Diary of the War No.18

The Algerian

For the first post of 2016 I am delighted to welcome our guest blogger, Amelia Astley, a PhD student at the University of Southampton, who has specialised in the study of shipwreck site formation processes through the use of multibeam bathymetry time-series. Here she describes one of the wrecks she has studied, the Algerian, lost a century ago on 12 January 1916.

Life of the Algerian

The Algerian, originally named Flintshire, was built in 1896 by the Sunderland Shipbuilding Company and made up part of the Shire Line [1]. She had a tonnage of 3815grt, length of 111m, beam of 13m and a service speed of 10 knots [2]. Following 21 years of service she was bought by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., where she remained for six years, before being purchased by the Ellerman Line Ltd. for their Levant service, under the name Algerian.

Black and white photograph of a ship with the name Algerian in letters beneath the bows,
A photo of the Algerian. [3]
Fate of the Algerian

At 8.20am on the 12th January 1916 the Algerian departed from Cowes Road, Isle of Wight, heading for Avonmouth [4]. After travelling just 26km along her 600km journey, at 10:15am, she hit a mine 4km southwest of the Needles.  It was later determined that this mine had been laid by the German submarine, UC-5, almost three months earlier [5]. The contact mine exploded on her starboard side, abreast of No. 2 hatch [6]. All of the crew bailed into three lifeboats. However, after realising the vessel wasn’t sinking, the captain and a few other members of the crew re-boarded [4]. For now the flooding was contained to just holds No. 1 and No. 2.

Three Admiralty armed drifters responded to distress signals, as well as the SS Warden, a Trinity House vessel, which assisted in the tow for Southampton, as did the tug Walvisch. By 2pm the vessel was approaching the boom defence near Cowes [4]. The tide was running strong and there were concerns that the Algerian was set on course to collide with the boom vessel Magda. As a result the Algerian was ordered to drop anchor.

Colour map of the Solent with purple line showing outbound voyage and yellow line depicting inbound voyage, with terminal points marked by a mine symbol and a wreck symbol representing the location where the vessel struck the mine and where she sank.
Route of the final voyage of the Algerian, showing the mine laid by UC-5, and the final wrecking position.

The No. 1 bulkhead finally gave way as the ship came to a standstill (it is not known whether or not this was a direct result of letting the anchor go). Attempts were made at securing tows to the beach, but these failed as the ship started to rapidly sink, bows first, causing the crew to again abandon ship. The vessel sank on her port side into a deep water channel to a depth of 22m just one mile off Egypt Point at a time of 2:30pm [6].  Fortunately all crew made it off the ship safely and the ship was in ballast at the time, so there was no cargo to retrieve [1].

Originally a diver was to be sent down to the wreck to ascertain the cause of the explosion (it was not yet confirmed to be a mine). However, the loss of the HMT Albion II to a mine near the Needles the following day is thought to have satisfied the Admiralty that a mine was the cause, since there is no record of a diver ever visiting the wreck [4]. The wreck, like many others, lay undisturbed until the end of the war.

A series of attempts were made to disperse the wreck throughout the 1920s and her structure was reduced in height by approximately  6.5m [7]. Although the ship had a beam of just 13m, the wreck structure in 1978 measured 30m wide[7], suggesting that the ship lies directly on her side, and is consistent with the vessel’s hull depth of 28m.

Present day

The wreck of the Algerian is situated approximately 1.25km northwest of Gurnard, Isle of Wight, at a depth of 20 to 22m below chart datum and is aligned 61/241° (with its bow towards the north-east). The wreck structure measures 107m long, 28m wide and stands proud of the seabed by 5.8m at its highest point.

Location map of the Algerian, seen as a black star, with the land on either side illustrated in black and white, and the surrounding seabed depth illustrated by different colours shading from red at the shallowest to blue at the deepest.
Location map of wreck of the Algerian and the location of the nearest Tidal Diamond and Wave Buoy, overlain on 2006 and 2011 MCA multibeam bathymetry (Contains public sector information, licensed under the Open Government Licence v2.0, from Maritime Coastguard Agency).

Five high-resolution multibeam bathymetry surveys spanning three years have been collected using the University of Southampton’s vessel Callista. These multibeam bathymetry time-series are used to study the evolution with time of the wreck structure and surrounding seabed. The site is remarkably sheltered and is situated on a bed made up of coarse gravels, which require strong currents to be transported. As a result the wreck site has undergone little change over the three year (2012 – 2015) observation period.

Nevertheless, divers have observed that the wreck frequently acts as a nucleus for the collection of traffic cones, patio chairs, drinks cans and other debris. [8]

Computer-generated image of the wreck site on the seabed, showing a jumbled mass of darker metal in grey against a grey background of sandwaves.
Point cloud image of the wreck with sunlight shading, seen from the northern side of the wreck, derived from the 2015 survey. © Amelia Astley, University of Southampton



[1]         Tennent A J. British Merchant Ships Sunk by U-boats in World War One. 2nd ed. Penzance: Periscope Publishing Ltd; 2006.

[2]         Merchant Navy Association. Shire Line 2015. http://www.red-duster.co.uk/shire7.htm (accessed May 1, 2015).

[3]         PhotoShip. Album: Old Ships A 2015. http://www.photoship.co.uk/JAlbum Ships/Old Ships A/index12.html (accessed March 20, 2015).

[4]         Maritime Archaeology Trust. Forgotten wrecks of the First World War: SS Algerian 2015. http://www.forgottenwrecks.org/index.php/forgottenwrecks/casestudywrecks/ss-algerian (accessed May 1, 2015).

[5]         Naval staff monographs (Historical). Volume XV. Home waters – part VI. From October 2015 to May 1916. London: Admiralty; 1926.

[6]         Larn R, Larn B. Shipwreck index of the British Isles: Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Sussex, Kent (Mainland), Kent (Downs), Goodwin Sands, Thames. London: Lloyd’s Register of Shipping; 1995.

[7]         United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO). Hydrographic Office wreck index: Algerian (013503820). n.d.

[8]         pers. comm., Wight Spirit Diving Charters, 2015