From Woolwich to Paglesham via the Galapagos

HMS Beagle

Designation news: 

The remains of a rare 19th-century dock, a mud berth on the River Roach near Paglesham, Essex, built to accommodate a coastguard watch vessel, are now protected as a nationally important site, designated as a scheduled monument by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.

Mud Docks: 

Mud docks like these were once a common feature of river life, but are now rare and little-known, with only a handful recorded anywhere in England. Characteristic features included shoring to stabilise the sides, stocks to support the ship, and a brick hard. All these features are depicted in a painting by John Constable, depicting a barge being built near his father’s mill at Flatford on the River Stour, which forms the Essex-Suffolk boundary.

Historic oil painting with the barge under construction the central feature of a rural landscape on a flat river plain.
Boat-building near Flatford Mill, John Constable, 1815. © Victoria & Albert Museum An associated dock was excavated and restored at Flatford c.1988.

Coastguard Watch Vessels: 

Similarly, little is known about the history of coastguard watch vessels, which once played a prominent role along from 1822 in the long-running battle against smuggling: before 1822, the Preventive Service and ‘revenue men’ had taken on that role. They used ‘revenue cutters’, fast, small ships capable of intercepting the typically small vessels which brought in contraband and which could negotiate the often difficult waters the smugglers chose to exploit. The Essex coastline with its mud flats was one such area. (1) 

Occasionally these vessels crop up in the record as wrecks in their area of operation, for example, the revenue cutters Felicity, which stranded on a rock among the Isles of Scilly in 1790 after seizing significant quantities of contraband from a smuggling cutter, or the Fox, which stranded in 1824 near Bridport, not far from the Chesil Beach locale which inspired John Meade Falkner’s classic 1898 tale of smuggling, Moonfleet. (2) 

These were, of course, seagoing vessels, but the coastguard also made use of static watch vessels. Static service in one form or another was typical for obsolete naval vessels which nevertheless still had a useful part to play and assignment to a coastguard role was fairly typical: there is a long heritage of such vessels, which have been the subject of previous blogs examining the uses to which they were put, from the 17th century Vogelstruis to Fisgard II in 1914.

A station on the river Roach at Paglesham no doubt provided a commanding position in the flat Essex land- and sea-scape for the coastguard watch vessel. The former HMS Kangaroo, an Acorn-class brig-sloop of 1852, similarly ended up in the Essex marshes from 1870 at nearby Burnham-on-Crouch, and gives a good idea of the appearance of a 19th century coastguard watch vessel and how the Paglesham vessel must once have looked.

Dickens’ Great Expectations of 1861, exactly contemporary with the coastguard watch vessel at Paglesham, describes a similar conversion to a prison hulk (without masts or sails) on the Thames marshes as a ‘black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore’ and a ‘ghostly pirate calling out to me’.

The Paglesham coastguard watch vessel saw a long period in service over a quarter of a century from 1845 to 1870, before being sold to be broken up in situ in the dock. The lower portion of the vessel is believed to have settled into the mud, and therefore potentially survives, and thus there is a history not only of the dock but of the vessel which occupied it for so long.

Modern manipulated colour image of mud and vegetation with the outline of Beagle picked out by a red line.
Multispectral UAV survey involved flying a UAV (drone) fitted with a specialist camera, which captures red, green, infrared, near-infrared light, to create a Neutral Density Vegetation Index (NDVI). This has created a clear outline within the dataset of the original mud dock where HMS Beagle was most likely dismantled, confirming its location. © Wessex Archaeology

However, this is not only a story of a mud dock and the vessel for which it was built, but that vessel’s illustrious antecedents. Its identity was no less than HMS Beagle, famed both for three survey voyages and, above all, an association with one of the key figures of the 19th century. Charles Darwin took part in her second voyage from 1831 to 1836, as a naturalist, a voyage which would prove key in developing one of the scientific milestones of the 19th century and its public fame assured by the publication of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle in 1839.

Background to the Beagle:

Two hundred years ago this month HMS Beagle was launched at Woolwich in May 1820, as one of the numerous and long-lived Cherokee-class brig-sloops, which began to enter the Royal Navy from 1808 onwards. According to the memoirs of John Lort Stokes, a hydrographic surveyor who served aboard Beagle, and who knew Darwin on that second voyage, she stood out from the rest of her class:

The reader will be surprised to learn that she belongs to that much-abused class, the ’10-gun brigs’—COFFINS as they are not infrequently designated in the service; notwithstanding which, she has proved herself, under every possible variety of trial, in all kinds of weather, an excellent sea boat. (3)  

A number of Beagle‘s sister Cherokee-class brig-sloops were certainly wrecked around the English coastline, (4) for example  HMS Jasper (built 1808) which stranded under Mount Batten, Plymouth, in 1817 with significant loss of life in a ‘tremendous gale of wind’, while HMS Fairy (built 1826) capsized and sank with all hands off Kessingland, Suffolk, in 1840.

By contrast, HMS Skylark (built 1826) struck on Kimmeridge Ledge, Dorset in fog with no loss of life in 1845, thanks in great part to the efforts of the local coastguard, a story which also underlines not only a secondary function of the coastguard but also of their importance in the 19th century.

The voyages of the Beagle

After some time laid up out of service (‘in ordinary’ in the parlance of the time) in 1825 HMS Beagle was commissioned into the Hydrographic Service as a surveying vessel, her first voyage to Tierra del Fuego taking place between 1826 and 1830.

Historic black & white print of HMS Beagle in profile view against a backdrop of mountains with native inhabitants looking on from small canoes
HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan: frontispiece from the 1890 edition of Charles Darwin’s Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle (London: John Murray)

The Beagle was refitted and set out for her second and most famous voyage in 1831, returning to South America, this time with Charles Darwin on board as a naturalist: such survey expeditions were an opportunity to add to the body of scientific knowledge concerning regions little known to Europeans at that time, as well as to undertake chart-making surveys. This was the voyage which visited the Galapagos Islands and led to Darwin beginning to evolve his principles of natural selection, published as On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Beagle returned once more to England in 1836 and set out again the following year, this time on a survey of Australia which would last until 1843. It was after these three arduous voyages that Beagle was demoted to a coastguard watch vessel, until sold for breaking. Breaking in situ was again typical for vessels which were no longer suitable for any service, as was abandonment after a partial breaking, which then became a secondary stage of a wreck process in itself, as seems to have been the case with the Beagle.

While the Beagle, his former home for five years, was literally sinking into obscurity among the mud-flats of Essex, by contrast Darwin’s fame continued to grow. He settled at Down House, Kent, in 1842, where he led a life of active scientific research and publication against no little controversy surrounding his theories of evolution, before his death in 1882. Each layer of significance in the history of the mud dock at Paglesham is fascinating in its own right, and is all the more special for its association with the remains of a very special vessel.

Modern colour photo of historic Victorian desk with shelf and drawer files and scientific instruments.
Detail view of the Old Study of Charles Darwin’s home at Down House DP053644 © Historic England Archive

References: 

(1) Benham, H. 1986. The Smugglers’ Century: the story of smuggling on the Essex coast, 1730-1830 (Chelmsford: Essex Record Office Publications)

(2) Information derived from Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database

(3) Stokes, J. 1846. Discoveries in Australia; with an account of the coasts and rivers explored and surveyed during the voyage of HMS Beagle, in the years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43 by Command of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. Vol. 1. (London: T and W Boone)

(4) Information derived from Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database

VE Day

Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on 8 May 1945 we look at the very last craft of any kind to be lost off the coast of England.

The last few months of the war saw a significant decline in shipping and aircraft losses over the sea attributable to war causes. The last six weeks of the war saw 10 shipping casualties to war causes in English waters. Over the same period there were 6 aircraft lost to non-war causes (mechanical failure or accident, for example).

The seventh and last aircraft, and last loss of the war in English waters, was the exception, and a war loss, despite its peaceable mission – just one day before the celebration of Victory in Europe. And it is to events in Europe we must turn first of all to understand the mission of the last aircraft of the war to find a grave with most of its crew in England’s territorial sea.

Background:

As the end of the war approached, there was real desperation in the occupied Netherlands after the arduous Hongerwinter [“Hunger Winter”) of 1944-5, of whom one of the best-known survivors was the actress Audrey Hepburn, whose mother was Dutch and who grew up in the Netherlands.

The Hongerwinter arose from a terrible combination of circumstances, any one of which on its own would have been bad enough Although the Allies pushed ahead after breaking out from Normandy, the objective of Arnhem in the Netherlands in September 1944 during Operation Market Garden proved a ‘bridge too far’. Attempted strikes by Dutch railway personnel led to retaliation by the occupiers, preventing food supplies from getting through, and when this blockade was lifted, there were overwhelming obstacles to overseas relief efforts. Although the Allies had managed to capture Antwerp in September 1944, it was several weeks before the port could be used and, even if it had been in use earlier, the the occupied western provinces of the Netherlands with the greatest population density,  and least agricultural land, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam, remained cut off. The canals and rivers froze early that winter and fuel for lorries was scarce. Limited relief supplies from neutral Sweden and Switzerland had helped a little but the situation remained dire. (1) 

Sepia pen and ink wash of seated woman in hat with a boy and a girl in the background.
‘They have taken all, and our food’, Netherlands. Eric William Taylor, 1944, purchased by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Taylor would go on to record the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.  © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 4989

The relief effort: 

Even as the Allies closed in on Berlin and the end of the war in Europe, they were able to refocus from a purely offensive approach towards a relief effort and the rebuilding of a new Europe. The Lancasters of the RAF and the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF based in England, which had so recently been deployed on bombing missions were perfectly suited to dropping food parcels to the Netherlands, and thus Operations Manna (RAF) and Chowhound (USAAF) were born.

