On this blog I’ve occasionally discussed the ‘fog of war’, whereby participants in a military or naval engagement are unable to make clear decisions or correctly identify friend from foe: their minds are clouded by the rapidly evolving situations they find themselves in without necessarily having all appropriate information to hand to make a fully-informed decision. Those decisions may, in turn, be informed by previous war experience, for good or ill.
Sometimes a ‘fog of war’ situation has the misfortune to take place wholly or partially in a physical weather fog, or even to be caused by it – which naturally then exacerbates the consequences of events as they unfold.
On the afternoon of 15 October 1918 the Q-ship Cymric was on patrol in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast, acting on reports that a U-boat was operational in the area. Having already seen and dismissed two friendly submarines, it was apparently a case of ‘third time lucky’ when a submarine with a U-prefix was seen close by.
Cymric fired at short range and continued firing even as members of the submarine’s crew climbed out and tried to make signals by firing rifles or waving a white cloth. All these were interpreted as deceptive or hostile actions, of which Cymric‘s commander and crew had had prior experience, by the very nature of their Q-ship activity, pitting the wits of one side against another. The only course of action open to the submarine was to retreat into a fog bank, which only reinforced the impression of suspicious behaviour.
She was pursued by Cymric, and as they appeared on scene they found survivors coming up alongside their vessel from the submarine, now in a sinking state. As Cymric‘s crew realised the survivors were sporting not German cap tallies, but British ones, their mission turned from war to rescue. However, only 15 men came out alive from HMSM J6, as the mystery submarine proved to be.
It was a case of mistaken identity, stemming from something simple: the crew of J6 were apparently unaware that some debris hanging outside their conning tower mirrored their J prefix, making it look for all the world like a U – which was then fatally misinterpreted by Cymric.
It was a sad example of ‘friendly fire’, made all the sadder by occurring as the long war moved inexorably towards the Armistice just a few weeks later. Ultimately the J6 was forced to contend that day with both a fog of war and a sea fog which hampered visibility. Despite the fact that the Cymric was the author of the J6‘s misfortunes, it is perhaps as well that she did pursue the supposed U-boat into the fog bank, or her victim’s loss might have passed unseen, and it might have been a long time before her crew were picked up, if at all.
The wreck has been located in recent years in the North Sea east of Seahouses: see this BBC report, 2014.
This week my guest blogger is Izzy Daone, Maritime Information Officer at Historic England, who is on her way to pastures new. We wish her well, but in the meantime, here is her blog which demonstrates how wrecks illustrate historic connections between places.
Over to Izzy:
My recent travels to Ukraine and the port of Odessa inspired me to examine records we hold for wrecks within our waters with a connection to the city. Odessa’s port was Russia’s main grain exporting centre during the 19th century. Two particular wrecks caught my attention; the first registered to the port of Odessa and an environmental disaster, and the other a Scottish snow which stranded on her passage from Odessa to Gloucester – a well-known trade route.
We begin with the wreck of the Blesk, a 2026 ton oil tanker which stranded on Greystone Ledge, Devon on the 1st of December 1896. She was a Russian ship, as at this time Odessa belonged to Russia rather than Ukraine, and was owned by the Russia Steam Navigation Trading Company.
On her final voyage, she docked at Istanbul carrying 3180 tons of petroleum and took on coal. She then sailed to Gibraltar where she loaded yet more coal. Poor weather conditions and unfortunate human error bought about her wrecking. In stormy conditions, the master of the ship identified what he thought was a French lighthouse. It was however, not the French lighthouse he believed it to be. It was the Eddystone, a large rock topped with a lighthouse approximately 14 miles south of Plymouth. Adjusting the vessels course to the north, the master continued on what he thought was a safe passage into the North Sea.
It was not to be. She struck the Greystone Ledge, near to Ramillies Hole. The crew fired distress rockets and prepared to abandon ship. Despite the rough seas and freezing temperatures, the crew were reached by lifeboats from Hope Cove and Salcombe. All 43 of the crew were saved.
The morning revealed the first occurrence of oil pollution in South Devon, with much of the vessel’s cargo having spread along the coast. The Blesk disaster is one of the earliest oil tanker environmental incidents on record. Interestingly, newspaper articles contemporary with the event fail to mention the environmental impact of the leaking oil which is in stark contrast to how society would react to a similar incident today.
