No. 93 Ionic Star

Degrees of separation 

Today I have the pleasure of introducing my guest bloggers Mark Adams, Archaeological Services Manager, Museum of Liverpool, and local historian Martyn Griffiths, who describe the wreck of the Ionic Star on the anniversary of her loss in 1939. The Ionic Star has a connection with one of the most famous wrecks of the Second World War in fewer than ‘six degrees of separation’, as Mark and Martyn demonstrate in words and pictures below. For more links, please see the bottom of the article, including drone footage of the site as she now lies. Many thanks to them both.

The Sefton Coastline in Merseyside is a belt of wide sandy beaches and dunes which run from Formby in the south to Southport in the north. Possibly better known to archaeologists for the prehistoric footprints recorded by Gordon Roberts, the area also has a rich maritime history, largely a result of its location on the approaches to Liverpool. This includes the remains of Britain’s first Lifeboat Station and several shipwrecks, some of which are accessible by foot in the company of an experienced guide.

One of these wrecks is the Ionic Star, which was researched by a local historian, Martyn Griffiths. Built in 1917 by Russell & Co. of Glasgow, she was a refrigerated cargo liner with dimensions of 389.8 x 53.2 x 32.4 feet, and had a triple-expansion steam engine by D. Rowan & Co., Glasgow. Launched as the Rubiera, she belonged to the Blue Star line and was renamed the Ionic Star in 1929.

Black and white photograph of steamship in side view, depicting a star logo on the funnel amidships.
Ionic Star, showing the Blue Star logo on her funnel.

She was wrecked on October 16th 1939, after having lost her way whilst steaming up the Mersey Channel. She was carrying a cargo of meat, fruit, and cotton and was inward bound from Rio de Janeiro and Santos in Brazil to Liverpool, but sank on the edge of Mad Wharf, about one mile west of Formby Point. Her cargo was saved and no lives were lost, though she later became a total loss.

Although a salvage firm tendered for the job of breaking her up for scrap and the offer was accepted by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, the difficult access with the rising and falling tides meant that they were only able to break up about 50 tons and then gave up the job.

During the war she was used as target practice by aircraft flying from the nearby RAF Woodvale and elsewhere, but a considerable amount still remains firmly embedded in the sand and she remains a significant local landmark.

View of shipwreck on sands at sunset, showing skeleton of vessel.
View of Ionic Star as she lies today on Mad Wharf, showing a significant break in the hull structure. © Martyn Griffiths

The Blue Star Line had several other steamers in their fleet at the time, one of which was the Doric Star. It was this steamer that only two months later on the 2nd December 1939 was to be sunk by the German Battleship Admiral Graf Spee off the coast of South Africa – rather a bad few months for the Blue Star line. Only 15 days were to go by until the Graf Spee herself was scuttled outside the harbour at Montevideo in the Battle of the River Plate.

Black and white photograph of German warship on fire and sinking, with smoke billowing out of the vessel to the right.
Graf Spee on fire following the Battle of the River Plate, December 1939.

The site was recently used for a test-flight of a UAV by Prof David Burton of the General Engineering Research Institute, Liverpool John Moores University, who supplied the dramatic video in the Youtube link.  The long-term aim of the group is to use a range of telemetry, including LiDAR, mounted on UAVs to provide a means of recording otherwise inaccessible sites such as the Ionic Star.  The flight was also run as part of a guided walk to the site organised by the Sefton Coast Landscape Partnership and Archaeological Services, Museum of Liverpool.


No.92 The Novocastrian

Diary of the War No.15

Today’s wreck, the Novocastrian, which was sunk a century ago on 5 October 1915, is representative of themes emerging in the loss of civilian vessels during the war.

Over the last few months we have traced the emergence of the UC-class minelaying submarines which sank so many ships off the east coast, which remained the key focus of war activity: in this case it was UC-7 which was responsible for the loss of Novocastrian, sunk a day after the minefield was laid off the Pakefield Gap, Suffolk.

Novocastrian was built for passenger service in 1915, but never carried her intended 54 first-class and 28 second-class passengers, since passenger services had been curtailed following the outbreak of war in August 1914. Instead, she became a cargo-carrying vessel, and at the time of loss was laden with a general cargo from London for Newcastle.

The ship sank within ten minutes. The boat was launched with all hands on board before she finally sank, but falling debris from a derrick upset their boat as they got away. Nevertheless everyone managed to cling on to bits of wreckage until they were picked up by a minesweeper.

The sinking of a new vessel only a few months old was a sign of things to come, since pressure would be later be put on British tonnage as ships would be sunk almost as fast as they were built, but this point had not yet been reached.

The Novocastrian appears on page 27 of Lloyd’s War Losses for the First World War. The month’s tally on the next page showed that 11 British ships had been sunk by submarine worldwide  for 39,154 tons; 5 ships from Allied nations for 14,961 tons; and one neutral was lost for 2,508 tons. These losses covered sinking by torpedo, gunfire, or shelling only.. Minelaying submarines had not come into use at the beginning of the wartime loss register, so mines are dealt with in a separate column (at the beginning of the war it was expected that they would be laid by conventional vessels).

The next column shows that the Novocastrian was among the 14 British ships sunk by mine for 16,770 tons, 2 Allied for 2,064 tons, and 8 neutrals for 8,371 tons. Among those 8 neutrals was the Dutch Texelstroom, mined the following day off the Thames in a field for which UC-7 was also responsible.

The Novocastrian is therefore quite representative of the average type of vessel and location of loss at this point in the war, a ship of between 1,000 and 2,000 tons, lost on the east coast of England: the Texelstroom likewise fits this profile. At this stage in the war, too, brief notices in the press still announced sinkings, but these were confined to the bare facts and omitted details of the vessel’s voyage or when and where it was lost. It was enough to know all hands had been saved and three were in hospital.