VE Day

Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on 8 May 1945 we look at the very last craft of any kind to be lost off the coast of England.

The last few months of the war saw a significant decline in shipping and aircraft losses over the sea attributable to war causes. The last six weeks of the war saw 10 shipping casualties to war causes in English waters. Over the same period there were 6 aircraft lost to non-war causes (mechanical failure or accident, for example).

The seventh and last aircraft, and last loss of the war in English waters, was the exception, and a war loss, despite its peaceable mission – just one day before the celebration of Victory in Europe. And it is to events in Europe we must turn first of all to understand the mission of the last aircraft of the war to find a grave with most of its crew in England’s territorial sea.

Background:

As the end of the war approached, there was real desperation in the occupied Netherlands after the arduous Hongerwinter [“Hunger Winter”) of 1944-5, of whom one of the best-known survivors was the actress Audrey Hepburn, whose mother was Dutch and who grew up in the Netherlands.

The Hongerwinter arose from a terrible combination of circumstances, any one of which on its own would have been bad enough Although the Allies pushed ahead after breaking out from Normandy, the objective of Arnhem in the Netherlands in September 1944 during Operation Market Garden proved a ‘bridge too far’. Attempted strikes by Dutch railway personnel led to retaliation by the occupiers, preventing food supplies from getting through, and when this blockade was lifted, there were overwhelming obstacles to overseas relief efforts. Although the Allies had managed to capture Antwerp in September 1944, it was several weeks before the port could be used and, even if it had been in use earlier, the the occupied western provinces of the Netherlands with the greatest population density,  and least agricultural land, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam, remained cut off. The canals and rivers froze early that winter and fuel for lorries was scarce. Limited relief supplies from neutral Sweden and Switzerland had helped a little but the situation remained dire. (1) 

Sepia pen and ink wash of seated woman in hat with a boy and a girl in the background.
‘They have taken all, and our food’, Netherlands. Eric William Taylor, 1944, purchased by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Taylor would go on to record the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.  © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 4989

The relief effort: 

Even as the Allies closed in on Berlin and the end of the war in Europe, they were able to refocus from a purely offensive approach towards a relief effort and the rebuilding of a new Europe. The Lancasters of the RAF and the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF based in England, which had so recently been deployed on bombing missions were perfectly suited to dropping food parcels to the Netherlands, and thus Operations Manna (RAF) and Chowhound (USAAF) were born.

Historic B&W photo of six men loading the sacks, their uniforms streaked with escaped flour.
Operation Manna: Ground crew of No.514 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, loading cement bags filled with foodstuffs into the bomb bay of a Lancaster bomber, 29 April 1945, destined for those parts of Holland still under German occupation. © IWM CL 2490

It was a massive logistical effort which drew upon the resources of the Allied airfields of East Anglia at very short notice from mid-April 1945, with the situation becoming urgent against German resistance and the risk of further deliberate flooding both of agricultural fields and transport infrastructure a real possibility. There were no spare parachutes available, so safe conduct for low-level food drops was arranged, to begin in late April 1945.

Black & white photo of Dutch citizen waving at three aircraft flying low over a town.
Dutch citizens wave as food is dropped from Lancaster bombers over the Netherlands in April 1945. Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst Eigen © Nationaal Archief, CC0 120-0739

The mission: 

Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640 of the 334th Bomber Squadron, 95th Bomb Group, set out from USAAF Horham in Suffolk on 7 May 1945, the day after the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands and the day before Victory in Europe day. Along with its precious cargo of food there were 13 on board, including observers from the station’s Photographic Section, all anticipating a routine mission.

