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: March 1918

War Knight

The War Knight was entirely a product of the First World War. She was one of the British ‘War Standard’ ships, built to a standard pattern that enabled a faster turnover in shipbuilding to help counteract the continuing toll in British mercantile shipping losses. All had the War– prefix, and were named in classes, with some intriguing juxtapositions, such as War Crocus and War Tune. War Knight was one of a group of similarly-named vessels: War Baron and War Monarch among them. All were lost around the English coastline in 1917-18.

Her story is also characteristic of this phase of the war as ships now steamed in convoy with escorts that shuttled between appointed rendezvous locations, where the next escorts would take over. There were other countermeasures in place to ensure the safety of each convoy, such as zig-zagging at predetermined intervals of varying and therefore less predictable lengths, to help obscure their true course.

Most extraordinary of all, ships were painted in dazzle camouflage which broke up hull outlines, making it difficult for a U-boat to get an accurate fix on the vessel and determine its size, outline, speed, and course. Firing a torpedo was a scientific act which had to take account of the distance travelled by the target in between firing the torpedo and its contact with the intended victim.

Art took on science in this battle to keep ships safe from attack, and the ‘Cubist ships’, as they were known to contemporaries, became a common sight on the world’s oceans. It seems counter-intuitive to conceal large moving objects in abstract eye-catching patterns and bright colours, but the patterns were carefully worked out to disrupt the ship’s outline as far as possible. Nor were the two sides of the vessel the same: each side would carry a different pattern, and the paint scheme would be carried through any visible area of a ship, such as cabins or recessed elements of superstructure.

I will let the paintings below tell the story, all seen from sea, all with the viewpoint of another ship at sea in the same convoy, and all painted by a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, who certainly married his knowledge of the sea, observation of contemporary shipping, and his artistic talent to considerable effect.  In painting 1 below, we see our first dazzled ship, an oiler, like the War Knight, at reasonably close quarters, from astern of another ship in convoy whose wake leads our eye to the dazzled ship, but even so, her bow is distorted. We have to allow for artistic licence, of course, but the ship has elements of the same palette as the cliffs behind, and the pattern at her bows echoes the vertical undulations of the cliffs. We are seeing distortion of distance as well as the ability to blend into the background.

Painting from the sea looking towards cliffs and the body of a vessel painted in dazzle camouflage.
1. A dazzled oiler, with escort, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 567)

There is ‘clear blue water’ between the viewer and the ship astern as the convoy is keeping station, under the watchful eye of a British airship. Convoys could be very large, and destroyers and other escorts, such as the one seen nearer the cliffs on the left, had to act as ship-shepherds. The lead merchantman would be designated the Commodore, with every other ship in the convoy taking its station from the Commodore.

A convoy of dazzle camouflaged ships in the lower third of the painting, against a blue sea and a blue sky with pink and orange tinges to the clouds and on the horizon.
2. A Convoy in the Channel, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 560)

In painting 2 above the pink tinges in the sky suggest dusk and that this might be an eastbound convoy, as it was when the War Knight‘s convoy entered the western Channel from the Atlantic on 23 March 1918, with the Mirlo as Commodore. There were several other oilers in the convoy, War Knight being on the port flank and the American oiler O B Jennings on the starboard, and a number of vessels were dazzled, including the Jennings. The convoy was put on edge by hearing ships being sunk off the Lizard in separate incidents, and we start to realise, even at this distance, the two ships nearest us look uncomfortably close to one another, as if they are huddling close for comfort.

Rough dark blue sea in lower third of painting, ships barely visible against a pink tinge of sunset on the horizon, dark clouds above.
3. Seascape with convoy and evening sky effect, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 569)

Against the evening sky in 3 above, the ships seem to blend into the rough sea, particularly those nearest to us, with only their funnels and the steam they belch the main clue as to their presence – the perennial problem for all steamers in war, since the black clouds of coal-driven steam would simply give them away.

