Disability History Month 2022

Shipwrecks: an investigation of disability in shipwrecks

Contemporary black & white print of tavern scene with disabled sailors in the foreground and other sailors in the background

Fig.1 Image caption: etching by Isaac Cruikshank, c.1791, depicting an old sailor with a wooden leg in the foreground, and, to left, an armless man being assisted to drink. (Wellcome Collection 26889i)

This blog post takes a look at shipwrecks in our waters through the stories of disabled sailors and passengers as part of Disability History Month 2022 (16th November – 16th December).

As a maritime historian, the language used in historical maritime records, particularly those of shipwrecks, is fascinating. One phrase that has always jumped out at me is the description of ships as ‘disabled’ by the loss of masts, rigging, anchors or other equipment as a precursor to ultimate loss in a storm: another phrase is ‘distressed’.

We might think of these as very ‘human’ terms, used in an anthropomorphic sense, but these phrases are used in a very technical sense to indicate that the ship is no longer capable of navigation or of avoiding natural hazard, as in this account from a watcher at the Spurn Head light during the Great Storm of 1703:

And then Peter Walls observed about six or seven and twenty sail of ships, all driving about the Spurn Head, some having cut, others broke, their cables, but all disabled, and render’d helpless.’ [1]

Seafaring has always been a dangerous profession – and even now the capacity of a ship’s equipment to cause death and life-changing injuries is added to the inherent dangers of the natural hazards of the sea: the potential for shipwreck is ever-present. Records tend to concentrate on the event itself and injuries which presented at the time, so it is difficult to follow up on their lasting impact, but occasionally there are hints of life-changing disabilities and this must have been more common than the documentary record, based primarily on the loss event itself, actually shows, as the lasting impact of injuries did not, generally, make it into the press record.

For example, in 1899 the French brigantine Gazelle went ashore near Boscastle in a storm, two men being rescued from the wreck by being carried with some difficulty up a rope ladder thrown down the cliffs. One man had a broken leg which was so in such a ‘precarious condition’ that amputation was considered likely. [2]

Text reads: Loss of a Boulogne Vessel. The brigantine Gazelle of Boulogne was totally wrecked at Boscastle, North Cornwall, in the gale of Friday last week. She was laden with coal, and carried a crew of four hands, two of whom were drowned.

Fig. 2 News of the wreck made it into the English-language Boulogne Times and Visitors’ List, April 13 1899, p2, which had begun publication in 1898 as a ‘tried and trusted friend’ for English residents and visitors alike.
Boulogne Times and Visitors’ List, April 13, 1899, p2 Source gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France

In a similar vein, in 1810 the Prussian ship Apries, laden with wheat from Dantzic (now Gdansk) stranded on the Whiting Bank off Suffolk during a gale: the sea was running high and ‘the current drew them’ (and other ships) onto the Whiting. The crew saved themselves while the captain was examining the chart and he found himself ‘abandoned, and the ship going to pieces’, whereupon he ‘got upon the mast, and remained in that perilous situation all night.’ He was rescued by a passing boat the next morning, but ‘one of his hands is so dreadfully bruised, that he will be obliged to have one finger amputated.’ [3]

There are other stories of that ilk among shipwreck accounts around the coastline – sometimes the effects may be amplified through recollection or through secondary sources and it can be difficult to tell what the real consequences were for the individuals concerned. For example, the main source for the wreck of the Norwegian barque Patria, which stranded on Chesil Beach, Dorset, in 1903 appears to be based on personal recollection, but has elements of the ‘seamen’s yarn’ about it, at any rate in the way that the story has been told. One of the crew was stated to have had his leg amputated as a result, but another was said to have ‘run mad’, in the language of the time, and then put in a straitjacket. Newspaper accounts of the wreck mention neither, though both amputation and mental trauma are quite plausible under the extreme stress of a shipwreck event, and this is another good example of how reliance on press reports can obscure the real physical and mental effects of shipwreck. [4]

So sources can be either frustratingly silent or difficult to interpret on the extent of injuries suffered and the permanent effects on survivors are difficult to establish. Given the precarious situations both crew and passengers found themselves in, particularly in winter conditions with prolonged exposure to the elements, there must have been many very serious and debilitating injuries with life-changing impact.

As well as in the usual run of accidents as the ship broke up, with falling debris and splinters, and injuries sustained in scrambling to safety, winter storms carried the additional and very real risk of hypothermia and frostbite, historically known as ‘exposure’ which probably caused the loss of many fingers and toes.

In 1881, the Norwegian brig Hasselø stranded on the Maplin Sand on the approaches to the Thames. They had, ‘at great risk, cut away the masts and rigging, which proved to be a very wise step’ in a ‘blinding snowstorm’, where they were ‘more than knee deep in water’: it took 20 hours for the lifeboat to make the round trip and return after their successful rescue of all the crew, 7 men and a boy. Even the lifeboatmen were suffering from exposure, ‘some of their hands being much swollen’, but the shipwreck victims were in much worse case. [5]

Elsewhere, hospital ships carrying the sick and wounded from naval combat, and conveying soldiers away from sites of terrestrial conflict, have a long history. The earliest known wreck of such a hospital ship in English waters is the San Pedro el Mayor, which came to rest with her passengers of sick and wounded men at Hope Cove, Devon, in 1588, having battled together with the other surviving ships of the Spanish Armada the complete circumnavigation of the British Isles. The English authorities dealing with the wreck called her a ‘Samaritan’, derived from the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, who tended the injuries of a man left for dead – although initially the authorities were rather less well disposed towards their prisoners of war, and were at first considering their execution! [6]

During the First World War hospital ships brought back badly injured men from the Western Front and other theatres of war – the prominent Red Cross painted on these ships should have protected them from attack at sea, in accordance with the Hague Convention (1899), but in practice this was not necessarily the case, and a number of hospital ships and ambulance transports were sunk by enemy action in English waters, leaving disabled men and ‘cot cases’ who were unable to get up independently very vulnerable in the event of attack (for the case study of the Rewa, please see an earlier entry in Wreck of the Week January 1918).

The physical and psychological damage of the First World War was immense, not only in limb loss, sensory trauma (blindness, deafness) and shell shock, but in syndromes such as ‘disordered action of the heart’, which was so common that it was simply named ‘DAH’. DAH was also known as ‘effort syndrome’ or ‘soldier’s heart’, in which stress and fatigue had physiological effects. An English Channel infested with mines and with the ever-present danger of torpedo attack from unseen submarines must have presented an immense psychological barrier for already traumatised, injured and sick soldiers until they set foot ‘back in Blighty’ on the other side of the Channel.

Such injuries must have had a significant impact on a sailor’s ability to earn a living – this was as true of men in the mercantile service as of those who crewed warships.

Like the need for hospital ships, the need to make provision for sailors disabled in the course of their duties was also recognised early on. On the English side of the combatants in the 1588 Armada, the Chatham Chest was an early form of pension fund set up to assist English naval men wounded or disabled in the wars with Spain, paid for by official deductions from their wages.  Greenwich Hospital was founded by Royal Charter in 1694 to support naval men ‘who by reason of age, wounds or other disabilities’ were ‘incapable of further service’ and eventually absorbed the Chatham Chest fund in 1803.

Black and white photograph of colonnaded building with a cupola seen through the columns of a building opposite, and a lamp at top right corner.

Fig.3 Exterior view of the Royal Naval Hospital looking towards the Queen Mary block from the colonnade of the King William block. Eric de Maré AA98/06416 © Historic England Archive

The various wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw many troop movements across the seas and numbers of troopship losses, including those of homeward-bound troop transports carrying the sick and wounded. In February of 1776, the year that would see the US Declaration of Independence, the Lion transport ‘made the Island of Scilly in about 21 days from Boston’ homeward bound with ‘invalids and wounded men’. She made landfall there to revictual and repair and was about to resume her onward voyage when ‘a perfect hurricane’ blew up, and she lost her anchors, ‘standing in for a dreadful rock, about 15 yards in height, but suddenly struck upon a hidden one . . . which turned her half round. Thus did Providence, by this unseen rock, save our lives, as the general opinion was we had not half a minute to live.’ [7]

Despite the vulnerabilities of many of those on board, there was no loss of life, but it was still a difficult situation for Captain Pawlett of the 59th Regiment, ‘who lost one of his legs at Boston-Lines by an eighteen-pounder, when commanding a working party of 100 men.’ [8]

Four men load a cannon.

Fig. 4 Re-enactors dressed in American uniforms of the Revolutionary War load an 18-pdr siege cannon at Yorktown National Park. Yorktown (1781), which resulted in the surrender of the British troops under Lord Cornwallis, was the decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War (United States National Park Service: Wikimedia Commons)

As we have seen from other accounts of shipwrecks, the newspapers are silent on his ordeal in the immediate aftermath of the wreck, although he was presented to King George III and later in 1776 he was made the captain of an Independent Company of Invalids at Jersey, a post in the gift of the King. [9] Such companies were made up of wounded and disabled military men who were thus enabled to continue home service. 

Only Pawlett’s obituary (a mere five years later in 1781) gives us a hint that the safe evacuation of the man with the missing leg might have been less than straightforward: ‘On his return to England he was ship-wrecked on the Isle of Scilly, and preserved with great difficulty.’ [10]

It is the only example we have so far found of the experiences of someone already disabled managing to survive shipwreck in English waters, but there must surely have been others. Zoom in to the terrifying experience of escaping from a similar wreck in The Wreck of a Transport Ship by J M W Turner, c.1810, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon on Google Arts and Culture.

Warfare at sea is another cause of life-changing injuries. It was the most ‘egalitarian’ of all industrial disabilities in the sense that it was equally likely to affect all ranks – i.e. the officer ranks were not removed from the cause of injury (as, say a factory owner might have been from the industrial injuries on the shop floor of a mill). [11] Horatio Nelson is perhaps the most famous example: the sight in his right eye was impaired by action at Corsica (1794) and his right arm shattered by a musket ball at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1797) and amputated as a result.

