45 years of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973

The First Wreck Designated Under the Act

For our second blog this week celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, enacted on 18 July 1973, where better to start than the very first wreck designated under the Act?

We welcome guest blogger Martin Read of Plymouth University, who was at school near the Cattewater Wreck during the 1970s excavations. He subsequently became an archaeological conservator for English Heritage and the Mary Rose Trust before returning to Plymouth.

He has also taken part in excavations such as the Mary Rose & Vliegent Hart. Since 2006, he has been a Licensee for the protected Cattewater Wreck, organising surveys and research work on this site carried out by local divers and University students. He has also carried out research on the 1970s excavation archive in Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery and project manager for the Cattewater Wreck Archive Project (for Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery), funded by English Heritage (now Historic England).

Martin writes:

Plymouth has been an important maritime port since medieval times and as a result the area is rich in marine archaeological resources. During the Medieval and Tudor periods the port carried out coastal and international trade in cargos such as salted fish, wine, cloth and tin. The Cattewater, the lower estuary of the river Plym, has been the main anchorage for Plymouth since medieval times.

The Cattewater Wreck is believed to be an unidentified armed wooden merchantman from the early Tudor period. The site was discovered in 1973 and partly excavated between 1976-8. A substantial portion of the remains of the wooden hull should still be present, buried beneath anaerobic sediments and is believed to be under no immediate threat of damage or destruction.

Underwater photograph with a green hue, centred on a shipwreck timber, and a black & white measuring pole for scale in foreground.
Timbers emerging from the silt. © the estate of Keith Muckelroy/Historic England/Plymouth City Council


Dredging for air-sea rescue craft moorings in 1973 recovered timbers and iron guns identified as being from a Tudor shipwreck. As a result, the wreck site was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 (Order No.1), becoming the first wreck given protection by the UK Government. The designation covers a radius of 50m centring on a position of 50°21’41.4”N 04°07’27.5”W. Within this area it is an offence to tamper with, damage or remove any part of a vessel lying wrecked on or in the sea bed, or any object formerly contained in such a vessel. This includes any diving, mooring or survey without a licence from the Government.

The site was surveyed and partly excavated under Government license (1976-8). Recovered finds included structural timbers, wrought iron swivel guns on wooden beds, stone & lead shot, lead waste, ceramics, shoes, a leather purse and textiles, as well as environmental evidence, including animal and fish bones. The finds could be characterised by function as being part of the ship and its working equipment, domestic artefacts, eating and drinking equipment and stores (Redknap 1997).

The excavation results suggested that the Cattewater wreck dated to the first half of the 16th century, and has been published as being ca.1530. The vessel was interpreted as operating as an English coastal trader (Redknap 1984).

Modern colour photograph of rust-red iron cannon viewed longitudinally in its display case, with sparkly reflections on glass.
Cattewater wreck gun at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in anaerobic preservative solution. © Martin Read


Modern exploration

Geophysical survey techniques mean that archaeologists can examine a wreck site without physical interference. Plymouth University teaches geophysical surveying as part of undergraduate and post-graduate degrees and, since 2006, has held a Government license to dive and to carry out geophysical surveys (including sub-bottom profiler, side-scan sonar and magnetometer surveys) of the wreck site. These have identified the probable location of the wreck to be approximately 20m east of the centre of the designated area, but still within the radius of protection. Sub-bottom profile images show the wreck to be about 1m below the seabed.

A team of local divers have been used to ground-truth targets generated by the geophysical surveys and have also carried out metal-detector and probe surveys of the site, locating the wreck in the area identified by the student surveys.

Archive Project

The archive from the 1970s excavation has been deposited in Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (Site Accession Number AR.1985.2). In 2011 English Heritage funded a project (under the National Heritage Protection Commissions Programme, Project Number: 5439 MAIN, Cattewater Wreck: Developing the Archive) to improve the long term care and management of the archive to modern archival standards and organisation. The principal outcome of this project was a more accessible archive, better able to survive in the long-term.

The project revealed that a significant proportion of the excavation archive (including about 50% of the finds) was missing, presenting difficulties when making any re-assessment of the site. The number of finds recovered during discovery and excavation is hard to be precise, 474 find numbers were used, but the same number was often used for multiple finds. The site database now consists of 790 artefact/sample/timber records, including 28 records of unlabelled finds.

Open archive boxes displaying stored archaeological artefacts.
Repackaging of the Cattewater Wreck Archive. © Martin Read

A great deal of effort has been spent over the years to consolidate the site archive, including the relocation of missing elements. In 2013 the National Maritime Museum added to the archive a number of finds, samples and documents that they held.

The original archaeological studies into the finds were carried out over 30 years ago and finds research into, for instance, leather and ceramics have advanced over that period. New scientific techniques are also now available which can be applied to finds, allowing new interpretations to be made about this important site.

Ship construction

The wreck is believed to be of an unidentified armed merchantman, a 3-masted carvel-built vessel of standard form, of 186-282 tons (Redknap 1984). Evidence from the site, such as ship construction and some finds (such as ceramic tiles) now indicate that the ship was built in southern Europe, perhaps somewhere in SW France, Iberia or in the western Mediterranean (perhaps as far east as western Italy).

Carbon-14 dating was carried out on two wooden samples taken from the ships structure. A futtock was dated to AD 1420-1600 (340~80 BP, 1610~80 ad uncalibrated, HAR-3310), whilst an oak outer planking sample was dated to AD 1429-1509 (510~50 BP, 1390-1490ad uncalibrated, UB-2225).

Tree ring analysis (dendrochronology) was carried out on two of the structural timbers, the keelson and a floor timber. Comparison with tree-ring chronologies suggested several potential dates but none of these were acceptable, e.g. the keelson appeared to match at two places, giving dates for its outer ring of A.D. 1454 or 1457, but with no confidence.

Neither Carbon-14 or tree ring dating really helps with the dating of the ship, at present, though they are consistent with the other evidence.

It is believed that the carvel ship construction technique reached northern Europe sometime in the second half of 15th century. Until better dating can be obtained, this is the most likely date for the construction of the ship.

Working life

The majority of the finds recovered were identified as being English and the ballast included local Plymouth limestone and granite.

No English ceramics of the 15th-16th century were originally identified from primary wreck contexts. However, reinterpretation of the ceramics has led to the identification of one sherd of Tudor Green Ware (from the Surrey/Hants border) dating to the late 15th-17thc, whilst another unstratified sherd has been identified as possibly part of a cooking pot from South Somerset.

International links are shown from imported finds, including Dutch, Rhenish (Raeren and Siegburg), SW French and Iberian ceramics. The largest group of ceramics recovered were identified as being Dutch, but both the Dutch and Rhenish ceramics were commonly traded into England at this period.

The scarcity of ceramics from Iberia cast some doubt on a possible Iberian origin for the wreck (Redknap 1997). A number of sherds of Iberian ceramics were recovered from the scour deposits, so may not be directly associated with the wreck. A possible Merida-type glazed floor tile, which are very rare in the UK, was found in a primary wreck context and probably came from the galley hearth.

