No.79 James Eagan Layne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Receiver of Wreck droits.

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

No.78 U-8, Straits of Dover

Diary of the War No.8

On 4th March 1915 the first confirmed loss of a German U-boat in English waters during the war took place with the capture of U-8 off Dover, the culmination of a hunt that began when she was spotted in the Channel by HMS Viking. Viking opened fire, forcing U-8 to submerge but not without returning fire with a torpedo which missed its target, and U-8 was lost to sight.

Black and white illustration of U-8 submarine on the surface being approached by a destroyer, the crew assembled on the conning tower appealing for help.
Postcard of a contemporary illustration of U-8 being approached by a British destroyer. It is a work of subtle, as well as overt, propaganda, the text being complemented by the viewpoint from the side of a British destroyer, her lifeboat hanging from its davits, suggesting British humanity in coming to the rescue of an enemy crew appealing for help. By courtesy of Mark Dunkley

As the submerged U-8 continued on her way through the Straits of Dover, she became enmeshed in an anti-submarine net barrage. The requisitioned drifter Roburn spotted movement in the nets, and alerted the destroyers of the Dover patrol for assistance. The destroyer Ghurka* towed an anti-submarine sweep wire. These wires were fitted with explosive charges which detonated on contact with the target. Successful contact forced U-8 to the surface, whereupon Ghurka and Maori opened fire.

The crew were taken off and an attempt was made to tow the submarine back to Dover, but she foundered approximately one and three-quarters of a mile west of the southernmost tip of the Varne Bank, where she has now been positively identified by internal features.

The rescued crew, now firmly in British custody, were lined up at Dover on arrival. As the Daily Telegraph for 6 March 1915 (p9) had it: “The Germans were for the most part sturdily-built fellows – no doubt the pick of the German naval service mans the submarines”. The prisoners were marched through the town, escorted by the garrison of the Castle, and a crowd of local sightseers curious to see the enemy, to the Castle itself.

A view of Dover Castle on top of the hill, with the town below.
Dover Castle viewed from the High Street, Dover DP049659 © English Heritage Picture Library

The official Admiralty communiqué quoted in the paper gave away few details, stating only that U-8 had been sunk in the Channel off Dover, but the human interest aspect of the prisoners’ reception more than made up for it, as did the speculation over the intelligence value of the submarine (p8) and what it was thought to reveal about the U-boat war.

As for Roburn and Ghurka, they resumed their successful patrols off Dover, but they, too, were destined to fall victim to enemy action in the Straits of Dover. Roburn sank on 27 October 1916, after being shelled in a Channel raid by German torpedo boat destroyers. She was lost together with a Tribal class destroyer, which formed the nucleus of the Dover Patrol (Ghurka, Maori and Viking, as their names implied, were also Tribal class ships). Ghurka herself was mined on 8 February 1917 off Dungeness, and is one of those vessels whose remains are designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act.

The seabed of the Straits of Dover reveals a common heritage of sunken British and German vessels, a memorial to the warfare on the surface a century ago.

*not a misspelling: she was indeed Ghurka, rather than Gurkha.

No.77 The London wreck today

2015: Telling the story of the London today

A CGI reconstruction of the wreck of a wooden vessel lying on her side with holes blown in her structure.
A CGI reconstruction of the London wreck on the seabed. © Touch Productions

The ordnance, so crucial to the story of the lost London, as described in the previous post, and the salvage of the vessel in the aftermath, is also the theme of her more recent story. A gun was found on the site in 1962, and further investigation of the site in 1985 concluded that its iron content was too great to indicate a 17th century vessel (because the ordnance aboard the London was believed to be predominantly brass). Archaeological investigation in 2006, before dredging for the London Gateway project began, identified two discrete sites close to one another. In 2007 two bronze cannon said to be from the site were reported to the Receiver of Wreck, suggesting a threat sufficient to trigger an assessment of the site’s national importance as a candidate for designation under the Protection of Wrecks Act, which was achieved in 2008.

Local volunteers, under the site Licensee Steve Ellis, began monitoring the site in 2010. The Thames Estuary is a challenging environment for divers and for the wreck itself, which is also under threat from natural forces: the sediment mobility in the area and the effects of climate change, in which warm-water organisms have migrated northward with the potential to impact on wooden wrecks such as the London, leading to a noticeable loss of artefacts from the site.

Steve illustrates another major challenge facing archaeologists on the site, at the edge of a busy shipping channel:

A huge container ship dwarfs the dive vessel as it passes close by.
A large container ship passes close to the dive vessel near the London site. © Steve Ellis

These environmental threats in turn triggered a programme of finds recovery, with a very successful season in 2014 involving a collaboration between English Heritage, Cotswold Archaeology, Licensee divers, Southend Museums, and local volunteers, who sorted the recovered finds. Over 70 items were recovered, 41 by Cotswold Archaeology and 35 by the Licensees, a time capsule of life aboard a 17th century vessel, including bottles and personal items such as clay pipes and shoes.

A largely intact black leather latchet shoe viewed from above, next to an i
A well-preserved latchet shoe recovered from the wreck of the London. © Steve Ellis

Dan Pascoe, one of the site archaeologists, resumes the story with an account of recent archaeological activity concentrating on the guns:

‘The excavation thus far has revealed tantalizing clues towards determining which part of the ship survives on the seabed at site 2. The discovery of an intact gun carriage with the trucks situated against the remains of a deck, suggest the survival of parts of the gundeck. Directly either side of the carriage cheeks were the associated gun tackle, furniture and even gunner’s implements. The deck and carriage are situated on the vertical rather than horizontal, identifying that the remains of this part of the ship are on its side. Full excavation and recovery of the carriage this season will hopefully reveal the side of the hull and gun port.

