Diary of the War: March 1917

Mousse Le Moyec

This is the tale of two events across the Channel – one in French waters on this day a hundred years ago (29 March 1917) during the First World War, and a later wreck in English waters from the Second World War, linked by a name.

The latter was one of the very first wrecks I ever encountered on the database 20 years ago, with the unusual and evocative name of Mousse Le Moyec. The name has stuck with me ever since: mousse means ‘ship’s boy’ in French (“a young sailor under the age of 17”, according to Larousse) so I always wondered who he was and why he was commemorated by having a ship named after him.

On 29 March 1917 a French sailing trawler, the Irma, took up her station 15 miles SSW of Cordouan, off the Gironde, France, with her crew of five. As she was preparing to shoot her nets, a U-boat commenced shelling the vessel, approaching closer with each shot. The ship’s boat was shot away and mousse Maurice Le Moyec, aged 14, was killed.


Enfant Moyec2
Commemorative plaque for mousse Maurice Le Moyec, stating his date of death as 29 March 1916 (in error for 1917). La Rochelle © and by kind permission of M Bruno Baverel

The master was seriously injured, but the other three members of the crew, the mate, aged 18, and two boys, aged 15, remained calm under fire, even though also injured, and got the little ship back to the Gironde under a jury rig. The survivors were decorated for gallantry.

After the war, a number of French colliers were built for the French Government to a standard design, each named in honour of one of those who had fallen for France. The vessel named after mousse Le Moyec was built for a company which had also lost a ship called Irma, in 1916, so it may be that there was some confusion over the ship on which young Le Moyec was lost.

This collier, commemorating a victim of the First World War, would play her part in the Second. In the 1920s and 1930s she regularly criss-crossed the Channel to pick up Welsh coal for France. After the fall of France in 1940, she was therefore a natural candidate to bring over a number of young Frenchmen to Britain, answering de Gaulle’s call for Free Frenchmen to join him in the fight against the Nazis. Their story can be read here (in French): one of those passengers was André Quelen, who is remembered here (in English).

As with so many other vessels which escaped to Britain from occupied Europe, she was then placed at the disposal of the British Government (my own father travelled on a Dutch trooper under the British flag, which had escaped the night Amsterdam fell). Mousse Le Moyec continued to ply her usual trade as a collier, but solely within English waters on the Bristol Channel – Plymouth run, until she was wrecked near Hartland Point in December 1940.

When I first encountered Mousse Le Moyec all those years ago, the internet was in its infancy and it was difficult to find out more. Thanks to the power of online resources, in particular the French pages14-18 forum, I have been able to discover the moving connection between a wreck in English waters in 1940 and the French counterpart of Jack Cornwell, of Jutland fame, who died 100 years ago today, a reminder of cross-Channel co-operation in time of war.




No. 96 HMT Resono

Diary of the War No. 17

In the second part of our Christmas double bill, we commemorate a loss on Boxing Day 1915 and finish off with a poem as an extra special feature.

We have looked at fishing vessels in the War Diary before – how, at the outbreak of war, neutral fishing vessels found themselves on an unexpected front line of minefields, how the sailing fishing fleets of Lowestoftwere targeted and how they fought back.

In commemorating the loss of HMT Resono 100 years ago, today’s post pays tribute to the efforts of the steam trawling fleets. They saw action principally as minesweepers and patrol vessels, many requisitioned from the beginning of the war. They were eminently suitable to backfill these roles: as smaller ships, they were at less risk of detonating mines, their crews knew the seas intimately, and they needed little modification.

Sweeping was monotonous, deadly, and dangerous, with a high casualty rate: it was inevitable that a number of sweepers and patrol vessels would be lost in the minefields littered around the coastline. On 26th December 1915, Resono, one of the famous Sleight fleet of trawlers operating out of Grimsby, was blown up 2 miles SE of the Sunk Light Vessel in the Thames Estuary.

