Diary of the War: September 1917

The Schooners’ Last Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She is now part of the National Historic Fleet.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Diary of the War: June 1917

The Sir Francis

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

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

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

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

de Boer, J, seaman, born in Holland;

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

Kato, T, fireman, born in Japan;

Nishioka, B, fireman, also born in Japan;

Poulouch, N, fireman, born in Greece;

Sharp, Joseph, steward, of South Shields;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 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.

No.92 The Novocastrian

Diary of the War No.15

Today’s wreck, the Novocastrian, which was sunk a century ago on 5 October 1915, is representative of themes emerging in the loss of civilian vessels during the war.

Over the last few months we have traced the emergence of the UC-class minelaying submarines which sank so many ships off the east coast, which remained the key focus of war activity: in this case it was UC-7 which was responsible for the loss of Novocastrian, sunk a day after the minefield was laid off the Pakefield Gap, Suffolk.

Novocastrian was built for passenger service in 1915, but never carried her intended 54 first-class and 28 second-class passengers, since passenger services had been curtailed following the outbreak of war in August 1914. Instead, she became a cargo-carrying vessel, and at the time of loss was laden with a general cargo from London for Newcastle.

The ship sank within ten minutes. The boat was launched with all hands on board before she finally sank, but falling debris from a derrick upset their boat as they got away. Nevertheless everyone managed to cling on to bits of wreckage until they were picked up by a minesweeper.

The sinking of a new vessel only a few months old was a sign of things to come, since pressure would be later be put on British tonnage as ships would be sunk almost as fast as they were built, but this point had not yet been reached.

The Novocastrian appears on page 27 of Lloyd’s War Losses for the First World War. The month’s tally on the next page showed that 11 British ships had been sunk by submarine worldwide  for 39,154 tons; 5 ships from Allied nations for 14,961 tons; and one neutral was lost for 2,508 tons. These losses covered sinking by torpedo, gunfire, or shelling only.. Minelaying submarines had not come into use at the beginning of the wartime loss register, so mines are dealt with in a separate column (at the beginning of the war it was expected that they would be laid by conventional vessels).

The next column shows that the Novocastrian was among the 14 British ships sunk by mine for 16,770 tons, 2 Allied for 2,064 tons, and 8 neutrals for 8,371 tons. Among those 8 neutrals was the Dutch Texelstroom, mined the following day off the Thames in a field for which UC-7 was also responsible.

The Novocastrian is therefore quite representative of the average type of vessel and location of loss at this point in the war, a ship of between 1,000 and 2,000 tons, lost on the east coast of England: the Texelstroom likewise fits this profile. At this stage in the war, too, brief notices in the press still announced sinkings, but these were confined to the bare facts and omitted details of the vessel’s voyage or when and where it was lost. It was enough to know all hands had been saved and three were in hospital.

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.

No.90 The fishing fleets strike back

Diary of the War No.13

Following on from last month’s War Diary post about a group of Lowestoft fishing smacks captured and sunk by scuttling charges, this month I look at an occasion when the tables were turned. As previously mentioned, one of the outcomes of the attacks on fishing vessels was the arming of selected smacks to patrol and protect their number when out at sea.

On 11 August 1915 UB-6 sank the fishing smack Leader 20 miles NE of Lowestoft, before being warned away by gunfire from the armed smack G & E. It was thought that G & E had sunk the submarine, but it was later ascertained that this was not the case, and UB-6 had limped home to give intelligence that fishing smacks were standing up for themselves.

Four days later, on 15 August, UB-4 approached to try her luck with another fleet of smacks off the Smith’s Knoll Spar Buoy, in the fishing grounds off Norfolk. The Inverlyon was also fishing when UB-4 began to approach at about 8.15 pm, closing within 30 yards. ‘It was dusk and no better target could be expected’. (1)

However, UB-4 was not prepared for what happened next. Inverlyon was not just out to catch fish. She had also assumed a new role just under a fortnight earlier. Gunner Ernest M Jehan of HMS Dryad was in command, and hoisted the White Ensign, firing a revolver at the officer steering the submarine. This was not so much to hit his opponent personally, as to signal to his crew to open fire with their 3pdr gun.

Nine rounds of fire disabled UB-4. According to Gunner Jehan’s report: ‘1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th shorts striking conning tower, 5 and 7 over, 6, 8 and 9 hitting hull.’ (2) She sank ‘head down, at an angle of 80°’. (1) Jehan continued: ‘3 bodies appearing, one shouting. Skipper Philips undressed and swam with lifebuoy but could not reach man before he sank. . . .We are lying by trawl which is foul of submarine.’

According to British naval intelligence, UB-4 had set out from her Flanders base before the return of UB-6 ‘taught by the G & E that some smacks were to be respected’, and thus was unaware of this new British anti-submarine tactic. It was a rare success in modern warfare for a small sailing vessel of 59 tons to sink a submarine, even a submarine as small as a UB-I class vessel of 127 tons surface displacement.

And Inverlyon? Like so many Lowestoft smacks before her, she too would eventually be captured and scuttled, but this would not happen until 1 February 1917.

(1) Naval Staff Monographs (Historical), Vol. XIV, Home Waters: Part V: July to October 1915, Admiralty, London, 1926

(2) His handwritten note, repr. in Taffrail, (Taprell Dorling), Swept Channels, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1935