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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diary of the War: April 1940

HMS/M Unity

This month the focus in our diary of the war at sea is on the submarine HMS Unity, sunk on 29 April 1940.

One of the key dangers for submarines in the early decades of the 20th century was the risk of collision with surface ships, although this risk lessened with the increasing sophistication of detection technologies.

At the same time, while convoy provided ships with a degree of safety against a common enemy, it also occasionally raised the risk of collision with other ships in the convoy. For example, there are sporadic reports of collision in convoy in English waters during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while they also occurred during the First World War (see our previous post on War Knight, 1918).

For HMS Unity it was a collision of causes, as well as a collision in fact, as she came in contact off the Northumbrian coast with a surface ship, the SS Atle JarlUnity was on the North Sea patrol and left her base at Blyth on 17.30 on 29 April 1940 on a northerly course in conditions of poor visibility, while Atle Jarl was steaming south in convoy from Methil to the Tyne. Neither vessel saw the other until they were virtually on top of one another and Atle Jarl struck the submarine upon the port bows, sinking within five minutes. (1) Four of the Unity‘s crew would lose their lives: Lt John Niven Angus Low and AB Henry James Miller went down with the submarine, while Leading Seaman James Sneddon Hare and Stoker 1st Class Cecil Shelton drowned before the boats sent out from the Atle Jarl could rescue them. (2)

Historic B&W photograph of submarine on the surface of an otherwise empty sea.
HMS Unruly, like HMS Unity a U-class submarine, seen from the air in February 1945. © IWM (A 28318)

The voyages of both vessels were connected with the same event on the international stage – the fall of Norway on 9 April 1940. On 6 April Atle Jarl had left Shields on the north-east coast for Trondheim in Norway. She put into Methil Roads in Scottish waters the following day then set off for Norway, but events then forced her to put back. She then left Methil to return to Shields on 29 April. (3) On that same day Unity‘s intended voyage was in the opposite direction, to Norway, where the Allies were still involved in a campaign to dislodge the Nazi occupiers.

The previous month Unity had made headlines in Britain and the Netherlands with her rescue of eight survivors from the crew of the Dutch trawler Protinus, who had been bobbing about without food or water in an open boat in the North Sea for six days, after their vessel had been attacked and sunk by a German aircraft. Two men were killed in the attack and two succumbed afterwards as they drifted: eerily prefiguring the losses aboard Unity, two in the incident and two in the sea afterwards. The survivors were landed at a Scottish east coast port and Unity‘s crew ‘received the congratulations of Queen Wilhelmina, of Holland.’ (4)

Historic B & W photograph of men surrounding a survivor in a cork lifejacket.
A survivor from Protinus is helped from HMS Unity by her crew in one of a sequence of photographs which shows individual survivors being landed. Some of these images were then published in Dutch newspapers. © IWM (A 16)

The loss of Unity herself, however, was a completely different matter. The press was silent on the subject, although allusions to the rescue of the Dutch fishermen cropped up at intervals during the war, either as her crew subsequently took part in successful engagements, or were awarded medals. The only clue to the submarine’s loss, perhaps, was that they gained these awards in other vessels: but this would only be known by the men and their families, and to the outside world their presence aboard other submarines would have been masked by the transfer of postings through career progression, particularly for officers.

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we are able to read between the lines.

For example, the news that AB Jones had received the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for ‘daring, enterprise and devotion to duty on successful patrols in HM Submarines’ was accompanied by a reminder of the Protinus rescue and the fact that he was ‘subsequently posted to HM Submarine Utmost.’ (5) Most of the crew were indeed subsequently divided between Utmost and Upright, and at least one went to submarine P311(6) 

Nor were the survivors the only ones to receive gallantry awards. On 16 August 1940 both Lt Low and AB Miller were posthumously awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal, which was exchanged for the new award of the George Cross instituted just a month later. Even then only their branch of service was recorded: ‘HM Submarines’ – but the citation was specifically for ‘gallantry in loss of ship in collision’. (7) 

The sinking of Unity by collision at 7.15pm on 29 April ‘off the Farne Islands’ did not reach the public domain, but was reported on 1 May to the War Cabinet, who were also notified that ‘Divers from Scapa were being hurried to the Tyne.’ (8) It was noted at the next day’s meeting, however, that diving operations had been unsuccessful and that: ‘The few men remaining in her could only be saved, however, if they made their own escape by using the Davies [sic] apparatus.’ (9)

