Diary of the War: June 1918

A tale of two ships

History has a habit of repeating itself, not least at sea. Today’s First World War wreck has a namesake with a very similar history in the Second World War: both vessels were owned by the same firm originally and were likewise lost to enemy action on Admiralty service in English waters, both with significant loss of life.

On 13 June 1918 HMS Patia was sunk by in the Bristol Channel in a position said to be 25 miles west of Hartland Point, while on service as an armed merchant cruiser. She was built in 1913 for Elders and Fyffes (of banana fame), whose early 20th century ships took advantage of modern refrigeration technology to transport bananas across the Atlantic to ensure fruit reached market in peak edible condition.

A photograph of her sinking is in the Imperial War Museums Collection online.

Their second Patia, built in 1922, entered Admiralty service first as an ocean boarding vessel, then underwent conversion to a fighter catapult ship. She too was sunk on 27 April 1941 off Beadnell Point, Northumberland, by an aerial attack, but not before her crew had downed the attacking aircraft – continuing the theme of mutually-assured destruction covered in last month’s post.

It’s worth reiterating that the War Diary has showcased the war service of many of the world’s commercial shipping fleets during the First World War, and these companies would reprise that service during the Second.

Wartime deployment would depend to some extent on their original civilian roles. We have already seen how trawlers became minesweepers, Scandinavian colliers were requisitioned and redeployed in British collier service, and ocean liners became troopships and hospital ships – and also armed merchant cruisers, a form of vessel we have not hitherto covered in the War Diary.

Patia‘s speed as a specialist banana carrier made her suitable for carrying out this auxiliary naval role, which she successfully performed from November 1914 right up until 13 June 1918, armed with 6 x 6in howitzers and 2 x 3pdr anti-aircraft guns. She served principally in the North Atlantic between Scotland and Iceland, and from 1917 took up convoy escort duties. Her logs survive up till 30 April 1918, showing that in February she had escorted a convoy home from Dakar (Senegal) before docking at Avonmouth on the 25th for maintenance. Subsequent entries reveal “chipping and painting” over the next month, that is, getting rid of rust before applying a fresh coat of paint. (1)

No further logs survive, highlighting one of the key difficulties in researching the events of a century ago. As usual, the Admiralty press release was extremely brief, hiding the location of loss:

‘The Admiralty on Monday night issued the following: – H.M. armed mercantile cruiser Patia, Acting Captain W. G. Howard, R.N., was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on the 13th inst.

‘One officer and 15 men, including eight of the mercantile crew, are missing, presumed drowned. The next-of-kin have been informed.’ (2)

The details which made it into the press at the time focused on the human interest aspect, including the deaths of local men, which had been depressingly regular reading in regional newspapers since the outbreak of war. For example:

‘CASUALTIES AMONG MIDLAND MEN.

‘The following additional particulars of local men killed have been supplied:-

‘Signalman William Harold B. Roe, RNVR, HMS Patia, lost his life through the Patia being torpedoed on the 13th inst. The elder son of Mr William Roe . . . he was educated at King Edward’s Grammar School, holding scholarships. On leaving school he entered Lloyds Bank and rapidly progressed. On January 10, 1918, he was married to Miss Alice Williams . . . ‘ (3)

Likewise, the Western Daily Press reported:

‘A Portishead man, Mr Leslie Victor Atwell, lost his life in the ill-fated Patia. He was a naval reservist and joined up on the outbreak of war. He was 35 years of age, married, and previously an employee of the Docks Committee.’ (4)

More happily, another feature referred to the ‘Exciting Experiences of Famous Young Walsall Violinist’:

‘One of the able seamen who was saved from the Patia was Harold Mills, Walsall’s brilliant young violinist. He arrived in Walsall after a short stay in an English hospital, and in a chat with a representative of the Observer, spoke on all subjects except his being torpedoed.’

It emerged that he spent an hour in a boat which then picked him up and transferred him to an American destroyer. Mills gave good copy:

‘Most of his kit was lost, including his violin, but, as he philosophically expressed it, it was not his best.’ (5)

The stories of the two Patias are not wholly similar, however. The second Patia is almost certainly identified off the Northumberland coast (6), whereas the location of the 1918 Patia is not fully clear.

