Diary of the War: November 1918

The Day before the Armistice

I began this maritime ‘Diary of the War’ with an entry for August 1914 in the waters off the Northumberland coast. As we approach the centenary of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, we return once more to that stretch of coastline.

From her inception to her service to her demise, HMS Ascot was entirely a product of the First World War. She was the first of a Racecourse-class of minesweepers built under the Emergency War Programme from 1915 in response to that need for sweepers which, as our August 1914 post demonstrated, was so pressing from the outset of the war, and entered service in January 1916. The Flower-class sweeping and anti-submarine sloops built at this time were also commissioned by the Emergency War Programme, of which HMS President, ex-HMS Saxifrage, moored in London, was one, built at Lobnitz, Renfrew.

Photograph of HMS President moored on river in predominantly black and white dazzle camouflage scheme, with some red, against a backdrop of buildings on the river bank.
HMS President is one of three surviving Royal Navy ships of the First World War and is shown here in her centenary dazzle scheme by Tobias Rehberger, 2014. By DieSwartzPunkt Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The Racecourse-class minesweepers were commissioned from the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company at Troon, who were specialists in constructing paddle steamers for the ferry and excursion steamer markets, which retained a strong preference for paddle steamers, otherwise (with the exception of paddle tugs) largely obsolete in other contexts by the 1870s.

The purpose of the maritime War Diary has not only been to illustrate the underwater cultural heritage of this landscape of war around England’s coastline, but to also to highlight some developments as the war progressed and to demonstrate the diversity of vessel types and nationalities involved.

The commissioning of new paddle steamers to go to war may seem an extraordinary decision, but it fits into this theme. Their typically shallow draught, suitable for river or estuary service, was ideal for minesweeping, and commissioning smaller specialist shipbuilders made full use of Britain’s shipbuilding capacity at need.

In fact, both World Wars saw the use of both purpose-built and requisitioned paddle minesweepers, even if they gained something of a reputation for being ‘wallowy’ and uncomfortable at times. Their use was characteristic of an inventive and flexible approach to adapting shipping to wartime use and conditions, which has also been one of the themes emerging from the War Diary.

Black and white photograph taken from a steamer at sea showing another paddle steamer beyond and on the right.
First World War: Paddle minesweepers off Harwich, April 1918. © IWM (Q 18823)
Black and white photograph of paddle steamer marked with pennant number J66 to the left, with its funnel echoed in the chimneys of the industrial buildings beyond.
Second World War: HMS Plinlimmon, ex-Cambria, in her wartime livery circa 1940 as a minesweeper, perhaps shortly after participating in the Dunkirk evacuation. Built as an excursion steamer in 1895, she was typical of many auxiliaries in seeing service during both World Wars (as HMS Cambridge in the First World War). Source: Historic England Archive CC80/00195

On 10 November 1918 HMS Ascot was three days out from Portsmouth for the minesweeping base at Granton, when she was sighted by UB-67 and became the last Royal Navy loss, the last vessel sunk in English waters, and the last vessel sunk by direct enemy action in the First World War anywhere in the world. (The Norwegian Ener was the very last loss of the war at sea on 11 November 1918, sunk by a mine off Fair Isle.)  (1)

On 20 November 1918 a press release announced the loss of Ascot:

‘The Secretary of the Admiralty announces that HM paddle minesweeper Ascot was torpedoed and sunk with all hands on the 10th inst. by a German submarine off the North-East Coast of England.

‘Six officers, including two mercantile marine officers, and 47 men, including eight mercantile marine ratings, lost their lives.

‘The next-of-kin have all been informed.’ (2)

Of all the terrible events in the ‘war to end all wars’, few things can have been more unbearably distressing and poignant for families than to hear that their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons had been killed so close to the Armistice. Such tragic losses touched many families, including my own, with one of the more famous examples the war poet Wilfred Owen, killed in action on 4 November 1918.

Her crew are commemorated on the imposing Grade-I listed Commonwealth War Grave memorials at Plymouth and Chatham. The wreck has been identified east of the Farne Islands by her bell and paddle wheels. (3)

The Armistice marked an end to the fighting, but not to the war itself: the final cessation of hostilities came with the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allied Powers, signed on 28 June 1919, along with other separately-negotiated peace treaties. For this reason some war memorials, such as this one at Euston, London, state the dates of the war as 1914-1919, but there were other reasons too. For seamen there was no longer any danger of shellfire, underwater torpedo or aerial attack, but in some respects the war was not yet properly over. Hence the Diary of the War will conclude with a final ‘post-war’ post in December 2018.

Fearless of storm or foe,
Guarding the traffic of the east and west,
Giving with hearts heroic of their best,

The brave mine-sweepers go.

The Mine-Sweepers, Editha Jenkinson

Charcoal and wash sketch of two men on deck, distinguished by their yellow oilskins, with features of the deck also picked out in yellow.
Bridge of a Paddle Sweeper, North Sea, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree: Imperial War Museum Commission c.1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 775) It seems fitting to conclude this tribute to HMS Ascot with an artwork by Allfree, who is commemorated along with his vessel, ML247,  in our September 1918 post.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping Through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile edition, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p238; skipet.no

(2) Widely reproduced across the national and regional press: for example, Western Morning News, 20 November 1918, No.18,323, p6

(3) UKHO No.4397