As the case of Captain Pawlett demonstrates, cannon had enormous power to cause death and disability. During the age of sail their terror lay not only in direct contact but also on their terrifying impact on a ship’s hull, sending massive splinters of timber flying to kill and maim human beings as collateral damage.

One stanza in a Victorian poem looks back to the First Battle of Copenhagen (1801) and describes both this leading cause of disability in naval engagements, and a famous, if probably apocryphal, incident of Nelson literally turning a blind eye to a signal to retreat, turning it to his advantage and that of the fleet. Disability ties together the ordinary sailor and the most famous of British admirals:

Splinters were flying above, below,
           When Nelson sailed the Sound:
 “Mark you, I wouldn’t be elsewhere now,”
           Said he, “for a thousand pound!”
 The Admiral’s signal bade him fly
         But he wickedly wagged his head:
 He clapped the glass to his sightless eye,
        And “I’m damned if I see it!” he said.

(Admirals All, Henry Newbolt, 1897)

Black and white photo close up view of statue of Nelson, atop the capital of the column with ornamental leaf design

Fig. 5. Horatio Nelson at the top of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, 1933. Arthur James Mason Collection, AA64/00493 © Historic England Archive.

If historical sources use the language of disability and distress to describe wrecks, disabled seamen could also liken their physical condition to wrecked vessels. A song, The Greenwich Pensioner, by Charles Dibdin (1791) makes this connection with a pun upon the tiers of ships (rows of ships at a mooring in a river, particularly the Thames and Tyne) and the location of the Hospital. (The song was accompanied in print by the Cruikshank caricature illustrating the beginning of the article.)

Yet still am I enabled
     To bring up in life’s rear
 Altho’ I’m quite disabled
    And lie in Greenwich tier
.

These tiers of ships could be subject to damaging incidents and mass wreckings. We read of wrecks to these tiers of ships, for example in 1752 ‘during a gale of wind, a tier of ships at Limehouse broke loose, and the Wiltshire . . . being the outside ship, ran aground on the opposite shore, and lighting on a ledge, she overset and is entirely lost’, with a similar mass stranding in 1773, also at Limehouse. [12]

Dibdin’s folk song is thus full of psychological insight, grounded in the everyday reality of the nautical idiom, suggesting that disabled seamen felt a certain vulnerability despite the shelter of Greenwich and the company of their peers. This everyday reality leaves frustratingly little trace in shipwreck accounts yet it must have been very common: what seems much clearer is that the language of shipwreck gave seamen a language with which to articulate their own disabilities.

Footnotes:

[1] Defoe, D, 1704 The Storm; or, a Collection of the most remarkable casualties and disasters which happen’d in the late dreadful tempest, both by sea and land (London: G Sawbridge)

[2] Royal Cornwall Gazette, 13 April 1899, No.4,994, p3

[3] Suffolk Chronicle, 20 October 1810, No.25, p4

[4] Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol.1: Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset Section 6, Dorset (AJ), based principally on Rasmussen, A H 1952 Sea Fever (London: Constable); a recording of Albert Henry Rasmussen singing sea shanties and mentioning the Patria in passing can be accessed via the British Library online

[5] Essex Standard, 22 January 1881, No.2,615, p8

[6] Dasent, J R (ed) 1897 Acts of the Privy Council of England Volume 16, 1588 (London: HMSO) p328-330 British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/acts-privy-council/vol16 [accessed 12 December 2022]; Knox Laughton, J 1894 State Papers relating to the defeat of the Spanish Armada Vol. II (London: Navy Records Society) p289-296

[7] Derby Mercury, Friday 23 February to Friday 1 March 1776, No.2,289

[8] Norfolk Chronicle, 2 March 1776, Vol.VII, No.361, p2

[9] Reception by the King: Northampton Mercury, 4 March 1776, Vol.LVI, No.51, p1; Hibernian Journal, 13 March 1776, Vol.3 No.33, p4; preferment: Kentish Gazette, Wednesday October 9 to Saturday October 12, 1776, No.880, p2

[10] Norfolk Chronicle, 8 December 1781, No.653

[11] I am grateful to my colleague Ken Hamilton for sharing his thoughts on this subject.

[12] 1752: Lloyd’s List, 14 November 1752, No.1,769; Norwich Mercury, 11 November to 18 November 1752; 1773: Lloyd’s List, 26 February 1773, No.410; Kentish Gazette, 27 February to 3 March 1773, No.501

Diary of the Second World War – November 1942

The E-boats keep coming . . .

Trawler seen in port bow view, with her pennant number 252 in white to left, and land marking the horizon in the background.
HMT Ullswater (FL 20361) at a buoy. Ullswater was lost off the Eddystone in November 1942 while acting as escort for a south coast – Wales convoy. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205121578

The war at sea in English waters in November 1942 was a slightly quieter one than October 1942 had been, and December 1942 would be. For all that the E-boats kept coming (S-boote in German).

On the evening of the 9th the 2nd, 4th and 6th S-boot Flottille, responsible for the loss of several ships of convoy FN 832 off Norfolk in October 1942, opened fire once more on another FN convoy, FN 861, again off the east coast.  

According to Wehrmacht reports, 4 ships from a convoy were sunk, and three ships, two steamers and an escort, were reported damaged. [1] In fact, the only victim sunk on the 9th was the Norwegian steamer Fidelio, torpedoed east of Lowestoft. The steamer Wandle was badly damaged in the same attack, her bows virtually blown off but still partially attached and sinking. Somehow she was kept afloat, albeit awash, and ultimately she reached the Tyne for repair after several days under tow in fog and heavy seas. She would go on to be rebuilt and continue in service until 1959. [2]

On the 15th the British steamer Linwood, on convoy FS (Forth South) 959, struck a mine laid by air off the Long Sand Head in the approaches to the Thames, with the loss of three DEMS (Defence of Merchant Ships gunners). Elsewhere, in the North Sea and the Baltic, similar mines laid by British aircraft accounted for at least 7 ships during the month. [3]

In the early hours of the 19th the six ships of the 5th S-boot Flottille, S-68, S-77, S-82, S-112, S-115, and S-116 located convoy PW (Portsmouth-Wales) 250 off the Eddystone with the assistance of ‘Lichtenstein’ radar apparatus. Most sources state that the attack was carried out by the E-boats alone, but the Merchant Shipping Movement Cards for the three cargo vessels lost in this incident suggest that it was a coordinated E-boat and aircraft attack. [4] That said, there is no explicit mention of attack from the air in the evidence given by the Norwegian survivors of one of the ships on 21 November 1942 at Plymouth before the Norwegian vice-consul though there was a hint by the carpenter, Peder Andersen, that on his lookout he saw a ‘bright light shining down’. [5] The master, Emanuel Edwardsen, introduced his evidence in an understated fashion, stating that he was unable to produce the logbook due to circumstances which would become clear in his account. All the witnesses confirmed that they had felt the shock of not one, but two, successive torpedoes and they were unable to release one of the boats, but successfully got away in the other, to be picked up by a British vessel.

The victims were the former Danish Birgitte now sailing under the British flag, with the loss of 10 crew, the Norwegian Lab with the loss of 3 lives in the stern part of the ship, the British steamer Yewforest laden with steel billets, with 9 crew and 2 of her gunners, and their escort, HMT Ullswater, which was lost with all hands. The four wrecks lie in close proximity to one another and Ullswater is on the Schedule of Designated Vessels under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. [6]

Like many of her compatriots, the Danish Birgitte had come under the control of the Ministry of War Transport (MOWT), having been seized as a prize and requisitioned by the British authorities at Gibraltar in May 1940 after the fall of Denmark.[7] Lab became one of the famed Nortraships (Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission), at that time the world’s largest shipping fleet, while Yewforest had spent her career with Scottish owners since being built in 1910. Intended as a steam whaler, Ullswater was requisitioned on the stocks on the outbreak of war and had spent the war on escort duty.

Their attackers can be seen together at Travemünde in May 1942 on this German-language site, 4th image down: from left to right, S-115, S-112 with the Lichtenstein radar antenna visible, and S-116.

In English waters at any rate the rest of the month was quiet, with no further shipping losses.

Footnotes:

[1] Convoyweb; Rohwer, J and Hümmelchen, G 2007-2022 Chronik des Seekrieges 1939-1945 November 1942 (Württembergische Landesbibliothek: published online) (in German)

[2] Central Office of Information 1947 British Coaster: The Official Story (London: HMSO)

[3] Chronik des Seekrieges

[4] Chronik des Seekrieges; Merchant Shipping Movement Cards: Birgitte, BT 389/4/172; Lab, BT 389/38/249; Yewforest, BT 389/32/198, all The National Archives (TNA)

[5] This account is available in English: https://www.krigsseilerregisteret.no/forlis/221161, and click on Sjøforklaring tab

[6] UK Statutory Instruments 2019 No.1191 The Protection of Military Remains Act (Designation of Vessels and Controlled Sites) Order 2019 Schedule 1

[7] TNA BT 389/4/172

Diary of the Second World War – October 1942

Convoy Battle!

The summer of 1942 had seen two key convoy battles – Arctic convoy PQ17 which battled through during the first half of July to Archangel and Murmansk with the loss of two-thirds of its ships; and Mediterranean convoy WS21S of August, in which victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat by delivering the tanker Ohio to the relief of Malta.

It is these famous incidents, and others like them, which we tend to think of when we consider convoy battles of the Second World War – yet convoy battles were an everyday reality and took place not only ‘over there’ during the Battle of the Atlantic and in the foreign theatres of war, but ‘in home waters’ also around the coasts of Britain.

