Diary of the War: February 1917

The Resumption of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

On January 31, 1917,  the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany was announced to the Reichstag, to come into effect the following day. It was a policy summarised by the Daily Telegraph as ‘sink on sight’. (1)

As on the previous occasion in 1915, the seas around Britain were declared a war zone by Germany, and vessels of any nationality, not just British, were liable to be attacked: in effect it was a submarine blockade of Britain. The lifeline of the seas was envisaged as a noose with which to strangle the British Isles, preventing food and other imports from coming in, exports sustaining the economy getting out, and disrupting vital supplies, such as coal, which were circulated domestically by sea. .

Sepia-toned poster with German text "Der Magische Gurtel" at the top in black overlying a map of Britain, with surrounding U-boat silhouettes forming the sea. Two larger U-boats in black occupy the lower third of the image, with white superimposed text, "Deutsche U-boote Wider England"
Advertising poster for a German film depicting U30. The title, “Der magische Gürtel” (The Enchanted Girdle) is illustrated by a surrounding sea composed of nothing but U-boats around the English coast. Hans Rudi Ernst, 1917, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 7268)

Wartime censorship has been a leitmotif throughout this War Diary strand, in contrast with the pre-war situation..It seems appropriate to discuss it further here in the context of unrestricted submarine warfare. Prior to the war shipping news was a major staple of the national and regional press, in which shipping movements appeared in their own dedicated columns. During the war these were no longer circulated, while reports of ships sunk were in the main were reduced to a few brief lines which gave away no detail as to the shipping routes involved. Even to state the cargoes suggested particular routes, so this, too was avoided.

The British public were therefore not exposed to the full impact of the existing submarine campaign and were ill-prepared for the onslaught that was to follow.

An editorial for the Telegraph contrasted the state of knowledge in Britain and in Germany: ‘The Germans receive full reports from their submarine commanders of every vessel torpedoed, its name, tonnage, and cargo; they are informed of the date and longitude and latitude of attack. Month by month they issue for the encouragement of the civil population a very full summary. I have seen that for December – the latest. It occupies two columns of a German newspaper, and is very specific.’ (2)

From this source the Telegraph quotes 419,166 lost tons of British shipping. An official British source shows that 114,508 tons of British shipping were lost in December 1916 for 40 ships, while the overall total of mercantile shipping of all nationalities lost that month to all causes (mine, submarine torpedo, and surface ships) was 357,420 tons. (3). In fact, the 419,166 tons figure was probably misunderstood or used for dramatic effect: it is close to a modern tally that quotes 413,428 tons for ships of all nationalities worldwide December 1916, which included over 66,000 tons of ships damaged but not sunk. (4)

January 1917 saw a similar figure of 408,806 tons worldwide for 211 ships sunk and 11 damaged, but following the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, that total climbed to 651,995 tons for 301 ships sunk and 27 damaged, and the death toll also rose accordingly. (5)

The Telegraph could see this coming, and spelt out the consequences for its readers in stark terms:

‘It is peculiarly necessary that the facts should be known to the British people, because only thus can they understand that they must economise in everything. Why? Because they live on an island, and nearly all they need must come in ships, of which the number is declining. It may seem smart to dodge the Food Controller’s regulations, yet such an action is unpatriotic . . . ‘

Among those 651,995 tons of shipping sunk in February 1917 was the 539-ton Essonite, the first British victim of the new policy in English waters. She was torpedoed without warning on 1 February 1917, while bound from Caernarfon for Rochester with stone. Under the heading ‘German Piracy’, newspapers stated the bare facts: ‘Lloyd’s Agency reports the trawler Violet, the Briitish steamer Essonite, and the Spanish steamer Algorta have been sunk.’. (6)