The second of our Odessa wrecks concerns the wreck of the Caledonia, a Scottish snow which stranded en route from Odessa to Gloucester with a cargo of wheat. There is a long established trade link between Gloucester and Ukraine which grew considerably when the Corn Law was repealed in 1846, allowing more foreign exports and causing the enlargement of the dock area. (1) Indeed, a pub in Tewkesbury is named the ‘Odessa Inn’; the name a possible acknowledgement of this established trade relationship of the 19th century.
The Caledonia had started her journey in Rio de Janeiro and was loaded with coffee, headed for Syria, Smyrna and Constantinople. From here, she docked at Odessa and loaded her cargo of wheat and began her final passage to Gloucester. On the 7th of September 1842 she left Falmouth for the final leg of her journey. She would never reach her destination.
That night a strong north-north-westerly wind caused the Caledonia to strike upon the rocks at Vicarage Cliffs, Morwenstow. All but one of the crew were lost; evidence names survivor to be Edward De Lain. His eight ship-mates were buried in Morwenstow churchyard, marked by the Caledonia’s figurehead. A replica of the figurehead now serves as a grave marker, the original having been moved to the church for safekeeping.
De Lain is said to have believed the ship was unlucky and claims three ill-omens (in the eyes of 19th century sailors) occurred prior to her wrecking; a black bag brought aboard by the cook, a bucket lost overboard and she had set sail from Rio de Janeiro on a Friday. For our records however, the loss of this 200-ton vessel has been attributed to the poor weather conditions she encountered as she sailed toward the Bristol Channel.
Although both of these wrecks tell very different tales, they both serve as a reminder that things we consider recent phenomena – large scale food and oil imports – actually go back a long way and have left their mark on the landscape. The UK still continues to trade with Ukraine today, with operations continuing at the port of Odessa. Data provided by the Government Statistics Agency of Ukraine shows that in 2015 the UK was their 11th biggest trading partner. (2)
(1) ‘Gloucester, 1835-1985: Economic development to 1914’, in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester, ed. N M Herbert (London, 1988), pp. 170-183. British History Onlinehttp://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp170-183 [accessed 19 September 2018].
This month’s wreck commemorated in the War Diary for September 1918 is one of our occasional features which was not a war loss as such (i.e. not lost to enemy action), though she was lost on war patrol and is an example of a vessel specifically built for the war in large numbers.
She was ML247, one of three very large orders totalling 580 motor launches, placed by the Admiralty with the motor yacht specialist Elco of New Jersey, USA, small and fast, intended for anti-submarine duties.
On 29 September 1918 four motor launches entered St. Ives Bay for shelter during a gale, which then veered to the NNE, increasing to hurricane force. This turned the rocky north Cornwall coast into a lee shore towards which the 86ft long wooden craft were in danger of drifting in high seas. One in particular, ML247, got into difficulties as she developed problems with her engine.
To us today it seems extraordinary that these small wooden craft were equipped for warlike purposes with a 3pdr gun, depth charges – and a petrol engine. (They were no more extraordinary, however, than the contemporary aircraft which flew into battle with fabric coverings over wooden frames.) It was the petrol engine developing 19 knots that gave the motor launches their advantage over the U-boat, the fastest of which could only proceed at 17 knots on the surface and were far less speedy when submerged.
By the time the St. Ives lifeboat reached Clodgy Point, the vessel had struck the rocks and with her petrol engine and depth charges, had blown up on impact with the loss of all but one of her 11 crew. Nevertheless one man was washed up and rescued on the shore by Sgt Henry Escott, who was awarded the RNLI Silver Medal for his rescue, while the lifeboat crew were also rewarded for their gallant if unsuccessful attempt to save life in the teeth of the NNE gale. Two of the lifeboat crew subsequently donated their awards to the Cornwall Branch of the Red Cross. (1)
Among the dead was her commanding officer Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, who had commanded ML286 (which survives to this day in Isleworth, and whose story is told here by Antony Firth of Fjordr Ltd.) A professional artist, he had also served at Gallipoli, and many evocative sketches and paintings by him survive – indeed, I used his paintings to illustrate the War Diary blog of March 1918 on the theme of dazzle camouflage.
He also painted this view depicting a torpedoed steamer ‘off the Longships’, showing a vessel whose dazzle camouflage had apparently done little to protect her. As far as I know, the vessel in the painting has never been identified, probably because of the title. However, the view does not depict the Longships, a group of rocks off Land’s End. The view is instead of Cornwall’s rocky coast opposite the Longships, looking north, suggesting that the vessel was perhaps beached after being torpedoed off the Longships.