A site formerly attributed to Patia has since proved to be the Armenian, another First World War casualty of 1915, identified by her bell. (7) Patia is now believed to lie in a different location in the Bristol Channel, itself further west than the stated position of 25 miles west of Hartland Point, although such positions are not necessarily reliably expressed. That site’s charting history reaches back to 1928 but no further: this does not necessarily preclude its identification with Patia, since, after all, many First World War vessels have only been discovered in recent years. (8)

The submarine which attacked the first Patia in 1918 was herself sunk in August of that year off Start Point by HMS Opossum. The Heinkel responsible for sinking the second Patia in 1941, and shot down in its turn, has to date not been located.

(1) https://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-08-HMS_Patia.htm

(2) Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 21 June 1918, No.7,160, p5

(3) Birmingham Daily Post, Thursday 20 June 1918, No.18,738, p7

(4) Western Daily Press, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.18,728, p6

(5) Walsall Observer, and South Staffordshire Chronicle, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.2,591, p3

(6) UKHO 4390

(7) UKHO 16089

(8) UKHO 17227

 

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Diary of the War: May 1918

Side by Side in the North Sea

The Admiralty issued a brief press release on 4 June 1918:

“One of H.M. destroyers was sunk on the 31st May, after being in collision. There were no casualties.” (1)

B&W photograph of ship in port broadside view, smoke billowing.
Destroyer HMS Fairy © IWM (Q 38854)

An unfortunate but trivial incident, since all hands had fortunately survived? Not quite.

The ‘HM Destroyer’ in this press release was HMS Fairy, 355 tons, under the command of Lt. Geoffrey Howard Barnish, RNR, sister ship to HMS Falcon, 375 tons, commanded by Lt. Charles Lightoller RNR, survivor of the Titanic (see previous post on Charles Lightoller). Falcon had been lost just weeks earlier after a collision with HM Trawler John Fitzgerald, 235 tons, during convoy esort duties on the North Sea coast.

In the early hours of 31 May Fairy was also on convoy escort duties in the North Sea, together with six armed trawlers and an armed whaler. However, history was not quite about to repeat itself.

Barnish considered that a destroyer escort should be “to seaward and a little abaft the beam of the rear ship of the convoy.” (2) In this way the escort could steam rapidly forward to the scene of any attack, rather than be forced to double back to deal with the attacker.

He was relieved to round Flamborough Head, for he considered a U-boat  attack on a convoy south of Flamborough Head unlikely, because of the shoals in the area. That is enough information for us today to realise that it was a southbound convoy and thence to guess at its likely composition, so we can see why Admiralty press releases gave so little away. Statistically, however, his confidence was misplaced, and a cursory glance at wreck site remains for 1914-18 reported near Flamborough Head demonstrates that approximately half were indeed attacked south of Flamborough. (3)

That same night UC-75, displacing 417 tons on the surface, and under the command of Walther Schmitz, was also on war patrol seeking a target north of the minefield she had just laid to the south off the Outer Dowsing Shoal. A southbound convoy, laden with valuable cargo for London, presented a suitably attractive opportunity for an attack.

The convoy found her first. Around 2am, SS Blaydonian struck UC-75 as she passed overhead. As a southbound collier, she was laden with coal and low in the water, so UC-75 received quite a hefty blow that sounded to Barnish as if his worst fears had been realised with a torpedo fired among the convoy and he left his station to investigate.

Over on UC-75 the damage to her conning tower prevented the hatch being properly shut, leading to water ingress and forcing her to surface. In the meantime the convoy steamed on – to inflict more damage in the dark. SS Tronda was a Norwegian flying the British flag under the Shipping Controller (she would survive the war and revert to Norwegian ownership), and as was typical for Norwegian vessels under these circumstances, she went where she was most needed, on a coal run. She too ran over UC-75. Then the SS Peter Pan, owned by Furness, Withy & Co., one of the chief shipping companies in the coal trade, and therefore also a laden collier, was the next to strike UC-75. We can imagine the submarine reeling under each blow like a punch-drunk boxer on the ropes.