South of the deck line, which would be below the gundeck, the excavation has uncovered  numerous cut logs of fired wood, galley tiles and bricks. In large ships, like the London, built prior to the mid-1660s, the cook room was found on a partial deck or platform within the forward part of the hold. Also found have been sections of partition planking, probably related to the internal structures of the ship, such has cabins and storerooms. The litter of hundreds of musket and pistol shot points to a possible location near the gunner’s storeroom. The present thinking is that site 2 is part of the bow from at least the gundeck down to hold, which includes the remains of a partial deck or platform. The excavation continues this spring and will hopefully be able to confirm the team’s initial thoughts and theories.’

The remains of a wooden gun carriage truck in poor visibility in the Thames
Gun carriage truck in situ in the Thames, which also illustrates the challenges of working in limited visibility. © Steve Ellis

Steve Ellis, the site’s Licensee, says:

‘It has been a fantastic experience working on such a fascinating wreck site, especially the discoveries we have come across to help us all understand more about life aboard a 17th century British naval ship. This would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the full support that we had from English Heritage, seeing that we are only amateur archaeologists.’

A photographic exhibition documenting the finds opens later this month at the Beecroft Art Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, Essex; underwater investigations are due to resume in summer 2015 and can be followed via the Twitter hashtag #LondonWreck1665.

With many thanks to Dan and Steve, who have contributed so much to this post.

No. 76: The London Blows Up, 7 March 1665

To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the loss of the warship London in the Thames Estuary on 7 March 1665, I would like to take a look at the London in 1665 and in 2015, in a two-part blog. In this first part we look at the story of the wreck event in the words of those who were there at the time, and in the next part on Monday we will hear from those working on the London today.


Pen and ink ship portrait of the hull of the London in broadside view, with flag at her stern.
The London, circa 1660, Willem van de Velde, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Van de Velde was a Dutch marine artist and specialist in ship portraits, and played a role in documenting the battles of the Anglo-Dutch wars.

The London was a stalwart of the Commonwealth Navy, built in 1656 under Cromwell, but had also been part of the fleet accompanying Charles II on his return from exile in the Netherlands in 1660. On 7th March 1665, the London was bound from Chatham Dockyard to the Hope Reach in the Thames, a key location at a tense time, since war had just been declared between Charles II’s England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands on the 4th. The national mood was sombre, and it was also a cold day: thirty miles north, Ralph Josselin, vicar of Earls Colne in Essex, noted that his water pump had frozen that day. (1) Undoubtedly what happened next would have made headlines had there been such a thing as newspapers in England, but the first edition of the London Gazette would not come out until 7th November 1665. However, as Josselin’s journal shows, this was a time of assiduous diary-writing and administrative record-keeping, which allows us a window into the past.

Between Chatham and the Hope Reach lies the Nore: as so often, a safe deep-water anchorage, which was, and remained, a traditional assembly point for battle fleets and convoys up to and including the Second World War, lay next to a hazard, the notorious Nore sandbank. Yet it was not the Nore that was to claim the London.

A letter written on the 8th to Sir Joseph Williamson reported: ‘The brave ship London has blown up near the Hope’, leaving behind only her hull and stern. (2) On the same day Samuel Pepys, in his capacity as Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, provides us with more detail on the ‘sad newes of the London‘ in his personal diary: ‘a little a’this side the buoy of the Nower [that is, on the London side of the buoy, not the seaward side], she suddenly blew up.’ He tells us that only 24 persons were saved out of a complement of over 300, ‘the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordinance.’ (3)

Portrait of Samuel Pepys in old age, wearing a wig and facing right against a dark background, in a gold frame.
Samuel Pepys, 1689, by Godfrey Kneller. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Pepys was one of the key figures of the 17th century Navy and a very capable administrator. He had been asked to distribute the Articles of War to the fleet in the Hope just a few days previously.

Another letter, this time to Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington, passes on coffee-house gossip, blaming the easy availability of gunpowder ’20s a barrel cheaper than in London’ and therefore by implication suspect in provenance and quality. (4) On the 9th, John Evelyn, the other famous diarist of the period, ‘went to receive the poor creatures that were saved out of the London frigate, blown up by accident, with above 200 men,’ for he had been appointed one of the Commissioners for sick and wounded seamen by Charles II. (5) The Dutch ambassador, Michiel van Gogh, had more specific intelligence on numbers than Pepys, or perhaps more details were known by the time of his letter on 10th March: ‘The London, prepared for Vice-Admiral Lawson, was blown up while sailing up the river, and only 19 out of the crew of 351 saved.’ (6)

On the 11th Pepys recorded the results of an inspection of the wreck by Sir William Batten and Sir John Mennes: ‘out of which they say, the guns may be got, but the hull of her will be wholly lost’. (7) Those guns continued to be the focus of administrative attention for a good 30 years afterwards: recoveries made in 1679 caused some wrangling that surfaced in 1694-5, as the salvor attempted to leverage payment of a debt. (8)

What happened next? Part 2 on Monday will bring the story of the London up to date.

CGI reconstruction of the London, showing her gun decks and masts
CGI reconstruction of the London © Touch Productions

(1) Diary of Ralph Josselin, 7 March 1665

(2) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, 1664-5, Vol.114, No.84

(3) Diary of Samuel Pepys, 8 March 1665

(4) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, 1664-5, Vol.114, No.90

(5) Diary of John Evelyn, 9 March 1665

(6) Copy, Holland Correspondence, March 10, 1665, in Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, Charles II, 1664-5, Vol.114

(7) Diary of Samuel Pepys, 11 March 1665

(8) Calendar of Treasury Papers, Vol. 1, 1556-1696, May 17, 1694, and November 26, 1695