Ceramics from southern Europe, particularly from South-West France, Iberia and Italy, have commonly been found in medieval and post-medieval deposits on land sites in Plymouth showing strong links between Plymouth and Mediterranean Europe, a result of the port’s international trade. It may be significant that two fragments of ceramics identified as being from SW France were found in primary wreck deposits.

The ship seems to have been re-ballasted in Plymouth, but non-local stone was identified as originating from around the Southern English coast, from Bristol/South Wales to Kent. This was used to indicate that the vessel was acting as a coastal trader, possibly operating between Bristol and London, but other interpretations are possible. The ballast makeup could reflect local ballasting practice, incorporating residual ballast from the re-ballasting of previous ships and therefore the main background trade links of the port.

Wrecking, salvage and site formation

Recent re-dating of the leather shows that the ship must have been wrecked after 1500, with the most likely date being in the early 16th century. This is consistent with the re-dating of the ceramics (ca.1480-ca.1525), though the possibility remains that the actual date of wrecking might be later.

A study of historic records shows that the most frequent cause of shipwreck in the Cattewater was whilst either at anchor or entering/leaving the port during a storm, with the Cattewater being particularly exposed during south westerly storms. These are also the most likely causes for the loss of the Cattewater Wreck.

Another possible scenario is due to fire. There is some evidence in support of this, though this comes mostly from the scour layers and may not relate to the wreck.

The only known casualty of the shipwreck was a dog, which had probably been used to control rats on the ship. Four bones have been identified, and measurements indicate a withers height of about 50cm (just over 20 inches), the height of a whippet, border collie or spaniel.

The wreck site was shallow enough for the salvage of anything of value to have taken place. As a result it is uncertain what cargo (if any) the ship was carrying at the time. Finds included barrel parts and cod bones, with a suggestion that salted fish might have been a cargo (though they are more likely to be victuals).

Stable isotope analysis, carried out on some of the cod bones by York University, indicated that most fish were likely to have come from local (or relatively local) waters, but one fish came from outside the area, most likely from the North Atlantic.

Most finds that could be directly associated with the wreck, including the dog bones, were recovered from amongst the ballast or between the ships planking, but a large number probably originating from the wreck were found in other, later, contexts having been eroded out.

Several scour pits were excavated around the wreck, ceramic finds indicating they were formed (or at least filled) after 1700, most likely in the early 18th century.

Present Interpretation

The original scenario put forward as a result of the 1970s excavations may still be valid, with the ship operating in the English coastal trade between Bristol and London. There is some evidence to support the identification of the ship as being an international trading vessel, possibly with links to SW France or Iberia.

Martin Read, February 2018

For more information on ongoing research on the Cattewater wreck and the archive project, please visit:



Select Bibliography

Carpenter, A.C., Ellis, K.H. & McKee, J.E.G. 1974 Interim Report on the Wreck Discovered in the Cattewater, Plymouth on 20 June 1973 NMM Maritime Monographs and Reports 13.

Redknap, M. 1984 The Cattewater Wreck: the investigation of an armed vessel of the early 16th century National Maritime Museum Archaeology Series 8/British Archaeological Reports – British Series 131.

Redknap, M. 1997 ‘Reconstructing 16th-century ship culture from a partially excavated site: The Cattewater Wreck:’ in Redknap, M. (ed.) Artefacts from Wrecks Oxbow Monograph 84.


600 years of the Grace Dieu

Henry V’s Grace Dieu – medieval England’s biggest ship

View of blue river towards tree-lined bank on the far side, against a bright blue sky.
General view of the River Hamble looking north-west towards the site of the Grace Dieu, Bursledon, Hampshire

You might say that the opposite of ‘wreck’ is ‘launch’ and today, 16 July 2018, marks 600 years since the first date we can tie to the Grace Dieu in the whole of her long history, the majority of which has been spent as a wreck site in the River Hamble. In 1974 she was one of the earliest designations under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, which came into force 45 years ago this week, so a double ‘birthday’ so to speak!

Today’s guest blogger is Dr Ian Friel FSA, an independent historian, museum consultant and writer. He worked for 30 years in museums, including the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and the Mary Rose Trust, and was involved in NMM fieldwork on the Grace Dieu and (potential) Holy Ghost wreck sites in the early 1980s.  He is the author of three books on maritime history, including Henry V’s Navy (The History Press, 2015) and is currently working on a fourth.

Dr Friel writes:

Six hundred years ago, on 16 July 1418, William Barrowe, the Bishop of Bangor, received his travelling expenses for a trip from London to Southampton and back.  What does this less-than riveting piece of information have to do with the theme of Wreck of the Week?   The answer is that Barrowe’s mission was ‘to consecrate a certain King’s ship, there newly built, called the Gracedieu’.

The Grace Dieu was the last and biggest of four ‘great ships’ constructed for King Henry V of England between 1413 and 1420.  ‘Great ship’ was a contemporary type name and these vessels played an important role in Henry’s plans to conquer France, because eliminating French sea power was one of the keys to a successful invasion.

Big naval battles were fairly rare in the Middle Ages, but they usually ended in a series of bloody boarding actions in which big ships with large crews had the advantage.  This was clearly the chief raison d’etre of the great ships, though they also had propaganda value as symbols of English might.

The great ships were part of one of the most powerful royal war fleets ever seen in medieval England.  Major operations relied on the participation of large numbers of conscripted English vessels and hired foreign shipping, but the ‘king’s ships’ were the spearhead of the English naval war effort.   The first three great ships, the Trinity Royal (500 tons), Holy Ghost (740 tons) and the Jesus (1000 tons), were completed between 1415 and 1417.  The Trinity Royal and Holy Ghost certainly went into battle, and it’s likely that the Jesus did, as well.  The Grace Dieu’s naval career was shorter and much less eventful.

Construction of the ship began at Southampton in 1416, in a specially-dug dock.  The work was overseen by an official named Robert Berd, but it’s unlikely he was anything more than a manager and bean-counter.  There is little doubt that the Grace Dieu was designed by the project’s master shipwright, John Hoggekyn.

We know very little about the dedicated, workaholic Hoggekyn – he was eventually pensioned off after wearing himself out in royal service – but he deserves to be remembered as one of medieval England’s greatest engineers.  His achievement was on a par with that of Brunel in building the huge steamship Great Britain in the 19th century.

The Grace Dieu was clinker-built, and each overlapping strake (line of planking) was composed of three layers of boards – presumably to prevent the huge structure from collapsing under its own weight.  The ship was reckoned to be of 1400 tons burden (theoretical carrying capacity), making it the biggest vessel seen in England before Henry VIII’s time, a century later.  Measurements of the Grace Dieu made in 1430 suggest that it was 50 m to 60 m in length and about 15 m in breadth (164-197 ft x 50 ft).  It was not much smaller than Nelson’s HMS Victory of 1805, though the Grace Dieu and the other great ships will have looked very different.  They probably resembled carracks – the carrack was a large medieval ship type of Mediterranean origin, used for both trade and war.

