zwei Vorder- und Hinterbeine mit starken Schwim flossen under eine langen, nach vorne spitz zulaufenden Kopf…
Die von unserm leitenden Ingenieur, Marineingenieur Romeihs, sofort nach dem Wiederverschwinden des Tieres im Wasser – Beobachtungszeit etwa 10 bis 15 Sekunden aus 150 bis 100m Abstand bei hellem Sonnenschein unter Zuhilfenahme starker Glaser.
the description of an animal estimated at 20 metres in length, seen by me and some of the crew of the submarine U28 on 30 July 1915 in the Atlantic Ocean; [it] was sighted on the starboard side, about 60 nautical miles south of Fastnet Rock, off the southwest corner of Ireland, after the sinking of the British steamer Iberian. This animal was hurled some 20 or 30m into the air by an underwater explosion about 25 seconds after the sinking of that vessel, thrown full length from the water. It is possible that this was caused by the detonation of an explosive device on board, the existence of which we assumed was concealed in the ship’s papers, or from a small boiler explosion… This explosion certainly could have been the result of a detonation, but in my opinion only the bursting of the spaces deep inside the ship could have produced such air pressure.
The animal was about 20 meters long and crocodile-like in shape, with pairs of strong front and hind legs adapted for swimming, and a long head that tapered towards the nose…
Our senior engineering officer, marine engineer Romeihs, watched the animal for 10 to 15 seconds at a distance of about 150 to 100m in bright sunshine with the aid of powerful glasses.”
A better idea of what the U28‘s monster is supposed to have actually looked like can be had from an illustration Von Forstner had published in a second newspaper, the Kölnische Illustrierten Zeitung of 10 February 1934. The U-boat captain does not state whether or not the artist worked under his supervision, or how accurate his depiction of the creature was, but it seems more than likely that this sketch was the one which appears as plate 27 of Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn and which is reproduced at the head of this entry. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that Von Forstner approved of it. (It will be noted, parenthetically, that the original differs somewhat in content, and considerably in detail, from the version printed by Heuvelmans, which crops up so frequently on the net. The Heuvelmans sketch is not only much the cruder of the two, especially around the area of the forelimbs, but also shows more of the tail. This is a more than incidental point, since it proves that Heuvelmans had not read Von Forstner’s lengthy account in Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn – a book which does not feature in his bibliography. Instead, he appears to have got his information from some other source – not Gould, since the two men’s translations of Von Forstner’s article differ so substantially – and the solution to this minor mystery can be deduced from Heuvelmans’s caption to his illustration. This states that it has been drawn “after Richard Hennig”, and Hennig, a German hack writer of the 1950s, was the author of a popular potboiler on a variety of mysteries, translated into French as Les grandes enigmes de l’univers, and published in several best-selling editions between the mid 1950s and the mid 1970s.** The fact is worth mentioning only because it shows how little effort Heuvelmans invested in investigating the Von Forstner case, and what poor sources of information he was willing to accept in preparing what remains, for the most part, a highly-respected work.)
So much for Von Forstner’s story. There are plenty of problems with it, and with Heuvelmans’s interpretation of it. To begin with, the creature, as depicted, is remarkably unlikely. I leave it to the reader to consider quite how plausible it is to suppose that a population of 60-foot long crocodiles, which require a base on land, could survive undiscovered today, and to any physicists among you to calculate the force needed to hurl an animal of such a size through a large body of water and then “60 to 100 feet” into the air, but salt-water crocodiles are cold-blooded reptiles, and though they can roam widely – they have been sighted in the Sea of Japan and within 40 kilometres of the New Zealand coast – they lack the cold-water adaptations of creatures such as the leatherback turtle, and are certainly not adapted to live comfortably in waters as cold as those off Fastnet Rock, even in July. Nor do they grow anywhere near the size described by Von Forstner – the largest Australian “saltie” measured to date was no more than 20 feet (6.1m) long. This problem led Heuvelmans to hazard his guess that the U28 sea serpent was a thalattosuchian, or metriorhynchid – that is, a surviving prehistoric marine crocodile of the sort that flourished 75 million or more years ago, but his identification is itself fatally flawed, since Von Forstner clearly describes “legs” and his illustration shows a typically crocodilian tail, while the metriorhynchids were far more fully adapted to life in the water: they lacked the crocodile’s osteoderms (the bony ridge along the back), sported small fin-like limbs in place of legs, and had a bilobal, fishlike tail. All this is bad news for Heuvelmans, since neither fins nor fish-tail were mentioned by the U-boat’s skipper, while the sketch he apparently approved certainly seems to suggest the presence of a bony ridge along the back. The baron’s evidence, in short, suggests that Von Forstner’s creature was wildly unlikely to be a surviving metriorhynchid, while if it was an out-of-place saltie it was not only half a world away from home, and in hostile waters, but also at least three times larger than it had any right to be.
