Diary of the War: August 1918

‘He has made several attempts to break our fence . . . ‘

Over the summer of 1918, following the German gains of the Spring Offensive on the Western front, things were changing rapidly as the Allies began to regain territory. The French counter-attacked on the Marne on 18 July, while from 8 August onwards the Battle of Amiens saw the Allies advancing, pushing the Germans back eastward in the final push, a period known as the 100 Days’ Offensive.

At sea too, things were changing rapidly, as demonstrated by UB-109‘s final voyage. Throughout the war the Straits of Dover had been a heavily contested area with high levels of submarine activity and both British and German minefields. Over 1917-18 the Straits were increasingly fortified both on land and at sea, taking advantage of new surveillance technologies and improving the Dover Barrage, which became a formidable defence against U-boats. (1)

Modern colour photograph of a circular structure cut into a chalk cliff at the centre of the image, surrounded by green vegetation.
Sound mirror, Fan Bay, Dover. © Historic England DP189097. Constructed circa 1916-17, and certainly operational by October 1917 when an aircraft flying through the Channel was detected, and therefore characteristic of the increasing fortification of the Straits of Dover on land, at sea and in the air. Scheduled in 2017.

At this stage of the war British newspapers were making bold claims about the success of the Dover Barrage: ‘The enemy has found it such an annoyance, and so great a barrier to the activities of his U craft, he has made several attempts to break our fence, but his attacks have only resulted in severe losses for him. Blocked by our old sunken cruisers, barred by the Dover barrier, and bombed without cessation from the air, the German Flanders flotillas have become almost useless.’ claimed one paper. (2)

Another stated: ‘All Ostend and Zeebrugge submarines have now been practically barred from going through the Straits of Dover. Those only capable of short distance work turned to the North Sea . . . The short distance fleet having been practically wiped out, Germany reinforced her Flanders flotillas with long distance submarines. These are not going through the Straits of Dover in any numbers. Some, manned by men of a sporting type, who volunteer to make a dash for it, do get through. We get others in the attempt.’ (3)

One of those who ‘got through’ was UB-109, which slipped out of Zeebrugge in the early hours of 28 July 1918. She was making a long-distance voyage for a U-boat of her UBIII class, which were normally used on coastal torpedo attack operations and as such were normally operational in the North Sea and English Channel. Under the experienced command of Kapitänleutnant Kurt Ramien, who had previously commanded UC1 and UC48, she was bound for an Atlantic patrol off the Azores.

It certainly required courage to negotiate the Dover Barrage, which could justifiably be described as a sea ‘fence’, as described in the newspapers. At this late stage in the war it was a double fence at either end of the Straits of Dover (illustrated Figure 9 in the UB-109 report) with a net barrage between the Goodwins and Dyck in Belgium to the north-east, reinforced by an array of deep mines SE of the South Foreland, as if it were a moat or trench behind the line. To the south-west the Folkestone Mine Barrage stretched between Folkestone and Cap Gris-Nez in France, broken only by the dangerous sandbank of the Varne. This barrage was laid in rows with mines in each row set at increasingly greater depths westward. so that submarines were either forced to surface, when they stood a great chance of being spotted by patrols, or dive, when they would be forced to battle through mines laid at varying depths.

Ramien and UB-109 just scraped through unscathed outward-bound, after lying submerged on the Bligh Bank off the Belgian coast during daylight hours. (4) The westward flow of the tide eased their passage through the barrage, but technical problems with the hydroplane motor forced them to break surface, where they were attacked by patrol vessels near the Folkestone Mine Barrage and forced to dive once more.

In the meantime, of course, this minefield presented an obvious problem for the British, Allied and neutral shipping which also had to pass through the Straits of Dover. There was actually a gap in the ‘fence’ just off Folkestone maintained for friendly shipping, known as the Folkestone Gate, and the depth of the mines was calculated to increase the risk to submarines and minimise the risk to surface vessels. However, while Ramien was out in the Atlantic, the British closed the ‘gap in the fence’ with a field of shore-controlled mines.

These defences were in place by the beginning of the second week of August. Some time after 8 August, UC-71 struck one of these new mines, but managed to limp through the barrage back to base and resume patrol in September 1917. Her escape alerted the German authorities to the new deployment and a radio warning was put out. (5)

For some reason UB-109 was apparently unaware of the warning as she began her return voyage after 16 August.  Secondary sources attempt to explain this away by the removal of his radio masts but this is not substantiated in contemporary source material – could he simply have been out of range? His submarine’s return passage can be marked by her victims:  one ship sunk on 19 August NE of the Azores, and two off the coast of Brittany on 25-26 August.