Wood carving of a medieval ship seen broadside on, on a wavy sea, with a tall mast and sunrays to top right.
Dated to c 1419, this bench-end was originally in St. Nicholas’ Chapel, King’s Lynn, Norfolk. It depicts a two-masted carrack with two-stage fighting castles fore and aft, which show that the vessel was a warship. It dates from the years when Henry V’s royal fleet had both ‘great ships’ and carracks, though there is no evidence to link this image directly with the king’s ships. That said, it’s likely that Henry’s great ships looked something like this. Victoria and Albert Museum W.16-1921 © Victoria and Albert Museum


The Grace Dieu was built with a retinue of two oared fighting ships and four boats, and at least 3,906 trees were felled for the project.  Most were New Forest oaks, though beech, ash and elm were also used, along many other timbers and boards.  The ship had a huge mainmast, possibly over 50 m in height and carried two, or possibly three masts in total.  Multi-masted ships were very new in England at the time – the purpose of the additional sails was doubtless to help propel and manoeuvre big ships.  The Grace Dieu itself came with an eye-watering price-tag, costing an estimated £3,800, perhaps equal to £1,647,000,000 nowadays.

The blessing of the Grace Dieu by the Bishop of Bangor in 1418 may have marked the day on which the hull was floated out of its building dock.  Though described as ‘newly built’ at that point, it was not ready for sea until 1420.

In the spring of that year it became the flagship of a powerful patrol group assembled at Southampton.  The force included the three other great ships – it was the only occasion on which they sailed together.  By this time, however, the naval war was virtually over.  The English had broken French sea power back in 1417, allowing Henry to invade France for a second time.  There were still fears in 1420 that France’s Spanish allies might attack England, but this threat never materialised.

Most English ships of the time were of less than 100 tons, so the Grace Dieu and the other great ships must made a deep impression on contemporaries.  One of Henry’s brothers, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, wrote to the king: ‘… your great ship the Grace Dieu is ever as ready and is the fairest that ever men saw…’

However, all was not well.  England was short of sailors, and the three earlier great ships were seriously undermanned, with between 50 and 70 per cent of their original complements of 200 mariners apiece.  Even the Grace Dieu carried only 199 sailors, surely too few to properly manage such a big vessel.

Aside from the manpower problems, there was serious discontent in the fleet.  Men were refusing to be mustered – to have their names taken for pay records – and it took a real effort to get the force to sea.  The Grace Dieu finally sailed out into the Solent, but the voyage was cut short by a mutiny, led by some Devon men.  They forced the ship to put in at St Helen’s, on the western end of the Isle of Wight, and that was the end of the Grace Dieu’s war service.  Medieval England’s biggest and most expensive war machine sailed only slightly further than a modern Solent ferry.

The four great ships were taken back to the River Hamble, on the eastern side of Southampton Water, where there was a protected anchorage for the royal fleet.  The government made serious efforts to keep them afloat, for they were still emblems of English royal power, even if there was no sea war to fight.   The Grace Dieu was certainly used to impress at least one visiting Italian galley commander.  Luca di Maso degli Albizzi was wined and dined aboard the ship in 1430, and later wrote in his diary that he had never seen ‘so large and splendid a construction’.

Despite the maintenance work, the great ships all began to leak more and more. The three older vessels were laid up between 1426 and 1430, and the Grace Dieu followed a few years after.  In order to lighten the ship, much of its heavy gear was removed in 1432 and the top part of the great mainmast was cut off.  Two years later, the Grace Dieu was towed upriver to Bursledon, and placed in a mud dock cut into the riverbank.

The great ship was abandoned, but it did not moulder for long.  It was struck by lightning on the night of 7/8 January 1439, caught fire, and burned to the waterline.  Nails and other ironwork were salvaged from the wreck, along with the charred stump of the mainmast, and royal officials continued to chronicle the storage or disposal of this junk (archeology to us) for years.  However, in 1452 the record of the Grace Dieu came to a full stop.

Four hundred years later, a small stream on the bank of the Hamble changed course, and washed away some mud to reveal a big shipwreck.  First mentioned in an 1859 local guidebook, it was identified as the remains of a Danish warship destroyed by King Alfred’s forces in the 9th century.  The ‘Viking Ship’ became quite well known – and also suffered from the attentions of souvenir-hunters, who hacked bits off it.

Ironically, the worst vandal was a man who tried to record the wreck, Francis Crawshay (c 1811-78).  He was a wealthy landowner who kept a yacht on the Hamble and evidently fancied himself as an archaeologist.  Sadly, his principal excavation tool was gunpowder!  In the end, the wreck was saved by Customs and Excise – not for any archaeological reason, but because Crawshay had failed to declare his finds to the Receiver of Wreck.

The ‘Viking Ship’ was finally identified as the Grace Dieu in 1933, by the historian R C Anderson.  Anderson visited the site with a small team, at the instigation of a local man, Mr F C P Naish.  They made the first modern survey of the site, conducted a limited excavation and revealed the wreck’s unprecedented triple-skin clinker planking.

There was other work on the wreck in later decades, including a series of investigations by the National Maritime Museum’s former Archaeological Research Centre in the early 1980s.  The full shape and extent of the hull remains were revealed by sonar survey made in 2005 by the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre.  This showed that only the bottom 2 m of the Grace Dieu survives, but even this remnant is massive, measuring some 32.5 m by 12.2 m.

The wreck of the Grace Dieu was bought in 1970 by the University, and in 1974 it was designated as a Protected Wreck under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act.  You can only visit the site of the Grace Dieu with special statutory permission, but at very low tides it is possible to see some of its timbers from the opposite riverbank in Upper Hamble Country Park – the wreck site is marked with a yellow PWA buoy.

The Grace Dieu is of international importance, one of a small number of known medieval wrecks in the UK, and one of the few in Europe of this period that can be named.  The ship owed its existence to the warlike ambitions of one of England’s most famous kings, and shows medieval maritime technology operating at its limits.  The wreck is also a monument to one of England’s most accomplished, but least known shipbuilders – John Hoggekyn.

© Ian Friel 2018

Further reading:

Carpenter Turner, W.J., ‘The building of the Gracedieu, Valentine and Falconer at Southampton, 1416–20’, Mariner’s Mirror 40 (1954), pp.55–72

I Friel, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and the wreck in the R. Hamble near Bursledon, Hampshire’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol 22, 1993, pp 3-19

I Friel, The Good Ship.  Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, British Museum press, London, 1995

I Friel, Henry V’s Navy, The History Press, Stroud, 2015

Plets, R.M.K., J.K. Dix, J.R. Adams, J.M. Bull, T.J. Henstock, M. Gutowski and A.I. Best, ‘The Use of a High-resolution 3D Chirp Sub-bottom Profiler for the Reconstruction of the Shallow Water Archaeological Site of the Grace Dieu (1439), River Hamble, UK’, Journal of Archaeological Science, 36 (2009), pp.408–18

S Rose, ‘Henry V’s Grace Dieu and Mutiny at Sea: Some New Evidence’, Mariner’s Mirror 63 (1977), pp.3–6

S Rose (ed), The Navy of the Lancastrian Kings: Accounts and Inventories of William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships, 1422-1427, Navy Records Society Vol 123, London, 1982.

