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: November 1918

The Day before the Armistice

I began this maritime ‘Diary of the War’ with an entry for August 1914 in the waters off the Northumberland coast. As we approach the centenary of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, we return once more to that stretch of coastline.

From her inception to her service to her demise, HMS Ascot was entirely a product of the First World War. She was the first of a Racecourse-class of minesweepers built under the Emergency War Programme from 1915 in response to that need for sweepers which, as our August 1914 post demonstrated, was so pressing from the outset of the war, and entered service in January 1916. The Flower-class sweeping and anti-submarine sloops built at this time were also commissioned by the Emergency War Programme, of which HMS President, ex-HMS Saxifrage, moored in London, was one, built at Lobnitz, Renfrew.

Photograph of HMS President moored on river in predominantly black and white dazzle camouflage scheme, with some red, against a backdrop of buildings on the river bank.
HMS President is one of three surviving Royal Navy ships of the First World War and is shown here in her centenary dazzle scheme by Tobias Rehberger, 2014. By DieSwartzPunkt Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The Racecourse-class minesweepers were commissioned from the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company at Troon, who were specialists in constructing paddle steamers for the ferry and excursion steamer markets, which retained a strong preference for paddle steamers, otherwise (with the exception of paddle tugs) largely obsolete in other contexts by the 1870s.

The purpose of the maritime War Diary has not only been to illustrate the underwater cultural heritage of this landscape of war around England’s coastline, but to also to highlight some developments as the war progressed and to demonstrate the diversity of vessel types and nationalities involved.

The commissioning of new paddle steamers to go to war may seem an extraordinary decision, but it fits into this theme. Their typically shallow draught, suitable for river or estuary service, was ideal for minesweeping, and commissioning smaller specialist shipbuilders made full use of Britain’s shipbuilding capacity at need.

In fact, both World Wars saw the use of both purpose-built and requisitioned paddle minesweepers, even if they gained something of a reputation for being ‘wallowy’ and uncomfortable at times. Their use was characteristic of an inventive and flexible approach to adapting shipping to wartime use and conditions, which has also been one of the themes emerging from the War Diary.

Black and white photograph taken from a steamer at sea showing another paddle steamer beyond and on the right.
First World War: Paddle minesweepers off Harwich, April 1918. © IWM (Q 18823)
Black and white photograph of paddle steamer marked with pennant number J66 to the left, with its funnel echoed in the chimneys of the industrial buildings beyond.
Second World War: HMS Plinlimmon, ex-Cambria, in her wartime livery circa 1940 as a minesweeper, perhaps shortly after participating in the Dunkirk evacuation. Built as an excursion steamer in 1895, she was typical of many auxiliaries in seeing service during both World Wars (as HMS Cambridge in the First World War). Source: Historic England Archive CC80/00195

On 10 November 1918 HMS Ascot was three days out from Portsmouth for the minesweeping base at Granton, when she was sighted by UB-67 and became the last Royal Navy loss, the last vessel sunk in English waters, and the last vessel sunk by direct enemy action in the First World War anywhere in the world. (The Norwegian Ener was the very last loss of the war at sea on 11 November 1918, sunk by a mine off Fair Isle.)  (1)

On 20 November 1918 a press release announced the loss of Ascot:

‘The Secretary of the Admiralty announces that HM paddle minesweeper Ascot was torpedoed and sunk with all hands on the 10th inst. by a German submarine off the North-East Coast of England.

‘Six officers, including two mercantile marine officers, and 47 men, including eight mercantile marine ratings, lost their lives.

‘The next-of-kin have all been informed.’ (2)

Of all the terrible events in the ‘war to end all wars’, few things can have been more unbearably distressing and poignant for families than to hear that their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons had been killed so close to the Armistice. Such tragic losses touched many families, including my own, with one of the more famous examples the war poet Wilfred Owen, killed in action on 4 November 1918.

