Diary of the War: September 1917

The Schooners’ Last Stand

It is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight that shipping losses could have been considerably reduced had coal been circulated at home by rail during the First World War, instead of being sent out into a North Sea full of minefields and lurking U-boats (although what would have been done with all the colliers lying idle in port is a moot point – doubtless sent to replace shipping on other routes – but this is all hypothetical.) The capacity for destruction from the air was less developed than in the Second World War, so, on paper, the railways appear an obvious route that was unaccountably not taken.

Matters were not quite that simple. Focusing on the seaward end for this blog (discussing the railway end would be a blog post or three in its own right), the infrastructure of coal supply was geared to despatch by sea, even for the internal market. It had traditionally been so before the coming of the railways and continued to be so thereafter, the Industrial Revolution making it easier to link coalfields to the ports, rather than make use of the new-fangled railways to circulate coal inland.

Steam trains thus ran the extracted coal from the large Durham coalfield the short distances to Blyth, Shields, Sunderland, and Hartlepool, whence the steam colliers took over and carried the coal to London and elsewhere, a seamless chain from mine to depot or power plant.

But this regular supply route was not only being disrupted by the war, it was being decimated, as steam collier after steam collier sank in the North Sea. Over the course of the war other measures were taken to spread the risk: output from other coalfields increased and shipping movements accordingly transferred to other ports on the other side of the country. For example, as production shifted towards the mines of north-west England and Wales, Liverpool and Barry in Wales saw a rise in collier traffic.

The sourcing of supplies from elsewhere and the re-routing of traffic through other ports had its parallel in the deployment of a more diverse collier fleet. Small sailing schooners already handled coal as ’round Britain’ coasters or shuttling between Great Britain and Ireland on an exchange cargo basis, but now they were deployed to supplement the steamers in ensuring coal reached France by the relatively less ‘exposed’ west coast route which was at least less heavily mined (but was still dangerous as the focus of considerable U-boat activity).

A diverse group of sailing vessels accordingly left various ports in Liverpool Bay for Cherbourg and Dieppe in September 1917. They were redolent of an era fifty years earlier: the Mary Seymour, schooner of Portsmouth, 150 tons gross, built 1865; Mary Orr, ketch of Glasgow, 91 tons gross, built 1868; the Jane Williamson, Irish schooner, also described as a brigantine, 197 tons, built 1870; the Water Lily, schooner of Barnstaple, 111 tons, built 1876, and the Moss Rose, schooner of Chester, 161 tons, built 1888. Such ages were not uncommon in the coasting trade, but nevertheless it was a fairly elderly set of small coasters that set out in the hope of a passage free of encounters with the enemy. All were outward-bound in company from the Mersey for Dieppe and Cherbourg with at least one other ship, carrying much-needed coal for the French market.

The Moss Rose was the first to be attacked and sunk by gunfire from UC-51 at 10.30am, 7 miles NNE of Pendeen Lighthouse. The master of the Mary Orr watched events unfold, and bowed to the inevitable without attempting to escape. He gave the order to abandon ship and the crew waited then watched the ensuing destruction of the Mary Seymour, around 11.15 to 11.30am. It is said that the crew of the Moss Rose and the Mary Seymour then rowed to, and were picked up by ‘the schooner Mary of Glasgow’, (1) and transferred to the Padstow lifeboat. This introduces some confusion, since the Mary Orr also belonged to Glasgow, but there was probably yet another ship named Mary involved.

The abandoned Mary Orr was then literally next in the firing line: scuttling charges were placed aboard, and she sank 8 miles NE of Pendeen Lighthouse. The Mary Orr‘s boat was then used to carry more charges over to the Water Lily, which was likewise sunk 8 miles NE of Pendeen Lighthouse some time after noon. These crews, however, were both picked up by the Belgian SS Adour.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that the crews of the Moss Rose and Mary Seymour rowed over to a vessel which had been abandoned by her own crew, and much more likely that there was another Mary in the little convoy of sailing ships. It was common in attacks on small sailing vessels for one ship in the group to be spared, to enable survivors to escape. (2)

The last ship to be sunk that day was the Jane Williamson, 20 miles NNE of St. Ives, at around 4pm. The attacking submarine was also UC-51, and it was this particular sinking that attracted the attention of the press, because there was apparently no such care for the survival of the crew. It was widely reported that not only was she shelled on approach, but also the crew as they escaped in their open boat, with only two men being left alive to tell the tale.