On arrival at the scene it was not yet clear to Barnish whether the submarine was friend or foe. There was sufficient history of U-boat operations off the Yorkshire coast and the apparent sound of a torpedo attack to make an enemy identification all too plausible, but there was still some doubt. Despite the report, there was no evidence of an actual attack and there was also the  basic knowledge that British submarines were known to be operating on secret missions out of the northern ports.

In that new age of modern warfare, Barnish made his decision with the information he had available. He turned to an ancient tactic – he moved to ram his target, weaponising his vessel should the submarine prove to be German, but astern, a manoeuvre which would allow the crew to escape and avoid loss of life, should it prove to be British.

What happened next is not fully clear: Barnish and Schmitz’s versions were necessarily coloured by their respective viewpoints and the order of events has also been interpreted differently by subsequent commentators. Barnish then heard voices shouting ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’, identifying the vessel as a U-boat, and proceeded to ‘order the coxswain to port the helm in order to hit her in a more vital spot’, but he felt that they were too close for that manoeuvre to be effective. (4) According to another (secondary) version, these voices were heard after the impact. (5)

Barnish recognised that the Fairy was probably damaged in this first pass but nevertheless renewed the attack, ordering the U-boat to be raked by gunfire as Fairy turned to ram the submarine once more, with the U-boat returning fire. Fairy‘s bows struck the U-boat aft of the gun, crumpling up on contact, so that they were under water within seconds and two of the German crew were able to climb from one vessel to the other, while others were picked up by Fairy. Not all, however, and Schmitz would go on to interpret the speed of the renewed attack and the accompanying gunfire as aimed at the crew in the water, as well as at their vessel. (6)

At this point in the war the seas off Flamborough Head (and elsewhere) were regularly perturbed with scenes of wartime strife. Similar allegations against U-boat crews would surface in early July with the discovery of a boat washed up at Flamborough, carrying dead bodies which bore signs of wounds inflicted by gunfire after getting into the boat. (They were identified as from the Madeleine, a French lugger damaged, but not, in fact, sunk, by UB-40 on 2 July 1918.) (7)

Reverting back to the events of 31 May, another life and death struggle was about to take place. Generally speaking, vessels lost in English waters either to accidental collision or deliberate ramming demonstrate that the colliding/ramming vessel usually escaped relatively unscathed, with the force transferring to the vessel in contact, but occasionally the force is so great that the former also sinks. (8) So it proved to be in this case: Fairy had taken on an enemy larger and more robustly built than herself and paid the price.

Barnish and his crew quickly realised that their ship was sinking too rapidly to make any attempt at beaching feasible, the nearest land being at least 10 nautical miles away, so the crew were sent off in the boats, along with the prisoners, who were thus shipwrecked for the second time in less than an hour. Barnish and two signal ratings remained behind to signal a message saying that they were about to abandon the vessel, then swam to a Carley float. All the British crew would survive, but only 14 out of 31 of UC-75‘s men would survive their double shipwreck to be picked up.

B&W photograph of men in uniform around an inflatable liferaft.
Men gather round their Carley float during a boat drill aboard HMS Widgeon, on convoy duty in the North Sea, during the Second World War. © IWM (A 18444) This scene would have changed little, if at all, from 1918, when Barnish and his two crew were forced to make use of their Carley float in the escape from HMS Fairy.

Barnish and his crew were decorated in 1918 and received prize bounty money in 1920 for this action. (9) Schmitz was made a prisoner of war and would die in the flu epidemic of 1919.

And still UC-75 and Fairy lie half a mile apart SE of Flamborough Head, sites of mutually assured destruction. Both have been identified by internal and structural evidence (identification on propellers in the case of UC-75 and the telegraph and pressure gauges in the case of HMS Fairy) and external damage. (10) Despite being struck by Blaydonian, UC-75‘s conning tower was reported in 2016 as still intact, while Fairy‘s bows bear the scars of her attack on UC-75. She lies seaward of UC-75, just as, a century ago, she had kept station seaward of her convoy.

 

(1) Widely reproduced in the UK press, for example, in the Newcastle Journal, 5 June 1918, p6.