The only vessel fulfilling these criteria in 1918 is the SS Beaumaris, which was torpedoed on 7 February 1918 and which was steered for Whitesand Bay, not far from the Longships, in a sinking state, finally being run ashore by the master and wireless operator after everyone else had managed to escape. There is some artistic licence for the purposes of the composition, particularly the distinctive dark rock in the background, but there is no other vessel that matches these criteria. Despite the camouflage, she fits the typical profile of a collier or tramp steamer, which we know was the case with the Beaumaris, operated by the coal shipping firm of Furness, Withy and Co., and carrying coal at the time of loss.
We can therefore be reasonably certain that this is the Beaumaris, with a viewpoint approximating to Sennen Cove lifeboat station. She was largely demolished in situ, but the occasional trace remains even today.
The crew in the ship’s port lifeboat were picked up by a patrol vessel and it is tempting to wonder if Allfree had been involved in their rescue, or whether he had simply seen the vessel while on patrol and come back to have another look. We can imagine that a breezy and chilly spring walk and the resultant painting were pleasant diversions from war patrol.
As part of our occasional summer season (and before the summer comes to a final end) with a leitmotif of German wrecks, I’d like to turn now to the Rickmers Line, which had its origins in the shipbuilding firm founded by Rickmer C Rickmers in 1836. Rickmer Rickmers was born and bred to the sea in Heligoland in 1807, the son of a fisherman and pilot, and learned the trade of ship’s carpenter, which led naturally to the establishment of his shipbuilding interests. In turn this developed by mid-century to a shipowning empire, which specialised in the grain trade – rice from the Far East and wheat from the United States.
Inevitably his ships had to pass through the English Channel as they went to and fro on their oceangoing voyages, with consequent losses. We have records for four Rickmers ships lost within English waters. The earliest wasEtha Rickmers, named after the owner’s wife, lost in September 1870 with all hands on the Goodwin Sands en route from New York, last from Queenstown, with coffee, tobacco, and staves for Rotterdam.
She overtook a ship in the Channel on the 9th, whose master then recognised a ship in distress off the Goodwins on the 10th as the same vessel, as he himself arrived in the Downs. On the 11th she struck and part of the wreckage was described as “an American-built ship of between 700 and 800 tons, painted black and copper fastened, and apparently from two to three years old. The upper portion of the copper was painted green, the lower mast and bowsprit white, the double topsail yards scraped bright and the rigging was of wire.” (1) As descriptions go, this wasn’t a bad one, for the Etha Rickmers was only four years old.
The next loss did not concern the company, as it involved one of their former ships which had, however, retained the name of Ellen Rickmers when sold on in 1875. This ship sank off Plymouth while inbound with a cargo from Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1882.
Two years later, the crew of the Deike Rickmers (named for the owner’s mother) spent what must have been a cheerless and exhausting Christmas Day when their barque stranded and broke her back in snow squalls on the Long Sand off Harwich. They were fortunate because the new lifeboat house at nearby Walton-on-the-Naze had just been commissioned, on the 18th of November 1884. (2)
Thus one of the earliest services of the Walton lifeboat was to attend the Deike Rickmers in the dark of Boxing Day morning, picking the men up at 8am. It took them nearly 12 hours to battle back to shore with all 25 hands from the Deike Rickmers saved. History does not record whether both rescuers and rescued were treated to a slap-up Christmas dinner, but they all surely deserved one!
The final ship of the Rickmers Line lost within English waters was the steel full-rigged ship Erik Rickmers, homeward-bound to Bremerhaven with rice from Bangkok. She struck Scilly Rock in the same dense fog that also led to the loss of the French barque Parame, in October 1899. She remains SE of Scilly Rock, where she struck more than a century ago. It may have been this loss, among other reasons, that prompted the sale of the line’s Far Eastern ships to Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1899. (3)
The history of a German mercantile family can be traced in wrecks around the coast of England.
(1) Liverpool Daily Post, 19 September 1870, No.4,732, p7
It gives me great pleasure this week to welcome our guest blogger Philip Ashford of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, with his blog considering the documentary evidence for a wreck of the early 1640s at Minehead.
The period leading up to the English Civil War was one of high political and religious tension at home and abroad. Given this, the reporting of wrecks was very low priority, despite the fact that trade continued and, besides naval movements, troops were moved by ship. Wrecks from the 1640s are therefore under-represented in the record.