The Sleight fleet saw distinguished service in both World Wars. Sir George Sleight’s obituary of 1921 states that over 50 of his ships were requisitioned: it also states that he developed from a cockle-gatherer to the owner of the largest steam trawler company in the world. (1) His fleet is readily identifiable among wartime casualty lists by its distinctive house naming scheme: Recepto, Remarko, and Remindo were other First World War losses from the fleet. Many Sleight vessels participated in both wars: Resolvo and Resparko, First World War veterans, were both lost in 1940. Yet others survived two wartime services, including the Revello, built in 1908 and therefore a contemporary of Resono, which was eventually wrecked in 1959.

Black and white photo of steam trawler, with steam coming out of its funnel.
Sleight trawler Revello, which sprang a leak and sank off Kilnsea in 1959, after seeing service in both World Wars. She had been sunk in 1941, but was salvaged a few months later. © Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre. George Scales Maritime Photographs.

To conclude this month’s edition of the War Diary, here is Kipling’s poem Mine Sweepers, also a century old. It was first published as the introduction to an article on the work of the minesweeper-trawlers for the Daily Telegraph, 23rd November 1915: the original can be read here.

Dawn off the Foreland – the young flood making

Jumbled and short and steep –

Black in the hollows and bright where it’s breaking –

Awkward water to sweep.

“Mines reported in the fairway,

“Warn all traffic and detain.

“Sent up Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”


Noon off the Foreland – the first ebb making

Lumpy and strong in the bight.

Boom after boom, and the golf-hut shaking

And the jackdaws wild with fright!

“Mines located in the fairway,

“Boats now working up the chain,

“Sweepers – Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”


Dusk off the Foreland – the last light going

And the traffic crowding through,

And five damned trawlers with their syreens blowing

Heading the whole review!

“Sweep completed in the fairway.

“No more mines remain.

“Sent back Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”

To borrow a phrase: the poem counted them all out and counted them all back!

(1) The Times, Monday 21 March, 1921, No.42,674, p16.

No.87 Layers of History

Inspired by my recent holiday in Croatia, I thought I’d turn this week to looking at wrecks in English waters from that part of the world. I’ve touched before on how changing national boundaries and ideas of nationhood affect the way we classify wrecks – the nationality recorded at the time of loss is often very different from the nationality now, and this is as true for Croatia as for the subjects of my previous articles on EstoniaFinland and Hungary.

'Sailing ship in a storm', Ivankovic, 1887, ex voto painting in the cloisters at Kuna Peljeska, Croatia. Note the small saint on a cloud towards top left, rendering divine assistance, typical of such scenes, while the ship wallows in the sea, having lost most of her sails. The  associated church contains many silver ex voto plaques, many with shipwreck scenes.
Sailing ship in a storm, Ivankovic, 1887, ex voto painting in the cloisters at Kuna Peljeska, Croatia. Note at top left the small saint on a cloud rendering divine assistance, typical of such scenes, while the ship wallows in a heavy sea, having lost most of her sails. The associated church also contains many silver ex voto plaques, several depicting shipwreck scenes. Image courtesy of Andrew Wyngard.

Croatia has a long and proud seafaring tradition with many rocky islands rising steeply out of the sea, affording little shelter to anyone unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked there. Indeed, Richard the Lionheart caused an ex voto church to be built at Lokrum in 1192. The islands are well marked with picturesque lighthouses and it is worth exploring this fantastic gallery here. Though there may be a number of earlier vessels in our records whose Croatian origins are masked by the lack of detail in contemporary sources, they first come to our attention in English waters during the 19th century, when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

One such vessel was Barone Vranyczany, lost in 1881 off Suffolk, named after a local noble family who had Magyarised their surname from the Croatian Vranjican. Her home port had the Italian name of  Fiume (now Rijeka): the name of her master, Pietro Cumicich, reflects a dual Italian-Croat linguistic heritage. With the help of the Austrian consul at Lowestoft, acting as interpreter, a fellow master from Fiume identified Cumicich’s body through his wedding ring inscribed with his wife’s initials and the date 10-12-77.