There is, moreover, every reason to doubt that the monster, at least as sketched for the Kölnische Illustrierten Zeitung, bore any direct resemblance to the creature Von Forstner asserts he saw. I am indebted to Dr Darren Naish for the penetrating observation that
the more I look at the animal in the picture, the more I think it’s copied from a stuffed specimen of a baby croc/caiman. The head is distinctly juvenile in shape (short rostrum, big eye, bulging cranium). The curled, folded limbs could conceivably have been copied from a contorted stuffed specimen, and the tail is strangely lumpy and misshapen, as is typically the case in badly stuffed crocodilian specimens.
This theory makes perfect sense, and certainly seems much more plausible, as an explanation for the morphology on show in the famous illustration, than the notion that Von Forstner was able to find an artist, in the Germany of the 1930s, familiar with salt-water crocs – or that the U-boat skipper perfectly recalled an animal he had glimpsed only fleetingly nearly two decades earlier, and was able to describe it with precision for his artist.
Cryptozoological literalists, I have no doubt, will easily rationalise all this by suggesting that the U28 had encountered an as-yet-unknown species of giant marine crocodile, adapted to life in northern latitudes, yet so elusive that, a century after Von Forstner’s alleged observation, neither further sightings nor a specimen have come to light. So this might be the moment to move from the zoological problems with Von Forstner’s account to the purely historical ones – which are, frankly, even more damning.
It is, to begin with, rather noteworthy that the baron was the only member of the U28‘s crew ever to speak of the monster croc they supposedly saw in July 1915. Indeed, according to Von Forstner’s own account, none of the other five men who were with him in the sub’s conning tower that day survived the war (Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn pp.10-11). This is not in itself all that surprising, given the high mortality suffered by U-boat crews in both World Wars, and it is tempting to suppose that all five men may have stayed with the sub until she was lost, on 2 September 1917, in another wildly bizarre incident at sea. (In the tale told by a Royal Navy officer named R.S. Gwatkin-Willians, writing in Under the Black Ensign (London: Hutchinson, 1926), U28 surfaced in the freezing waters off North Cape to shell a cargo ship, the Olive Branch, which was carrying a consignment of army trucks as deck cargo. A German shell touched off ammunition stored on board, and in the resultant explosion one of the Olive Branch‘s trucks was flung into the air, “only to land (from a great height) on the U-boat, sinking her” – an unlikely-sounding account that has been challenged, but is simply too good not to be passed on here.) In fact, according to the baron’s own detailed account, there was a seventh witness –
Leider sind fast alle Zeugen der Vorfalles später gefallen. Es lebt aber noch unser damaliger Koch, U-Boots-Obermatrose Robert Maas in Gross Ottersleben bei Magdeburg, den ich kürzlich zu meiner Freude wieder zufällig traf under der das noch zappelnde Tier in der Luft sah…
Unfortunately, almost all witnesses to the incident were later killed. But one lives on: our then cook, submariner Robert Maas, who lives in Gross Ottersleben, near Magdeburg, and who saw the animal while it was still flailing in the air. To my delight, I recently met him again by chance…
– but if seaman Maas did indeed see anything, he never seems to have placed the fact on record.
One other piece of German evidence survives, however, and it is well worth citing here. Every U-boat kept its own Kriegstagebücher (war diary, or KTB), and – thankfully, given the frequency with which submarines were sunk or disappeared throughout the war – it was standard procedure for these to be typed up on a boat’s return to port and submitted to the flotilla commander. Most U-boat KTBs survived World War I and World War II to be captured, in 1945, by American troops. A vast mass of German naval material was subsequently microfilmed, and copies were retained by NARA, the US National Archives, when the originals were transferred back to the Germany a few years later. The U28‘s Kriegstagebücher is, fortunately, among them, and the entry for the Iberian sinking is shown here (left – as with all illustrations on this blog, you can download the file, or drag to your desktop and open, to see and read the original at a readable scale).