Historic B&W photograph of man wearing the apparatus in a tank while the trainees watch.
An instructor coming to the surface during a demonstration of the Davis apparatus, as trainees for the submarine service look on, at HMS Dolphin, Gosport, 14 December 1942. © IWM (A 13884)

It was only after the war in Europe was over in May 1945 that the news of Unity‘s loss made its way into the public domain when the Admiralty ‘revealed its secret losses, which could not be announced before without giving Germany information.’ (10) 

The managed lack of information was one thing; it was a necessity for the safe conduct of the war and for public morale, and did not mean at all that nothing was done behind the scenes. As we have seen, the War Cabinet was notified of a rescue attempt, and the gallantry of Lt Low and AB Miller in remaining behind and assisting their crewmates to escape, even at the risk of their own lives, was recognised within months of the event.

In the interim, a Court of Inquiry was convened at Blyth. There it emerged that the poor visibility was not the only contributory factor to the disaster, but a missing piece of information had also played its part in shaping the course of events, and that was an entirely different matter.

A signal had come through to Blyth from Rosyth to warn of the impending Methil-Tyne convoy in the swept war channels, but this, for some reason, had not reached Unity. This reasons for this were examined in detail, but no-one recalled having sight of the signal – neither the signalman who should have been able to collect it before sailing, nor the navigating officer, nor the commanding officer. Procedures at the shoreside signal distribution office were minutely examined to account for the discrepancy, but as the confidential papers had gone down with the submarine, there was no conclusive paper trail to demonstrate or corroborate whether the signal had been collected or not collected, never seen or seen but overlooked in the haste to put to sea. (11)

These seemingly routine tasks could make the difference between life and death, and it could be said that ‘for want of a signal a submarine was lost’, and four lives. Whether her presence would have altered the course of the struggle for Norway, we will never know, but it is a reminder that in wartime each person was a very small cog in larger cogs that moved enormous wheels, and individual events had a cumulative effect on outcomes far away. The history of Unity also reminds us that while ships have always saved people from wrecks, only to be wrecked in their turn (sometimes many years later), under the circumstances of war these sequences of events were both more frequent, and compressed into shorter spans of time.

 

References: 

(1) Atle Jarl entry onwarsailors.com 

(2) Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, results for 29.04.1940

(3) p1 of Atle Jarl‘s convoy register (in English), National Archives of Norway, repr. on warsailors.com

(4) Algemeen Handelsblad (in Dutch), 30 March 1940, No.37,063, p3; Daily Record, 1 April 1940; Middlesex Chronicle, 16 May 1942, No.4,352, p5

(5) Birmingham Post, 7 November 1940, No.25,681 p3

(6) Middlesex Chronicle, 16 May 1942, No.4,352, p5; Evans, A. 1986 Beneath the Waves: A history of HM Submarine losses 1904-1971 (London: William Kimber)

(7) London Gazette, Friday 16 August 1940, No.34,924, p5059; TNA ADM 1/11525

(8) TNA CAB 65/7/1

(9) TNA CAB 65/7/2

(10) “Naval Chronicle”, Hampshire Telegraph & Post, 25 May 1940, No.8,469, p12

(11) Evans, A. 1986 Beneath the Waves: A history of HM Submarine losses 1904-1971 (London: William Kimber)

 

Looking at the weather

The wreck of the Heidrun

I am very pleased to welcome my next guest blogger for this edition, local wreck historian Robert Felce, who has kindly shared with us his research into the history of the SS Heidrun, lost off Mullion, Cornwall, in December 1915.

Over to Robert:

As the Great War raged from 1914-18 on the Western Front there was also war on the high seas from the Atlantic to the Baltic, and from the English Channel to the Mediterranean. Ships from many lands fell victim to German mines and torpedoes, and neutral countries such as Norway were not immune.

