No.91 The Africa

Diary of the War No.14

This month’s First World war wreck was a ship sunk en route to France on 16 September 1915.. The terms boat train and train ferry are familiar to many: the former a train service timetabled to connect with a scheduled ferry service, the latter a vessel transporting a train across a body of water. Less well known are ships carrying locomotives and rolling stock as cargo, in this case to the First World War battlefields of France, where they were needed to transport men and materials to the front, and as ambulance trains to bring back the wounded. (My own grandfather was among them, invalided out by trench fever in 1917.)

Black and white photograph of crane at right with suspended railway carriage over the deck of a ship.
GWR railway carriage, marked with a Red Cross, being loaded onto the SS Africa. Photo courtesy of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon

During the night of 15 September, UC-6, one of the new coastal minelaying submarines, slipped through the Straits of Dover to lay a minefield ‘across the passage abreast of the South Goodwin Light Vessel.’ (1) The first anyone on the British side knew of this new minefield was when the SS Africa struck one of these mines on the evening of the next day. The potential of the German minelaying submarine was not yet fully understood by the British (despite the activities of UC-11 as noted in Diary of the War 11 for June 1915) and at first the field was believed to have been laid by an enemy steamer under the colours of a neutral vessel.

Black and white photo of steamship with single funnel, and four carriages aboard, partly reflected in the water below.
The SS Africa in dock with all four carriages loaded onto the vessel, two fore and two aft. Photo courtesy of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon

The Africa did not sink immediately, and, in fact, it was noted that ‘these UC minefields [laid in late September 1915] in the thickly peopled Dover area brought about the total loss of very few ships: many of those mined were safely beached on the shelving shores of Kent, and after repair continued their voyages’. The Africa was among those beached near Deal, but became a total loss, unlike other vessels beached for recovery on what became known as the ‘Hospital Coast’ of  stricken ships. In fact, the Africa was dispersed in 1917.

Contemporary newspaper photo showing the stricken SS Africa as beached near Deal. The railway carriages are awash at roof level and the image has been retouched by a contemporary hand to make the carriages easy to discern. By courtesy of STEAM - Museum of the GWR, Swindon.
Contemporary newspaper photo showing the stricken SS Africa as beached near Deal. The vessel is awash and the image has been retouched by a contemporary hand to show the roof line of the sunken railway carriages. Photo courtesy of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon.

There is some irony in her final location on the ‘Hospital Coast’, because the railway carriages aboard the Africa were intended for use as ambulance trains and were built by the Great Western Railway (GWR) in Swindon. Elaine Arthurs from Swindon’s STEAM Museum adds to the story:

‘The Great Western Railway supplied and constructed 16 ambulance trains at Swindon Works during the First World War. This equated to 256 carriages. The trains were used on both the home front and abroad, transporting injured troops to military hospitals. The trains that were used abroad were transported from Britain to France by boat. A team of men from the GWR went with the carriages to see their safe transit to the continent. Whilst on one trip to France from Tilbury Docks the SS Africa, carrying both GWR ambulance carriages and employees, was mined off the coast of Kent. The ship and its contents were lost, along with two crew members, but the GWR employees survived.’

With many thanks to Elaine and to the STEAM Museum, Swindon. This wreck site marks the intersection of two significant strands of Britain’s industrial heritage in the age of steam, shipping and the railways: in a similar vein, it so happens that the STEAM Museum is also adjacent to the Historic England office in Swindon, where I have written this blog today! For more on wreck sites laden with First World War rolling stock, please see the St. Chamond, torpedoed in 1918.

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