Diary of the War: November 1918

The Day before the Armistice

I began this maritime ‘Diary of the War’ with an entry for August 1914 in the waters off the Northumberland coast. As we approach the centenary of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, we return once more to that stretch of coastline.

From her inception to her service to her demise, HMS Ascot was entirely a product of the First World War. She was the first of a Racecourse-class of minesweepers built under the Emergency War Programme from 1915 in response to that need for sweepers which, as our August 1914 post demonstrated, was so pressing from the outset of the war, and entered service in January 1916. The Flower-class sweeping and anti-submarine sloops built at this time were also commissioned by the Emergency War Programme, of which HMS President, ex-HMS Saxifrage, moored in London, was one, built at Lobnitz, Renfrew.

Photograph of HMS President moored on river in predominantly black and white dazzle camouflage scheme, with some red, against a backdrop of buildings on the river bank.
HMS President is one of three surviving Royal Navy ships of the First World War and is shown here in her centenary dazzle scheme by Tobias Rehberger, 2014. By DieSwartzPunkt Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The Racecourse-class minesweepers were commissioned from the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company at Troon, who were specialists in constructing paddle steamers for the ferry and excursion steamer markets, which retained a strong preference for paddle steamers, otherwise (with the exception of paddle tugs) largely obsolete in other contexts by the 1870s.

The purpose of the maritime War Diary has not only been to illustrate the underwater cultural heritage of this landscape of war around England’s coastline, but to also to highlight some developments as the war progressed and to demonstrate the diversity of vessel types and nationalities involved.

The commissioning of new paddle steamers to go to war may seem an extraordinary decision, but it fits into this theme. Their typically shallow draught, suitable for river or estuary service, was ideal for minesweeping, and commissioning smaller specialist shipbuilders made full use of Britain’s shipbuilding capacity at need.

In fact, both World Wars saw the use of both purpose-built and requisitioned paddle minesweepers, even if they gained something of a reputation for being ‘wallowy’ and uncomfortable at times. Their use was characteristic of an inventive and flexible approach to adapting shipping to wartime use and conditions, which has also been one of the themes emerging from the War Diary.

Black and white photograph taken from a steamer at sea showing another paddle steamer beyond and on the right.
First World War: Paddle minesweepers off Harwich, April 1918. © IWM (Q 18823)
Black and white photograph of paddle steamer marked with pennant number J66 to the left, with its funnel echoed in the chimneys of the industrial buildings beyond.
Second World War: HMS Plinlimmon, ex-Cambria, in her wartime livery circa 1940 as a minesweeper, perhaps shortly after participating in the Dunkirk evacuation. Built as an excursion steamer in 1895, she was typical of many auxiliaries in seeing service during both World Wars (as HMS Cambridge in the First World War). Source: Historic England Archive CC80/00195

On 10 November 1918 HMS Ascot was three days out from Portsmouth for the minesweeping base at Granton, when she was sighted by UB-67 and became the last Royal Navy loss, the last vessel sunk in English waters, and the last vessel sunk by direct enemy action in the First World War anywhere in the world. (The Norwegian Ener was the very last loss of the war at sea on 11 November 1918, sunk by a mine off Fair Isle.)  (1)

On 20 November 1918 a press release announced the loss of Ascot:

‘The Secretary of the Admiralty announces that HM paddle minesweeper Ascot was torpedoed and sunk with all hands on the 10th inst. by a German submarine off the North-East Coast of England.

‘Six officers, including two mercantile marine officers, and 47 men, including eight mercantile marine ratings, lost their lives.

‘The next-of-kin have all been informed.’ (2)

Of all the terrible events in the ‘war to end all wars’, few things can have been more unbearably distressing and poignant for families than to hear that their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons had been killed so close to the Armistice. Such tragic losses touched many families, including my own, with one of the more famous examples the war poet Wilfred Owen, killed in action on 4 November 1918.