Her crew are commemorated on the imposing Grade-I listed Commonwealth War Grave memorials at Plymouth and Chatham. The wreck has been identified east of the Farne Islands by her bell and paddle wheels. (3)

The Armistice marked an end to the fighting, but not to the war itself: the final cessation of hostilities came with the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allied Powers, signed on 28 June 1919, along with other separately-negotiated peace treaties. For this reason some war memorials, such as this one at Euston, London, state the dates of the war as 1914-1919, but there were other reasons too. For seamen there was no longer any danger of shellfire, underwater torpedo or aerial attack, but in some respects the war was not yet properly over. Hence the Diary of the War will conclude with a final ‘post-war’ post in December 2018.

Fearless of storm or foe,
Guarding the traffic of the east and west,
Giving with hearts heroic of their best,

The brave mine-sweepers go.

The Mine-Sweepers, Editha Jenkinson

Charcoal and wash sketch of two men on deck, distinguished by their yellow oilskins, with features of the deck also picked out in yellow.
Bridge of a Paddle Sweeper, North Sea, Geoffrey Stephen Allfree: Imperial War Museum Commission c.1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 775) It seems fitting to conclude this tribute to HMS Ascot with an artwork by Allfree, who is commemorated along with his vessel, ML247,  in our September 1918 post.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping Through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile edition, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p238; skipet.no

(2) Widely reproduced across the national and regional press: for example, Western Morning News, 20 November 1918, No.18,323, p6

(3) UKHO No.4397

Musical instruments in the Sea

The tale of a harp

Earlier this year Historic England were contacted by the finders of a diverse assemblage of artefacts from the wreck of a steamer off the coast of Sussex, including a metal plate which was all that was left of a harp, its wooden body and catgut strings having long since disappeared. The identity of the wreck was unknown – and colleagues passed on the enquiry to me to see if I could find a potential match for the site among the records on the Historic England shipwreck database.

Curved metal plate with pegs and holes on a wooden table.
Figure 1. Harp plate from the unknown wreck off Sussex. © Mike Rountree

On the whole musical instruments are very rarely represented in the documentary record although they turn up occasionally as archaeological finds. Occasionally they are named in the cargo, from the Charles, wrecked in 1675 off the Lizard with unspecified music instruments from Lisbon, to the Preussen (subject of a recent post), which stranded off Dover in 1910 en route from Hamburg to Valparaiso with a cargo which included pianos.

More often we come across references to musical instruments as personal possessions, and not always on board the wrecked vessel either. During the collision of the Belgian steamer Jan Breydel with the Norwegian steamer Salina near the Goodwin Sands in 1921, the Salina came off worse and sank with loss of life, but those on board the Jan Breydel also feared for their lives. One passenger gave a press interview, saying that: “If our boat had been fifty yards further on, there would have been no interview this morning, for the Salina would have struck just about the point where I was sitting.”

That passenger was the violin virtuoso Jan Kubelik (1880-1940), who also said that his first thought was for his precious Stradivarius, known as the ‘Emperor’ Stradivarius, around which he placed a lifebuoy. (1) That instrument still exists today – so a near-shipwreck was just one of many incidents in its 300-year history. It also reminds us that many high-status instruments have a traceable history. (By contrast, the Wreck of the Week War Diary for June 1918 shows that a young violinist survived, although his violin did not, but as it was not ‘his best’ it was clearly the least of his worries!)

The history of the harp would prove crucial in helping to unlock the possible identity of the ship, together with the context of the cargo. Other finds from the same wreck included a number of ‘teardrop’ or ‘torpedo’ bottles marked “Bradey and Downey, Newry”, “F W Kennedy, Limerick”, and “Bewley, Evans and Company, Mary Street, Dublin”.

Green bottle with moulded lettering reading BEWLEY EVANS AND visible, against a white background.
Figure 2. Torpedo bottle, probably for mineral water, which was part of Bewley Evans and Company’s bottling business. © Mike Rountree

The latter were mineral water bottlers and suppliers with a company history which seems to fizzle out around 1863, (2) suggesting a terminus ante quem for the date of loss, and a voyage beginning in or calling at Ireland. Other finds appeared more likely to be of Continental European origin, such as a large blue and white painted earthenware pot, and are as likely to be interpretable as personal household effects as cargo.