Nose and two engines of silver aircraft inside a hangar with white roof.
A B17G Flying Fortress under restoration at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, Georgia, USA. Jud McCranie, CC BY-SA 4.0

Following a successful drop 44-8640 turned for home. There were still pockets of resistance from the occupation forces, which is believed to have had a bearing on subsequent events. No. 2 engine was reported as ‘running rough’, with smoke and oil, thought to originate from rogue flak fired by the occupation forces at the aircraft in the IJmuiden area. (2) 

According to a crashed aircraft recovery specialist based at RAF Ford, Sussex, in 1944, crew would nurse their crippled aircraft, whether shot up, suffering mechanical failure, or simply running out of fuel, back from overseas missions to the English coastline, but would then often be forced to crash-land at or near the nearest available base, unable to make it back to their home bases. (3) 

As the situation worsened, the crew of 44-8640 realised that reaching the coast was going to be impossible and, fearing an explosion, they baled out over the sea off Suffolk, in the vicinity of Benacre Ness or Southwold, with one survivor recalling that the engine dropped away in a ‘ball of flame’ as he got away. The aircraft then fell into the sea.

Two men were picked up alive by a Catalina flying boat after some time in the water, and it is their testimony that enables us to know what happened to 44-8640, but the remainder of the crew were killed, including the observers.

Commemoration: 

Those of the crew whose bodies were recovered were interred at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, Cambridge, but others were never found and are presumed entombed with the aircraft on the seabed.

Five aircraft seen in a blue sky with angel h
Detail of a mosaic on the ceiling of the chapel at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, depicting aircraft being escorted by angels. James O Davies DP180621 © Historic England Archive

This, the final loss of any craft in English waters to war causes, was also one of the cruel tragedies of the war: to be shot at over the Netherlands and to keep the aircraft airborne so many miles only to lose the battle so close to the English coast, and all on a humanitarian mission. Somewhere off the coast lie its remains, which are yet to be discovered but which are automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Victory in Europe was, perhaps, a collective sigh of relief, but it was not the end of the war, which would only come in August 1945 with VJ Day. It was a victory achieved at a huge human cost which has left legible traces in the historic environment – the destruction of historic fabric from London to Coventry and beyond, the legible traces in standing buildings from the suburban semi to national museums, the construction of military installations that have since become ‘historic’ in themselves, the legacy of commemoration – and the remains of ships and aircraft on the seabed, lost to war causes over the years from 1939 to 1945.

References: 

(1) For more detail on this subject, see Sutch, A. 2016 “Manna from Heaven”, RAF Museum blog, online

(2) Onderwater, H. 1985 Operation Manna/Chowhound: the Allied food droppings April?may 1945 Netherlands: Unieboek

(3) Oral history testimony, Ronald Cant (RAF Corporal, 1942-1946) as told to his daughter in reminiscing over D-Day, 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diary of the War: February 1940

Blackburn Botha L6111 

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)

Historic B&W photograph of Blackburn Botha aircraft parked facing with its nose prop to the left in front of the gables of a hangar.
Blackburn Botha Mk I L6107, stablemate of L6111, at the Torpedo Development Unit, RAF Gosport © IWM (MH 131)

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.

(1) The National Archives (TNA), Records of the Aircraft Torpedo Development Unit and Projectile Development Establishment and successors; TNA AVIA 16/54; Aviation Safety Network, Wikibase Occurrence #71958, last updated 2018; MH (131)

(2) Aviation Safety Network, Wikibase Occurrence #71958 (2018); Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives, Crash of a Blackburn B-26 Botha off Ryde (nd)

(3) Aviation Safety Network, Wikibase Occurrence 153107, last updated 2018

(4) UKHO 19602

(5) Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986, Application of Act: Section 1, Paragraph 1

(6) Holyoak, Vince, and Schofield, John, Military Aircraft Crash Sites: archaeological guidance on their significance and future management(English Heritage, Swindon, 2002)

 

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

 

Diary of the War: December 1917

Shot Down off the Coast

By December 1917 the citizens of London were used to air raids at regular intervals: it was terrifying enough, although nothing like on the scale of the Blitz of the Second World War. The wreck highlighted today in this month’s War Diary is representative of a new form of accident out to sea which would become more prevalent as aerial warfare developed.

