Diary of the War: November 2016

The Goodwin Sands strike again

There are occasions when the Goodwin Sands just seem to claim more victims than usual and the night of 19-20 November 1916 was one of those nights, when two steamers, the Italian Val Salice, and the American Sibiria, bound to London with a cargo of Canadian wheat, stuck fast on the South Sand Head of the Goodwins, in a violent storm with extremely heavy seas which claimed wrecks elsewhere, particularly in Northumberland.

The Val Salice was the first to strike with the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave and Ramsgate lifeboat Charles and Susannah Stephens bringing off all 30 survivors. (The latter’s cox’n would shortly afterwards be awarded a medal by the RNLI for his 25 years’ service.) (1) Captain Bolognini of the Val Salice was widely quoted in the press as never having been shipwrecked before in all his career, but he clearly considered that he had shipped a ‘Jonah’ on board: ‘who during four months had been shipwrecked no fewer than three times’. (2)

It was a long and arduous night for the lifeboat crews who had to resort to the assistance of the searchlights from a patrol vessel to locate the Val Salice, before going out again to the Sibiria, which was being pounded to pieces on the Goodwins. The Sibiria‘s situation situation was reported while the rescue effort was still in progress as a ‘drama of the seas which may result in tragedy’. (3)

The seas were raging so high that both the Deal and Ramsgate lifeboats and their crews were in danger of being lost. They capsized but fortunately righted without losing any of their crew members overboard, although it was a close-run thing. The impact left several men on both boats so injured that, together with the damage to the lifeboats, they were forced to turn back – leaving behind 52 crew and passengers huddled in an exposed position in the sole portion of bridge still holding together,’in momentary peril of the vessel being engulfed in the treacherous quicksands.’ (4) How desolate those on board must have felt at seeing their rescuers turning back!

It was a race against time to save the crew and passengers of the Sibiria but finally the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave was manned with an uninjured crew comprising members from different lifeboat stations, and towed out by a patrol vessel, which trained its searchlights to find that all 52 persons were still alive awaiting rescue. They were taken off and once more the patrol vessel took the lifeboat in tow ‘weighed almost to the water’s edge with sixty-eight on board,’ i.e. all 52 survivors plus the 16 lifeboatmen. (5) (One of the local lifeboats in service at that period, the reserve lifeboat Francis Forbes Barton, is still extant and is on the National Register of Historic Vessels.)

The warships of the Dover Patrol thus enabled not one but two successful rescues under atrocious conditions. However, the real-life war was followed by a transatlantic newspaper war full of icy innuendo. Neither side overtly stated the issue at hand in so many words but each understood the other all too well.

The Times thundered: ‘The stranding of the United States steamer Sibiria on the Goodwins this week has opened British eyes to the fact that this vessel, which was a Hamburg-Amerika liner, has been transferred to owners in the United States during the war.’ (6)

Note the use of the word ‘transferred’, not ‘sold’. This was enough to elicit a clarification from the vessel’s agents through the New York Times: the Sibiria had been chartered at the time of the outbreak of hostilities to an American company, which bought her outright in May 1915, then sold it on to the Hudson Bay Company of Canada, while retaining her American crew. (7)

The question at issue was the Trading with the Enemy Act 1914, under which the Hamburg-Amerika Linie was defined as an ‘enemy’. (8) The British press continued to niggle at the question of whether ownership of former German vessels in neutral countries (for the United States was not yet in the war) was a ‘front’ or ‘flag of convenience’ with a view to the long-term preservation of the German fleet. (9)  Just a few months after the loss of the Sibiria, their premises in Cockspur Street, London, were offered for sale in 1917, under the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act, 1916.

The sales particulars noted that the premises were partially in the occupation of the Ministry of Munitions for the purposes of ‘the present war’, with the Canadian Red Cross, and the Allan Line, which would soon be subsumed into the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, also tenants.

The particulars had a form of declaration at the back for the buyer to confirm on purchase that they were not purchasing on the behalf on any nation ‘at war with Great Britain’. The cover of the auction catalogue is annotated with the name of the corporate buyer, the unexceptionably British P&O.

Together a wreck and a building tell a tale of socio-economic disruption and atmosphere of suspicion wrought by war, which overshadowed the remarkable rescue of all on board the Sibiria under unimaginably difficult conditions. The former Hamburg-Amerika House at 14-16 Cockspur Street still stands today and is Grade II listed. Despite their relatively recent date, the remains of Val Salice and Sibiria have not been located, but the Francis Forbes Barton still survives as a witness to that dreadful night a century ago.

Front cover of auction catalogue for the sale of commercial premises, with b&w photograph of doorway to the premises in the centre.
Sales particulars for the Hamburg-Amerika Line premises, built 1906-8. The annotation at top right reveals the price realised at auction and the name of the buyer: P&O. SC00686. Source: Historic England Archive

(1) Thanet Advertiser, 23 December 1916, No.2,995, p5

(2) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2. A ‘Jonah’ is a person who brings ill-luck to a ship, from the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1-2)

(3) New York Times, 22 November 1916

(4) Ibid.

(5) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2; see also comment left below, which establishes the identity of the lifeboat involved. The confusion of that night is reflected in the contemporary sources.

(6) The Times, 25 November 1916, No.41,334, p9

(7) New York Times, 26 November 1916

(8) London Gazette, 29 October 1915, No.29,343, p.10,697

(9) Yorkshire Post, 12 December 1916, No.21,678, p4