Enter the engraved metal plate from the harp. It was still legible, though much corroded, revealing that it was made by Erard, specialists in prestige harps at their London showroom during the 19th century. The firm had been founded in France, but the French Revolution drove Sébastien Erard out of the country, leaving his brother-in-law to carry on the Paris business.  The London and Paris branches then came to specialise respectively in harps and pianos.

Each of Erard’s harps sold from the London showroom was individually numbered with a ‘patent number’, the ledgers for which survive at the Royal College of Music Museum and Archives. The patent number on this example was extremely difficult to read after so long in the sea, and was initially interpreted as 6331 or 6339. Harp 6331 was sold to a clergyman in 1871 and returned for repair in 1874: he retired on the grounds of ill-health in 1875 and died in London in 1906, and harp 6339 was sold in 1864. Both of these post-date the apparent cessation of Bewley and Evans’ operations in Dublin by 1863, and there were no obvious wrecks that fitted the criteria in terms of location, date, or origin post-dating 1864.

Further examination of the patent number in a higher-resolution photograph kindly provided by the finders, and comparison with the lettering of other surviving Erard harps in online collections at the V&A and National Trust suggested that the number could well be 5331, which was the suggestion I put forward to the finders. (Figure 3) The numerals are engraved just to the right of the word ‘Patent’, at the point where the plate begins to curve downwards, (Figure 4) so that each numeral is smaller than its predecessors (compare the two 3s). They are set in an ornamental cartouche of engraved curlicues which have provided a matrix for the further pitting of the metal around the digits.  The semi-circular feature between the tops of the second ‘3’ and ‘1’ was especially ambiguous.

Detail view of corroded and pitted metal in which the numbers 5 3 3 1 are just legible.
Figure 3. Detail view of number on the recovered harp plate. © Mike Rountree
Detail view of top of harp, showing strings and pegs with engraved lettering on a metal plate underneath.
Figure 4. Detail view of harp made by S&P Erard in 1858, now belonging to the V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum

The record for 5331 also survives in the ledgers, noted as built in 1839 and sold to a Mr S J Pigott of 112 Grafton Street, Dublin, on September 30, 1840. He was very heavily involved in Dublin musical society, with showrooms for the sale or hire of harps and pianos at those exact premises – including Erard harps. (3)

A key selling point highlighted in his advertisements was that the instruments were sourced from London, so clearly regular buying trips were made. It is unclear what happened next in the case of this particular harp: whether it was for sale in his shop following its import from London, or whether it was intended for his personal use. If the former, the customer is also likely to have lived in Ireland; if the latter, it may have either remained within the family or have been sold after his death. This part of the story so far remains untraced.

It seems clear that the harp is likely to have been a personal possession on its final voyage, reinforced by the presence of what are likely to be other domestic effects aboard; that its voyage is likely to have originated in Ireland, given the bottles from Dublin, Limerick and Newry as cargo; that the vessel was a steamer from the site as observed; and that the wreck took place before 1863 as the date by which one of the bottling firms seems to have fizzled out; and somewhere on the coast of Sussex.

The candidate that most closely matches the criteria is the steamer Ondine of Waterford, which sank on 19 February 1860 following a collision off Beachy Head with the schooner Heroine of Bideford. The position of loss as reported does not quite tally with the position of the site as located, but this is not at all uncommon, since wreck remains are often identified some distance from the reported place of loss. This would not, therefore, necessarily exclude the Ondine from consideration, particularly as she otherwise matches the criteria so closely.  Additionally, while steamers were common at this date, they had not yet ousted the sailing vessel, which significantly restricted the pool of potential candidates for the wreck site.