This is the story of the SS Heidrun, built in 1871 by Palmer’s of Jarrow as the iron screw steamer Vildosala. (1) As Vildosala she had run down the SS Kottingham in 1897 and was involved in 6 further collision events. (2) In 1902 she was sold to Libau (then part of the Russian Empire as the Governorate of Courland, now Liepāja in the modern state of Latvia) as the Dalny or Dal’niy, then to her final owners in Christiana (now Oslo) as the Heidrun in 1909. (3)

Throughout her career she appears to have operated primarily as a collier, which also seems to have been her wartime role, and we can place her on a voyage from Swansea to Rouen with coal in November 1915. (4) On 24 December 1915 Heidrun once more departed Swansea Coal Docks for Rouen with anthracite coal and 15 crew, under Capt. Gustav Olsen. (5)

Swansea had a long-standing connection with Norway, which arose from the importation of timber pit-props from Scandinavia for use in the coal mines of South Wales, with coal being transported back to Norway. A Norwegian church opened in Newport in the 1890s but was physically relocated to Swansea in 1909-10. (6) [Take a look at Historic England’s picture gallery for the Norwegian church, Rotherhithe, built in 1927, including its war memorial dedicated to the seamen of Norway lost in the First World War, which was listed in 2017.]

Simple black and white church with small black Nordic spire, and flagpole adjacent to the church.
Norwegian Church, Swansea, in its present position, having been relocated in 2004 for the second time in its history,  this time within Swansea. © Ann on geograph.org.uk (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rouen, on the River Seine, was used as a supply base for the British, and was also a major hospital base for injured soldiers, with a number of large, well-run, hospitals. Coal was a much-needed resource for both the French and English troops, as well as the French population.

As the Heidrun set out on her ill-fated journey, the Christmas truce of 1915, less well-known than the 1914 equivalent, was taking place on the Western Front. Coal-fired braziers were lit in No-Man’s Land and troops on both sides sang hymns and exchanged small gifts. (7). For the Heidrun, the weather on the outward journey south towards Land’s End was poor, with a developing low pressure system bringing SW gale force winds, not the most attractive way to spend Christmas. (8)

Mullion Coastguard were later to report that, about 10.30am on 27 December, at the height of the gale, a steamer was observed some 4 miles off Mullion pitching and tossing in the terrible sea that was running in Mount’s Bay, buffeted by the ‘howling’ SW gale. For half an hour, her laboured progress was watched with anxiety by those on shore – and then she disappeared from view. (9)

Sandy beach enclosed by green field headlands, clear blue water under a blue sky.
Church Cove, Gunwalloe, north of Mullion. © Bob Felce (Mullion)

There was no help at hand, and no ships close by to go to her aid. The last Mullion lifeboat had been removed in July 1908 and in such a SW gale the Penzance and Porthleven lifeboats would have been unable to launch.

Evidence of the steamer’s identity gradually reached the shore when wreckage and lifebuoys were washed up bearing the names Heidrun and Christiana. The coastguard passed the information to Lloyd’s in Penzance, who matched the information with the departure of the Heidrun from Swansea on 24 December.

There were no survivors, with an unidentified male body being recovered at Halzephron on 28 December, and two more at Poldhu on 29 and 30 December. (10) At the subsequent coroner’s inquest evidence of drowning was given and the evidence of the wind and tide led to their identification as the crew of the Heidrun. (11) Two further bodies were found at Porthleven on 25 January, with it being concluded that they were ‘found drowned’ and probably came from the wreck of the Heidrun. (12) There is no recorded evidence that the bodies of the remaining crewmen ever came ashore. On 10 February Heidrun was added to Lloyd’s ‘Missing’ list. (13)

It seems that much of the above information was never subsequently considered and it was recorded in some quarters that she had quite likely struck a mine (for example, ‘missing, presumed mined’ in Lloyd’s War Losses). (14) Reviewing the sinking also suggests that there has since been only a superficial examination of weather data at the time of loss.

However, in the Meteorological Office (Met Office) summary for the month of December 1915, gales were reported ‘every day’ from the 22nd onwards, in particular noting that:

A deep system travelled up from the Azores, arriving on the Irish coast in the morning of the 27th and reaching Denmark the following day. It was a fast-moving system . . .  marked by the most destructive gale of the month with a strong to a whole SW gale, raging over England generally . . . with violent squalls . . . winds which attained a velocity of 39 m/s [metres per second] at Plymouth and 40 m/s at Scilly and Pendennis.’ (15)

These wind speeds at the time Heidrun was passing through Mount’s Bay, (which lies between the observation points of Scilly to the west and Pendennis to the east), translate to 87-89mph [140-143kph]. Further detail is available in the daily weather reports, showing that at Newquay, Cornwall, the wind was WSW force 8 all day, while on the Isles of Scilly it was observed to be at SW force 8 between 7am and 1pm, gusting at 39 m/s at 9am. At Falmouth the wind was observed to be at WSW force 9 between 8am and 1pm, gusting to 40 m/s at 9.45am. (16)