The inquest upon the dead at Penzance returned a verdict of ‘wilful and diabolical murder’. At the funerals of two of the dead men, wreaths were donated by a grieving couple, each inscribed ‘in tenderest memory of a stranger from Capt. and Mrs Henry Row, who are sorrowing over their own two murdered boys.’ (3)

With the same hindsight with which I started this blog, it is also easy to say that pitting small schooners against U-boats was a forlorn hope. They were generally unarmed and unable to outrun a fast-moving submarine (hence the skipper of the Mary Orr giving up any hope of escape as a bad job), and, small and constructed of timber as they were, they stood little chance against shelling and were easily despatched by scuttling charges.

Such was the pressure on shipping, however, that it was imperative to try to spread the risk by any means possible, and perhaps it was easier to sacrifice small sailing vessels approaching the end of their careers, than the more modern and much larger steamers which took up huge resources in materials and manpower to build. Also, as prey, they were far less significant than the grand ocean liners and the everyday steamers, which were a more tempting prey, accounting for a higher tonnage and a greater commercial impact and disruption to trade when sunk. The personal cost to the schooner crews, though, must have been immense: death, injury and the destruction of their livelihoods.

Nevertheless, the experiment in circulating coal by ‘acting sail colliers’ would be abandoned by November 1917 after further losses: that same month the submarine responsible for sinking the little fleet (UC-51) would also meet her end in English waters.

Not all such vessels perished in the war, however: the Kathleen and May schooner, built in 1900 in Liverpool, gives a very good impression of what the schooners lost a century ago looked like, not least in her longevity. She survived the First World War (and the Second). Her wartime logbooks for 1915 also survive and reveal regular boat drills and testing of lifesaving appliances, given the risks she was running during the war. (4)

She is now part of the National Historic Fleet.

A ship in the centre of the image sits against a blue sky, the sea occupying the bottom third of the image. The ship has three masts, with three square red sails spread, and four triangular sails between the foremast and bowsprit, which faces to the right of the image.
The three-masted schooner Kathleen and May (1900) is a contemporary of the five sailing ships lost on 10 September 1917, most of which were also schooners. Like the Jane Williamson, she was originally built in north-west England and was in Irish ownership during the First World War. © and by kind permission of National Historic Ships UK

(1) Larn, R & Larn, B 1995. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Vol.1: Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset. London. Lloyd’s of London Press (based on ADM/137 reports, The National Archives)

(2) This modus operandi is attested, for example, in an incident off the East Anglian coast on 30 July 1915, when the survivors of eight fishing smacks sunk by the same U-boat, boarded a ninth which had been spared, and other similar incidents. Cant, S 2013. England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats. Swindon: Historic England (p166)

(3) See, for example, Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 17 September 1917, No.12,231, p3

(4) ‘Kathleen and May‘, entry in WW1: Britain’s surviving vessels, a microsite of National Historic Ships UK

 

Diary of the War: August 1917

The Azira

Many years ago, while working on ships of the First World War, I became intrigued by a large number of wrecks with names unusual for British ships, among them Eidsiva, Gefion, Herdis, Nordstrand, Reidar, Rinda, Slaattero,  and Sten. All appeared in British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914-1918 and 1939-45, and further research revealed that they were all managed by the Shipping Controller, the British ministry responsible for shipping from late 1916. (1)

I realised that here was a tale to be told.

The Azira is part of that tale, and is commemorated today, a century after she was lost. She is part of a thread that has woven itself into this summer’s War Diary commemorations. June 1917‘s post looked at the diverse composition of crews aboard British merchantmen sunk in that month and at other times, including many sailors from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. July’s post concentrated on the loss of the Vanland and the problems that neutral vessels were facing in English waters. These two themes are brought together in this month’s post, for there was another way for seamen from Scandinavia to join the British mercantile marine . . .