Ondine was a regular visitor to London and left Dublin as usual on 15 February with passengers and a general cargo, calling at Falmouth, Plymouth and Southampton en route. Her profile fits well with the finds on site as she was carrying both passengers, providing the context for the movement of personal effects, and cargo, which would fit with the bottles as found. At each port some passengers disembarked and others came on board, so the total number of passengers is difficult to ascertain, but a ‘good many faces’ were looking down at the survivors in one boat as they got away. (4)

It seems that three boats got away, one led by the captain, one the mate, Edward West, and one the second mate, Richard Burke, with a fourth boat being smashed. The captain’s boat was swamped, and all presumably drowned; the mate managed to save 20 persons, who were seen straight away by the Heroine, which picked them up. Of those who got into the third boat with the second mate, only two passengers survived, one of whom, one Marsh, had been on holiday to his wife’s family. His wife and two children got away with him in the same boat, but he suffered the agony of seeing them perish one by one from exposure or drowning, one child in his arms. The mate and the other survivors were very near the end of their resources, with their boat badly damaged and only saved from sinking by its cork lining, when discovered by the Thetis steamer, who sent a boat to pick them up.

One strange circumstance was the presence of an unnamed lady passenger. Richard Burke recalled in his testimony that the captain most particularly adjured him to look after this lady as she got into his boat. Unfortunately, along with the chief stewardess, she was one of the first to perish from his boat. Was, she, perhaps, the harp’s owner?

Further research on the wreck site and in documentary sources will help to confirm whether the wreck is indeed the Ondine, but no other candidates in the historical record appear to fit the archaeological discoveries so well. It’s very common for a maker’s plate to confirm the identity of a wreck, but who would have thought that a maker’s plate for a harp could put a candidate for a wreck’s identity in the frame? There is more research to be done on both the wreck site and in documentary records before this possible identification can be confirmed or discarded in favour of another, but it is a fascinating story that demonstrates the depth of detective work involved in putting a name to a wreck.

With many thanks to Mike and Sue Rountree and to Guy Freeman for sharing their story and photographs of the discovery, and to Dr Anna Maria Barry at the Royal College of Music Museum, who says: ‘The RCM Museum and Library team are delighted to have helped with the identification of this wreck. We are lucky enough to look after the Erard ledgers, and have answered many enquiries about serial numbers – but this is by far the strangest request we’ve had! The story of the shipwrecked harp demonstrates the way in which musical instruments can offer a unique insight into our social history.’ The RCM Museum have also blogged about the wreck: http://www.rcm.ac.uk/about/news/all/2018-05-21museumblogharp.aspx

(1) Shields Daily News, 24 September 1921, No.19,522, p3

(2) British Newspaper Archive searches: no advertisements for the firm later than 1863, supported by (undated) material from Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History

(3) Erard harp ledgers, Royal College of Music Museum. Samuel Pigott announced his move to premises at 112 Grafton Street, advertising Erard and other harps and pianos, in the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, 4 November 1837, No.1,513, p1. The company continued to sell harps and pianos from the same premises even after Samuel’s death in 1853 (British Newspaper Archive searches). In fact the business continues today as McCullough Pigott in Dublin.

(4) Liverpool Mercury, 23 February 1860, No.3,752, p3

Diary of the War: October 1918

The mystery submarine

On this blog I’ve occasionally discussed the ‘fog of war’, whereby participants in a military or naval engagement are unable to make clear decisions or correctly identify friend from foe: their minds are clouded by the rapidly evolving situations they find themselves in without necessarily having all appropriate information to hand to make a fully-informed decision. Those decisions may, in turn, be informed by previous war experience, for good or ill.

Sometimes a ‘fog of war’ situation has the misfortune to take place wholly or partially in a physical weather fog, or even to be caused by it – which naturally then exacerbates the consequences of events as they unfold.

On the afternoon of 15 October 1918 the Q-ship Cymric was on patrol in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast, acting on reports that a U-boat was operational in the area. Having already seen and dismissed two friendly submarines, it was apparently a case of ‘third time lucky’ when a submarine with a U-prefix was seen close by.

Cymric fired at short range and continued firing even as members of the submarine’s crew climbed out and tried to make signals by firing rifles or waving a white cloth. All these were interpreted as deceptive or hostile actions, of which Cymric‘s commander and crew had had prior experience, by the very nature of their Q-ship activity, pitting the wits of one side against another.  The only course of action open to the submarine was to retreat into a fog bank, which only reinforced the impression of suspicious behaviour.