On 18 December 1917 another raid was carried out by around 16 to 20 aircraft of Bogohl 3. (Bombengeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung, High Command Bomber Squadron, also known as the Englandgeschwader, or ‘England Squadron’.) Two groups of Gotha bombers flew in over Kent and Essex around 6.30pm with the aim of bombing London. Some of the bombers got through and inflicted damage on Lincoln’s Inn which can still be seen today.

Nevertheless, after the cumulative experience of several raids, there were now several lines of defence which prevented all the raiders reaching London. Firstly, anti-aircraft guns swung into action and turned at least some of the enemy away. Secondly, barrage balloons were moored to protect London, a response more usually associated with the Second World War. One contemporary headline, ‘Barraged Gothas’ implies that the balloons were a major factor in preventing the majority of the Gothas from reaching London. (1)

Blue sky dominates the upper two-thirds of this painting, with small barrage balloons dotted high up in the sky. Below them are plumes of smoke from the factories hidden in the background. In the foreground a flat green agricultural landscape with trees.
The Balloon Apron, Frank Dobson, 1918. Barrage balloons float high over the flat Essex landscape. Stretching high into the sky are smoke plumes from factories, including Kynoch’s munitions factory. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2001)

At this point I made an unexpected discovery and this is where I digress briefly. I’d already earmarked Frank Dobson’s image as an illustration to this post, having seen it in an exhibition earlier this year, and saw then the balloons protected Kynoch’s munitions factory. (2) Researching this article, I then discovered that this same factory at Corringham, Essex, was targeted early on in this specific raid. (3) Nor was this the only coincidence. One of the supervisors at that very factory was my grandmother – and I wonder now if she was there at the time or had already gone home for the day! (Here’s a photograph of female workers at Kynoch’s: my grandmother is the girl in the sailor suit.)

The third line of defence was aerial combat. Fighter pilots from the Home Defence Squadrons also took to the air to challenge and intercept the raiders, among them Captain Gilbert Ware Murlis Green of No.44 Squadron, Hainault Farm, Essex, in his Sopwith Camel. (4) Up he went in his single-seater to duel with the three-man Gotha bomber, crewed by Oberleutnant G von Stachelsky (pilot), Leutnant Friedrich Ketelsen, and Gefreiter A Weissman. Three times he went in to attack, and then, blinded by his own muzzle flash, he was forced to pull away, while the searchlights that made the Gotha visible to him also made him a target for its return fire. His fourth attack found its mark.

Green had not immediately downed his opponent, but damaged it enough for it to be doubtful if it could return across the Channel. The press took up the tale: ‘One raider was hit by gunfire and finally came down in the sea off the Kentish coast, two of its crew of three men being captured alive by an armed trawler.’ (5) 

As the aircraft crossed the coast, observers noticed it sounded as if it was flying low, and therefore clearly struggling, and then the sound of its engines was heard to cease suddenly out at sea. The “All Clear” was then sounded, followed by an offshore explosion shortly afterwards. Searches found the stricken aircraft and the trawler picked up von Stachelsky and Weissman, but Ketelsen had perished in the incident.

Ketelsen was a Danish-minority German from Pellworm in Schleswig-Holstein. A very interesting website, mostly in Danish, commemorates the Danish minority reluctantly mobilised into the German forces, with a page dedicated to Ketelsen. His name appears on a hand-painted memorial tablet which is very moving to see (if you follow the line across from the lower left-hand column to the right it leads easily to his name).

As for the rescued men, much was made of their youth and demeanour: one of the prisoners was described as ‘very sullen and dejected’, as well he might have been. (6)

It would have been absolutely freezing exposed at several thousand feet high on a cold December night, and the sea would have been no better. The two rescued crew were very fortunate to live to see another Christmas, even if it wasn’t exactly how they planned to spend it!