Historic hand-drawn weather chart on a blue background.
Meteorological Office chart for 27 December 1915. © Crown Copyright 1915. Information provided by the National Meteorological Library and Archive – Met Office, UK

It is suggested that the evidence for a mine or torpedo strike is not present as no evidence of an explosion was seen or heard by the watchers on shore. [Serena adds: Assessment of the other wrecks in English waters for that month strengthens this suggestion. In terms of losses to war causes, December 1915 was a relatively quiet month, with one vessel torpedoed, one sunk by gun action, and 11 mined, primarily among the minefields on the east coast. (17) 

No other vessels were lost on 27 December 1915 to storm conditions, but on 31 December, another ship, the schooner Dana of Helsingør, was a victim of the storms reported by the Met Office as continuing up to the end of the month. (18) She sprang a leak after labouring for several days across the North Sea in a storm with high seas, again consistent with the Met Office’s reporting of its trajectory. It was then decided to steer for the nearest land, and she drove ashore at Cullernose Point, Northumberland. (19)]

The date of the Heidrun wreck in 1915 also excludes another cause of loss particular to Norwegian ships later in the war, in 1917, which also specifically affected those leaving Norway itself. Even so, it is an interesting story in its own right and worth covering briefly here. In 1917 Norwegian concern grew over a number of their ships which had been mysteriously lost at sea, mostly with all hands, although the survivors of some of these mysterious incidents reported sudden explosions and fires which broke out in such a manner as to convince those present that they were due to ‘infernal machines’ – rather than an explosion through an external cause such as mine or torpedo. (20)

Investigations by the chief of Oslo police, Johan Søhr, led to the discovery of a bomb plot led by one ‘Baron von Rautenfels’, a Finnish national who was working for German intelligence under cover of the diplomatic service. Diplomatic baggage was used to courier explosives into Norway, including incendiary devices disguised as pieces of coal to be placed in the coal bunkers, where in some cases they were discovered shortly after leaving harbour in Norway. (21) [An online album by Norwegian broadcaster NRK (in Norwegian) depicts the quantities of smuggled bombs. The sixth picture in the album shows a bomb disguised as a piece of coal.]

Thus the very specific wind conditions under which the Heidrun was labouring on 27 December 1915 seem the most likely explanation for her loss, probably compounded by other factors. Was the fully-laden steamer able to handle such sea conditions and high winds? Might she have developed an engine fault or had water ingress through open hatches, which were both common causes of foundering for colliers? [Serena adds: for example, the fate of her compatriot Odd, which foundered in 1910 with all hands in a gale off Woolacombe, Devon, sounds very similar. In 1894 the British collier Zadne capsized and sank off Worthing, which was attributed to a shift in her cargo, while another British collier, the Grimsby, sprang a leak and foundered off Westward Ho! in 1897. Such incidents were not, of course, unique to colliers or confined to steamships, but certainly give an idea of the variety of severe structural and mechanical stresses possible under ‘stress of weather’, in the historic maritime phrase. (22)]

We may never know, but by November 1916 242 Norwegian ships had been sunk, comprising 182 steamers and 60 sailing ships, insured for 142m kroner or almost £8m. By 1918 the figures for Norway’s commercial shipping losses had risen to 829 ships for 1,240,000 tons, representing an insurance loss of approximately 1,000m kroner. (23)

The toll in lives lost was immense, including the 15 crew of the Heidrun. Following enquiries from the lost crew’s relatives in Norway some 20 years ago, a memorial stone was placed in the burial ground at the Church of St. Winwaloe, Gunwalloe.

Modern B&W photograph of simple gravestone carved only with text.
Headstone commemorating the lost crew of the Heidrun: G Olsen, J Olsen, P Rasmussen, R J Knudsen, A M Andersen, P Mortensen, M Santa, D Rickard, H Waather, A Alberti, E M Løvle, T Sihanna, J Syrgraven, A Brenha, and C Carlsen.  © Bob Felce (Mullion)

The wreck now attributed to the Heidrun in Mount’s Bay was described in 1981 as the ‘wreck of an old steamer of the era 1880-1900’ and has since been observed as having a 2-cylinder compound engine, consistent with the vessel as built at Palmer’s, Jarrow, in 1871 and replaced by their subsidiary, John Eltringham, South Shields in 1881. (24) No anthracite cargo was observed, and it may well have been washed away, particularly given the collapsed state of the wreck, but the recovery of a maker’s plate before 2003 enabled identification of the site as the Heidrun. (25)

The wreck is no longer intact and has collapsed outwards. Perhaps this is partly due to historic salvage, but from the 2003 observations one feature jumps out: the port boiler was in place but the starboard boiler lies at an angle. (26) Could this suggest one of the possible mechanical stresses on the vessel during that storm over a hundred years ago?