In the early hours of 29 August Ramien attempted once more to pass through the supposed ‘gate’. As usual in these First World War narratives, accounts of what happened next differ slightly, but essentially a patrol vessel blocking the ‘gate’ forced UB-109 to alter course and as the U-boat submerged she entered a shore-controlled minefield. It is also unclear exactly how the field was controlled: attributed either to a listening station at Shakespeare Cliff, Dover, or to a Bragg or induction loop (similar to modern assistive technology now employed to help deaf and hard-of-hearing people hear in public places) although other sources attribute no operational successes to the Bragg loop until October 1918. (6)

British interrogation reports reveal that the survivors couldn’t hear each other as they tried to escape, temporarily deafened by the change in air pressure as water rushed in. (7) After a struggle to open the conning tower hatch, there was another struggle to get free as Ramien and two other survivors became wedged in together. Out of a crew of 36, only eight would survive, to be taken prisoner.

The wreck was found and buoyed ‘broken nearly in half’ on the following morning by the famous ‘Tin Openers’ (naval intelligence divers) who searched the wreck for any revealing material. Possibly because of secrecy surrounding their operations, there is no apparent history of the wreck being charted in 1918, however – the site would not be charted for another 60 years when it was rediscovered. It is seen to be lying in two parts, certainly at least characteristic of mine blast damage. More specifically, she is noted to have greater damage aft of the conning tower, consistent with contemporary ‘Tin Opener’ reports which noted this.

Multibeam image of wreck on seabed, with blues representing depths, greens areas of sandbank, and reds the upstanding wreck structure, broken in two, orientated lower left to upper right of image.
Multibeam image of wreck, the probable remains of UB-109, seen on an NW-SE axis. Wessex Archaeology.

Her propellers are no longer in situ but reports suggest that one was stamped UB-109 and the other UB-104, possibly indicating a shortage of spare parts within the Flanders Flotilla in a service context (antedating the loss of UB-104 in September 1918).  (8)

However, these propellers, which could hold the key to the vessel’s identification, remain untraced. There are some alternative explanations for the UB-104 reading: corrosion damage, superimposed numbering, or misreading of the stamp: numbers on metal from a maritime context can be extremely difficult to decipher (which we will cover again in a forthcoming post). On the balance of probabilities, this wreck is very likely to be UB-109.

Detail of metal plate on neck of white air cylinder, engraved in German.
Detail of plate from air cylinder from U-106, sunk in 1917 and discovered off Terschelling, Netherlands. Although stamped U-106, a stamped ‘7’ compromising the ‘6’ can also be seen. Marine Memorial, Laboe, Germany © Serena Cant
Numbers 0-10 and the date 18.6.16 as shown in contemporary German Skelettschrift
Detail of numbers in a sample of Skelettschrift, showing that, if the upper and lower parts of a 9 are compromised, for example through corrosion, it could be mistaken for a 4 in the same script. (9)

 

(1) Firth, A. 2014 East Coast War Channels in the First and Second World Wars Research Report for Historic England 103/2014; Wessex Archaeology. 2015 UB-109, off Folkestone, Kent: Archaeological Report Research Report for Historic England 123/2015

(2) Sunday Post, No.682, Sunday 8 September 1918, p6

(3) Aberdeen Press and Journal, No.19,869, Friday 6 September 1918, p3

(4) Wessex Archaeology 2015

(5) Wessex Archaeology 2015; uboat.net

(6) Wessex Archaeology 2015; Grant, R. 1964 U-boats destroyed: the effect of anti-submarine warfare 1914-1918 London: Putnam; McDonald, K. 1994 Dive Kent: a diver guide Teddington: Underwater World Publications; Walding, R. 2009 “Bragg & Mitchell’s Anti-Submarine Loop”, Australian Physics 46 (2009), pp140-145

(7) Messimer, D. 2002. Verschollen: World War I U-boat Losses Annapolis: Naval Institute Press; Wessex Archaeology 2015

(8) Wessex Archaeology 2015

(9) Endress, F. c.1919 (facsimile edition 2012) Handgeschriebene Schriften: Schriftenvorlagen für einfache und leichtauszufuhrende Beschriftungen in verschiedenartiger Anwendung, in der Technik, fur Gewerbe, Schule und Haus, auch fur den Selbstunterricht zusammengestellt Mainz: Verlag Hermann Schmidt

 

Diary of the War: October 1916

The wreck in two places at once

In this blog we’ve occasionally encountered wrecks that are in two places at once. The Mary Rose is a good example: after being raised in 1982, her principal structure lies in the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth, but she is still a designated wreck site offshore with some remains still in situ. We’ve also looked at the ship that was wrecked in two separate countries, leaving different bits behind each time.