Croatia’s Italian heritage is very strong, reflecting its Venetian past and its proximity to the Italian coast. (The island of Korcula is traditionally said to have been the birthplace of Marco Polo, although this is disputed.) The Croatian littoral passed out of Venetian control to become the Republic of Ragusa, centred on Ragusa itself, now Dubrovnik: the two names, Latin and Croat, existed side by side until 1918 when Dubrovnik alone was officially adopted.

This link is clearly seen in the ship Deveti Dubrovački of Ragusa. She was one of a fleet belonging to the Dubrovnik Maritime Company, whose ships had a very simple house naming scheme. She was ‘The Ninth of Dubrovnik’: all the fleet were likewise named in order from ‘The First of Dubrovnik’ onwards. (1) She met her end in 1887 through a collision with a British steamer off Beachy Head, another wreck that illustrated the bond between husband and wife. The captain tied a rope around his wife, from which she was hauled in her nightdress aboard the steamer, despite her ‘imploring him not to mind her’: alas, she had the misfortune to see her husband go down with his ship. (The fact that the steamer did not also sink in this collision was attributed to the cushioning effect of the wool tightly packed in her hold.) (2)

Several ships have Italian names, such as the Fratelli Fabris, whose remains (1892) are said to lie close to Tater-Du on the coast of Cornwall, and which is known locally as the ‘Gin Bottle Wreck’. Indeed, a 1927 wreck was recorded in contemporary sources as of Italian nationality: the Isabo was built as Iris in Lussinpiccolo (now Mali Losinj, Croatia), then Austro-Hungary, a part of Croatia which became Italian in 1918.

At the same time the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created, to which the Slava, a war loss of 1940 off Porlock Bay, belonged. Only nine ships out of the country’s fleet survived the war. (3) After the Second World War Yugoslavia became a Socialist Federal Republic, of which Croatia was a constituent part. Our final wreck today is the Sabac, which belonged to that country’s nationalised fleet, and which was lost in 1961 in a collision off the South Goodwin light vessel.

Since 1991 Croatia has been an independent state, but one whose long maritime history endures, intertwined with that of many other nations, past and present. Its heritage is part of our own heritage too, from Lokrum to the wrecks around our coastline today.

(1) Anica Kisić, “Dubrovačko Pomorsko Društvo”, Atlant Bulletin, No.13, July 2004, pp22-4. URL: https://www.yumpu.com/hr/document/view/36424950/srpanj-2004-atlantska-plovidba-dd/23

(2) Edinburgh Evening News, 30 December 1887, No.4,530, p2

(3) http://www.atlant.hr/eng/atlantska_plovidba_povijest.php

No.79 James Eagan Layne

In this week’s post, we commemorate the loss of the US Liberty Ship James Eagan Layne 70 years ago on 21 March 1945, torpedoed while bound from New Orleans, last from Barry in Wales, for Ghent with what was then termed ‘Government stores’. Translated, that meant military vehicles and other war materials destined for the liberation of Europe as the war was drawing to a close. Historic recoveries from this vessel have included numerous shell cases. (1)

The forward section of the James Eagan Layne wreck, using modern bathymetric imagery allowing a view into the ship
Forward section of the James Eagan Layne, by courtesy of MSDS Marine and Swathe Services. There is much scattered debris, evidence of extensive post-war salvage.

The James Eagan Layne was one of several Liberty ships and other vessels bound for Belgium in the spring of 1945, following the successful conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. The Allies had repulsed the German advance, or ‘bulge’ in their lines, with heavy loss of life, particularly among the US troops who bore the brunt of the fighting. Allied access to the Belgian ports was now secured, barring minefields and U-boats, resuming the communication links severed by the fall of Belgium in 1940.

The pattern of wrecks on the seabed mirrors the fate of those communication links. Ten ships, bound either to or from Belgian ports, were sunk in English waters following the declaration of war in September 1939. It was a similar figure in early 1940 prior to the fall of Belgium in May, with 11 ships sunk by mine or torpedo on the same route.