Footnotes: 

(1) Auction Notice for Vildosala and Chavarri, The Gazette for Middlesborough 1.5.1872

(2) Kottingham wreck: Lloyd’s List 1.11.1897. For some of the other incidents, please see, for example, collision with Patria, off Berdyans’k, Lloyd’s List 2.5.1878; collision with Tagus at Shields, 1894, Aberdeen Press and Journal 6.2.1894; Drogden lightship incident, York Herald, 25.6.1899; collision with other steamers in Gravesend Reach, Shields Daily Gazette 20.7.1901, all as Vildosala; and as Dal’niy, collision with Fountains Abbey off Queensferry, Linlithgow Gazette 10.11.1903

(3) Shields Daily Gazette 28.11.1902; Lloyd’s List 24.5.1909

(4) Shields Daily News 9.11.1915

(5) The Scotsman 30.12.1915

(6) http://www.swanseadocks.co.uk/Norwegian%20Church.htm

(7) The forgotten Christmas Truce” , Daily Telegraph, 26.12.2015

(8) Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Monthly Weather Report for the Meteorological Office, Vol. XXXIII (New Series), No.XII, December 1915

(9) “The Mullion Disaster”, Cornishman, 6.1.1916

(10) “The Mullion Disaster”, Cornishman, 6.1.1916; Cornishman, 13.1.1916

(11) Cornishman, 3.1.1916

(12) “Bodies washed ashore at Porthleven”, Cornishman, 27.1.1916

(13) Cornishman, 10.2.1916

(14) Lloyd’s War Losses for the First World War: casualties to shipping through enemy causes 1914-18, p299

(15) Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Monthly Weather Report for the Meteorological Office, Vol. XXXIII (New Series), No.XII, December 1915

(16) Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Daily Weather Reports for December 1915, 27 December 1915, p112

(17) Source: examination of Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, April 2020

(18)  Source: examination of Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, April 2020

(19) Handelsministeriet, 1916: Statistisk oversigt over de i aaret 1915 for danske skibe i danske og fremmede farvande samt for fremmede skibe i danske farvande indtrufne søulykker (in Danish) (Copenhagen: Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri)

(20) The Globe, 25.6.1917

(21) “Bombs at Christiana”, Cambridge Daily News, 25.6.1917; “Discovery of a vast German plot against Norway”, Yorkshire Telegraph and Star, 25.6.1917

(22) Source: examination of Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, April 2020

(23) Gloucestershire Echo, 5.12.1916; Derby Daily Telegraph, 6.1.1919

(24)Vildosala fitted with new engines”, Shields Daily News 2.9.1881; UKHO No. 16233; “Wreck Tour 49: The Heidrun, Divernet, nd, originally published in Diver, March 2003

(25) UKHO No.16233, “Wreck Tour 49: The Heidrun, Divernet, nd, originally published in Diver, March 2003

(26) “Wreck Tour 49: The Heidrun, Divernet, nd, originally published in Diver, March 2003

 

 

Diary of the War: March 1940

Capitaine Augustin

This month’s War Diary commemorates the loss of the French collier Capitaine Augustin on 17 March 1940. She was built for the Union Industrielle et Marine by Chantiers Navals Français in 1922. In common with many other French ships, both civilian and naval, constructed immediately after the First World War, she was named after a ‘naval hero of the late war’ whose family remained untraced, or they would have been invited to the launch ceremony on 14 February 1922. (1) [See also our previous post on another, similarly named, collier, Mousse Le Moyec, which would in her turn be wrecked in December 1940.]

Reporting of the incident through official British channels (the Press Association War Special) was terse: ‘The French steamer, Capitaine Augustin (3,137 tons), of Havre, bound in ballast to an East Coast of England port, was mined and sunk off the East Coast on Sunday, and two of her crew of 30 were killed.’ (2)  Similar clues, or even fewer, were present in French sources: for example, in the extract illustrated below, the only clue as to the whereabouts of the wreck lies in the reporting of the wreck from Londres or London.

