No.79 James Eagan Layne

In this week’s post, we commemorate the loss of the US Liberty Ship James Eagan Layne 70 years ago on 21 March 1945, torpedoed while bound from New Orleans, last from Barry in Wales, for Ghent with what was then termed ‘Government stores’. Translated, that meant military vehicles and other war materials destined for the liberation of Europe as the war was drawing to a close. Historic recoveries from this vessel have included numerous shell cases. (1)

The forward section of the James Eagan Layne wreck, using modern bathymetric imagery allowing a view into the ship
Forward section of the James Eagan Layne, by courtesy of MSDS Marine and Swathe Services. There is much scattered debris, evidence of extensive post-war salvage.

The James Eagan Layne was one of several Liberty ships and other vessels bound for Belgium in the spring of 1945, following the successful conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. The Allies had repulsed the German advance, or ‘bulge’ in their lines, with heavy loss of life, particularly among the US troops who bore the brunt of the fighting. Allied access to the Belgian ports was now secured, barring minefields and U-boats, resuming the communication links severed by the fall of Belgium in 1940.

The pattern of wrecks on the seabed mirrors the fate of those communication links. Ten ships, bound either to or from Belgian ports, were sunk in English waters following the declaration of war in September 1939. It was a similar figure in early 1940 prior to the fall of Belgium in May, with 11 ships sunk by mine or torpedo on the same route.

The aft section of the James Eagan Layne wreck, using modern bathymetric imagery allowing a view into the ship, and showing scattered debris
Aft section of the James Eagan Layne, by courtesy of MSDS Marine and Swathe Services. This image allows an insight into the box-like construction characteristic of the Liberty Ship.

Transport links with occupied Belgium were then severed and are reflected in the lack of corresponding wrecks from late 1940 to early 1945: then, as Allied ships were once more able to reach Antwerp and other ports, there was also a recurrence of wreck events. Between January and May 1945, 10 ships are known to have been sunk in English waters en route to or from Belgium: they included other Liberty Ships, the Henry B Plant and the James Harrod. The John R Park was also torpedoed the same day as the James Eagan Layne, albeit on a different route, bound from England for the United States.

For more on the James Eagan Layne, please have a look at the dedicated SHIPS (Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound) and Promare Liberty 70 site.

(1) Receiver of Wreck droits.

With many thanks to MSDS Marine and Swathe Services for permission to reproduce these beautiful images.

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