This month’s War Diary commemorates the loss of the French collier Capitaine Augustin on 17 March 1940. She was built for the Union Industrielle et Marine by Chantiers Navals Français in 1922. In common with many other French ships, both civilian and naval, constructed immediately after the First World War, she was named after a ‘naval hero of the late war’ whose family remained untraced, or they would have been invited to the launch ceremony on 14 February 1922. (1) [See also our previous post on another, similarly named, collier, Mousse Le Moyec, which would in her turn be wrecked in December 1940.]
Reporting of the incident through official British channels (the Press Association War Special) was terse: ‘The French steamer, Capitaine Augustin (3,137 tons), of Havre, bound in ballast to an East Coast of England port, was mined and sunk off the East Coast on Sunday, and two of her crew of 30 were killed.’ (2) Similar clues, or even fewer, were present in French sources: for example, in the extract illustrated below, the only clue as to the whereabouts of the wreck lies in the reporting of the wreck from Londres or London.
Some detail did emerge: the injured were the wireless operator and a gunner, which suggested that the vessel was armed for self-defence. In fact, Capitaine Augustin had been requisitioned by the French authorities in December 1939, so it seems likely that she received her armament then. (3)
The explosion took place within sight of shore: ‘hundreds’ locally heard the explosion and ‘watched from the pier while the lifeboat dashed seven miles to the sinking ship.’ (4) The survivors were landed at a ‘south-east coast town’. Eight must have endured quite a fright as the ship began to sink, as they were trapped below by ‘some doors which had jammed’, but they were fortunately rescued by their crewmates hacking the doors down. (5) It was for just this reason that internal steel netting was provided at least on British ships later in the war, so that in the event of the ship being struck and stairways destroyed, those below decks had a ladder and a means of scrambling up on deck to the lifeboats. (6)
The human interest angle, so important in journalism at any time, came to the fore in wartime. Here we can see how the details of the crew looking after their own, while onlookers willed on the lifeboat speeding to the rescue, took precedence over any locational detail either of the mine or of the ship’s intended voyage, other than in the most vague terms. That way such details receded into insignificance and gave little or no information to the enemy on the success or otherwise of their operations. (7)
The mines had been laid the previous month by 1. Zerstörer-Flotille (1st Destroyer Flotilla) of the German Kriegsmarine in the ‘Shipwash area’ off the northern approaches to the Thames. This tallies with the emphasis on the east and south-east coasts in the details given in the British press. (8) An unattributed French source, based on the activities of 1. Zerstörer-Flotille, states the location of loss as 2.5 miles 126 degrees from the Tongue lightvessel in the Thames Estuary. (9)
The wreck site has been securely charted since 1940, and, of course, at the time the position of the vessel would have been noted by the rescuers. The timing of its first charting is interesting, as it was charted in mid-June 1940 as a dangerous wreck, so of course it suggests that it was one more hazard to avoid for all the ‘Little Ships’ that shuttled from the Thames Estuary to Dunkirk and back between 26 May and 4 June 1940.
Following dispersal in 1946, the location of the wreck was reported in relation to a wartime feature constructed since the date of the wreck, the Tongue Sand Tower (Tongue Sand Fort) – rather than being noted in relation to the lightvessel, even though the latter remained on station until its decommissioning after 1980. The Tongue Sand Fort was one of the Maunsell Forts built for the defence of the Thames Estuary during 1942-3. (For more on the Maunsell Forts, see 7 Treasures of the Thames Estuary on Historic England’s other blog, Heritage Calling.)
All that now remains of the Tower is a stump following its collapse in 1996, while the dispersed wreck site of the Capitaine Augustin appears to have disappeared beneath the sands, (10) yet together they point to the wartime legacy of this patch of the Thames Estuary.
(1)L’Ouest-Eclair, 15 February 1922, No.7,409, p6
(2)Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1
(4)Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1
(5)Thanet Advertiser, 21 March 1940, p5
(6) Oral history testimony from Corporal Cant RAF, 2006, recounting his experiences aboard the Dutch troopship Johan de Witt operated by the British Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) in convoy Clyde – Lagos, November 1944.
(7) Thomson, G (1947) Blue Pencil Admiral (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd) provides an informative account of how censorship and information management worked in practice for the duration of the war.
(8) Rohwer, Jürgen & Hümmelchen, Gerhard, “Februar 1940“, Chronik des Seekrieges, published online (Württembergisches Landesbibliothek, 2007-2020) (in German)
What can scientific investigation of glass from wrecks tell us?
For British Science Week (6-15 March 2020) I am delighted to welcome my colleague Dr Sarah Paynter, Materials Scientist at Historic England, as our guest blogger. She describes some of her recent work involving analysis of glass from wreck sites and what these finds can tell us about wrecks. Some of the key finds recently analysed include those from designated wreck sites, such as the wreck of the London, lost off Southend-on-Sea 355 years ago this week on 7 March 1665, or the ‘Wheel Wreck’ off the Isles of Scilly.
Over to Sarah:
The Historic England laboratories at Fort Cumberland specialise in the conservation and analysis of all kinds of ancient and historical materials. We have worked on archaeological glass for many years but when our remit expanded to include wreck sites, we had the opportunity to work on glass artefacts recovered from the sea. It has been an eye-opening experience . . .
Cargo vessels and warships alike contain a surprising amount of glass, some as part of the vessel structure, such as windows at the stern, but there are also glass components in the instruments (sand glasses and sundial/compasses) and personal belongings (spectacles and mirrors), as well as fine goblets for officers’ use, and often a great many glass bottles and beads amongst the cargo.