Historic B&W photo of six men loading the sacks, their uniforms streaked with escaped flour.
Operation Manna: Ground crew of No.514 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, loading cement bags filled with foodstuffs into the bomb bay of a Lancaster bomber, 29 April 1945, destined for those parts of Holland still under German occupation. © IWM CL 2490

It was a massive logistical effort which drew upon the resources of the Allied airfields of East Anglia at very short notice from mid-April 1945, with the situation becoming urgent against German resistance and the risk of further deliberate flooding both of agricultural fields and transport infrastructure a real possibility. There were no spare parachutes available, so safe conduct for low-level food drops was arranged, to begin in late April 1945.

Black & white photo of Dutch citizen waving at three aircraft flying low over a town.
Dutch citizens wave as food is dropped from Lancaster bombers over the Netherlands in April 1945. Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst Eigen © Nationaal Archief, CC0 120-0739

The mission: 

Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640 of the 334th Bomber Squadron, 95th Bomb Group, set out from USAAF Horham in Suffolk on 7 May 1945, the day after the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands and the day before Victory in Europe day. Along with its precious cargo of food there were 13 on board, including observers from the station’s Photographic Section, all anticipating a routine mission.

Nose and two engines of silver aircraft inside a hangar with white roof.
A B17G Flying Fortress under restoration at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, Georgia, USA. Jud McCranie, CC BY-SA 4.0

Following a successful drop 44-8640 turned for home. There were still pockets of resistance from the occupation forces, which is believed to have had a bearing on subsequent events. No. 2 engine was reported as ‘running rough’, with smoke and oil, thought to originate from rogue flak fired by the occupation forces at the aircraft in the IJmuiden area. (2) 

According to a crashed aircraft recovery specialist based at RAF Ford, Sussex, in 1944, crew would nurse their crippled aircraft, whether shot up, suffering mechanical failure, or simply running out of fuel, back from overseas missions to the English coastline, but would then often be forced to crash-land at or near the nearest available base, unable to make it back to their home bases. (3) 

As the situation worsened, the crew of 44-8640 realised that reaching the coast was going to be impossible and, fearing an explosion, they baled out over the sea off Suffolk, in the vicinity of Benacre Ness or Southwold, with one survivor recalling that the engine dropped away in a ‘ball of flame’ as he got away. The aircraft then fell into the sea.

Two men were picked up alive by a Catalina flying boat after some time in the water, and it is their testimony that enables us to know what happened to 44-8640, but the remainder of the crew were killed, including the observers.

Commemoration: 

Those of the crew whose bodies were recovered were interred at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, Cambridge, but others were never found and are presumed entombed with the aircraft on the seabed.

Five aircraft seen in a blue sky with angel h
Detail of a mosaic on the ceiling of the chapel at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, depicting aircraft being escorted by angels. James O Davies DP180621 © Historic England Archive

This, the final loss of any craft in English waters to war causes, was also one of the cruel tragedies of the war: to be shot at over the Netherlands and to keep the aircraft airborne so many miles only to lose the battle so close to the English coast, and all on a humanitarian mission. Somewhere off the coast lie its remains, which are yet to be discovered but which are automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Victory in Europe was, perhaps, a collective sigh of relief, but it was not the end of the war, which would only come in August 1945 with VJ Day. It was a victory achieved at a huge human cost which has left legible traces in the historic environment – the destruction of historic fabric from London to Coventry and beyond, the legible traces in standing buildings from the suburban semi to national museums, the construction of military installations that have since become ‘historic’ in themselves, the legacy of commemoration – and the remains of ships and aircraft on the seabed, lost to war causes over the years from 1939 to 1945.

References: 

(1) For more detail on this subject, see Sutch, A. 2016 “Manna from Heaven”, RAF Museum blog, online

(2) Onderwater, H. 1985 Operation Manna/Chowhound: the Allied food droppings April?may 1945 Netherlands: Unieboek

(3) Oral history testimony, Ronald Cant (RAF Corporal, 1942-1946) as told to his daughter in reminiscing over D-Day, 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diary of the War: April 1940

HMS/M Unity

This month the focus in our diary of the war at sea is on the submarine HMS Unity, sunk on 29 April 1940.

One of the key dangers for submarines in the early decades of the 20th century was the risk of collision with surface ships, although this risk lessened with the increasing sophistication of detection technologies.

At the same time, while convoy provided ships with a degree of safety against a common enemy, it also occasionally raised the risk of collision with other ships in the convoy. For example, there are sporadic reports of collision in convoy in English waters during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while they also occurred during the First World War (see our previous post on War Knight, 1918).

For HMS Unity it was a collision of causes, as well as a collision in fact, as she came in contact off the Northumbrian coast with a surface ship, the SS Atle JarlUnity was on the North Sea patrol and left her base at Blyth on 17.30 on 29 April 1940 on a northerly course in conditions of poor visibility, while Atle Jarl was steaming south in convoy from Methil to the Tyne. Neither vessel saw the other until they were virtually on top of one another and Atle Jarl struck the submarine upon the port bows, sinking within five minutes. (1) Four of the Unity‘s crew would lose their lives: Lt John Niven Angus Low and AB Henry James Miller went down with the submarine, while Leading Seaman James Sneddon Hare and Stoker 1st Class Cecil Shelton drowned before the boats sent out from the Atle Jarl could rescue them. (2)

Historic B&W photograph of submarine on the surface of an otherwise empty sea.
HMS Unruly, like HMS Unity a U-class submarine, seen from the air in February 1945. © IWM (A 28318)

The voyages of both vessels were connected with the same event on the international stage – the fall of Norway on 9 April 1940. On 6 April Atle Jarl had left Shields on the north-east coast for Trondheim in Norway. She put into Methil Roads in Scottish waters the following day then set off for Norway, but events then forced her to put back. She then left Methil to return to Shields on 29 April. (3) On that same day Unity‘s intended voyage was in the opposite direction, to Norway, where the Allies were still involved in a campaign to dislodge the Nazi occupiers.

The previous month Unity had made headlines in Britain and the Netherlands with her rescue of eight survivors from the crew of the Dutch trawler Protinus, who had been bobbing about without food or water in an open boat in the North Sea for six days, after their vessel had been attacked and sunk by a German aircraft. Two men were killed in the attack and two succumbed afterwards as they drifted: eerily prefiguring the losses aboard Unity, two in the incident and two in the sea afterwards. The survivors were landed at a Scottish east coast port and Unity‘s crew ‘received the congratulations of Queen Wilhelmina, of Holland.’ (4)

Historic B & W photograph of men surrounding a survivor in a cork lifejacket.
A survivor from Protinus is helped from HMS Unity by her crew in one of a sequence of photographs which shows individual survivors being landed. Some of these images were then published in Dutch newspapers. © IWM (A 16)

The loss of Unity herself, however, was a completely different matter. The press was silent on the subject, although allusions to the rescue of the Dutch fishermen cropped up at intervals during the war, either as her crew subsequently took part in successful engagements, or were awarded medals. The only clue to the submarine’s loss, perhaps, was that they gained these awards in other vessels: but this would only be known by the men and their families, and to the outside world their presence aboard other submarines would have been masked by the transfer of postings through career progression, particularly for officers.

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we are able to read between the lines.

For example, the news that AB Jones had received the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for ‘daring, enterprise and devotion to duty on successful patrols in HM Submarines’ was accompanied by a reminder of the Protinus rescue and the fact that he was ‘subsequently posted to HM Submarine Utmost.’ (5) Most of the crew were indeed subsequently divided between Utmost and Upright, and at least one went to submarine P311(6) 

Nor were the survivors the only ones to receive gallantry awards. On 16 August 1940 both Lt Low and AB Miller were posthumously awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal, which was exchanged for the new award of the George Cross instituted just a month later. Even then only their branch of service was recorded: ‘HM Submarines’ – but the citation was specifically for ‘gallantry in loss of ship in collision’. (7) 

The sinking of Unity by collision at 7.15pm on 29 April ‘off the Farne Islands’ did not reach the public domain, but was reported on 1 May to the War Cabinet, who were also notified that ‘Divers from Scapa were being hurried to the Tyne.’ (8) It was noted at the next day’s meeting, however, that diving operations had been unsuccessful and that: ‘The few men remaining in her could only be saved, however, if they made their own escape by using the Davies [sic] apparatus.’ (9)

Historic B&W photograph of man wearing the apparatus in a tank while the trainees watch.
An instructor coming to the surface during a demonstration of the Davis apparatus, as trainees for the submarine service look on, at HMS Dolphin, Gosport, 14 December 1942. © IWM (A 13884)

It was only after the war in Europe was over in May 1945 that the news of Unity‘s loss made its way into the public domain when the Admiralty ‘revealed its secret losses, which could not be announced before without giving Germany information.’ (10) 

The managed lack of information was one thing; it was a necessity for the safe conduct of the war and for public morale, and did not mean at all that nothing was done behind the scenes. As we have seen, the War Cabinet was notified of a rescue attempt, and the gallantry of Lt Low and AB Miller in remaining behind and assisting their crewmates to escape, even at the risk of their own lives, was recognised within months of the event.

In the interim, a Court of Inquiry was convened at Blyth. There it emerged that the poor visibility was not the only contributory factor to the disaster, but a missing piece of information had also played its part in shaping the course of events, and that was an entirely different matter.

