Diary of the War: December 1918 and after

The Aftermath

Visitors to the Cenotaph in Whitehall may occasionally pass by and wonder why the end date of the First World War is inscribed as MCMXIX (1919) and not MCMXVIII (1918). Dating inscriptions on some war memorials follow this practice, while others adhere to the conventional dating (as we now understand it) of 1914-1918.

The usual explanation for the use of 1919 derives from the Armistice of 11 November 1918 being a cessation of hostilities, rather than a formal peace, which was delivered by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919.

At the Armistice land soldiers could put down their guns and retire from their artillery posts at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 (although, as the recent commemorations have shown, there were pockets where it didn’t quite happen like that).

At sea the naval blockade of Germany would continue until Versailles. The threat of live hostile action was gone, but huge minefields remained a threat, their sweeping a laborious and ongoing task. Until well into 1920, mines regularly caused shipping casualties, resulting in a special section inserted into Lloyd’s War Losses devoted to “Vessels Sunk by Mines after Nov. 11th, 1918”. (1)

Thereafter shipping losses due to mines tailed off, but stray mines adrift from their original fields, and hence incapable of being swept up, since their locations were unknown, remained a persistent but deadly nuisance to shipping right up to 1925. The Swedish sailing vessel Hans, lost that year with the majority of her crew off Gotland, is the last reported mine casualty.

Within English waters, the post-war victims of mines included minesweepers: HMS Penarth, off the Yorkshire coast, 24 February 1919 and HMS Cupar, off Tynemouth, 5 May 1919. Among civilian shipping the English collier De Fontaine was mined off the coast of Kent on 16 November 1918, while the Norwegian cargo vessels Bonheur and Eidsfos sank after striking mines off Coquet Island on 23 December 1918. Trawlers faced particular dangers: Strathord brought up a mine in her trawl off the Yorkshire coast on 23 February 1920, ironically after having seen service as a minesweeper.

Occasionally fishing vessels could trawl up other relics of the war. On 20 November 1920, the Brixham trawler Our Laddie fouled a wreck and brought up ‘the 30ft section of a trawler’s mainmast, with shrouds and wire stays intact . . . where the mainmast was broken was found a huge piece of shrapnel.’ (2) The men of the Our Laddie identified the vessel as the remains of the General Leman, lost in a gunnery attack on 29 January 1918 on several fishing vessels off Start Point by UB-55.

The General Leman had belonged to Milford Haven but was clearly a sufficiently familiar sight off the coast of South Devon for the Brixham trawlermen to identify her mast – from among the several vessels of the fleet sunk on that day nearly three years previously. Possibly some of the men who hauled the mast aboard or those who saw it delivered to the Brixham quayside had been eyewitnesses to the incident and were able to piece together the identification.

There was also another group of vessels which would otherwise not have been lost in the seas around the United Kingdom during this period, had the war not taken place. Most famously, of course, the interned German High Seas Fleet was scuttled by order of Admiral Ludwig von Reuter on 21 June 1919 at Scapa Flow, Orkney, Scotland, where the remains of the battleships König, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf and the cruisers Brummer, Dresden, Karlsruhe and Köln are today protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

The events at Scapa Flow have tended to overshadow another group of German vessels in the historical record: the U-boats which began arriving at Harwich in groups from November 1918, to be surrendered outright. They were then disposed of by the Admiralty, chiefly by sale for breaking, although some were retained for the Admiralty’s own use in experiments and trials.

In contrast to the warships at Orkney, therefore, the wrecks of German origin within English waters during the post-war period principally comprise the remains of U-boats, although a few other German naval vessels are known, such as the cruiser SMS Baden, scuttled off St. Catherine’s Deep on 16 August 1921.

Some of the U-boats were expended in trials (for example, a group of five or six submarines beached at Falmouth following trials, then broken up, although some remains exist). Others, stripped of their engines, foundered or were driven ashore after parting tow en route to the breakers, such as U118 at Hastings in April 1919 (covered in a previous post). In other words, the sea effectively did the job of the breakers for them – to put the submarines entirely beyond use – although it must have been a source of chagrin to the commercial buyers, who had often purchased the hulls from the Admiralty for considerable sums.