On a wreck site this glass can be found scattered in a debris field and the preservation can often be remarkable – despite terrible explosions, navigational errors, violent storms and loss of life, glass bottles can still occasionally be found intact and unopened with the stopper in place.
Ironically, a damaged object generally holds more promise for us than an intact one, because we can usually take a small, fairly unobtrusive sample from a previous break. We use pincers or glass cutters to clip the broken edge, giving us a sample a few millimetres across, which exposes fresh glass. We need this fresh surface to obtain a good chemical analysis because even seemingly well-preserved objects are altered by their time in the depths.
The surface is usually covered in a fragile skin of iridescent, flaky, weathered glass, as well as concretions, marine organisms and sandy mud, all of which limit the usefulness of surface analyses. We can identify old breaks because these also have a matt, altered surface, whereas any breaks that have occurred during recovery and post-excavation handling are shiny and smooth.
The chemical make-up of the glass, and the environment that it has lain in, both have a huge impact on its condition when it is recovered centuries later. English medieval glass made before the mid-16th century tends to degrade very quickly, whereas later glass can be miraculously preserved because it is chemically more resistant to weathering (Historic England 2018).
Scientific analysis of glass:
We use several different analysis techniques in our work, depending on our research questions, the size and condition of the object, and whether we can take a sample. The scanning electron microscope (SEM) can show us the structure on a microscopic scale, as well as chemical composition, even if the sample is only a few millimetres wide.
The benchtop XRF (X-ray fluorescence) spectrometer provides similar chemical information and we can sometimes fit intact objects into the machine, which is ideal if we cannot take a sample from them. We also have a portable XRF machine, which gives less complete results, but which can be used on any object, even those that are still wet or very large. It can also be taken out on site as it is about the size of a hairdryer and not much heavier.
One of the main advantages of working on wreck material is that we often know to the day, when the ship was lost, and perhaps the ports of origin and destination. This means wreck sites can provide precisely dated material for the archaeologist. The objects might be found in a case packed for transport, in a chest of personal belongings or on the deck where they were being used. Accounts of the time may even provide us with details of ship architecture, provisions, armaments, cargo and crew, and the life of the vessel from the shipyard through to eyewitness accounts of its final journey. It is very rare in land-based archaeology to have so much information around the context of an object. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, gives a detailed account of the devastating loss of the London, in an entry on March the 8th 1665:
“This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of “The London,” in which Sir J[ohn] Lawson’s men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower, [the Nore] she suddenly blew up. About 24 [men] and a woman that were in the round-house and coach saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round- house above water. Sir J[ohn] Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them. I went to the ‘Change, where the news taken very much to heart.”
Bottles, instruments and windows: tracing technological changes:
The reasons for analysing archaeological and historical glass are varied, but we are always aiming to answer a question, either to identify something, or to work out how old it is or where it is from. Wreck material also serves another purpose because we can often date it so precisely, so we are using our analyses of glass objects from precisely dated wrecks to add to a kind of ‘calibration curve’ for how the composition of windows, bottles, beads and vessels change over time in England. On the occasions when we are presented with glass from an unidentified wreck, we have used our ‘calibration curve’ to estimate the date of the wreck from the composition of glass bottles or trade beads. For example, bottles were recovered from the protected wreck site of an unidentified vessel with a cargo of probable mining machinery in the Isles of Scilly, known as the ‘Wheel Wreck’. Analysis of the bottles added to growing evidence that the vessel might be older than previously thought.
This ‘calibration curve’ works especially well for post-medieval glass because technological developments appeared thick and fast from the 16th century onwards, and glass compositions changed quite rapidly (whereas in earlier periods, the technology used to make glass remained fairly constant for centuries at a time).
We can see how quickly glass technology changed in later periods by comparing the glass objects from two Navy warships: the London, which exploded off Southend on the 7th of March 1665, and the Stirling Castle, which was wrecked alongside three other warships a few decades later in the Great Storm of the 26th of November 1703. The shape and composition of green glass bottles has already changed subtly even in this brief period of less than 50 years, to the extent that they began during the 18th century to resemble modern bottles more closely. (Burton 2014)
We can see some differences in the images below:
At this time, bottles were made by gathering hot glass on the end of a blowing iron, inflating a bubble in the glass to form the body of the bottle, and lengthening the neck. The sides and base of the bottle body could be shaped using a mould or a flat surface, even the floor. The end of the bubble was pushed in to create a ‘push-up’ at the bottle base, so that it would stand on a flat surface.
To finish the bottle, the pontil iron was attached to the bottle base so that the neck of the bottle could be broken free of the blowing iron, and then the rim shaped by further working or by applying more glass. Finally the bottle was detached from the pontil, leaving a pontil scar.
Finds specialists can use the characteristics of bottle bases, including the type of pontil mark and the shape of the push-up, to work out the date of a bottle or where it was made. We can also look at the composition of the bottle glass to see if it matches our analyses of other English-made bottles. With cargo vessels, analysis is a useful tool to investigate the movement of goods around the world. We can use analysis to work out where goods were made and where they were going to.
Glassworkers could also make different types of glass, depending on what the glass was going to be used for. For a lens in a pair of spectacles or an instrument, like the pocket sundial/compass from the London, they used special, purified, more expensive ingredients to obtain a colourless glass (instead of the common green). Colourless glass was also used to make mirrors and the best goblets. The closely guarded industrial secrets for making colourless glass were originally brought to England in the 16th century, along with other technology, by glassworkers from Continental Europe, and their expertise led ultimately to a revival of the English glass industry.