This, rendered roughly from the German, gives a good deal of detail concerning the action – it states that the submarine fired 11 shots as it chased the fleeing steamer and got two hits, that fire was opened at 6000 metres and much coal smoke was seen to emerge from the ventilators and funnel, that the ship sank with her bow in the air and that her cargo was cellulose consigned to Boston. Von Forstner also mentions that he found two wounded in the lifeboats and supplied bandages to treat them; that there were 70 or 80 men in six boats; that four men were left dead on board; and that the U28’s target had ziz-zagged desperately in her attempt to escape, and might have succeeded had she not been struck by the shells. There is, conspicuously, no mention of an underwater detonation, nor of wreckage flung into the air, nor of gigantic sea monsters writhing amid the debris.
This, admittedly, is not entirely conclusive evidence that Von Forstner did not see what he said he saw. The crews of some vessels who saw what they believed to be sea serpents have noted the fact in their logs – one thinks of the case of the SS Umfuli (1893). But others, cautiously, have not – among them the crew of HMS Daedalus (1848) and HMS Hilary (1917) [Source: Gould, The Case for the Sea Serpent (London: Philip Allan, 1930), pp.96, 192, 210]. It may be that the baron thought the matter of no interest in wartime, or feared ridicule or censure.
What, though, of the Iberian‘s crew? No fewer than 61 of them (Von Forstner had his figures wrong) survived to take to the boats, and these men were picked up at midnight by a patrol craft and taken back to port in Ireland. They included several Americans, who spoke freely to the US press. Members of the British crew spoke of their experiences to Irish and English newspapers.
This fact was first noted by Ulrich Magin, who in an essay highly critical of Bernard Heuvelmans studied contemporary copies of the Cork County Eagle & Munster Advertiser – an Irish paper published close to the spot where the Iberian‘s survivors were put ashore – and discovered that the issue for 7 August 1915 “devoted a complete page-length column to the stories of the crew… who gave their version of the incident. They had all watched the ship go down, yet none saw a monster.” [Magin, “St George without a dragon: Bernard Heuvelmans and the sea serpent”. Fortean Studies 3 (1996) p.230.] I have duplicated Magin’s exercise and consulted stories in The Times (2 August 1915) – right – the Washington Post (1 August 1915) – left – and the New York Times (17 August 1915). All contain detailed descriptions of the chase and sinking, and none mentions what would surely have been the memorable and remarkable sight of a 60-foot-long crocodile thrashing amid the wreckage of their ship. Not one of the three, indeed, so much as mentions an underwater detonation or the violent eruption of any wreckage, though there is every sign that the reporters responsible took pains to make their descriptions as dramatic as possible. The report in the New York Times, for instance, makes much of the concussion of the torpedo explosion, mentioning even the minor detail that it shattered the glass on the watch worn by one of the survivors. The Times described dramatic scenes in the lifeboats as the seas rose in the evening. And the Post gave a minute description of the names, homes and occupations of the Iberian‘s American crew. While it is possible to imagine that The Times might have deemed news of a sea monster too frivolous to give in time of war, no such restrictions applied to the American papers (the United States did not enter the war until 1917). More than three score potential witnesses, in short, seem to have missed this unmissable sight, for it is as inconceivable that the survivors in the Iberian‘s boats would not have watched their ship as she went down as it is that they could have failed to observe the appearance of the U28‘s monstrous crocodile. Hence I conclude that Von Forstner at best misperceived some flying piece of wreckage, and, more likely, simply invented his tale years later. Scratch the “marine saurian” from Heuvelmans’s inventory of sea serpents.
* Thanks to Loren Coleman of the celebrated Cryptomundo blog, we now know the Iberian was 436 feet and 4.22 inches long. Which certainly makes her a pretty big ship.
** My own edition of this book, published in 1957, contains a passing mention of the U28 incident, but no illustration. Hennig’s book appeared in many different editions in France, however, and unfortunately I have had neither the time nor the resources to check each one.
Follow-up: Loren has also posted a thought-provoking article about a likely inspiration for the illustration of the U28’s monster here.
My grateful thanks to Darren Naish, for discussing the U28 animal’s morphology, and Michael Lowrey, of the superb Uboat.net site, for supplying a copy of U28‘s KTB.
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