Every convoy was a potential battle.

In the early hours of 7 October 1942 three groups of E-boats were lurking off Cromer to intercept any passing convoys. The term ‘E-boat’ is a linguistic legacy in English of the Second World War: ‘E-boat’ (‘Enemy boat’) referred to the German Schnellboot or S-boot (‘fast boat’), broadly equivalent to an Allied motor torpedo boat, so the terminology differs between British and German sources.

E-boats and E-boat Admiral surrender, 13 May 1945, HMS Beehive, Felixstowe. (A 28559) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205159904

Out of the three E-boat groups present that day, the 2nd S-boot Flottille, with six craft, and the 4th, with three, found a target in convoy FN (Forth North) 832, an east coast convoy from the Thames for Methil, Scotland, with a Trade Division Signal report of 26 ships. Shortly after 4.30 in the morning they opened fire on FN 832. [1]

Some 10 or so miles NE of Cromer lie the remains of some of the convoy, all securely charted since the day they sank in 1942. {2] To seaward lies the remains of ML 339, a British motor launch of Fairmile B type that became a versatile multi-function asset used in several roles and theatres of war, particularly as a submarine chaser.

ML 340 seen in port view with troops on board, off Skiathos, Greece. (A 26457)
Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205119921

Around half a mile to port of ML 339 lie the remains of the Jessie Maersk, a British freighter under the control of the Ministry of War Transport (MOWT). As her name implies, she originally belonged to the Danish shipping line of Maersk, whose ships are still a familiar sight in ports around the world.

In 1940 Jessie Maersk had been at sea with a cargo bound for London when Denmark fell under Nazi occupation, and on that voyage was ordered over the wireless by the new regime to put into a neutral port. The master decided initially to put into an Irish port, but, as more information came in, the crew mutinied, took charge of the ship, and put her instead into Cardiff. There the master lodged a complaint with the police, who arrested the crew, but it did not quite end as he clearly expected. Far from being had up before a British court for mutiny, the crew were released by the British authorities with thanks for their action, and the Jessie Maersk, as with so many ships from Nazi-occupied countries, came under the auspices of the MOWT. (On her final voyage two years later she would be crewed by both British and Danish sailors. [3]) By contrast, in 1940, the possible internment of the master as an enemy alien or enemy sympathiser was discussed at Parliamentary level – in the Commons. [4]

Jessie Maersk had an eventful, if not positively hard, war, with a litany of incidents necessitating repairs – collisions in convoy, aircraft damage, and groundings, before being torpedoed and sunk on that day in October 1942. [5]

Another half a mile to port again lie the remains of HMS Caroline Moller, an Admiralty tug, i.e. one requisitioned from civilian service to act as a rescue tug. On the seabed the three ships appear at regular intervals, as if keeping station as they did so long ago in convoy above, with ML 339 still in her protective position guarding against seaward attack on the starboard flank.

Ships lost from the same convoy naturally frequently lie in close proximity, sometimes very close together, but to see three ships in a clear pattern on the seabed, a similar distance apart, is slightly more unusual. This pattern seems consistent with the rapidity of the simultaneous attack from multiple E-boats, and suggests that their victims all sank equally rapidly.

The British coasters Sheaf Water and Ilse were also damaged in the attack, and dropped out of the convoy, returning under tow to the southward. The damage they had sustained overwhelmed them as the turned back, and they too also now lie relatively close to one another, but as a distinct group, some distance from their convoy sisters. [6]

The Merchant Shipping Movement Card for Sheaf Water reveals what we would now call a ‘live feed’ or a ‘real-time update’ in red ink: ‘Torpedoed by E-boat between 57F and 67B buoys [of the swept War Channel], 7.10. Badly holed, now anchored Sheringham buoy. (8.10) Vessel now partly submerged. Report 9/10 states: only two masts visible high water. No further action will be taken (10.10). Now in about 8 faths [fathoms], salvage not practicable. (5.12)’ [7]

This was the second major incident in the Ilse’s wartime career. On a similar convoy voyage from Southend for the Tyne in June 1941, she had struck a mine on the 20th off Hartlepool. She seems to have gone down by the bows as her Shipping Movement Card notes: ‘the after end of the vessel floatable. Fore end constructive total loss.’ The stern half arrived at Hartlepool 10 days later and was docked, before being taken up the river to Middlesbrough for repairs, where a new forepart was built on, and by February 1942, she was back on the east coast convoy run. She was ‘presumed torpedoed by E-boat’ between the same two buoys as Sheaf Water. She then ‘sunk in tow’ (8.10) and by the 12th October she was ‘Submerged 2 mls [miles] E of Haisboro, 4ft of mast above water at low water spring tides.’ Salvage was also dismissed ‘not practicable’ on 5 December. [8]

The Ilse herself is thus also an unusual wreck, where parts of the same ship are charted in two distinct locations from different wreck incidents a year apart. [9] (In a previous blog, we’ve covered the loss of the Nyon, 1958/1962.)

We can see that the events of 7 October 1942 resulted in archaeological patterns not always seen on the seabed as a result of convoy attacks, in which ships scatter, take evasive action, drift after being struck before finally sinking, return fire, cover for other ships in convoy, put themselves in the line of fire in rendering assistance, or are attacked several times over the course of a voyage, with separate losses in quite different locations. On that day it seems that the E-boats swept in with such speed there was little time to return fire, resulting in three ships sinking together in short order and two that sank shortly afterwards as they turned back.

It was less a convoy battle than a devastating ‘hit and run’ raid leaving an archaeological legacy which forms a memorial to the lost crews. That archaeological legacy also preserves in lasting and concrete form some rather less tangible things: firstly, the locations of the buoys marking the swept War Channel, against which all the attacks were recorded, and which naturally disappeared after the war; secondly, it would appear, the disposition of the convoy relative to one another as they turned north-west on their voyage.

Crew of the Pole Star refuelling a war channel buoy, seen from HM Trawler Stella Pegasi. (A 18188) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205150957

Footnotes:

[1] Convoyweb; Rohwer, J and Hümmelchen, G 2007-2022 Chronik des Seekrieges 1939-1945 Oktober 1942 (Württembergische Landesbibliothek: published online) (in German)

[2] United Kingdom Hydrographic Office: ML 339 UKHO 9243; Jessie Maersk, 9238; HMS Caroline Moller, 9231

[3] Daily Herald, 22 April 1940, No.7,546, p10; widely reported in national and regional press

[4] Hansard, House of Commons Debate 30 April 1940, Vol.360, c.541

[5] Merchant Shipping Movement Card, Jessie Maersk, BT 389/17/22, The National Archives

[6] United Kingdom Hydrographic Office: Sheaf Water, UKHO 10554; Ilse, 10562

[7] Merchant Shipping Movement Card, Sheaf Water, BT 389/26/230, The National Archives

[8] Merchant Shipping Movement Card, Jessie Maersk, BT 389/16/65, The National Archives

[9] United Kingdom Hydrographic Office: UKHO no. 5624 (section, off Hartlepool, 1941); UKHO 10562 (off Cromer, 1942)

Diary of the Second World War – September 1942

LBBB 332 and LBBB 362: two unlikely ships go to war

The tragic heritage of Exercise Tiger off Slapton Sands, south Devon, in April 1944 as preparation for the D-Day landings in June that year is well-known: the exercise was disrupted by enemy action, with the loss of Landing Ship Tanks LST-507 and LST-531, both now scheduled monuments. (Learn more in this Historic England article with a contemporary photograph.)

Less well-known off Salcombe, south Devon – perhaps because they were on exercise for an operation which never took place – is a similarly fateful attack on two Landing Barges (Landing Barge Barrage Balloon) LBBB 332 and LBBB 362, on 19 September 1942.

A Balloon Close-Hauled on a Barge, Francis Edwin Hodge, 1941 (Art.IWM ART LD 1931) A barrage balloon attached with ropes to a barge being moved at sea. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/13253

During the spring and summer of 1942, the Allied Powers had been in discussion about undertaking an invasion attempt on France in the forthcoming autumn, codenamed Operation Sledgehammer. Heavily promoted by the Soviet Union and the United States, it was viewed in Britain as having little prospect of success and costly in human and material resources, a view to which the US was also eventually persuaded. [1] The debacle of the Raid on Dieppe on 19 August 1942 only served to highlight that the Allies were not yet ready to open a second front in Europe, and instead Allied resources were poured into the North African campaign which would lead to victory at El Alamein in November 1942.

However, with Sledgehammer in mind, over the summer of 1942, Britain pressed some apparently rather unlikely vessels into service. [2] The ‘dumb barges’ of the Thames – so called because they had no propulsion of their own, and could only be towed, or operated with long ‘sweeps’ or oars – would now play their part in the war.

Two bargemen manoeuvring a barge laden with cargo along the River Thames, c.1930-1945. The long ‘sweeps’ can be seen in action. Julian Joseph Samuels Collection, SAM01/03/0089: Source Historic England Archive

They were requisitioned for repurposing as landing craft, valuable for bringing materials ashore from larger ships, their ‘swim’ ends easily convertible into ramps for offloading, and easily beached because of their shallow draught. [The second photo in this gallery of a contemporary model of a Thames lighter, made around 1940, depicts a sloping flat ‘swim’, rather than pointed or rounded and blunt, end.]

They were then initially fitted with British engines, but were soon re-engined with US-made Chrysler marine engines, supplied under Lend-Lease. [3] Some of this group were then able to perform exercises under their own power at various locations, with five barges undergoing trials at Salcombe in September 1942.