A signal had come through to Blyth from Rosyth to warn of the impending Methil-Tyne convoy in the swept war channels, but this, for some reason, had not reached Unity. This reasons for this were examined in detail, but no-one recalled having sight of the signal – neither the signalman who should have been able to collect it before sailing, nor the navigating officer, nor the commanding officer. Procedures at the shoreside signal distribution office were minutely examined to account for the discrepancy, but as the confidential papers had gone down with the submarine, there was no conclusive paper trail to demonstrate or corroborate whether the signal had been collected or not collected, never seen or seen but overlooked in the haste to put to sea. (11)

These seemingly routine tasks could make the difference between life and death, and it could be said that ‘for want of a signal a submarine was lost’, and four lives. Whether her presence would have altered the course of the struggle for Norway, we will never know, but it is a reminder that in wartime each person was a very small cog in larger cogs that moved enormous wheels, and individual events had a cumulative effect on outcomes far away. The history of Unity also reminds us that while ships have always saved people from wrecks, only to be wrecked in their turn (sometimes many years later), under the circumstances of war these sequences of events were both more frequent, and compressed into shorter spans of time.

 

References: 

(1) Atle Jarl entry onwarsailors.com 

(2) Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, results for 29.04.1940

(3) p1 of Atle Jarl‘s convoy register (in English), National Archives of Norway, repr. on warsailors.com

(4) Algemeen Handelsblad (in Dutch), 30 March 1940, No.37,063, p3; Daily Record, 1 April 1940; Middlesex Chronicle, 16 May 1942, No.4,352, p5

(5) Birmingham Post, 7 November 1940, No.25,681 p3

(6) Middlesex Chronicle, 16 May 1942, No.4,352, p5; Evans, A. 1986 Beneath the Waves: A history of HM Submarine losses 1904-1971 (London: William Kimber)

(7) London Gazette, Friday 16 August 1940, No.34,924, p5059; TNA ADM 1/11525

(8) TNA CAB 65/7/1

(9) TNA CAB 65/7/2

(10) “Naval Chronicle”, Hampshire Telegraph & Post, 25 May 1940, No.8,469, p12

(11) Evans, A. 1986 Beneath the Waves: A history of HM Submarine losses 1904-1971 (London: William Kimber)

 

Looking at the weather

The wreck of the Heidrun

I am very pleased to welcome my next guest blogger for this edition, local wreck historian Robert Felce, who has kindly shared with us his research into the history of the SS Heidrun, lost off Mullion, Cornwall, in December 1915.

Over to Robert:

As the Great War raged from 1914-18 on the Western Front there was also war on the high seas from the Atlantic to the Baltic, and from the English Channel to the Mediterranean. Ships from many lands fell victim to German mines and torpedoes, and neutral countries such as Norway were not immune.

This is the story of the SS Heidrun, built in 1871 by Palmer’s of Jarrow as the iron screw steamer Vildosala. (1) As Vildosala she had run down the SS Kottingham in 1897 and was involved in 6 further collision events. (2) In 1902 she was sold to Libau (then part of the Russian Empire as the Governorate of Courland, now Liepāja in the modern state of Latvia) as the Dalny or Dal’niy, then to her final owners in Christiana (now Oslo) as the Heidrun in 1909. (3)

Throughout her career she appears to have operated primarily as a collier, which also seems to have been her wartime role, and we can place her on a voyage from Swansea to Rouen with coal in November 1915. (4) On 24 December 1915 Heidrun once more departed Swansea Coal Docks for Rouen with anthracite coal and 15 crew, under Capt. Gustav Olsen. (5)

Swansea had a long-standing connection with Norway, which arose from the importation of timber pit-props from Scandinavia for use in the coal mines of South Wales, with coal being transported back to Norway. A Norwegian church opened in Newport in the 1890s but was physically relocated to Swansea in 1909-10. (6) [Take a look at Historic England’s picture gallery for the Norwegian church, Rotherhithe, built in 1927, including its war memorial dedicated to the seamen of Norway lost in the First World War, which was listed in 2017.]

Simple black and white church with small black Nordic spire, and flagpole adjacent to the church.
Norwegian Church, Swansea, in its present position, having been relocated in 2004 for the second time in its history,  this time within Swansea. © Ann on geograph.org.uk (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rouen, on the River Seine, was used as a supply base for the British, and was also a major hospital base for injured soldiers, with a number of large, well-run, hospitals. Coal was a much-needed resource for both the French and English troops, as well as the French population.

As the Heidrun set out on her ill-fated journey, the Christmas truce of 1915, less well-known than the 1914 equivalent, was taking place on the Western Front. Coal-fired braziers were lit in No-Man’s Land and troops on both sides sang hymns and exchanged small gifts. (7). For the Heidrun, the weather on the outward journey south towards Land’s End was poor, with a developing low pressure system bringing SW gale force winds, not the most attractive way to spend Christmas. (8)

Mullion Coastguard were later to report that, about 10.30am on 27 December, at the height of the gale, a steamer was observed some 4 miles off Mullion pitching and tossing in the terrible sea that was running in Mount’s Bay, buffeted by the ‘howling’ SW gale. For half an hour, her laboured progress was watched with anxiety by those on shore – and then she disappeared from view. (9)

Sandy beach enclosed by green field headlands, clear blue water under a blue sky.
Church Cove, Gunwalloe, north of Mullion. © Bob Felce (Mullion)

There was no help at hand, and no ships close by to go to her aid. The last Mullion lifeboat had been removed in July 1908 and in such a SW gale the Penzance and Porthleven lifeboats would have been unable to launch.

Evidence of the steamer’s identity gradually reached the shore when wreckage and lifebuoys were washed up bearing the names Heidrun and Christiana. The coastguard passed the information to Lloyd’s in Penzance, who matched the information with the departure of the Heidrun from Swansea on 24 December.

There were no survivors, with an unidentified male body being recovered at Halzephron on 28 December, and two more at Poldhu on 29 and 30 December. (10) At the subsequent coroner’s inquest evidence of drowning was given and the evidence of the wind and tide led to their identification as the crew of the Heidrun. (11) Two further bodies were found at Porthleven on 25 January, with it being concluded that they were ‘found drowned’ and probably came from the wreck of the Heidrun. (12) There is no recorded evidence that the bodies of the remaining crewmen ever came ashore. On 10 February Heidrun was added to Lloyd’s ‘Missing’ list. (13)

It seems that much of the above information was never subsequently considered and it was recorded in some quarters that she had quite likely struck a mine (for example, ‘missing, presumed mined’ in Lloyd’s War Losses). (14) Reviewing the sinking also suggests that there has since been only a superficial examination of weather data at the time of loss.

However, in the Meteorological Office (Met Office) summary for the month of December 1915, gales were reported ‘every day’ from the 22nd onwards, in particular noting that:

A deep system travelled up from the Azores, arriving on the Irish coast in the morning of the 27th and reaching Denmark the following day. It was a fast-moving system . . .  marked by the most destructive gale of the month with a strong to a whole SW gale, raging over England generally . . . with violent squalls . . . winds which attained a velocity of 39 m/s [metres per second] at Plymouth and 40 m/s at Scilly and Pendennis.’ (15)

These wind speeds at the time Heidrun was passing through Mount’s Bay, (which lies between the observation points of Scilly to the west and Pendennis to the east), translate to 87-89mph [140-143kph]. Further detail is available in the daily weather reports, showing that at Newquay, Cornwall, the wind was WSW force 8 all day, while on the Isles of Scilly it was observed to be at SW force 8 between 7am and 1pm, gusting at 39 m/s at 9am. At Falmouth the wind was observed to be at WSW force 9 between 8am and 1pm, gusting to 40 m/s at 9.45am. (16)

Historic hand-drawn weather chart on a blue background.
Meteorological Office chart for 27 December 1915. © Crown Copyright 1915. Information provided by the National Meteorological Library and Archive – Met Office, UK

It is suggested that the evidence for a mine or torpedo strike is not present as no evidence of an explosion was seen or heard by the watchers on shore. [Serena adds: Assessment of the other wrecks in English waters for that month strengthens this suggestion. In terms of losses to war causes, December 1915 was a relatively quiet month, with one vessel torpedoed, one sunk by gun action, and 11 mined, primarily among the minefields on the east coast. (17) 

No other vessels were lost on 27 December 1915 to storm conditions, but on 31 December, another ship, the schooner Dana of Helsingør, was a victim of the storms reported by the Met Office as continuing up to the end of the month. (18) She sprang a leak after labouring for several days across the North Sea in a storm with high seas, again consistent with the Met Office’s reporting of its trajectory. It was then decided to steer for the nearest land, and she drove ashore at Cullernose Point, Northumberland. (19)]

The date of the Heidrun wreck in 1915 also excludes another cause of loss particular to Norwegian ships later in the war, in 1917, which also specifically affected those leaving Norway itself. Even so, it is an interesting story in its own right and worth covering briefly here. In 1917 Norwegian concern grew over a number of their ships which had been mysteriously lost at sea, mostly with all hands, although the survivors of some of these mysterious incidents reported sudden explosions and fires which broke out in such a manner as to convince those present that they were due to ‘infernal machines’ – rather than an explosion through an external cause such as mine or torpedo. (20)

Investigations by the chief of Oslo police, Johan Søhr, led to the discovery of a bomb plot led by one ‘Baron von Rautenfels’, a Finnish national who was working for German intelligence under cover of the diplomatic service. Diplomatic baggage was used to courier explosives into Norway, including incendiary devices disguised as pieces of coal to be placed in the coal bunkers, where in some cases they were discovered shortly after leaving harbour in Norway. (21) [An online album by Norwegian broadcaster NRK (in Norwegian) depicts the quantities of smuggled bombs. The sixth picture in the album shows a bomb disguised as a piece of coal.]