Black and white photograph of soliders standing around a crashed aircraft with a prominent black cross on its tailfin.
Last month’s post has a connection with this month’s, as Portuguese and British troops inspect the wreckage of a German Gotha G.IV heavy bomber (similar to the one brought down off Folkestone) downed in the Portuguese sector, France. © IWM (Q 64432)

 

(1) Sheffield Daily Telegraph, No.19,485, Thursday 20 December 1917, p5

(2) Imperial War Museum, catalogue entry for The Balloon Apron, suggests that it depicts balloons over Kynoch’s factory at Canvey Island. However, Kynoch’s presence on the island was in the form of a hotel and powder hulks located just offshore, but no factory. Kynoch’s factory was at Corringham, Essex, and, given the multiple factories depicted in the background of the painting, it appears more likely that the image shows the industrial landscape around Corringham. See also: Penn, J. nd. The Canvey Explosives Scheme of 1875: Dynamite Hulks and the Canvey Hotel

(3) Castle, I. nd Zeppelin Raids, Gothas and Giants: entry for 18 December 1917

(4) Castle, I. 2010 London 1917-18: The Bomber Blitz Oxford: Osprey Publishing; The Aerodrome forum. nd Gilbert Ware Murlis Green

(5) Chelmsford Chronicle, No.7,997, Friday 21 December 1917, p4

(6) Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, No.12,382, Thursday 20 December 1917, p2

Diary of the War No.20

L15

In the second part of our Zeppelin double bill, we turn now to the tale of L15 as a counterpart to the story of L19 and Franz Fischer in Part 1. Like L19, L15 was a veteran of the raid on the West Midlands of 31 January/1 February 1916, and had, unlike the former, returned safely from that operation. She would survive to see two more months of activity.

Her final operation, together with six other Zeppelins, was planned for the week beginning March 31, when there would be minimal moonlight. (1) Admiral Scheer’s signal, briefing the German High Sea Fleet on the impending raid on southern England that night, was intercepted by British intelligence and a minesweeper tracked the Zeppelin, sending a report to Lowestoft. The British naval machine swung into action, with destroyers taking station off the east coast, just as the raid began over Essex and Suffolk.

L15 crossed the coast over Suffolk and, according to the later British official history, ‘followed the track of the Great Eastern Railway towards London, dropping a few bombs on Ipswich and Colchester as she passed’. As she lumbered south-westwards over the Thames ‘she was heavily engaged by the numerous anti-aircraft batteries’ on both the north and south banks at Purfleet, Erith, and Plumstead. L15 was forced to jettison her bombs over Rainham and turn back towards Germany, but not before the Purfleet battery had scored a hit.

The disabled Zeppelin was then intercepted by Alfred de Bathe Brandon of the Royal Flying Corps at Hainault, in a BE 2C biplane: he climbed above his target, attempting to bring her down by means of Ranken darts, a specific anti-Zeppelin weapon designed to pierce the skin of the hull. The airship then circled over Foulness, Essex, and dropped away, crashing into the sea near the Kentish Knock.

Colour image of Ranken dart next to its casing plate.
Ranken anti-Zeppelin dart, © IWM (MUN 3278)

It has been a matter of speculation ever since whether the Purfleet gun battery or Brandon’s action was ultimately responsible for the Zeppelin’s demise, or whether it was the combination of the two that made her the first Zeppelin to come down within English territorial waters. Official sources say nothing about a small explosion on board, but contemporary newspapers suggest that the crew had drawn lots as to who would be the last to stay behind after the rescue and blow up the airship, which would have meant almost certain death for the unlucky crew member. (2)

Oil painting of the hulked Zeppelin against a red and orange sky reflected in the sea with the black hulks of vessels in attendance.
St George and the Dragon, Donald Maxwell, 1917, depicting the downed L15 in the Thames. © IWM (IWM ART 888)

 

In the event, no self-immolation occurred, although, as the patrol trawler Olivine approached, a small explosion in the motor room was noted just before the Zeppelin crew surrendered. (2)