HMS Nubian is another example of a similar phenomenon. One of the Tribal-class destroyers which patrolled the Dover Straits during the First World War (see the story of Viking, Ghurka, and Maori in action against U-8), she was sent out to intercept a surprise Channel raid by the enemy in the early hours of 27 October 1916. A visit by the Kaiser to Zeebrugge had led the Admiralty to expect a German landing west of Nieuwpoort (possibly a diversionary tactic which succeeded in drawing out some of the British naval forces towards Dunkirk?) (1)

There were six Tribal-class destroyers stationed at Dover, with HMS Zulu patrolling out at sea further west, and the net barrage guarded by 28 auxiliary trawlers and drifters, in company with the destroyer HMS Flirt. Against them 24 German destroyers were steaming up Channel: Flirt issued a challenge, which was returned, and they steamed past in the dark, assumed to be part of the British movements that night.

This was a fatal mistake since the first attack of the night resulted in the sinking of HMT Waveney II off the net barrage. Flirt went to her assistance: in the meantime those on board the auxiliary yacht Ombra had grasped the situation, reporting enemy activity to the authorities and ordering the remaining HMTs back to Dover. Flirt herself came under attack at ‘point blank range’ which blew up her boilers, causing her to sink within five minutes. The Queen troopship was then captured and despatched. remaining adrift for about six hours before foundering off the Goodwin Sands. Fortunately she was carrying mail on her run from Boulogne to Folkestone, rather than troops.

By this time the destroyers in Dover were steaming out to investigate. As Nubian approached the net barrage destined to snare submarines, she was on her own without support, though by now further assistance was coming from the Dunkirk and Harwich quarters, attempting to trap the German force in a pincer movement.

Six of the retreating patrol drifters, four of which were unarmed, were then sunk by the German raiders – Spotless Prince, Launch Out, Gleaner of the Sea, Datum, Ajax II and Roburn (which had also been involved in the engagement with U-8)

The Nubian reached 9A Buoy in the net barrage, from which the commotion had come, then turned about – straight into the German 17th Flotilla steaming towards her. The first two enemy torpedoes missed, but the third found its target and blew off her bows. The rest of the ship was taken in tow, but, as a gale sprang up, she drove ashore near the South Foreland.

You might think from the title of this article that that’s it: Nubian now rests in two places: in mid-Channel and near the South Foreland. In fact, her story is much more interesting than that. We return now to a bit-player in the events of 26-27 October 1916, HMS Zulu: a minefield in the Straits of Dover would ‘terminate her career’, in the words of the official history. (2) On the afternoon of 8 November 1916 she struck a mine which ‘shattered her after part’, with her bow section being towed to Calais.

Something of a pattern was emerging here . . .

In what was later described as a ‘grafting’ operation, (3) using the language of the pioneering plastic surgery techniques which emerged out of the injuries of the First World War, the two grounded sections – the  bow section of Zulu and the aft section of Nubian – were salvaged, joined together and given the portmanteau name HMS Zubian.

As Zubian, therefore, both wrecks rejoined the Dover Patrol. Who knows how many times she passed over the remains of her component ships below?.She would later be credited with ramming UC-50 (a misidentification: probably UC-79) (4) and would participate in the Zeebrugge raid of 23 April 1918. Several of the Tribal-class were disposed of in 1919 : unsurprisingly, Zubian was among them, after everything she had been through. (5)

Nubian was the ship that was salved because another ship was wrecked: fortuitous and resourceful recycling in a time of war.

Black and white photograph of warship at sea in the lower half of the photograph, seen in starboard view, bows towards the right of the image.
Aerial view of HMS Zubian, from starboard. To modern eyes this image looks commonplace, but we should remember that aerial views were literally a fresh perspective on ships at war. © IWM Q61101.