Glass windows on ships are a particularly striking feature and appear to develop in parallel with those on buildings. Glass had become more widespread in the windows of ordinary homes in Britain by the early 17th century, and ships dating to the 17th century, like the London, also had windows incorporated into the elaborately decorated stern, where the captain’s cabin would be situated.
In the past, glassblowers had several techniques for making flat glass for windows.
One technique involved making rectangular sheets of glass (broad or cylinder glass) by elongating a blown bubble of glass into a more cylindrical shape using gravity, which involved swinging the blowing iron back and forth whilst standing on a platform, or over a pit. The cylinder was cut along its length, then unfolded and flattened.
Alternatively, a round sheet of glass, known as a crown, was made by blowing and shaping a bubble, which was then transferred to a pontil iron rod so that the other end of the bubble could be opened up. When the glass was spun, it opened into a disc shape, or ‘crown’. When the pontil was removed it left a ‘bull’s eye’ in the middle with a pontil mark. Diamond-shaped quarries of glass, for glazing windows, were cut from the thinner glass around the edges.
In earlier windows, the glass quarries were joined together using bendy lead strips known as cames, and the glass tends to have a greenish colour, similar to contemporary bottles, or the green glass component from the London sundial shown above.
Later in the 17th century wooden glazing bars were adopted to hold the glass panes in place. As time went on, the technology for making large sheets of flat glass improved, so window panes could be made larger, and the ingredients used to make the glass were improved so that the glass became increasingly colourless (Dungworth 2012).
By contrast, the tiniest glass objects we have encountered so far on wreck sites are glass beads, which were made and traded on a vast scale in the past, either small and plain beads, or elaborately multicoloured examples. The better-known European manufacturers were based in Venice, Amsterdam and Bohemia, where huge numbers were made, and there were also established bead-makers in the Indo-Pacific region and Africa.
European beads were widely transported by sea, with a commensurately widespread distribution in archaeological contexts, reaching the American and African continents. Plain, monochrome beads can be superficially difficult to tell apart just by looking at them, but examining their composition will usually give us enough clues to work out when and where they were made. So glass beads from wrecks can also help to answer archaeologists’ questions at wreck sites around the world, as a means of dating contexts and investigating trade.
At Fort Cumberland, the work on all kinds of finds from wreck sites around the coast of England continues to aid in our understanding and management of wreck sites. There can be few more appropriate locations to investigate the remarkable finds from historic ships than in Portsmouth, a port city and also home to the Mary Rose Museum and the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
With particular thanks to colleagues at Historic England (Angela Middleton, Serena Cant), the HMS London licensees, Cotswold Archaeology, Michael Walsh, Jörn Schuster, Kevin Camidge, David Dungworth, Florian Strӧbele, Fred Hocker, Niklas Eriksson, ‘The Glassmakers’ Mark Taylor and David Hill, Alastair Miles at the Mary Rose Trust, Diana Davis at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the Nautical Archaeology Society, and all those collaborating on the wreck sites described here.
Burton D, 2014 Antique Sealed bottles 1640-1900 and the families that owned them. Antique Collectors Club Ltd.
Dumbrell R 1992 Understanding antique wine bottles. Antique Collectors Club Ltd.
Dungworth D 2012 ‘Historic window glass. The use of chemical analysis to date manufacture’ Journal of Architectural Conservation18, 7-25.
Gillespie CC (ed) 1959 A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry. New York: Dover.
One key respect in which the conduct of the Second World War at sea differed from the First was the number of aircraft involved. Since the previous war, aircraft had evolved to become capable of significant offensive and defensive roles, reflected in the numbers lost over both land and sea. In and around English waters these included well-known aircraft on both sides, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters, Ju88s, Me109s and He111s, as well as many less familiar aircraft types.
Today, on the 80th anniversary of its loss on 24 February 1940, we feature our first case study of an aircraft lost at sea during the Second World War. (Others will follow in due course.) The reasons for aircraft loss were many and varied: aerial combat, mechanical failure, and training accidents among them.
We begin with L6111, an example of a lesser-known type, the Blackburn Botha, developed and built over 1936-8 as a reconnaissance aircraft and a torpedo bomber. In early 1940 the Botha was not yet on active service, but remained under test for the Air Ministry at the Torpedo Development Unit (TDU), RAF Gosport, Hampshire, to which L6111 was allocated. (1)
On the morning of 24 February 1940, L6111 was on torpedo-dropping exercises over the Solent between Gosport and Ryde, Isle of Wight, when the engine cut out and the crew were forced to ditch in the sea. All four men were providentially able to get into a dinghy before their aircraft sank. (2)
Not all Botha crews were so fortunate: exactly one year later, on 24 February 1941, Blackburn Botha L6262 crashed into the ground close to its destination airfield of RAF Detling, Kent, killing all four crew. (3) Even against the context of training and operational losses for all aircraft, these and other accidents ensured that the Botha was quickly rendered obsolete as a frontline aircraft. Only 580 were ever built, compared to the production runs for the more successful types such as the Spitfire (over 20,000 constructed).
Debris in the Solent off Fort Gilkicker was confirmed in 1990 as the scattered wreckage of an aircraft and would tally well with L6111‘s flight path. (4) As an aircraft having crashed on military service, it is automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986. (5)
It also has some significance as one of 21 ‘extinct’ British and German aircraft types of the 1930s and 40s, with few or no surviving complete examples in any context. (6) (See also an earlier blog post on a Do17 ‘Flying Pencil’ recovered from the sea in 2013, another, more intact, example of one of these rare types.) By contrast more Spitfires were produced, served in action and survived the war: this means that more Spitfires likewise survive in preservation, including airworthy examples, or as archaeological remains within both the terrestrial and marine environments.