(2) Barnish’s own words, reproduced in Dorling, T (“Taffrail”). 1931 Endless Story: being an account of the destroyers, flotilla-leaders, torpedo-boats and patrol boats in the Great War London: Hodder & Stoughton

(3) National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database: 2018

(4) Dorling 1931; Edinburgh Gazette 20 September 1918, No.13,323, p3498

(5) Termote, T. 2017 War Beneath the Waves: U-boat Flotille Flandern 1915-1918 London: Unicorn Publishing Group

(6) ADM137/3898, German submarines UC-48-94: papers concerning details of vessels, interrogation of survivors, photographs and ship’s book of UC-92 (The National Archives, Kew)

(7) See, for example, the Scotsman, 6 July 1918, No.23,431, p7; uboat.net

(8) National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database: 2018

(9) Dorling 1931: Edinburgh Gazette, 20 September 1918, No.13,323, p3498; 25 May 1920, No.13,598, p1305

(10) UK Hydrographic Office reports 8971 (UC-75) and 8974 (Fairy).

Diary of the War: April 1918

Luisa

Over the course of the War Diary on this blog, the featured wrecks have illustrated the twists and turns of the war away from the Western Front. Today’s wreck is no exception: the Spanish steamer Luisa, torpedoed by UB-74 off Pendeen lighthouse on 12 April 1918, while bound from Barcelona to Liverpool with a general cargo.

Built in 1897 as the Tyneside collier Minerva, she was sold on into Spanish ownership under the same name in 1899, and ten years later was sold on again to the Cia Naviera Sota y Aznar of Bilbao, who renamed her Aizkarai Mendi. Each ship in their fleet was evocatively named in Euskera (Basque) after a different mountain (mendi) in the Basque country. 

Aizkarai Mendi was sold on once more in 1915 to become Luisa for a family firm whose main business was timber. Spain was neutral during the First World War, a stance which opened up her shipping to commercial opportunities which companies such as Luisa‘s owners Hijos de José Tayà were quick to seize. Bilbao’s exports of iron ore were much in demand from both sides requiring raw materials to turn into war materials, and Luisa became the first in the family’s fleet. (1) The Tayà fleet would go on to expand rapidly over the course of the war with vessels which, like the Luisa, were bought up from other fleets.

As we have seen in previous articles, neutrality was no guarantee of safety at sea, and finding ready markets on both sides carried the risk that the belligerent powers would each seek to hamper the other’s trade, and U-boats began to target Spanish shipping. The news from Madrid broke in Britain a fortnight later, in the context of three Spanish ships ‘sunk in a period of four days’, including the Luisa ‘with a cargo of coal’. (2)

‘The indignation in maritime circles is enormous . . . A very energetic protest has been made to the Government by M. [sic] Señor Taya, the owner of the Luisa, who demands the immediate seizure of all German vessels now lying in Spanish ports.’ The U-boat attacks were attributed to reprisals for the ‘diplomatic check sustained by Germany in the matter of the commercial agreements concluded between Spain and the Entente nations’.  In further news from Madrid, clearly seen as connected, the next paragraph goes on to reveal that the ‘German submarine U.C. 48, which sought refuge in a Spanish port in a damaged condition, has been interned.’ (3)

More details on the wreck event emerged as the survivors arrived back at Barcelona in late May. In a telegram to the Spanish Prime Minister, Señor Tayà described the circumstances. Luisa was torpedoed ‘unarmed, neutral, and flying the Spanish flag’ in ‘full daylight at one o’clock in the afternoon’ while ‘following French and British steamers with a view to avoiding mines,’  the French vessel 3 miles ahead and the British a quarter of a mile ahead. ‘The submarine, however, kept at a respectful distance from the foreign steamers, as they were armed.’  (4)

After being torpedoed, the Luisa sank within a few minutes with three men killed in the engine-room, but the remainder of the crew were rescued by two British patrol vessels. ‘The owners of the lost vessel fully expect the Spanish Government to make a claim on Germany and in the meantime to seize a German steamer of equivalent value.’ (5)

As the U-boat campaign against Spanish shipping continued, the Aznar company would go on to lose Anboto Mendi off Runswick Bay, while en route from Bilbao for Middlesbrough with iron ore on 10 May 1918, and the Tayà company’s ship Villa de Soller would be sunk in the Mediterranean on 15 May 1918. Ten days later, the U-boat which had attacked her sister ship Luisa would be depth-charged by HM Yacht Lorna off the Bill of Portland.