Crawshay obituary: Hampshire Advertiser, 9 November 1878, p 5 (via britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)




A Detective Story

The Flying-P liners

Over the summer there will be a few wreck features with a German theme, inspired by my recent holidays on Germany’s northern seaboard with its strong maritime heritage – a shared history across the North Sea.

Not long ago a colleague in the Historic England Archives showed me a set of recently-acquired negatives, depicting a wrecked sailing vessel against some white cliffs with a very tiny lighthouse visible in the far distance. Those details, and a possible date of circa 1900 on technical grounds, were all we had to go on. No proper location, no real date, no identity for the vessel, no name for the photographer – and white cliffs aren’t unique to Dover.

Off I went to inspect the negatives on a lightbox, prepared for a patient elimination of white cliff and lighthouse combinations to identify the location, before then narrowing it down to a specific ship – but the ship herself proved to be extremely obliging and we struck lucky virtually at once.

At first glance the words ‘possible Flying-P liner’ came to mind, as she was clearly a very large vessel of steel-hulled construction – not unique to the ‘Flying-Ps’, which were, however, among the most celebrated sailing vessels of their day, the ‘windjammers’.

These windjammers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made use of contemporary iron and steel technology to develop large cargo-carrying sailing ships which were predominantly or wholly square-rigged to take full advantage of the wind. Hence not only the collective name ‘windjammer’, but also the ‘Flying’ Reederei F Laeisz fleet, whose ships all began with ‘P’. The windjammers arguably extended the sailing vessel era until well into the 20th century, although, even as they were being developed from the 1880s onwards, steam had already overtaken sail as the principal means of propulsion.

Then I counted the masts in the negatives – five – and with that the ship yielded her secrets.  Those white cliffs were indeed at Dover and the ship was indeed a ‘Flying-P’, the Preussen, the only five-masted full-rigged ship ever built. (1) She broke tow following a collision and stranded in Fan Bay, Dover, on 6 November 1910, en route from Hamburg on a typical windjammer run to Valparaiso, Chile, with a cargo which included pianos.

B&W photo of shipwreck against cliffs, seen from seaward, sea filling the lower third of the image.
Wreck of the Preussen, Fan Bay, Dover, c. 1910. From this angle the masts seem to tower above the cliffs, while the vessel is awash amidships – a dramatic shot that suggests a photographer with an eye for composition.

So who was the photographer? Someone with the skills to take a photograph at sea from a moving object, namely another vessel. The image, sea conditions, the wreck itself, and the cliffs are all clearly defined, demonstrating continuing interest in the deteriorating condition of the vessel after the wreck event.

Compare this view of the same shipwreck immediately after she struck, by local resident and female photographer, Annette Evelyn Darwall, which was already in the Historic England collection. This, too, is a skilled photograph, including a section of cliff at left foreground for a sense of place and sense of scale which makes us realise that the viewpoint is everything.

B&W photograph of shipwreck of five-masted vessel seen from cliffs above, the tide receding away from the dark rocky shore to left.
The Preussen aground at low tide, seen from the cliffs above, photographed shortly after the wreck event in November 1910.

Returning to our ‘unknown’ collection, a further extraordinary photograph demonstrates the technical competence of our mystery photographer, in turn showing how photography advanced the recording of shipwrecks.

Traditional shipwreck paintings were largely creations after the event. During the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century Willem van de Velde the Elder would sketch ships lost in action from his position aboard a galliot embedded in the Dutch fleet, but these scenes would later be formally worked up onto canvas. Paintings of tragic wreck events such as the Raft of the Medusa (Théodore Géricault, 1819, Louvre, Paris) or Disaster at Sea (Turner, c.1835, Tate, London) are highly-emotive reconstructions based on survivors’ accounts. In all of these paintings we are looking towards the shipwreck, though some artists concentrated on scenes of pathos within as passengers awaited their fate (Wreck of the Halsewell, Thomas Stothard, 1786, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich) but again these were retrospective ‘artists’ impressions’ based on first-hand accounts.

Photographers such as Frank Meadow Sutcliffe at Whitby or Gibsons of Scilly exploited the dramatic possibilities of artistic composition, placing the shipwreck firmly in its context as an alteration to the natural landscape, often broadside on, with the power of the waves captured naturalistically in real time.

Photographers soon began to record other aspects of shipwrecks such as daytrippers’ visits (in one Gibson photo of 1895 we’re looking at sightseers in Cornwall looking at a wreck from much the same sort of clifftop viewpoint that attracted Annette Evelyn Darwall to photograph the Preussen near Dover). It then became possible to record rescue in real time. Yet these photographs still frame shipwrecks in a landscape context, albeit as temporary alterations to the local environment (and all the more attractive as a subject for that reason).

The early years of the 20th century changed all that. It became possible to record shipwrecks from new perspectives as they were actually happening, which would come to the fore just before and during the First World War – from other vessels in company (HMHS Anglia post, 1915), or aerial photographs from the then new-fangled aircraft, or from within the wreck itself (Ballarat post, 1915).

As our mystery photographer demonstrates, it was also possible for an intrepid visitor to climb aboard a wreck and illustrate the wrecking process from within.

B&W photo of shipwreck showing amidships structure and masts to left, deck awash with water from the sea to the right, cliffs in background.
View looking astern on board the Preussen, awash amidships, c.1910. Note the sharpness and technical competence of the image aboard an unstable platform being pounded by the sea.

There seems to have been quite a trade in postcards of the event, not surprising at a time when wreck sites could become temporary seaside attractions. A quick Google gave me three possible photographers’ names so once more I prepared to research them, and once more the first hit seems to have been the correct one. A postcard from amidships in the opposite direction looking south towards the bows suggested the same photographer, named on the front as ‘Russell Jewry, Photo. Deal.’

I felt sure then that we had our man – the same modus operandi, and as a commercial photographer he would have had access to up-to-date professional equipment to stabilise his camera on board the wreck, and as a local man someone with the contacts to obtain access.

It’s likely that he was able to board her in conjunction with a survey or assessment visit, such as one noted in Lloyd’s List from 9 November, with a German lighter due in to begin offloading the cargo that afternoon.  Further reports showed that the vessel continued to deteriorate following winter gales in December, finally breaking in two in January, while the salvagers themselves ran the risk of wreck. It looks as if the photographs were taken in winter conditions, probably in early December – so Russell Jewry took significant risks to obtain a commercial scoop. (2)

If only all archive mysteries were as easy as this! What a pleasure though to go from a completely unidentified image to one with a location, a subject, a photographer, and a date in one go!