Thus the very specific wind conditions under which the Heidrun was labouring on 27 December 1915 seem the most likely explanation for her loss, probably compounded by other factors. Was the fully-laden steamer able to handle such sea conditions and high winds? Might she have developed an engine fault or had water ingress through open hatches, which were both common causes of foundering for colliers? [Serena adds: for example, the fate of her compatriot Odd, which foundered in 1910 with all hands in a gale off Woolacombe, Devon, sounds very similar. In 1894 the British collier Zadne capsized and sank off Worthing, which was attributed to a shift in her cargo, while another British collier, the Grimsby, sprang a leak and foundered off Westward Ho! in 1897. Such incidents were not, of course, unique to colliers or confined to steamships, but certainly give an idea of the variety of severe structural and mechanical stresses possible under ‘stress of weather’, in the historic maritime phrase. (22)]

We may never know, but by November 1916 242 Norwegian ships had been sunk, comprising 182 steamers and 60 sailing ships, insured for 142m kroner or almost £8m. By 1918 the figures for Norway’s commercial shipping losses had risen to 829 ships for 1,240,000 tons, representing an insurance loss of approximately 1,000m kroner. (23)

The toll in lives lost was immense, including the 15 crew of the Heidrun. Following enquiries from the lost crew’s relatives in Norway some 20 years ago, a memorial stone was placed in the burial ground at the Church of St. Winwaloe, Gunwalloe.

Modern B&W photograph of simple gravestone carved only with text.
Headstone commemorating the lost crew of the Heidrun: G Olsen, J Olsen, P Rasmussen, R J Knudsen, A M Andersen, P Mortensen, M Santa, D Rickard, H Waather, A Alberti, E M Løvle, T Sihanna, J Syrgraven, A Brenha, and C Carlsen.  © Bob Felce (Mullion)

The wreck now attributed to the Heidrun in Mount’s Bay was described in 1981 as the ‘wreck of an old steamer of the era 1880-1900’ and has since been observed as having a 2-cylinder compound engine, consistent with the vessel as built at Palmer’s, Jarrow, in 1871 and replaced by their subsidiary, John Eltringham, South Shields in 1881. (24) No anthracite cargo was observed, and it may well have been washed away, particularly given the collapsed state of the wreck, but the recovery of a maker’s plate before 2003 enabled identification of the site as the Heidrun. (25)

The wreck is no longer intact and has collapsed outwards. Perhaps this is partly due to historic salvage, but from the 2003 observations one feature jumps out: the port boiler was in place but the starboard boiler lies at an angle. (26) Could this suggest one of the possible mechanical stresses on the vessel during that storm over a hundred years ago?

Footnotes: 

(1) Auction Notice for Vildosala and Chavarri, The Gazette for Middlesborough 1.5.1872

(2) Kottingham wreck: Lloyd’s List 1.11.1897. For some of the other incidents, please see, for example, collision with Patria, off Berdyans’k, Lloyd’s List 2.5.1878; collision with Tagus at Shields, 1894, Aberdeen Press and Journal 6.2.1894; Drogden lightship incident, York Herald, 25.6.1899; collision with other steamers in Gravesend Reach, Shields Daily Gazette 20.7.1901, all as Vildosala; and as Dal’niy, collision with Fountains Abbey off Queensferry, Linlithgow Gazette 10.11.1903

(3) Shields Daily Gazette 28.11.1902; Lloyd’s List 24.5.1909

(4) Shields Daily News 9.11.1915

(5) The Scotsman 30.12.1915

(6) http://www.swanseadocks.co.uk/Norwegian%20Church.htm

(7) The forgotten Christmas Truce” , Daily Telegraph, 26.12.2015

(8) Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Monthly Weather Report for the Meteorological Office, Vol. XXXIII (New Series), No.XII, December 1915

(9) “The Mullion Disaster”, Cornishman, 6.1.1916

(10) “The Mullion Disaster”, Cornishman, 6.1.1916; Cornishman, 13.1.1916

(11) Cornishman, 3.1.1916

(12) “Bodies washed ashore at Porthleven”, Cornishman, 27.1.1916

(13) Cornishman, 10.2.1916

(14) Lloyd’s War Losses for the First World War: casualties to shipping through enemy causes 1914-18, p299

(15) Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Monthly Weather Report for the Meteorological Office, Vol. XXXIII (New Series), No.XII, December 1915

(16) Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Daily Weather Reports for December 1915, 27 December 1915, p112

(17) Source: examination of Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, April 2020

(18)  Source: examination of Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, April 2020

(19) Handelsministeriet, 1916: Statistisk oversigt over de i aaret 1915 for danske skibe i danske og fremmede farvande samt for fremmede skibe i danske farvande indtrufne søulykker (in Danish) (Copenhagen: Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri)

(20) The Globe, 25.6.1917

(21) “Bombs at Christiana”, Cambridge Daily News, 25.6.1917; “Discovery of a vast German plot against Norway”, Yorkshire Telegraph and Star, 25.6.1917

(22) Source: examination of Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, April 2020

(23) Gloucestershire Echo, 5.12.1916; Derby Daily Telegraph, 6.1.1919

(24)Vildosala fitted with new engines”, Shields Daily News 2.9.1881; UKHO No. 16233; “Wreck Tour 49: The Heidrun, Divernet, nd, originally published in Diver, March 2003

(25) UKHO No.16233, “Wreck Tour 49: The Heidrun, Divernet, nd, originally published in Diver, March 2003

(26) “Wreck Tour 49: The Heidrun, Divernet, nd, originally published in Diver, March 2003

 

 

Diary of the War: March 1940

Capitaine Augustin

This month’s War Diary commemorates the loss of the French collier Capitaine Augustin on 17 March 1940. She was built for the Union Industrielle et Marine by Chantiers Navals Français in 1922. In common with many other French ships, both civilian and naval, constructed immediately after the First World War, she was named after a ‘naval hero of the late war’ whose family remained untraced, or they would have been invited to the launch ceremony on 14 February 1922. (1) [See also our previous post on another, similarly named, collier, Mousse Le Moyec, which would in her turn be wrecked in December 1940.]

Reporting of the incident through official British channels (the Press Association War Special) was terse: ‘The French steamer, Capitaine Augustin (3,137 tons), of Havre, bound in ballast to an East Coast of England port, was mined and sunk off the East Coast on Sunday, and two of her crew of 30 were killed.’ (2)  Similar clues, or even fewer, were present in French sources: for example, in the extract illustrated below, the only clue as to the whereabouts of the wreck lies in the reporting of the wreck from Londres or London.

French language newspaper extract consisting of headline at top, black and white photograph of stern view of ship with her name Capitaine Augustin in white letters in the middle, followed by short French text below.
Headline from L’Ouest-Eclair, 20 March 1940, No.15,835: “War at Sea: the cargo vessel Capitaine Augustin sinks after being mined. Two injured, two missing.” Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Some detail did emerge: the injured were the wireless operator and a gunner, which suggested that the vessel was armed for self-defence. In fact, Capitaine Augustin had been requisitioned by the French authorities in December 1939, so it seems likely that she received her armament then. (3)

The explosion took place within sight of shore: ‘hundreds’ locally heard the explosion and ‘watched from the pier while the lifeboat dashed seven miles to the sinking ship.’ (4) The survivors were landed at a ‘south-east coast town’. Eight must have endured quite a fright as the ship began to sink, as they were trapped below by ‘some doors which had jammed’, but they were fortunately rescued by their crewmates hacking the doors down. (5)  It was for just this reason that internal steel netting was provided at least on British ships later in the war, so that in the event of the ship being struck and stairways destroyed, those below decks had a ladder and a means of scrambling up on deck to the lifeboats. (6) 

The human interest angle, so important in journalism at any time, came to the fore in wartime. Here we can see how the details of the crew looking after their own, while onlookers willed on the lifeboat speeding to the rescue, took precedence over any locational detail either of the mine or of the ship’s intended voyage, other than in the most vague terms. That way such details receded into insignificance and gave little or no information to the enemy on the success or otherwise of their operations. (7)

The mines had been laid the previous month by 1. Zerstörer-Flotille (1st Destroyer Flotilla) of the German Kriegsmarine in the ‘Shipwash area’ off the northern approaches to the Thames. This tallies with the emphasis on the east and south-east coasts in the details given in the British press. (8) An unattributed French source, based on the activities of 1. Zerstörer-Flotille, states the location of loss as 2.5 miles 126 degrees from the Tongue lightvessel in the Thames Estuary. (9)  

The wreck site has been securely charted since 1940, and, of course, at the time the position of the vessel would have been noted by the rescuers. The timing of its first charting is interesting, as it was charted in mid-June 1940 as a dangerous wreck, so of course it suggests that it was one more hazard to avoid for all the ‘Little Ships’ that shuttled from the Thames Estuary to Dunkirk and back between 26 May and 4 June 1940.

Following dispersal in 1946, the location of the wreck was reported in relation to a wartime feature constructed since the date of the wreck, the Tongue Sand Tower (Tongue Sand Fort) – rather than being noted in relation to the lightvessel, even though the latter remained on station until its decommissioning after 1980. The Tongue Sand Fort was one of the Maunsell Forts built for the defence of the Thames Estuary during 1942-3. (For more on the Maunsell Forts, see 7 Treasures of the Thames Estuary on Historic England’s other blog, Heritage Calling.)

Contemporary B&W photograph of twin-legged sea fort painted in dazzle camouflage
The Tongue Sand Tower was a Maunsell ‘Navy’ type fort, such as the one depicted here. © IWM (A 26878)

All that now remains of the Tower is a stump following its collapse in 1996, while the dispersed wreck site of the Capitaine Augustin appears to have disappeared beneath the sands, (10) yet together they point to the wartime legacy of this patch of the Thames Estuary.

(1) L’Ouest-Eclair, 15 February 1922, No.7,409, p6

(2) Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1

(3) Bulletin officiel des armées: arrêté no.56 de 12 juin 1954 (in French)

(4) Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1

(5) Thanet Advertiser, 21 March 1940, p5

(6) Oral history testimony from Corporal Cant RAF, 2006, recounting his experiences aboard the Dutch troopship Johan de Witt operated by the British Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) in convoy Clyde – Lagos, November 1944.

(7) Thomson, G (1947) Blue Pencil Admiral  (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd) provides an informative account of how censorship and information management worked in practice for the duration of the war.