 

(1) García Domingo, G. 2007 “El impacto de la Primera Guerra Mundial en la marina mercante española: un apunte sobre el caso catalán (1914-1922)”,  Transportes, Servicios y Communicaciones, No.13, 122-144; Lowry, C. 2009 At what cost? Spanish Neutrality in the First World War MA thesis, University of South Florida

(2) Cambridge Daily News, 25 April 1918, No.9,269, p4

(3) Ibid.

(4) The Scotsman, 7 May 1918, No.23,279, p3; Londonderry Sentinel, 25 May 1918, no issue number, p4, republishing in translation a contemporary article in El Sol.

(5) Ibid.

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

 

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:

Diary of the War: February 1918

HMS Brown Mouse

If ever there was a name that sounds most unlikely for a warship, this is it. The Brown Mouse was no Dreadnought, Implacable or Dauntless . . .

Yet she went to war and what better cover could there be than such an innocuous-sounding name? All of 42 tons, she was built as a Brixham trawler, and launched in February 1908, official no.125110, a detail which might seem trivial or boring, but I’ve included it for a reason. (1)

In her original register entry Brown Mouse was described as a trawler, and assigned a fishing number of BM 276, but from the outset it seems that she was owned by the same man who later operated her as a yacht, Evelyn Pearson. (2) At least one other example of a yacht built on Brixham trawler lines still survives on the National Register of Historic Vessels. This vessel is the Golden Vanity, which was built in the same year at the same yard, Sanders & Co. of Galmpton, for the marine artist Arthur Briscoe, and this vessel was assigned the very next official number in the sequence. (3)

She appears to have fished locally at least in 1909, since during that year she was crewed by four or five men, with William Kingdom of Brixham as skipper. (4)

She was then fitted with an auxiliary steam engine by Simpson, Strickland & Co. of Dartmouth in 1910, whereupon she was re-registered, again at Brixham, due to the ‘material alterations’. She was no longer described as a trawler in the new registry, and it may be at this point that Evelyn Pearson and Brown Mouse became “regular” visitors to Brixham. (5) 

Then the war came and Evelyn Pearson joined up in September 1914, becoming a captain in the 12th Battalion, King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. He would have been about 39, but he had previous soldiering experience in the Lancashire Fusiliers in the 1890s. (6)

In the meantime, the development of the Q-Ships as, effectively, fisheries protection vessels, had begun during 1915, as fishing smacks were targeted off the east coast, as described in our July 1915 post. Similar attacks took place thereafter on a fairly regular basis on the North Sea and Channel coasts, with enemy activity intensifying at intervals.

Protection against mass sinkings of the fishing smacks came from among their own: one vessel from each fleet would be commissioned as a ‘Special Service’ vessel to guard their fellows engaged in fishing. Their diminutive size inevitably led to their designation as ‘Q-smacks’, but they were no less ‘Special Service’ vessels for that. Some even engaged U-boats directly, as Inverlyon had done in defending the Lowestoft smacks, covered by one of our past blog posts for August 1915.

Sadly Captain Pearson was killed in action in Flanders on 8 January 1916, at the age of 41. (7) The next phase of his yacht’s history is slightly unclear. Her registry at Brixham was closed on 27 November 1916 ‘in consequence of material alterations’, with her prior ownership stated as Captain Pearson, Thomas Kirkland Rylands, and the Hon. Earl Stanhope, and on the same day her ownership is recorded as transferred to H F Eastick of Great Yarmouth. (8) Eastick had already lost other vessels during the war, such as the Copious in 1914. Brown Mouse would not have been the first or last Brixham trawler to have transferred to the Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth fleets. 

It seems, however, that she would remain within her familiar waters in and around Brixham, rather than in service with Eastick, for one month later she was a ‘Special Service’ vessel. Perhaps Earl Stanhope, who was involved in the War Cabinet, had drawn official attention to her as a suitable vessel for the purpose.