Some of the German surface fleet also met similar fates within English waters. The torpedo boat destroyers S24 and T189 parted tow on 12 December 1920 and went ashore on Roundham Head and Preston Sands respectively while bound from Cherbourg for Teignmouth for scrap. Others still were simply abandoned and left to rot, such as the destroyers V44 and V82, identified at Whale Island, Portsmouth, in a piece of research published by the Maritime Archaeology Trust as part of the ‘Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War’ project in 2016 – check out their new interactive map viewer.

Aerial photograph of green saltmarsh with remains of submarine hull in centre, orientated NNW-SSE, the outline of the hull being broken at the upper right.
The remains of a U-boat, believed (at the present state of knowledge) to be UB-122, lie abandoned on Stoke Saltings, Medway, Kent. © Historic England 27196-027

The aim in writing this post is to make the reader aware of the wide variety of post-war shipping casualties, mercantile and naval: those which came about in clearing up the weapons of war, the painful reminders of past losses (as a 1938 fishing chart (3) had it, the East Coast was ‘one mass of wrecks’ of the Great War), and those which came about through the peace process.

The Diary of the First World War concludes here, but will of course remain archived on this blog for reference and we will continue to showcase the breadth and diversity of our maritime heritage around the coasts of England.

A new Diary of the Second World War, following a similar format, will commemce in September 2019 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of its outbreak in 1939.

(1) Lloyd’s of London. 1990 Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-1918 (London: Lloyd’s of London Press Ltd.)

(2) Western Morning News, 15 November 1920, No.18,939, p4

(3) Close’s Fishermen’s Chart of the North Sea, 1938

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, July 1918

The ‘rag-tag and bobtail of the seas’

On 30 July 1918 a U-boat sighted a ship on a westbound course some 25 miles or so off the south Devon coast in the English Channel.

She had happened upon Stock Force, a modern steel-built collier of only 732 tons, launched in 1917, one of the little ‘rag-tag and bobtail of the seas’, under the command of Harold Auten. (1) Steaming westward without convoy, the Stock Force, though small, was better than nothing for a U-boat half-way through a hitherto unsuccessful war patrol.

At 5pm the U-boat launched a torpedo whose track was spotted by the crew of Stock Force, who tried their best to port the helm and put the engines full speed astern. Even so, they could not avoid the incoming torpedo, which struck their ship on the starboard side forward. The explosion caused a ‘tremendous shower’ of timber and a 40-foot hole in her side, and she began to settle down by the bows, with five men injured. (2) There was nothing for it but for the crew to put the long-rehearsed ‘abandon ship’ order into effect.

Not all the crew got away. There were some left behind . . . with five wounded taken below decks by the surgeon, working ‘up to his waist in water’, to have their hurts attended to.  (3)

The U-boat surfaced half a mile distant and watched for some 15 minutes as the crew pulled away, then drew closer to investigate on the port beam, perhaps considering why, as you might too, why a modern vessel, and a collier at that, was throwing up such a shower of timber.

Thus began one of the most well-known duels between a U-boat and a Q-ship. In a sense Stock Force was indeed coasting in home waters, but she was on patrol in the hope of attracting just such attention from a U-boat. The timber was ballast bolted into her hold to keep her afloat in the event of being torpedoed – ‘floatation planks’. (4)

The men who got away were a ‘panic party’ for show: the remainder of a crew larger than usual for a collier of her size were now busy dropping all pretence along with her false sides as they opened fire with the ship’s hidden guns, minus her forward gun and some of the ammunition – the gun had been knocked out of action and the ammunition blown up in the explosion. One man was pinned underneath the forward gun and remained there ‘cheerfully and without complaint’ (5) while in a very real situation of danger. Nevertheless, forty minutes after the torpedo had struck, the Stock Force was engaging her enemy.

Contemporary black and white photograph of merchant seamen, two men in foreground, with gun in background being manned by crew to right.
Manning the gun. Image courtesy of the Butland family, descendants of William Butland, Chief Petty Officer on board Stock Force.

They were all naval men wearing the clothes of merchant seamen, and such was the level of pretence there was even a ‘Board of Lies’ aboard the vessel, so that every man knew the story of each patrol by heart to account for the greater crew complement – the extra men were supposedly crew of one or more mined vessels (always mined, never torpedoed, to avoid the risk of the story not checking out).

