Diary of the War: February 1940

Blackburn Botha L6111 

One key respect in which the conduct of the Second World War at sea differed from the First was the number of aircraft involved. Since the previous war, aircraft had evolved to become capable of significant offensive and defensive roles, reflected in the numbers lost over both land and sea. In and around English waters these included well-known aircraft on both sides, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters, Ju88s, Me109s and He111s, as well as many less familiar aircraft types.

Today, on the 80th anniversary of its loss on 24 February 1940, we feature our first case study of an aircraft lost at sea during the Second World War. (Others will follow in due course.) The reasons for aircraft loss were many and varied: aerial combat, mechanical failure, and training accidents among them.

We begin with L6111, an example of a lesser-known type, the Blackburn Botha, developed and built over 1936-8 as a reconnaissance aircraft and a torpedo bomber. In early 1940 the Botha was not yet on active service, but remained under test for the Air Ministry at the Torpedo Development Unit (TDU), RAF Gosport, Hampshire, to which   L6111 was allocated. (1)

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

On the morning of 24 February 1940, L6111 was on torpedo-dropping exercises over the Solent between Gosport and Ryde, Isle of Wight, when the engine cut out and the crew were forced to ditch in the sea.  All four of the crew were providentially able to get into a dinghy before their aircraft sank. (2)

Not all Botha crews were so fortunate: exactly one year later, on 24 February 1941, Blackburn Botha L6262 crashed into the ground close to its destination airfield of RAF Detling, Kent, killing all four crew. (3) Even against the context of training and operational losses for all aircraft, these and other accidents ensured that the Botha was quickly rendered obsolete as a frontline aircraft. Only 580 were ever built, compared to the production runs for the more successful types such as the Spitfire (over 20,000 constructed).

Debris in the Solent off Fort Gilkicker was confirmed in 1990 as the scattered wreckage of an aircraft and would tally well with L6111‘s flight path. (4) As an aircraft having crashed on military service, it is automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986. (5)

It also has some significance as one of 21 ‘extinct’ British and German aircraft types of the 1930s and 40s, with few or no surviving complete examples in any context. (6) (See also an earlier blog post on a Do17 ‘Flying Pencil’ recovered from the sea in 2013, another, more intact, example of one of these rare types.) By contrast more Spitfires were produced, served in action and survived the war: this means that more Spitfires likewise survive in preservation, including airworthy examples, or as archaeological remains within both the terrestrial and marine environments.

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

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

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

(4) UKHO 19602

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

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

 

Diary of the War: January 1940

The East Dudgeon Lightvessel

The everyday hazards of the sea never cease, even under wartime conditions. During the Second World War dangerous shoals still required marking, and ships safe guidance into harbour, perhaps even more so after undergoing convoy battles, lone dashes, trusting in speed alone, across the Atlantic, or picking their way through freshly-laid minefields.

By the same token those who saved others from the peril of the sea themselves faced greater peril than ever before, though in peace and war their mission remained the same. Today’s post allows us to revisit the story of lightvessels around the coast which we first covered in an earlier blog post.

Now largely removed in favour of other marks, the few lightvessels on station today are automated and unmanned, but perform the same function as lighthouses, albeit marking offshore hazards. In modern times it is difficult to appreciate their crews’ hard way of life, devoted to maintaining a light beaming a vital message out to sea from an inert and stationary hull: permanently moored with no motive power, either sail or engine, they ran the risk of drifting or being driven in storms onto the very hazards from which they warned others, nor had they any means of avoiding a collision should a ship bear down upon them.

Neither was it easy in wartime to escape drifting mines or, unarmed, to defend a lightvessel against enemy attack. Yet in 1940 men served aboard those lightvessels which had not been extinguished (1) and which continued to offer an ‘equal lamp at peril of the sea’ to passing ships. (2) 

The East Dudgeon station marked the Dudgeon, one of the shoals and sandbanks that stretch out long fingers along the east coast of England between the Humber to the north and the Norfolk coast to the south. Between these two points shipping routes largely stood, and to this day stand, out to sea rather than hugging the coast, to avoid some of these hazards, but others, such as the Dudgeon, lie a considerable distance offshore. This meant that the East Dudgeon, to the seaward of the eponymous shoal, was also by some distance one of the more remote lightvessels, which had a bearing on what happened next.