Although Lloyd’s War Losses shows that the Essonite was sunk by submarine 3 miles NNW of Trevose Head, Cornwall it is to the official loss report that we must turn to find out more about what happened. The torpedo struck at 1.10pm and within 9 minutes the vessel had sunk. The himan impact is of torpedoing a vessel without warning is powerfully illustrated by what happened next: ‘The master got hold of a lifebuoy as the ship sank under him and was picked [up] about half an hour afterwards by the ship’s boat in which were two of the crew. The remainder of the crew were lost.’ (7)

On the SS Essonite of Glasgow ten men lost their lives that day. They were: Arthur Altoft, mate, 22; John Dempsey, fireman, 47; David Lynn Dunlop, 1st engineer, 36; John Kenneway, trimmer, 19; James Letson, 2nd engineer, 22; John MacArthur, steward, 64; Allan McFadyen, able seaman, 39; John McPhedran, ordinary seaman, 16; Nevin McVicar, boatswain, 54; and Harry Williams, fireman, 35. (8)

Black and white photo of a wrecked submarine, which bisects the photograph longitudinally. In the foreground dark rocks and an inlet, in which the white sail of a dinghy can be seen. The background grey, featureless sea and sky.
A wrecked U-boat: UB 112 was among the U-boats surrendered to Britain in November 1918 at Harwich. Here she is seen in on the rocks at Falmouth in 1921, one of six U-boats which broke tow in a gale en route to disposal as gunnery targets. A party of visitors have used the dinghy in the foreground to access and inspect the wreck, led by Captain Jack Casement RN, based at Falmouth. © Historic England/ Patrick Casement jxc01_01_011

 

(1) The Daily Telegraph, Thursday 25 January 1917, No.19,279, p7

(2) ibid.

(3) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping Through Enemy Causes 1914-1918, p80, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press Ltd. 1980

(4) uboat.net statistics for December 1916

(5) uboat.net statistics for January 1917;  uboat.net statistics for February 1917

(6) e.g. Leeds Mercury, 3 February 1917, p3

(7) ADM 137/2961, The National Archives, Kew

(8) Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Diary of the War: January 1917

Henry Blogg and the Fernebo

On the stormy winter morning of 9 January 1917, a distress signal brought out the lifeboatmen of Cromer in their lifeboat Louisa Heartwell, which launched into heavy seas to reach the Greek steamer Pyrin, drifting two miles out at sea. Since all men of fighting age were away at war, the lifeboat crew were all either middle-aged or elderly men, and were led by coxswain Henry Blogg, who had joined the crew in 1894, and a relative youngster at the age of 40. It took a party of 40 men, including soldiers, to launch the lifeboat, and over two hours for the crew to reach the wreck and successfully rescue and land 18 survivors.

henry-blogg-modified-photo-1
Henry Blogg. RNLI

In the middle of this force 9 gale, another ship got into difficulties. The Swedish Fernebo, en route from Gavle for London with timber, was in distress, lurching in the sea with one crew member injured – and was even further out to sea, between 3 and 4 miles offshore.

The very wildness of the weather meant that none of the other local lifeboats could put out to the rescue the crew of the Fernebo in the stead of the Cromer lifeboat. The Louisa Heartwell was the nearest and the only suitable craft, being larger and heavier than other local lifeboats, but several attempts to launch her failed, even with all the willing helpers from the town.

A party of men aboard Fernebo saw their chances of rescue slipping away and took matters into their own hands, launching one of the ship’s boats. Almost at the shoreline the vessel capsized and it took a party of onlookers, led by Private Stewart Holmes, one of the soldiers stationed locally, to rescue them by forming a human chain at the risk of their own lives. By this means all six men were rescued from their little boat, which had somehow made it all the way to shore despite the storm.

In the meantime further disaster had literally struck the Fernebo, in the form of a mine laid by UC-19, which had been caught and depth-charged off the Isles of Scilly in the previous month, leaving behind a deadly legacy of sown mines. The explosion split the steamer in two, but her timber cargo kept both halves afloat: fortunately all the crew were in one half, rather than drifting apart on two different wrecks.