The Stock Force continued to attack the U-boat, inflicting so much damage upon her periscope, conning tower, and finally also tearing a hole in the submarine’s hull. They ‘poured shell after shell until the submarine sank by the stern, leaving a quantity of debris on the water.’ (6) In turn the ferocity of the action contributed to the Stock Force‘s own demise and the water gained on them even as they tried to nurse her back towards land.

As Auten would later put it: ‘ . . . it was particularly hard to have got her almost within sight of land – the shore was only eight miles away – and then to lose her’ as ‘poor little Stock Force sank to her last home’. (7) She sank at 9.25pm with the crew taken off by two torpedo boats and a trawler. (8)

Another story of mutually assured destruction on the high seas? Not quite. There was more to the tale of the Stock Force than met the eye. Few, if any, details emerged of the action in the press, with greater prominence being given to other successes against U-boats, for example off the east coast by a British submarine and in the English Channel by a yacht (9) The key detail widely extracted in the press from a statement by David Lloyd George in Parliament was that U-boat losses now stood at 150. (10)

Details began to trickle out with crew honours gazetted, divorced from any context and prefaced only by the words that ‘The King has been graciously pleased to award the following honours . . . ‘ (11) Auten was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part commanding the action. Immediately after the war, details emerged of the Stock Force in action and it was there that the ‘kill’ of the submarine came to light. (12) The story was then widely taken up in the press, with double-page spreads and artists’ dramatic impressions of the U-boat upended and sinking below the waves, even as Auten and his crew met the public aboard Q-ship Suffolk Coast on tour. (13)

Pencil drawing of docklands, with barges in foreground and to right a submarine and ship are berthed alongside one another.
HM Q-Ship Suffolk Coast and U-155, Deutschland, St. Katherine’s Dock, London, 1918. Ministry of Information Commission, Scheme 2 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1496)

The lost U-boat was originally attributed to U-98, which can, however, be placed south of Norway with the sinking of Alkor on 31 July and was surrendered on 16 January 1919. The attacking submarine was UB-80, which sank only to rise again, for once again she was out on patrol in September 1918 following repairs and surrendered to Italy on 26 November 1918, but it is unsurprising that at the time she was credibly believed to have been lost. Both were broken up in the UK and Italy respectively. (14)

So, after all, there is only one ship on the seabed off the south coast of Devon as a result of the action of 30 July 1918. Camouflaged in service, the Stock Force also remained camouflaged on the seabed following her demise and was attributed to two different sites, both also probably contemporary war losses, before being identified in 2011 in a location much more consistent with Auten’s description of the position of loss than the previous two candidates, at some 7 miles SW off the Bolt Tail, Devon. (15)

Or is there? We will continue the story of Stock Force across this week as we commemorate the centenary of one of the most well-known of all Q-ship incidents and its significant contribution to the maritime heritage of Devon.

[With many thanks to Steve Mortimer and John Butland for their very kind help in telling this story over the week.]

(1) Intertitle, Q-Ships, 1928, New Era Productions

(2) Auten, Lt Commander Harold, 1919, Q-boat Adventures London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd; Keble Chatterton, E, 1922 Q-Ships and their Story London: Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd

(3) London Gazette, 19 November 1918, No.31,021, p13,695

(4) Auten 1919; Keble Chatterton 1922

(5) London Gazette, 19 November 1918, No.31,021, p13,695

(6) ibid.

(7) Auten 1919

(8) London Gazette, 19 November 1918, No.31,021, p13,695

(9) for example, Hull Daily Mail, 21 August 1918, No.10,265, p2, Gloucestershire Echo, 9 August 1918, extra, p1

(10) for example, Hampshire Telegraph and Naval Chronicle, 9 August 1918, No.7,167, p4

(11) London Gazette, 13 September 1918, No.30,900, p10,847

(12) London Gazette, 19 November 1918, No.31,021, p13,695

(13) The Sphere, 14 December 1918, No.986, pp196-197

(14) U-98 https://uboat.net/wwi/boats/?boat=98 UB-80 https://uboat.net/wwi/boats/successes/ub80.html

(15) UKHO 18017; Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment records 832147, 832260, and 832265

 

 

 

Diary of the War: May 1918

Side by Side in the North Sea

The Admiralty issued a brief press release on 4 June 1918:

“One of H.M. destroyers was sunk on the 31st May, after being in collision. There were no casualties.” (1)

B&W photograph of ship in port broadside view, smoke billowing.
Destroyer HMS Fairy © IWM (Q 38854)

An unfortunate but trivial incident, since all hands had fortunately survived? Not quite.