Her crew are commemorated on the imposing Grade-I listed Commonwealth War Grave memorials at Plymouth and Chatham. The wreck has been identified east of the Farne Islands by her bell and paddle wheels. (3)

The Armistice marked an end to the fighting, but not to the war itself: the final cessation of hostilities came with the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allied Powers, signed on 28 June 1919, along with other separately-negotiated peace treaties. For this reason some war memorials, such as this one at Euston, London, state the dates of the war as 1914-1919, but there were other reasons too. For seamen there was no longer any danger of shellfire, underwater torpedo or aerial attack, but in some respects the war was not yet properly over. Hence the Diary of the War will conclude with a final ‘post-war’ post in December 2018.

Fearless of storm or foe,
Guarding the traffic of the east and west,
Giving with hearts heroic of their best,

The brave mine-sweepers go.

The Mine-Sweepers, Editha Jenkinson

Charcoal and wash sketch of two men on deck, distinguished by their yellow oilskins, with features of the deck also picked out in yellow.
Bridge of a Paddle Sweeper, North Sea, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree: Imperial War Museum Commission c.1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 775) It seems fitting to conclude this tribute to HMS Ascot with an artwork by Allfree, who is commemorated along with his vessel, ML247,  in our September 1918 post.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping Through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile edition, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p238; skipet.no

(2) Widely reproduced across the national and regional press: for example, Western Morning News, 20 November 1918, No.18,323, p6

(3) UKHO No.4397

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: April 1917

A Mounting Toll: G42, G85, Ballarat, Medina, and HMT Arfon

In the first of this weekend’s double bill for 30 April and 1 May 1917 we look at the continuing attrition of British and foreign shipping. On 6 April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, as unrestricted submarine warfare also began to take its toll on American ships. Within the extent of English territorial waters as currently defined, the figures demonstrate that 71 wrecks were recorded for this month, of which 32 represent sites, the majority positively identified.

At this point during the war, there were no U-boats reported sunk within English waters for the month of April 1917, appearing to underline the success of the continuing submarine campaign.

German warships were also active in the Channel, mounting a raid on the Dover Patrol on the night of 20-21 April and shelling Margate and Ramsgate on 27 April. In contrast to the lack of sinkings of U-boats, however, two German torpedo boats, G42 and G85, were sunk as the raid developed into the Battle of Dover Straits. G42 was rammed by HMS Broke, while HMS Swift despatched G85 with a torpedo, making these vessels the only two German warships sunk in English territorial waters during the war.

The closing week of April 1917 provides a cross-section of the war at sea:

On 25 April 1917 the Australian troopship Ballarat, was torpedoed, but fortunately without loss of life. Ironically, it was the war itself which was probably the major factor in saving the lives of all on board when she was torpedoed. On that day all were mustered at their stations for a deckside Anzac Day service, remembering their fallen compatriots at Gallipoli in 1915, which in turn allowed for an orderly evacuation.

On 28 April 1917 the P&O liner RMS Medina was sunk. Her history was intertwined with that of the contemporary British Empire and its liner routes which continued to ply during wartime. Her maiden voyage in 1911 was as a Royal Yacht taking King George V and Queen Mary to Delhi for the Durbar of 1911, after which she reverted to the commercial role for which she was built. On her final voyage she left India with passengers and cargo for Sydney, New South Wales, to take on Australian meat and thence for England via the Suez Canal. She was torpedoed off Start Point, the torpedo exploding in the starboard engine room, killing six men, five of them seamen from the Indian subcontinent, known as lascars, who had a long tradition of working aboard British ships, usually, as here, in the engine room. (See previous posts on the Mahratta I in 1909 and the Magdapur in 1939 for more on wrecks involving lascars.)

On 30 April 1917 HM trawler Arfon was mined while on minesweeping duty off the Dorset coast with the loss of ten lives. She lies virtually intact with her minesweeping equipment and deck gun in situ, a rare but representative example of an early 20th century steam trawler adapted for war purposes, and as such was designated under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act in 2016. A new interpretation board at St. Aldhelm’s Head commemorates the site, while an accessible fully-captioned video trail released for the centenary explores the site through 3D high-resolution images.