To this day tall ships remain tourist attractions, and even at the time the windjammers were something of an anachronism. As we’ve shown in the War Diary, sailing ship numbers were drastically reduced during the First World War, and by the 1930s, even at the height of the long-distance grain races on which they remained commercially viable, they were positively old-fashioned and somewhat under-resourced – even before this time books had been written on the ‘last of the windjammers’! Aboard the Winterhude in 1934, an English sailor recorded that his ship was circled in mid-Atlantic by an American liner which diverted out of her course to allow her passengers to take in the sight, something of a novelty in its turn for the captain of the Winterhude! (3)

The Preussen‘s fellow Flying-P, Pamir, passed through many adventures, including two World Wars and changes of ownership. Before the Second World War she was owned by Finn Gustav Erikson of Mariehamn, who bought up many of these old sailing barques. In Wellington, New Zealand, in 1941, however, she was seized by the New Zealand government as a prize of war, and sailed under their flag for the duration.

Post-war she was something of a celebrity as one of the very last of the commercial sailing vessels. Her return to London in 1947 excited considerable interest, sailing back to New Zealand in 1948, when she was formally rendered back to Erikson. Later the same year she left once more for Australia to pick up grain in what was billed as the last grain race from Australia to England, together with her ‘sister’, Passat. Their final landfall in England in 1949 again made headline news. (4) Sadly, Pamir would founder at sea in mid-Atlantic in 1957. Following the loss of Pamir, Passat was taken out of service, but survives today as a museum ship at Travemünde, Germany.

B&W photo of a dockside receding to show dockside cranes. To left a tall ship whose masts reach above the dock cranes.
Pamir in 1947-8 at Royal Victoria Dock, London. The neighbouring cranes give a sense of scale. Photographer: S W Rawlings

Whether as shipwrecks in 1910, a sight worth a diversion in mid-Atlantic in the 1930s, or as museum ships today, these grandes dames of the sea have always commanded attention, and never more so than in 1910 for a Deal photographer prepared to take risks for an outstanding shot.

Modern colour photograph of four-masted museum ship with four bare masts and a crane beyond at left, against a grey sky.
Passat as a museum ship at Priwall, Germany, June 2018, seen from the Travemuende bank. By coincidence, this tourist photograph echoes the crane in the Pamir shot (1947) and the slightly deceptive sense of scale of the Preussen against Dover’s White Cliffs in 1910! Photograph courtesy of Andrew Wyngaard.


(1) Other five-masted vessels and above were available, so to speak, but they were never as common as three- and four-masted vessels, and seem to have been particularly in vogue around the early years of the 20th century. Wreck of the Week has previously covered the unique 7-masted Thomas W Lawson (1902-1907), lost off the Isles of Scilly. One of Preussen’s ‘Flying-P’ precursors was the five-masted barque Potosi (1894-1925). TheFrance II (1911-1922), and R C Rickmers (1906-1917) were also five-masted barques built with auxiliary engines, while there were a number of American five-masted schooners such as the wooden-hulled Paul Palmer (1902-1913) and Prescott Palmer (1911-1914). The SS Great Britain steamer (1843), is now displayed as originally fitted out, with six masts, one square-rigged, the others rigged fore-and-aft, but she was the reverse of the France II and R C Rickmers, with sail auxiliary to steam.

(2) Lloyd’s List 9 November 1910, No.22,815, p9, and 19 December 1910, No.22,849, p9; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 12 January 1911, No.10,593, p1, and Dover Express, 13 January 1911, No.2,741, p5

(3) Geoffrey Sykes Robertshaw, Before the Mast: in the Grain Races of the 1930s, Blue Elvan Books, Truro, 2008. For further reading on the windjammers: Basil Lubbock, The Last of the Windjammers, Brown, Son & Ferguson, Glasgow, 2 vols., 1927-1929; Eric Newby, Learning the Ropes, John Murray, London, 1999

(4) See, for example, the eager reporting of Pamir’s arrival in London in time for Christmas, December 1947, Western Morning News, 22 December 1947, No.27,430,  footage of the then Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visiting the Pamir in London in March 1948, and on the vessels’ return in 1949, Hull Daily Mail, 1 October 1949, No.19,926, p3; North Devon Journal, 6 October 1949, No.6,705, p7.


Diary of the War: June 1918

A tale of two ships

History has a habit of repeating itself, not least at sea. Today’s First World War wreck has a namesake with a very similar history in the Second World War: both vessels were owned by the same firm originally and were likewise lost to enemy action on Admiralty service in English waters, both with significant loss of life.

On 13 June 1918 HMS Patia was sunk by in the Bristol Channel in a position said to be 25 miles west of Hartland Point, while on service as an armed merchant cruiser. She was built in 1913 for Elders and Fyffes (of banana fame), whose early 20th century ships took advantage of modern refrigeration technology to transport bananas across the Atlantic to ensure fruit reached market in peak edible condition.

A photograph of her sinking is in the Imperial War Museums Collection online.

Their second Patia, built in 1922, entered Admiralty service first as an ocean boarding vessel, then underwent conversion to a fighter catapult ship. She too was sunk on 27 April 1941 off Beadnell Point, Northumberland, by an aerial attack, but not before her crew had downed the attacking aircraft – continuing the theme of mutually-assured destruction covered in last month’s post.

It’s worth reiterating that the War Diary has showcased the war service of many of the world’s commercial shipping fleets during the First World War, and these companies would reprise that service during the Second.

Wartime deployment would depend to some extent on their original civilian roles. We have already seen how trawlers became minesweepers, Scandinavian colliers were requisitioned and redeployed in British collier service, and ocean liners became troopships and hospital ships – and also armed merchant cruisers, a form of vessel we have not hitherto covered in the War Diary.

Patia‘s speed as a specialist banana carrier made her suitable for carrying out this auxiliary naval role, which she successfully performed from November 1914 right up until 13 June 1918, armed with 6 x 6in howitzers and 2 x 3pdr anti-aircraft guns. She served principally in the North Atlantic between Scotland and Iceland, and from 1917 took up convoy escort duties. Her logs survive up till 30 April 1918, showing that in February she had escorted a convoy home from Dakar (Senegal) before docking at Avonmouth on the 25th for maintenance. Subsequent entries reveal “chipping and painting” over the next month, that is, getting rid of rust before applying a fresh coat of paint. (1)

No further logs survive, highlighting one of the key difficulties in researching the events of a century ago. As usual, the Admiralty press release was extremely brief, hiding the location of loss:

‘The Admiralty on Monday night issued the following: – H.M. armed mercantile cruiser Patia, Acting Captain W. G. Howard, R.N., was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on the 13th inst.