And therein, in the dark off the Isle of Wight, lay the problem. The convoy steered further to the south than originally planned, with the presence of a new minefield off the Needles revealed that day by the loss of HMS New Dawn. Just before midnight, a distress call then emanated from the south-east from a torpedoed tanker (which managed to limp in to Southampton). A supposed torpedo flash followed half an hour later, then within the next half an hour a distress call in French was heard to the south (which cannot, to this day, be reconciled with the loss of any French vessel).

Caught not between the devil and the deep blue sea, but between a minefield to the north and a hunting U-boat to the south in the darkness of the night, the decision was taken to alter course once again. Wireless could not be used in case communications were heard by the enemy, so recourse was had to a loudhailer amongst a convoy starting to scatter, barely able to see each other in the dark and with the situation exacerbated by dazzle camouflage. This confusion was further aggravated when one of the convoy, whose captain was perhaps being hypervigilant, challenged the escort’s authority and caused further delay in getting the message out to all the ships.

Thus O B Jennings and Aungban, on the starboard flank, started to turn north-west on the old course, as the Kia Ora and War Knight on the port flank turned south-east on the new course. As oiler smashed into oiler, the rest of the convoy were dazzled by a huge explosion and a fireball that seemed to coalesce into a single ship, according to one observer. Only a few men escaped alive from War Knight, and those with severe burns, some of whom succumbed to their wounds in hospital.

Ultimately War Knight and O B Jennings were a ‘menace to other ships’ and certainly the huge flames and burning sea would have alerted any U-boats in the vicinity to the rest of the convoy. O B Jennings was sunk by the escorts (although raised, returned to service and sunk in the Atlantic later in the war) and War Knight was taken in tow with the aim of beaching her. She then struck a mine from the very same field the convoy had been attempting to avoid, so there was nothing for it but to scuttle her too, to dowse the flames.

All the safety measures by this stage of the war – the convoy system, the zig-zagging, the dazzle camouflage, the radio silence – were all cited in the official loss report as contributory factors to this tragic collision in convoy, which became a regular feature of this phase of the war, but for the War Knight to endure so many vicissitudes was unusual. This wreck is well-known, and much has been written about the phenomenon of dazzle camouflage, but there seems to be little literature on the impact of dazzle among ships in the same convoy. Measures that served to screen ships from the eyes of enemies could also obscure them from their friends. Finally, here is the model showing the dazzle scheme for the collier Camswan, also lost in a collision in convoy off the Isle of Wight on her maiden voyage in 1917:

 

3D ship model painted in colour with abstract black patterns, photographed against a grey background.
First World War model of the dazzle scheme for the SS Camswan, c.1917. © IWM (MOD 2259)

Sources:

ADM 137/3450, The National Archives

Cant, S. 2013. England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats. Swindon: Historic England

New York Times, 18 April 1918, p7

O B Jennings

For more on the War Knight, see the Maritime Archaeology Trust’s Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War.

For more on dazzle camouflage, see the following resources: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-british-wanted-camouflage-their-warships-they-made-them-dazzle-180958657/ and http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zty8tfr

 

Diary of the War: February 1918

HMS Brown Mouse

If ever there was a name that sounds most unlikely for a warship, this is it. The Brown Mouse was no Dreadnought, Implacable or Dauntless . . .

Yet she went to war and what better cover could there be than such an innocuous-sounding name? All of 42 tons, she was built as a Brixham trawler, and launched in February 1908, official no.125110, a detail which might seem trivial or boring, but I’ve included it for a reason. (1)

In her original register entry Brown Mouse was described as a trawler, and assigned a fishing number of BM 276, but from the outset it seems that she was owned by the same man who later operated her as a yacht, Evelyn Pearson. (2) At least one other example of a yacht built on Brixham trawler lines still survives on the National Register of Historic Vessels. This vessel is the Golden Vanity, which was built in the same year at the same yard, Sanders & Co. of Galmpton, for the marine artist Arthur Briscoe, and this vessel was assigned the very next official number in the sequence. (3)

She appears to have fished locally at least in 1909, since during that year she was crewed by four or five men, with William Kingdom of Brixham as skipper. (4)

She was then fitted with an auxiliary steam engine by Simpson, Strickland & Co. of Dartmouth in 1910, whereupon she was re-registered, again at Brixham, due to the ‘material alterations’. She was no longer described as a trawler in the new registry, and it may be at this point that Evelyn Pearson and Brown Mouse became “regular” visitors to Brixham. (5) 