In contrast to the story of L19, the crew were not left to their fate by the trawler. All but one of the crew were rescued by the Olivine, and taken prisoner, although one had drowned before he could be picked up. But then the Olivine was not out alone in the remote expanses of the North Sea, but in a busy shipping lane bristling with warships and civilian vessels alike. The Zeppelin came down ‘in a flotilla of net drifters’ which the Olivine was guarding (1) and other patrol vessels were nearby: ‘That stretch of water . . . swarms with patrolling craft.’ (2)

‘She came down like a sick bird, flopping at both ends as though they were wings’, said one witness. (2) An hour and a half later, destroyers from the Nore tried to take her in tow but the operation was fraught with  difficulty, since ‘her stern was under water, the envelope was partly broken, and her back was broken.’ (1) After proceeding a very short distance, she collapsed and sank within hours of coming down,  but was eventually salvaged off Westgate, Kent.

The crew were taken to Chatham and the New York Times conducted an interview with the prisoners at the barracks, interrogating them on the impact of the raids and the loss of life among civilians, particularly women and children, so that on the whole the authorities’ decision to allow access to the prisoners resulted in a pro-British piece in the US press.

It turned out that Lieutenant Kuehne had been married only 8 days previously and he ‘was rather surprised to learn that his captors would allow him to write a letter to his bride. He confessed that he had no idea that the British could be so sympathetic.’ (3) He also sent his greetings to a London newspaper editor whom he had met before the war, demonstrating that there was still a residue of the mutual cordiality of pre-war Anglo-German relations. One final detail that emerged from the interview was that the night had been so cold and the Zeppelin flying so high that it was coated in frost and they ‘suffered severely’.

I’d like to end this blog on a personal note. Zeppelins would continue their raids on England in 1916 and beyond: for me these raids are only two generations away. My paternal grandmother went to see the site of another Zeppelin which came down at Great Burstead, Essex, in September 1916. She found the wreck guarded by policemen and soldiers but was profoundly shocked on arrival to see that the soldiers had already looted pieces of debris and were selling them to the public! This was hardly surprising since souvenirs from L15 are also known to survive, with several being in the collections of the Imperial War Museum, London (no images available).

(1) Naval Staff Monographs No.31, Vol. XV: Home Waters: Part VI: From October 1915 to May 1916, pp178-180. Admiralty, London

(2) New York Times, April 2, 1916

(3) New York Times, April 3, 1916

Diary of the War No.19

Franz Fischer

Interned German vessels have been a recurring theme or leitmotiv in this Diary of the War blog. This month’s double bill begins with another example, the Franz Fischer, detained as a prize at Sharpness in 1914, and the doubts over her manner of loss.

It is a story that exemplifies the dangers of the sea as the war drew near to its half-way mark, with terror from above and a message in a bottle.

As with most other detained prizes, Franz Fischer helped to fill the gaps in the ranks of sunken colliers, being one of 34 ships managed as colliers for the Admiralty by the Newcastle firm of Everett & Newbigin.(1) (Ironically she was the ex-British Rocklands, sold to Germany in 1913.) Despite reverting to Britain as a prize, she retained her recent German name, and it was as the Franz Fischer that she set off on her final voyage from Hartlepool on 31 January 1916, bound for Cowes with 1,020 tons of coal.

Around 9.30pm the following evening, having been informed that there were mines to be seen ahead, Franz Fischer prudently joined a group of laden vessels at anchor off the Kentish Knock Buoy.

What happened next was shrouded in some mystery. At 10.30pm Franz Fischer was rocked by an explosion amidships and sank within a couple of minutes at most. Only three men out of her 16-strong crew – a seaman from Newfoundland, the chief engineer, from Tyneside, and the steward,  a Londoner – survived to be picked up alive by the Belgian steamer SS Paul, by which time they were ‘close to collapse’, having heard the cries of other survivors gradually dying away overnight. (2)

Their story was told by Alfred Noyes in his serial for the Times, “Open Boats”, (3). (His radio drama of the same name was published in the New York Times as a powerful illustration of the sufferings endured by torpedoed crews.) The crew heard a noise approaching from the SE, which appeared to go away, then became ‘deafening’. As they investigated in the ‘black dark’ they were knocked off their feet by a ‘great mass of sea water which had been heaved up by the explosion.’ One survivor described an eerie sense that there was an aircraft ‘circling overhead in the darkness, dropping closer and closer to the vessel, like a great night-hawk’, the noise ‘several express trains all crossing a bridge together’ followed by a brief silence, then the explosion.