Philip’s blog uncovers part of a much bigger story from that period, a tale of refugees who suffered shipwreck. He writes:
Mysteries regularly become more intriguing and opaque after a little investigation. Inevitably, the more that is known, the more questions arise, perhaps never to be fully or completely answered.
Such a mystery surrounds the fate of the Swallow as it arrived at Minehead Quay: even its date is somewhat unclear. In October 1641 an Irish rebellion by Catholics against Protestant settlement began, and as it intensified Protestants and their goods were evacuated from Munster to England or Wales by ship. The trail of the Swallow begins with the depositions in late 1642 of surviving Protestants referring to events at some point in late 1641 or early 1642.
Robert Fennell, a merchant of Cork shipping butter, beef, Irish wool and ‘Irish Freize’, a form of coarse woollen cloth, from Cork to Minehead during the latter 1630s and in January 1642 in various Irish and Minehead vessels,  claimed to have lost personal items in the Swallow.
Fennell stated on 5 August 1642 that he had stowed his ‘shop goods’ on the Swallow which was ‘droven a ground att the kay of Mynhead and ther sunken, being overflowen with watter, ‘droven’ implying that a storm was responsible for the wreck. Fennell thus suffered a further £200 loss of goods beyond those he had already lost through the rebellion from his farm and corn in the ground at John’s Town, Cork ‘on or about Candlemas last past’ (2 February), suggesting the shipment of his goods after that date. 
Also on board the same ship were goods and books belonging to the archdeacon of Ross, Thomas Frith, books that had been left him by his late brother, a Cork gentleman. Frith stated that the Swallow ‘had overset by the key of Mynhead’ and his books and goods were underwater for two days and therefore lost. 
It is also probable that books belonging to William Chappell, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, were stowed in the Swallow. Chappell had escaped the uprising by taking a passage from Dublin to Milford Haven in December 1641. Eventually he arrived in Bristol in March 1642 to be greeted with the news that a ship sailing from Cork to Minehead with his effects and precious books aboard had been ‘lost near Minehead’  in an incident with striking similarities to the Swallow.
Ships can only enter Minehead harbour at high tide. It appears that the Swallow might have been approaching Minehead but was unable to delay its arrival, because of strong winds, until the correct state of the tide, the anchors clearly not holding as it was driven towards the shore.
A first mystery is whether the Swallow was wrecked and broken up or whether it grounded and ‘overset’, but was then salvaged once both saveable and ruined goods had been offloaded. There is an indication in Frith’s testimony that his goods were removed after two days. Given that both Fennell’s and Frith’s depositions state that the incident took place at or near Minehead Quay, it is certain that at low tide the vessel would have been lying on pebbles or sand which stretch for hundreds of metres to the north of the quay, so it would have been possible to remove goods from the stricken vessel and, using blocks and tackle, right the ship. However, no documentary reference to either eventuality, wreck or salvage, has been found. All that we can say for certain is that the vessel certainly underwent some sort of damaging event.
A second mystery is the identity of the Swallow. As so often at this time, there was more than one vessel of that name and a similar mystery concerns the identity of a vessel known as the Swan, implicated in the wreck of 1653 at Duart Point.  Fennell stated in his deposition that the ‘Swallowe’ was ‘my Lord Waricks’ vessel. Robert Rich (1587-1658), second Earl of Warwick. was commander of the Parliamentary fleet from May 1642. This Swallow of 160 tons, 150 men and 34 guns,  appears in a number of historical documents. Parliament voted in November 1641 that it should be one of the armed vessels that accompanied troopships to Munster  but it is not clear when it arrived on station. On 17 December 1641 Sir William St Leger wrote to the first Earl of Cork relating to his idea of loaning money for the ‘setting forth’ of the Swallow, so it appears it had not arrived in Munster by then.  It is likely that the first escort duty was, however, in February 1641/42,  and it was off the Irish coast in March 1642.  For certain, the Swallow remained on station off the Irish coast during the summer of 1642.  The vessel saw further action in the Bristol Channel area including taking part in an assault on Tenby in 1644,  and also seems to have been off Kinsale and the southern coast of Ireland again in 1648.  It is known that ships of the Royal Navy did organise the rescue of people and goods to the Somerset coast during this time of difficulty. For example, on 3 April 1642, under the warrant of Captain Kettleby, 145 people were disembarked at Minehead from Kinsale in the Curteen of London, John White master.  Kettleby was none other than the Captain of the Swallow.