French language newspaper extract consisting of headline at top, black and white photograph of stern view of ship with her name Capitaine Augustin in white letters in the middle, followed by short French text below.
Headline from L’Ouest-Eclair, 20 March 1940, No.15,835: “War at Sea: the cargo vessel Capitaine Augustin sinks after being mined. Two injured, two missing.” Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Some detail did emerge: the injured were the wireless operator and a gunner, which suggested that the vessel was armed for self-defence. In fact, Capitaine Augustin had been requisitioned by the French authorities in December 1939, so it seems likely that she received her armament then. (3)

The explosion took place within sight of shore: ‘hundreds’ locally heard the explosion and ‘watched from the pier while the lifeboat dashed seven miles to the sinking ship.’ (4) The survivors were landed at a ‘south-east coast town’. Eight must have endured quite a fright as the ship began to sink, as they were trapped below by ‘some doors which had jammed’, but they were fortunately rescued by their crewmates hacking the doors down. (5)  It was for just this reason that internal steel netting was provided at least on British ships later in the war, so that in the event of the ship being struck and stairways destroyed, those below decks had a ladder and a means of scrambling up on deck to the lifeboats. (6) 

The human interest angle, so important in journalism at any time, came to the fore in wartime. Here we can see how the details of the crew looking after their own, while onlookers willed on the lifeboat speeding to the rescue, took precedence over any locational detail either of the mine or of the ship’s intended voyage, other than in the most vague terms. That way such details receded into insignificance and gave little or no information to the enemy on the success or otherwise of their operations. (7)

The mines had been laid the previous month by 1. Zerstörer-Flotille (1st Destroyer Flotilla) of the German Kriegsmarine in the ‘Shipwash area’ off the northern approaches to the Thames. This tallies with the emphasis on the east and south-east coasts in the details given in the British press. (8) An unattributed French source, based on the activities of 1. Zerstörer-Flotille, states the location of loss as 2.5 miles 126 degrees from the Tongue lightvessel in the Thames Estuary. (9)  

The wreck site has been securely charted since 1940, and, of course, at the time the position of the vessel would have been noted by the rescuers. The timing of its first charting is interesting, as it was charted in mid-June 1940 as a dangerous wreck, so of course it suggests that it was one more hazard to avoid for all the ‘Little Ships’ that shuttled from the Thames Estuary to Dunkirk and back between 26 May and 4 June 1940.

Following dispersal in 1946, the location of the wreck was reported in relation to a wartime feature constructed since the date of the wreck, the Tongue Sand Tower (Tongue Sand Fort) – rather than being noted in relation to the lightvessel, even though the latter remained on station until its decommissioning after 1980. The Tongue Sand Fort was one of the Maunsell Forts built for the defence of the Thames Estuary during 1942-3. (For more on the Maunsell Forts, see 7 Treasures of the Thames Estuary on Historic England’s other blog, Heritage Calling.)

Contemporary B&W photograph of twin-legged sea fort painted in dazzle camouflage
The Tongue Sand Tower was a Maunsell ‘Navy’ type fort, such as the one depicted here. © IWM (A 26878)

All that now remains of the Tower is a stump following its collapse in 1996, while the dispersed wreck site of the Capitaine Augustin appears to have disappeared beneath the sands, (10) yet together they point to the wartime legacy of this patch of the Thames Estuary.

(1) L’Ouest-Eclair, 15 February 1922, No.7,409, p6

(2) Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1

(3) Bulletin officiel des armées: arrêté no.56 de 12 juin 1954 (in French)

(4) Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1

(5) Thanet Advertiser, 21 March 1940, p5

(6) Oral history testimony from Corporal Cant RAF, 2006, recounting his experiences aboard the Dutch troopship Johan de Witt operated by the British Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) in convoy Clyde – Lagos, November 1944.

(7) Thomson, G (1947) Blue Pencil Admiral  (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd) provides an informative account of how censorship and information management worked in practice for the duration of the war.

(8) Rohwer, Jürgen & Hümmelchen, Gerhard, “Februar 1940“, Chronik des Seekrieges, published online (Württembergisches Landesbibliothek, 2007-2020) (in German)

(9) http://uim.marine.free.fr/hisnav/archives/carpass/cap_augustin.htm (in French)

(10) http://www.bobleroi.co.uk/ScrapBook/TongueTower/TongueTower.html, which provides an interesting overview and many photographs of the Tower throughout its history; UKHO 14046