The aft section of the James Eagan Layne wreck, using modern bathymetric imagery allowing a view into the ship, and showing scattered debris
Aft section of the James Eagan Layne, by courtesy of MSDS Marine and Swathe Services. This image allows an insight into the box-like construction characteristic of the Liberty Ship.

Transport links with occupied Belgium were then severed and are reflected in the lack of corresponding wrecks from late 1940 to early 1945: then, as Allied ships were once more able to reach Antwerp and other ports, there was also a recurrence of wreck events. Between January and May 1945, 10 ships are known to have been sunk in English waters en route to or from Belgium: they included other Liberty Ships, the Henry B Plant and the James Harrod. The John R Park was also torpedoed the same day as the James Eagan Layne, albeit on a different route, bound from England for the United States.

For more on the James Eagan Layne, please have a look at the dedicated SHIPS (Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound) and Promare Liberty 70 site.

(1) Receiver of Wreck droits.

With many thanks to MSDS Marine and Swathe Services for permission to reproduce these beautiful images.

No.67 A Concatenation of Events

Last week I wrote about multiple wreck events in which two ships happened to come ashore at the same place at different times, so to continue this ‘multiple wrecking’ mini-series within the blog, I’d like to focus on crews who have been doubly shipwrecked in a short space of time.

In May 1940 Hervé Cras, a ship’s doctor aboard the French destroyer Jaguar, survived the S-boat attack which sank her at Dunkirk. He finally made it out of Dunkirk aboard the Emile Deschamps and later recalled how the Jaguar‘s survivors stood up to salute their ship as they steamed out of Dunkirk, but were barked at to sit down again, because the vessel was dangerously overloaded. The Emile Deschamps picked her way carefully to Kent, but was mined close to safety off the North Foreland, the very last vessel of the Dunkirk evacuation to be lost in English waters. Once more Cras survived to tell the tale – literally: he became a leading naval historian, including a book on Dunkirk itself. (1)

On 3 January 1891 the Caroline Robert de Massy foundered off Dungeness while bound from the Black Sea port of Batumi for Antwerp with oil, following a collision with the Raithwaite Hall. The crew were saved, as were the seven crew of the vessel Ferdinand van der Taelen of Antwerp, returning home on the de Massy instead of their own ship, sunk in the Mediterranean on 23 November 1891, homeward-bound from Nikolaiev with grain. (2) All on board were taken up by the Raithwaite Hall and landed at Dover, the Ferdinand‘s crew presumably awaiting the next passing ship for Antwerp. It must have taken them at least three ships to get home, possibly four, if they were picked up by another ship in the original incident before being transferred to the de Massy, as the next available vessel bound for Antwerp.

Similarly, one of the survivors of the Earl of Dalkeith packet off Boulmer in November 1807 turned out to have also been rescued from the wrecking of the Leith packet off the Humber just a few months earlier.

On a related note seamen usually (not always . . . !) exerted themselves to save the crews of other vessels in distress, since they were painfully aware that another time they would themselves be in need of help. So it proved for the crew of the Anne Henrietta: on Christmas Eve 1768 they saved the crew of the William and John: their courage was rewarded within a few weeks, when they were themselves picked up by a passing fishing smack after their ship went down off Norfolk.

This post prepares the ground for October’s edition of the War Diary, looking at a notable wreck of late October 1914.


(1) under the pen name of Jacques Mordal, Dunkerque, 1968, Paris: Editions France Empire

(2) erroneously reported in the original source as Friedrich van der Taelen


No.54 The Dudgeon

In their Quincentenary week we take another look at the work of Trinity House, this time examining lightvessels as warning lights, wreck markers, and wrecks in themselves.

This week in 1736 the Dudgeon lightvessel first went on station, the second lightship after the Nore in the Thames Estuary in 1732. Demand from the east coast coal trade between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and London led to the marking of the Dudgeon, a dangerous shoal off the Norfolk coast.