Then the war came and Evelyn Pearson joined up in September 1914, becoming a captain in the 12th Battalion, King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. He would have been about 39, but he had previous soldiering experience in the Lancashire Fusiliers in the 1890s. (6)

In the meantime, the development of the Q-Ships as, effectively, fisheries protection vessels, had begun during 1915, as fishing smacks were targeted off the east coast, as described in our July 1915 post. Similar attacks took place thereafter on a fairly regular basis on the North Sea and Channel coasts, with enemy activity intensifying at intervals.

Protection against mass sinkings of the fishing smacks came from among their own: one vessel from each fleet would be commissioned as a ‘Special Service’ vessel to guard their fellows engaged in fishing. Their diminutive size inevitably led to their designation as ‘Q-smacks’, but they were no less ‘Special Service’ vessels for that. Some even engaged U-boats directly, as Inverlyon had done in defending the Lowestoft smacks, covered by one of our past blog posts for August 1915.

Sadly Captain Pearson was killed in action in Flanders on 8 January 1916, at the age of 41. (7) The next phase of his yacht’s history is slightly unclear. Her registry at Brixham was closed on 27 November 1916 ‘in consequence of material alterations’, with her prior ownership stated as Captain Pearson, Thomas Kirkland Rylands, and the Hon. Earl Stanhope, and on the same day her ownership is recorded as transferred to H F Eastick of Great Yarmouth. (8) Eastick had already lost other vessels during the war, such as the Copious in 1914. Brown Mouse would not have been the first or last Brixham trawler to have transferred to the Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth fleets. 

It seems, however, that she would remain within her familiar waters in and around Brixham, rather than in service with Eastick, for one month later she was a ‘Special Service’ vessel. Perhaps Earl Stanhope, who was involved in the War Cabinet, had drawn official attention to her as a suitable vessel for the purpose.

Despite Inverlyon‘s success, it wasn’t always possible for the Q-smacks to defend their charges. On 8 June 1917, another sailing Q-smack, the Prevalent, was unable to assist when four Brixham smacks were sunk in the fishing grounds off south Devon, in full view of Start Point. One of those vessels was the Onward, built in 1907, and assigned an official number of 125101. Other vessels also assigned numbers from the same batch of official numbers allocated to Brixham, all built locally at around the same time as Brown Mouse and Golden Vanity, had also fallen victim to German submarine attacks: Markum on 17 April 1917, Boy Denis on 26 April, and Rupee on 4 October 1917.

One contemporary writer suggested that the Prevalent incident prompted the retrofitting of an auxiliary motor engine aboard Brown Mouse. (9) With her existing engine it is more likely that she was identified as a suitable candidate capable of speeding to the site of any trouble with enemy submarines, and replaced the Prevalent on the Brixham station.

However her participation as a Q-smack locally came about, the circumstances of her loss suggest that Brown Mouse was out on patrol with the Brixham trawlers on 28 February 1918. Unlike the other vessels with whom she was registered, however, she was not a war loss and so is not mentioned in many of the standard sources. Details of what happened next were given by the skipper of another local trawler, the Leonora Minnie, who had a narrow escape when the Brown Mouse caught fire and seemed headed for his vessel, the worst nightmare for any skipper of a wooden vessel, but, fortunately, she cleared the Leonora Minnie’s bows. Brown Mouse was subsequently ‘lost by fire off Berry Head’, with the local RNLI being called out to assist, a service which cost them £24. Fortunately, it seems that no lives were lost on this occasion. (10)

Trawler, yacht, and Q-Ship: small, as her name implied, Brown Mouse was sufficiently versatile to operate in all three roles, and to do so locally in every case. Her story highlights a mini-landscape of war off Brixham, in which fishing vessels came under attack, leisure cruising ceased, and small ships took on a modern enemy.

With many thanks to John and Sandie of Brixham in Pictures for their kind assistance with this article.