On the morning of 29 January 1940 (3) off the east coast a Heinkel He111 approached the East Dudgeon Lightvessel. The crew were not initially alarmed when they saw the enemy aircraft approaching as, ‘on previous occasions German pilots had waved to them and passed them by.’ (4) 

This time there was no friendly wave in passing. The lightvessel was machine-gunned and bombed, the last bomb striking the vessel. The ship began to heel over, but remained afloat,  (5) and a photograph depicting her light smashed to pieces surfaced in the press a couple of weeks later. (6)

The crew took to the boat , one man having been ill in his bunk but helped onto deck and into the boat by his comrades. Given the distance offshore they faced rowing for hours in winter conditions, continuing to row on as night fell and they became progressively colder and weaker, before making landfall at around 2.30am. (7)

Their boat capsized in the breakers rolling on the shore and, so close to land and safety, seven men out of the eight crew lost their lives: James Scott Bell, Master Mechanic; Bardolph Basil Boulton, Fog Signal Driver; Horatio Davis, Lamplighter; Roland Robert George, Senior Master; George William Jackson, Seaman. Richard Edward Norton, Seaman; and Herbert Rumsby, Lampman. (8)

The sole survivor was John Sanders, who managed to crawl ashore, somehow finding the strength to break into a house and divest himself of his clothes after coming upon some blankets to wrap himself up in. There he was discovered at 8am. (9) The bodies of the other crew were discovered that morning near their ‘wrecked small boat’. (10)

German radio claimed that same day that the British Naval Patrol Vessel East Dudgeon had been sunk, which elicited a statement from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons that it was: ‘a falsification intended to cover up from the world a deliberate and savage attack on a lightship. To seafaring folks of all nations the East Dudgeon is well known as a lightship, and its identity was unmistakable. She was, naturally, unarmed.’ (11) 

Historic black and white photograph looking towards a lightship at sea, identified by its mast and the name 'CALS. . . ' visible in large white letters to the right of the hull, and a small yacht to the left. A tidal wash is visible to right of the image, which is compromised by a broken right-hand corner and other damage across the upper sky visible in the original glass plate negative.
As this late 19th century view of the Calshot lightvessel off Southampton demonstrates, lightvessels were readily identified by the name of their station (taken from the hazard they demarcated) painted in large white letters, and the prominent light atop a mast. Henry Taunt CC39/00486 Source: Historic England Archive

As further aerial attacks on lightvessels followed (East Goodwin, sunk 18 July 1940; South Folkestone Gate, sunk 14 August 1940; South Goodwin, sunk 25 October 1940, and East Oaze, sunk 1 November 1940), the British struck back in the propaganda war. The Ministry of Information commissioned the Crown Film Unit in 1940 to produce Men of the Lightship, a dramatisation of life aboard the East Dudgeon, culminating in the attack and its tragic aftermath, which was released in the United States as Men of Lightship 61.

‘Lightship 61’ was laid up and returned to service in the postwar period but her story opened a grim chapter with the onslaught on lightvessels legible in a seabed heritage of those which have remained on the seabed for the last 80 years.

(1)  Trinity House website (nd), Were Trinity House lighthouses switched off during the Second World War?

(2) Rudyard Kipling, “The Coastwise Lights of England”, in The Song of the English, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909

(3) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1; Kim Saul, “Sole Survivor”, quoting an unattributed original source, said to be directly from survivor John J R Sanders, in Memories, Belton and District Historical Society website, published online, 2013. The same text is quoted in Anthony Lane, “Lightship Memories”, Portside, Winter 2017, pp3-5, published online, attributed to Illustrated, 24 February 1940.

(4) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(5) See note (3): Saul, “Sole Survivor” and Lane, “Lightship Memories”; Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(6) Liverpool Daily Post, 15 February 1940, No.26,392, p5, and other regional press

(7) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(8) Commonwealth War Graves Commission

(9) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(10) Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 30 January 1940, No.19,894, p1

(11) House of Commons Debate, Hansard, 8 February 1940, Vol.357, cc.443-9

Diary of the Second World War: October 1939

U-16

In wartime there are some vessels whose fate seems to involve one thing after another, exacerbated by the ‘fog of war’ in which events are not wholly clear even to those who have taken part in them: War Knight during the First World War was a case in point, and U-16 on 25 October 1939 another.