Such early lightvessels proved their worth both as hazard markers and as reference points for locating wrecks. In 1785 the Mayflower of Scarborough ‘foundered nigh the Dodgen light’ and in 1824 the captain of a passing ship reported that he: ‘in passing the Dudgeon Float . . . bearing about NNW 8 miles, saw a sunken brig, with her royal masts shewing, painted white, and two vanes flying.’ He ‘supposed her to be from the northward, but not a collier.’

Lightvessels in their turn could become wrecks. Moored at their stations, they were prone to becoming casualties of the very same hazards against which they warned other shipping. There were other patterns of loss: the Dudgeon station was among the most unfortunate, with three incidents within 50 years. None were to the shoal itself, despite early concerns about the Dudgeon lightvessel parting her cables three times in two years (1), but to two other major causes of lightvessel loss.

As moored vessels, lightships were equally unable to take steps to avert collision, so the Dudgeon was ‘run down’ in 1898 and again in 1902: 38% of lightvessel wrecks recorded in English waters were lost to collision. Their inability to take evasive action also meant that, when war came, aerial bombardment was also a significant cause of loss, accounting in just two years for 26% of our recorded lightvessel wrecks. The East Dudgeon lightvessel was sunk by air attack in 1940, along with six others in 1940-1. The crew escaped, but were overwhelmed by the elements, with only one survivor.

Strangely enough, given how early lightvessels were wooden ships exhibiting lanterns, we have no recorded lightships wrecked by fire, or are there others of which we are not yet aware?

(1) Light upon the Waters: A History of Trinity House 1514-2014 p87-8

No.48: The Cieszyn

Dziękuję ci Kapitanie!

Following a trip to Poland last week, I thought I’d talk about Polish shipwrecks in English waters.

We have at least 69 wrecks of Polish origin, but a number may have been masked by historic former nationalities such as “Prussian”. Without a home port being named, it is difficult to identify just to which modern state incorporated within the former extent of Prussia a vessel belongs. Our earliest reference is in 1389 to the Cristofre of Danzig, while a reference to “Dansk in Prucia” from 1391 is clear enough, at the period when Gdansk was one of the major cities of the Hanseatic League, a trade association which dominated the Baltic and North Sea and became a power in its own right. Richard II and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, surrendered their rights in the wreck and restored the wrecked goods to the merchants involved.

Inevitably language isn’t always much of a clue, since most Prussian names were recorded in German rather than Polish, although occasionally other languages crop up. There is even a Marquis Wellington belonging to Gdansk, wrecked off Lincolnshire in 1824, when memories of the Anglo-Prussian alliance against Napoleon were still fresh. The ports of Gdansk and Szszecin continued to be referred to as Prussian Danzig and Stettin until well into the 20th century.

During World War II a number of Polish ships were lost in English waters including today’s featured wreck, the Cieszyn, which was bombed and sunk by two Dorniers off Lowland Point, near Falmouth, 73 years ago yesterday on 20th March 1941.

It was said that the boat carrying the escaping crew also came under attack, as did the lifeboatmen who put out from Coverack to rescue them in the Three Sisters lifeboat. When the Coverack cox’n, Archie Rowe, was featured on This Is Your Life in the days before it became dominated by celebrities, the team tracked down Captain Mikosza of the Cieszyn to express his gratitude.

Her bell was recovered in 1997, leading to the identification of the wreck, which had previously been thought to be a different wreck site, now believed to be the 1942 wreck of the British armed trawler Lord Snowden, lost in collision in the same general area. In turn the last resting place of the Lord Snowden has been reattributed from elsewhere, when the 1940 wreck of another WWII armed trawler, the Comet, was positively identified by her bell, having previously been believed to be Lord Snowden.

The Cieszyn also lives on in literature. As the fictional Bielsk, the Polish novelist Arkady Fiedler, who spent the war years in London, paid tribute to the Cieszyn and other wartime Polish ships in his book Dziękuję ci Kapitanie (Thank you, Captain!) For a picture of her, please see: http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plik:SS_Cieszyn_POL.jpg

The Polish wrecks in English waters are thus tangible reminders of the shifting alliances in Europe in times of war and peace.

See also a recent post on the Raphael of Gdansk here.