Black and white photograph of the interior of a boat, with a fisherman landing baskets of fish.
A fisherman landing his catch from a Brixham trawler in the 1950s. The photographer, John Gay, was interested in recording traditional working lifestyles that were heading towards obsolescence. AA087818. Copyright Historic England

 

(1) Her tonnage is variously cited, dependent on source: see, for example, British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1914-18, Section I, p26 (HMSO, 1919) stating 42 tons, following the vessel’s register books, whereas other source state 43 tons, such as the Brixham Heritage Sailing Trawlers Archive

(2) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Sea-Fishing Boats, 1902-1979 DSR/BRI/2/1; Registry of Shipping and Seamen, Cardiff, MNL Appropriation Books, Official Nos. 125101-125150, accessed via the Crew List Index Project

(3) Description of her build as on sailing trawler lines, from The Marine Engineer and Naval Architect, Vol. XXXIII, August 1910, p24; National Register of Historic Vessels, Golden Vanity, as another such vessel

(4) Devon Archives and Local Studies, transcripts of crew lists, 20 May to 30 November 1909, List A3, and 1 July to 31 December 1909, List D, both referenced to 1976/BROWN MOUSE/125110, and both accessed via the Crew List Index Project

(5) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Shipping 1894-1917 DSR/BRI/1/4; The Marine Engineer and Naval Architect, Vol. XXXIII, August 1910, p24; Western Times, 27 January 1916, No.20,771, p3

(6) Gloucestershire Echo, 18 January 1916, [no issue number] p2; London Gazette, 11 August 1893, No.26,431, p4577; London Gazette, 8 June 1897, No.26,860, p3201

(7) Commonwealth War Graves Commission record for Captain E H M Pearson; Western Times, 27 January 1916, No.20,771, p3

(8) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Shipping 1894-1917 DSR/BRI/1/4; Brixham Sailing Trawlers Heritage Archive

(9) Keble Chatterton, E. 1922 Q-Ships and their Story. London: Sidgwick and Jackson

(10) Brixham Heritage Sailing Trawlers Archive; Western Times, 4 February 1919, No.21,170, p5

 

Diary of the War: December 1917

Shot Down off the Coast

By December 1917 the citizens of London were used to air raids at regular intervals: it was terrifying enough, although nothing like on the scale of the Blitz of the Second World War. The wreck highlighted today in this month’s War Diary is representative of a new form of accident out to sea which would become more prevalent as aerial warfare developed.

On 18 December 1917 another raid was carried out by around 16 to 20 aircraft of Bogohl 3. (Bombengeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung, High Command Bomber Squadron, also known as the Englandgeschwader, or ‘England Squadron’.) Two groups of Gotha bombers flew in over Kent and Essex around 6.30pm with the aim of bombing London. Some of the bombers got through and inflicted damage on Lincoln’s Inn which can still be seen today.

Nevertheless, after the cumulative experience of several raids, there were now several lines of defence which prevented all the raiders reaching London. Firstly, anti-aircraft guns swung into action and turned at least some of the enemy away. Secondly, barrage balloons were moored to protect London, a response more usually associated with the Second World War. One contemporary headline, ‘Barraged Gothas’ implies that the balloons were a major factor in preventing the majority of the Gothas from reaching London. (1)

Blue sky dominates the upper two-thirds of this painting, with small barrage balloons dotted high up in the sky. Below them are plumes of smoke from the factories hidden in the background. In the foreground a flat green agricultural landscape with trees.
The Balloon Apron, Frank Dobson, 1918. Barrage balloons float high over the flat Essex landscape. Stretching high into the sky are smoke plumes from factories, including Kynoch’s munitions factory. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2001)

At this point I made an unexpected discovery and this is where I digress briefly. I’d already earmarked Frank Dobson’s image as an illustration to this post, having seen it in an exhibition earlier this year, and saw then the balloons protected Kynoch’s munitions factory. (2) Researching this article, I then discovered that this same factory at Corringham, Essex, was targeted early on in this specific raid. (3) Nor was this the only coincidence. One of the supervisors at that very factory was my grandmother – and I wonder now if she was there at the time or had already gone home for the day! (Here’s a photograph of female workers at Kynoch’s: my grandmother is the girl in the sailor suit.)

