Diary of the War: October 1916

The wreck in two places at once

In this blog we’ve occasionally encountered wrecks that are in two places at once. The Mary Rose is a good example: after being raised in 1982, her principal structure lies in the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth, but she is still a designated wreck site offshore with some remains still in situ. We’ve also looked at the ship that was wrecked in two separate countries, leaving different bits behind each time.

HMS Nubian is another example of a similar phenomenon. One of the Tribal-class destroyers which patrolled the Dover Straits during the First World War (see the story of Viking, Ghurka, and Maori in action against U-8), she was sent out to intercept a surprise Channel raid by the enemy in the early hours of 27 October 1916. A visit by the Kaiser to Zeebrugge had led the Admiralty to expect a German landing west of Nieuwpoort (possibly a diversionary tactic which succeeded in drawing out some of the British naval forces towards Dunkirk?) (1)

There were six Tribal-class destroyers stationed at Dover, with HMS Zulu patrolling out at sea further west, and the net barrage guarded by 28 auxiliary trawlers and drifters, in company with the destroyer HMS Flirt. Against them 24 German destroyers were steaming up Channel: Flirt issued a challenge, which was returned, and they steamed past in the dark, assumed to be part of the British movements that night.

This was a fatal mistake since the first attack of the night resulted in the sinking of HMT Waveney II off the net barrage. Flirt went to her assistance: in the meantime those on board the auxiliary yacht Ombra had grasped the situation, reporting enemy activity to the authorities and ordering the remaining HMTs back to Dover. Flirt herself came under attack at ‘point blank range’ which blew up her boilers, causing her to sink within five minutes. The Queen troopship was then captured and despatched. remaining adrift for about six hours before foundering off the Goodwin Sands. Fortunately she was carrying mail on her run from Boulogne to Folkestone, rather than troops.

By this time the destroyers in Dover were steaming out to investigate. As Nubian approached the net barrage destined to snare submarines, she was on her own without support, though by now further assistance was coming from the Dunkirk and Harwich quarters, attempting to trap the German force in a pincer movement.

Six of the retreating patrol drifters, four of which were unarmed, were then sunk by the German raiders – Spotless Prince, Launch Out, Gleaner of the Sea, Datum, Ajax II and Roburn (which had also been involved in the engagement with U-8)

The Nubian reached 9A Buoy in the net barrage, from which the commotion had come, then turned about – straight into the German 17th Flotilla steaming towards her. The first two enemy torpedoes missed, but the third found its target and blew off her bows. The rest of the ship was taken in tow, but, as a gale sprang up, she drove ashore near the South Foreland.

You might think from the title of this article that that’s it: Nubian now rests in two places: in mid-Channel and near the South Foreland. In fact, her story is much more interesting than that. We return now to a bit-player in the events of 26-27 October 1916, HMS Zulu: a minefield in the Straits of Dover would ‘terminate her career’, in the words of the official history. (2) On the afternoon of 8 November 1916 she struck a mine which ‘shattered her after part’, with her bow section being towed to Calais.

Something of a pattern was emerging here . . .

In what was later described as a ‘grafting’ operation, (3) using the language of the pioneering plastic surgery techniques which emerged out of the injuries of the First World War, the two grounded sections – the  bow section of Zulu and the aft section of Nubian – were salvaged, joined together and given the portmanteau name HMS Zubian.

As Zubian, therefore, both wrecks rejoined the Dover Patrol. Who knows how many times she passed over the remains of her component ships below?.She would later be credited with ramming UC-50 (a misidentification: probably UC-79) (4) and would participate in the Zeebrugge raid of 23 April 1918. Several of the Tribal-class were disposed of in 1919 : unsurprisingly, Zubian was among them, after everything she had been through. (5)

Nubian was the ship that was salved because another ship was wrecked: fortuitous and resourceful recycling in a time of war.

Black and white photograph of warship at sea in the lower half of the photograph, seen in starboard view, bows towards the right of the image.
Aerial view of HMS Zubian, from starboard. To modern eyes this image looks commonplace, but we should remember that aerial views were literally a fresh perspective on ships at war. © IWM Q61101.


(1) Naval Staff Monographs, Vol. XVII. Home Waters, Part VII: June 1916 to November 1916  London: Admiralty, 1927, p185-189. The acccount here is principally derived from this source, supplemented by information from the wreck records in the National Record of the Historic Environment for each vessel lost (see links).

(2) ibid., p208

(3) The Times, 28 February 1935, No.47,000, p13

(4) uboat.net

(5) The Times, 22 November 1919, No.42,264, p9


1066 and all that: 11th century wrecks

As we commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 I thought I’d cast an eye over the few 11th century wrecks for which we have some evidence.

