Diary of the War: March 1918

War Knight

The War Knight was entirely a product of the First World War. She was one of the British ‘War Standard’ ships, built to a standard pattern that enabled a faster turnover in shipbuilding to help counteract the continuing toll in British mercantile shipping losses. All had the War– prefix, and were named in classes, with some intriguing juxtapositions, such as War Crocus and War Tune. War Knight was one of a group of similarly-named vessels: War Baron and War Monarch among them. All were lost around the English coastline in 1917-18.

Her story is also characteristic of this phase of the war as ships now steamed in convoy with escorts that shuttled between appointed rendezvous locations, where the next escorts would take over. There were other countermeasures in place to ensure the safety of each convoy, such as zig-zagging at predetermined intervals of varying and therefore less predictable lengths, to help obscure their true course.

Most extraordinary of all, ships were painted in dazzle camouflage which broke up hull outlines, making it difficult for a U-boat to get an accurate fix on the vessel and determine its size, outline, speed, and course. Firing a torpedo was a scientific act which had to take account of the distance travelled by the target in between firing the torpedo and its contact with the intended victim.

Art took on science in this battle to keep ships safe from attack, and the ‘Cubist ships’, as they were known to contemporaries, became a common sight on the world’s oceans. It seems counter-intuitive to conceal large moving objects in abstract eye-catching patterns and bright colours, but the patterns were carefully worked out to disrupt the ship’s outline as far as possible. Nor were the two sides of the vessel the same: each side would carry a different pattern, and the paint scheme would be carried through any visible area of a ship, such as cabins or recessed elements of superstructure.

I will let the paintings below tell the story, all seen from sea, all with the viewpoint of another ship at sea in the same convoy, and all painted by a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, who certainly married his knowledge of the sea, observation of contemporary shipping, and his artistic talent to considerable effect.  In painting 1 below, we see our first dazzled ship, an oiler, like the War Knight, at reasonably close quarters, from astern of another ship in convoy whose wake leads our eye to the dazzled ship, but even so, her bow is distorted. We have to allow for artistic licence, of course, but the ship has elements of the same palette as the cliffs behind, and the pattern at her bows echoes the vertical undulations of the cliffs. We are seeing distortion of distance as well as the ability to blend into the background.

Painting from the sea looking towards cliffs and the body of a vessel painted in dazzle camouflage.
1. A dazzled oiler, with escort, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 567)

There is ‘clear blue water’ between the viewer and the ship astern as the convoy is keeping station, under the watchful eye of a British airship. Convoys could be very large, and destroyers and other escorts, such as the one seen nearer the cliffs on the left, had to act as ship-shepherds. The lead merchantman would be designated the Commodore, with every other ship in the convoy taking its station from the Commodore.

A convoy of dazzle camouflaged ships in the lower third of the painting, against a blue sea and a blue sky with pink and orange tinges to the clouds and on the horizon.
2. A Convoy in the Channel, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 560)

In painting 2 above the pink tinges in the sky suggest dusk and that this might be an eastbound convoy, as it was when the War Knight‘s convoy entered the western Channel from the Atlantic on 23 March 1918, with the Mirlo as Commodore. There were several other oilers in the convoy, War Knight being on the port flank and the American oiler O B Jennings on the starboard, and a number of vessels were dazzled, including the Jennings. The convoy was put on edge by hearing ships being sunk off the Lizard in separate incidents, and we start to realise, even at this distance, the two ships nearest us look uncomfortably close to one another, as if they are huddling close for comfort.

Rough dark blue sea in lower third of painting, ships barely visible against a pink tinge of sunset on the horizon, dark clouds above.
3. Seascape with convoy and evening sky effect, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 569)

Against the evening sky in 3 above, the ships seem to blend into the rough sea, particularly those nearest to us, with only their funnels and the steam they belch the main clue as to their presence – the perennial problem for all steamers in war, since the black clouds of coal-driven steam would simply give them away.

And therein, in the dark off the Isle of Wight, lay the problem. The convoy steered further to the south than originally planned, with the presence of a new minefield off the Needles revealed that day by the loss of HMS New Dawn. Just before midnight, a distress call then emanated from the south-east from a torpedoed tanker (which managed to limp in to Southampton). A supposed torpedo flash followed half an hour later, then within the next half an hour a distress call in French was heard to the south (which cannot, to this day, be reconciled with the loss of any French vessel).

Caught not between the devil and the deep blue sea, but between a minefield to the north and a hunting U-boat to the south in the darkness of the night, the decision was taken to alter course once again. Wireless could not be used in case communications were heard by the enemy, so recourse was had to a loudhailer amongst a convoy starting to scatter, barely able to see each other in the dark and with the situation exacerbated by dazzle camouflage. This confusion was further aggravated when one of the convoy, whose captain was perhaps being hypervigilant, challenged the escort’s authority and caused further delay in getting the message out to all the ships.