It would seem that among them were LBBB 332 and LBBB 362, each converted into a Landing Barge Barrage Balloon, amphibious vessels tethering airborne craft. Barrage balloon vessels were not, in themselves, a new idea. From the early days of the war, barrage balloons had been deployed for home defence, compromising the accuracy of enemy aircraft in range-finding and gunnery by forcing them to fly higher. Barrage balloons were thus placed around towns, strategic sites, and, crucially, harbours – anywhere that was a target for air attack.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BALLOON COMMAND, 1939-1945. (C 726) A Barrage Balloon Section, housed in a converted sugar barge in the Thames Estuary, sends up a kite balloon from its cradle. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205207526

Those balloons defending ports and harbours were flown from requisitioned barges and other small craft, and several were themselves victims of air attack, among them British drifter Lavinia L, sunk off Sheerness June 1941; and two ex-Belgian fishing vessels in British Admiralty service following the fall of Belgium in 1940, the Borealis, off the Isle of Wight, August 1940, and the Cor Jesu off Alnmouth, August 1941. These losses expose one of the key weaknesses of barrage balloon defence – their very presence signposted sites of importance. (Indeed, the contemporary photograph in Historic England’s aerial photography collections shows barrage balloons off Slapton Sands.)

Other barrage balloon vessels, while guarding against attack from the air, fell victim to the sub-surface wartime dangers of the sea, such as the British drifters Lord St Vincent, mined off Harwich in July 1940, and Carry On, also mined off Sheerness, December 1940. A similar fate befell the tug Lion, again off Sheerness, in January 1941. Her actual role is slightly unclear: she was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for barrage balloon duty but was towing a barge at the time of loss, which might perhaps have been a barrage balloon vessel, given the numbers stationed at Sheerness. [4]

The vessels at Salcombe and elsewhere represented a development of the need for harbour defence from the air. There were two new elements: one was the idea of an air shield while en route, supplementing conventional air cover, and the other the amphibious component, providing cover forward for the offloading of troops and ammunition on the beach. Salcombe was an ideal test location, since it was one of the existing harbours covered by seaward, but static, barrage balloon defences. [5]

However, as the other barrage balloon barges sunk elsewhere in the war attest, the barges on exercises became very visible targets for bombing raids. On 19 September 1942, a Luftwaffe air raid took place on Salcombe. It was in that raid that Landing Barges Barrage Balloon LBBB 332 and LBBB 362 were sunk by a Focke-Wulf of 10/JG 26. [6]

The papers of those involved in the extensive discussions over Operation Sledgehammer laid a documentary trail for something which never, ultimately, took place: the wrecks of the LBBBs form the tangible archaeological counterpart for that documentary trail.

Those wrecks also form a historical bridge between two events which did take place: in their small size and unlikely guise, they were akin to the ‘little ships’ which participated in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940; and they were the precursors of the landing barges and the barrage balloon vessels that went in 1944 to the D-Day landing beaches as part of Operation Overlord with both British and American units – the history of the barrage balloon barges has, until recently, has been a crucial, but largely overlooked, heritage in both ships and personnel. [7] In the same vein, the LBBB wrecks at Salcombe help chart the little-known story of Britain’s preparations for Overlord as early as 1942.

Footnotes

[1] The National Archives, Churchill Archive, CHAR 20/77/87-90; Matloff, M. & Snell, E (1990) Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare (Washington DC: Centre of Military History, US Army) 266-292, as published online

[2] Smith, G. nd “Thames Lighters at War in Time for D-Day”, Naval-History.net Part 1 and Part 2

[3] Ibid.

[4] United Kingdom Hydrographic Office 12806

[5] “Barrage Balloon Vessels”, Barrage Balloon Reunion Club, published online

[6] Designated as LBBB 332 and LBBB 362 in British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1914-18 and 1939 45 (Yeovil: Patrick Stephens Ltd) (reproduction of HMSO originals), p51; described as ‘dumb barges of 150-ton type’ in Smith Part 2; Brine, M nd “Casualties of the Bombing at Salcombe”, Devon Heritage (published online); Goss, C, Cornwell, P, and Rauchbach, B, 2003 Luftwaffe Fighter-Bombers over Britain: The Tip and Run Campaign 1942-3 (Manchester: Crécy Publishing Ltd.)

[7] Hervieux, L 2015 “How Black Barrage Balloon Troops Kept the D-Day Beaches Safe”, Military History Now, published online; Military Health Systems Communications Office, 2022 “This D-Day veteran hit the beach strapped to a barrage balloon”, We Are The Mighty, published online

The Battle of Britain

The maritime aspect of the Battle of Britain: 80 years on

Battle of Britain Day, 15 September, is so designated since it marks the anniversary of the day the tide turned in favour of the RAF in the aerial battle for Britain 80 years ago in 1940.

Text: 'Never was so much owed by so many to so few' at top of image over a group portrait of five airmen
Never Was So Much Owed by So Many to So Few (Art.IWM PST 14972) © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/32404

That day, though a turning point, was by no means the end of the Battle of Britain, which continued until 31 October 1940. The end of the Battle overlapped with the beginning of the Blitzkrieg (‘Lightning War’), shortened in Britain to ‘The Blitz’ – the aerial raids on British towns, cities and infrastructure – which continued on until May 1941, and which included the destruction of Coventry and its Cathedral in November 1940. 

The Battle of Britain was not wholly unique in the six long years of the maritime war. Throughout the duration, ships and aircraft attacked one another, but the Battle of Britain saw a significant shift in the conduct and outcomes of the war at sea that was not replicated at any other time within English waters. 

The data from Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) captures the significance of Battle of Britain over the sea as the RAF sought to intercept and repel the Luftwaffe.

The Battle was fought primarily in the skies over the south-eastern counties of England. Figures for those aircraft recorded as part of the historic environment show that one-third of the aircraft lost on both sides during the Battle of Britain were actually forced down into the sea in English waters, a total of 353 aircraft, of which 217 were German and 136 British. 

In turn these 353 aircraft account for 24% – almost one quarter – of all aircraft lost in the sea in English waters during the entire war in Europe from September 1939 to May 1945, a total of 1476 altogether. 

The figures for August 1940, perhaps the most acute phase, show that 174 aircraft found a watery grave that month, whether off the south-east coast or in the Thames. For what has become known as ‘The Hardest Day‘, 18 August 1940, when operational losses and destruction of aircraft on the ground, reached their zenith, 12 aircraft are recorded as having been lost in the sea. On the British side the losses that day were four Hurricanes and a Spitfire, while the Luftwaffe lost a He111, four Ju87s, and a Me110. 

Historic B&W photograph of two soldiers standing in mud on the foreshore examine aircraft wreckage.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, JULY-OCTOBER 1940 (HU 89288) Soldiers examine an MG 15 machine gun and part of the tail assembly of a German Dornier Do 17Z bomber of the KG 2, shot down over the Thames Estuary during attacks on Eastchurch aerodrome, 13 August 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205094199

Eighty years ago today on that first ‘Battle of Britain Day’ on 15 September, the losses had diminished somewhat, all German, and all in the Thames Estuary. That day three Do17s came down: Do17Z (3405) U5+FT crashed and Do17Z (2578) F1+BS was shot down, both off Herne Bay, Kent; Do17Z (1176) 5K+DN was shot down into the Thames.

What is perhaps most distinctive about this phase of the sea war was that during the Battle of Britain aircraft losses within English waters outstripped ships sunk in the same area by roughly 2.5 to 1.

Those figures reveal a completely opposite pattern to the figures available for maritime losses in the other months of 1940: in the previous six months aircraft comprised one-third of maritime losses, and likewise for the remainder of 1940.  In other words, there was a unique spike in aircraft lost to the sea. 

The Battle of Britain was an aerial battle, stretched out over many long, exhausting, days, weeks and months, but what these figures also show is that during the Battle of Britain the sea war became an air war. 

 

The Gotha in the Thames Estuary

Gotha IV 656/16

Today’s record which commemorates a loss on 12 August 1917 came to the Historic England’s national marine database in a roundabout way, when a piece of personal research took a maritime turn and I ended up discovering the story of an aircraft lost in the sea all those years ago.

Background: Dipping briefly into the personal to provide some background, inspired by the national commemorations of the First World War (including Historic England’s commemorative research and this blog’s own Diary of the First World War) I undertook a research project on my family in the Great War, and not a moment too soon, because my principal oral history source and the last living link to the Great War generation has since passed away.

All the other centenary commemorative activities undertaken by many organisations, individuals and historians, have created a rich resource and a considerable legacy of their own, in a freely available online format. They are hugely helpful to anyone researching the events and locations of the Great War today – among them the Red Cross, the Imperial War Museum, and First World War aviation and air accident history experts, particularly the work of Ian Castle of Zeppelin Raids, Gothas and Giants: Britain’s First Blitz, 1914-18.

The story and the challenge: My great-aunt from Southend-on-Sea told the story that as a young woman she had seen British aircraft in combat with Gothas over the Thames Estuary during the First World War, with a dogfight as part of the event. (1) I wanted to see if I could identify the particular event concerned from just those few words gleaned at second-hand.

British aircraft in foreground with Allied roundels on upper wings pursued by a German aircraft with the Iron Cross visible on its left upper wing, the right on fire. Other aircraft are visible in the background amid white clouds and black smoke.
An Aerial Fight, Louis Weirter, 1918. This Imperial War Museum commission shows a dogfight between British and German biplanes. © IWM Art. IWM ART 654. Original source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/37417

So what happened during that dogfight? There were several aerial incidents during the First World War over the Thames Estuary, but most could be eliminated on the following grounds:

(a) they were too early, since the Gotha saw service only from 1916 onwards;
(b) they involved aircraft other than Gothas, such as Zeppelins;
(c) they took place at night, when she is less likely to have seen or watched the aircraft;
(d) they were bombing raids either unopposed or opposed only by ground artillery; or
(e) they were events in which German aircraft were pursued by British craft without engagement.