Multicoloured tapestry scenes of ships laden with men and horses, with horsemen waiting at the left side of the scene, embroidered on a cream background, with border decoration in the lower register, and at top left.
Harold’s invasion fleet, Bayeux Tapestry. (Wikimedia Commons)

As far as I know there is no record of any of the Conqueror’s ships being wrecked on the crossing or attacked on arrival, although perhaps the course of history might have been altered if this had happened . . . I have come across references to a possible wreck among the invasion forces in a secondary source, but have so far not located a contemporary or near-contemporary reference for it, so if anyone knows, please do get in touch!

More securely, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which at least is a contemporary, albeit partial, source, offers tantalising clues that some of Harald Hardrada’s shipborne force may have been destroyed following the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, so we do have details of some virtually contemporary wrecks. (1). It is unclear where, exactly, his ships were berthed or where they were ultimately lost, but it was a significant force of some 300 vessels. It seems, according to the D manuscript of the Chronicle, that the enemy was pusued by the victorious English ‘until they got to their ships’, and they were ‘allowed to depart in 24 ships’.

What happened to the remainder? The Chronicle tells that some at least of the ships were fired – a plausible act of retribution, perhaps, and one easily achievable in haste, as Harold’s weary Saxons turned south to join battle on a second front.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to record notable events in the Old English language even after the Norman Conquest, and in 1091 tells us that the Conquerer’s son, William Rufus, suffered the loss of ‘nearly all’ his fleet in late summer or early autumn gales ‘before they could reach Scotland’ on a punitive expedition against Malcolm III. (2) This suggests that they almost reached their goal, but not quite . . . being dashed to pieces on a rocky shore somewhere north of the Humber is, at best, an educated guess.

Much earlier in the century the Chronicle informs us that Aethelred the Unready was also extremely unlucky with his newly-built fleet of 1008, which appears to have been largely lost in an act of civil strife in 1009. One Brihtric accused one Wulfnoth of the South Saxons before Aethelred and took 80 of Aethelred’s ships stationed at Sandwich against Wulfnoth’s 20, but a storm arose and cast the fleet ashore, whereupon Wulfnoth fired the disabled fleet.(3)  A location somewhere on the Sussex coast seems plausible if conjectural, not too far from Sandwich and within South Saxon territory, with its characteristic sloping beaches allowing easy access for firing the stranded vessels.

These accounts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle allow us a rare glimpse into the world of 11th century shipwrecks and give us a hint of the potential archaeology. In fact the Chronicle is our principal documentary source for wreck events from the 8th century onwards, although occasionally we may discern details of real-life events through other surviving works such as the Life of St. Wilfrid – who definitively existed and is no mythical figure, with an interesting associated wreck event which has a logical rather than supernatural explanation. (4)

The Chronicle was intended to act as a record of major events of socio-political impact so the wrecks it recounts all have several things in common: the most important factor is that all survive because of their connection with significant events and/or people (a common thread in all the Chronicle‘s shipwreck narratives and indeed as far as St. Wilfrid is concerned)..

This significance is also reflected in the fact that all involve ships of war (which, historically, have always been the best-documented of all vessels for obvious reasons). Additionally, the numbers involved in each case were also very large if somewhat vague, adding to the striking nature of each incident, even if they sometimes sound somewhat ’rounded up’ (another characteristic of the Chronicle‘s wreck accounts).

Mercantile and fishing vessels there are none. Later in the Middle Ages we begin to see records for losses of trading ships, and occasionally towards the latter end of the medieval period, we might come across the odd fishing vessel here and there, but these would always be under-represented in the record until well into the post-medieval period.

There is, therefore, an enormous disjunct between documentary sources and archaeology, for 11th century vessels have occasionally been found in a number of contexts, for example at Billingsgate and Southwark, London (5) or at Warrington, none of which have corresponding documentary records (or at least, none have survived that we know of). Although wreck accounts become increasingly plentiful (and increasingly detailed) during the Middle Ages, it is not until the mid 15th century that we are able to tie a wreck site with surviving documentary details.

You may like to read an earlier post, on the legacy of the Normans – shipwrecks laden with Caen stone from Normandy which became a feature of Norman (and later) architecture in England.

(1) Whitelock, D (ed.). 1961. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, pp142-4

(2) Whitelock 1961: 169

(3) Whitelock 1961:88-9

(4) Cant, S. 2013. England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats. Swindon: Historic England Publishing, pp202-6

(5) Marsden, P. 1994. Ships of the Port of London: first to eleventh centuries AD. Swindon: English Heritage, pp153-162