Despite Inverlyon‘s success, it wasn’t always possible for the Q-smacks to defend their charges. On 8 June 1917, another sailing Q-smack, the Prevalent, was unable to assist when four Brixham smacks were sunk in the fishing grounds off south Devon, in full view of Start Point. One of those vessels was the Onward, built in 1907, and assigned an official number of 125101. Other vessels also assigned numbers from the same batch of official numbers allocated to Brixham, all built locally at around the same time as Brown Mouse and Golden Vanity, had also fallen victim to German submarine attacks: Markum on 17 April 1917, Boy Denis on 26 April, and Rupee on 4 October 1917.

One contemporary writer suggested that the Prevalent incident prompted the retrofitting of an auxiliary motor engine aboard Brown Mouse. (9) With her existing engine it is more likely that she was identified as a suitable candidate capable of speeding to the site of any trouble with enemy submarines, and replaced the Prevalent on the Brixham station.

However her participation as a Q-smack locally came about, the circumstances of her loss suggest that Brown Mouse was out on patrol with the Brixham trawlers on 28 February 1918. Unlike the other vessels with whom she was registered, however, she was not a war loss and so is not mentioned in many of the standard sources. Details of what happened next were given by the skipper of another local trawler, the Leonora Minnie, who had a narrow escape when the Brown Mouse caught fire and seemed headed for his vessel, the worst nightmare for any skipper of a wooden vessel, but, fortunately, she cleared the Leonora Minnie’s bows. Brown Mouse was subsequently ‘lost by fire off Berry Head’, with the local RNLI being called out to assist, a service which cost them £24. Fortunately, it seems that no lives were lost on this occasion. (10)

Trawler, yacht, and Q-Ship: small, as her name implied, Brown Mouse was sufficiently versatile to operate in all three roles, and to do so locally in every case. Her story highlights a mini-landscape of war off Brixham, in which fishing vessels came under attack, leisure cruising ceased, and small ships took on a modern enemy.

With many thanks to John and Sandie of Brixham in Pictures for their kind assistance with this article.

Black and white photograph of the interior of a boat, with a fisherman landing baskets of fish.
A fisherman landing his catch from a Brixham trawler in the 1950s. The photographer, John Gay, was interested in recording traditional working lifestyles that were heading towards obsolescence. AA087818. Copyright Historic England

 

(1) Her tonnage is variously cited, dependent on source: see, for example, British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1914-18, Section I, p26 (HMSO, 1919) stating 42 tons, following the vessel’s register books, whereas other source state 43 tons, such as the Brixham Heritage Sailing Trawlers Archive

(2) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Sea-Fishing Boats, 1902-1979 DSR/BRI/2/1; Registry of Shipping and Seamen, Cardiff, MNL Appropriation Books, Official Nos. 125101-125150, accessed via the Crew List Index Project

(3) Description of her build as on sailing trawler lines, from The Marine Engineer and Naval Architect, Vol. XXXIII, August 1910, p24; National Register of Historic Vessels, Golden Vanity, as another such vessel

(4) Devon Archives and Local Studies, transcripts of crew lists, 20 May to 30 November 1909, List A3, and 1 July to 31 December 1909, List D, both referenced to 1976/BROWN MOUSE/125110, and both accessed via the Crew List Index Project

(5) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Shipping 1894-1917 DSR/BRI/1/4; The Marine Engineer and Naval Architect, Vol. XXXIII, August 1910, p24; Western Times, 27 January 1916, No.20,771, p3

(6) Gloucestershire Echo, 18 January 1916, [no issue number] p2; London Gazette, 11 August 1893, No.26,431, p4577; London Gazette, 8 June 1897, No.26,860, p3201

(7) Commonwealth War Graves Commission record for Captain E H M Pearson; Western Times, 27 January 1916, No.20,771, p3

(8) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Shipping 1894-1917 DSR/BRI/1/4; Brixham Sailing Trawlers Heritage Archive

(9) Keble Chatterton, E. 1922 Q-Ships and their Story. London: Sidgwick and Jackson

(10) Brixham Heritage Sailing Trawlers Archive; Western Times, 4 February 1919, No.21,170, p5

 

Diary of the War: January 1918

HMHS Rewa

This week we look at a wreck in the Bristol Channel which was first published in most British newspapers on 10 January 1918, six days after the ship was lost on 4 January.

