Diary of the War No.21

Today’s post commemorates the Danish cargo vessel Asger Ryg, which disappeared in the English Channel on 6 April 1916.

She was built as the German Mimi Horn in 1902, but was sold the same year into Danish service as Asger Ryg for A/S D/S Skjalm Hvide (The Skjalm Hvide Steamship Company). The company’s name commemorated an 11th century chieftain of Sjaelland in Denmark, so what more appropriate name for one of their ships than that of one of his sons, Asger Ryg?

The Asger Ryg was bound from the Tyne with coal for Algiers when she disappeared with all hands. An official Danish source attributed the sinking to “being torpedoed or collision with a sea-mine”. That source was the Statistical Overview of Shipping Losses for the year 1916 of Danish Ships lost in Danish and Foreign Waters and Foreign Ships lost in Danish Waters (1) modelled on the British Board of Trade Casualty Returns, which had similar contents, but the Danish version also places a strong emphasis on narrative, making it more detailed in many respects.

Asger Ryg was sighted ‘to the south of the Isle of Wight in a badly damaged condition. It is supposed that she has been torpedoed.’ (2) The wreck was claimed by UB-29 as having been torpedoed just west of Beachy Head, (3) suggesting that her victim had drifted some distance before finally sinking.

The Asger Ryg‘s entry in the Statistical Overview reveals that she was valued at 700,000 kroner, and, together with many of the other vessels registered as lost that year, was also insured for war risks, at 924,000 kroner. Neutral Denmark was in a difficult position, with Germany on her sole land border and trade with Britain across the North Sea an important source of income. On the other hand, mines were no respecters of nationality or neutrality.

Denmark therefore continued to trade with both nations, but, as the German blockade of Britain intensified, ships carrying British cargoes became collateral damage in the efforts to strike at British trade. In English waters alone, we know of some 30 Danish ships lost during the First World War after being torpedoed, with further Danish vessels being lost to mines. (4) In a worldwide context losses were even greater. A few days after the loss of Asger Ryg it was reported that up to this point in the war the tally of Danish losses was 42 worldwide. (5) One of those was the Skodsborg, torpedoed a few weeks earlier, also by UB-29, off Suffolk.

Black and white profile view of steamship with single prominent funnel.
This may be Asger Ryg‘s wartime livery. Note that her name is painted in large white letters amidships. This was certainly the practice adopted by Norwegian vessels 1916-17, signalling their national identity at a distance in an effort to avoid being targeted.  Copyright unknown: wrecksite.eu

War risk insurance, therefore, was essential, a contingency that was prepared for from the outset, at least in Britain, where the State War Risk Insurance office opened the day after the declaration of war: the result of a collaboration between the Government and Lloyd’s of London. This innovative approach for British ships in 1914 would see further changes in the insurance industry to ease the pressure as their clerks left for the forces. In May 1916, therefore, a new Policy Signing Office opened, staffed almost entirely by women, to speed up the processing of policies. (6)

As the mounting toll of Danish ships demonstrates, by the early summer of 1916 it was acknowledged that neutral vessels were running significant risks: ‘For some time past a rate of 1 per cent has been accepted on the London market to cover the war risk in goods on neutral steamers across the North Atlantic.’ (7)  Thus, although neutral, each Danish ship was fighting its own war to stay afloat.

This is not the first post on the subject of neutral shipping lost in English waters – the War Diary opened with the Skúli Fógeti – and will not be the last.

(1) Statistisk Oversigt over de I Aaret 1916 for Danske Skibe i Dansk og Fremmede Farvande samt for Fremmede Skibe i Dansk Farvande: Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, Copenhagen, 1917

(2) New York Times, 10 April 1916

(3) uboat.net

(4) National Record of the Historic Environment, valid as at 5 April 2016.

(5) New York Times, 13 April 1916

(6) The Times, 7 May 1916, p9

(7) The Times, 5 June 1916, p15

 

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