The most likely incident, therefore, is one that took place in the early evening of a summer Sunday on 12 August 1917, when the resort of Southend-on-Sea was still full of day-trippers. I suspect it is likely that perhaps my great-aunt, at the age of 18, was out on a Sunday stroll on the promenade looking out over the sea, perhaps even out with her fiancé, who was later killed in action, and whose name, full of grief, she took to the grave with her.

As usual, accounts of incidents during the war vary tremendously, because of differing individual perspectives, the ‘fog of war’, ensuing propaganda claims and counter-claims by each side, and confusion with other similar incidents in the same action all being factors in sometimes making it difficult to obtain a clear and objective account of events.

It all happened very fast, too, which meant it must have passed in a blur for the combatants, and for historians a century later a very difficult task to decipher.

At 5.20 pm British aircraft scrambled from their bases on either side of the Thames Estuary to intercept German aircraft off the Thames. At 5.30 pm Gotha bombers arrived off Southend from their base at Gontrode, Belgium, with the Thames an easy flight path to follow right to the heart of the capital, where they intended to discharge their bombs.

One Gotha broke away from the eastbound trajectory along the Thames to attack Margate around 5.40 pm but was subjected to anti-aircraft fire from the ground and was then chased by RNAS pilots virtually all the way back to Zeebrugge. (2)

The other aircraft carried on at first towards London, with a couple of bombs being dropped on Rochford airfield (where Southend Airport now is) around 5.50 pm, and reaching as far east as Canvey Island, before turning back against the increasing headwind from the south-west and heading on a roughly ENE course, dropping bombs on a path between Leigh-on-Sea, Southend, Bournes Green and Little Wakering, pursued by 61 Squadron of Rochford.

This phase of the action was over land, but close enough to the coast to be visible to day-trippers and cause them to abandon their socks and shoes on the beach. (3) The death toll from bombs in Southend itself was something like 25-30 persons. (4) 61 Squadron then pursued the Gothas out to sea, and at this point pilots from RNAS Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, on the opposite side of the Thames, also rose up to engage eight Gothas as they turned back east.

In the meantime Flight Lt Harold Spencer Kerby, who had joined the pursuit of the lone Gotha off Margate, on the north-eastern coast of Kent, peeled away north-westwards in his Sopwith Pup following the sight of ‘anti-aircraft fire bursting in the direction of Southend’ to join four other ‘British machines’ against the eight Gothas, so this was approximately 6pm or so. (5)

Historic B&W photo of man in biplane, front propeller to left, on a hard-standing, trees and shrubs on the horizon visible just below the lower wing.

Sopwith Pup single-seat fighter biplane. Copyright: © IWM. 67558 Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205129173

According to eyewitness Kurt Delang of Kasta 15: ‘One single-seater fighter followed us on our course along the east coast of England. This Englishman attacked our Gotha[s] constantly from above and very soon caused heavy damage to our aircraft.’ (6) In other words, Kerby was straightaway on the attack. The Gothas at this point were certainly tracking the coastline from the landward, but Little Wakering was their last landside point and after that they moved out to sea from the Essex coast.

I suspect that this point of the incident is what my great-aunt witnessed from Southend-on-Sea, as she would have been able to see Kerby in his Sopwith Pup making for the anti-aircraft guns at Shoeburyness which came into play as the Gothas moved out to sea, and going on the attack as he crossed their paths. (Kerby described their course as north-easterly, but the trajectory of the bomb drops across the area suggest an ENE course.) (7)

Kerby made a fruitless diving attack about ’30 miles to seaward’ then climbed and singled out ‘one Gotha 4,000 [ft] below the formation, but still flying with it. I attacked from the front and drove him down into the sea, where I observed him turn over. One of the occupants I saw hanging on the tail of the Gotha.’ (8)

The aircraft in the sea was Gotha IV 656/16 of Kasta 16, Kagohl III. (9) Unteroffizier Kurt Delang of Kasta 15 described the same incident in such a way as to suggest it refers to the same incident, albeit with a different outcome: ‘We were already down to 500 metres above the water when the Englishman again attacked. Then he flew beneath us for a long time . . . and pulled up straight in order to gain altitude and strike again from above.’ Delang’s account then diverges considerably from Kerby’s: ‘When the British single-seater had attained only a modest speed, he was right in the sights of our machine guns. Flames burst out . . . he plunged into the North Sea.’ (10)

Accounts then become somewhat more muddled with various claims from all parties as to the place of loss. Other German sources (11) stated that the crew of Delang’s aircraft, had ‘shot down a British single-seater near Southend,’ with two other British losses also claimed on this raid, of a triplane near Margate and a two-seater near Southend.

However, there are no records of Kerby or any other British pilots being shot down that day in home waters, and the only aircraft losses on that day on both sides were on the Western Front, including Delang’s Gotha, which crash-landed just short of its home base at Gontrode. What they reported seems to have been the loss of one of their own. (12)

Historic black & white photograph of light-coloured biplane with Iron Cross markings on fuselage and tail, with three men standing beside the tail.
Gotha G IV RG + 406/16 of Kagohl III in December 1916. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gotha_G_IV_2.jpg

How could this happen? It was difficult to mistake the two aircraft, with the much larger three-man Gotha bomber having a distinctive pattern of vertical struts arranged in a 2-2-3 pattern between each pair of wings, compared to the Sopwith Pup with its single set of two struts on either side, and each side had recognition markings. As the painting at the top of the article shows, however, smoke and cloud could obscure the view and rapid decisions taken in an emergency could lead to the ‘fog of war’ descending. They fired, but did they miss Kerby and strike one of their own instead as the aircraft danced their fatal dance in the sky?

The confirmation of air combat results is both very specific and very vague. It certainly name-checks the principal theatres of action at Southend and Margate and seems to suggest a wide spread of British aircraft, a one-seater, a two-seater and a triplane, but does not name the models downed, and in any case the main British production triplane, the Sopwith Triplane, saw service overseas, not in home defence. This may therefore be an example of a claim demonstrating some results from what was otherwise an abortive mission which did not achieve its target.

So where did this take place? Delang reported Kerby’s first dive as ‘along the east coast of England’, suggesting that land was in sight at that point, i.e. the Essex coastline, although Kerby suggests it was further out to sea. British sources attribute the loss of Gotha IV 656/16 to ‘some way off Southend’, but this is consistent with Delang on the ‘British’ loss ‘near Southend’. Other German sources suggest that 656/16 was lost off Dover, but not in combat.

The incident certainly took place some distance offshore because Kerby circled the capsized Gotha before ‘returning to England’, and threw a lifebelt to the crew member who had got out onto the tail, which certainly suggests he had a good look at the aircraft and was able to identify it, as shown by the illustration immediately below.

Men in military uniform examining the damaged tail of a downed aircraft, with IV and an Iron Cross legible on the side.
Portuguese and British troops inspecting the tail of a German Gotha G.IV heavy bomber, brought down in the Portuguese sector, France. Copyright: © IWM Q 64432) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205311688

Kerby then attempted to direct some destroyers bound for Dunkirk to assist the stricken aircraft, but his signals were ignored, although these nameless destroyers provide a further clue.

Those destroyers help point us in the direction of where the aircraft came down. The aircraft pursuit took a roughly ENE course along the Essex coast, as revealed by the bomb drops, and the respective pilots’ accounts, then out to sea. Other than the abortive engagement off Margate, no action took place over the Kent coast, so Dover appears too far south for Kerby’s destruction of the Gotha, and Delang’s account that an aircraft had been shot down into the North Sea also suggests a locale further north than Kent. The German source that claimed 656/16 was lost ‘off Dover’ would naturally have had less knowledge of the English coast than the British pilots, so we can suggest that the destroyers Kerby saw are unlikely to be those of the Dover patrol.

Instead, the destroyers he attempted to signal are more likely to have been those of the Harwich patrol, where the 10th Destroyer Flotilla was part of the Harwich force. These destroyers were thus steaming on a south-easterly course and would have been using the swept War Channels safe, as far as possible, from mines, and keeping well clear of the notorious sandbanks at the entrance to the Thames Estuary.

Additionally, for the German aircraft, an easterly course from Essex was unsustainable for their return flight to Gontrode in Belgium with fuel supplies running low, especially after taking evasive action, so at some point the Gothas would also have had to start to bear on a south-easterly course, for which the Dover area would also have been too far south. It thus seems more likely that 656/16 was downed before the formation began to turn their course for home.

We can see that the British aircraft were quite capable of pursuing the Gothas virtually all the way back to Belgium, and, as we have seen, others in this incident were certainly followed 40 to 50 miles out to sea. This suggests that Kerby’s estimate of action some 30 miles offshore is probably correct, with the final downing of his quarry perhaps a little further east and intersecting with the destroyers he witnessed from Harwich making for Dunkirk.

The most likely area fitting the criteria of an easterly to north-easterly course some 30 to 40 miles out to sea from the populated areas of the Essex Thameside coast, and intersecting with the Harwich-Dunkirk route taken by the destroyers, is an area just off the south-western tip of the present-day London Array Wind Farm. Although 30 miles sounds a long way offshore from Essex, this area in fact lies within the UK limit of territorial waters (12 miles) given its greater proximity to the Kent coastline.

Outcome: I was not at all hopeful that I would even be able to identify the incident my great-aunt witnessed. Years of professional historical research have taught me that sometimes the unexpected happens and a trail that seems at first to be unpromising proves to be a fascinating piece of research (and vice versa). Even so, I was astonished that by retracing the flight paths of Flight Lieutenant Harold Spencer Kerby and Unteroffizier Kurt Delang, I ended up with a record of an aircraft lost to the sea, and one which was new to the Historic England national marine database.

