Diary of the War: May 1917

The Gena

In the second instalment of our double bill covering 30 April and 1 May 1917 we take a look at the Gena, sunk on 1 May. On the face of it, Gena was fairly typical in both vessel type and location of loss, a collier sunk in the North Sea while steaming south with her cargo from Tyneside.

Yet there are two things which are very unusual about this particular wreck site. The first is that the position of loss is very precisely specified in relation to a relatively small and impermanent seamark.

She sank “¾ mile S by W ½W of ‘A’ War Channel Buoy, Southwold”. (1)

Unsurprisingly, with this level of detail, the wreck site has a secure history of recording that goes back to the date of loss. (2) It also gives some clue to the location of one of the buoys marking out the East Coast War Channels, or safe swept channels, that kept the shipping lanes open and (relatively) free of mines, swept largely by minesweeper-trawlers such as the Arfon whose loss on 30 April 1917 was commemorated in yesterday’s post.

These War Channels have been the subject of recent investigations on behalf of Historic England  (2014) by Antony Firth (Fjordr), illustrated with maps and charts showing the extent of the War Channels. One unofficial chart marking the buoys further north up the East Coast is known to have been used by an airman providing cover for North Sea shipping (Fig. 7 in report).

If aircraft could provide cover for shipping, tracking U-boats and indeed collaborating with patrol vessels to destroy enemy craft, it followed that ships were also vulnerable to attack from the air. The Gena was the first ship within English territorial waters to be sunk by aircraft, torpedoed from the air by two Hansa-Brandenburg GW seaplanes of Torpedostaffel II, operating out of Zeebrugge. This was not the first aerial attack on merchant shipping by aircraft, but it was one of the first to successfully sink a ship.

So unusual was it that Lloyd’s struggled to fit it into an appropriate category in their ‘ledger’ of war losses. In the “How Sunk” column, the standard abbreviations S (sunk by submarine) and M (mine) were clearly inappropriate, and even this distinction was outdated, since ships had been sunk by mines laid by U-boats since 1915, so arguably fitted both categories (see earlier post on minelaying submarines, introduced in 1915). The only other category available was C (cruiser or raider), which was still inadequate, but it seems that a new category was not considered necessary, and ‘raider’ was at least appropriate in intent, if not in ‘vessel type’ as such. A marginal annotation clarified matters: “German seaplane”. (3)

The Gena was an armed merchant, however, and her attackers did not have it all their own way. Sunk by the planes, her gunner nevertheless managed to down Hansa-Brandenburg 703, whose two crew were rescued to become prisoners of war. (4) An interesting photo gallery of the Hansa-Brandenburg GW can be found here, including stablemate 700, a view of the torpedo loading bay, and film stills of the aircraft landing on the water.

The course of the war at sea was changing: terror could strike from above as well as below, and aircraft though slow, unreliable, and terrifying to fly by modern standards, were proving to be amphibious and adaptable. Finally, the increasing presence of aircraft at sea meant that wrecks at sea were no longer necessarily ‘shipwrecks’, although, on this occasion, the aircraft was also picked up for examination: (see previous double bill on Zeppelin wrecks from February 1916 and March 1916).

The whole incident was recognised at the time as ‘a new phase of warfare’  and a ‘noteworthy development of aerial craft’ (5) so that, unusually for the time, the Admiralty released details of the ‘duel’, in part because there was some propaganda value in demonstrating that the Gena had not gone down without a fight.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(2) United Kingdom Hydrographic Office record no. 10320

(3) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(4) for example: http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?/topic/241938-naval-historynet-bvlas-errata/

(5) Yarmouth Independent, Saturday 5 May 1917, No.4,529, p1

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