 

(1) Naval Staff Monographs, Vol. XVII. Home Waters, Part VII: June 1916 to November 1916  London: Admiralty, 1927, p185-189. The acccount here is principally derived from this source, supplemented by information from the wreck records in the National Record of the Historic Environment for each vessel lost (see links).

(2) ibid., p208

(3) The Times, 28 February 1935, No.47,000, p13

(4) uboat.net

(5) The Times, 22 November 1919, No.42,264, p9

 

U-8

The oldest First World War German U-boat and the earliest German submarine to be sunk in English territorial waters – the U-8 – has been given protection by the Secretary of State for Culture as a Protected Historic Wreck site, on the advice of Historic England.

Pioneering underwater survey techniques were used in 2015 to survey the site and assist the case for its protection.

Exploring New Technologies for Underwater Research

Historic England recently commissioned an innovative survey of a First World War submarine wreck in order provide data to support its protection and to test the application of new equipment for archaeological research.

Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) have been used offshore for some time and the development of smaller systems has opened up a range of inshore opportunities for archaeological investigation. With recent advances in technology, these small AUV systems boast a suite of remote sensors that can include impressive underwater survey tools: side-scan sonar, multibeam echosounder, sub-bottom profiler, magnetometer and an underwater camera.

In order to test such a system for use in underwater archaeology, we commissioned Wessex Archaeology to carry out an AUV survey of the German U-Boat U-8 located some 10 nautical miles off Dover. Our First World War wreck diary provides more details of the loss of the U-8.

For the investigation, we deployed an Ocean Server Iver3 AUV which carried Edgetech 2205 sonar transducers and towed a Marine Magnetics Explorer magnetometer (Fig. 1). The AUV was about 2m in length and weighed approximately 40kg; light enough to be deployed by two people. The stated endurance of 8 hours was enough to ensure sufficient coverage of the U-8 target area. However, it was not known how the system would cope with a moderate sea state and tidal streams of up to 2.6 knots, so it was therefore decided to deploy the system to coincide with slack water during neap tides to give the best operational window possible.

Man dressed in black to the right of the image looks over the railing of a boat at an underwater vehicle on the surface of the water to his left.
Fig. 1. The AUV used to survey the U-8. © Wessex Archaeology

Before the AUV could be used to acquire data over the U-8, its buoyancy needed to be adjusted for the salinity and density of the seawater and the underwater survey lines were planned on a laptop with software calculating where the AUV needed to dive down and where it was to come back up. Survey positioning was provided by a GPS receiver within the AUV when at the surface and below the surface positioning was provided by a RDI Doppler velocity log, depth sensor and corrected compass. The AUV can only be communicated with via Wi-Fi when it is at the surface.

Deployment of the AUV at the wreck site was relatively straightforward, even in the slight to moderate sea state encountered, and it was programmed to fly around 10m off the seabed. Unlike a conventional towed system though, the geophysicist was unable to see live images of data as the sensor passed over the seabed: there is no way of knowing that the data is of sufficient quality or that the survey lines have been positioned correctly to ensonify (image) the target site, until the AUV is recovered to the vessel. This can make for a nervous time whilst the geophysicist is waiting to see the data!

The sea state did have an effect on the performance of the AUV whilst in the water in two ways. Firstly, the waves tended to swamp the ‘conning tower’ containing the GPS tracking system, which meant that the AUV sometimes had difficulty acquiring a GPS signal, causing it to refuse to start surveying. Secondly, when slack water was lost, the AUV struggled to get into its start of line position as it laboured against the tide, unable to dive. However, its endurance seemed good despite this, with the AUV deployed for about 6 hours with no requirement for a battery change.

Following recovery of the AUV and data download we could see that the side-scan sonar imagery showed a clearly defined submarine with detail of the conning tower visible. Sharp detail was observed in the acoustic shadow that shows the presence of three distinct upstanding narrow features, two on the conning tower (possibly periscopes) and one just behind (interpreted as the radio mast) (Fig. 2).The magnetometer data was also of good quality with a large magnetic anomaly observed over the location of the wreck, as would be expected.

Side-scan sonar image showing vessel on its side, with its central structure clearly visible, picked out in white against an undulating textured yellowish brown background representing the seabed.
Fig. 2.  Image of the U-8 in side-scan sonar data. Crown copyright, image by Wessex Archaeology

Some challenges were identified with the bathymetry data, particularly where some of the smaller features observed in the side-scan sonar imagery were not visible owing to the relatively low resolution of the bathymetry (Fig. 3). In addition, the on-board camera did not pick up any footage of the U-8 despite the visibility being around 8m.