(8) Rohwer, Jürgen & Hümmelchen, Gerhard, “Februar 1940“, Chronik des Seekrieges, published online (Württembergisches Landesbibliothek, 2007-2020) (in German)

(9) http://uim.marine.free.fr/hisnav/archives/carpass/cap_augustin.htm (in French)

(10) http://www.bobleroi.co.uk/ScrapBook/TongueTower/TongueTower.html, which provides an interesting overview and many photographs of the Tower throughout its history; UKHO 14046

Glass from the sea

What can scientific investigation of glass from wrecks tell us?

For British Science Week (6-15 March 2020) I am delighted to welcome my colleague Dr Sarah Paynter, Materials Scientist at Historic England, as our guest blogger. She describes some of her recent work involving analysis of glass from wreck sites and what these finds can tell us about wrecks. Some of the key finds recently analysed include those from designated wreck sites, such as the wreck of the London, lost off Southend-on-Sea 355 years ago this week on 7 March 1665, or the ‘Wheel Wreck’ off the Isles of Scilly.

Over to Sarah: 

The Historic England laboratories at Fort Cumberland specialise in the conservation and analysis of all kinds of ancient and historical materials. We have worked on archaeological glass for many years but when our remit expanded to include wreck sites, we had the opportunity to work on glass artefacts recovered from the sea. It has been an eye-opening experience . . .

Modern aerial view of military complex facing the sea.
Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth, a pentagonal fort dating from the 18th century, now used by Historic England as an archaeological research establishment. NMR 15548_7  © Historic England

Cargo vessels and warships alike contain a surprising amount of glass, some as part of the vessel structure, such as windows at the stern, but there are also glass components in the instruments (sand glasses and sundial/compasses) and personal belongings (spectacles and mirrors), as well as fine goblets for officers’ use, and often a great many glass bottles and beads amongst the cargo.

Glass bottles:

On a wreck site this glass can be found scattered in a debris field and the preservation can often be remarkable – despite terrible explosions, navigational errors, violent storms and loss of life, glass bottles can still occasionally be found intact and unopened with the stopper in place.

Archaeological record photo of glass bottle neck with scale and tag.
Glass bottle, ‘opened’ only by the wreck process, but with the cork stopper still in place, from the wreck of the warship the London, 1665. © Historic England

Ironically, a damaged object generally holds more promise for us than an intact one, because we can usually take a small, fairly unobtrusive sample from a previous break. We use pincers or glass cutters to clip the broken edge, giving us a sample a few millimetres across, which exposes fresh glass. We need this fresh surface to obtain a good chemical analysis because even seemingly well-preserved objects are altered by their time in the depths.

The surface is usually covered in a fragile skin of iridescent, flaky, weathered glass, as well as concretions, marine organisms and sandy mud, all of which limit the usefulness of surface analyses. We can identify old breaks because these also have a matt, altered surface, whereas any breaks that have occurred during recovery and post-excavation handling are shiny and smooth.

An archaeological record view of a rounded glass bottle with a scale rule adjacent.
A glass bottle from the wreck of the London, pictured after recovery; it is encrusted with barnacles and algae, which are removed during conservation. © Historic England

The chemical make-up of the glass, and the environment that it has lain in, both have a huge impact on its condition when it is recovered centuries later. English medieval glass made before the mid-16th century tends to degrade very quickly, whereas later glass can be miraculously preserved because it is chemically more resistant to weathering (Historic England 2018).

Rounded bottle with scale rule in foreground.
A very small (~5cm wide) glass flask with spiral ribbing (PORMR80A1565) from the Mary Rose (lost 1545). This lovely object would originally have been transparent green but has weathered so that it is brown and opaque, and hardly recognisable as glass © Mary Rose Trust

Scientific analysis of glass: 

We use several different analysis techniques in our work, depending on our research questions, the size and condition of the object, and whether we can take a sample. The scanning electron microscope (SEM) can show us the structure on a microscopic scale, as well as chemical composition, even if the sample is only a few millimetres wide.

Beads dotted around in a circular resin mount.
Tiny white, blue, yellow and green glass post-medieval beads (each a few mm wide), from the site of an unidentified wreck, mounted in resin ready for SEM analysis. © Historic England

The benchtop XRF (X-ray fluorescence) spectrometer provides similar chemical information and we can sometimes fit intact objects into the machine, which is ideal if we cannot take a sample from them. We also have a portable XRF machine, which gives less complete results, but which can be used on any object, even those that are still wet or very large. It can also be taken out on site as it is about the size of a hairdryer and not much heavier.

Arms holding a machine up against a multi-paned sash window.
Using a portable XRF to analyse glass windows.

One of the main advantages of working on wreck material is that we often know to the day, when the ship was lost, and perhaps the ports of origin and destination. This means wreck sites can provide precisely dated material for the archaeologist. The objects might be found in a case packed for transport, in a chest of personal belongings or on the deck where they were being used. Accounts of the time may even provide us with details of ship architecture, provisions, armaments, cargo and crew, and the life of the vessel from the shipyard through to eyewitness accounts of its final journey. It is very rare in land-based archaeology to have so much information around the context of an object. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, gives a detailed account of the devastating loss of the London, in an entry on March the 8th 1665:

“This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of “The London,” in which Sir J[ohn] Lawson’s men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower, [the Nore] she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round- house above water. Sir J[ohn] Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them. I went to the ‘Change, where the news taken very much to heart.”

CGI image of dive trail of wreck site with coloured pin points.
The wreck of the London with the location of some of the finds, shown in a dive trail. To try the dive trail visit https://www.cloudtour.tv/london

Bottles, instruments and windows: tracing technological changes: 

The reasons for analysing archaeological and historical glass are varied, but we are always aiming to answer a question, either to identify something, or to work out how old it is or where it is from. Wreck material also serves another purpose because we can often date it so precisely, so we are using our analyses of glass objects from precisely dated wrecks to add to a kind of ‘calibration curve’ for how the composition of windows, bottles, beads and vessels change over time in England. On the occasions when we are presented with glass from an unidentified wreck, we have used our ‘calibration curve’ to estimate the date of the wreck from the composition of glass bottles or trade beads. For example, bottles were recovered from the protected wreck site of an unidentified vessel with a cargo of probable mining machinery in the Isles of Scilly, known as the ‘Wheel Wreck’. Analysis of the bottles added to growing evidence that the vessel might be older than previously thought.

This ‘calibration curve’ works especially well for post-medieval glass because technological developments appeared thick and fast from the 16th century onwards, and glass compositions changed quite rapidly (whereas in earlier periods, the technology used to make glass remained fairly constant for centuries at a time).

We can see how quickly glass technology changed in later periods by comparing the glass objects from two Navy warships: the London, which exploded off Southend on the 7th of March 1665, and the Stirling Castle, which was wrecked alongside three other warships a few decades later in the Great Storm of the 26th of November 1703. The shape and composition of green glass bottles has already changed subtly even in this brief period of less than 50 years, to the extent that they began during the 18th century to resemble modern bottles more closely. (Burton 2014)

We can see some differences in the images below:

Rounded dark green glass bottle with tag to left and scale rule to right.
Glass bottle from the wreck of the London, 1665. © Historic England
Rounded green glass bottle with rough surface and scale rule in front.
Glass bottle from the wreck of the Stirling Castle, 1703. © Historic England
Fragments of green glass bottle with white concretions, scale rule below.
Bottle neck and shoulder (left) and base (right), from the unidentified ‘Wheel Wreck’, probably from the late 18th century. © Historic England

At this time, bottles were made by gathering hot glass on the end of a blowing iron, inflating a bubble in the glass to form the body of the bottle, and lengthening the neck. The sides and base of the bottle body could be shaped using a mould or a flat surface, even the floor. The end of the bubble was pushed in to create a ‘push-up’ at the bottle base, so that it would stand on a flat surface.

Historic print showing men at work heating, rolling, blowing, and shaping glass.
Some of the processes described above can be seen in this 18th century illustration of a goblet-making process from the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, edited by Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot, 1751-1772,  repr. as print Corning, N.Y: Corning Glass Center, 1961 

To finish the bottle, the pontil iron was attached to the bottle base so that the neck of the bottle could be broken free of the blowing iron, and then the rim shaped by further working or by applying more glass. Finally the bottle was detached from the pontil, leaving a pontil scar.

Man working glass in a workshop, with the furnace in the background
Glassworker Mark Taylor detaching the blowing iron (left) from the mouth of a vessel; a pontil iron (right) has already been attached to the base (credit: The Glassmakers http://www.theglassmakers.co.uk)

Finds specialists can use the characteristics of bottle bases, including the type of pontil mark and the shape of the push-up, to work out the date of a bottle or where it was made. We can also look at the composition of the bottle glass to see if it matches our analyses of other English-made bottles. With cargo vessels, analysis is a useful tool to investigate the movement of goods around the world. We can use analysis to work out where goods were made and where they were going to.

Base of bottle with pontil mark inside, and scale rule in front.
A protruding, circular pontil mark in the middle of the base of a green glass ‘case’ bottle from the London. The white patch is what remains of the layer of flaky, weathered glass that formed on the surface whilst the bottle was underwater. Case bottles had a square section, which made it easier to pack them for transportation. © Historic England

 

Glassworkers could also make different types of glass, depending on what the glass was going to be used for. For a lens in a pair of spectacles or an instrument, like the pocket sundial/compass from the London, they used special, purified, more expensive ingredients to obtain a colourless glass (instead of the common green). Colourless glass was also used to make mirrors and the best goblets. The closely guarded industrial secrets for making colourless glass were originally brought to England in the 16th century, along with other technology, by glassworkers from Continental Europe, and their expertise led ultimately to a revival of the English glass industry.