So, was Fennell correct? Was it the Swallow of the Parliamentary Navy which foundered off Minehead? If so, there is no record of the affair found so far. If the incident did relate to this Swallow, it was clearly salvaged and back in operation in a very short time. It is certainly the view of Elaine Murphy, who has researched and published significant work on the Navy at this time that the Swallow involved was not one of the ships of the Parliamentary Navy. 
A number of overseas customer and controller port books remain for Minehead for the 1630s and 1641-2. It is clear from these, that neither Minehead nor ports in Ireland such as Cork or Youghal owned a ship named Swallow trading with Minehead at the time. In fact, no Swallow appears in any of those port books as having entered or left Minehead with customable goods except one entry. On 15 February 1641/2 the Swallow of London, 80 tons, Henry Forms master, entered Minehead from Cork. February, of course is a winter month with increased possibility of stormy winds that might have driven the vessel ashore. Various entries in the port book show that it was carrying Irish wool, tallow and Irish frieze owned by various merchants but, significantly, the first mention of the vessel indicates that Robert Fennell had tallow and hides aboard.  Over the next four days the various goods belonging to other merchants were entered into the customs accounts. This eventuality was not unusual, but the particular length of the Swallow entries might indicate a speedy but difficult job of offloading, possibly at low tide across a beach from a damaged vessel on its side. For comparison, the 50-ton Abraham of Youghal which entered Minehead on the same day was still being unloaded well into March. Robert Fennell’s tallow and hides could have survived salt water submergence, but, as his original deposition indicates, other ‘shop goods’ he had on board, as well as the non-customable books belonging to Frith and Chappell were lost through water damage. The Swallow did not take on customable goods at Minehead to return to Ireland or sail to France as most vessels , and there is no coastal port book for Minehead for that year so the trail has gone cold. So the question remains, is the Swallow of London the likely candidate?
Other Swallows sailing in the Bristol Channel appear in various records in subsequent years. The Swallow of Youghal, a post-barque en route from Youghal to Bristol, was taken as a prize by the Spy frigate in June 1644, also the Swallow of Flushing was taken as a prize into Dungarvon in southern Ireland in 1649.  In the early 1650s there was a Swallow of Ilfracombe and a Swallow of Bristol. Both had dealings with Ireland.  If either of these Swallows is the candidate, then, as with the Swallow of the Parliamentary Navy, they operated after the event near the quay of Minehead, indicating the vessel was re-floated. However there is no real corroborating evidence to put any of these vessels ‘in the frame’.
Now there are several more than two Swallows, has summer arrived? Is it possible to properly conclude this mystery with a definitive statement? The best answer perhaps is as with unsolved police investigations, ‘the file is still open’. Hopefully, advances in research, if and when further evidence comes to light, will help bring the matter to a conclusion. However, given the fact that Robert Fennell had goods on the Swallow of Cork arriving in Minehead in February 1642 New Style, at the right time and the right place, this vessel seems to be the prime suspect. Perhaps the dislocation and stress of the rebellion caused Fennell to confuse his Swallows, as no doubt he would have been aware of the operation of the navy’s candidate in and around Cork and that his goods were to be embarked on the Swallow. Notwithstanding the identity, was the event an accident that was righted or a wreck that was broken up?
Many thanks to Philip for his researches on this one wreck event – which has improved our knowledge of wrecks for England as a whole in 1641-2 by 20% – which underlines how little we know about wrecks for the period unless they are involved with the political strife of the time.
 Fennell shipped butter and beef in December 1635, Irish wool in December 1636 and ‘Irish Freize’, in January 1642 from Cork to Minehead. TNA, E190/1088/12, 1088/15, 1089/9. Prior to the adoption of the modern Gregorian ‘New Style’ Calendar in 1752 in England and Ireland, the Julian Calendar continued in use, with the calendar and legal year running from 25th March to 24th March annually. Thus, in contemporary sources, 1 January 1641 Old Style was the day after 31 December 1641, i.e. 1 January 1642 New Style, not the first day of 1641.
 Robart Ffennell’s depositon. 1641 depositions, Trinity College Dublin found at http://1641.tcd.ie MS 824 234r.
 Thomas Fryth’s deposition. 1641 depositions, Trinity College Dublin found at http://1641.tcd.ie MS 825 124r. Frith does not name the vessel in his deposition of November 1642, so it is my reasonable assumption, given that the location, origin of the voyage and refugee context are clearly the same, that his testimony refers to the same event that Fennell mentions.
 A Kippis, Biographia Britannica 2, (London, 1748), 1284-5.