The ‘HM Destroyer’ in this press release was HMS Fairy, 355 tons, under the command of Lt. Geoffrey Howard Barnish, RNR, sister ship to HMS Falcon, 375 tons, commanded by Lt. Charles Lightoller RNR, survivor of the Titanic (see previous post on Charles Lightoller). Falcon had been lost just weeks earlier after a collision with HM Trawler John Fitzgerald, 235 tons, during convoy esort duties on the North Sea coast.

In the early hours of 31 May Fairy was also on convoy escort duties in the North Sea, together with six armed trawlers and an armed whaler. However, history was not quite about to repeat itself.

Barnish considered that a destroyer escort should be “to seaward and a little abaft the beam of the rear ship of the convoy.” (2) In this way the escort could steam rapidly forward to the scene of any attack, rather than be forced to double back to deal with the attacker.

He was relieved to round Flamborough Head, for he considered a U-boat  attack on a convoy south of Flamborough Head unlikely, because of the shoals in the area. That is enough information for us today to realise that it was a southbound convoy and thence to guess at its likely composition, so we can see why Admiralty press releases gave so little away. Statistically, however, his confidence was misplaced, and a cursory glance at wreck site remains for 1914-18 reported near Flamborough Head demonstrates that approximately half were indeed attacked south of Flamborough. (3)

That same night UC-75, displacing 417 tons on the surface, and under the command of Walther Schmitz, was also on war patrol seeking a target north of the minefield she had just laid to the south off the Outer Dowsing Shoal. A southbound convoy, laden with valuable cargo for London, presented a suitably attractive opportunity for an attack.

The convoy found her first. Around 2am, SS Blaydonian struck UC-75 as she passed overhead. As a southbound collier, she was laden with coal and low in the water, so UC-75 received quite a hefty blow that sounded to Barnish as if his worst fears had been realised with a torpedo fired among the convoy and he left his station to investigate.

Over on UC-75 the damage to her conning tower prevented the hatch being properly shut, leading to water ingress and forcing her to surface. In the meantime the convoy steamed on – to inflict more damage in the dark. SS Tronda was a Norwegian flying the British flag under the Shipping Controller (she would survive the war and revert to Norwegian ownership), and as was typical for Norwegian vessels under these circumstances, she went where she was most needed, on a coal run. She too ran over UC-75. Then the SS Peter Pan, owned by Furness, Withy & Co., one of the chief shipping companies in the coal trade, and therefore also a laden collier, was the next to strike UC-75. We can imagine the submarine reeling under each blow like a punch-drunk boxer on the ropes.

On arrival at the scene it was not yet clear to Barnish whether the submarine was friend or foe. There was sufficient history of U-boat operations off the Yorkshire coast and the apparent sound of a torpedo attack to make an enemy identification all too plausible, but there was still some doubt. Despite the report, there was no evidence of an actual attack and there was also the  basic knowledge that British submarines were known to be operating on secret missions out of the northern ports.

In that new age of modern warfare, Barnish made his decision with the information he had available. He turned to an ancient tactic – he moved to ram his target, weaponising his vessel should the submarine prove to be German, but astern, a manoeuvre which would allow the crew to escape and avoid loss of life, should it prove to be British.