Footnotes:

(1) As told by the author’s great-aunt (1898-1994) to her father (1922-2020), and preserved in an unpublished family history document, Serena Cant 2018

(2) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1; http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/12-aug-1917/4593992454

(3) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1; http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/12-aug-1917/4593992454

(4) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1; http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/12-aug-1917/4593992454

(5) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1

(6) Kasta = German, short for Kampfstaffel (Squadron);  http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(7) http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(8) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1, Harold Spencer Kerby’s own words, derived from official sources and repr. in Franks, N. 2012 Sopwith Pup Aces of World War I (London: Bloomsbury Publishing); http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(9) Kampfstaffel (Squadron) 16 of Kampfgeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung (German Army High Command Bomber Squadron) 3, also known as the England-Geschwader/Englandgeflieger, or English Squadron: http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(10) http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(11) Also quoted in http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(12) https://aviation-safety.net/ http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/12-aug-1917/4593992454

Diary of the Second World War: July 1940

The Talvaldis 

This month we commemorate something of a mystery ship lost 80 years ago in July 1940, as we take a look at the Talvaldis: the aim of publication is to see if we can discover more and flesh out the history and details of this vessel for the record.

Here is what we know:

The Talvaldis was built as Teign I in 1912 for E P Hutchinson of Hull, then renamed Westerham in 1916, when she passed into the ownership of Cunningham, Shaw & Co., Ltd. She remained registered at Hull through two more changes of ownership until being sold in 1927 to M Stahl & Co (M Štāls, D Tomsons & Co.)  of Riga, when she received her Latvian name of Talvaldis. (1)

Thereafter she was a regular trader between the Baltic and Britain and further afield, appearing frequently in arrivals and departures lists in British regional newspapers with a variety of cargoes: trading herring from Fraserburgh to Riga and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in 1931, timber to Bordeaux via London and Hull in early 1939, and discharging bog ore from Delfzijl at Sharpness in April 1939. (2)  She is last heard of in print before the war in late August, passing Dover from Bordeaux for Gravesend on the 27th, with a quick turnaround, being seen once more southbound off Dover on the 30th.  (3) 

Just above the last notice for the Talvaldis in the Liverpool press, a stern notice appears in bold:

Owing to the international situation, news concerning the movements of British ships is necessarily restricted, and publication of the foreign mail list is suspended.

The news of a week earlier had been grim indeed with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August 1939, a German-Soviet mutual non-aggression pact leading to the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, and the declaration of war by Britain and France on 3 September. On 30 August, therefore, when the Talvaldis appeared for the last time in pre-war English-language shipping columns, the world was four days away from six years of war.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact led to the Soviet Union increasing pressure on the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which had enjoyed just over 20 years as independent nation-states – then in June 1940 Soviet troops occupied them all.

During the period between the outbreak of war and the Soviet occupation, Talvaldis then seems to fade from view, with the exception of a probable sighting in March 1940. Censorship of shipping movements played its part here, of course.  A Latvian ship named Talwadis, which seems otherwise attested anywhere, shows up in convoy OB21 bound from Swansea to Oporto with coal in March 1940, and is reasonably suspected of being the Talvaldis. (4)

So when we next discover the (correctly spelt) Talvaldis, it is as part of a 21-strong British convoy coded CW2 from Southend to Yarmouth Roads on 8 July 1940, by which time Latvia is no longer a free nation. (5) Her captain may have been the A Lejnieks who was recorded against her name in a list of Latvian shipping as at 1 January 1940, but this is not certain, as anything could have happened in the interim.  (6)

Most of the ships in this convoy were British, but it also included one ship each from Denmark and Norway, and three from the Netherlands – all neutral countries which had recently fallen under Nazi occupation.

What were they all doing in the convoy? These, and other ships from those countries, may have been in, bound to, or diverted their course to, Allied ports at the time their respective nations were invaded, and thus able to operate out of the reach of occupation authorities. 

For example, ships slipped out of Amsterdam or other occupied ports all over Europe and ran under cover of darkness to Allied ports. Similarly, intense negotiations between Norway, the UK and the US saw the creation of the world’s largest shipping company, the Nortraships (Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission). (7)

Negotiations also took place around Latvian and Estonian ships in both the US and UK, and may offer a clue as to why and how the Talvaldis disappeared from the records for several months, in addition to the censorship situation. In the US it was reported that: ‘The USSR has failed in some quiet finagling to obtain use of the Latvian and Estonian ships sequestered by the US Treasury when the Soviet [sic] seized the Baltic states . . . this Government still refuses to recognise Russia’s Baltic conquests, and, hence, release of the ships is out of the question. Actually ten of the vessels are now plying the New York – Liverpool run in British convoys.’ Their earnings went to the support of their respective diplomatic representatives in the US. (8) 

As in the US, Latvia retained diplomatic representation in London looking after Latvian interests in the absence of any formal government-in-exile. It is also clear that there were similarly high-level discussions in Britain over the prevention of Russian control, and the possibility of British requisitioning, of Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian ships. (9) 

After arriving at Yarmouth Roads on 9 July, the Talvaldis left later the same day, sailing independently for Lisbon. At 7.10 that evening the Prawle Point Signal station on the south Devon coast reported a steamer three or four miles out to sea under attack by enemy aircraft, Ju87s (better known as Stukas) of StG 2. (10)

German aircraft with Iron Cross painted on its wings in vertical position against a cloud backdrop.
Bombs falling from a Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber during the Battle of Britain, July-October 1940., taken by a German photographer in an accompanying aircraft © IWM GER 18

Local RNLI services swung rapidly into action as the Salcombe lifeboat, Torbay lifeboat, and a motor boat from Lannacombe all put to sea. The motor boat was first on scene, finding one man dead from the combined bombing and machine-gunning of the vessel, which was by now rapidly sinking, and taking off six men, but standing by the other six crew in the ship’s boat until the arrival of the Salcombe lifeboat at 8.45pm, for which service the master of the Talvaldis gave each man of the Lannacombe motor boat £1. The lifeboat then took all 12 survivors on board. (11) 

In the meantime the Torbay lifeboat passed the Dutch motor vessel Jola, which had also been attacked and was putting into Dartmouth, with three crew having been wounded by machine-gun. This reveals that the Talvaldis was not the only vessel sailing independently, after parting company with Convoy CW 2. The Jola had also been one of the three Dutch ships in the convoy, and was also continuing her journey, some distance behind – sufficient distance, probably, to ensure that they were not mistaken by hostile eyes as forming part of any convoy or association for mutual assistance. (12) 

The remains of a ship believed to be the Talvaldis are charted some 2 miles south of Start Point, more or less three miles east of Prawle Point. The vessel is recorded as intact, broken amidships, but with bows WNW, orientated in the direction of travel, but little is known about the remains. Thus the Talvaldis remains obscure in terms of both her history and final voyage and her physical remains which have not been positively identified. (13)

Where had she been between August 1939 and March 1940? What was her cargo, if any, to neutral Lisbon? Does  the March 1940 voyage shed any light on her later voyage – was she bound once more on a Swansea-Portugal run with coal? This in itself would suggest that the vessel was operating in British colliery interests.

Her obscurity is rooted in the very nature of the intense period of the war in which she was lost. Latvia had just been occupied and would shortly be formally annexed by the USSR. News of the loss reached Riga fairly quickly, but we can only tell this from an intermediary report printed in neighbouring Estonia: ‘Riga: 12 July. Unverified reports from England state that the Latvian steamer Talvaldis has been sent to the bottom after an air attack.’ (14) This was just one incident in the Kanalkampf, the Luftwaffe battle against Channel shipping which began in early July 1940, but which would intensify and broaden its scope the day after the attack on the Talvaldis.

On 10 July 1940, the Battle of Britain began.

Footnotes: 

(1) Miramar Ship Index[subscription service]: entry for the Talvaldis; Latvian orthography from Jurnieks, 1 January 1940, No.1 [in Latvian], accessed from the National Library of Latvia, Digital Library 

(2) Fraserburgh Herald, 14 August 1956, p ; Gloucester Citizen, 17 April 1939, p7

(3) Liverpool Daily Post, 28 August 1939, p3, Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 28 August 1939, p6, Liverpool Daily Post, 30 August 1939, p14

(4) Convoyweb ; the name Talwadis is not attested elsewhere in standard shipping sources, e.g. the Miramar Ship Index 

(5) Convoyweb 

(6) See note 1. Jurnieks means ‘Sailor’ in Latvian, so this publication is ‘The Sailor‘; cf. the Jurneks of Riga, lost off the Tyne in 1901 (also recorded in variant spellings in English, and even on its own nameboards, as Jourhneeks, Jurhneek, Juhrneeks, and Jurneek). 

(7) For example, the Dutch Johan de Witt, which saw worldwide service as a trooper for the Allied cause, carrying over 39,000 troops, from 1940.

(8) Newsweek, ‘The Periscope’, Aug 11, 1941, p11, repr in Magazine Abstracts, Vol. VII, No.34, 20 August 1941, p106, (Washington: US Office of Government Reports, Division of Press Intelligence)

(9) A number of relevant documents survive at the National Archives for 1940-1,  e.g. Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ships: prevention of Russian control (CO 854/331/8) and the Requisitioning of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ships (MT 59/502B) As early as 1939 there were also discussions over the possible chartering of Latvian tonnage (MT 59/1564).

(10) Sturzkampfgeschwader (‘Dive Bomber Squadron’)

(11) Miramar Ship Index [subscription service], entry for the Talvaldis; Bertke, D, Kindell, D, Smith, G,  2009. World War II Sea War Vol. 2 Britain Stands Alone: Day-to-Day Naval Actions from April 1940 through September 1940 (Dayton, Ohio: Bertke Publications); RNLI, 1940. Services by the Life-boats of the Institution and by Shore-boats during 1940 , p88, p146 [which, incidentally, spells Lannacombe as ‘Lannercombe’.]

(12) Convoyweb: Jola would survive the war, being scrapped in 1984: as part of her war service, she took part in Operation Neptune.

