28. A Tourist Attraction

A copy of her own article sent in by a member of the public sent me on a very interesting trail this week, updating our records for surrendered U-boats.

During the period 1919-1924 a number of surrendered U-boats were lost under tow en route to the breakers or destined for French service as part of war reparations, or sometimes just stripped and abandoned.

Today’s wreck is the U 118 in April 1919, as plenty of images survive of her wrecking. Both she and another U-boat were under tow from Harwich to Cherbourg under the escort of the French destroyer François Garnier when they both broke tow and went ashore in different places either side of Beachy Head. The François Garnier requested permission to try and sink the clearly floundering U 118 by gunfire, but whether U 118 washed up at Hastings before this could happen, or whether their efforts to sink her were unavailing, is unclear.

This was just one of many wreck incidents of all kinds which became tourist attractions in their own right, and it took place just before Easter 1919. Of course souvenirs were taken . . . ! She was the subject of many postcards charting her deterioration as she keeled over on the shingle ridge and was broken up in situ. The most interesting is an aerial view, which we take for granted nowadays, but think back to 1919, and it must have been quite a novelty. I don’t know if ‘barnstorming’ was a popular activity as early as 1919, but by the 1920s it was a feature of the British seaside holiday (my Dad went up in a biplane at Clacton, aged 5, in 1927). I’d like to imagine that Hastings in 1919 was the place to go on your holidays, with a wreck as an added bonus!

Quite often, the U-boats’ precise identity wasn’t really uppermost in the minds of people who were simply determined to scrap them, with further information being lost as they have passed out of living memory. There is some argument as to the identity of the second U-boat, which stranded by the Seven Sisters cliffs west of Beachy Head, although I think that a contemporary Times report identifying it as UB-121 has some weight. Whichever one it was, it smashed straight into the remains of the Oushla, which had stranded in the identical spot in 1916. Have a look at the picture gallery for the Oushla here.

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27. The Scum of the Earth

It seems apt to quote Wellington’s words on the men who served under him as we contemplate the anniversary of his victory at Vitoria in Spain, 200 years ago today.

The ‘scum of the earth’ had to come from somewhere – and had to be despatched home afterwards. Wherever the British fought, troopship wrecks followed, and are part of the heritage of Britain’s military campaigns abroad. Though we have no known wrecks of transports sinking in English waters in the aftermath of Vitoria itself, we do in fact have wrecks of troop transport vessels from earlier in the Peninsular campaign.

The appropriately-named Dispatch from Corunna which struck on Black Head on 22nd January 1809 was too early to have come from the famous battle of that name, which took place on 16th January.

Instead she contained survivors of the 7th Light Dragoons, who had been decimated at the previous battles of Sahagun and Benavente, and were to be further decimated by this particular wreck. On the same day, at almost the same place, on the notorious Manacles, HMS Primrose was lost carrying dispatches in the opposite direction, outward-bound for Corunna.

Although the name ‘Manacles’ comes from the Cornish Maen Eglos, simply meaning ‘Church Rocks’, the name has been assimilated to an English word with a degree of appropriateness, conveying overtones of chaining or imprisoning ships upon the reef, a fairly common process for names of shipwreck features.

In the local church both wrecks are commemorated, as are others of different dates. For the Dispatch there is a wall monument to the 7th Light Dragoons, also known as Hussars, topped by a dramatic image of a ship coming to grief. Beneath is a trophy, as these sculptural embellishments are known, with the flags and arms pointing downwards to symbolise death.

26. Totes Meer

There can only be one wreck of the week this week, as everyone is talking about the Do17 Flying Pencil recovered from the Goodwin Sands on Monday. Rather than commenting directly on the wreck, I would just like to set it into some sort of historical and cultural context.

We know from our records that the Do17 was one of 12 aeroplanes which were shot down or crashed on the shore on the same day as the Battle of Britain raged: three in the Humber area, the remainder over Kent and Sussex.

As far as I am aware all the aircraft lost on that day came down into the sea: none crashed on land. Three German aircraft, a He111, a Me109 and our Do17, were lost as against 9 British: two Defiants from the same squadron which attacked the Do17, two Hurricanes, two Spitfires and three Hampdens.

Overall the PastScape database records some 433 German aircraft lost during WWII, of which approximately 364 are known to have been shot down in or near the sea. Undoubtedly there is some under-reporting of both terrestrial and maritime losses of aircraft, an issue not confined to the German side. It is therefore impossible to say definitively from the data available that more German aircraft were shot down over the sea than they were over English territory.

It seems apt then, to look at Paul Nash’s painting, Totes Meer. It was actually inspired by a dump at Cowley in Oxfordshire of crashed German aircraft seen in a terrestrial context, but reworked by Nash into a ‘dead sea’ of twisted wreckage, waves upon waves of German aircraft crashing upon an English shore.

It is virtually contemporary with our Do17, being painted in 1940-1 as part of Nash’s work as an official war artist. Hindsight colours our view of the painting, since we know the outcome: it is easy to forget that, at the time it was made, the war hung in the balance. Did contemporary viewers see each crashed German aircraft as one less to rain bombs on Britain, or do they represent a force as unending and as unyielding as the sea? Or are both views tangled up in the wreckage?

A very visible wheel, not unlike the still inflated wheel seen on the Do17, lends the mangled heap the appearance of the eye of a beached whale or school of whales, reinforced by exposed wing struts suggesting baleen plates. A beached whale is an animal out of context: so, too, are these aeroplanes, lying in the sea instead of flying through the air.

25. Spontaneous Compostion

No, this is not a spelling mistake from the subject line but a bad pun. (Is there any other kind of pun?) The Russo-Finnish barque Ymer caught fire and exploded in 1910 while at anchor with a cargo of “organic manure”. (See WOTW 6 on the Venscapen for more on Russo-Finnish barques.)

Spontaneous combustion of cargo occurs occasionally in the record. Hay is one known offender in this respect, with approximately 6 known hay barges lost to fire, and coal is another. Naturally, it is combustible, or it would not have been intended to be burnt as fuel, but it was somewhat unexpected to find it burnt prior to delivery!

A collier exploded in this way before she even left the Tyne with her cargo in 1857. More worryingly, another collier caught fire at sea in the Downs en route from Hartlepool for Dieppe in 1873.

There were other examples elsewhere, and the situation was deemed serious enough for a Royal Commission on the Spontaneous Combustion of Coal to be set up in 1876, which looked, among other things, at whether different types of coal were more subject to spontaneous combustion than others. It seems that the cause was often inadequate ventilation in cargo holds.