The storm drove the stricken Fernebo closer inshore, where, around 5pm, both parts struck Cromer beach, but in different locations. The aft section of the Fernebo came ashore near the groyne at the Doctor’s Steps, Cromer. Once more it was clear that only the Cromer lifeboat and her crew stood between the Swedish sailors and death: with the help of army searchlights trained on the beach and the wreck, further attempts were made to launch. Once launched, several oars were wrenched from the lifeboatmen’s hands and others broken by the violence of the sea, so the crew had to put back then, then return with fresh oars.

At last – success! The crew managed to reach the survivors, safely bringing off eleven men, eleven people who would have died had it not been for the ‘great intrepidity, splendid tenacity, and endurance’ quoted in the citation for the RNLI’s gallantry award to the Louisa Heartwell‘s crew. (1)  This was the occasion on which Henry Blogg, the ‘greatest lifeboatman of them all’, received his first RNLI gold medal, but the entire crew also received awards, with another being made to Pte. Holmes, leader of the shore party which rescued the six men from the boat.

Black and white photograph of two rows of en, seated in front, standing at the back, in front of the open doorway through which the bows of a lifeboat can be seen.
The crew of the Cromer lifeboat, wearing the medals awarded for this rescue. RNLI

But for the courage of the Cromer lifeboatmen, the Fernebo‘s crew would all have shared in the fate of their injured colleague, who was killed when they struck the mine. This was certainly a rescue against all the odds, when human endurance overcame the power of nature and the violence of war.

Colour photograph of ribs of wreck, partly covered in seaweed, in the foreground of the image, on a beach, which stretches to the background of the image. The top sixth of the image is taken up by a flat band of blue sky and sea.
The wreck of the Fernebo as she now lies at Cromer. RNLI

Over 5,000 lives were saved by the RNLI during the First World War: their work is showcased in an RNLI travelling exhibition Hope in the Great War, which is touring the country for the duration of the centenary. It features the Fernebo, and another rescue we have already featured in the War Diary, the Rohilla. Do go and see it – check for a venue near you.

(1) Widely reported in a nationwide press release, for example in the Newcastle Journal,  13 February 1917, No.22,371, p3

Diary of the War: December 1916

The Quo Vadis

The conditions on the night of 18 December 1916 as the French schooner Quo Vadis prepared to cross the English Channel were too good to be true: a clear moonlit night and a flat calm. Some 20 miles south of the Lizard, the moon gave away her white sails to Ralph Wenninger in UC-17, one of the most prolific U-boat commanders of the First World War.

Quo Vadis was bound from Swansea for Mortagne-sur-Gironde with 160 tons of coal under Joseph Guegot of Lannion and his crew of five. They were hailed and ordered to leave their vessel, and scuttling charges placed aboard by a party from the U-boat. Twenty minutes later Quo Vadis was beneath the waves, while her erstwhile crew took to their boat and rowed for two miles before being picked up by a British destroyer.

It was impossible for small sailing vessels such as the Quo Vadis of 110 tons gross to outrun a submarine, and, being of timber construction, they were also very vulnerable to gunfire. Quo Vadis was just one of several sailing vessels of various nationalities stopped and scuttled during December 1916. At least the crews of these vessels had a chance to escape, all being ordered off their ships on capture and allowed to leave in their lifeboats. For the crew of the Quo Vadis, moreover, the conditions meant that they had neither heavy seas nor utter darkness to contend with before being rescued.

Incidents of this kind, so minor yet so common during the First World War, demonstrated that the sailing vessel faced a hazard greater than any political enemy: obsolescence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diary of the War: November 2016

The Goodwin Sands strike again

There are occasions when the Goodwin Sands just seem to claim more victims than usual and the night of 19-20 November 1916 was one of those nights, when two steamers, the Italian Val Salice, and the American Sibiria, bound to London with a cargo of Canadian wheat, stuck fast on the South Sand Head of the Goodwins, in a violent storm with extremely heavy seas which claimed wrecks elsewhere, particularly in Northumberland.