What happened next is not fully clear: Barnish and Schmitz’s versions were necessarily coloured by their respective viewpoints and the order of events has also been interpreted differently by subsequent commentators. Barnish then heard voices shouting ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’, identifying the vessel as a U-boat, and proceeded to ‘order the coxswain to port the helm in order to hit her in a more vital spot’, but he felt that they were too close for that manoeuvre to be effective. (4) According to another (secondary) version, these voices were heard after the impact. (5)

Barnish recognised that the Fairy was probably damaged in this first pass but nevertheless renewed the attack, ordering the U-boat to be raked by gunfire as Fairy turned to ram the submarine once more, with the U-boat returning fire. Fairy‘s bows struck the U-boat aft of the gun, crumpling up on contact, so that they were under water within seconds and two of the German crew were able to climb from one vessel to the other, while others were picked up by Fairy. Not all, however, and Schmitz would go on to interpret the speed of the renewed attack and the accompanying gunfire as aimed at the crew in the water, as well as at their vessel. (6)

At this point in the war the seas off Flamborough Head (and elsewhere) were regularly perturbed with scenes of wartime strife. Similar allegations against U-boat crews would surface in early July with the discovery of a boat washed up at Flamborough, carrying dead bodies which bore signs of wounds inflicted by gunfire after getting into the boat. (They were identified as from the Madeleine, a French lugger damaged, but not, in fact, sunk, by UB-40 on 2 July 1918.) (7)

Reverting back to the events of 31 May, another life and death struggle was about to take place. Generally speaking, vessels lost in English waters either to accidental collision or deliberate ramming demonstrate that the colliding/ramming vessel usually escaped relatively unscathed, with the force transferring to the vessel in contact, but occasionally the force is so great that the former also sinks. (8) So it proved to be in this case: Fairy had taken on an enemy larger and more robustly built than herself and paid the price.

Barnish and his crew quickly realised that their ship was sinking too rapidly to make any attempt at beaching feasible, the nearest land being at least 10 nautical miles away, so the crew were sent off in the boats, along with the prisoners, who were thus shipwrecked for the second time in less than an hour. Barnish and two signal ratings remained behind to signal a message saying that they were about to abandon the vessel, then swam to a Carley float. All the British crew would survive, but only 14 out of 31 of UC-75‘s men would survive their double shipwreck to be picked up.

B&W photograph of men in uniform around an inflatable liferaft.
Men gather round their Carley float during a boat drill aboard HMS Widgeon, on convoy duty in the North Sea, during the Second World War. © IWM (A 18444) This scene would have changed little, if at all, from 1918, when Barnish and his two crew were forced to make use of their Carley float in the escape from HMS Fairy.

Barnish and his crew were decorated in 1918 and received prize bounty money in 1920 for this action. (9) Schmitz was made a prisoner of war and would die in the flu epidemic of 1919.

And still UC-75 and Fairy lie half a mile apart SE of Flamborough Head, sites of mutually assured destruction. Both have been identified by internal and structural evidence (identification on propellers in the case of UC-75 and the telegraph and pressure gauges in the case of HMS Fairy) and external damage. (10) Despite being struck by Blaydonian, UC-75‘s conning tower was reported in 2016 as still intact, while Fairy‘s bows bear the scars of her attack on UC-75. She lies seaward of UC-75, just as, a century ago, she had kept station seaward of her convoy.

 

(1) Widely reproduced in the UK press, for example, in the Newcastle Journal, 5 June 1918, p6.

(2) Barnish’s own words, reproduced in Dorling, T (“Taffrail”). 1931 Endless Story: being an account of the destroyers, flotilla-leaders, torpedo-boats and patrol boats in the Great War London: Hodder & Stoughton

(3) National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database: 2018

(4) Dorling 1931; Edinburgh Gazette 20 September 1918, No.13,323, p3498

(5) Termote, T. 2017 War Beneath the Waves: U-boat Flotille Flandern 1915-1918 London: Unicorn Publishing Group

(6) ADM137/3898, German submarines UC-48-94: papers concerning details of vessels, interrogation of survivors, photographs and ship’s book of UC-92 (The National Archives, Kew)

(7) See, for example, the Scotsman, 6 July 1918, No.23,431, p7; uboat.net

(8) National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database: 2018

(9) Dorling 1931: Edinburgh Gazette, 20 September 1918, No.13,323, p3498; 25 May 1920, No.13,598, p1305

(10) UK Hydrographic Office reports 8971 (UC-75) and 8974 (Fairy).

Diary of the War: October 1917

The Annie F Conlon

This war diary has almost taken on a life of its own: all the events selected for the diary have been chosen for their intrinsic interest, but when it comes to writing each post, a theme linking consecutive posts sometimes reveals itself.