Thus O B Jennings and Aungban, on the starboard flank, started to turn north-west on the old course, as the Kia Ora and War Knight on the port flank turned south-east on the new course. As oiler smashed into oiler, the rest of the convoy were dazzled by a huge explosion and a fireball that seemed to coalesce into a single ship, according to one observer. Only a few men escaped alive from War Knight, and those with severe burns, some of whom succumbed to their wounds in hospital.

Ultimately War Knight and O B Jennings were a ‘menace to other ships’ and certainly the huge flames and burning sea would have alerted any U-boats in the vicinity to the rest of the convoy. O B Jennings was sunk by the escorts (although raised, returned to service and sunk in the Atlantic later in the war) and War Knight was taken in tow with the aim of beaching her. She then struck a mine from the very same field the convoy had been attempting to avoid, so there was nothing for it but to scuttle her too, to dowse the flames.

All the safety measures by this stage of the war – the convoy system, the zig-zagging, the dazzle camouflage, the radio silence – were all cited in the official loss report as contributory factors to this tragic collision in convoy, which became a regular feature of this phase of the war, but for the War Knight to endure so many vicissitudes was unusual. This wreck is well-known, and much has been written about the phenomenon of dazzle camouflage, but there seems to be little literature on the impact of dazzle among ships in the same convoy. Measures that served to screen ships from the eyes of enemies could also obscure them from their friends. Finally, here is the model showing the dazzle scheme for the collier Camswan, also lost in a collision in convoy off the Isle of Wight on her maiden voyage in 1917:

 

3D ship model painted in colour with abstract black patterns, photographed against a grey background.
First World War model of the dazzle scheme for the SS Camswan, c.1917. © IWM (MOD 2259)

Sources:

ADM 137/3450, The National Archives

Cant, S. 2013. England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats. Swindon: Historic England

New York Times, 18 April 1918, p7

O B Jennings

For more on the War Knight, see the Maritime Archaeology Trust’s Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War.

For more on dazzle camouflage, see the following resources: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-british-wanted-camouflage-their-warships-they-made-them-dazzle-180958657/ and http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zty8tfr

 

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On the cleaning of metal finds from the London and the Rooswijk

I am pleased to introduce this week as my guest blogger Elisabeth Kuiper, who has just completed an internship with Historic England. She tells us about her recent experiences in the conservation of metal artefacts from two designated shipwrecks:

Most historic ships are full of iron: think of nails and bolts in all sizes, ship equipment, rigging elements, chains, anchors, iron cannons and all sorts of different tools used on the ship. This iron, in the unfortunate event of ending up on the seabed, usually grows very bulky corrosion products eventually covering the original surface of an object. Iron objects from a maritime archaeological context are thus very often found as mysterious and unrecognisable lumps, known as concretion, as they have become covered by a thick formless mass of corrosion which can incorporate sediment and shells, and also different objects in the vicinity. In order to understand the concretion and what is, or used to be, inside it, the conservator uses X-radiography. X-radiography gives the opportunity to investigate the concretion without damaging it: dense areas or voids will show up on the image and so may be able to tell what has caused the concretion.

Once it is clear that the concretion may hold something worth investigating further, the conservator will start off mechanically cleaning it. Corrosion products are taken off layer by layer until the original surface of the object is found. In the process of cleaning other artefacts which may not have been seen previously on the x-radiograph, can be found trapped in the corrosion layers, for example, pieces of glass, ceramics or small metal objects.

Unlike any other metal, in an advanced stage in the corrosion process the iron of the original object can have migrated entirely to its corrosion layers, and we are left with a void that retains the shape of the object precisely. If needed, these voids can be filled with a silicone rubber or casting resin. Once all concretion is removed the conservator is left with a perfect cast of the object that would otherwise be lost forever.

I am a Professional Doctorate student in conservation and restoration at the University of Amsterdam, specialising in metal conservation, and have been working at Historic England on an archaeological conservation work placement for the past months. My main focus during my time at Historic England was the remedial and investigative conservation of finds from the protected wreck sites of the Rooswijk and the London. The London was a Royal Navy warship that went down in the 1665 after an accidental explosion aboard the ship, and many different objects were recovered during the salvage operations between 2014 and 2016.

The Rooswijk was a Dutch East Indiaman that ran aground on the Goodwin Sands, off Kent, in the winter of 1740. The shipwreck was partly excavated and recorded in the summer of 2017, after which the finds were taken to Historic England storage facilities for assessment, analysis and conservation.