The news of U-16‘s loss followed the recent tragedy of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed in the apparent safety of the Scapa Flow anchorage, Orkney, on 14 October 1939, by U-47 under the command of Günther Prien. Barely six weeks into the war it was already apparent that the U-boat threat to Britain was significant.

On the afternoon of Tuesday 24 October 1939 an anti-submarine indicator loop at St. Margaret’s Bay, Kent, picked up suspicious activity in the Straits of Dover. The Kingfisher-class patrol sloop HMS Puffin and the requisitioned trawler HMS Cayton Wyke were sent to investigate. So far the defence of the Straits of Dover differed little from the previous war in the use of loops (see post of August 1918), of smaller patrol vessels in the form of naval and requisitioned fishing vessels, and of a mine barrage.

As their counterparts had also done in the previous war, one after the other, the two vessels dropped depth charges in the vicinity of their target some three miles east by south of St. Margaret’s Bay. (1)  

It seems that the effect of this was to disable the submarine, but not so severely that communications were disrupted: the U-boat was able to send a radio message in the early hours of 25 October 1939. (2) 

On Thursday 26 October, a German U-boat was discovered stranded on the Goodwin Sands but with no explanation of how it had got there. A statement prepared by the Admiralty and widely disseminated in the press, said:

‘How the submarine went aground was not explained last night. Gunfire was heard off Deal on Wednesday, when it was believed that an enemy submarine might have been attacked, but nothing could be seen because of mist.

‘Another theory is that the submarine may have been sunk a few days ago off Folkestone and may have drifted or bumped along the sea bed and become fast on the Goodwins.’ (3)

There was not only a sea haar, but also a smokescreen thrown up by the Admiralty. Both ‘theories’ allowed to materialise in the press certainly had a germ of truth to them – an enemy submarine was certainly attacked ‘a few days ago’ somewhere between Deal and Folkestone barrage. An emphasis on ‘gunfire’ nicely side-stepped the use of depth charges or the presence of a mine barrage, although some further conjecture from Deal also made it into the press release, albeit still carefully worded:

It is thought possible at Deal that the U-boat did not go on to the Goodwins under her own power, but was sunk in deeper waters by depth charges or bombs and that some of her bulk heads may have remained undamaged, permitting her to bump along the seabed, carried along by the current.(4) 

To coin a phrase apt in the maritime context, the waters were muddied by a claim that ‘a large German submarine has been sunk by the French. This is confirmed by the finding of the bodies of the crew. A message from Dunkirk states that the British Admiralty was represented when the French authorities gave a Naval funeral yesterday to a U-boat officer and five German sailors . . . ‘ (5)  

This funeral was well attended by both French and British naval representatives, and jointly led by both Protestant and Catholic clergy to cover Germany’s two principal religions. (6) The Yorkshire Post was of the view that the funeral was ‘almost the last flicker of chivalry in warfare’.

The German High Command admitted the loss of three U-boats. (7)  Five are recorded as lost for the month of October 1939, but none of these are attributed to French action. Two were depth-charged by British ships in the North Atlantic south-west of Ireland on 13 and 14 October respectively (U-42 and U-45) , and three in the Straits of Dover: U-12, which was mined on 8 October; U-40, which also fell to a British minefield on 13 October; and U-16, attributed to a British minefield. (8) 

Could French action have contributed to the demise of U-16? The French press reported that their Navy had recently been active and that a patrol vessel had recovered some bodies from a submarine sunk off Dunkirk. (9) That patrol vessel was the Épinal, which had launched a night attack on a submarine on 26 October (presumably in the early hours of that day), while acting on intelligence that U-boat activity was expected in the Straits of Dover on 26-27 October. (10)

It thus seems that the Épinal might have been the last on the scene, which is also suggested by her crew recovering the U-boat commander alive. (11) Action by British and French patrols, unknown to each other, would also account for the actions reported in the press as heard at different times in different places. Some sources suggest that the Épinal was first on the scene, with the British second, but this fits less well with the time frame and the known actions of Puffin and Cayton Wyke

That U-boat commander subsequently died despite being taken to hospital. He was identified as Kapitänleutnant Horst Wellner and, it seems, the loss may have been attributed to U-14. It is possible that his lifejacket was marked U-14, which he had commanded up until two weeks previously, his service aboard U-14 ending on 11 October 1939, before taking on the command of U-16 the following day.

The British and French press widely reported the discovery of ’50 or 60′ bodies, surely a conjecture or an exaggeration for propaganda purposes, since the normal crew complement was 22-24. (12) In total 19 bodies washed ashore or were picked up at sea on the Kent coast, near Dunkirk, and Ameland, Netherlands. (13) It seems likely that four bodies were recovered from the wreck by the British, since four German seamen whose date of death is 25th October 1939 are buried in Cannock Chase German Cemetery, namely, Paul Hanf, Hans Keil, Rolf Krämer, and Friedhelm Mahnke, and these four, together with the other 19 bodies, would fit with a crew complement of 23. (14) 

Did the Goodwin Sands themselves play a part in the U-boat’s loss? It would have been all too easy for a disabled submarine to drift helplessly and become ensnared upon the sands, an easy prey for any patrol vessel happening by. The ‘Demon Sands’ headline in the Manchester Evening Press made good copy and the article rehashed the many legends of the Goodwin Sands: though fanciful, it almost seems to suggest that the Sands themselves had reached out to snare the enemy. (15)

The expression ‘ships that pass in the night’ reveals a fundamental truth about not only shipping movements but also shipping losses: a spider’s web spins out interconnecting one wreck with another. Wellner in U-14 (which would be scuttled in 1945 off Wilhelmshaven as the Allies closed in on Germany) had been responsible for the reconnaissance mission which had led to the very recent loss of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. (16) 

Similarly, U-16‘s British attacker HMS Cayton Wyke would herself be lost to war causes on 8 July 1940, near the U-16 on the Goodwin Sands: her position of loss links her both to her victim and to the landscape of war in which she served as patrol vessel. HMS Puffin would survive the war, closing the war as she had begun, by accounting for a German submarine.

By the end of October the U-16 was regarded as unsalvageable: ‘The submarine is little more than a shattered wreck, and the remains are gradually sinking into the sand owing to the continuance of the bad weather.’ (17) 

Fairly unusually for the Goodwin Sands, where even very recent wrecks have disappeared completely, the site of the U-16 has a secure charting history since early 1940 as the location of a submarine, although the identity of the site is not confirmed.  (18) However, the description of her position  ‘near’ two other wrecks, now among those which have disappeared, may provide a clue to their location: the uncharted Sibiria and the Val Salice, both lost in the same storm in 1916, whose charting is now regarded as ‘dead’. (19) This suggests that in 1939 either that they remained partially visible or at least their positions were still within living memory among the seamen of the Kent coast.

 

(1) based on the location of the vessel identified as U-16, UKHO 13666.

(2) https://uboat.net/boats/u16.htm

(3)  or example, in The Scotsman, Friday 27 October 1939, No.30.083, p9, and elsewhere in the British national and regional press.

(4)  Birmingham Mail, 27 October 1939, No.22,988, p9

(5) Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1939 [no issue number] p5, and also reported elsewhere in the British press.

(6) Nord-Maritime, 29/30/31 October 1939, repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French) ; Yorkshire Evening Post, 27 October 1939, No.15,302, p6

(7)  Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1939 [no issue number] p5

(8) uboat.net

(9)  Nord-Maritime 29 October 1939, repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)

(10) ibid; also an article from 11 years later in Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950clearly commemorating the anniversary of previous events, similarly repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)

(11) Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950, repr. in http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm   with further commentary on the same link (in French)

(12) https://uboat.net/types/iib.htm

(13) https://uboat.net/boats/u16.htm

(14) Commonwealth War Graves Commission 

(15) Manchester Evening News, 27 October 1939, No.21,989 p1, p6

(16) Konstam, A. 2015 U-47 in Scapa Flow: The Sinking of HMS Royal Oak 1939 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd) p20

(17) The Scotsman, 31 October 1939, No.30,086 p11

(18) UKHO 13666

(19) North-Eastern Gazette (later Middlesbrough Gazette), 27 October 1939 [no issue no.], p1; Val Salice, UKHO 13729

Diary of the Second World War: September 1939

Alex van Opstal

As Britain prepared for the much-anticipated onslaught of war during the ‘Phoney War’ period, in which little appeared to be happening militarily, events at sea were already moving fast. Enemy minefields were sown in various locations around the coasts of England virtually from the declaration of war (claiming the Goodwood and the Magdapur in different locations off the east coast just a week into the war).