Rewa was built as a liner in 1906 for the British India Steam Navigation Co., along with her 1905 sister, Rohilla, both vessels named after provinces of India. Their careers paralleled one another: both were converted from passenger service to troop transports, taking part together in the Coronation Fleet Review, 1911, and on exercises in 1913 off the Humber. (1) From transport service it was but a short step on the outbreak of war to conversion to hospital ships. Both would be lost in that service and Rohilla was featured in the War Diary of October 1914.

From 1915 onwards Rewa would become one of the familiar sights of the Gallipoli campaign, transporting men out from Suvla Bay to the depot at Mudros (Greek Moudros) to hospital at Alexandria or Malta, or back home. (2) On her final voyage she was bound from Mudros to Avonmouth via Gibraltar, where she had been inspected by a neutral Spanish observer to ensure her bona fides as a hospital ship. (3) There are some conflicts in the numbers on board, but the usual figures given are 207 crew, 80 medical personnel, and 279 wounded men (making a total of 566), although contemporary newspapers gave the rounded figures of 550 and 560. (4)

On his first patrol of the New Year was Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Werner of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) in U-55 off the coast of Cornwall. (5) For almost a year now, Germany had waged unrestricted submarine warfare, torpedoing ships without warning, but, by the terms of the Hague Convention, hospital ships were exempt from attack. They were distinctively painted with a white hull and the internationally recognised symbol of the Red Cross, and were to be lit in the dark for night recognition. The Rewa was accordingly proceeding up the Bristol Channel, ‘brilliantly lighted’ as demanded by the convention. (6) The Captain stated: ‘We had our Red Cross flag up and our lights had been lit at sunset – viz., steaming lights, navigation lights, and Convention lights, and they had remained and were alight at the time of the explosion. All the lights were electric. The ship was hit abreast of the funnel on the port side, as near amidships as possible.’ (7)

Thus when Werner fired the torpedo which caused the explosion off Hartland Point in the Bristol Channel, he must have known that he was contravening the Hague Convention. The captain had seen suspicious lights just before the torpedo struck, and ported his helm, but had not verified the identity of the vessel before the torpedo actually struck. (8)

The explosion is said to have extinguished the lights (many newspapers reported that a fortuitous find of a candle afforded some light, although, less dramatically, emergency candle lamps as a backup system were, in fact, lit) (9) and the ship began to settle. Fortunately for the evacuation, the vessel remained on an even keel before she finally sank, the sea remained calm, and there was time to send a distress call. Within 20 minutes everyone was on board the ship’s boats, even the ‘cot cases’ who were unable to fend for themselves. Given the dark and the imperative for haste, it was impossible for everyone to gather up sufficient clothing to keep warm while exposed to a cold night on the sea.

‘One of the nurses gave all her heavy garments to cover the men who were very ill, and remarking this an officer transferred to her his overcoat’, according to one account that was widely repeated across the press. (10) The number of nurses aboard was put at three, which seems a very small number amongst such a large medical staff with so many patients to look after. (11)

Even as they bobbed about on the sea, the little flotilla of lifeboats kept together on the captain’s orders and burned flares to attract attention – another factor in the survival of so many. (12)

Miraculously, only three men were initially reported missing, believed killed in the explosion in the engine-room, but, in fact, four lascars of the Indian Merchant Service were killed and are commemorated on the Bombay 1914-1918 Memorial, Mumbai: Usman Ghulam Qadir, trimmer, Ali and Said Ahmad Umar, both firemen, and Sultan Shah Azad, paniwallah (water-carrier). (13)

‘Another steamer and three trawlers were speedily on the scene’, although ‘speedy’ might have been a relative term since they were in the water for three hours before being picked up. (14)