She was pursued by Cymric,  and as they appeared on scene they found survivors coming up alongside their vessel from the submarine, now in a sinking state. As Cymric‘s crew realised the survivors were sporting not German cap tallies, but British ones, their mission turned from war to rescue. However, only 30 men came out alive from HMSM J6, as the mystery submarine proved to be.

It was a case of mistaken identity, stemming from something simple: the crew of J6 were apparently unaware that some debris hanging outside their conning tower mirrored their J prefix, making it look for all the world like a U – which was then fatally misinterpreted by Cymric.

It was a sad example of ‘friendly fire’, made all the sadder by occurring as the long war moved inexorably towards the Armistice just a few weeks later. Ultimately the J6 was forced to contend that day with both a fog of war and a sea fog which hampered visibility. Despite the fact that the Cymric was the author of the J6‘s misfortunes, it is perhaps as well that she did pursue the supposed U-boat into the fog bank, or her victim’s loss might have passed unseen, and it might have been a long time before her crew were picked up, if at all.

The wreck has been located in recent years in the North Sea east of Seahouses: see this BBC report, 2014.

 

 

Diary of the War: September 1918

ML 247

This month’s wreck commemorated in the War Diary for September 1918 is one of our occasional features which was not a war loss as such (i.e. not lost to enemy action), though she was lost on war patrol and is an example of a vessel specifically built for the war in large numbers.

She was ML 247, one of three very large orders totalling 580 motor launches, placed by the Admiralty with the motor yacht specialist Elco of New Jersey, USA, small and fast, intended for anti-submarine duties.

Watercolour of green-sea with small ship to right centre ground, dark wash on sea to left indicuating a submarine.
Motor launches engaging a submarine, commissioned for the Imperial War Museum. Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, RNVR, © IWM (Art.IWM ART 148)

On 29 September 1918 four motor launches entered St. Ives Bay for shelter during a gale, which then veered to the NNE, increasing to hurricane force. This turned the rocky north Cornwall coast into a lee shore towards which the 86ft long wooden craft were in danger of drifting in high seas. One in particular, ML 247, got into difficulties as she developed problems with her engine.

To us today it seems extraordinary that these small wooden craft were equipped for warlike purposes with a 3pdr gun, depth charges – and a petrol engine. (They were no more extraordinary, however, than the contemporary aircraft which flew into battle with fabric coverings over wooden frames.) It was the petrol engine developing 19 knots that gave the motor launches their advantage over the U-boat, the fastest of which could only proceed at 17 knots on the surface and were far less speedy when submerged.

Charcoal drawing showing a boat in the centre in the air above small craft on the water, to left a curved dockyard crane is visible.
Hoisting a motor launch, by Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, to a commission by the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Art.IWM ART 791)

By the time the St. Ives lifeboat reached Clodgy Point, the vessel had struck the rocks and with her petrol engine and depth charges, had blown up on impact with the loss of all but one of her 11 crew. Nevertheless one man was washed up and rescued on the shore by Sgt Henry Escott, who was awarded the RNLI Silver Medal for his rescue, while the lifeboat crew were also rewarded for their gallant if unsuccessful attempt to save life in the teeth of the NNE gale. Two of the lifeboat crew subsequently donated their awards to the Cornwall Branch of the Red Cross. (1)

Among the dead was her commanding officer Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, who had commanded ML 286 (which survives to this day in Isleworth, and whose story is told here by Antony Firth of Fjordr Ltd.) A professional artist, he had also served at Gallipoli, and many evocative sketches and paintings by him survive – indeed, I used his paintings to illustrate the War Diary blog of March 1918 on the theme of dazzle camouflage.

 

Oil painting depicting white foamy sea to right, and to the left violet cliffs under a grey sky, a vessel painted in colourful dazzle camouflage lies in centre ground ashore.
Torpedoed Tramp Steamer off the Longships, 1918, by Geoffrey Stephen Allfree. © IWM. (Art.IWM ART 2237)

He also painted this view depicting a torpedoed steamer ‘off the Longships’, showing a vessel whose dazzle camouflage had apparently done little to protect her.  As far as I know, the vessel in the painting has never been identified, probably because of the title. However, the view does not depict the Longships, a group of rocks off Land’s End. The view is instead of Cornwall’s rocky coast opposite the Longships, looking north, suggesting that the vessel was perhaps beached after being torpedoed off the Longships.