Two circular glass discs and a cut-out metal disc with a scale rule at top.
Two of the glass components and the brass gnomon from the London sundial (1665); the left one a colourless glass lens and the other a plain disc of common green glass.

Glass windows on ships are a particularly striking feature and appear to develop in parallel with those on buildings. Glass had become more widespread in the windows of ordinary homes in Britain by the early 17th century, and ships dating to the 17th century, like the London, also had windows incorporated into the elaborately decorated stern, where the captain’s cabin would be situated.

Contemporary oil painting of a 17th century sailing warship.
Detail of Captured English Ships after the Four Days’ Battle, 1666, by Willem van de Velde the Younger, showing the window glass on the Swiftsure (1621)  – each window is differentiated by curtains, shot holes, and smudges on the glass. © Rijksmuseum
Three tiers of stern windows picked out in black and gold over the name VICTORY .
The evolution of the stern window in British ships is clearly seen in the stern of HMS Victory (1765) at Portsmouth. © The National Museum of the Royal Navy.

In the past, glassblowers had several techniques for making flat glass for windows.

One technique involved making rectangular sheets of glass (broad or cylinder glass) by elongating a blown bubble of glass into a more cylindrical shape using gravity, which involved swinging the blowing iron back and forth whilst standing on a platform, or over a pit. The cylinder was cut along its length, then unfolded and flattened.

Alternatively, a round sheet of glass, known as a crown, was made by blowing and shaping a bubble, which was then transferred to a pontil iron rod so that the other end of the bubble could be opened up. When the glass was spun, it opened into a disc shape, or ‘crown’. When the pontil was removed it left a ‘bull’s eye’ in the middle with a pontil mark. Diamond-shaped quarries of glass, for glazing windows, were cut from the thinner glass around the edges.

Nine bull's eye panes individually set in a dark multi-pane frame.
Bull’s eye glass panes used decoratively in glazing. © Historic England

In earlier windows, the glass quarries were joined together using bendy lead strips known as cames, and the glass tends to have a greenish colour, similar to contemporary bottles, or the green glass component from the London sundial shown above.

Four broken diamond-shaped panes of glass.
Greenish quarries of glass for a window, which were originally joined by lead cames. © Historic England

Later in the 17th century wooden glazing bars were adopted to hold the glass panes in place. As time went on, the technology for making large sheets of flat glass improved, so window panes could be made larger, and the ingredients used to make the glass were improved so that the glass became increasingly colourless (Dungworth 2012).

Interior shot of large cabin filled with dark Georgian furniture with windows to right.
Nelson’s Great Cabin on HMS Victory restored to its Georgian heyday of 1805. © National Museum of the Royal Navy

Glass beads: 

By contrast, the tiniest glass objects we have encountered so far on wreck sites are glass beads, which were made and traded on a vast scale in the past, either small and plain beads, or elaborately multicoloured examples. The better-known European manufacturers were based in Venice, Amsterdam and Bohemia, where huge numbers were made, and there were also established bead-makers in the Indo-Pacific region and Africa.

European beads were widely transported by sea, with a commensurately widespread distribution in archaeological contexts, reaching the American and African continents. Plain, monochrome beads can be superficially difficult to tell apart just by looking at them, but examining their composition will usually give us enough clues to work out when and where they were made. So glass beads from wrecks can also help to answer archaeologists’ questions at wreck sites around the world, as a means of dating contexts and investigating trade.

Beads in various shades of green with a scale rule underneath.
Tiny glass beads from the wreck of a currently unidentified vessel. © Historic England

At Fort Cumberland, the work on all kinds of finds from wreck sites around the coast of England continues to aid in our understanding and management of wreck sites. There can be few more appropriate locations to investigate the remarkable finds from historic ships than in Portsmouth, a port city and also home to the Mary Rose Museum and the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Discover our online dive trails: visit wreck sites without getting wet!

Visit Historic England’s virtual dive trails and explore the designated Wheel Wreck and London sites!

Acknowledgments:

With particular thanks to colleagues at Historic England (Angela Middleton, Serena Cant), the HMS London licensees, Cotswold Archaeology, Michael Walsh, Jörn Schuster, Kevin Camidge, David Dungworth, Florian Strӧbele, Fred Hocker, Niklas Eriksson, ‘The Glassmakers’ Mark Taylor and David Hill, Alastair Miles at the Mary Rose Trust, Diana Davis at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the Nautical Archaeology Society, and all those collaborating on the wreck sites described here.

References:

Burton D, 2014 Antique Sealed bottles 1640-1900 and the families that owned them. Antique Collectors Club Ltd.

Dumbrell R 1992 Understanding antique wine bottles. Antique Collectors Club Ltd.

Dungworth D 2012 ‘Historic window glass. The use of chemical analysis to date manufacture’ Journal of Architectural Conservation 18, 7-25.

Gillespie CC (ed) 1959 A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry. New York: Dover.

Diary of the War: February 1940

Blackburn Botha L6111 

One key respect in which the conduct of the Second World War at sea differed from the First was the number of aircraft involved. Since the previous war, aircraft had evolved to become capable of significant offensive and defensive roles, reflected in the numbers lost over both land and sea. In and around English waters these included well-known aircraft on both sides, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters, Ju88s, Me109s and He111s, as well as many less familiar aircraft types.

Today, on the 80th anniversary of its loss on 24 February 1940, we feature our first case study of an aircraft lost at sea during the Second World War. (Others will follow in due course.) The reasons for aircraft loss were many and varied: aerial combat, mechanical failure, and training accidents among them.

We begin with L6111, an example of a lesser-known type, the Blackburn Botha, developed and built over 1936-8 as a reconnaissance aircraft and a torpedo bomber. In early 1940 the Botha was not yet on active service, but remained under test for the Air Ministry at the Torpedo Development Unit (TDU), RAF Gosport, Hampshire, to which L6111 was allocated. (1)

Historic B&W photograph of Blackburn Botha aircraft parked facing with its nose prop to the left in front of the gables of a hangar.
Blackburn Botha Mk I L6107, stablemate of L6111, at the Torpedo Development Unit, RAF Gosport © IWM (MH 131)

On the morning of 24 February 1940, L6111 was on torpedo-dropping exercises over the Solent between Gosport and Ryde, Isle of Wight, when the engine cut out and the crew were forced to ditch in the sea.  All four men were providentially able to get into a dinghy before their aircraft sank. (2)

Not all Botha crews were so fortunate: exactly one year later, on 24 February 1941, Blackburn Botha L6262 crashed into the ground close to its destination airfield of RAF Detling, Kent, killing all four crew. (3) Even against the context of training and operational losses for all aircraft, these and other accidents ensured that the Botha was quickly rendered obsolete as a frontline aircraft. Only 580 were ever built, compared to the production runs for the more successful types such as the Spitfire (over 20,000 constructed).

Debris in the Solent off Fort Gilkicker was confirmed in 1990 as the scattered wreckage of an aircraft and would tally well with L6111‘s flight path. (4) As an aircraft having crashed on military service, it is automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986. (5)

It also has some significance as one of 21 ‘extinct’ British and German aircraft types of the 1930s and 40s, with few or no surviving complete examples in any context. (6) (See also an earlier blog post on a Do17 ‘Flying Pencil’ recovered from the sea in 2013, another, more intact, example of one of these rare types.) By contrast more Spitfires were produced, served in action and survived the war: this means that more Spitfires likewise survive in preservation, including airworthy examples, or as archaeological remains within both the terrestrial and marine environments.

(1) The National Archives (TNA), Records of the Aircraft Torpedo Development Unit and Projectile Development Establishment and successors; TNA AVIA 16/54; Aviation Safety Network, Wikibase Occurrence #71958, last updated 2018; MH (131)

(2) Aviation Safety Network, Wikibase Occurrence #71958 (2018); Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives, Crash of a Blackburn B-26 Botha off Ryde (nd)

(3) Aviation Safety Network, Wikibase Occurrence 153107, last updated 2018

(4) UKHO 19602

(5) Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986, Application of Act: Section 1, Paragraph 1

(6) Holyoak, Vince, and Schofield, John, Military Aircraft Crash Sites: archaeological guidance on their significance and future management(English Heritage, Swindon, 2002)

 

Diary of the War: January 1940

The East Dudgeon Lightvessel

The everyday hazards of the sea never cease, even under wartime conditions. During the Second World War dangerous shoals still required marking, and ships safe guidance into harbour, perhaps even more so after undergoing convoy battles, lone dashes, trusting in speed alone, across the Atlantic, or picking their way through freshly-laid minefields.

By the same token those who saved others from the peril of the sea themselves faced greater peril than ever before, though in peace and war their mission remained the same. Today’s post allows us to revisit the story of lightvessels around the coast which we first covered in an earlier blog post.

Now largely removed in favour of other marks, the few lightvessels on station today are automated and unmanned, but perform the same function as lighthouses, albeit marking offshore hazards. In modern times it is difficult to appreciate their crews’ hard way of life, devoted to maintaining a light beaming a vital message out to sea from an inert and stationary hull: permanently moored with no motive power, either sail or engine, they ran the risk of drifting or being driven in storms onto the very hazards from which they warned others, nor had they any means of avoiding a collision should a ship bear down upon them.

Neither was it easy in wartime to escape drifting mines or, unarmed, to defend a lightvessel against enemy attack. Yet in 1940 men served aboard those lightvessels which had not been extinguished (1) and which continued to offer an ‘equal lamp at peril of the sea’ to passing ships. (2) 

The East Dudgeon station marked the Dudgeon, one of the shoals and sandbanks that stretch out long fingers along the east coast of England between the Humber to the north and the Norfolk coast to the south. Between these two points shipping routes largely stood, and to this day stand, out to sea rather than hugging the coast, to avoid some of these hazards, but others, such as the Dudgeon, lie a considerable distance offshore. This meant that the East Dudgeon, to the seaward of the eponymous shoal, was also by some distance one of the more remote lightvessels, which had a bearing on what happened next.