As we have seen so often during the War Diary, the Azira was yet another example of the pressures faced by the collier lines, claimed by a U-boat in the North Sea. She was torpedoed on 4 August 1917, only five miles out from her departure port of Sunderland, bound for Cherbourg with coal.

During the course of the war, Britain negotiated separate “Tonnage Agreements” with the governments of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. These agreements fulfilled mutually pressing needs: Britain required the tonnage urgently – her ships were still being sunk faster than she could build replacements – while on the other side the ability to import vital supplies or to export goods in the face of blockade was of paramount importance. Each country had differing needs, on which the negotiations were based, and agreements reached at different dates, that with Sweden being the last, in 1918. (2)

As part of these Tonnage Agreements, ships were requisitioned by the British Shipping Controller, a specific ministry created for wartime needs. Where placed into collier roles, as many of these requisitioned ships were, they were managed by specialist collier fleet management firms based in the key coal ports such as Cardiff, Newcastle, Sunderland or Swansea. Generally these ships retained their own crews and skippers and were intended to revert back to their country of origin on the cessation of the war.

There were practical matters of ship preservation too – under the British flag they could be armed, with British gunners, and could join convoy, neither of which they could do as neutrals without compromising their position. Not that this necessarily saved them from loss to war causes: either way, as undefended neutrals without escort provision trading with or passing through the waters of a belligerent nation, or as ships armed and under the flag and the convoy of the same belligerent, they were very vulnerable.

Nevertheless, to all intents and purposes, these ships became temporary British merchantmen and their crews part of the British mercantile marine. They were hidden in plain sight and continue to be so today, as their story is little-known, so this post is part of redressing that balance.

The Azira was among them, a Norwegian ship under the British flag, and acknowledged as such in contemporary records. (3)  Many were ships belonging to companies still well-known today: the Norwegian Fred. Olsen (which then was a cargo carrier, not a cruise specialist) and the Danish DFDS, for example Fred. Olsen’s Bamse, torpedoed in the Channel in 1918. (4)

One man among the Azira‘s 18-strong crew was killed. He is commemorated on the Tower Hill memorial. He was Andrew Lehtman, carpenter, aged 28, born in Russia. (5) As discussed in previous posts, at this time a birthplace or homeport of one larger state current in the 19th or early 20th centuries may mask a diversity of nationalities associated with subsequent nation-states (indexing the former and current nationalities of a lost vessel is an excellent way to understand historical geopolitical changes).

So it proved in this instance. Andrew Lehtman was born in the then Russian ‘Governorate of Estonia’. Things were changing fast in 1917, a pivotal year for both Russia and Estonia. Following the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, Estonia and Livonia were united to form an autonomous governorate. Full Estonian independence would not be achieved until 1920, for the October Revolution of 1917 intervened. Estonia then saw several years of struggle with Bolshevik usurpation, German occupation and Russian invasion.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the lists of Estonian seamen who died in British waters or in British hospitals were not published until November 1920, presumably when the situation had become sufficiently politically stable to do so. Lehtman’s name appears in a list furnished by the British police which was published across several newspapers so that they could be traced by relatives. It is likely that his name is somewhat garbled: his first name looks as if it has been anglicised, and there are variant spellings of the name Lehtman. (6)

Labelled a ‘Russian’, an Estonian by nationality and probably by birth, his surname suggests a ‘Baltic German’ affiliation (in common with other seamen on the list), while he died as part of the crew of a Norwegian steamer taken into British service. Was he ever traced, I wonder?

This remains of this shipwreck near Sunderland are not only a tangible link to the Anglo-German conflict of the First World War, but also connect with Anglo-Norwegian diplomacy and the struggles of Estonia for self-determination.

(1)  Four separate HMSO publications collated and republished as facsimile reprints under the title of British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914-18 and 1939-45, Patrick Stephens Ltd., Cambridge, 1988, (BVLS). For the First World War the relevant publications were Navy Losses (1919) and Merchant Shipping (Losses) (1919), reprinted as Section I and Section II in BVLS.