‘One officer and 15 men, including eight of the mercantile crew, are missing, presumed drowned. The next-of-kin have been informed.’ (2)

The details which made it into the press at the time focused on the human interest aspect, including the deaths of local men, which had been depressingly regular reading in regional newspapers since the outbreak of war. For example:


‘The following additional particulars of local men killed have been supplied:-

‘Signalman William Harold B. Roe, RNVR, HMS Patia, lost his life through the Patia being torpedoed on the 13th inst. The elder son of Mr William Roe . . . he was educated at King Edward’s Grammar School, holding scholarships. On leaving school he entered Lloyds Bank and rapidly progressed. On January 10, 1918, he was married to Miss Alice Williams . . . ‘ (3)

Likewise, the Western Daily Press reported:

‘A Portishead man, Mr Leslie Victor Atwell, lost his life in the ill-fated Patia. He was a naval reservist and joined up on the outbreak of war. He was 35 years of age, married, and previously an employee of the Docks Committee.’ (4)

More happily, another feature referred to the ‘Exciting Experiences of Famous Young Walsall Violinist’:

‘One of the able seamen who was saved from the Patia was Harold Mills, Walsall’s brilliant young violinist. He arrived in Walsall after a short stay in an English hospital, and in a chat with a representative of the Observer, spoke on all subjects except his being torpedoed.’

It emerged that he spent an hour in a boat which then picked him up and transferred him to an American destroyer. Mills gave good copy:

‘Most of his kit was lost, including his violin, but, as he philosophically expressed it, it was not his best.’ (5)

The stories of the two Patias are not wholly similar, however. The second Patia is almost certainly identified off the Northumberland coast (6), whereas the location of the 1918 Patia is not fully clear.

A site formerly attributed to Patia has since proved to be the Armenian, another First World War casualty of 1915, identified by her bell. (7) Patia is now believed to lie in a different location in the Bristol Channel, itself further west than the stated position of 25 miles west of Hartland Point, although such positions are not necessarily reliably expressed. That site’s charting history reaches back to 1928 but no further: this does not necessarily preclude its identification with Patia, since, after all, many First World War vessels have only been discovered in recent years. (8)

The submarine which attacked the first Patia in 1918 was herself sunk in August of that year off Start Point by HMS Opossum. The Heinkel responsible for sinking the second Patia in 1941, and shot down in its turn, has to date not been located.

(1) https://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-08-HMS_Patia.htm

(2) Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 21 June 1918, No.7,160, p5

(3) Birmingham Daily Post, Thursday 20 June 1918, No.18,738, p7

(4) Western Daily Press, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.18,728, p6

(5) Walsall Observer, and South Staffordshire Chronicle, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.2,591, p3

(6) UKHO 4390

(7) UKHO 16089

(8) UKHO 17227


Diary of the War: May 1918

Side by Side in the North Sea

The Admiralty issued a brief press release on 4 June 1918:

“One of H.M. destroyers was sunk on the 31st May, after being in collision. There were no casualties.” (1)

B&W photograph of ship in port broadside view, smoke billowing.
Destroyer HMS Fairy © IWM (Q 38854)

An unfortunate but trivial incident, since all hands had fortunately survived? Not quite.

The ‘HM Destroyer’ in this press release was HMS Fairy, 355 tons, under the command of Lt. Geoffrey Howard Barnish, RNR, sister ship to HMS Falcon, 375 tons, commanded by Lt. Charles Lightoller RNR, survivor of the Titanic (see previous post on Charles Lightoller). Falcon had been lost just weeks earlier after a collision with HM Trawler John Fitzgerald, 235 tons, during convoy esort duties on the North Sea coast.

In the early hours of 31 May Fairy was also on convoy escort duties in the North Sea, together with six armed trawlers and an armed whaler. However, history was not quite about to repeat itself.

Barnish considered that a destroyer escort should be “to seaward and a little abaft the beam of the rear ship of the convoy.” (2) In this way the escort could steam rapidly forward to the scene of any attack, rather than be forced to double back to deal with the attacker.

He was relieved to round Flamborough Head, for he considered a U-boat  attack on a convoy south of Flamborough Head unlikely, because of the shoals in the area. That is enough information for us today to realise that it was a southbound convoy and thence to guess at its likely composition, so we can see why Admiralty press releases gave so little away. Statistically, however, his confidence was misplaced, and a cursory glance at wreck site remains for 1914-18 reported near Flamborough Head demonstrates that approximately half were indeed attacked south of Flamborough. (3)

That same night UC-75, displacing 417 tons on the surface, and under the command of Walther Schmitz, was also on war patrol seeking a target north of the minefield she had just laid to the south off the Outer Dowsing Shoal. A southbound convoy, laden with valuable cargo for London, presented a suitably attractive opportunity for an attack.

The convoy found her first. Around 2am, SS Blaydonian struck UC-75 as she passed overhead. As a southbound collier, she was laden with coal and low in the water, so UC-75 received quite a hefty blow that sounded to Barnish as if his worst fears had been realised with a torpedo fired among the convoy and he left his station to investigate.

Over on UC-75 the damage to her conning tower prevented the hatch being properly shut, leading to water ingress and forcing her to surface. In the meantime the convoy steamed on – to inflict more damage in the dark. SS Tronda was a Norwegian flying the British flag under the Shipping Controller (she would survive the war and revert to Norwegian ownership), and as was typical for Norwegian vessels under these circumstances, she went where she was most needed, on a coal run. She too ran over UC-75. Then the SS Peter Pan, owned by Furness, Withy & Co., one of the chief shipping companies in the coal trade, and therefore also a laden collier, was the next to strike UC-75. We can imagine the submarine reeling under each blow like a punch-drunk boxer on the ropes.

On arrival at the scene it was not yet clear to Barnish whether the submarine was friend or foe. There was sufficient history of U-boat operations off the Yorkshire coast and the apparent sound of a torpedo attack to make an enemy identification all too plausible, but there was still some doubt. Despite the report, there was no evidence of an actual attack and there was also the  basic knowledge that British submarines were known to be operating on secret missions out of the northern ports.

In that new age of modern warfare, Barnish made his decision with the information he had available. He turned to an ancient tactic – he moved to ram his target, weaponising his vessel should the submarine prove to be German, but astern, a manoeuvre which would allow the crew to escape and avoid loss of life, should it prove to be British.

What happened next is not fully clear: Barnish and Schmitz’s versions were necessarily coloured by their respective viewpoints and the order of events has also been interpreted differently by subsequent commentators. Barnish then heard voices shouting ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’, identifying the vessel as a U-boat, and proceeded to ‘order the coxswain to port the helm in order to hit her in a more vital spot’, but he felt that they were too close for that manoeuvre to be effective. (4) According to another (secondary) version, these voices were heard after the impact. (5)

Barnish recognised that the Fairy was probably damaged in this first pass but nevertheless renewed the attack, ordering the U-boat to be raked by gunfire as Fairy turned to ram the submarine once more, with the U-boat returning fire. Fairy‘s bows struck the U-boat aft of the gun, crumpling up on contact, so that they were under water within seconds and two of the German crew were able to climb from one vessel to the other, while others were picked up by Fairy. Not all, however, and Schmitz would go on to interpret the speed of the renewed attack and the accompanying gunfire as aimed at the crew in the water, as well as at their vessel. (6)

At this point in the war the seas off Flamborough Head (and elsewhere) were regularly perturbed with scenes of wartime strife. Similar allegations against U-boat crews would surface in early July with the discovery of a boat washed up at Flamborough, carrying dead bodies which bore signs of wounds inflicted by gunfire after getting into the boat. (They were identified as from the Madeleine, a French lugger damaged, but not, in fact, sunk, by UB-40 on 2 July 1918.) (7)

Reverting back to the events of 31 May, another life and death struggle was about to take place. Generally speaking, vessels lost in English waters either to accidental collision or deliberate ramming demonstrate that the colliding/ramming vessel usually escaped relatively unscathed, with the force transferring to the vessel in contact, but occasionally the force is so great that the former also sinks. (8) So it proved to be in this case: Fairy had taken on an enemy larger and more robustly built than herself and paid the price.