Multi-coloured textured image of seabed set against a plain black background. The seabed is primarily greens and blues, with a raised section in reddish hues representing the wreck above the seabed.
Fig. 3. Image of the U-8 in multibeam bathymetry data. Crown copyright, image by Wessex Archaeology

During this, our first, archaeological trial of an AUV, the system performed reasonably well, giving sharp imagery that has aided our interpretation of the U-8’s condition. We’ve learnt some important lessons for future operations, particularly in understanding the effects of tidal currents on the AUV during data collection. Use of the AUV proved a cost-effective method of survey in a busy shipping channel with the same methodology being applicable to other sites that are similarly difficult to reach, such as those in proximity to shore, those in deep water, or otherwise restricted in some way. The system is also particularly well suited to more benign waters such as ports, or natural and manmade harbours, and if the circumstances allow the system to be launched from shore, then the cost savings could be considerable when compared to established survey methods.

Toby Gane and Dr Stephanie Arnott, with Mark Dunkley

Toby Gane is a Senior Project Manager and Stephanie Arnott is a Senior Marine Geophysicist at Wessex Archaeology.

Mark Dunkley is Historic England’s marine designation adviser.

No. 94 HMHS Anglia

Diary of the War No.16

Today’s First World War Diary entry commemorates the loss of HMHS Anglia on 17 November 1915. Built in 1900 for the London and North-Western Railway, she became one of many civilian vessels requisitioned for war service. A couple of months ago, in the story of the Africa, we saw how railway companies at home built and exported railway carriages to support the evacuation of wounded servicemen from the front overseas. The ferries owned by railway companies also played their part: Anglia‘s peacetime role as a passenger vessel fitted her well for her wartime function as a hospital ship.

It was on one such journey from Boulogne to Dover, carrying nearly 400 wounded soldiers and medical staff, that Anglia struck a mine laid by UC-5 in the Straits of Dover. UC-5 had been active in mining the key route from London to France, laying fields off the Sunk in the Thames Estuary, off Dover, and off Boulogne itself. (1) Following the explosion the boats were got out and the first party of 50 quickly escaped.

Black and white photograph of rowing boats in foreground and middle ground, steering away from sinking hospital ship in the background. To the right background a black vessel stands by to assist.
Anglia, in her hospital ship livery, after striking the mine; to the right another ship (in black) can be seen standing by, identified as HM TB No.4, though published in the Illustrated London News in January 1916 with a caption identifying her as the Lusitania. The high viewpoint shows that the photograph has been taken from another vessel, rather than from a boat. © IWM Q22867.

The ship then began to list heavily and sank so rapidly that some of the crew and passengers, soldiers and medical staff alike, unfortunately went down with her. The exact numbers are not quite clear but it is believed around 129 persons lost their lives, including some of the wounded.

Black and white photograph of vessel sinking, throwing up spray, and resulting in visible sea turbulence.
This photograph of the Anglia‘s sinking shows the impact of her final plunge. © IWM 822866.

One of the vessels which steamed to her assistance was the Lusitania, bound from London to Lisbon and Cadiz, a route reflected in her name, by which the Romans had known their province roughly corresponding to modern Portugal. By coincidence, she was also lost to enemy action in the same year as the more famous vessel of that name, as she subsequently struck a mine in the same field as the Anglia, and sank half a mile south.

Three-dimensional colour image of wreck on the seabed, picked out in contrast colours modelling the wreck, with dark blue the seabed, light blue the lowest point and red showing the highest points of the wreck.
The Anglia as she now lies, from a multibeam survey in 2014. Wessex Archaeology © Crown copyright.

Anglia was not the first hospital ship loss of the war, nor would she be the last. (In a previous War Diary entry we have looked at the Rohilla, lost on the rocks near Whitby in October 1914.) The Red Cross livery signalled Anglia‘s humanitarian function to friend and foe alike, but was no talisman against minefields, which respected neither nationality nor function. Those evacuated from the front were saved from one hell, only for some to lose their lives in another.

Update 02 December 2015: ‘Twice Shipwrecked in an Hour’. For an interesting article looking at some of the survivors of Anglia and Lusitania, click here.

(1) Naval Staff Monographs (Historical), Vol. XV Home Waters – Part VI: from October 1915 to May 1916, Admiralty, London, 1926