The everyday hazards of the sea never cease, even under wartime conditions. During the Second World War dangerous shoals still required marking, and ships safe guidance into harbour, perhaps even more so after undergoing convoy battles, lone dashes, trusting in speed alone, across the Atlantic, or picking their way through freshly-laid minefields.
By the same token those who saved others from the peril of the sea themselves faced greater peril than ever before, though in peace and war their mission remained the same. Today’s post allows us to revisit the story of lightvessels around the coast which we first covered in an earlier blog post.
Now largely removed in favour of other marks, the few lightvessels on station today are automated and unmanned, but perform the same function as lighthouses, albeit marking offshore hazards. In modern times it is difficult to appreciate their crews’ hard way of life, devoted to maintaining a light beaming a vital message out to sea from an inert and stationary hull: permanently moored with no motive power, either sail or engine, they ran the risk of drifting or being driven in storms onto the very hazards from which they warned others, nor had they any means of avoiding a collision should a ship bear down upon them.
Neither was it easy in wartime to escape drifting mines or, unarmed, to defend a lightvessel against enemy attack. Yet in 1940 men served aboard those lightvessels which had not been extinguished (1) and which continued to offer an ‘equal lamp at peril of the sea’ to passing ships. (2)
The East Dudgeon station marked the Dudgeon, one of the shoals and sandbanks that stretch out long fingers along the east coast of England between the Humber to the north and the Norfolk coast to the south. Between these two points shipping routes largely stood, and to this day stand, out to sea rather than hugging the coast, to avoid some of these hazards, but others, such as the Dudgeon, lie a considerable distance offshore. This meant that the East Dudgeon, to the seaward of the eponymous shoal, was also by some distance one of the more remote lightvessels, which had a bearing on what happened next.
On the morning of 29 January 1940 (3) off the east coast a Heinkel He111 approached the East Dudgeon Lightvessel. The crew were not initially alarmed when they saw the enemy aircraft approaching as, ‘on previous occasions German pilots had waved to them and passed them by.’ (4)
This time there was no friendly wave in passing. The lightvessel was machine-gunned and bombed, the last bomb striking the vessel. The ship began to heel over, but remained afloat, (5) and a photograph depicting her light smashed to pieces surfaced in the press a couple of weeks later. (6)
The crew took to the boat , one man having been ill in his bunk but helped onto deck and into the boat by his comrades. Given the distance offshore they faced rowing for hours in winter conditions, continuing to row on as night fell and they became progressively colder and weaker, before making landfall at around 2.30am. (7)
Their boat capsized in the breakers rolling on the shore and, so close to land and safety, seven men out of the eight crew lost their lives: James Scott Bell, Master Mechanic; Bardolph Basil Boulton, Fog Signal Driver; Horatio Davis, Lamplighter; Roland Robert George, Senior Master; George William Jackson, Seaman. Richard Edward Norton, Seaman; and Herbert Rumsby, Lampman. (8)
The sole survivor was John Sanders, who managed to crawl ashore, somehow finding the strength to break into a house and divest himself of his clothes after coming upon some blankets to wrap himself up in. There he was discovered at 8am. (9) The bodies of the other crew were discovered that morning near their ‘wrecked small boat’. (10)
German radio claimed that same day that the British Naval Patrol Vessel East Dudgeon had been sunk, which elicited a statement from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons that it was: ‘a falsification intended to cover up from the world a deliberate and savage attack on a lightship. To seafaring folks of all nations the East Dudgeon is well known as a lightship, and its identity was unmistakable. She was, naturally, unarmed.’ (11)
As further aerial attacks on lightvessels followed (East Goodwin, sunk 18 July 1940; South Folkestone Gate, sunk 14 August 1940; South Goodwin, sunk 25 October 1940, and East Oaze, sunk 1 November 1940), the British struck back in the propaganda war. The Ministry of Information commissioned the Crown Film Unit in 1940 to produce Men of the Lightship, a dramatisation of life aboard the East Dudgeon, culminating in the attack and its tragic aftermath, which was released in the United States as Men of Lightship 61.
‘Lightship 61’ was laid up and returned to service in the postwar period but her story opened a grim chapter with the onslaught on lightvessels legible in a seabed heritage of those which have remained on the seabed for the last 80 years.
(2) Rudyard Kipling, “The Coastwise Lights of England”, in The Song of the English, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909
(3)Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1; Kim Saul, “Sole Survivor”, quoting an unattributed original source, said to be directly from survivor John J R Sanders, in Memories, Belton and District Historical Society website, published online, 2013. The same text is quoted in Anthony Lane, “Lightship Memories”, Portside, Winter 2017, pp3-5, published online, attributed to Illustrated, 24 February 1940.
(4)Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1
(5) See note (3): Saul, “Sole Survivor” and Lane, “Lightship Memories”; Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1
(6)Liverpool Daily Post, 15 February 1940, No.26,392, p5, and other regional press
(7)Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1
In wartime there are some vessels whose fate seems to involve one thing after another, exacerbated by the ‘fog of war’ in which events are not wholly clear even to those who have taken part in them: War Knightduring the First World War was a case in point, and U-16on 25 October 1939 another.
The news of U-16‘s loss followed the recent tragedy of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed in the apparent safety of the Scapa Flow anchorage, Orkney, on 14 October 1939, by U-47 under the command of Günther Prien. Barely six weeks into the war it was already apparent that the U-boat threat to Britain was significant.