Barnish and his crew quickly realised that their ship was sinking too rapidly to make any attempt at beaching feasible, the nearest land being at least 10 nautical miles away, so the crew were sent off in the boats, along with the prisoners, who were thus shipwrecked for the second time in less than an hour. Barnish and two signal ratings remained behind to signal a message saying that they were about to abandon the vessel, then swam to a Carley float. All the British crew would survive, but only 14 out of 31 of UC-75‘s men would survive their double shipwreck to be picked up.

B&W photograph of men in uniform around an inflatable liferaft.
Men gather round their Carley float during a boat drill aboard HMS Widgeon, on convoy duty in the North Sea, during the Second World War. © IWM (A 18444) This scene would have changed little, if at all, from 1918, when Barnish and his two crew were forced to make use of their Carley float in the escape from HMS Fairy.

Barnish and his crew were decorated in 1918 and received prize bounty money in 1920 for this action. (9) Schmitz was made a prisoner of war and would die in the flu epidemic of 1919.

And still UC-75 and Fairy lie half a mile apart SE of Flamborough Head, sites of mutually assured destruction. Both have been identified by internal and structural evidence (identification on propellers in the case of UC-75 and the telegraph and pressure gauges in the case of HMS Fairy) and external damage. (10) Despite being struck by Blaydonian, UC-75‘s conning tower was reported in 2016 as still intact, while Fairy‘s bows bear the scars of her attack on UC-75. She lies seaward of UC-75, just as, a century ago, she had kept station seaward of her convoy.


(1) Widely reproduced in the UK press, for example, in the Newcastle Journal, 5 June 1918, p6.

(2) Barnish’s own words, reproduced in Dorling, T (“Taffrail”). 1931 Endless Story: being an account of the destroyers, flotilla-leaders, torpedo-boats and patrol boats in the Great War London: Hodder & Stoughton

(3) National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database: 2018

(4) Dorling 1931; Edinburgh Gazette 20 September 1918, No.13,323, p3498

(5) Termote, T. 2017 War Beneath the Waves: U-boat Flotille Flandern 1915-1918 London: Unicorn Publishing Group

(6) ADM137/3898, German submarines UC-48-94: papers concerning details of vessels, interrogation of survivors, photographs and ship’s book of UC-92 (The National Archives, Kew)

(7) See, for example, the Scotsman, 6 July 1918, No.23,431, p7; uboat.net

(8) National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database: 2018

(9) Dorling 1931: Edinburgh Gazette, 20 September 1918, No.13,323, p3498; 25 May 1920, No.13,598, p1305

(10) UK Hydrographic Office reports 8971 (UC-75) and 8974 (Fairy).

Diary of the War: April 1918


Over the course of the War Diary on this blog, the featured wrecks have illustrated the twists and turns of the war away from the Western Front. Today’s wreck is no exception: the Spanish steamer Luisa, torpedoed by UB-74 off Pendeen lighthouse on 12 April 1918, while bound from Barcelona to Liverpool with a general cargo.

Built in 1897 as the Tyneside collier Minerva, she was sold on into Spanish ownership under the same name in 1899, and ten years later was sold on again to the Cia Naviera Sota y Aznar of Bilbao, who renamed her Aizkarai Mendi. Each ship in their fleet was evocatively named in Euskera (Basque) after a different mountain (mendi) in the Basque country. 

Aizkarai Mendi was sold on once more in 1915 to become Luisa for a family firm whose main business was timber. Spain was neutral during the First World War, a stance which opened up her shipping to commercial opportunities which companies such as Luisa‘s owners Hijos de José Tayà were quick to seize. Bilbao’s exports of iron ore were much in demand from both sides requiring raw materials to turn into war materials, and Luisa became the first in the family’s fleet. (1) The Tayà fleet would go on to expand rapidly over the course of the war with vessels which, like the Luisa, were bought up from other fleets.

As we have seen in previous articles, neutrality was no guarantee of safety at sea, and finding ready markets on both sides carried the risk that the belligerent powers would each seek to hamper the other’s trade, and U-boats began to target Spanish shipping. The news from Madrid broke in Britain a fortnight later, in the context of three Spanish ships ‘sunk in a period of four days’, including the Luisa ‘with a cargo of coal’. (2)

‘The indignation in maritime circles is enormous . . . A very energetic protest has been made to the Government by M. [sic] Señor Taya, the owner of the Luisa, who demands the immediate seizure of all German vessels now lying in Spanish ports.’ The U-boat attacks were attributed to reprisals for the ‘diplomatic check sustained by Germany in the matter of the commercial agreements concluded between Spain and the Entente nations’.  In further news from Madrid, clearly seen as connected, the next paragraph goes on to reveal that the ‘German submarine U.C. 48, which sought refuge in a Spanish port in a damaged condition, has been interned.’ (3)

More details on the wreck event emerged as the survivors arrived back at Barcelona in late May. In a telegram to the Spanish Prime Minister, Señor Tayà described the circumstances. Luisa was torpedoed ‘unarmed, neutral, and flying the Spanish flag’ in ‘full daylight at one o’clock in the afternoon’ while ‘following French and British steamers with a view to avoiding mines,’  the French vessel 3 miles ahead and the British a quarter of a mile ahead. ‘The submarine, however, kept at a respectful distance from the foreign steamers, as they were armed.’  (4)

After being torpedoed, the Luisa sank within a few minutes with three men killed in the engine-room, but the remainder of the crew were rescued by two British patrol vessels. ‘The owners of the lost vessel fully expect the Spanish Government to make a claim on Germany and in the meantime to seize a German steamer of equivalent value.’ (5)

As the U-boat campaign against Spanish shipping continued, the Aznar company would go on to lose Anboto Mendi off Runswick Bay, while en route from Bilbao for Middlesbrough with iron ore on 10 May 1918, and the Tayà company’s ship Villa de Soller would be sunk in the Mediterranean on 15 May 1918. Ten days later, the U-boat which had attacked her sister ship Luisa would be depth-charged by HM Yacht Lorna off the Bill of Portland.


(1) García Domingo, G. 2007 “El impacto de la Primera Guerra Mundial en la marina mercante española: un apunte sobre el caso catalán (1914-1922)”,  Transportes, Servicios y Communicaciones, No.13, 122-144; Lowry, C. 2009 At what cost? Spanish Neutrality in the First World War MA thesis, University of South Florida

(2) Cambridge Daily News, 25 April 1918, No.9,269, p4

(3) Ibid.