The Val Salice was the first to strike with the Deal lifeboat Charles Hargrave and Ramsgate lifeboat Charles and Susannah Stephens bringing off all 30 survivors. (The latter’s cox’n would shortly afterwards be awarded a medal by the RNLI for his 25 years’ service.) (1) Captain Bolognini of the Val Salice was widely quoted in the press as never having been shipwrecked before in all his career, but he clearly considered that he had shipped a ‘Jonah’ on board: ‘who during four months had been shipwrecked no fewer than three times’. (2)

It was a long and arduous night for the lifeboat crews who had to resort to the assistance of the searchlights from a patrol vessel to locate the Val Salice, before going out again to the Sibiria, which was being pounded to pieces on the Goodwins. The Sibiria‘s situation situation was reported while the rescue effort was still in progress as a ‘drama of the seas which may result in tragedy’. (3)

The seas were raging so high that both the Deal and Ramsgate lifeboats and their crews were in danger of being lost. They capsized but fortunately righted without losing any of their crew members overboard, although it was a close-run thing. The impact left several men on both boats so injured that, together with the damage to the lifeboats, they were forced to turn back – leaving behind 52 crew and passengers huddled in an exposed position in the sole portion of bridge still holding together,’in momentary peril of the vessel being engulfed in the treacherous quicksands.’ (4) How desolate those on board must have felt at seeing their rescuers turning back!

It was a race against time to save the crew and passengers of the Sibiria but finally the Kingsdown lifeboat Francis Forbes Barton was manned with an uninjured crew and towed out by a patrol vessel, which trained its searchlights to find that all 52 persons were still alive awaiting rescue. They were taken off and once more the patrol vessel took the lifeboat in tow ‘weighed almost to the water’s edge with sixty-eight on board,’ i.e. all 52 survivors plus the 16 lifeboatmen. (5)

The warships of the Dover Patrol thus enabled not one but two successful rescues under atrocious conditions. However, the real-life war was followed by a transatlantic newspaper war full of icy innuendo. Neither side overtly stated the issue at hand in so many words but each understood the other all too well.

The Times thundered: ‘The stranding of the United States steamer Sibiria on the Goodwins this week has opened British eyes to the fact that this vessel, which was a Hamburg-Amerika liner, has been transferred to owners in the United States during the war.’ (6)

Note the use of the word ‘transferred’, not ‘sold’. This was enough to elicit a clarification from the vessel’s agents through the New York Times: the Sibiria had been chartered at the time of the outbreak of hostilities to an American company, which bought her outright in May 1915, then sold it on to the Hudson Bay Company of Canada, while retaining her American crew. (7)

The question at issue was the Trading with the Enemy Act 1914, under which the Hamburg-Amerika Linie was defined as an ‘enemy’. (8) The British press continued to niggle at the question of whether ownership of former German vessels in neutral countries (for the United States was not yet in the war) was a ‘front’ or ‘flag of convenience’ with a view to the long-term preservation of the German fleet. (9)  Just a few months after the loss of the Sibiria, their premises in Cockspur Street, London, were offered for sale in 1917, under the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act, 1916.

The sales particulars noted that the premises were partially in the occupation of the Ministry of Munitions for the purposes of ‘the present war’, with the Canadian Red Cross, and the Allan Line, which would soon be subsumed into the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, also tenants.

The particulars had a form of declaration at the back for the buyer to confirm on purchase that they were not purchasing on the behalf on any nation ‘at war with Great Britain’. The cover of the auction catalogue is annotated with the name of the corporate buyer, the unexceptionably British P&O.

Together a wreck and a building tell a tale of socio-economic disruption and atmosphere of suspicion wrought by war, which overshadowed the remarkable rescue of all on board the Sibiria under unimaginably difficult conditions. The former Hamburg-Amerika House at 14-16 Cockspur Street still stands today and is Grade II listed. Despite their relatively recent date, the remains of Val Salice and Sibiria have not been located, but the Francis Forbes Barton still survives as a witness to that dreadful night a century ago.