The last week of April was therefore a crucial week of a crucial month.

The statistics outlined in Lloyd’s War Losses for April 1917 make grim reading. Over the course of the month 220 British, 103 Allied and 135 neutral vessels had been sunk worldwide for 882,227 tons. (1) Statistics for recent shipping losses were published in the press, followed by a stark warning in Parliament which was widely reported.

‘One hears on many sides that people refuse to be rationed or to ration themselves, because they say the shortage is only newspaper talk.

‘The position is now plain, that if within the next six or eight weeks there is not a very substantial reduction “there will be no alternative but to apply compulsion.” (2) That meat aboard RMS Medina, for example, had not got through.

(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) Daily Telegraph, April 26 1917, No.19,356, p5

No. 96 HMT Resono

Diary of the War No. 17

In the second part of our Christmas double bill, we commemorate a loss on Boxing Day 1915 and finish off with a poem as an extra special feature.

We have looked at fishing vessels in the War Diary before – how, at the outbreak of war, neutral fishing vessels found themselves on an unexpected front line of minefields, how the sailing fishing fleets of Lowestoftwere targeted and how they fought back.

In commemorating the loss of HMT Resono 100 years ago, today’s post pays tribute to the efforts of the steam trawling fleets. They saw action principally as minesweepers and patrol vessels, many requisitioned from the beginning of the war. They were eminently suitable to backfill these roles: as smaller ships, they were at less risk of detonating mines, their crews knew the seas intimately, and they needed little modification.

Sweeping was monotonous, deadly, and dangerous, with a high casualty rate: it was inevitable that a number of sweepers and patrol vessels would be lost in the minefields littered around the coastline. On 26th December 1915, Resono, one of the famous Sleight fleet of trawlers operating out of Grimsby, was blown up 2 miles SE of the Sunk Light Vessel in the Thames Estuary.

The Sleight fleet saw distinguished service in both World Wars. Sir George Sleight’s obituary of 1921 states that over 50 of his ships were requisitioned: it also states that he developed from a cockle-gatherer to the owner of the largest steam trawler company in the world. (1) His fleet is readily identifiable among wartime casualty lists by its distinctive house naming scheme: Recepto, Remarko, and Remindo were other First World War losses from the fleet. Many Sleight vessels participated in both wars: Resolvo and Resparko, First World War veterans, were both lost in 1940. Yet others survived two wartime services, including the Revello, built in 1908 and therefore a contemporary of Resono, which was eventually wrecked in 1959.

Black and white photo of steam trawler, with steam coming out of its funnel.
Sleight trawler Revello, which sprang a leak and sank off Kilnsea in 1959, after seeing service in both World Wars. She had been sunk in 1941, but was salvaged a few months later. © Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre. George Scales Maritime Photographs.

To conclude this month’s edition of the War Diary, here is Kipling’s poem Mine Sweepers, also a century old. It was first published as the introduction to an article on the work of the minesweeper-trawlers for the Daily Telegraph, 23rd November 1915: the original can be read here.

Dawn off the Foreland – the young flood making

Jumbled and short and steep –

Black in the hollows and bright where it’s breaking –

Awkward water to sweep.

“Mines reported in the fairway,

“Warn all traffic and detain.

“Sent up Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

 

Noon off the Foreland – the first ebb making

Lumpy and strong in the bight.

Boom after boom, and the golf-hut shaking

And the jackdaws wild with fright!

“Mines located in the fairway,

“Boats now working up the chain,

“Sweepers – Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

 

Dusk off the Foreland – the last light going

And the traffic crowding through,

And five damned trawlers with their syreens blowing

Heading the whole review!

“Sweep completed in the fairway.

“No more mines remain.

“Sent back Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

To borrow a phrase: the poem counted them all out and counted them all back!

(1) The Times, Monday 21 March, 1921, No.42,674, p16.