The rescue vessels belonged to the Swansea Patrol and survivors were accordingly landed there. (15) The Western Daily Press described the ‘piteous’ sight as survivors came ashore,which moved onlookers to tears: ‘a procession of maimed and limping men, some on the backs of others and all without boots, wended its way under willing hands of helpers to the Coal Exchange . . . all business being suspended, while others were taken to leading hotels . . .’ (16) Some of the survivors were suffering from shock and wounds sustained in the explosion: one of the rescued lascars was reliving the fire in his mind, and another man went about all day without complaint until collapsing in the evening, when he was found to have several broken ribs. (17)

Eighteen survivors were taken to the Dan-y-Coed Red Cross Hospital (18) while others were despatched onwards to Southmead Hospital in Bristol. (19) It seems that Dan-y-Coed was a specialist in prosthetics made by a member of staff, so perhaps that was where some of the ‘maimed’ men ended up. A Dr Harrison was himself a hospital case with dysentery. Another medic, one Dr Lambert, had served since 1915 aboard Rewa at Gallipoli and had found romance and marriage in 1917 with one of her nurses, Alice Lockhart. He was with Rewa to the bitter end, receiving compensation for the medical instruments he had been forced to abandon on the sinking ship, but it is not yet known if his wife was also aboard at the time. (20)

The official German position cast doubt on the possibility of a submarine attack and suggested that a mine had been responsible for sinking the vessel, but the news triggered worldwide condemnation. As it was the Rewa would be cited as a war crime for which Wilhelm Werner was held responsible, although he would ultimately escape prosecution for this and other attacks on shipping.

The lights may have gone out on the Rewa as the torpedo struck, but, a century on, we are able to shine a light on some of those affected, whose stories are not always told in the accounts of shipping losses during the First World War: ordinary men and women, British and Indian, patients and crew, walking wounded and those severely ill and maimed.

Poster with text 'What a Red Rag is to a Bull - the Red Cross is to the Hun', with image of a U-boat and a torpedo track towards an illuminated red cross on a ship.
British propaganda poster of 1918. The striking of the Rewa amidships led to accusations that U-55 had fixed on her painted red cross as a target. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13547)

 

(1) Online sources frequently state this as the Coronation Review of 1910, but 1910 was the year of George V’s accession, not his coronation. The review took place in June 1911; see, for example, The Times, 26 June 1911, p10. For the Humber exercises, see, for example, The Sphere, 2 August 1913, Vol.LIV, No.706, p11.

(2) Casale, F. 2008. “Dr John Lambert on HS Rewa at Gallipoli”, Proceedings of the History of Anaesthesia Society,  Vol.39, 2008, pp20-24

(3) i.e. that she was not being used for any military purpose. Spanish confirmation of their compliance, and of British compliance with the conditions of the Convention, was received from the observer who disembarked at Gibraltar. The Scotsman, 16 January 1918, No.23,284, p5

(4) New York Times, 10 January 1918, p1; The Times, 11 January 1918, No.41,684, p5; Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6

(5) For the dates of U-55‘s patrol on this and other occasions, see https://uboat.net/wwi/boats/successes/u55.html

(6) Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1918, No.19,577, p5

(7) Birmingham Daily Post, 10 January 1918, No.18,602, p2

(8) ibid.

(9) Newcastle Journal, 14 January 1918, No.22,657, p5

(10) Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6

(11) Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1918, No.19,577, p5

(12) Birmingham Daily Post, 10 January 1918, No.18,602, p2

(13) Commonwealth War Graves Commission

(14)  Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6; Birmingham Daily Post, 10 January 1918, No.18,602, p2

(15) Crawford, J. 2014. GGAT 130: First World War Scoping Study: Glamorgan and Gwent: a report for Cadw pp99-100

(16) Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6; Revd R G James, British and Foreign Sailors’ Society https://www.sailors-society.org/about-us/press-room/rewa/

(17) Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1918, No.19,577, p5

(18) Powell, C. nd. Caring within the Community: Mumbles Red Cross Hospitals

(19) Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6

(20) Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 10 January 1918, No.15,682, p4; Casale, F. 2008. “Dr John Lambert on HS Rewa at Gallipoli”, Proceedings of the History of Anaesthesia Society,  Vol.39, 2008, pp20-24