Front cover of auction catalogue for the sale of commercial premises, with b&w photograph of doorway to the premises in the centre.
Sales particulars for the Hamburg-Amerika Line premises, built 1906-8. The annotation at top right reveals the price realised at auction and the name of the buyer: P&O. SC00686. Source: Historic England Archive

(1) Thanet Advertiser, 23 December 1916, No.2,995, p5

(2) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2. A ‘Jonah’ is a person who brings ill-luck to a ship, from the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1-2)

(3) New York Times, 22 November 1916

(4) Ibid.

(5) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2

(6) The Times, 25 November 1916, No.41,334, p9

(7) New York Times, 26 November 1916

(8) London Gazette, 29 October 1915, No.29,343, p.10,697

(9) Yorkshire Post, 12 December 1916, No.21,678, p4

Diary of the War: October 1916

The wreck in two places at once

In this blog we’ve occasionally encountered wrecks that are in two places at once. The Mary Rose is a good example: after being raised in 1982, her principal structure lies in the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth, but she is still a designated wreck site offshore with some remains still in situ. We’ve also looked at the ship that was wrecked in two separate countries, leaving different bits behind each time.

HMS Nubian is another example of a similar phenomenon. One of the Tribal-class destroyers which patrolled the Dover Straits during the First World War (see the story of Viking, Ghurka, and Maori in action against U-8), she was sent out to intercept a surprise Channel raid by the enemy in the early hours of 27 October 1916. A visit by the Kaiser to Zeebrugge had led the Admiralty to expect a German landing west of Nieuwpoort (possibly a diversionary tactic which succeeded in drawing out some of the British naval forces towards Dunkirk?) (1)

There were six Tribal-class destroyers stationed at Dover, with HMS Zulu patrolling out at sea further west, and the net barrage guarded by 28 auxiliary trawlers and drifters, in company with the destroyer HMS Flirt. Against them 24 German destroyers were steaming up Channel: Flirt issued a challenge, which was returned, and they steamed past in the dark, assumed to be part of the British movements that night.

This was a fatal mistake since the first attack of the night resulted in the sinking of HMT Waveney II off the net barrage. Flirt went to her assistance: in the meantime those on board the auxiliary yacht Ombra had grasped the situation, reporting enemy activity to the authorities and ordering the remaining HMTs back to Dover. Flirt herself came under attack at ‘point blank range’ which blew up her boilers, causing her to sink within five minutes. The Queen troopship was then captured and despatched. remaining adrift for about six hours before foundering off the Goodwin Sands. Fortunately she was carrying mail on her run from Boulogne to Folkestone, rather than troops.

By this time the destroyers in Dover were steaming out to investigate. As Nubian approached the net barrage destined to snare submarines, she was on her own without support, though by now further assistance was coming from the Dunkirk and Harwich quarters, attempting to trap the German force in a pincer movement.

Six of the retreating patrol drifters, four of which were unarmed, were then sunk by the German raiders – Spotless Prince, Launch Out, Gleaner of the Sea, Datum, Ajax II and Roburn (which had also been involved in the engagement with U-8)

The Nubian reached 9A Buoy in the net barrage, from which the commotion had come, then turned about – straight into the German 17th Flotilla steaming towards her. The first two enemy torpedoes missed, but the third found its target and blew off her bows. The rest of the ship was taken in tow, but, as a gale sprang up, she drove ashore near the South Foreland.

You might think from the title of this article that that’s it: Nubian now rests in two places: in mid-Channel and near the South Foreland. In fact, her story is much more interesting than that. We return now to a bit-player in the events of 26-27 October 1916, HMS Zulu: a minefield in the Straits of Dover would ‘terminate her career’, in the words of the official history. (2) On the afternoon of 8 November 1916 she struck a mine which ‘shattered her after part’, with her bow section being towed to Calais.

Something of a pattern was emerging here . . .

In what was later described as a ‘grafting’ operation, (3) using the language of the pioneering plastic surgery techniques which emerged out of the injuries of the First World War, the two grounded sections – the  bow section of Zulu and the aft section of Nubian – were salvaged, joined together and given the portmanteau name HMS Zubian.