 C Martin, A Cromwellian Warship wrecked off Duart Castle, Mull, Scotland, in 1653 (Edinburgh, 2017)
 E. Peacock (ed.), The army list of Roundheads and Cavaliers: 1642 (London, 1874), 63, under the subtitle ‘His Majesties ships for the Irish seas’.
 M Lea-O’Mahoney, The Navy in the English civil war (University of Exeter D.Phil thesis, 2011), 33.
 A. Grossart (ed.), The Lismore papers: The private and public correspondence of Sir Richard Boyle, first and great Earl of Cork 4 (London, 1888), 229-30.
 C. McNeill, The Tanner letters: Original documents and notices of Irish affairs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Dublin, 1943), 302.
 W. Coates, et al, The private journals of the long parliament (1992), 406. There is no mention of the Curteen in Minehead’s overseas customs book of December 1641-December 1642 (TNA, E190/1089/9).
‘He has made several attempts to break our fence . . . ‘
Over the summer of 1918, following the German gains of the Spring Offensive on the Western front, things were changing rapidly as the Allies began to regain territory. The French counter-attacked on the Marne on 18 July, while from 8 August onwards the Battle of Amiens saw the Allies advancing, pushing the Germans back eastward in the final push, a period known as the 100 Days’ Offensive.
At sea too, things were changing rapidly, as demonstrated by UB-109‘s final voyage. Throughout the war the Straits of Dover had been a heavily contested area with high levels of submarine activity and both British and German minefields. Over 1917-18 the Straits were increasingly fortified both on land and at sea, taking advantage of new surveillance technologies and improving the Dover Barrage, which became a formidable defence against U-boats. (1)
At this stage of the war British newspapers were making bold claims about the success of the Dover Barrage: ‘The enemy has found it such an annoyance, and so great a barrier to the activities of his U craft, he has made several attempts to break our fence, but his attacks have only resulted in severe losses for him. Blocked by our old sunken cruisers, barred by the Dover barrier, and bombed without cessation from the air, the German Flanders flotillas have become almost useless.’ claimed one paper. (2)
Another stated: ‘All Ostend and Zeebrugge submarines have now been practically barred from going through the Straits of Dover. Those only capable of short distance work turned to the North Sea . . . The short distance fleet having been practically wiped out, Germany reinforced her Flanders flotillas with long distance submarines. These are not going through the Straits of Dover in any numbers. Some, manned by men of a sporting type, who volunteer to make a dash for it, do get through. We get others in the attempt.’ (3)
One of those who ‘got through’ was UB-109, which slipped out of Zeebrugge in the early hours of 28 July 1918. She was making a long-distance voyage for a U-boat of her UBIII class, which were normally used on coastal torpedo attack operations and as such were normally operational in the North Sea and English Channel. Under the experienced command of Kapitänleutnant Kurt Ramien, who had previously commanded UC–1 and UC–48, she was bound for an Atlantic patrol off the Azores.
It certainly required courage to negotiate the Dover Barrage, which could justifiably be described as a sea ‘fence’, as described in the newspapers. At this late stage in the war it was a double fence at either end of the Straits of Dover (illustrated Figure 9 in the UB-109 report) with a net barrage between the Goodwins and Dyck in Belgium to the north-east, reinforced by an array of deep mines SE of the South Foreland, as if it were a moat or trench behind the line. To the south-west the Folkestone Mine Barrage stretched between Folkestone and Cap Gris-Nez in France, broken only by the dangerous sandbank of the Varne. This barrage was laid in rows with mines in each row set at increasingly greater depths westward. so that submarines were either forced to surface, when they stood a great chance of being spotted by patrols, or dive, when they would be forced to battle through mines laid at varying depths.
Ramien and UB-109 just scraped through unscathed outward-bound, after lying submerged on the Bligh Bank off the Belgian coast during daylight hours. (4) The westward flow of the tide eased their passage through the barrage, but technical problems with the hydroplane motor forced them to break surface, where they were attacked by patrol vessels near the Folkestone Mine Barrage and forced to dive once more.
In the meantime, of course, this minefield presented an obvious problem for the British, Allied and neutral shipping which also had to pass through the Straits of Dover. There was actually a gap in the ‘fence’ just off Folkestone maintained for friendly shipping, known as the Folkestone Gate, and the depth of the mines was calculated to increase the risk to submarines and minimise the risk to surface vessels. However, while Ramien was out in the Atlantic, the British closed the ‘gap in the fence’ with a field of shore-controlled mines.