On the afternoon of Tuesday 24 October 1939 an anti-submarine indicator loop at St. Margaret’s Bay, Kent, picked up suspicious activity in the Straits of Dover. The Kingfisher-class patrol sloop HMS Puffin and the requisitioned trawler HMS Cayton Wyke were sent to investigate. So far the defence of the Straits of Dover differed little from the previous war in the use of loops (see post of August 1918), of smaller patrol vessels in the form of naval and requisitioned fishing vessels, and of a mine barrage.
As their counterparts had also done in the previous war, one after the other, the two vessels dropped depth charges in the vicinity of their target some three miles east by south of St. Margaret’s Bay. (1)
It seems that the effect of this was to disable the submarine, but not so severely that communications were disrupted: the U-boat was able to send a radio message in the early hours of 25 October 1939. (2)
On Thursday 26 October, a German U-boat was discovered stranded on the Goodwin Sands but with no explanation of how it had got there. A statement prepared by the Admiralty and widely disseminated in the press, said:
‘How the submarine went aground was not explained last night. Gunfire was heard off Deal on Wednesday, when it was believed that an enemy submarine might have been attacked, but nothing could be seen because of mist.
‘Another theory is that the submarine may have been sunk a few days ago off Folkestone and may have drifted or bumped along the sea bed and become fast on the Goodwins.’ (3)
There was not only a sea haar, but also a smokescreen thrown up by the Admiralty. Both ‘theories’ allowed to materialise in the press certainly had a germ of truth to them – an enemy submarine was certainly attacked ‘a few days ago’ somewhere between Deal and Folkestone barrage. An emphasis on ‘gunfire’ nicely side-stepped the use of depth charges or the presence of a mine barrage, although some further conjecture from Deal also made it into the press release, albeit still carefully worded:
‘It is thought possible at Deal that the U-boat did not go on to the Goodwins under her own power, but was sunk in deeper waters by depth charges or bombs and that some of her bulk heads may have remained undamaged, permitting her to bump along the seabed, carried along by the current.‘ (4)
To coin a phrase apt in the maritime context, the waters were muddied by a claim that ‘a large German submarine has been sunk by the French. This is confirmed by the finding of the bodies of the crew. A message from Dunkirk states that the British Admiralty was represented when the French authorities gave a Naval funeral yesterday to a U-boat officer and five German sailors . . . ‘ (5)
This funeral was well attended by both French and British naval representatives, and jointly led by both Protestant and Catholic clergy to cover Germany’s two principal religions. (6) The Yorkshire Post was of the view that the funeral was ‘almost the last flicker of chivalry in warfare’.
The German High Command admitted the loss of three U-boats. (7) Five are recorded as lost for the month of October 1939, but none of these are attributed to French action. Two were depth-charged by British ships in the North Atlantic south-west of Ireland on 13 and 14 October respectively (U-42 and U-45) , and three in the Straits of Dover: U-12, which was mined on 8 October; U-40, which also fell to a British minefield on 13 October; and U-16, attributed to a British minefield. (8)
Could French action have contributed to the demise of U-16? The French press reported that their Navy had recently been active and that a patrol vessel had recovered some bodies from a submarine sunk off Dunkirk. (9) That patrol vessel was the Épinal, which had launched a night attack on a submarine on 26 October (presumably in the early hours of that day), while acting on intelligence that U-boat activity was expected in the Straits of Dover on 26-27 October. (10)
It thus seems that the Épinal might have been the last on the scene, which is also suggested by her crew recovering the U-boat commander alive. (11) Action by British and French patrols, unknown to each other, would also account for the actions reported in the press as heard at different times in different places. Some sources suggest that the Épinal was first on the scene, with the British second, but this fits less well with the time frame and the known actions of Puffin and Cayton Wyke.
That U-boat commander subsequently died despite being taken to hospital. He was identified as Kapitänleutnant Horst Wellner and, it seems, the loss may have been attributed to U-14. It is possible that his lifejacket was marked U-14, which he had commanded up until two weeks previously, his service aboard U-14 ending on 11 October 1939, before taking on the command of U-16 the following day.
The British and French press widely reported the discovery of ’50 or 60′ bodies, surely a conjecture or an exaggeration for propaganda purposes, since the normal crew complement was 22-24. (12) In total 19 bodies washed ashore or were picked up at sea on the Kent coast, near Dunkirk, and Ameland, Netherlands. (13) It seems likely that four bodies were recovered from the wreck by the British, since four German seamen whose date of death is 25th October 1939 are buried in Cannock Chase German Cemetery, namely, Paul Hanf, Hans Keil, Rolf Krämer, and Friedhelm Mahnke, and these four, together with the other 19 bodies, would fit with a crew complement of 23. (14)
Did the Goodwin Sands themselves play a part in the U-boat’s loss? It would have been all too easy for a disabled submarine to drift helplessly and become ensnared upon the sands, an easy prey for any patrol vessel happening by. The ‘Demon Sands’ headline in the Manchester Evening Press made good copy and the article rehashed the many legends of the Goodwin Sands: though fanciful, it almost seems to suggest that the Sands themselves had reached out to snare the enemy. (15)
The expression ‘ships that pass in the night’ reveals a fundamental truth about not only shipping movements but also shipping losses: a spider’s web spins out interconnecting one wreck with another. Wellner in U-14 (which would be scuttled in 1945 off Wilhelmshaven as the Allies closed in on Germany) had been responsible for the reconnaissance mission which had led to the very recent loss of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. (16)
Similarly, U-16‘s British attacker HMS Cayton Wyke would herself be lost to war causes on 8 July 1940, near the U-16 on the Goodwin Sands: her position of loss links her both to her victim and to the landscape of war in which she served as patrol vessel. HMS Puffin would survive the war, closing the war as she had begun, by accounting for a German submarine.