So it is this month: last month I wrote of how the First World War contributed to the demise of the schooner as Merseyside and Deeside schooners took on the task of running coal to France for the war effort. This month’s wreck is also a schooner, the Annie F Conlon of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She left New York on August 27, also for France:  her cargo of lubricating oil suggests that it too might have been destined for the front.

Black and white photograph of two ships in harbour, with water and reflections on the ripples in the foreground, and the black shapes of two ships and their masts without sails in the centre of the image: the one in the foreground is two-masted, with a three-masted ship in the background. The masts are silhouetted against the sky.
Two schooners in harbour: the Jesse Hart lies in the foreground, while in the centre background is the Annie F Conlon. PK5195, courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, VA

It had therefore taken her just over a month to reach a point 12 to 15 miles south-east of St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, by 3 October 1917. On that day she was stopped and shelled by UC-47, under the command of Paul Hundius, a prolific U-boat commander who sank many vessels in English waters in UB-16, UC-47 and UB-103.

The Annie F. Conlon was attacked by Hundius on  his last patrol in command of UC-47, since Guenther Wigankow assumed command on 9 October. (Wigankow and his crew would all be lost when UC-47 was rammed by a patrol vessel on 18 November 1917 off Flamborough Head.)

From Hundius’ point of view, that was the end of the matter, and he left Annie F Conlon to sink. She did not sink immediately, however, but was towed a couple of days later into Crow Sound, between St. Mary’s and the Eastern Isles of Scilly. She collapsed onto her beam ends near Guther’s Island, where she was salvaged, then moved to Lower Town, St. Martin’s, then was finally beached where she now lies, 130 metres west of West Broad Ledge, on the western side of St. Martin’s, where further salvage took place. She was then abandoned as a constructive total loss.

It is probably partly for this reason, as well as wartime censorship, that the Annie F Conlon did not make any ripples in British newspapers of the time – because she did not meet a dramatic end as such. Perhaps, too, another American schooner had stolen the limelight – British newspapers were making much of the dramatic arrival in an open boat at Samoa of the master of another American schooner, the C Slade. His ship had been sunk by the commerce raider Seeadler, but he brought the no doubt welcome news to the Allies that the Seeadler had herself been wrecked (although her crew simply seized other vessels to carry out further attacks on shipping).

The first account of the Annie F Conlon in a regional British newspaper actually appears some 20 years after the event, giving details of a lecture at Plymouth by the then American consul at Falmouth on the work of his predecessors. The wartime incumbent was a Cornish-born naturalised American citizen, Joseph G Stephens, who was ‘kept busy repatriating shipwrecked sailors, attending to the burials of sailors, and administering relief to “stranded” Americans’, including those of the Annie F Conlon. (2)

The Annie F Conlon also turns up in a legal journal of 1926, detailing the successful claim of shipowners against the German government. The owners of the Annie F Conlon were awarded $41,514.29. (3)

However, the American press in 1917 did offer some sparse details over the wreck: confirming the general location of the Isles of Scilly, the name of the master and number of the crew, and that all hands had been safely landed – so at least on this occasion Consul Stephens had not had to bury anyone!

Each schooner which was attacked hastened the demise not only of the sailing vessel in general and of a way of life, but also of the schooner particular vessel type. Yet each sinking also reveals another story of the profound social change triggered worldwide by the First World War.

The news of the Annie F Conlon shared the front page of Der Deutsche Correspondent of Baltimore, Maryland, with a banner above its masthead proclaiming: “THIS IS AN AMERICAN NEWSPAPER PUBLISHED IN THE GERMAN LANGUAGE: Its function is to acquaint the immigrated Germans with the social and political conditions in the United States, and to familiarize them with their duties toward their adopted country and with the rights conferred upon them by the Constitution.” (4)

In this case the long heritage of German-language newspapers in the United States was also under threat: by the end of the war the Deutsche Correspondent had folded, after 77 years of publication. I never know where this blog will end up – not only do I find links between wrecks which I had chosen months earlier for the blog, but I also discover something new about the global effects of the war through the prism of a single shipwreck in English waters.