These defences were in place by the beginning of the second week of August. Some time after 8 August, UC-71 struck one of these new mines, but managed to limp through the barrage back to base and resume patrol in September 1917. Her escape alerted the German authorities to the new deployment and a radio warning was put out. (5)
For some reason UB-109 was apparently unaware of the warning as she began her return voyage after 16 August. Secondary sources attempt to explain this away by the removal of his radio masts but this is not substantiated in contemporary source material – could he simply have been out of range? His submarine’s return passage can be marked by her victims: one ship sunk on 19 August NE of the Azores, and two off the coast of Brittany on 25-26 August.
In the early hours of 29 August Ramien attempted once more to pass through the supposed ‘gate’. As usual in these First World War narratives, accounts of what happened next differ slightly, but essentially a patrol vessel blocking the ‘gate’ forced UB-109 to alter course and as the U-boat submerged she entered a shore-controlled minefield. It is also unclear exactly how the field was controlled: attributed either to a listening station at Shakespeare Cliff, Dover, or to a Bragg or induction loop (similar to modern assistive technology now employed in public places for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, although other sources attribute no operational successes to the Bragg loop until October 1918). (6)
British interrogation reports reveal that the survivors couldn’t hear each other as they tried to escape, temporarily deafened by the change in air pressure as water rushed in. (7) After a struggle to open the conning tower hatch, there was another struggle to get free as Ramien and two other survivors became wedged in together. Out of a crew of 36, only eight would survive, to be taken prisoner.
The wreck was found and buoyed ‘broken nearly in half’ on the following morning by the famous ‘Tin Openers’ (naval intelligence divers) who searched the wreck for any revealing material. Possibly because of secrecy surrounding their operations, there is no apparent history of the wreck being charted in 1918, however – the site would not be charted for another 60 years when it was rediscovered. It is seen to be lying in two parts, certainly at least characteristic of mine blast damage. More specifically, she is noted to have greater damage aft of the conning tower, consistent with contemporary ‘Tin Opener’ reports which noted this.
Her propellers are no longer in situ but reports suggest that one was stamped UB-109 and the other UB-104, possibly indicating a shortage of spare parts within the Flanders Flotilla in a service context (antedating the loss of UB-104 in September 1918). (8)
However, these propellers, which could hold the key to the vessel’s identification, remain untraced. There are some alternative explanations for the UB-104 reading: corrosion damage, superimposed numbering, or misreading of the stamp: numbers on metal from a maritime context can be extremely difficult to decipher (which we will cover again in a forthcoming post). On the balance of probabilities, this wreck is very likely to be UB-109.
(7) Messimer, D. 2002. Verschollen: World War I U-boat Losses Annapolis: Naval Institute Press; Wessex Archaeology 2015
(8) Wessex Archaeology 2015
(9) Endress, F. c.1919 (facsimile edition 2012) Handgeschriebene Schriften: Schriftenvorlagen für einfache und leichtauszufuhrende Beschriftungen in verschiedenartiger Anwendung, in der Technik, fur Gewerbe, Schule und Haus, auch fur den Selbstunterricht zusammengestellt Mainz: Verlag Hermann Schmidt
Q-ship Stock Forcewas the only ship to sink off the coast of Devon on 30th July 1918, despite her best efforts to sink the attacking U-boat. In fact it seems she may have been the only Allied vessel to have sunk anywhere in the world that day (although there were some unsuccessful U-boat attacks on the same day that damaged, but did not sink, the victims). (1)
Yet it could be said that Stock Force was not the only ship which sank as a result of that day’s engagement. There was a (very) delayed knock-on effect which came about through the post-war publicity generated by news of the event and the celebrity attached to her successor Suffolk Coast, which went on tour with the same crew. There were many popular naval memoirs, too, including Auten’s own. (2)
This suggested that even in the crowded market of wartime films a movie on the theme of Q-ships would be popular, and it was announced in late 1927. (3)
Its authenticity was a major selling point: ‘Reality and not “fake” will be the keynote of this production’. (4) Genuine and re-enactment footage were spliced together: as a review stated, ‘It is difficult to know at times when the “official topical” finishes and when the reconstruction of today starts, so fine is the production work and the editing.’ (5)
Harold Auten was a key stakeholder in the production: the film was largely based on his Q-boat Adventures and Stock Force‘s final battle, he was the film’s naval consultant, and he and five of his crew also reprised their wartime roles ten years on for the purposes of the film, together with ‘the actual gun’ from Stock Force.