The third line of defence was aerial combat. Fighter pilots from the Home Defence Squadrons also took to the air to challenge and intercept the raiders, among them Captain Gilbert Ware Murlis Green of No.44 Squadron, Hainault Farm, Essex, in his Sopwith Camel. (4) Up he went in his single-seater to duel with the three-man Gotha bomber, crewed by Oberleutnant G von Stachelsky (pilot), Leutnant Friedrich Ketelsen, and Gefreiter A Weissman. Three times he went in to attack, and then, blinded by his own muzzle flash, he was forced to pull away, while the searchlights that made the Gotha visible to him also made him a target for its return fire. His fourth attack found its mark.

Green had not immediately downed his opponent, but damaged it enough for it to be doubtful if it could return across the Channel. The press took up the tale: ‘One raider was hit by gunfire and finally came down in the sea off the Kentish coast, two of its crew of three men being captured alive by an armed trawler.’ (5) 

As the aircraft crossed the coast, observers noticed it sounded as if it was flying low, and therefore clearly struggling, and then the sound of its engines was heard to cease suddenly out at sea. The “All Clear” was then sounded, followed by an offshore explosion shortly afterwards. Searches found the stricken aircraft and the trawler picked up von Stachelsky and Weissman, but Ketelsen had perished in the incident.

Ketelsen was a Danish-minority German from Pellworm in Schleswig-Holstein. A very interesting website, mostly in Danish, commemorates the Danish minority reluctantly mobilised into the German forces, with a page dedicated to Ketelsen. His name appears on a hand-painted memorial tablet which is very moving to see (if you follow the line across from the lower left-hand column to the right it leads easily to his name).

As for the rescued men, much was made of their youth and demeanour: one of the prisoners was described as ‘very sullen and dejected’, as well he might have been. (6)

It would have been absolutely freezing exposed at several thousand feet high on a cold December night, and the sea would have been no better. The two rescued crew were very fortunate to live to see another Christmas, even if it wasn’t exactly how they planned to spend it!

Black and white photograph of soliders standing around a crashed aircraft with a prominent black cross on its tailfin.
Last month’s post has a connection with this month’s, as Portuguese and British troops inspect the wreckage of a German Gotha G.IV heavy bomber (similar to the one brought down off Folkestone) downed in the Portuguese sector, France. © IWM (Q 64432)

 

(1) Sheffield Daily Telegraph, No.19,485, Thursday 20 December 1917, p5

(2) Imperial War Museum, catalogue entry for The Balloon Apron, suggests that it depicts balloons over Kynoch’s factory at Canvey Island. However, Kynoch’s presence on the island was in the form of a hotel and powder hulks located just offshore, but no factory. Kynoch’s factory was at Corringham, Essex, and, given the multiple factories depicted in the background of the painting, it appears more likely that the image shows the industrial landscape around Corringham. See also: Penn, J. nd. The Canvey Explosives Scheme of 1875: Dynamite Hulks and the Canvey Hotel

(3) Castle, I. nd Zeppelin Raids, Gothas and Giants: entry for 18 December 1917

(4) Castle, I. 2010 London 1917-18: The Bomber Blitz Oxford: Osprey Publishing; The Aerodrome forum. nd Gilbert Ware Murlis Green

(5) Chelmsford Chronicle, No.7,997, Friday 21 December 1917, p4

(6) Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, No.12,382, Thursday 20 December 1917, p2

Diary of the War: November 1917

SS Belém

I am pleased to welcome as my guest blogger for this month my colleague Stuart Churchley, Marine Planning Archaeological Officer at Historic England. Although this month’s wreck was not lost to war causes, she nevertheless illustrates a little-known aspect of the First World War in the English-speaking world, that of Portugal’s involvement in the war. Stuart writes:

The name of a wrecked vessel can often hold clues not only to its origin, but also the historical context in which it served: today’s wreck, lost 100 years ago on 20th November 1917, is just such a wreck with the potential for a far larger story.

At around the same time as the British Army famously used their tanks on the western front at Cambrai on 20th November 1917, a little-known merchant vessel, the SS Belém, was wrecked at Menachurch Point, just north of Northcott Mouth, Bude.