As Zubian, therefore, both wrecks rejoined the Dover Patrol. Who knows how many times she passed over the remains of her component ships below?.She would later be credited with ramming UC-50 (a misidentification: probably UC-79) (4) and would participate in the Zeebrugge raid of 23 April 1918. Several of the Tribal-class were disposed of in 1919 : unsurprisingly, Zubian was among them, after everything she had been through. (5)

Nubian was the ship that was salved because another ship was wrecked: fortuitous and resourceful recycling in a time of war.

Black and white photograph of warship at sea in the lower half of the photograph, seen in starboard view, bows towards the right of the image.
Aerial view of HMS Zubian, from starboard. To modern eyes this image looks commonplace, but we should remember that aerial views were literally a fresh perspective on ships at war. © IWM Q61101.

 

(1) Naval Staff Monographs, Vol. XVII. Home Waters, Part VII: June 1916 to November 1916  London: Admiralty, 1927, p185-189. The acccount here is principally derived from this source, supplemented by information from the wreck records in the National Record of the Historic Environment for each vessel lost (see links).

(2) ibid., p208

(3) The Times, 28 February 1935, No.47,000, p13

(4) uboat.net

(5) The Times, 22 November 1919, No.42,264, p9

 

1066 and all that: 11th century wrecks

As we commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 I thought I’d cast an eye over the few 11th century wrecks for which we have some evidence.

Multicoloured tapestry scenes of ships laden with men and horses, with horsemen waiting at the left side of the scene, embroidered on a cream background, with border decoration in the lower register, and at top left.
Harold’s invasion fleet, Bayeux Tapestry. (Wikimedia Commons)

As far as I know there is no record of any of the Conqueror’s ships being wrecked on the crossing or attacked on arrival, although perhaps the course of history might have been altered if this had happened . . . I have come across references to a possible wreck among the invasion forces in a secondary source, but have so far not located a contemporary or near-contemporary reference for it, so if anyone knows, please do get in touch!

More securely, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which at least is a contemporary, albeit partial, source, offers tantalising clues that some of Harald Hardrada’s shipborne force may have been destroyed following the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, so we do have details of some virtually contemporary wrecks. (1). It is unclear where, exactly, his ships were berthed or where they were ultimately lost, but it was a significant force of some 300 vessels. It seems, according to the D manuscript of the Chronicle, that the enemy was pusued by the victorious English ‘until they got to their ships’, and they were ‘allowed to depart in 24 ships’.

What happened to the remainder? The Chronicle tells that some at least of the ships were fired – a plausible act of retribution, perhaps, and one easily achievable in haste, as Harold’s weary Saxons turned south to join battle on a second front.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to record notable events in the Old English language even after the Norman Conquest, and in 1091 tells us that the Conquerer’s son, William Rufus, suffered the loss of ‘nearly all’ his fleet in late summer or early autumn gales ‘before they could reach Scotland’ on a punitive expedition against Malcolm III. (2) This suggests that they almost reached their goal, but not quite . . . being dashed to pieces on a rocky shore somewhere north of the Humber is, at best, an educated guess.

Much earlier in the century the Chronicle informs us that Aethelred the Unready was also extremely unlucky with his newly-built fleet of 1008, which appears to have been largely lost in an act of civil strife in 1009. One Brihtric accused one Wulfnoth of the South Saxons before Aethelred and took 80 of Aethelred’s ships stationed at Sandwich against Wulfnoth’s 20, but a storm arose and cast the fleet ashore, whereupon Wulfnoth fired the disabled fleet.(3)  A location somewhere on the Sussex coast seems plausible if conjectural, not too far from Sandwich and within South Saxon territory, with its characteristic sloping beaches allowing easy access for firing the stranded vessels.