The chief engineer managed to swim to the lifebelt box, which rolled over when some of the crew tried to get onto it, so he decided to swim away. He managed to grab a lifebelt before passing out in the water: when he came to, he was aboard the Paul. (3)

The British press kept a beady eye on their German counterparts in a war of words that mirrored the physical war. The Wolff Bureau circulated a press release to German news outlets, claiming that the Franz Fischer had been sunk by a Zeppelin returning from the raid on England. The raid is well-documented, taking place on the night of 31 January to 1 February, so even at the Zeppelins’ lumbering speed they had already crossed the North Sea by the time the Franz Fischer was attacked.

All except one. L19 had engine trouble and crashed into the North Sea, where she was eventually found by a British fishing vessel, the King Stephen. The trawler crew rejected appeals from the Zeppelin crew for rescue, fearing that they would be overpowered and their vessel hijacked. The last heard from L19 was a despairing final report cast away in a bottle, dated at 1pm on 2 February, ‘wohl die letzte Stunde’, ‘at our last hour’. This message would wash up on the Swedish coast some 6 months later.

Front cover of French newspaper, with colour pen and ink illustration depicting an airship upended into the sea against a sunrise.
The front cover of Le Petit Journal, 27 February 1916: the headline reads “Punishing the Pirates”. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The trajectory of L19 can be reconstructed, from the Midlands (although the crew believed they had targeted Liverpool) to the east coast at Winterton, Norfolk, well north of the Kentish Knock, whence she drifted as far east as the Dutch coast. Anti-aircraft fire from the Dutch drove her away again and she came down in the North Sea.  The wreckage was eventually discovered some 120 miles off the Spurn, so her wanderings throughout appear to have been too far north for her to be Franz Fischer‘s nemesis.

The most likely cause of the explosion was not from the air but from below. UB17 was in the area, and her Kriegstagesbuch, ‘war diary’ or log book survives (4) noting an attack on a steamer at the Hoofden (the Kentish Knock). The first torpedo missed her target, but the second struck, sinking her within a minute and sending up a ‘column’ of smoke. This sounds close to British accounts, and by the time the official history of the war had been written in the 1920s, the wreck had been attributed to UB-17. The official history of the war at sea also came to the same conclusion: UB-17 was responsible, since ‘no enemy aeroplane or seaplane from Belgium is known to have gone out that evening; and probably the aircraft heard was one of our own.’ (5)

One hundred years ago the survivors of Franz Fischer felt themselves overshadowed by an aerial presence, which had nothing to do with the loss of their ship. L19 has overshadowed the story ever since. However, recent research and retranslation of the very difficult Suetterlin script of the original Kriegstagesbuch has uncovered that the first torpedo not only missed the target, but also misfired. ‘No track was to be seen: it was a dud.’ Could this misfiring have been part of the ominous noise heard by the survivors?

With especial thanks to Thomas Foerster,who transcribed the Kriegstagesbuch, and helped unlock its meaning, and to everyone who helped in various ways with this story – Angela Middleton and Marion Page of Historic England, and Matt Skelhorn of the MoD.

(1) Hansard, 2 June 1919

(2) Times, 4 February 1916, No.41,081, p.7

(3) Times, 23 December 1916, No.41,358, p.4

(4) UB-17 Kriegstagesbuch, 22 January-6 February 1916, Deutsches U-boot Museum, Cuxhaven

(5) Naval Staff Monographs No.31, Vol. XV: Home Waters: Part VI: From October 1915 to May 1916, pp62-5. Admiralty, London