On the morning of 29 January 1940 (3) off the east coast a Heinkel He111 approached the East Dudgeon Lightvessel. The crew were not initially alarmed when they saw the enemy aircraft approaching as, ‘on previous occasions German pilots had waved to them and passed them by.’ (4) 

This time there was no friendly wave in passing. The lightvessel was machine-gunned and bombed, the last bomb striking the vessel. The ship began to heel over, but remained afloat,  (5) and a photograph depicting her light smashed to pieces surfaced in the press a couple of weeks later. (6)

The crew took to the boat , one man having been ill in his bunk but helped onto deck and into the boat by his comrades. Given the distance offshore they faced rowing for hours in winter conditions, continuing to row on as night fell and they became progressively colder and weaker, before making landfall at around 2.30am. (7)

Their boat capsized in the breakers rolling on the shore and, so close to land and safety, seven men out of the eight crew lost their lives: James Scott Bell, Master Mechanic; Bardolph Basil Boulton, Fog Signal Driver; Horatio Davis, Lamplighter; Roland Robert George, Senior Master; George William Jackson, Seaman. Richard Edward Norton, Seaman; and Herbert Rumsby, Lampman. (8)

The sole survivor was John Sanders, who managed to crawl ashore, somehow finding the strength to break into a house and divest himself of his clothes after coming upon some blankets to wrap himself up in. There he was discovered at 8am. (9) The bodies of the other crew were discovered that morning near their ‘wrecked small boat’. (10)

German radio claimed that same day that the British Naval Patrol Vessel East Dudgeon had been sunk, which elicited a statement from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons that it was: ‘a falsification intended to cover up from the world a deliberate and savage attack on a lightship. To seafaring folks of all nations the East Dudgeon is well known as a lightship, and its identity was unmistakable. She was, naturally, unarmed.’ (11) 

Historic black and white photograph looking towards a lightship at sea, identified by its mast and the name 'CALS. . . ' visible in large white letters to the right of the hull, and a small yacht to the left. A tidal wash is visible to right of the image, which is compromised by a broken right-hand corner and other damage across the upper sky visible in the original glass plate negative.
As this late 19th century view of the Calshot lightvessel off Southampton demonstrates, lightvessels were readily identified by the name of their station (taken from the hazard they demarcated) painted in large white letters, and the prominent light atop a mast. Henry Taunt CC39/00486 Source: Historic England Archive

As further aerial attacks on lightvessels followed (East Goodwin, sunk 18 July 1940; South Folkestone Gate, sunk 14 August 1940; South Goodwin, sunk 25 October 1940, and East Oaze, sunk 1 November 1940), the British struck back in the propaganda war. The Ministry of Information commissioned the Crown Film Unit in 1940 to produce Men of the Lightship, a dramatisation of life aboard the East Dudgeon, culminating in the attack and its tragic aftermath, which was released in the United States as Men of Lightship 61.

‘Lightship 61’ was laid up and returned to service in the postwar period but her story opened a grim chapter with the onslaught on lightvessels legible in a seabed heritage of those which have remained on the seabed for the last 80 years.

(1)  Trinity House website (nd), Were Trinity House lighthouses switched off during the Second World War?

(2) Rudyard Kipling, “The Coastwise Lights of England”, in The Song of the English, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909

(3) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1; Kim Saul, “Sole Survivor”, quoting an unattributed original source, said to be directly from survivor John J R Sanders, in Memories, Belton and District Historical Society website, published online, 2013. The same text is quoted in Anthony Lane, “Lightship Memories”, Portside, Winter 2017, pp3-5, published online, attributed to Illustrated, 24 February 1940.

(4) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(5) See note (3): Saul, “Sole Survivor” and Lane, “Lightship Memories”; Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(6) Liverpool Daily Post, 15 February 1940, No.26,392, p5, and other regional press

(7) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(8) Commonwealth War Graves Commission

(9) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(10) Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 30 January 1940, No.19,894, p1

(11) House of Commons Debate, Hansard, 8 February 1940, Vol.357, cc.443-9

Diary of the Second World War: October 1939

U-16

In wartime there are some vessels whose fate seems to involve one thing after another, exacerbated by the ‘fog of war’ in which events are not wholly clear even to those who have taken part in them: War Knight during the First World War was a case in point, and U-16 on 25 October 1939 another.

The news of U-16‘s loss followed the recent tragedy of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed in the apparent safety of the Scapa Flow anchorage, Orkney, on 14 October 1939, by U-47 under the command of Günther Prien. Barely six weeks into the war it was already apparent that the U-boat threat to Britain was significant.

On the afternoon of Tuesday 24 October 1939 an anti-submarine indicator loop at St. Margaret’s Bay, Kent, picked up suspicious activity in the Straits of Dover. The Kingfisher-class patrol sloop HMS Puffin and the requisitioned trawler HMS Cayton Wyke were sent to investigate. So far the defence of the Straits of Dover differed little from the previous war in the use of loops (see post of August 1918), of smaller patrol vessels in the form of naval and requisitioned fishing vessels, and of a mine barrage.

As their counterparts had also done in the previous war, one after the other, the two vessels dropped depth charges in the vicinity of their target some three miles east by south of St. Margaret’s Bay. (1)  

It seems that the effect of this was to disable the submarine, but not so severely that communications were disrupted: the U-boat was able to send a radio message in the early hours of 25 October 1939. (2) 

On Thursday 26 October, a German U-boat was discovered stranded on the Goodwin Sands but with no explanation of how it had got there. A statement prepared by the Admiralty and widely disseminated in the press, said:

‘How the submarine went aground was not explained last night. Gunfire was heard off Deal on Wednesday, when it was believed that an enemy submarine might have been attacked, but nothing could be seen because of mist.

‘Another theory is that the submarine may have been sunk a few days ago off Folkestone and may have drifted or bumped along the sea bed and become fast on the Goodwins.’ (3)

There was not only a sea haar, but also a smokescreen thrown up by the Admiralty. Both ‘theories’ allowed to materialise in the press certainly had a germ of truth to them – an enemy submarine was certainly attacked ‘a few days ago’ somewhere between Deal and Folkestone barrage. An emphasis on ‘gunfire’ nicely side-stepped the use of depth charges or the presence of a mine barrage, although some further conjecture from Deal also made it into the press release, albeit still carefully worded:

It is thought possible at Deal that the U-boat did not go on to the Goodwins under her own power, but was sunk in deeper waters by depth charges or bombs and that some of her bulk heads may have remained undamaged, permitting her to bump along the seabed, carried along by the current.(4) 

To coin a phrase apt in the maritime context, the waters were muddied by a claim that ‘a large German submarine has been sunk by the French. This is confirmed by the finding of the bodies of the crew. A message from Dunkirk states that the British Admiralty was represented when the French authorities gave a Naval funeral yesterday to a U-boat officer and five German sailors . . . ‘ (5)  

This funeral was well attended by both French and British naval representatives, and jointly led by both Protestant and Catholic clergy to cover Germany’s two principal religions. (6) The Yorkshire Post was of the view that the funeral was ‘almost the last flicker of chivalry in warfare’.

The German High Command admitted the loss of three U-boats. (7)  Five are recorded as lost for the month of October 1939, but none of these are attributed to French action. Two were depth-charged by British ships in the North Atlantic south-west of Ireland on 13 and 14 October respectively (U-42 and U-45) , and three in the Straits of Dover: U-12, which was mined on 8 October; U-40, which also fell to a British minefield on 13 October; and U-16, attributed to a British minefield. (8) 

Could French action have contributed to the demise of U-16? The French press reported that their Navy had recently been active and that a patrol vessel had recovered some bodies from a submarine sunk off Dunkirk. (9) That patrol vessel was the Épinal, which had launched a night attack on a submarine on 26 October (presumably in the early hours of that day), while acting on intelligence that U-boat activity was expected in the Straits of Dover on 26-27 October. (10)

It thus seems that the Épinal might have been the last on the scene, which is also suggested by her crew recovering the U-boat commander alive. (11) Action by British and French patrols, unknown to each other, would also account for the actions reported in the press as heard at different times in different places. Some sources suggest that the Épinal was first on the scene, with the British second, but this fits less well with the time frame and the known actions of Puffin and Cayton Wyke

That U-boat commander subsequently died despite being taken to hospital. He was identified as Kapitänleutnant Horst Wellner and, it seems, the loss may have been attributed to U-14. It is possible that his lifejacket was marked U-14, which he had commanded up until two weeks previously, his service aboard U-14 ending on 11 October 1939, before taking on the command of U-16 the following day.

The British and French press widely reported the discovery of ’50 or 60′ bodies, surely a conjecture or an exaggeration for propaganda purposes, since the normal crew complement was 22-24. (12) In total 19 bodies washed ashore or were picked up at sea on the Kent coast, near Dunkirk, and Ameland, Netherlands. (13) It seems likely that four bodies were recovered from the wreck by the British, since four German seamen whose date of death is 25th October 1939 are buried in Cannock Chase German Cemetery, namely, Paul Hanf, Hans Keil, Rolf Krämer, and Friedhelm Mahnke, and these four, together with the other 19 bodies, would fit with a crew complement of 23. (14) 

Did the Goodwin Sands themselves play a part in the U-boat’s loss? It would have been all too easy for a disabled submarine to drift helplessly and become ensnared upon the sands, an easy prey for any patrol vessel happening by. The ‘Demon Sands’ headline in the Manchester Evening Press made good copy and the article rehashed the many legends of the Goodwin Sands: though fanciful, it almost seems to suggest that the Sands themselves had reached out to snare the enemy. (15)

The expression ‘ships that pass in the night’ reveals a fundamental truth about not only shipping movements but also shipping losses: a spider’s web spins out interconnecting one wreck with another. Wellner in U-14 (which would be scuttled in 1945 off Wilhelmshaven as the Allies closed in on Germany) had been responsible for the reconnaissance mission which had led to the very recent loss of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. (16) 

Similarly, U-16‘s British attacker HMS Cayton Wyke would herself be lost to war causes on 8 July 1940, near the U-16 on the Goodwin Sands: her position of loss links her both to her victim and to the landscape of war in which she served as patrol vessel. HMS Puffin would survive the war, closing the war as she had begun, by accounting for a German submarine.