These accounts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle allow us a rare glimpse into the world of 11th century shipwrecks and give us a hint of the potential archaeology. In fact the Chronicle is our principal documentary source for wreck events from the 8th century onwards, although occasionally we may discern details of real-life events through other surviving works such as the Life of St. Wilfrid – who definitively existed and is no mythical figure, with an interesting associated wreck event which has a logical rather than supernatural explanation. (4)

The Chronicle was intended to act as a record of major events of socio-political impact so the wrecks it recounts all have several things in common: the most important factor is that all survive because of their connection with significant events and/or people (a common thread in all the Chronicle‘s shipwreck narratives and indeed as far as St. Wilfrid is concerned)..

This significance is also reflected in the fact that all involve ships of war (which, historically, have always been the best-documented of all vessels for obvious reasons). Additionally, the numbers involved in each case were also very large if somewhat vague, adding to the striking nature of each incident, even if they sometimes sound somewhat ’rounded up’ (another characteristic of the Chronicle‘s wreck accounts).

Mercantile and fishing vessels there are none. Later in the Middle Ages we begin to see records for losses of trading ships, and occasionally towards the latter end of the medieval period, we might come across the odd fishing vessel here and there, but these would always be under-represented in the record until well into the post-medieval period.

There is, therefore, an enormous disjunct between documentary sources and archaeology, for 11th century vessels have occasionally been found in a number of contexts, for example at Billingsgate and Southwark, London (5) or at Warrington, none of which have corresponding documentary records (or at least, none have survived that we know of). Although wreck accounts become increasingly plentiful (and increasingly detailed) during the Middle Ages, it is not until the mid 15th century that we are able to tie a wreck site with surviving documentary details.

You may like to read an earlier post, on the legacy of the Normans – shipwrecks laden with Caen stone from Normandy which became a feature of Norman (and later) architecture in England.

(1) Whitelock, D (ed.). 1961. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, pp142-4

(2) Whitelock 1961: 169

(3) Whitelock 1961:88-9

(4) Cant, S. 2013. England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats. Swindon: Historic England Publishing, pp202-6

(5) Marsden, P. 1994. Ships of the Port of London: first to eleventh centuries AD. Swindon: English Heritage, pp153-162

 

 

 

Diary of the War: September 1916

Ville d’Oran

Today we unpack the tale of the steamer Ville d’Oran which foundered 4 miles ESE of Scarborough on 4 or 5 September 1916 (1) while bound from North Shields for Dunkirk with coal.

As was usual in this colonial era, the nationality by which she was recorded at the time was not the nationality we would accord to her now. Her eponymous home port of Oran lies in modern-day Algeria, which at the time was under French rule, and she was accordingly described at the time as a French steamer.

She was a very small steamer of around 400 tons, belonging to the firm of Scotto, Ambrosino, Pugliese & Cie, based in Oran. (2) Her master was one Cantarelli and the ownership and crewing of this vessel reveals a snapshot of the Italian diaspora of the mid-to-late 19th century. Many settled in Algeria, where by the early 20th century they had largely become naturalised French citizens. (3)

This may explain some of the Ville d’Oran‘s background. Built as Islander in 1896 for a Bristol coasting firm, she was then sold into Austro-Hungarian service, registered at Dubrovnik (now in Croatia). Following this her penultimate owners would also be Austro-Hungarian, but this time based in Trieste, now in modern Italy. (For more on Croatian wrecks in English waters, see this post here.)

Scotto, Ambrosino, Pugliese & Cie were primarily involved in the coasting trade, but diversified into longer-range seagoing routes during the First World War, explaining the presence of this small coasting vessel far out of her normal operating grounds in the North Sea. Wrecks of Algerian vessels are rare in English waters and half of the known wrecks date from the First World War, forming a distinct group of three. All were lost running coal from Britain to France, reflecting the demand for British coal in France as the war disrupted access to their own coalfields.

(The other group of Algerian vessels dates from the time of the Sallee Rovers or Barbary corsairs which ventured to England and beyond in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are therefore two historical ‘spikes’ of Algerian ships in English waters for entirely different reasons.)