The only vessel fulfilling these criteria in 1918 is the SS Beaumaris, which was torpedoed on 7 February 1918 and which was steered for Whitesand Bay, not far from the Longships, in a sinking state, finally being run ashore by the master and wireless operator after everyone else had managed to escape. There is some artistic licence for the purposes of the composition, particularly the distinctive dark rock in the background, but there is no other vessel that matches these criteria. Despite the camouflage, she fits the typical profile of a collier or tramp steamer, which we know was the case with the Beaumaris, operated by the coal shipping firm of Furness, Withy and Co., and carrying coal at the time of loss.

We can therefore be reasonably certain that this is the Beaumaris, with a viewpoint approximating to Sennen Cove lifeboat station. She was largely demolished in situ, but the occasional trace remains even today.

The crew in the ship’s port lifeboat were picked up by a patrol vessel and it is tempting to wonder if Allfree had been involved in their rescue, or whether he had simply seen the vessel while on patrol and come back to have another look. We can imagine that a breezy and chilly spring walk and the resultant painting were pleasant diversions from war patrol.

 

(1) St. Ives RNLI Station History; The Cornishman, 5 February 1919, p5

 

 

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 (continued)

1918/1928

Q-ship Stock Force was the only ship to sink off the coast of Devon on 30th July 1918, despite her best efforts to sink the attacking U-boat. In fact it seems she may have been the only Allied vessel to have sunk anywhere in the world that day (although there were some unsuccessful U-boat attacks on the same day that damaged, but did not sink, the victims). (1)

Yet it could be said that Stock Force was not the only ship which sank as a result of that day’s engagement. There was a (very) delayed knock-on effect which came about through the post-war publicity generated by news of the event and the celebrity attached to her successor Suffolk Coast, which went on tour with the same crew. There were many popular naval memoirs, too, including Auten’s own. (2)

This suggested that even in the crowded market of wartime films a movie on the theme of Q-ships would be popular, and it was announced in late 1927. (3)

Its authenticity was a major selling point: ‘Reality and not “fake” will be the keynote of this production’. (4) Genuine and re-enactment footage were spliced together: as a review stated, ‘It is difficult to know at times when the “official topical” finishes and when the reconstruction of today starts, so fine is the production work and the editing.’ (5)

Harold Auten was a key stakeholder in the production: the film was largely based on his  Q-boat Adventures and Stock Force‘s final battle, he was the film’s naval consultant, and he and five of his crew also reprised their wartime roles ten years on for the purposes of the film, together with ‘the actual gun’ from Stock Force.

Historic black and white photograph of two men in shabby merchant seamen's clothes, shaking hands in front of a gun.
William Butland, Chief Petty Officer of Stock Force (l), and Harold Auten (r), her commanding officer, shake hands during filming. By kind permission of the Butland family.

After all, they had form as actors in keeping up the role of merchant seamen for months on end while on the lookout for U-boats! A U-boat captain, Hermann Rohne, was taken on board as U-boat consultant, while Earl Jellicoe played himself as Admiral Jellicoe of Jutland fame.

The cast was the easy part. Re-enacting naval engagements was much harder, with a number of practical hurdles to overcome. First of all, the 1917-built Southwick replaced Stock Force, now at the bottom of the sea.

There were no longer any genuine U-boats, which had all been surrendered in 1918-19 and broken up in the early 1920s as directed by the Treaty of Versailles. However, two obsolete submarines were placed on the disposal list in 1927 and H-52 was accordingly purchased by producer E Gordon Craig as a stand-in for a U-boat.

She was intended to be sunk in a set-piece battle off the Eddystone in January 1928. but she was very nearly wrecked en route to being sunk (and in this resembles the real U-boats so often taken in tow post-war for breaking, when the sea accomplished the task intended for the breaker’s yard: see our previous post on this subject).

