This month’s War Diary commemorates the loss of the French collier Capitaine Augustin on 17 March 1940. She was built for the Union Industrielle et Marine by Chantiers Navals Français in 1922. In common with many other French ships, both civilian and naval, constructed immediately after the First World War, she was named after a ‘naval hero of the late war’ whose family remained untraced, or they would have been invited to the launch ceremony on 14 February 1922. (1) [See also our previous post on another, similarly named, collier, Mousse Le Moyec, which would in her turn be wrecked in December 1940.]
Reporting of the incident through official British channels (the Press Association War Special) was terse: ‘The French steamer, Capitaine Augustin (3,137 tons), of Havre, bound in ballast to an East Coast of England port, was mined and sunk off the East Coast on Sunday, and two of her crew of 30 were killed.’ (2) Similar clues, or even fewer, were present in French sources: for example, in the extract illustrated below, the only clue as to the whereabouts of the wreck lies in the reporting of the wreck from Londres or London.
Some detail did emerge: the injured were the wireless operator and a gunner, which suggested that the vessel was armed for self-defence. In fact, Capitaine Augustin had been requisitioned by the French authorities in December 1939, so it seems likely that she received her armament then. (3)
The explosion took place within sight of shore: ‘hundreds’ locally heard the explosion and ‘watched from the pier while the lifeboat dashed seven miles to the sinking ship.’ (4) The survivors were landed at a ‘south-east coast town’. Eight must have endured quite a fright as the ship began to sink, as they were trapped below by ‘some doors which had jammed’, but they were fortunately rescued by their crewmates hacking the doors down. (5) It was for just this reason that internal steel netting was provided at least on British ships later in the war, so that in the event of the ship being struck and stairways destroyed, those below decks had a ladder and a means of scrambling up on deck to the lifeboats. (6)
The human interest angle, so important in journalism at any time, came to the fore in wartime. Here we can see how the details of the crew looking after their own, while onlookers willed on the lifeboat speeding to the rescue, took precedence over any locational detail either of the mine or of the ship’s intended voyage, other than in the most vague terms. That way such details receded into insignificance and gave little or no information to the enemy on the success or otherwise of their operations. (7)
The mines had been laid the previous month by 1. Zerstörer-Flotille (1st Destroyer Flotilla) of the German Kriegsmarine in the ‘Shipwash area’ off the northern approaches to the Thames. This tallies with the emphasis on the east and south-east coasts in the details given in the British press. (8) An unattributed French source, based on the activities of 1. Zerstörer-Flotille, states the location of loss as 2.5 miles 126 degrees from the Tongue lightvessel in the Thames Estuary. (9)
The wreck site has been securely charted since 1940, and, of course, at the time the position of the vessel would have been noted by the rescuers. The timing of its first charting is interesting, as it was charted in mid-June 1940 as a dangerous wreck, so of course it suggests that it was one more hazard to avoid for all the ‘Little Ships’ that shuttled from the Thames Estuary to Dunkirk and back between 26 May and 4 June 1940.
Following dispersal in 1946, the location of the wreck was reported in relation to a wartime feature constructed since the date of the wreck, the Tongue Sand Tower (Tongue Sand Fort) – rather than being noted in relation to the lightvessel, even though the latter remained on station until its decommissioning after 1980. The Tongue Sand Fort was one of the Maunsell Forts built for the defence of the Thames Estuary during 1942-3. (For more on the Maunsell Forts, see 7 Treasures of the Thames Estuary on Historic England’s other blog, Heritage Calling.)
All that now remains of the Tower is a stump following its collapse in 1996, while the dispersed wreck site of the Capitaine Augustin appears to have disappeared beneath the sands, (10) yet together they point to the wartime legacy of this patch of the Thames Estuary.
(1) L’Ouest-Eclair, 15 February 1922, No.7,409, p6
(2) Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1
(3) Bulletin officiel des armées: arrêté no.56 de 12 juin 1954 (in French)
(4) Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1
(5) Thanet Advertiser, 21 March 1940, p5
(6) Oral history testimony from Corporal Cant RAF, 2006, recounting his experiences aboard the Dutch troopship Johan de Witt operated by the British Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) in convoy Clyde – Lagos, November 1944.
(7) Thomson, G (1947) Blue Pencil Admiral (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd) provides an informative account of how censorship and information management worked in practice for the duration of the war.
(8) Rohwer, Jürgen & Hümmelchen, Gerhard, “Februar 1940“, Chronik des Seekrieges, published online (Württembergisches Landesbibliothek, 2007-2020) (in German)
(10) http://www.bobleroi.co.uk/ScrapBook/TongueTower/TongueTower.html, which provides an interesting overview and many photographs of the Tower throughout its history; UKHO 14046