(13) UKHO 18046

(14) Uudisleht, 12 July 1940, No.181, p3, [in Estonian]; accessed via the National Library of Estonia, DIGAR (Digital Archive)

Diary of the Second World War: June 1940

Armstrong Whitworth Whitley N1476

Historic black & white photograph of aircraft on the ground, nose to left of image.
Whitley T4162, (like N1476, a Mark V), of 102 Sqn at RAF Topcliffe, North Yorkshire. This aircraft failed to return from a raid on Cologne in March 1941. Serials T4151, T4159, T4160 and T4172 are also known to have crashed or ditched into the sea off the English coast. © IWM CH 2052

Our War Diary for the month of June 1940 focuses on another rare aircraft, Armstrong Whitley Whitworth N1476, lost on 20 June 1940, which, like the Blackburn Botha (February 1940 entry), was another example of an ‘extinct’ aircraft of which no complete or airworthy examples survive. (1)

This aircraft had entered service just a month earlier, on 20 May 1940, when it was allocated to 77 Sqn, RAF Driffield, Yorkshire. Introduced into service in 1937, the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley was a heavy bomber used by the RAF until 1944, although its main period of service was 1939-41. (2)

Historic watercolour showing four aircraft lined up, with the wing frame of a fifth being built in the background.
The distinctive rear turrets of the Whitley bomber are seen in this record of aircraft production in which the artist specialised. Rear Turrets of Whitley Aircraft. Raymond McGrath, 1940. Purchased by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 149

On the night of 19 June 1940 N1476 left Driffield for a bombing raid on the Ruhr piloted by Pilot Officer Andrew Dunn. N1476 and its five-man crew were struck by repeated anti-aircraft fire en route to their own target of the marshalling yards at Wanne-Eickel, before then coming under attack ‘by a Messerschmitt 109’. (3)

Contemporary artwork showing 4 bombers in action over Germany.
Target Area: Whitley Bombers over Berlin. Paul Nash, 1940. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 827

The first attack put the intercom out of action and wounded both the observer, Sgt Bernard Savill, and the wireless operator, Sgt Joseph Dawson. The rear gunner, Pilot Officer Leslie Watt, managed to shoot down the Messerschmitt as it attacked again, but not before it had hit and disabled the Whitley’s port engine, which caught fire.  (4)

The crew then managed to attack their target and turn around for the return leg. The fire on the port engine was extinguished, but it burst into flames once more, was put out again, and the engine shut down. It was a long three and a half hour flight on a single engine across the North Sea, dropping as low as 400ft, while the second pilot, Pilot Officer Charles Montagu, made everything ready for abandoning the aircraft. (5)

They then ditched in the sea just off Hastings Pier (reported at the time as merely ‘off the south coast’) at 04.27am and issued a mayday call to which motor launches of Coastal Command responded. All five crew survived and were immediately recognised for ‘gallantry in flying operations’, the three Pilot Officers receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and the two Sergeants, as ‘other ranks’, the Distinguished Flying Medal (a distinction which has since been abolished). (6)

Historic black & white photo of Hastings beachfront taken from an aircraft, whose wing is visible top left.
The town and seafront from the pier to Claremont, Hastings, shortly after the Second World War in 1946. EAW002408 © Historic England Britain from Above https://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/en/image/EAW002408

Parts of the aircraft have been reported from the sea from time to time: a tyre from the undercarriage recovered in the 1980s, initially believed to be a bomb, now in the Robertsbridge Aviation Society Museum, which was identified as being part of N1476, and in the 2010s, a nut stamped with the RR logo, indicating a Rolls-Royce engine was also discovered near Hastings Pier. (7)

As the Whitley was powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, N1476 is likely to be the prime candidate for this latter find, since the five other aircraft reported as having ditched or been shot down off Hastings during the Second World War were all German. Thus other aircraft which also had Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, such as the Spitfire, can be excluded from the candidates for consideration. (8) 

However, as the ‘bomb’ which was a tyre demonstrates, these finds are open to revision and interpretation: a find in the sea reported off Norfolk through the Offshore Renewables Protocol for Archaeological Discoveries (ORPAD) in 2015  was initially attributed to a recorded loss of another Armstrong Whitworth Whitley in the same vicinity, but after re-examination of the evidence in 2017 it was reported as being a part from a German Jumo engine and thus from something like a Junkers Ju87 or 88 or a Heinkel He111H. (9) 

This means that the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley off Hastings is a rare confirmed find. To date there has only been one other report of an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley in the sea off the south coast, without an identification attribute, so even as a subset of aircraft wrecks in the sea, they are rare.

I would like to thank Trevor Woodgate, Museum Manager at the Robertsbridge Aviation Society, for his very kind assistance.

Footnotes: 

(1) Holyoak, V, and Schofield, J. 2002 Military Aircraft Crash Sites: archaeological guidance on their significance and future management (Swindon: English Heritage)

(2) Holyoak & Schofield 2002, p8; Leverington, K (ed.) 1995 The Vital Guide to Fighting Aircraft of World War II (Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing Ltd.) p5

(3) London Gazette, 12 July 1940, No.34,896,  p4,289; this aircraft is variously referred to as the Bf109 or the Me109. Detailed target information from the Museum Manager,  Robertsbridge Aviation Society pers. comm., 2020

(4) ibid; Allenby, R. (nd) Whitley N1476 at Finningley Airfield in Yorkshire Aircraft: aircraft accidents in Yorkshire

(5) London Gazette, 12 July 1940, No.34,896, p4,289

(6) ibid.; medal group and log of Sgt Bernard Savill; information from Robertsbridge Aviation Society

(7) The Museum Manager, Robertsbridge Aviation Society, pers. comm., 2020; Forces War Records 2013 Rare WW2 bomber found near Hastings

(8) Source: National Record of the Historic Environment database, Historic England

(9) ORPAD reports DOW_10284 (2015, 2017), as recorded in the National Record of the Historic Environment database, Historic England

From Woolwich to Paglesham via the Galapagos

HMS Beagle

Designation news: 

The remains of a rare 19th-century dock, a mud berth on the River Roach near Paglesham, Essex, built to accommodate a coastguard watch vessel, are now protected as a nationally important site, designated as a scheduled monument by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.

Mud Docks: 

Mud docks like these were once a common feature of river life, but are now rare and little-known, with only a handful recorded anywhere in England. Characteristic features included shoring to stabilise the sides, stocks to support the ship, and a brick hard. All these features are depicted in a painting by John Constable, depicting a barge being built near his father’s mill at Flatford on the River Stour, which forms the Essex-Suffolk boundary.

Historic oil painting with the barge under construction the central feature of a rural landscape on a flat river plain.
Boat-building near Flatford Mill, John Constable, 1815. © Victoria & Albert Museum An associated dock was excavated and restored at Flatford c.1988.

Coastguard Watch Vessels: 

Similarly, little is known about the history of coastguard watch vessels, which once played a prominent role along from 1822 in the long-running battle against smuggling: before 1822, the Preventive Service and ‘revenue men’ had taken on that role. They used ‘revenue cutters’, fast, small ships capable of intercepting the typically small vessels which brought in contraband and which could negotiate the often difficult waters the smugglers chose to exploit. The Essex coastline with its mud flats was one such area. (1) 

Occasionally these vessels crop up in the record as wrecks in their area of operation, for example, the revenue cutters Felicity, which stranded on a rock among the Isles of Scilly in 1790 after seizing significant quantities of contraband from a smuggling cutter, or the Fox, which stranded in 1824 near Bridport, not far from the Chesil Beach locale which inspired John Meade Falkner’s classic 1898 tale of smuggling, Moonfleet. (2) 

These were, of course, seagoing vessels, but the coastguard also made use of static watch vessels. Static service in one form or another was typical for obsolete naval vessels which nevertheless still had a useful part to play and assignment to a coastguard role was fairly typical: there is a long heritage of such vessels, which have been the subject of previous blogs examining the uses to which they were put, from the 17th century Vogelstruis to Fisgard II in 1914.

A station on the river Roach at Paglesham no doubt provided a commanding position in the flat Essex land- and sea-scape for the coastguard watch vessel. The former HMS Kangaroo, an Acorn-class brig-sloop of 1852, similarly ended up in the Essex marshes from 1870 at nearby Burnham-on-Crouch, and gives a good idea of the appearance of a 19th century coastguard watch vessel and how the Paglesham vessel must once have looked.

Dickens’ Great Expectations of 1861, exactly contemporary with the coastguard watch vessel at Paglesham, describes a similar conversion to a prison hulk (without masts or sails) on the Thames marshes as a ‘black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore’ and a ‘ghostly pirate calling out to me’.

The Paglesham coastguard watch vessel saw a long period in service over a quarter of a century from 1845 to 1870, before being sold to be broken up in situ in the dock. The lower portion of the vessel is believed to have settled into the mud, and therefore potentially survives, and thus there is a history not only of the dock but of the vessel which occupied it for so long.

Modern manipulated colour image of mud and vegetation with the outline of Beagle picked out by a red line.
Multispectral UAV survey involved flying a UAV (drone) fitted with a specialist camera, which captures red, green, infrared, near-infrared light, to create a Neutral Density Vegetation Index (NDVI). This has created a clear outline within the dataset of the original mud dock where HMS Beagle was most likely dismantled, confirming its location. © Wessex Archaeology

However, this is not only a story of a mud dock and the vessel for which it was built, but that vessel’s illustrious antecedents. Its identity was no less than HMS Beagle, famed both for three survey voyages and, above all, an association with one of the key figures of the 19th century. Charles Darwin took part in her second voyage from 1831 to 1836, as a naturalist, a voyage which would prove key in developing one of the scientific milestones of the 19th century and its public fame assured by the publication of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle in 1839.