It is certain that the crew of the Ville d’Oran were rescued by the British trawler Dora Duncan, whose crew received lifesaving medals from a grateful French government in 1917, a ‘silver medal, 2nd class’ for the master, and five bronze medals for each of the other crew members. (4) What they were actually rescuing them from was less clear. The loss of the Ville d’Oran was attributed to a mine, said to have been laid by SMS Kolberg, and she found her way into Lloyd’s War Losses on that basis, but she does not appear in the relevant post-war Naval Staff Monograph which usually covers war losses in some detail.

Wartime censorship meant that her sinking was not widely reported in the press: similarly, by now few newspapers were reporting ship arrivals and departures either as it gave away too much information of use to the enemy. The Liverpool press was one of the few that continued to print these details and by the time the Ville d’Oran‘s departure from North Shields had appeared in their shipping movements column she had already been lost. (5)

The story emerges through the account in another paper of the pilot who gave public and grateful thanks to his rescue by the Dora Duncan:

‘Captain Arthur Dye, of 26, Upper Cliff road, Gorleston-on-Sea, Great Yarmouth, wishes to thank Captain Hutchinson (master) and the crew of the Tees tug Dora Duncan, to whom he owes his life.

‘Captain Dye is a North Sea pilot, and recently left – with the steamer -, bound south. The morning after, when off -, a heavy concussion was felt under the ship’s bottom, and the vessel immediately commenced to settle, taking a heavy list to starboard. Captain Dye seized a lifebuoy, and clambered onto the port side of the ship, which soon sank, drawing him down with her.

‘. . . As the vessel was sinking the lights of the Dora Duncan were seen about a mile and a half distant. The whistle cord was tied down, to keep the whistle blowing to attract her attention.’ (6)

The account goes on to say that in heavy seas and poor weather the Dora Duncan located the sound of the ‘syren’ but her crew could see nothing in the dark. The master made the decision to stand by until daylight, an act of ‘very skilful manoeuvring’, given the conditions. This decision saved the lives of four men of the Ville d’Oran and Captain Dye, who was spotted at half-past five in the morning.

The gallantry awards bestowed by the French Government on Captain Hutchinson and the crew of the Dora Duncan were thus eminently well deserved in their determination to pull off the rescue regardless of the conditions.

The ‘heavy concussion’ might be consistent with a mine but there is no account of an explosion or the disintegration of the vessel (although, again, some censorship might be involved) and elsewhere it is said that the vessel sprang a leak (‘voie d’eau’ in French). (7)

Something caused that ‘concussion’. At this stage of the war there were few mine losses off Scarborough, with most of the casualties for 1916 having occurred in the first quarter of the year and the Rutil disappearing, presumed mined (but unconfirmed) on 13 September. If it was a mine, it was probably an old one, as the attribution to SMS Kolberg suggests (laid in December 1914 during the raid on Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool).

We shall never know, but, interestingly, could the Ville d’Oran have struck the remains of another vessel? For example, the remains of the M C Holm, lost in December 1914 to one of Kolber’s newly-laid mines, lie exactly 4 miles ESE of Scarborough. It is certain that Ville d’Oran does not lie near that vessel, but she clearly took some time to sink, so she may have drifted some distance before finally disappearing beneath the waves. To date she has not been located.

The complex history of the Ville d’Oran is far from over.

 

(1) Sources differ, probably as a result of the vessel’s loss in the middle of the night.

(2) It seems that she may have recently passed out of their ownership to the Société nationale maritime, Rouen, according to the Miramar Ship Index.

(3) Llinares, C, and Lima-Boutin, D, 2008. La Grande Famille de Procida & Ischia: L’émigration italienne de 1830 à 1914: causes, conditions, et conséquences socio-économiques. Paris.

(4) Journal officiel, 17 janvier 1917, p741

(5) Liverpool Daily Post, 6 September 1916, No.19,117, p2

(6) Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, 11 September 1916, p2

(7) http://pages14-18.mesdiscussions.net/