The worldwide toll of ships attacked by U-boats in September 1939 reached 52, the majority sunk, although a number were captured. At this stage of the war, the majority of the ships attacked were British, and most were forced to stop by an initial warning shot before the crews were forced to leave. A significant proportion of that month’s activity took place in the Baltic region as ships from neutral Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden were stopped and, if discovered to be bound for the UK, captured and diverted to German ports, or sunk.

The first neutral ship to be lost in the war within English waters was the Belgian motor vessel Alex van Opstal, belonging to the Compagnie Maritime Belge, 5,965 tons, built in 1937 and named after the company’s recently-deceased president. The Alex van Opstal left New York for Antwerp on 6 September, three days into the war, with a general cargo, predominantly grain (3,400 tons), 59 crew, and eight passengers. (1) All must have been anxious as to what awaited them in European waters, but none could have predicted what happened next.

On 15 September, while proceeding up Channel, she was ordered to call at Weymouth for examination by the British authorities. It was after ‘making a stopover in England’, as a French newspaper put it, (2), that there was a sudden explosion under No.2 hold.

The news likewise exploded around the world. Plans for press censorship and a Ministry of Information were well established in advance of the outbreak of war, and in fact it was a retired naval commander, Rear-Admiral George Pirie Thomson, who became the Chief Censor for the War: he was new in post in those early days. (3)

It was therefore an official Ministry of Information press release the following day which revealed the recent loss of four ships, three British and the Alex van Opstal. No dates or locations were released for the British ships, but the MoI was happy to offer more information regarding the date and place of loss of the loss of the Belgian vessel ‘late last night [15th September] off the Shambles lightship, near Weymouth.’ (4) The Ministry statement added further information from the master, Vital Delgoffe, who believed that the vessel had struck a mine, although at that stage a torpedo had not been ruled out. In either case the British authorities made it extremely clear that it was seen as an ‘infraction’.

‘If his opinion is well-founded, the Ministry adds the mine must without doubt have been dropped by an enemy minelayer, as at no time have the British laid live mines anywhere near the spot where the Alex van Opstal sank.’ (5) The propaganda war had begun along with the physical war, and here the British took the offensive. In Belgium an artist’s impression of the scene made the cover of the weekend magazine Ons Volk, with the highly inaccurate but emotive detail of a nursing mother escaping in a boat (there were no children or infants on board).

The press in Britain, France, and the Netherlands reported the reaction in the German press to the sinking, which suggested that ‘the sinking could undoubtedly be ascribed to Mr. Churchill’ and that the vessel, ‘if, indeed, torpedoed at all’ was not torpedoed by a German submarine. (6) Yet a portrait of the Alex van Opstal appeared in the Kriegsmarine magazine of the German Navy in October 1939, and we now know that the mine had been laid five days previously by U-26, Kapitänleutnant Klaus Ewerth. (7) 

According to Alfred Thorne, assistant engineer aboard the ship, following the explosion ‘we were plunged into darkness and fuel oil poured down like a torrent . . . We rushed up on deck and found that the ship had been cut clean in two.’ All the passengers and crew left in the ship’s boats and pulled over to the Greek steamer Atlanticos. (8) 

A seaplane then reported the Atlanticos‘ location to boats to which the crew and passengers were transferred. Several of the passengers and crew were taken to hospital suffering from ‘fractures and shock’, including an ‘elderly’ female passenger with a broken arm, who was allowed to go on to a hotel afterwards, although six men were detained in hospital. (9) With the exception of the master and four other men, who remained in hospital in Weymouth, one man evidently having been discharged, two days later the crew were back home in Ostend. (10) 