When I first started researching the SS Belém, my first thought was that this vessel must have been inadvertently lost: an isolated wrecking case on the very periphery of the war action, participating in no known convoy for the area, miscalculating a notorious stretch of coastline like so many others had previously, whilst avoiding the threats of unrestricted U-boat attacks and mines alike.

Locally it is well known and has captured the imagination of visitors and artists, becoming a recognisable feature of the landscape. The wreck itself was photographed at the time of its loss oriented facing south, running parallel to the coastline overlooking to the east.

Black and white photograph of stranded ship, seen in profile broadside on to the beach, with rocks and stones visible in the lower half of the image. The ship is dry with the tide at the top of the image just lapping at the bottom of the vessel.
Contemporary photograph of the Belém ashore, 1917, seen from the overlooking cliffs.

A brilliant eyewitness account of the ship’s stranding from the perspective of Arthur Madge, can be found within an online pdf produced by a local historian, Audrey Aylmer, which also includes photographs of the site in 1997, 80 years after the Belém came ashore. (1) As an eight year old boy in 1917, Arthur had been awoken at his boarding school by the sound of the distress signals in fog from the stranded Belém (so she had certainly not been lost to war causes).

Today, when tides and wind work in tandem, a mixture of metal features can be revealed on the beach. It’s easy to see that the coastline of shale and sandstone known as the ‘Bude Formation’ and heavy westerly winds has caused the ship to become severely disarticulated, mangled and a little bit hazardous underfoot. The intertidal sand has formed a protective layer over what remains of the wreck, comprising a long subtly curved hull structure, a boiler cracked open like a an eggshell, large elements with rivet patterns and flanges, and the propeller itself sitting serenely within a bowl of scoured sand. The site is very clearly seen from above by drone in some excellent 2015 images published by Martin Busby online. (2)

 

Three groups of dark metal elements of a wreck sitting in pools of water on a sandy beach, against a backdrop of grey mist.
Boiler and propeller shaft of wreck, Menachurch Point in mist, 2007. CC-BY-SA/2.0 – © David Hawgood – geograph.org.uk/p/411088

Tracing back why a vessel owned by the Portuguese government came to be here is not easy. However, looking at the wider historical background can be a fruitful and interesting undertaking.

Portugal was pretty much neutral for the first half of the war, but was faced with a challenging period due to the limiting – and almost total loss – of trade with its pre-war European neighbours to the Atlantic north and within the Mediterranean. As relations gradually soured, Imperial Germany declared war on Portugal on 9th March 1916, as a result of a multitude of factors, most notably the capture and confiscation on 23rd February 1916 of the 72 German ships interned in Portuguese ports on or since the outbreak of war. (3)

These seized vessels comprised roughly 10% of all German vessels holding out in neutral ports at this time, and equated to a tonnage double the Portuguese merchant navy before the war. (4) Such a scenario therefore would have proved tempting to both the Portuguese and British authorities, during an ever-growing shipping crisis, with the potential for some form of agreement along the lines of those made with other nations as the ripples of the war spread ever outwards. (5)

What is all the more interesting is that the British had made just such a secret agreement with the Portuguese high command in Belém Palace, Lisbon, on 5th February 1916, leading up to the capture of the 23rd. In doing so the captured vessels would be divided between Britain and Portugal, with 80% of these ships sent to British war effort, and 20% being retained by the Portuguese. (6) (In previous posts we have looked at the fate of interned German vessels in British service; German shipping company property in England, and the secret Tonnage Agreements with Scandinavian countries.)

This decision to seize the German ships in Lisbon would also have far-reaching consequences for Portugal, with the German Navy laying mines in and around the mouth of the Tagus, and the subsequent arrangements for the Portuguese army to be transported to Brest, whence they would advance to the Flanders fields to support the British army. (7)

Could it then be that the SS Belém was one of the 14 vessels transferred to Portugal out of the original 72 internees?

To know this conclusively would take much greater research than has been undertaken here, but from what we know about the Belém, it would seem likely that she was one of that group. Previously named Rhodos, the ship was built in Flensburg in 1890 by Flensburger Schiffsbau Gesellschaft. The Rhodos was possibly very familiar with Portuguese ports, given her original owner, the Deutsche Levante Linie A.G.