By the end of October the U-16 was regarded as unsalvageable: ‘The submarine is little more than a shattered wreck, and the remains are gradually sinking into the sand owing to the continuance of the bad weather.’ (17) 

Fairly unusually for the Goodwin Sands, where even very recent wrecks have disappeared completely, the site of the U-16 has a secure charting history since early 1940 as the location of a submarine, although the identity of the site is not confirmed.  (18) However, the description of her position  ‘near’ two other wrecks, now among those which have disappeared, may provide a clue to their location: the uncharted Sibiria and the Val Salice, both lost in the same storm in 1916, whose charting is now regarded as ‘dead’. (19) This suggests that in 1939 either that they remained partially visible or at least their positions were still within living memory among the seamen of the Kent coast.

 

(1) based on the location of the vessel identified as U-16, UKHO 13666.

(2) https://uboat.net/boats/u16.htm

(3)  or example, in The Scotsman, Friday 27 October 1939, No.30.083, p9, and elsewhere in the British national and regional press.

(4)  Birmingham Mail, 27 October 1939, No.22,988, p9

(5) Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1939 [no issue number] p5, and also reported elsewhere in the British press.

(6) Nord-Maritime, 29/30/31 October 1939, repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French) ; Yorkshire Evening Post, 27 October 1939, No.15,302, p6

(7)  Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1939 [no issue number] p5

(8) uboat.net

(9)  Nord-Maritime 29 October 1939, repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)

(10) ibid; also an article from 11 years later in Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950clearly commemorating the anniversary of previous events, similarly repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)

(11) Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950, repr. in http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm   with further commentary on the same link (in French)

(12) https://uboat.net/types/iib.htm

(13) https://uboat.net/boats/u16.htm

(14) Commonwealth War Graves Commission 

(15) Manchester Evening News, 27 October 1939, No.21,989 p1, p6

(16) Konstam, A. 2015 U-47 in Scapa Flow: The Sinking of HMS Royal Oak 1939 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd) p20

(17) The Scotsman, 31 October 1939, No.30,086 p11

(18) UKHO 13666

(19) North-Eastern Gazette (later Middlesbrough Gazette), 27 October 1939 [no issue no.], p1; Val Salice, UKHO 13729

Diary of the Second World War: September 1939

Alex van Opstal

As Britain prepared for the much-anticipated onslaught of war during the ‘Phoney War’ period, in which little appeared to be happening militarily, events at sea were already moving fast. Enemy minefields were sown in various locations around the coasts of England virtually from the declaration of war (claiming the Goodwood and the Magdapur in different locations off the east coast just a week into the war).

The worldwide toll of ships attacked by U-boats in September 1939 reached 52, the majority sunk, although a number were captured. At this stage of the war, the majority of the ships attacked were British, and most were forced to stop by an initial warning shot before the crews were forced to leave. A significant proportion of that month’s activity took place in the Baltic region as ships from neutral Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden were stopped and, if discovered to be bound for the UK, captured and diverted to German ports, or sunk.

The first neutral ship to be lost in the war within English waters was the Belgian motor vessel Alex van Opstal, belonging to the Compagnie Maritime Belge, 5,965 tons, built in 1937 and named after the company’s recently-deceased president. The Alex van Opstal left New York for Antwerp on 6 September, three days into the war, with a general cargo, predominantly grain (3,400 tons), 59 crew, and eight passengers. (1) All must have been anxious as to what awaited them in European waters, but none could have predicted what happened next.

On 15 September, while proceeding up Channel, she was ordered to call at Weymouth for examination by the British authorities. It was after ‘making a stopover in England’, as a French newspaper put it, (2), that there was a sudden explosion under No.2 hold.

The news likewise exploded around the world. Plans for press censorship and a Ministry of Information were well established in advance of the outbreak of war, and in fact it was a retired naval commander, Rear-Admiral George Pirie Thomson, who became the Chief Censor for the War: he was new in post in those early days. (3)

It was therefore an official Ministry of Information press release the following day which revealed the recent loss of four ships, three British and the Alex van Opstal. No dates or locations were released for the British ships, but the MoI was happy to offer more information regarding the date and place of loss of the loss of the Belgian vessel ‘late last night [15th September] off the Shambles lightship, near Weymouth.’ (4) The Ministry statement added further information from the master, Vital Delgoffe, who believed that the vessel had struck a mine, although at that stage a torpedo had not been ruled out. In either case the British authorities made it extremely clear that it was seen as an ‘infraction’.

‘If his opinion is well-founded, the Ministry adds the mine must without doubt have been dropped by an enemy minelayer, as at no time have the British laid live mines anywhere near the spot where the Alex van Opstal sank.’ (5) The propaganda war had begun along with the physical war, and here the British took the offensive. In Belgium an artist’s impression of the scene made the cover of the weekend magazine Ons Volk, with the highly inaccurate but emotive detail of a nursing mother escaping in a boat (there were no children or infants on board).

The press in Britain, France, and the Netherlands reported the reaction in the German press to the sinking, which suggested that ‘the sinking could undoubtedly be ascribed to Mr. Churchill’ and that the vessel, ‘if, indeed, torpedoed at all’ was not torpedoed by a German submarine. (6) Yet a portrait of the Alex van Opstal appeared in the Kriegsmarine magazine of the German Navy in October 1939, and we now know that the mine had been laid five days previously by U-26, Kapitänleutnant Klaus Ewerth. (7) 

According to Alfred Thorne, assistant engineer aboard the ship, following the explosion ‘we were plunged into darkness and fuel oil poured down like a torrent . . . We rushed up on deck and found that the ship had been cut clean in two.’ All the passengers and crew left in the ship’s boats and pulled over to the Greek steamer Atlanticos. (8) 

A seaplane then reported the Atlanticos‘ location to boats to which the crew and passengers were transferred. Several of the passengers and crew were taken to hospital suffering from ‘fractures and shock’, including an ‘elderly’ female passenger with a broken arm, who was allowed to go on to a hotel afterwards, although six men were detained in hospital. (9) With the exception of the master and four other men, who remained in hospital in Weymouth, one man evidently having been discharged, two days later the crew were back home in Ostend. (10) 

By the time a Devon newspaper reported that an empty lifeboat from the Alex van Opstal was found adrift 14 miles south of the Bill of Portland and towed into Brixham by her compatriot, the trawler Bolnes, another shipping loss was making headline news – the warship HMS Courageous(11)

As we can see, the wreck of the Alex van Opstal was extremely well documented at the time, notwithstanding the press censorship of the event, and on 25 September the wreck was located and marked by a buoy, establishing a secure identification of the site that goes back to 1939. By 1940 that buoy had gone missing but was not, understandably in the light of other marine priorities during the war, replaced, and the site was not investigated again until the post-war period. By 1949 it had been dispersed. (12) 

The wreck is a popular dive today, and even post-dispersal, clearly lies in two parts. A wreck tour published on Divernet contains a dive plan and photo gallery. (13) 

This wreck encapsulates many of the characteristics that would define shipping losses over the course of the Second World War. War causes were common to all, of course, and there would be decisions taken which placed ships in a danger zone, often unwittingly. There would also be official secrecy and propaganda, both of which intensified over the course of time. In its loss there was also a harbinger of the future: 3,400 tons of grain failed to reach its destination on a continent appearing increasingly embattled and vulnerable – hence the need, recognised from the very beginning of the war, to keep the Atlantic open.

In this loss, too, we can also see another trend that would emerge during the Second World War, as during the First: a complex interrelationship of ships in a common underwater cultural heritage woven into the history of the war.

This is best illustrated by what happened next to some of the other players in the story: U-26 would meet her end south-west of Ireland on 1 July 1940, depth-charged and bombed by an Allied air-sea force; the Atlanticos would be herself mined and sunk off the Thames Estuary, carrying a cargo of North American grain, in February 1942; and some of the crew would go on to serve aboard other ships that would in turn be lost: for example, Second Officer Fernand van Geert would serve throughout the war in the Belgian mercantile marine, surviving the torpedoing of the Mercier in June 1941 and the Belgian Airman in April 1945.

(1) Evening Star (Washington), 16 September 1939, No.34,836, p7; Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(2) Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(3) Thomson, G. 1947 Blue Pencil Admiral: The Inside Story of the Press Censorship (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd.)

(4) e.g. Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette, 16 September 1939, No.20,571, p1, and widely reported in similar articles in the British press  

(5) ibid.

(6) Newcastle Journal, 19 September 1939, No.29,150, p5

(7) Die Kriegsmarine, October 1939, repr. in Ships Nostalgia (nd), with photograph of ship in 1937 from the Kriegsmarine article; uboat.net (nd) 

(8) The Atlanticos was herself mined off the Thames Estuary laden with North American grain in 1942. 

(9) Belfast Telegraph, 16 September 1939, [no issue number on masthead] p7; Lancashire Evening Post, 16 September 1939, No.16,418, p5 

(10) De Banier, 22 September 1939, No.3,507, p10

(11) Torbay Express and South Devon Echo, 18 September 1939, No.5,134, p1, p6

(12) UKHO 18617

(13) Divernet, Wreck Tour No.152, repr. from the print edition of Diver, August 2011. 

(*) Leeuwarder Courant, 19 September 1939, Vol. 188, No.221, p10