Diary of the War: November 1917

SS Belém

I am pleased to welcome as my guest blogger for this month my colleague Stuart Churchley, Marine Planning Archaeological Officer at Historic England. Although this month’s wreck was not lost to war causes, she nevertheless illustrates a little-known aspect of the First World War in the English-speaking world, that of Portugal’s involvement in the war. Stuart writes:

The name of a wrecked vessel can often hold clues not only to its origin, but also the historical context in which it served: today’s wreck, lost 100 years ago on 20th November 1917, is just such a wreck with the potential for a far larger story.

At around the same time as the British Army famously used their tanks on the western front at Cambrai on 20th November 1917, a little-known merchant vessel, the SS Belém, was wrecked at Menachurch Point, just north of Northcott Mouth, Bude.

When I first started researching the SS Belém, my first thought was that this vessel must have been inadvertently lost: an isolated wrecking case on the very periphery of the war action, participating in no known convoy for the area, miscalculating a notorious stretch of coastline like so many others had previously, whilst avoiding the threats of unrestricted U-boat attacks and mines alike.

Locally it is well known and has captured the imagination of visitors and artists, becoming a recognisable feature of the landscape. The wreck itself was photographed at the time of its loss oriented facing south, running parallel to the coastline overlooking to the east.

Black and white photograph of stranded ship, seen in profile broadside on to the beach, with rocks and stones visible in the lower half of the image. The ship is dry with the tide at the top of the image just lapping at the bottom of the vessel.
Contemporary photograph of the Belém ashore, 1917, seen from the overlooking cliffs.

A brilliant eyewitness account of the ship’s stranding from the perspective of Arthur Madge, can be found within an online pdf produced by a local historian, Audrey Aylmer, which also includes photographs of the site in 1997, 80 years after the Belém came ashore. (1) As an eight year old boy in 1917, Arthur had been awoken at his boarding school by the sound of the distress signals in fog from the stranded Belém (so she had certainly not been lost to war causes).

Today, when tides and wind work in tandem, a mixture of metal features can be revealed on the beach. It’s easy to see that the coastline of shale and sandstone known as the ‘Bude Formation’ and heavy westerly winds has caused the ship to become severely disarticulated, mangled and a little bit hazardous underfoot. The intertidal sand has formed a protective layer over what remains of the wreck, comprising a long subtly curved hull structure, a boiler cracked open like a an eggshell, large elements with rivet patterns and flanges, and the propeller itself sitting serenely within a bowl of scoured sand. The site is very clearly seen from above by drone in some excellent 2015 images published by Martin Busby online. (2)


Three groups of dark metal elements of a wreck sitting in pools of water on a sandy beach, against a backdrop of grey mist.
Boiler and propeller shaft of wreck, Menachurch Point in mist, 2007. CC-BY-SA/2.0 – © David Hawgood – geograph.org.uk/p/411088

Tracing back why a vessel owned by the Portuguese government came to be here is not easy. However, looking at the wider historical background can be a fruitful and interesting undertaking.

Portugal was pretty much neutral for the first half of the war, but was faced with a challenging period due to the limiting – and almost total loss – of trade with its pre-war European neighbours to the Atlantic north and within the Mediterranean. As relations gradually soured, Imperial Germany declared war on Portugal on 9th March 1916, as a result of a multitude of factors, most notably the capture and confiscation on 23rd February 1916 of the 72 German ships interned in Portuguese ports on or since the outbreak of war. (3)

These seized vessels comprised roughly 10% of all German vessels holding out in neutral ports at this time, and equated to a tonnage double the Portuguese merchant navy before the war. (4) Such a scenario therefore would have proved tempting to both the Portuguese and British authorities, during an ever-growing shipping crisis, with the potential for some form of agreement along the lines of those made with other nations as the ripples of the war spread ever outwards. (5)

What is all the more interesting is that the British had made just such a secret agreement with the Portuguese high command in Belém Palace, Lisbon, on 5th February 1916, leading up to the capture of the 23rd. In doing so the captured vessels would be divided between Britain and Portugal, with 80% of these ships sent to British war effort, and 20% being retained by the Portuguese. (6) (In previous posts we have looked at the fate of interned German vessels in British service; German shipping company property in England, and the secret Tonnage Agreements with Scandinavian countries.)

This decision to seize the German ships in Lisbon would also have far-reaching consequences for Portugal, with the German Navy laying mines in and around the mouth of the Tagus, and the subsequent arrangements for the Portuguese army to be transported to Brest, whence they would advance to the Flanders fields to support the British army. (7)

Could it then be that the SS Belém was one of the 14 vessels transferred to Portugal out of the original 72 internees?