However, records document that she came into the ownership of the Transportes Maritimos Do Estado (Portuguese State Steamship Line), in 1916, consistent with the events leading up to the famous prize capture, while other vessels similarly seized by Portugal are known to have ended up in the same ownership, suggesting that the company was formed to account for these ships. (8)

This certainly tallies with the source from Audrey Aylmer which details that the Rhodos, which she suggests was seized in Lisbon in 1916, and later loaned to Italy to bring coal from England, while her return cargo would generally be sulphur from Sicily to England for munitions. In other words, she would work a reasonably familiar route.

Furthermore Audrey Aylmer’s narrativegoes on to say that there was no sulphur ready on the Belém’s final voyage so the vessel came back to Benjaffa, Oran, North Africa, to load 2500 tons of iron ore for Cardiff.

After she was wrecked, holes were cut in her sides to throw out the cargo, and the swell caused large holes in the ballast tanks. The Belém is believed to have been later sold to the shipbreakers, with what remained of the cargo salvaged. (9) This would suggest that the remains represent possibly a combination of natural and human factors, but are no less fascinating for that.

The Belém is a rare archaeological witness in English waters to this pivotal event in Portugal’s involvement in the First World War. Strangely, there is another not far away, another ship also belonging to the Transportes Maritimos do Estados, the Brava (ex-German Togo) torpedoed off Trevose Head in 1918, while inbound to Cardiff with pit props.

What became of some of the other 71 vessels is unclear: many are thought to have been destroyed by German submarines in route to British ports, certainly the fate of Tungue (ex German Zieten), which was torpedoed by UB-51, another Transportes Maritimos do Estado vessel, which was chartered by Britain on her final voyage.  (10) Given the Belém‘s destination of Cardiff with iron ore, chartering to Britain might well explain why she was said to have had two Royal Navy gunners aboard, who were rescued along with the other crew. (11)

However, it has been pointed out that one of the minor successes of this decision to bring about formal entry into the conflict was the agreed return of the surviving captured German ships from Britain and France, which would form the basis of Portugal’s post-war merchant fleet in the 1920s. (12) The Belém is an excellent illustration of how profoundly the First World War changed shipping around the globe, and with what long-term effects.

Aerial view of a brown seashore with items of wreckage showing as darker areas standing proud of the sand, particularly towards the lower right of the image.
Aerial photograph of the Belém site in 2013, by kind permission of the Coastal Offshore and Archaeological Research Services (COARS), University of Southampton. The site is dynamic: previous views in 2006 and 2010 have shown less wreckage.

Thank you very much to Stuart for writing this fascinating post!

 

(1) Aylmer, A. date unknown (after 2011); The Demise of the SS Belém

(2) Busby, M. 2015 http://budeandbeyond.co.uk/ss-Belém-by-drone/

(3) de Oliveira Marques, A. H. 1986, História de Portugal. Lisboa: Palas Editora, p.235.

(4) Brandão, M. C., 2016. German Submarine war in Portuguese Waters: Esposende – a Smuggling Network. University of Oporto, Portugal

(5) Marder, A. J., 2014, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: Volume IV 1917, Year of Crisis. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing.

(6) Brandão, M. C., 2016. German Submarine war in Portuguese Waters: Esposende – a Smuggling Network. University of Oporto, Portugal.

(7) Salgado, A. 2016. “British Naval Aid to Portugal During the First World War”, The Mariner’s Mirror, 102:2, 191-202.

(8) National Record of the Historic Environment, Mon No: 1585637, https://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1585637; http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/lines/portstate.shtml

(9) Aylmer, A. date unknown, (after 2011), The Demise of the SS Belém

(10) https://uboat.net/wwi/ships_hit/6158.html; http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/lines/portstate.shtml

(11) Aylmer, A. date unknown (after 2011), The Demise of the SS Belém

(12) Brandão, M. C., 2016. German Submarine war in Portuguese Waters: Esposende – a Smuggling Network. University of Oporto, Portugal.

 

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

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