Black and white photograph of ships with masts and furled sails in harbour. three vessels are discernible in the lower centre of the photograph, with their masts standing talll against the roofs of two buildings, with a grey sky over.
Albert S Stearns, Charles E Balch, and Annie F Conlon in 1892. PK1950, courtesy of the Mariners Museum, Newport News, VA.

 

(1) Manchester Evening News, 5 October 1917, No.15,138, p2

(2) Western Morning News, 5 March 1937, No.24,082, p6

(3) American Journal of International LawVol. 20, Issue 4, October 1926, p794

(4) Der Deutsche Correspondent, 5 October 1917, Vol. 77, No.278, p1

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.91 The Africa

Diary of the War No.14

This month’s First World war wreck was a ship sunk en route to France on 16 September 1915.. The terms boat train and train ferry are familiar to many: the former a train service timetabled to connect with a scheduled ferry service, the latter a vessel transporting a train across a body of water. Less well known are ships carrying locomotives and rolling stock as cargo, in this case to the First World War battlefields of France, where they were needed to transport men and materials to the front, and as ambulance trains to bring back the wounded. (My own grandfather was among them, invalided out by trench fever in 1917.)

Black and white photograph of crane at right with suspended railway carriage over the deck of a ship.
GWR railway carriage, marked with a Red Cross, being loaded onto the SS Africa. Photo courtesy of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon

During the night of 15 September, UC-6, one of the new coastal minelaying submarines, slipped through the Straits of Dover to lay a minefield ‘across the passage abreast of the South Goodwin Light Vessel.’ (1) The first anyone on the British side knew of this new minefield was when the SS Africa struck one of these mines on the evening of the next day. The potential of the German minelaying submarine was not yet fully understood by the British (despite the activities of UC-11 as noted in Diary of the War 11 for June 1915) and at first the field was believed to have been laid by an enemy steamer under the colours of a neutral vessel.

Black and white photo of steamship with single funnel, and four carriages aboard, partly reflected in the water below.
The SS Africa in dock with all four carriages loaded onto the vessel, two fore and two aft. Photo courtesy of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon

The Africa did not sink immediately, and, in fact, it was noted that ‘these UC minefields [laid in late September 1915] in the thickly peopled Dover area brought about the total loss of very few ships: many of those mined were safely beached on the shelving shores of Kent, and after repair continued their voyages’. The Africa was among those beached near Deal, but became a total loss, unlike other vessels beached for recovery on what became known as the ‘Hospital Coast’ of  stricken ships. In fact, the Africa was dispersed in 1917.

Contemporary newspaper photo showing the stricken SS Africa as beached near Deal. The railway carriages are awash at roof level and the image has been retouched by a contemporary hand to make the carriages easy to discern. By courtesy of STEAM - Museum of the GWR, Swindon.
Contemporary newspaper photo showing the stricken SS Africa as beached near Deal. The vessel is awash and the image has been retouched by a contemporary hand to show the roof line of the sunken railway carriages. Photo courtesy of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon.

There is some irony in her final location on the ‘Hospital Coast’, because the railway carriages aboard the Africa were intended for use as ambulance trains and were built by the Great Western Railway (GWR) in Swindon. Elaine Arthurs from Swindon’s STEAM Museum adds to the story:

‘The Great Western Railway supplied and constructed 16 ambulance trains at Swindon Works during the First World War. This equated to 256 carriages. The trains were used on both the home front and abroad, transporting injured troops to military hospitals. The trains that were used abroad were transported from Britain to France by boat. A team of men from the GWR went with the carriages to see their safe transit to the continent. Whilst on one trip to France from Tilbury Docks the SS Africa, carrying both GWR ambulance carriages and employees, was mined off the coast of Kent. The ship and its contents were lost, along with two crew members, but the GWR employees survived.’

With many thanks to Elaine and to the STEAM Museum, Swindon. This wreck site marks the intersection of two significant strands of Britain’s industrial heritage in the age of steam, shipping and the railways: in a similar vein, it so happens that the STEAM Museum is also adjacent to the Historic England office in Swindon, where I have written this blog today! For more on wreck sites laden with First World War rolling stock, please see the St. Chamond, torpedoed in 1918.