By the end of October the U-16 was regarded as unsalvageable: ‘The submarine is little more than a shattered wreck, and the remains are gradually sinking into the sand owing to the continuance of the bad weather.’ (17)
Fairly unusually for the Goodwin Sands, where even very recent wrecks have disappeared completely, the site of theU-16has a secure charting history since early 1940 as the location of a submarine, although the identity of the site is not confirmed. (18) However, the description of her position ‘near’ two other wrecks, now among those which have disappeared, may provide a clue to their location: the uncharted Sibiria and the Val Salice, both lost in the same storm in 1916, whose charting is now regarded as ‘dead’.(19) This suggests that in 1939 either that they remained partially visible or at least their positions were still within living memory among the seamen of the Kent coast.
(1) based on the location of the vessel identified as U-16, UKHO 13666.
(10) ibid; also an article from 11 years later in Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950, clearly commemorating the anniversary of previous events, similarly repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)
As Britain prepared for the much-anticipated onslaught of war during the ‘Phoney War’ period, in which little appeared to be happening militarily, events at sea were already moving fast. Enemy minefields were sown in various locations around the coasts of England virtually from the declaration of war (claiming the Goodwood and the Magdapur in different locations off the east coast just a week into the war).
The worldwide toll of ships attacked by U-boats in September 1939 reached 52, the majority sunk, although a number were captured. At this stage of the war, the majority of the ships attacked were British, and most were forced to stop by an initial warning shot before the crews were forced to leave. A significant proportion of that month’s activity took place in the Baltic region as ships from neutral Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden were stopped and, if discovered to be bound for the UK, captured and diverted to German ports, or sunk.
The first neutral ship to be lost in the war within English waters was the Belgian motor vessel Alex van Opstal, belonging to the Compagnie Maritime Belge, 5,965 tons, built in 1937 and named after the company’s recently-deceased president. The Alex van Opstal left New York for Antwerp on 6 September, three days into the war, with a general cargo, predominantly grain (3,400 tons), 59 crew, and eight passengers. (1) All must have been anxious as to what awaited them in European waters, but none could have predicted what happened next.
On 15 September, while proceeding up Channel, she was ordered to call at Weymouth for examination by the British authorities. It was after ‘making a stopover in England’, as a French newspaper put it, (2), that there was a sudden explosion under No.2 hold.
The news likewise exploded around the world. Plans for press censorship and a Ministry of Information were well established in advance of the outbreak of war, and in fact it was a retired naval commander, Rear-Admiral George Pirie Thomson, who became the Chief Censor for the War: he was new in post in those early days. (3)
It was therefore an official Ministry of Information press release the following day which revealed the recent loss of four ships, three British and the Alex van Opstal. No dates or locations were released for the British ships, but the MoI was happy to offer more information regarding the date and place of loss of the loss of the Belgian vessel ‘late last night [15th September] off the Shambles lightship, near Weymouth.’ (4) The Ministry statement added further information from the master, Vital Delgoffe, who believed that the vessel had struck a mine, although at that stage a torpedo had not been ruled out. In either case the British authorities made it extremely clear that it was seen as an ‘infraction’.
‘If his opinion is well-founded, the Ministry adds the mine must without doubt have been dropped by an enemy minelayer, as at no time have the British laid live mines anywhere near the spot where the Alex van Opstal sank.’ (5) The propaganda war had begun along with the physical war, and here the British took the offensive. In Belgium an artist’s impression of the scene made the cover of the weekend magazine Ons Volk, with the highly inaccurate but emotive detail of a nursing mother escaping in a boat (there were no children or infants on board).
The press in Britain, France, and the Netherlands reported the reaction in the German press to the sinking, which suggested that ‘the sinking could undoubtedly be ascribed to Mr. Churchill’ and that the vessel, ‘if, indeed, torpedoed at all’ was not torpedoed by a German submarine. (6) Yet a portrait of the Alex van Opstal appeared in the Kriegsmarine magazine of the German Navy in October 1939, and we now know that the mine had been laid five days previously by U-26, Kapitänleutnant Klaus Ewerth. (7)
According to Alfred Thorne, assistant engineer aboard the ship, following the explosion ‘we were plunged into darkness and fuel oil poured down like a torrent . . . We rushed up on deck and found that the ship had been cut clean in two.’ All the passengers and crew left in the ship’s boats and pulled over to the Greek steamer Atlanticos.(8)
A seaplane then reported the Atlanticos‘ location to boats to which the crew and passengers were transferred. Several of the passengers and crew were taken to hospital suffering from ‘fractures and shock’, including an ‘elderly’ female passenger with a broken arm, who was allowed to go on to a hotel afterwards, although six men were detained in hospital. (9) With the exception of the master and four other men, who remained in hospital in Weymouth, one man evidently having been discharged, two days later the crew were back home in Ostend. (10)
By the time a Devon newspaper reported that an empty lifeboat from the Alex van Opstal was found adrift 14 miles south of the Bill of Portland and towed into Brixham by her compatriot, the trawler Bolnes, another shipping loss was making headline news – the warship HMS Courageous. (11)
As we can see, the wreck of the Alex van Opstal was extremely well documented at the time, notwithstanding the press censorship of the event, and on 25 September the wreck was located and marked by a buoy, establishing a secure identification of the site that goes back to 1939. By 1940 that buoy had gone missing but was not, understandably in the light of other marine priorities during the war, replaced, and the site was not investigated again until the post-war period. By 1949 it had been dispersed. (12)
The wreck is a popular dive today, and even post-dispersal, clearly lies in two parts. A wreck tour published on Divernet contains a dive plan and photo gallery. (13)
This wreck encapsulates many of the characteristics that would define shipping losses over the course of the Second World War. War causes were common to all, of course, and there would be decisions taken which placed ships in a danger zone, often unwittingly. There would also be official secrecy and propaganda, both of which intensified over the course of time. In its loss there was also a harbinger of the future: 3,400 tons of grain failed to reach its destination on a continent appearing increasingly embattled and vulnerable – hence the need, recognised from the very beginning of the war, to keep the Atlantic open.