During my time at Historic England I have worked on quite a diverse range of finds from both wreck sites, but what they all had in common was the various amounts of iron corrosion on the object’s surface. As previously mentioned, this is quite typical for maritime archaeological artefacts, which (as we will see) can even be totally enveloped in iron corrosion. A few of the more straightforward objects I have worked on were from the London:

Hammer laid vertically, showing concretion at the head, with scale marker and label to left.           x-ray of hammer, laid diagonally with head at top left, concretion showing up as white around the head.           Hammer laid vertically showing head with concretion removed, scale rule and label to left

Figure 1. Different stages of conservation process on hammer from the London: before treatment (left), x-radiograph (middle) and after cleaning treatment (right) © Historic England

In Figure 1 above we see a hammer, with iron corrosion products covering the original surface. The hammer was cleaned using a pneumatic tool called an air-scribe, which can be seen as a small jackhammer. It is ideal for removing concrete-like iron corrosion products, with the x-radiograph was used as a guide during the cleaning. When looked at carefully, the x-radiograph clearly shows the typical lamellar structure of corroded wrought iron. Wrought iron is essentially pure iron containing less than 0.2% carbon by weight. The main compositional variation is in the presence of slag inclusions. When worked these slag inclusions are forced out in the direction of working. On the seabed not only does the metal surface corrode, but also the walls of the slag inclusions, as seawater is able to penetrate deep into the metal. As a result the metal shows a wood grain-like appearance, typical of wrought iron recovered from shipwrecks.

The same became clearly visible as corrosion was cleaned away on a rigging element called a deadeye:

Deadeye with rust-coloured concreted surface, label and scale rule to left    Deadeye following removal of concretion, showing its shape and dark colour more clearly. Scale rule below the object.

Figure 2. Deadeye from the London, before (left) and and after (right) cleaning © Historic England

Up to now I have discussed corroded iron objects. Surprisingly, it’s not only objects made from iron that can become covered by a thick iron concretion crust. As we will see in the next images, copper alloy objects can also become unrecognisably changed due to maritime corrosion processes:

Pan body showing rust-coloured concretion, particularly around the edges, with scale rule and yellow archaeological tag below.  Pan after cleaning, with concretion removed, showing a darker metal colour and some discolouration. Scale rule and yellow tag below.

Figure 3. Copper alloy object from the Rooswijk, before (left) and after (right) cleaning © Historic England

The artefact shown here is a copper-zinc alloy object, presumably a pan of some sort. Probably it will have had a handle that was riveted to the pan itself. These rivets were already visible on the x-radiograph, but were uncovered during cleaning.

Detail of 4 rivets on rim of pan, with centimetre scale

Figure 4. Detail of rivets on rim of pan after treatment (above) with corresponding features visible on x-radiograph prior to treatment (below) © Historic England

x ray of whole pan, with 4 rivets showing up as small white round features at top

Cleaning of maritime archaeological finds can be rewarding and satisfying work, in the sense that the disfiguring corrosion layers are slowly removed to reveal a recognisable object once more. Sometimes these objects can even be in quite a good condition. The cleaning of concreted artefacts can almost be seen as a mini-excavation. To illustrate this, I will show one last treatment on a concretion, which furthermore posed quite a challenge:

Irregular lump of concretion with shells and other material embedded, scale rule and yellow number tag at bottom

Figure 5. Concretion from the Rooswijk before cleaning treatment © Historic England

Fig 6

Figure 6. X-radiograph of concretion in Fig 5 before cleaning treatment, where rings, a coin and many beads (lighter areas) as well as different sizes of nails (darker areas) become apparent © Historic England

In this case, cleaning of the concretion was more of a challenge because of the mixture of elements and materials in it. The concretion consists of approximately 17 copper alloy rings, 1 silver coin and over 400 tiny glass beads. What was left of the iron (mostly nails and/or small bars), as explained earlier, were just voids. The concretion itself proved to be a harder material than the glass beads, which tended to shatter when the air-scribe came close. Mechanical means thus did not seem to suffice to remove the beads from the concretion, but a chemical treatment would be difficult to select, as the other metals would react to the chemicals as well as the iron concretion. As a first step, the concretion was mechanically cleaned until beads and artefacts, including voids, started appearing:

Detail of artefacts in concretion revealed after cleaning, such as rings and yellow beads

 

 

Figure 7. Reverse side of the concretion from the Rooswijk, with detail photo above left; the complete artefact below right, after initial mechanical cleaning; notice the yellow beads, copper alloy rings and coin © Historic England

The same lump as in figure 6 following initial cleaning, with rings, beads and coins now visible. Yellow tag on left, scale rule on object

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detail of obverse side of concretion, with rings visible on the left: scale rule on object on the right, yellow tag below

Figure 8. Obverse side concretion from the Rooswijk after initial mechanical cleaning; notice the voids in the shape of a nail (on the right) and small bar-like shapes © Historic England

Because initial research proved the voids to be ‘just nails’, the decision was made to record them as best as possible, but then to sacrifice them in the bigger scheme of things. This way, the concretion could be broken apart in smaller pieces that offered the opportunity to treat them separately from the coin and rings. This work is still ongoing and consists of a combination of mechanical and chemical treatments in order to gently dislodge all the different objects from the concretion for further study.

Thank you to Elisabeth for sharing the problems and processes of conserving concreted objects from the London and the Rooswijk, and which complement previous blogs by our conservators: see links below. We hope she has enjoyed her time with us and wish her all the best for the future.

For more archaeological conservation stories on the varied artefacts from the London:

The London: A conservator’s tool-kit

Conservation of artefacts from the London

How to do . . . archaeological conservation

Glossary:

lamellar: