No.62 Diary of the War at Sea 1

Diary of the War at Sea: an Icelandic trawler, 1914

This week marks the first edition of the ‘Diary of the War at Sea’ element of Wreck of the Week, in which one post a month will be devoted to a wreck from 100 years ago, for the ‘duration’ of the First World War Centenary.

On the night of 26-27 August 1914 a series of explosions occurred off the Tyne as one by one six ships fell victim to a newly-laid minefield. The first victim was the Skúli Fógeti, an Icelandic trawler homeward-bound for Reykjavik from Grimsby.

The sowing of mines brought the war close to the English coast, but losses of neutral vessels caused consternation, with the press inveighing against ‘promiscuous mine-sowing’: ‘this callous and inhuman mode of warfare, if it can be called warfare . . . more likely to do harm to peaceful trading ships than to the fighting ships of a belligerent’. (1)

The Times published a list of the nine neutral vessels sunk in the North Sea since the outbreak of war: two Dutch, two Norwegians, and five Danish vessels. (2) Among the ‘Danish’ vessels was the Skúli Fógeti although she was correctly described elsewhere as Icelandic: the confusion probably arose because Iceland was yet to achieve full independence from Denmark (1918, with ties to the Danish crown being severed on the proclamation of the republic in 1944).

The New York Times republished an official British communiqué denying British involvement in minelaying: ‘The Government has learned that on or about Aug. 26 an Iceland trawler is reported to have struck a mine . . . At least one foreign newspaper has stated that the mine was English.’ (3) Inevitably it was front-page news in Iceland: it was reported that the vessel was insured for 155,000 kronur, but she had no war risk insurance (4), something that by 1915 was becoming the norm, certainly among Danish ships. (5)

In the first month of the war, therefore, we can see it is already a World War, with the consequences of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 reaching further afield to touch more and more non-combatants.

Aerial view of Tynemouth Castle and Priory, looking out to the North Sea.  K920310 © Skyscan Balloon Photography. Source: English Heritage
Aerial view of Tynemouth Castle and Priory, looking out to the North Sea. K920310 © Skyscan Balloon Photography. Source: English Heritage

(1) Times, 28 August 1914, No.40,618, p6

(2) Times, 29 August 1914, No.40,619, p5

(3) New York Times, 30 August 1914, accessed via < > article and issue date citation only

(4) Morgunblaðið, 28 August 1914, No.293, p1,369

(5) Statistisk Oversigt over de i aaret 1915 for Danske Skibe i Danske og fremmede farvande samt for fremmede skibe i Danske farvande indtrufne Søulykker, Bianco Luno, Copenhagen, 1916

No.61 The Vina, 1944

Target Practice

I have written before about how the downgrading of ships towards the end of their service life becomes part of a wrecking process (see: Vogelstruis); although the final end of the Vina came about through environmental causes despite being helped along by prior human agency.


Detail of the Vina, courtesy of the Nautical Archaeology Society
Detail of the Vina, by kind permission of the Nautical Archaeology Society

Built in 1894, she was a fairly small steamer of 1,021 tons in use in the Baltic trade for the J T Salvesen company, who had a dozen vessels just before the First World War. As so often, the fleet was much depleted by losses in that war: by 1939 only three ships remained to the company – by which time the Vina was obsolete. A major feature of both World Wars was the requisitioning and purchase of civilian vessels for wartime service in a number of roles: trawlers went from fishing to minesweeping and patrol duties, liners carried troops and wounded soldiers instead of passengers, and cargo vessels carried supplies for the war effort, sometimes what were euphemistically termed ‘Government stores’.

Even if ships like the Vina were no longer fit to put to sea, they could still perform a useful wartime function. From 1940 the Vina was on standby to be scuttled as a blockship at Great Yarmouth in case of invasion, but in 1944 she was towed further north along the Norfolk coast to Brancaster, to be used by the RAF as target practice in testing out a new rocket. It was an ideal location for the plethora of RAF bases in Norfolk and Lincolnshire such as nearby RAF Little Snoring, assigned to Bomber Command.

The final wreck event for the Vina came not from the RAF sinking her, however, but from a gale which sprang up and drove her ashore on 20 August 1944. Here is what is left of her, after being pounded by the RAF 70 years ago, and after 70 years of tides, storms, and partial post-war salvage.

Boiler and engine of the Vina, courtesy of the Nautical Archaeology Society
Boiler and engine of the Vina, by kind permission of the Nautical Archaeology Society


No.60 Sombrero

Phosphate cargoes

This week we will have a look at wrecks from one of our most picturesquely-named departure points, revealing Britain’s connections with Sombrero or Hat Island in Anguilla, and taking a look at a typical 19th century cargo whose true nature is often hidden behind agrochemical euphemism – nitrates, phosphates, fertilizer.

The island once looked like a three-dimensional sombrero: vaguely hat-like in shape, it once also reared out of the sea like the crown and brim of a sombrero, until the crown was diminished by quarrying from the 1850s onwards. The reduction can already be seen in this contemporary print from the heyday of the Sombrero trade in 1865, depicting ships crowding round this little island of only 92 acres. It also shows the source of the island’s natural resources, the seabirds wheeling in the air whose accumulated guano provided rich phosphate fertiliser for farming.

As so often with wrecks of ships involved in a particular trade, our wrecks date from the zenith of Britain’s guano interests in Sombrero, very nearly contemporary with the print. Two barques illustrate what must have been a typical route, lost in the Bristol Channel, bound for Gloucester: the Caravan in Walton Bay in 1869, and the Cornwall, sunk following collision off Lundy in 1871. By 1890 the island was effectively ‘quarried out’: centuries of seabird ‘resources’ had been rapidly depleted and dispersed to fuel the needs of American farmers in the 1850s and British farmers thereafter.

We know of 30 wrecks laden with guano, which was normally sourced from bird cliffs and bat caves. I cannot resist telling you, however, that a couple of other wrecks lost in English waters homeward-bound from Islas Lobos de Afuera or Islas Lobos de Tierra off Peru would appear more likely to contain guano from a less common source: from seals.