Under tow out to sea, she missed the harbourmaster’s launch by inches, crashed into a jetty without somehow managing to set off the demolition explosives with which she was packed, then broke tow. Arriving on location, they were forced to turn back and nearly lost the craft again when she went aground. (6)

On the final successful attempt, the submarine lay off the Eddystone, while guns from the Southwick, representing the Stock Force, fired 8 rounds into H-52, sinking the submarine and reversing the fortunes of the original event. ‘There was a sudden explosion and a high column of smoke and debris as the submarine blew up just fore of the conning tower. One hundred pounds of TNT had been stacked in her for this realistic touch, and this was set off by an electric lead to the naval boat.’ (7)

The wreck has been charted ever since January 1928, and has a detached bow and associated debris field consistent with her manner of loss. (8) 

She joined a long heritage of naval vessels being repurposed at the end of their service lives – from 17th century accounts of wooden sailing vessels being used as foundations for new harbours, to 20th century warships and submarines being expended as gunnery targets, to the sinking of HMS Scylla as an artificial reef in 2004, but being expended for a film re-enactment is perhaps a little more unusual!

Another elderly vessel of mercantile origin, the schooner Amy, was also purchased to stand in for the schooner Prize in the film (the German schooner Else captured as a prize of war on 4 August 1914, hence her change of name). Prize was converted into a Q-ship and underwent three actions, being lost with all hands on her last battle with a U-boat. (The National Maritime Museum holds a watercolour of one of her previous actions.)

Amy was described as having been ‘one of the oldest sailing ships afloat’, built at Banff and 65 years of age on her first and last appearance on screen. This seems to refer to the Banff-built schooner Amy, official no.62443, which was, in fact, built in 1870 (and so was ‘only’ 58) and whose register was closed in 1928. (9)

Far from being a potential candidate for preservation, this ‘Grand Old Lady of the Sea’ (10) was selected to represent Prize in her final battle, which can also be viewed as an elegy for the sailing vessel in the light of the havoc wrought by the First World War.

Text at top right reads: New Era Presents Q-Ships. Special Exclusive Season, Marble Arch Pavilion, A Gaumont-British theatre. To left a silhouetted ship in full sail against a sunset and outlined clouds on red waves, with small U-boat just visible emerging from the sea to right below the text.
Front cover of Q-Ships souvenir programme. This striking image conveys at one and the same time the impending destruction of a sailing ship from the U-boat (seen bottom right) and the sunset of the sailing vessel in the aftermath of the First World War. © Historic England Archive

She too was sunk ‘in action’ off the Bill of Portland in February 1928, and again it took several attempts, blamed on the removal of her figurehead as a souvenir. Much was made of this in the press, with superstitious sailors saying that to be successfully sunk she should have her figurehead with its ‘lucky squint’ reinstated! If nothing else, it was certainly a good story to drum up interest in the film. (11)

Amy has also been consistently charted at her position of loss since 1928 and has a unique place in the maritime heritage of England’s Channel coast. In being expended for re-enactment purposes, she can lay claim perhaps to being the final (indirect) victim of the First World War at sea in English waters (there were other direct post-war losses but we will cover that in a future edition of Wreck of the Week). She is also a rare, if not unique, example of the wreck of a Victorian sailing vessel documented in the early days of 20th century film. And finally, she has the sad distinction of being a counterpart to a genuine wartime loss, whose remains are yet to be discovered.

The Q-Ships film created – and documented in the very creation – a heritage of its own.

 

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

(2) Q-boat Adventures, 1919, London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd.

(3) Western Morning News, Friday 25 November 1927, No.21,115, p5; Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 2 December 1927, No.3,114, p14

(4) Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 2 December 1927, No.3,114, p14

(5) The Stage, Thursday 28 June 1928, No.2,465, p24

(6) Western Morning News, Monday 2 January 1928, No.21,146, p5

(7) Belfast News Letter, Wednesday 4 January 1928, no issue number, p7

(8) UKHO 17584

(9) Entry for Amy on www.clydeships.co.uk

(10) New Era Presents: Q-Ships souvenir programme, 1928

(11) Dundee Courier, Monday 26 March 1928, No.23,340 p5