(2) For a fuller overview of requisitioned wrecks from Denmark and Norway in English waters, please see Cant, Serena, England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats, Historic England, Swindon, 2013, pp 81-91. For the economic background, see also: Haug, Karl Erik, Norway , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, Freie Universität Berlin; Riste, Olav, The Neutral Ally: Norway’s relations with belligerent powers in the First World War, Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 1965; Salmon, Patrick, Scandinavia and the Great Powers 1890-1940, Cambridge, 1997

(3) BVLS, Section II, p62; Lloyd’s War Losses: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes, 1914-1918, Lloyd’s of London, facsimile reprint, 1990, p161

(4) Cant 2013, based on research in the Fred. Olsen archives, expanding on information in Historic England’s shipwreck records of the National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) for both Fred. Olsen and DFDS. Brief company histories, including their wartime service, are available for both Fred. Olsen and DFDS.

(5) Commonwealth War Graves Commission record for Andrew Lehtman

(6) Sakala (in Estonian), 19 November 1920, No.134, p7

 

 

 

 

Diary of the War: June 1917

The Sir Francis

At first glance the Sir Francis appears to be yet another British steam collier lost through enemy action in the North Sea, torpedoed 4 miles off Ravenscar, North Yorkshire, on a ballast run to the Tyne to pick up coal on 7 June 1917.

In that sense there is nothing remarkable about this particular wreck, which shares the characteristics of so many other ships of the same ilk, lost in the same sea area to war causes. not only during the First World War but also the Second. Even her tonnage of 1153 tons net, 1991 gross, was entirely characteristic of a steam collier of the early to mid 20th century, and she belonged to one of the big names in coal shipping, Cory Colliers Ltd.

Also fairly characteristic was the death toll: 10 men out of a crew of 22 lost their lives that day in June 1917. The Mercantile Marine Memorial at Tower Hill, London (listed Grade I) records their details so far as they were known. They were:

Wanless, A, master, whose place of birth, residence, and family is not recorded;

de Boer, J, seaman, born in Holland;

Jonsson, John, born in Iceland, resident in South Shields and married to an Englishwoman;

Kato, T, fireman, born in Japan;

Nishioka, B, fireman, also born in Japan;

Poulouch, N, fireman, born in Greece;

Sharp, Joseph, steward, of South Shields;

Talbot, Alfred, engineer’s steward, of Penarth;

Tippett, Albert, engineer, a Yorkshireman resident in Tyneside;

van der Pluym, Johannes Cornelis, seaman, a resident of Amsterdam.

Colour photograph of stone memorial inscription reading '1914-1918: To the Glory of God and to the honour of twelve thousand of the merchant navy and fishing fleets who have no grave but the sea'.
Detail of the Mercantile Marine Memorial, Tower Hill. By Katie Chan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28279403

Seafaring has, of course, always been a mobile profession with a long heritage, stretching back centuries, of crew serving aboard ships not originating in their local ports or country of birth, ocean-going liners and tramp steamers being obvious examples. On the blog we have looked previously at lascars engaged as foreign labour and subsequently shipwrecked on board ships plying to and from south Asia during the period of British colonial rule: Mahratta I, 1909; the Magdapur, 1939; and the Medina, 1917. The Tangistan is a good example of this phenomenon earlier in the war: when she was lost in 1915 en route from Beni Saf, Algeria, for Middlesbrough, her crew included men from the Indian Merchant Service and Scandinavian sailors.

The international composition of crews working on domestic routes appears to become more marked as the war continued. A primary contributory factor was, of course, the shortage of labour in the merchant marine, as experienced sailors were recruited into the Royal Navy, and the high death and injury toll among the crews of ships lost to war causes.  There were other factors, including international agreements (which will be covered in a later post). Undoubtedly, further research among the histories of each individual crew member might well reveal other factors at play: for example, rates of pay and war displacement (shipwreck by war causes and internment of vessels).

In July 1917, another collier, the Empress, would also be sunk in the North Sea with a truly multinational crew on a wholly domestic route, this time delivering coal from the Tyne to Southend-on-Sea. Among the survivors on that occasion were 3 Norwegians; 2 Argentines; 2 Swedes; and one man each representing Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia (although at this period crewmen from the Baltic Grand Duchies of Russia were lumped under the ‘catch-all’ label of ‘Russian’ in contemporary sources) and Spain. Among the dead were Swede Peter Anderson [sic], able seaman; Norwegian Olaf Husby, boatswain; and Dutchman Peter van Klanders, fireman.

