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