(4) The Scotsman, 7 May 1918, No.23,279, p3; Londonderry Sentinel, 25 May 1918, no issue number, p4, republishing in translation a contemporary article in El Sol.

(5) Ibid.

Diary of the War: March 1918

War Knight

The War Knight was entirely a product of the First World War. She was one of the British ‘War Standard’ ships, built to a standard pattern that enabled a faster turnover in shipbuilding to help counteract the continuing toll in British mercantile shipping losses. All had the War– prefix, and were named in classes, with some intriguing juxtapositions, such as War Crocus and War Tune. War Knight was one of a group of similarly-named vessels: War Baron and War Monarch among them. All were lost around the English coastline in 1917-18.

Her story is also characteristic of this phase of the war as ships now steamed in convoy with escorts that shuttled between appointed rendezvous locations, where the next escorts would take over. There were other countermeasures in place to ensure the safety of each convoy, such as zig-zagging at predetermined intervals of varying and therefore less predictable lengths, to help obscure their true course.

Most extraordinary of all, ships were painted in dazzle camouflage which broke up hull outlines, making it difficult for a U-boat to get an accurate fix on the vessel and determine its size, outline, speed, and course. Firing a torpedo was a scientific act which had to take account of the distance travelled by the target in between firing the torpedo and its contact with the intended victim.

Art took on science in this battle to keep ships safe from attack, and the ‘Cubist ships’, as they were known to contemporaries, became a common sight on the world’s oceans. It seems counter-intuitive to conceal large moving objects in abstract eye-catching patterns and bright colours, but the patterns were carefully worked out to disrupt the ship’s outline as far as possible. Nor were the two sides of the vessel the same: each side would carry a different pattern, and the paint scheme would be carried through any visible area of a ship, such as cabins or recessed elements of superstructure.

I will let the paintings below tell the story, all seen from sea, all with the viewpoint of another ship at sea in the same convoy, and all painted by a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, who certainly married his knowledge of the sea, observation of contemporary shipping, and his artistic talent to considerable effect.  In painting 1 below, we see our first dazzled ship, an oiler, like the War Knight, at reasonably close quarters, from astern of another ship in convoy whose wake leads our eye to the dazzled ship, but even so, her bow is distorted. We have to allow for artistic licence, of course, but the ship has elements of the same palette as the cliffs behind, and the pattern at her bows echoes the vertical undulations of the cliffs. We are seeing distortion of distance as well as the ability to blend into the background.

Painting from the sea looking towards cliffs and the body of a vessel painted in dazzle camouflage.
1. A dazzled oiler, with escort, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 567)

There is ‘clear blue water’ between the viewer and the ship astern as the convoy is keeping station, under the watchful eye of a British airship. Convoys could be very large, and destroyers and other escorts, such as the one seen nearer the cliffs on the left, had to act as ship-shepherds. The lead merchantman would be designated the Commodore, with every other ship in the convoy taking its station from the Commodore.

A convoy of dazzle camouflaged ships in the lower third of the painting, against a blue sea and a blue sky with pink and orange tinges to the clouds and on the horizon.
2. A Convoy in the Channel, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 560)

In painting 2 above the pink tinges in the sky suggest dusk and that this might be an eastbound convoy, as it was when the War Knight‘s convoy entered the western Channel from the Atlantic on 23 March 1918, with the Mirlo as Commodore. There were several other oilers in the convoy, War Knight being on the port flank and the American oiler O B Jennings on the starboard, and a number of vessels were dazzled, including the Jennings. The convoy was put on edge by hearing ships being sunk off the Lizard in separate incidents, and we start to realise, even at this distance, the two ships nearest us look uncomfortably close to one another, as if they are huddling close for comfort.

Rough dark blue sea in lower third of painting, ships barely visible against a pink tinge of sunset on the horizon, dark clouds above.
3. Seascape with convoy and evening sky effect, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 569)

Against the evening sky in 3 above, the ships seem to blend into the rough sea, particularly those nearest to us, with only their funnels and the steam they belch the main clue as to their presence – the perennial problem for all steamers in war, since the black clouds of coal-driven steam would simply give them away.

And therein, in the dark off the Isle of Wight, lay the problem. The convoy steered further to the south than originally planned, with the presence of a new minefield off the Needles revealed that day by the loss of HMS New Dawn. Just before midnight, a distress call then emanated from the south-east from a torpedoed tanker (which managed to limp in to Southampton). A supposed torpedo flash followed half an hour later, then within the next half an hour a distress call in French was heard to the south (which cannot, to this day, be reconciled with the loss of any French vessel).

Caught not between the devil and the deep blue sea, but between a minefield to the north and a hunting U-boat to the south in the darkness of the night, the decision was taken to alter course once again. Wireless could not be used in case communications were heard by the enemy, so recourse was had to a loudhailer amongst a convoy starting to scatter, barely able to see each other in the dark and with the situation exacerbated by dazzle camouflage. This confusion was further aggravated when one of the convoy, whose captain was perhaps being hypervigilant, challenged the escort’s authority and caused further delay in getting the message out to all the ships.

Thus O B Jennings and Aungban, on the starboard flank, started to turn north-west on the old course, as the Kia Ora and War Knight on the port flank turned south-east on the new course. As oiler smashed into oiler, the rest of the convoy were dazzled by a huge explosion and a fireball that seemed to coalesce into a single ship, according to one observer. Only a few men escaped alive from War Knight, and those with severe burns, some of whom succumbed to their wounds in hospital.

Ultimately War Knight and O B Jennings were a ‘menace to other ships’ and certainly the huge flames and burning sea would have alerted any U-boats in the vicinity to the rest of the convoy. O B Jennings was sunk by the escorts (although raised, returned to service and sunk in the Atlantic later in the war) and War Knight was taken in tow with the aim of beaching her. She then struck a mine from the very same field the convoy had been attempting to avoid, so there was nothing for it but to scuttle her too, to dowse the flames.

All the safety measures by this stage of the war – the convoy system, the zig-zagging, the dazzle camouflage, the radio silence – were all cited in the official loss report as contributory factors to this tragic collision in convoy, which became a regular feature of this phase of the war, but for the War Knight to endure so many vicissitudes was unusual. This wreck is well-known, and much has been written about the phenomenon of dazzle camouflage, but there seems to be little literature on the impact of dazzle among ships in the same convoy. Measures that served to screen ships from the eyes of enemies could also obscure them from their friends. Finally, here is the model showing the dazzle scheme for the collier Camswan, also lost in a collision in convoy off the Isle of Wight on her maiden voyage in 1917:


3D ship model painted in colour with abstract black patterns, photographed against a grey background.
First World War model of the dazzle scheme for the SS Camswan, c.1917. © IWM (MOD 2259)


ADM 137/3450, The National Archives

Cant, S. 2013. England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats. Swindon: Historic England

New York Times, 18 April 1918, p7

O B Jennings

For more on the War Knight, see the Maritime Archaeology Trust’s Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War.

For more on dazzle camouflage, see the following resources: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-british-wanted-camouflage-their-warships-they-made-them-dazzle-180958657/ and http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zty8tfr