By the time a Devon newspaper reported that an empty lifeboat from the Alex van Opstal was found adrift 14 miles south of the Bill of Portland and towed into Brixham by her compatriot, the trawler Bolnes, another shipping loss was making headline news – the warship HMS Courageous(11)

As we can see, the wreck of the Alex van Opstal was extremely well documented at the time, notwithstanding the press censorship of the event, and on 25 September the wreck was located and marked by a buoy, establishing a secure identification of the site that goes back to 1939. By 1940 that buoy had gone missing but was not, understandably in the light of other marine priorities during the war, replaced, and the site was not investigated again until the post-war period. By 1949 it had been dispersed. (12) 

The wreck is a popular dive today, and even post-dispersal, clearly lies in two parts. A wreck tour published on Divernet contains a dive plan and photo gallery. (13) 

This wreck encapsulates many of the characteristics that would define shipping losses over the course of the Second World War. War causes were common to all, of course, and there would be decisions taken which placed ships in a danger zone, often unwittingly. There would also be official secrecy and propaganda, both of which intensified over the course of time. In its loss there was also a harbinger of the future: 3,400 tons of grain failed to reach its destination on a continent appearing increasingly embattled and vulnerable – hence the need, recognised from the very beginning of the war, to keep the Atlantic open.

In this loss, too, we can also see another trend that would emerge during the Second World War, as during the First: a complex interrelationship of ships in a common underwater cultural heritage woven into the history of the war.

This is best illustrated by what happened next to some of the other players in the story: U-26 would meet her end south-west of Ireland on 1 July 1940, depth-charged and bombed by an Allied air-sea force; the Atlanticos would be herself mined and sunk off the Thames Estuary, carrying a cargo of North American grain, in February 1942; and some of the crew would go on to serve aboard other ships that would in turn be lost: for example, Second Officer Fernand van Geert would serve throughout the war in the Belgian mercantile marine, surviving the torpedoing of the Mercier in June 1941 and the Belgian Airman in April 1945.

(1) Evening Star (Washington), 16 September 1939, No.34,836, p7; Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(2) Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(3) Thomson, G. 1947 Blue Pencil Admiral: The Inside Story of the Press Censorship (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd.)

(4) e.g. Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette, 16 September 1939, No.20,571, p1, and widely reported in similar articles in the British press  

(5) ibid.

(6) Newcastle Journal, 19 September 1939, No.29,150, p5

(7) Die Kriegsmarine, October 1939, repr. in Ships Nostalgia (nd), with photograph of ship in 1937 from the Kriegsmarine article; uboat.net (nd) 

(8) The Atlanticos was herself mined off the Thames Estuary laden with North American grain in 1942. 

(9) Belfast Telegraph, 16 September 1939, [no issue number on masthead] p7; Lancashire Evening Post, 16 September 1939, No.16,418, p5 

(10) De Banier, 22 September 1939, No.3,507, p10

(11) Torbay Express and South Devon Echo, 18 September 1939, No.5,134, p1, p6

(12) UKHO 18617

(13) Divernet, Wreck Tour No.152, repr. from the print edition of Diver, August 2011. 

(*) Leeuwarder Courant, 19 September 1939, Vol. 188, No.221, p10

 

Diary of the War: June 1918

A tale of two ships

History has a habit of repeating itself, not least at sea. Today’s First World War wreck has a namesake with a very similar history in the Second World War: both vessels were owned by the same firm originally and were likewise lost to enemy action on Admiralty service in English waters, both with significant loss of life.

On 13 June 1918 HMS Patia was sunk by in the Bristol Channel in a position said to be 25 miles west of Hartland Point, while on service as an armed merchant cruiser. She was built in 1913 for Elders and Fyffes (of banana fame), whose early 20th century ships took advantage of modern refrigeration technology to transport bananas across the Atlantic to ensure fruit reached market in peak edible condition.

A photograph of her sinking is in the Imperial War Museums Collection online.

Their second Patia, built in 1922, entered Admiralty service first as an ocean boarding vessel, then underwent conversion to a fighter catapult ship. She too was sunk on 27 April 1941 off Beadnell Point, Northumberland, by an aerial attack, but not before her crew had downed the attacking aircraft – continuing the theme of mutually-assured destruction covered in last month’s post.

