Diary of the War: October 1918

The mystery submarine

On this blog I’ve occasionally discussed the ‘fog of war’, whereby participants in a military or naval engagement are unable to make clear decisions or correctly identify friend from foe: their minds are clouded by the rapidly evolving situations they find themselves in without necessarily having all appropriate information to hand to make a fully-informed decision. Those decisions may, in turn, be informed by previous war experience, for good or ill.

Sometimes a ‘fog of war’ situation has the misfortune to take place wholly or partially in a physical weather fog, or even to be caused by it – which naturally then exacerbates the consequences of events as they unfold.

On the afternoon of 15 October 1918 the Q-ship Cymric was on patrol in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast, acting on reports that a U-boat was operational in the area. Having already seen and dismissed two friendly submarines, it was apparently a case of ‘third time lucky’ when a submarine with a U-prefix was seen close by.

Cymric fired at short range and continued firing even as members of the submarine’s crew climbed out and tried to make signals by firing rifles or waving a white cloth. All these were interpreted as deceptive or hostile actions, of which Cymric‘s commander and crew had had prior experience, by the very nature of their Q-ship activity, pitting the wits of one side against another.  The only course of action open to the submarine was to retreat into a fog bank, which only reinforced the impression of suspicious behaviour.

She was pursued by Cymric,  and as they appeared on scene they found survivors coming up alongside their vessel from the submarine, now in a sinking state. As Cymric‘s crew realised the survivors were sporting not German cap tallies, but British ones, their mission turned from war to rescue. However, only 15 men came out alive from HMSM J6, as the mystery submarine proved to be.

It was a case of mistaken identity, stemming from something simple: the crew of J6 were apparently unaware that some debris hanging outside their conning tower mirrored their J prefix, making it look for all the world like a U – which was then fatally misinterpreted by Cymric.

It was a sad example of ‘friendly fire’, made all the sadder by occurring as the long war moved inexorably towards the Armistice just a few weeks later. Ultimately the J6 was forced to contend that day with both a fog of war and a sea fog which hampered visibility. Despite the fact that the Cymric was the author of the J6‘s misfortunes, it is perhaps as well that she did pursue the supposed U-boat into the fog bank, or her victim’s loss might have passed unseen, and it might have been a long time before her crew were picked up, if at all.

The wreck has been located in recent years in the North Sea east of Seahouses: see this BBC report, 2014.

 

 

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Wrecks from Odessa

The Blesk and the Caledonia

This week my guest blogger is Izzy Daone, Maritime Information Officer at Historic England, who is on her way to pastures new. We wish her well, but in the meantime, here is her blog which demonstrates how wrecks illustrate historic connections between places.

Over to Izzy:

My recent travels to Ukraine and the port of Odessa inspired me to examine records we hold for wrecks within our waters with a connection to the city. Odessa’s port was Russia’s main grain exporting centre during the 19th century. Two particular wrecks caught my attention; the first registered to the port of Odessa and an environmental disaster, and the other a Scottish snow which stranded on her passage from Odessa to Gloucester – a well-known trade route.

View of port city, with tree-lined plaza in foreground, looking out to sea over port infrastructure, and a blue sky beyond.
Figure 1: The port of Odessa as it appears in the present day. © Izzy Daone

We begin with the wreck of the Blesk, a 2026 ton oil tanker which stranded on Greystone Ledge, Devon on the 1st of December 1896. She was a Russian ship, as at this time Odessa belonged to Russia rather than Ukraine, and was owned by the Russia Steam Navigation Trading Company.

On her final voyage, she docked at Istanbul carrying 3180 tons of petroleum and took on coal. She then sailed to Gibraltar where she loaded yet more coal. Poor weather conditions and unfortunate human error bought about her wrecking. In stormy conditions, the master of the ship identified what he thought was a French lighthouse. It was however, not the French lighthouse he believed it to be. It was the Eddystone, a large rock topped with a lighthouse approximately 14 miles south of Plymouth. Adjusting the vessels course to the north, the master continued on what he thought was a safe passage into the North Sea.

It was not to be. She struck the Greystone Ledge, near to Ramillies Hole. The crew fired distress rockets and prepared to abandon ship. Despite the rough seas and freezing temperatures, the crew were reached by lifeboats from Hope Cove and Salcombe. All 43 of the crew were saved.

The morning revealed the first occurrence of oil pollution in South Devon, with much of the vessel’s cargo having spread along the coast. The Blesk disaster is one of the earliest oil tanker environmental incidents on record. Interestingly, newspaper articles contemporary with the event fail to mention the environmental impact of the leaking oil which is in stark contrast to how society would react to a similar incident today.

The second of our Odessa wrecks concerns the wreck of the Caledonia, a Scottish snow which stranded en route from Odessa to Gloucester with a cargo of wheat. There is a long established trade link between Gloucester and Ukraine which grew considerably when the Corn Law was repealed in 1846, allowing more foreign exports and causing the enlargement of the dock area. (1)  Indeed, a pub in Tewkesbury is named the ‘Odessa Inn’; the name a possible acknowledgement of this established trade relationship of the 19th century.

The Caledonia had started her journey in Rio de Janeiro and was loaded with coffee, headed for Syria, Smyrna and Constantinople. From here, she docked at Odessa and loaded her cargo of wheat and began her final passage to Gloucester. On the 7th of September 1842 she left Falmouth for the final leg of her journey.  She would never reach her destination.

That night a strong north-north-westerly wind caused the Caledonia to strike upon the rocks at Vicarage Cliffs, Morwenstow. All but one of the crew were lost; evidence names survivor to be Edward De Lain. His eight ship-mates were buried in Morwenstow churchyard, marked by the Caledonia’s figurehead. A replica of the figurehead now serves as a grave marker, the original having been moved to the church for safekeeping.

De Lain is said to have believed the ship was unlucky and claims three ill-omens (in the eyes of 19th century sailors) occurred prior to her wrecking; a black bag brought aboard by the cook, a bucket lost overboard and she had set sail from Rio de Janeiro on a Friday. For our records however, the loss of this 200-ton vessel has been attributed to the poor weather conditions she encountered as she sailed toward the Bristol Channel.

B&W photo of white-painted figurehead in Scottish dress with tam o'shanter, kilt, sword and shield, in churchyard.
The original figurehead of the Caledonia at Morwenstow. © Historic England. AA98/04739

Although both of these wrecks tell very different tales, they both serve as a reminder that things we consider recent phenomena – large scale food and oil imports – actually go back a long way and have left their mark on the landscape. The UK still continues to trade with Ukraine today, with operations continuing at the port of Odessa. Data provided by the Government Statistics Agency of Ukraine shows that in 2015 the UK was their 11th biggest trading partner. (2)

Dockyard with cranes to left, sea to right, against a blue sky with fluffy clouds.
Figure 2: Odessa is an important industrial centre for Ukraine today. © Izzy Daone

(1) ‘Gloucester, 1835-1985: Economic development to 1914’, in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester, ed. N M Herbert (London, 1988), pp. 170-183. British History Online  http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp170-183 [accessed 19 September 2018].

(2) Trade in goods and services between Ukraine and the United Kingdom, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine (2018). https://uk.mfa.gov.ua/en/ukraine-uk/trade [accessed 26 September 2018].