To know this conclusively would take much greater research than has been undertaken here, but from what we know about the Belém, it would seem likely that she was one of that group. Previously named Rhodos, the ship was built in Flensburg in 1890 by Flensburger Schiffsbau Gesellschaft. The Rhodos was possibly very familiar with Portuguese ports, given her original owner, the Deutsche Levante Linie A.G.

However, records document that she came into the ownership of the Transportes Maritimos Do Estado (Portuguese State Steamship Line), in 1916, consistent with the events leading up to the famous prize capture, while other vessels similarly seized by Portugal are known to have ended up in the same ownership, suggesting that the company was formed to account for these ships. (8)

This certainly tallies with the source from Audrey Aylmer which details that the Rhodos, which she suggests was seized in Lisbon in 1916, and later loaned to Italy to bring coal from England, while her return cargo would generally be sulphur from Sicily to England for munitions. In other words, she would work a reasonably familiar route.

Furthermore Audrey Aylmer’s narrativegoes on to say that there was no sulphur ready on the Belém’s final voyage so the vessel came back to Benjaffa, Oran, North Africa, to load 2500 tons of iron ore for Cardiff.

After she was wrecked, holes were cut in her sides to throw out the cargo, and the swell caused large holes in the ballast tanks. The Belém is believed to have been later sold to the shipbreakers, with what remained of the cargo salvaged. (9) This would suggest that the remains represent possibly a combination of natural and human factors, but are no less fascinating for that.

The Belém is a rare archaeological witness in English waters to this pivotal event in Portugal’s involvement in the First World War. Strangely, there is another not far away, another ship also belonging to the Transportes Maritimos do Estados, the Brava (ex-German Togo) torpedoed off Trevose Head in 1918, while inbound to Cardiff with pit props.

What became of some of the other 71 vessels is unclear: many are thought to have been destroyed by German submarines in route to British ports, certainly the fate of Tungue (ex German Zieten), which was torpedoed by UB-51, another Transportes Maritimos do Estado vessel, which was chartered by Britain on her final voyage.  (10) Given the Belém‘s destination of Cardiff with iron ore, chartering to Britain might well explain why she was said to have had two Royal Navy gunners aboard, who were rescued along with the other crew. (11)

However, it has been pointed out that one of the minor successes of this decision to bring about formal entry into the conflict was the agreed return of the surviving captured German ships from Britain and France, which would form the basis of Portugal’s post-war merchant fleet in the 1920s. (12) The Belém is an excellent illustration of how profoundly the First World War changed shipping around the globe, and with what long-term effects.

Aerial view of a brown seashore with items of wreckage showing as darker areas standing proud of the sand, particularly towards the lower right of the image.
Aerial photograph of the Belém site in 2013, by kind permission of the Coastal Offshore and Archaeological Research Services (COARS), University of Southampton. The site is dynamic: previous views in 2006 and 2010 have shown less wreckage.

Thank you very much to Stuart for writing this fascinating post!


(1) Aylmer, A. date unknown (after 2011); The Demise of the SS Belém

(2) Busby, M. 2015 http://budeandbeyond.co.uk/ss-Belém-by-drone/

(3) de Oliveira Marques, A. H. 1986, História de Portugal. Lisboa: Palas Editora, p.235.

(4) Brandão, M. C., 2016. German Submarine war in Portuguese Waters: Esposende – a Smuggling Network. University of Oporto, Portugal

(5) Marder, A. J., 2014, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: Volume IV 1917, Year of Crisis. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing.

(6) Brandão, M. C., 2016. German Submarine war in Portuguese Waters: Esposende – a Smuggling Network. University of Oporto, Portugal.

(7) Salgado, A. 2016. “British Naval Aid to Portugal During the First World War”, The Mariner’s Mirror, 102:2, 191-202.

(8) National Record of the Historic Environment, Mon No: 1585637, https://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1585637; http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/lines/portstate.shtml

(9) Aylmer, A. date unknown, (after 2011), The Demise of the SS Belém

(10) https://uboat.net/wwi/ships_hit/6158.html; http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/lines/portstate.shtml

(11) Aylmer, A. date unknown (after 2011), The Demise of the SS Belém

(12) Brandão, M. C., 2016. German Submarine war in Portuguese Waters: Esposende – a Smuggling Network. University of Oporto, Portugal.


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