It’s worth reiterating that the War Diary has showcased the war service of many of the world’s commercial shipping fleets during the First World War, and these companies would reprise that service during the Second.

Wartime deployment would depend to some extent on their original civilian roles. We have already seen how trawlers became minesweepers, Scandinavian colliers were requisitioned and redeployed in British collier service, and ocean liners became troopships and hospital ships – and also armed merchant cruisers, a form of vessel we have not hitherto covered in the War Diary.

Patia‘s speed as a specialist banana carrier made her suitable for carrying out this auxiliary naval role, which she successfully performed from November 1914 right up until 13 June 1918, armed with 6 x 6in howitzers and 2 x 3pdr anti-aircraft guns. She served principally in the North Atlantic between Scotland and Iceland, and from 1917 took up convoy escort duties. Her logs survive up till 30 April 1918, showing that in February she had escorted a convoy home from Dakar (Senegal) before docking at Avonmouth on the 25th for maintenance. Subsequent entries reveal “chipping and painting” over the next month, that is, getting rid of rust before applying a fresh coat of paint. (1)

No further logs survive, highlighting one of the key difficulties in researching the events of a century ago. As usual, the Admiralty press release was extremely brief, hiding the location of loss:

‘The Admiralty on Monday night issued the following: – H.M. armed mercantile cruiser Patia, Acting Captain W. G. Howard, R.N., was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on the 13th inst.

‘One officer and 15 men, including eight of the mercantile crew, are missing, presumed drowned. The next-of-kin have been informed.’ (2)

The details which made it into the press at the time focused on the human interest aspect, including the deaths of local men, which had been depressingly regular reading in regional newspapers since the outbreak of war. For example:

‘CASUALTIES AMONG MIDLAND MEN.

‘The following additional particulars of local men killed have been supplied:-

‘Signalman William Harold B. Roe, RNVR, HMS Patia, lost his life through the Patia being torpedoed on the 13th inst. The elder son of Mr William Roe . . . he was educated at King Edward’s Grammar School, holding scholarships. On leaving school he entered Lloyds Bank and rapidly progressed. On January 10, 1918, he was married to Miss Alice Williams . . . ‘ (3)

Likewise, the Western Daily Press reported:

‘A Portishead man, Mr Leslie Victor Atwell, lost his life in the ill-fated Patia. He was a naval reservist and joined up on the outbreak of war. He was 35 years of age, married, and previously an employee of the Docks Committee.’ (4)

More happily, another feature referred to the ‘Exciting Experiences of Famous Young Walsall Violinist’:

‘One of the able seamen who was saved from the Patia was Harold Mills, Walsall’s brilliant young violinist. He arrived in Walsall after a short stay in an English hospital, and in a chat with a representative of the Observer, spoke on all subjects except his being torpedoed.’

It emerged that he spent an hour in a boat which then picked him up and transferred him to an American destroyer. Mills gave good copy:

‘Most of his kit was lost, including his violin, but, as he philosophically expressed it, it was not his best.’ (5)

The stories of the two Patias are not wholly similar, however. The second Patia is almost certainly identified off the Northumberland coast (6), whereas the location of the 1918 Patia is not fully clear.

A site formerly attributed to Patia has since proved to be the Armenian, another First World War casualty of 1915, identified by her bell. (7) Patia is now believed to lie in a different location in the Bristol Channel, itself further west than the stated position of 25 miles west of Hartland Point, although such positions are not necessarily reliably expressed. That site’s charting history reaches back to 1928 but no further: this does not necessarily preclude its identification with Patia, since, after all, many First World War vessels have only been discovered in recent years. (8)

The submarine which attacked the first Patia in 1918 was herself sunk in August of that year off Start Point by HMS Opossum. The Heinkel responsible for sinking the second Patia in 1941, and shot down in its turn, has to date not been located.

(1) https://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-08-HMS_Patia.htm

(2) Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 21 June 1918, No.7,160, p5

(3) Birmingham Daily Post, Thursday 20 June 1918, No.18,738, p7

(4) Western Daily Press, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.18,728, p6

(5) Walsall Observer, and South Staffordshire Chronicle, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.2,591, p3

(6) UKHO 4390

(7) UKHO 16089

(8) UKHO 17227

 

Diary of the War: 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.

 

 

 

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.