There is a similar tally on board a larger collier, the Polesley, which lost all but one of her 43 crew when she was torpedoed in 1918. Half came from diverse national and ethnic backgrounds. Some originated from various corners of the contemporary British Empire: three men from Sierra Leone, one man from the Bahamas and another from Nevis; a South African; one man from India; and another from Hong Kong. Others came from countries unconnected to the Empire: there were five Japanese sailors on board, and from Europe two Danes and two Lithuanians, a Norwegian, a Russian, a Spaniard and a Swede lost their lives.

These three specific cases among British colliers, the Sir Francis, the Empress, and the Polesley, shine a light on a hidden, but significant, heritage of multinational and multi-ethnic crew composition on British ships during the First World War.

(All crew details from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.)

Diary of the War: May 1917

The Gena

In the second instalment of our double bill covering 30 April and 1 May 1917 we take a look at the Gena, sunk on 1 May. On the face of it, Gena was fairly typical in both vessel type and location of loss, a collier sunk in the North Sea while steaming south with her cargo from Tyneside.

Yet there are two things which are very unusual about this particular wreck site. The first is that the position of loss is very precisely specified in relation to a relatively small and impermanent seamark.

She sank “¾ mile S by W ½W of ‘A’ War Channel Buoy, Southwold”. (1)

Unsurprisingly, with this level of detail, the wreck site has a secure history of recording that goes back to the date of loss. (2) It also gives some clue to the location of one of the buoys marking out the East Coast War Channels, or safe swept channels, that kept the shipping lanes open and (relatively) free of mines, swept largely by minesweeper-trawlers such as the Arfon whose loss on 30 April 1917 was commemorated in yesterday’s post.

These War Channels have been the subject of recent investigations on behalf of Historic England  (2014) by Antony Firth (Fjordr), illustrated with maps and charts showing the extent of the War Channels. One unofficial chart marking the buoys further north up the East Coast is known to have been used by an airman providing cover for North Sea shipping (Fig. 7 in report).

If aircraft could provide cover for shipping, tracking U-boats and indeed collaborating with patrol vessels to destroy enemy craft, it followed that ships were also vulnerable to attack from the air. The Gena was the first ship within English territorial waters to be sunk by aircraft, torpedoed from the air by two Hansa-Brandenburg GW seaplanes of Torpedostaffel II, operating out of Zeebrugge. This was not the first aerial attack on merchant shipping by aircraft, but it was one of the first to successfully sink a ship.

So unusual was it that Lloyd’s struggled to fit it into an appropriate category in their ‘ledger’ of war losses. In the “How Sunk” column, the standard abbreviations S (sunk by submarine) and M (mine) were clearly inappropriate, and even this distinction was outdated, since ships had been sunk by mines laid by U-boats since 1915, so arguably fitted both categories (see earlier post on minelaying submarines, introduced in 1915). The only other category available was C (cruiser or raider), which was still inadequate, but it seems that a new category was not considered necessary, and ‘raider’ was at least appropriate in intent, if not in ‘vessel type’ as such. A marginal annotation clarified matters: “German seaplane”. (3)

The Gena was an armed merchant, however, and her attackers did not have it all their own way. Sunk by the planes, her gunner nevertheless managed to down Hansa-Brandenburg 703, whose two crew were rescued to become prisoners of war. (4) An interesting photo gallery of the Hansa-Brandenburg GW can be found here, including stablemate 700, a view of the torpedo loading bay, and film stills of the aircraft landing on the water.

The course of the war at sea was changing: terror could strike from above as well as below, and aircraft though slow, unreliable, and terrifying to fly by modern standards, were proving to be amphibious and adaptable. Finally, the increasing presence of aircraft at sea meant that wrecks at sea were no longer necessarily ‘shipwrecks’, although, on this occasion, the aircraft was also picked up for examination: (see previous double bill on Zeppelin wrecks from February 1916 and March 1916).

