Diary of the War: September 1918

ML 247

This month’s wreck commemorated in the War Diary for September 1918 is one of our occasional features which was not a war loss as such (i.e. not lost to enemy action), though she was lost on war patrol and is an example of a vessel specifically built for the war in large numbers.

She was ML 247, one of three very large orders totalling 580 motor launches, placed by the Admiralty with the motor yacht specialist Elco of New Jersey, USA, small and fast, intended for anti-submarine duties.

Watercolour of green-sea with small ship to right centre ground, dark wash on sea to left indicuating a submarine.
Motor launches engaging a submarine, commissioned for the Imperial War Museum. Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, RNVR, © IWM (Art.IWM ART 148)

On 29 September 1918 four motor launches entered St. Ives Bay for shelter during a gale, which then veered to the NNE, increasing to hurricane force. This turned the rocky north Cornwall coast into a lee shore towards which the 86ft long wooden craft were in danger of drifting in high seas. One in particular, ML 247, got into difficulties as she developed problems with her engine.

To us today it seems extraordinary that these small wooden craft were equipped for warlike purposes with a 3pdr gun, depth charges – and a petrol engine. (They were no more extraordinary, however, than the contemporary aircraft which flew into battle with fabric coverings over wooden frames.) It was the petrol engine developing 19 knots that gave the motor launches their advantage over the U-boat, the fastest of which could only proceed at 17 knots on the surface and were far less speedy when submerged.

Charcoal drawing showing a boat in the centre in the air above small craft on the water, to left a curved dockyard crane is visible.
Hoisting a motor launch, by Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, to a commission by the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Art.IWM ART 791)

By the time the St. Ives lifeboat reached Clodgy Point, the vessel had struck the rocks and with her petrol engine and depth charges, had blown up on impact with the loss of all but one of her 11 crew. Nevertheless one man was washed up and rescued on the shore by Sgt Henry Escott, who was awarded the RNLI Silver Medal for his rescue, while the lifeboat crew were also rewarded for their gallant if unsuccessful attempt to save life in the teeth of the NNE gale. Two of the lifeboat crew subsequently donated their awards to the Cornwall Branch of the Red Cross. (1)

Among the dead was her commanding officer Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, who had commanded ML 286 (which survives to this day in Isleworth, and whose story is told here by Antony Firth of Fjordr Ltd.) A professional artist, he had also served at Gallipoli, and many evocative sketches and paintings by him survive – indeed, I used his paintings to illustrate the War Diary blog of March 1918 on the theme of dazzle camouflage.

 

Oil painting depicting white foamy sea to right, and to the left violet cliffs under a grey sky, a vessel painted in colourful dazzle camouflage lies in centre ground ashore.
Torpedoed Tramp Steamer off the Longships, 1918, by Geoffrey Stephen Allfree. © IWM. (Art.IWM ART 2237)

He also painted this view depicting a torpedoed steamer ‘off the Longships’, showing a vessel whose dazzle camouflage had apparently done little to protect her.  As far as I know, the vessel in the painting has never been identified, probably because of the title. However, the view does not depict the Longships, a group of rocks off Land’s End. The view is instead of Cornwall’s rocky coast opposite the Longships, looking north, suggesting that the vessel was perhaps beached after being torpedoed off the Longships.

The only vessel fulfilling these criteria in 1918 is the SS Beaumaris, which was torpedoed on 7 February 1918 and which was steered for Whitesand Bay, not far from the Longships, in a sinking state, finally being run ashore by the master and wireless operator after everyone else had managed to escape. There is some artistic licence for the purposes of the composition, particularly the distinctive dark rock in the background, but there is no other vessel that matches these criteria. Despite the camouflage, she fits the typical profile of a collier or tramp steamer, which we know was the case with the Beaumaris, operated by the coal shipping firm of Furness, Withy and Co., and carrying coal at the time of loss.

We can therefore be reasonably certain that this is the Beaumaris, with a viewpoint approximating to Sennen Cove lifeboat station. She was largely demolished in situ, but the occasional trace remains even today.

The crew in the ship’s port lifeboat were picked up by a patrol vessel and it is tempting to wonder if Allfree had been involved in their rescue, or whether he had simply seen the vessel while on patrol and come back to have another look. We can imagine that a breezy and chilly spring walk and the resultant painting were pleasant diversions from war patrol.

 

(1) St. Ives RNLI Station History; The Cornishman, 5 February 1919, p5

 

 

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