In this loss, too, we can also see another trend that would emerge during the Second World War, as during the First: a complex interrelationship of ships in a common underwater cultural heritage woven into the history of the war.
This is best illustrated by what happened next to some of the other players in the story: U-26 would meet her end south-west of Ireland on 1 July 1940, depth-charged and bombed by an Allied air-sea force; the Atlanticos would be herself mined and sunk off the Thames Estuary, carrying a cargo of North American grain, in February 1942; and some of the crew would go on to serve aboard other ships that would in turn be lost: for example, Second Officer Fernand van Geert would serve throughout the war in the Belgian mercantile marine, surviving the torpedoing of the Mercier in June 1941 and the Belgian Airman in April 1945.
The summer of 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the excavations which led to one of the most spectacular Anglo-Saxon discoveries ever made, the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. In August 1939 the contents of the burial were the subject of an inquest to determine whether or not they constituted treasure trove (they did not). (1) The astonishing finds discussed at the inquest on August 14 attracted a good deal of media attention over the ensuing fortnight, fascinating a public facing the imminent prospect of war.
Building on the previous year’s excavation works, archaeological excavations had resumed in May 1939. As Mound 1 was opened up, both landowner Edith Pretty and archaeologist Basil Brown were keen to see what they would discover. They may have had an inkling from the 1938 excavation, in which a lesser burial mound (Mound 2) had yielded ship rivets and a ‘boat shape’, but which had been robbed of associated grave goods in the past – but nothing could have prepared them for the find of a lifetime.
Within a few days a rivet was also discovered in Mound 1, and as more rivets emerged, it became clear that this was another ship-burial also containing an artefact assemblage which had defied earlier attempts at robbery.
Organic material, such as the hull timbers, had long since vanished in the acid soil. What was left was an intact ‘ghost impression’ of the ship, the disposition of the rivets bearing witness to its original clinker planking, and evenly spaced ridges of sand where the ribs had once been. In the same way the arrangement of personal artefacts, reflecting their natural position on or beside the body, revealed the original resting place of the deceased, whose remains had been similarly consumed by the soil.
It was a very special ship with a very special ‘passenger’ and ‘cargo’, a high-status male burial containing an extremely diverse, rich, and finely-wrought, assemblage of artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon world and beyond. Since that summer of 1939 this assemblage has been assigned to the early 7th century and has been interpreted as the grave of Raedwald, King of East Anglia, who was noted in a 9th century chronicle as bretwalda with some form of overlordship over other Anglo-Saxon kings.
If the ship was deliberately deposited, hauled up from the nearby River Deben, ten miles from the sea, as the river meanders, and intended for preservation by burial, rather than destruction, why are we making it the subject of a Wreck of the Week?
This article weaves together the diversity of our wreck heritage, the features the Sutton Hoo ship-burial shares with more conventional wreck archaeology, and the context of war, since the find also foreshadows the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.
The key driver for interpreting the Sutton Hoo burial as a ‘wreck’ in one sense is because of the very disappearance of the ship itself. By contrast, a number of Viking Age ship-burials in Norway, relatively close in date, cultural milieu and deposit context, have been well-preserved (Oseberg, c.820, discovered 1903-4; Gokstad, c.890, found 1879; and Tune, c.900-910, excavated 1867). Unlike these examples, the ship at the centre of the Sutton Hoo burial has been ‘wrecked’ literally by the sands of time, namely its 1,300 years from deposit to discovery within a mound of sandy and acidic soil.
It is certainly an unusual ‘wrecking’ process, and despite its proximity to the river, one well outside a waterborne context, which makes it all the more unusual. The nearest parallels in the British Isles lie outside an English context, for example the Viking Age ship-burials at Ardnamurchan, Scotland, and Balladoole on the Isle of Man, in both of which the timbers have also leached away.
Also exceptional, from a maritime point of view, is the way the mound has acted as ‘destroyer’ rather than ‘preserver’ of the vessel: unlike the grave mounds built on land by human hands, wreck mounds tend to form by a natural accretion process, helping to preserve timbers and other organic contents within an anaerobic environment that prevents or delays decay (as can be seen on artefacts from the designated Rooswijk of 1740, for example).
Wreck processes in the inter-tidal zone and in or immediately beside rivers often provide visible and accessible illustrations of underwater wreck processes. For example, the scour pit around the wreck of the Amsterdam (1749, also designated) in the inter-tidal zone at Bulverhythe demonstrates on land how sunken vessels can ‘scour out’ a pit for themselves by their own motion against that of the tides and currents of the surrounding water column.
In the same vein, the two wrecks at the designated Salcombe Cannon site (identified from their associated assemblages as Bronze Age and 17th century respectively) demonstrate within the marine zone how the geology of the site environment itself, as at Sutton Hoo, can act as a medium of destruction and decay. A dynamic environment, full of rocky gullies, has eroded any remaining timbers, although those same gullies have sheltered and preserved the cargo scatters.