The whole incident was recognised at the time as ‘a new phase of warfare’  and a ‘noteworthy development of aerial craft’ (5) so that, unusually for the time, the Admiralty released details of the ‘duel’, in part because there was some propaganda value in demonstrating that the Gena had not gone down without a fight.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(2) United Kingdom Hydrographic Office record no. 10320

(3) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(4) for example: http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?/topic/241938-naval-historynet-bvlas-errata/

(5) Yarmouth Independent, Saturday 5 May 1917, No.4,529, p1

Diary of the War: March 1917

Mousse Le Moyec

This is the tale of two events across the Channel – one in French waters on this day a hundred years ago (29 March 1917) during the First World War, and a later wreck in English waters from the Second World War, linked by a name.

The latter was one of the very first wrecks I ever encountered on the database 20 years ago, with the unusual and evocative name of Mousse Le Moyec. The name has stuck with me ever since: mousse means ‘ship’s boy’ in French (“a young sailor under the age of 17”, according to Larousse) so I always wondered who he was and why he was commemorated by having a ship named after him.

On 29 March 1917 a French sailing trawler, the Irma, took up her station 15 miles SSW of Cordouan, off the Gironde, France, with her crew of five. As she was preparing to shoot her nets, a U-boat commenced shelling the vessel, approaching closer with each shot. The ship’s boat was shot away and mousse Maurice Le Moyec, aged 14, was killed.

 

Enfant Moyec2
Commemorative plaque for mousse Maurice Le Moyec, stating his date of death as 29 March 1916 (in error for 1917). La Rochelle © and by kind permission of M Bruno Baverel

The master was seriously injured, but the other three members of the crew, the mate, aged 18, and two boys, aged 15, remained calm under fire, even though also injured, and got the little ship back to the Gironde under a jury rig. The survivors were decorated for gallantry.

After the war, a number of French colliers were built for the French Government to a standard design, each named in honour of one of those who had fallen for France. The vessel named after mousse Le Moyec was built for a company which had also lost a ship called Irma, in 1916, so it may be that there was some confusion over the ship on which young Le Moyec was lost.

This collier, commemorating a victim of the First World War, would play her part in the Second. In the 1920s and 1930s she regularly criss-crossed the Channel to pick up Welsh coal for France. After the fall of France in 1940, she was therefore a natural candidate to bring over a number of young Frenchmen to Britain, answering de Gaulle’s call for Free Frenchmen to join him in the fight against the Nazis. Their story can be read here (in French): one of those passengers was André Quelen, who is remembered here (in English).

As with so many other vessels which escaped to Britain from occupied Europe, she was then placed at the disposal of the British Government (my own father travelled on a Dutch trooper under the British flag, which had escaped the night Amsterdam fell). Mousse Le Moyec continued to ply her usual trade as a collier, but solely within English waters on the Bristol Channel – Plymouth run, until she was wrecked near Hartland Point in December 1940.

When I first encountered Mousse Le Moyec all those years ago, the internet was in its infancy and it was difficult to find out more. Thanks to the power of online resources, in particular the French pages14-18 forum, I have been able to discover the moving connection between a wreck in English waters in 1940 and the French counterpart of Jack Cornwell, of Jutland fame, who died 100 years ago today, a reminder of cross-Channel co-operation in time of war.

 

 

 

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

 

 

25. Spontaneous Compostion

No, this is not a spelling mistake from the subject line but a bad pun. (Is there any other kind of pun?) The Russo-Finnish barque Ymer caught fire and exploded in 1910 while at anchor with a cargo of “organic manure”. (See WOTW 6 on the Venscapen for more on Russo-Finnish barques.)

Spontaneous combustion of cargo occurs occasionally in the record. Hay is one known offender in this respect, with approximately 6 known hay barges lost to fire, and coal is another. Naturally, it is combustible, or it would not have been intended to be burnt as fuel, but it was somewhat unexpected to find it burnt prior to delivery!

A collier exploded in this way before she even left the Tyne with her cargo in 1857. More worryingly, another collier caught fire at sea in the Downs en route from Hartlepool for Dieppe in 1873.

There were other examples elsewhere, and the situation was deemed serious enough for a Royal Commission on the Spontaneous Combustion of Coal to be set up in 1876, which looked, among other things, at whether different types of coal were more subject to spontaneous combustion than others. It seems that the cause was often inadequate ventilation in cargo holds.