Background to the Beagle:

Two hundred years ago this month HMS Beagle was launched at Woolwich in May 1820, as one of the numerous and long-lived Cherokee-class brig-sloops, which began to enter the Royal Navy from 1808 onwards. According to the memoirs of John Lort Stokes, a hydrographic surveyor who served aboard Beagle, and who knew Darwin on that second voyage, she stood out from the rest of her class:

The reader will be surprised to learn that she belongs to that much-abused class, the ’10-gun brigs’—COFFINS as they are not infrequently designated in the service; notwithstanding which, she has proved herself, under every possible variety of trial, in all kinds of weather, an excellent sea boat. (3)  

A number of Beagle‘s sister Cherokee-class brig-sloops were certainly wrecked around the English coastline, (4) for example  HMS Jasper (built 1808) which stranded under Mount Batten, Plymouth, in 1817 with significant loss of life in a ‘tremendous gale of wind’, while HMS Fairy (built 1826) capsized and sank with all hands off Kessingland, Suffolk, in 1840.

By contrast, HMS Skylark (built 1826) struck on Kimmeridge Ledge, Dorset in fog with no loss of life in 1845, thanks in great part to the efforts of the local coastguard, a story which also underlines not only a secondary function of the coastguard but also of their importance in the 19th century.

The voyages of the Beagle

After some time laid up out of service (‘in ordinary’ in the parlance of the time) in 1825 HMS Beagle was commissioned into the Hydrographic Service as a surveying vessel, her first voyage to Tierra del Fuego taking place between 1826 and 1830.

Historic black & white print of HMS Beagle in profile view against a backdrop of mountains with native inhabitants looking on from small canoes
HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan: frontispiece from the 1890 edition of Charles Darwin’s Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle (London: John Murray)

The Beagle was refitted and set out for her second and most famous voyage in 1831, returning to South America, this time with Charles Darwin on board as a naturalist: such survey expeditions were an opportunity to add to the body of scientific knowledge concerning regions little known to Europeans at that time, as well as to undertake chart-making surveys. This was the voyage which visited the Galapagos Islands and led to Darwin beginning to evolve his principles of natural selection, published as On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Beagle returned once more to England in 1836 and set out again the following year, this time on a survey of Australia which would last until 1843. It was after these three arduous voyages that Beagle was demoted to a coastguard watch vessel, until sold for breaking. Breaking in situ was again typical for vessels which were no longer suitable for any service, as was abandonment after a partial breaking, which then became a secondary stage of a wreck process in itself, as seems to have been the case with the Beagle.

While the Beagle, his former home for five years, was literally sinking into obscurity among the mud-flats of Essex, by contrast Darwin’s fame continued to grow. He settled at Down House, Kent, in 1842, where he led a life of active scientific research and publication against no little controversy surrounding his theories of evolution, before his death in 1882. Each layer of significance in the history of the mud dock at Paglesham is fascinating in its own right, and is all the more special for its association with the remains of a very special vessel.

Modern colour photo of historic Victorian desk with shelf and drawer files and scientific instruments.
Detail view of the Old Study of Charles Darwin’s home at Down House DP053644 © Historic England Archive

References: 

(1) Benham, H. 1986. The Smugglers’ Century: the story of smuggling on the Essex coast, 1730-1830 (Chelmsford: Essex Record Office Publications)

(2) Information derived from Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database

(3) Stokes, J. 1846. Discoveries in Australia; with an account of the coasts and rivers explored and surveyed during the voyage of HMS Beagle, in the years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43 by Command of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. Vol. 1. (London: T and W Boone)

(4) Information derived from Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database

VE Day

Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on 8 May 1945 we look at the very last craft of any kind to be lost off the coast of England.

The last few months of the war saw a significant decline in shipping and aircraft losses over the sea attributable to war causes. The last six weeks of the war saw 10 shipping casualties to war causes in English waters. Over the same period there were 6 aircraft lost to non-war causes (mechanical failure or accident, for example).

The seventh and last aircraft, and last loss of the war in English waters, was the exception, and a war loss, despite its peaceable mission – just one day before the celebration of Victory in Europe. And it is to events in Europe we must turn first of all to understand the mission of the last aircraft of the war to find a grave with most of its crew in England’s territorial sea.

Background:

As the end of the war approached, there was real desperation in the occupied Netherlands after the arduous Hongerwinter [“Hunger Winter”) of 1944-5, of whom one of the best-known survivors was the actress Audrey Hepburn, whose mother was Dutch and who grew up in the Netherlands.

The Hongerwinter arose from a terrible combination of circumstances, any one of which on its own would have been bad enough Although the Allies pushed ahead after breaking out from Normandy, the objective of Arnhem in the Netherlands in September 1944 during Operation Market Garden proved a ‘bridge too far’. Attempted strikes by Dutch railway personnel led to retaliation by the occupiers, preventing food supplies from getting through, and when this blockade was lifted, there were overwhelming obstacles to overseas relief efforts. Although the Allies had managed to capture Antwerp in September 1944, it was several weeks before the port could be used and, even if it had been in use earlier, the the occupied western provinces of the Netherlands with the greatest population density,  and least agricultural land, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam, remained cut off. The canals and rivers froze early that winter and fuel for lorries was scarce. Limited relief supplies from neutral Sweden and Switzerland had helped a little but the situation remained dire. (1) 

Sepia pen and ink wash of seated woman in hat with a boy and a girl in the background.
‘They have taken all, and our food’, Netherlands. Eric William Taylor, 1944, purchased by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Taylor would go on to record the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.  © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 4989

The relief effort: 

Even as the Allies closed in on Berlin and the end of the war in Europe, they were able to refocus from a purely offensive approach towards a relief effort and the rebuilding of a new Europe. The Lancasters of the RAF and the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF based in England, which had so recently been deployed on bombing missions were perfectly suited to dropping food parcels to the Netherlands, and thus Operations Manna (RAF) and Chowhound (USAAF) were born.

Historic B&W photo of six men loading the sacks, their uniforms streaked with escaped flour.
Operation Manna: Ground crew of No.514 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, loading cement bags filled with foodstuffs into the bomb bay of a Lancaster bomber, 29 April 1945, destined for those parts of Holland still under German occupation. © IWM CL 2490

It was a massive logistical effort which drew upon the resources of the Allied airfields of East Anglia at very short notice from mid-April 1945, with the situation becoming urgent against German resistance and the risk of further deliberate flooding both of agricultural fields and transport infrastructure a real possibility. There were no spare parachutes available, so safe conduct for low-level food drops was arranged, to begin in late April 1945.

Black & white photo of Dutch citizen waving at three aircraft flying low over a town.
Dutch citizens wave as food is dropped from Lancaster bombers over the Netherlands in April 1945. Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst Eigen © Nationaal Archief, CC0 120-0739

The mission: 

Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640 of the 334th Bomber Squadron, 95th Bomb Group, set out from USAAF Horham in Suffolk on 7 May 1945, the day after the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands and the day before Victory in Europe day. Along with its precious cargo of food there were 13 on board, including observers from the station’s Photographic Section, all anticipating a routine mission.

Nose and two engines of silver aircraft inside a hangar with white roof.
A B17G Flying Fortress under restoration at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, Georgia, USA. Jud McCranie, CC BY-SA 4.0

Following a successful drop 44-8640 turned for home. There were still pockets of resistance from the occupation forces, which is believed to have had a bearing on subsequent events. No. 2 engine was reported as ‘running rough’, with smoke and oil, thought to originate from rogue flak fired by the occupation forces at the aircraft in the IJmuiden area. (2) 

According to a crashed aircraft recovery specialist based at RAF Ford, Sussex, in 1944, crew would nurse their crippled aircraft, whether shot up, suffering mechanical failure, or simply running out of fuel, back from overseas missions to the English coastline, but would then often be forced to crash-land at or near the nearest available base, unable to make it back to their home bases. (3) 

As the situation worsened, the crew of 44-8640 realised that reaching the coast was going to be impossible and, fearing an explosion, they baled out over the sea off Suffolk, in the vicinity of Benacre Ness or Southwold, with one survivor recalling that the engine dropped away in a ‘ball of flame’ as he got away. The aircraft then fell into the sea.

Two men were picked up alive by a Catalina flying boat after some time in the water, and it is their testimony that enables us to know what happened to 44-8640, but the remainder of the crew were killed, including the observers.

Commemoration: 

Those of the crew whose bodies were recovered were interred at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, Cambridge, but others were never found and are presumed entombed with the aircraft on the seabed.

Five aircraft seen in a blue sky with angel h
Detail of a mosaic on the ceiling of the chapel at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, depicting aircraft being escorted by angels. James O Davies DP180621 © Historic England Archive

This, the final loss of any craft in English waters to war causes, was also one of the cruel tragedies of the war: to be shot at over the Netherlands and to keep the aircraft airborne so many miles only to lose the battle so close to the English coast, and all on a humanitarian mission. Somewhere off the coast lie its remains, which are yet to be discovered but which are automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Victory in Europe was, perhaps, a collective sigh of relief, but it was not the end of the war, which would only come in August 1945 with VJ Day. It was a victory achieved at a huge human cost which has left legible traces in the historic environment – the destruction of historic fabric from London to Coventry and beyond, the legible traces in standing buildings from the suburban semi to national museums, the construction of military installations that have since become ‘historic’ in themselves, the legacy of commemoration – and the remains of ships and aircraft on the seabed, lost to war causes over the years from 1939 to 1945.

References: 

(1) For more detail on this subject, see Sutch, A. 2016 “Manna from Heaven”, RAF Museum blog, online

(2) Onderwater, H. 1985 Operation Manna/Chowhound: the Allied food droppings April?may 1945 Netherlands: Unieboek

(3) Oral history testimony, Ronald Cant (RAF Corporal, 1942-1946) as told to his daughter in reminiscing over D-Day, 2019.