Elsewhere a cargo may demonstrate the presence of a wreck without an associated hull which may either have degraded or remains to be discovered, such as the Roman-era Pudding Pan Wreck in the Thames Estuary, which has yielded quantities of Samian ware over the centuries. In retaining its rich assemblage without its originating vessel, the Sutton Hoo burial has a point of contact with such wreck sites.
In some ways, the ‘wreck process’ associated with the lesser-known Mound 2 ship was similar to that of Mound 1, with the same acid soil working on its timbers. However, there were other intervening events between deposit and discovery which contributed to the loss not only of the vessel but also of its context. Unlike Mound 2, the rivets were scattered and no longer bore witness to the original vessel structure, having been disturbed by earlier grave-robbing activity. Essentially this activity was a historic example of what we would today designate a heritage crime.
Such problems could be exacerbated by the archaeological standards prevailing at the time of discovery. We have covered this before in our earlier post on Anglo-Saxon wrecks in the Manchester Ship Canal but there were others: as far back as 1862 an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial was discovered at Snape, also in Suffolk. Although the site was recorded and published, and some physical evidence survives in the form of the iron rivets which were also found on that site, our understanding of this vessel remains incomplete. Between the site’s original discovery and further archaeological exploration in the 20th century, the landscape was much altered by ploughing with the loss of detail and context. This particular case highlights the importance of careful survey and recording, which guards against knowledge and/or site loss, and acts as ‘preservation by record’.
In 1970, another Anglo-Saxon vessel, a clinker-built boat dated to the late 9th century, was discovered at Graveney, Kent, during excavations for a drainage channel in the local marshland. It has been interpreted as a sea-going vessel, abandoned in the marshes approximately a kilometre from the sea, and thus from a different context entirely to a ship-burial.
Such loss through abandonment appears to be typical in the records of many boats discovered archaeologically in the 19th century and early 20th centuries and attributed to the Anglo-Saxon or Viking periods or even earlier. It is plausible that many such vessels were initially laid up over a period of time, with the intention of being brought back into use again (not dissimilar in some ways to the point with which we started, the determination of treasure trove!).
Such vessels, whether as logboats or more formally built with worked timbers, then passed completely out of use, through obsolescence, the economics of repair, or perhaps simply on the death of their original owners. These hulks are analogous to the many Thames barges which worked the river up until the mid 20th century and which now lie rotting on the shores of Essex and Kent. The Sutton Hoo mound likewise looks across the River Deben to two modern hulk assemblages on the opposite bank at Ferry Cliff and Sun Wharf. These hulks have been either forgotten or deliberately abandoned and the long slow process of decay has transformed these vessels into ‘wrecks’, in the sense of vessels no longer capable of their original navigational function.
The relative ease of logboat excavation in the Victorian or Edwardian periods means that these have been particularly prone to being lost post-excavation, because of the archaeological recording and storage standards then prevailing. It is arguable that their discovery can be seen as the final stage of a long-drawn-out ‘wreck process’ regardless of the original owners’ intentions or context of deposit, a fate shared with the subject of a recent post, the Ship under the Power Station.
The most dramatic example of such a fate was a Bronze Age boat discovered in 1886, carefully preserved by Victorian standards and put on display in Hull and East Riding Museum. It was finally destroyed or ‘wrecked’ in possibly the most extreme example of a multi-phase wreck process recorded in England – during a Second World War bombing raid which severely damaged the museum itself in 1943.
It is extraordinary to think that the Hull Bronze Age boat not only shares a multi-phase loss process with many other craft of different types and eras, but also has something in common with vessels of 1940s construction sunk in coastal waters by the 1940s means of air attack.
By any standards the Sutton Hoo ship-burial was an extraordinary archaeological discovery. Although not unknown in a national or international context, ship-burials remain rare finds, while the remarkable grave goods within have done much to inform our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. Despite more recent Anglo-Saxon discoveries of comparable magnificence such as the Prittlewell Princely Burial or the Staffordshire Hoard, the Sutton Hoo ship-burial retains its significance and glamour.
One of the ways in which the importance of Sutton Hoo was recognised was immediate: the site was Scheduled as an Ancient Monument in November 1939, two months into the war, and the assemblage would spend the war in storage, along with many other national treasures.
Other Anglo-Saxon boats have also been discovered before and since, but to date there have been no known Anglo-Saxon finds in the marine zone, although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a few wreck events. The surviving written record, however, is pitifully thin by comparison to the number of wrecks which must in reality have occurred, simply by the very nature of seaborne traffic (touched on in a previous post, 1066 and All That). It is a reminder that the goods in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, such as the Frankish coins and Byzantine bucket, were all the more valuable for safely arriving following a sea voyage.
The Sutton Hoo ship-burial bridges ‘marine’ and ‘terrestrial’ archaeology, in which patterns shared with wreck archaeology can be clearly seen. Despite some parallels such as at Balladoole, it is also the only ‘wreck’ we know of in an English context discovered by clear evidence of what was once there, rather than a simple absence of surviving ship structure, and thus so far unique within England’s diverse wreck heritage.
Had the burial not been discovered in the summer of 1939, just before Britain went to war, perhaps much of its context would have been compromised. Over the next few years Mound 1 would be subjected to intrusive military activity which has left its scars on the landscape, and which could so easily have damaged or destroyed the ‘negative impression’ of the ship.
This post also paves the way for our upcoming War Diary for the Second World War, commencing in September 2019.
(1) It was determined that they were clearly buried as part of a highly public funeral rite, with no intention of recovery, so that ownership passed to the finder (rather than hidden in secrecy with the intention of later recovery, in which case they would have been deemed treasure trove and thus assigned to Crown ownership).