After all, they had form as actors in keeping up the role of merchant seamen for months on end while on the lookout for U-boats! A U-boat captain, Hermann Rohne, was taken on board as U-boat consultant, while Earl Jellicoe played himself as Admiral Jellicoe of Jutland fame.
The cast was the easy part. Re-enacting naval engagements was much harder, with a number of practical hurdles to overcome. First of all, the 1917-built Southwick replaced Stock Force, now at the bottom of the sea.
There were no longer any genuine U-boats, which had all been surrendered in 1918-19 and broken up in the early 1920s as directed by the Treaty of Versailles. However, two obsolete submarines were placed on the disposal list in 1927 and H-52 was accordingly purchased by producer E Gordon Craig as a stand-in for a U-boat.
She was intended to be sunk in a set-piece battle off the Eddystone in January 1928. but she was very nearly wrecked en route to being sunk (and in this resembles the real U-boats so often taken in tow post-war for breaking, when the sea accomplished the task intended for the breaker’s yard: see our previous post on this subject).
Under tow out to sea, she missed the harbourmaster’s launch by inches, crashed into a jetty without somehow managing to set off the demolition explosives with which she was packed, then broke tow. Arriving on location, they were forced to turn back and nearly lost the craft again when she went aground. (6)
On the final successful attempt, the submarine lay off the Eddystone, while guns from the Southwick, representing the Stock Force, fired 8 rounds into H-52, sinking the submarine and reversing the fortunes of the original event. ‘There was a sudden explosion and a high column of smoke and debris as the submarine blew up just fore of the conning tower. One hundred pounds of TNT had been stacked in her for this realistic touch, and this was set off by an electric lead to the naval boat.’ (7)
The wreck has been charted ever since January 1928, and has a detached bow and associated debris field consistent with her manner of loss. (8)
She joined a long heritage of naval vessels being repurposed at the end of their service lives – from 17th century accounts of wooden sailing vessels being used as foundations for new harbours, to 20th century warships and submarines being expended as gunnery targets, to the sinking of HMS Scylla as an artificial reef in 2004, but being expended for a film re-enactment is perhaps a little more unusual!
Another elderly vessel of mercantile origin, the schooner Amy, was also purchased to stand in for the schooner Prize in the film (the German schooner Else captured as a prize of war on 4 August 1914, hence her change of name). Prize was converted into a Q-ship and underwent three actions, being lost with all hands on her last battle with a U-boat. (The National Maritime Museum holds a watercolour of one of her previous actions.)
Amy was described as having been ‘one of the oldest sailing ships afloat’, built at Banff and 65 years of age on her first and last appearance on screen. This seems to refer to the Banff-built schooner Amy, official no.62443, which was, in fact, built in 1870 (and so was ‘only’ 58) and whose register was closed in 1928. (9)
Far from being a potential candidate for preservation, this ‘Grand Old Lady of the Sea’ (10) was selected to represent Prize in her final battle, which can also be viewed as an elegy for the sailing vessel in the light of the havoc wrought by the First World War.
She too was sunk ‘in action’ off the Bill of Portland in February 1928, and again it took several attempts, blamed on the removal of her figurehead as a souvenir. Much was made of this in the press, with superstitious sailors saying that to be successfully sunk she should have her figurehead with its ‘lucky squint’ reinstated! If nothing else, it was certainly a good story to drum up interest in the film. (11)
Amy has also been consistently charted at her position of loss since 1928 and has a unique place in the maritime heritage of England’s Channel coast. In being expended for re-enactment purposes, she can lay claim perhaps to being the final (indirect) victim of the First World War at sea in English waters (there were other direct post-war losses but we will cover that in a future edition of Wreck of the Week). She is also a rare, if not unique, example of the wreck of a Victorian sailing vessel documented in the early days of 20th century film. And finally, she has the sad distinction of being a counterpart to a genuine wartime loss, whose remains are yet to be discovered.
The Q-Ships film created – and documented in the very creation – a heritage of its own.
(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-1918, facsimile edition, 1990, London: Lloyd’s of London Press Ltd; uboat.net
(2) Q-boat Adventures, 1919, London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd.
(3) Western Morning News, Friday 25 November 1927, No.21,115, p5; Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 2 December 1927, No.3,114, p14
(4) Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 2 December 1927, No.3,114, p14
(5) The Stage, Thursday 28 June 1928, No.2,465, p24
(6) Western Morning News, Monday 2 January 1928, No.21,146, p5
(7)Belfast News Letter, Wednesday 4 January 1928, no issue number, p7