The wreck of the Heidrun
I am very pleased to welcome my next guest blogger for this edition, local wreck historian Robert Felce, who has kindly shared with us his research into the history of the SS Heidrun, lost off Mullion, Cornwall, in December 1915.
Over to Robert:
As the Great War raged from 1914-18 on the Western Front there was also war on the high seas from the Atlantic to the Baltic, and from the English Channel to the Mediterranean. Ships from many lands fell victim to German mines and torpedoes, and neutral countries such as Norway were not immune.
This is the story of the SS Heidrun, built in 1871 by Palmer’s of Jarrow as the iron screw steamer Vildosala. (1) As Vildosala she had run down the SS Kottingham in 1897 and was involved in 6 further collision events. (2) In 1902 she was sold to Libau (then part of the Russian Empire as the Governorate of Courland, now Liepāja in the modern state of Latvia) as the Dalny or Dal’niy, then to her final owners in Christiana (now Oslo) as the Heidrun in 1909. (3)
Throughout her career she appears to have operated primarily as a collier, which also seems to have been her wartime role, and we can place her on a voyage from Swansea to Rouen with coal in November 1915. (4) On 24 December 1915 Heidrun once more departed Swansea Coal Docks for Rouen with anthracite coal and 15 crew, under Capt. Gustav Olsen. (5)
Swansea had a long-standing connection with Norway, which arose from the importation of timber pit-props from Scandinavia for use in the coal mines of South Wales, with coal being transported back to Norway. A Norwegian church opened in Newport in the 1890s but was physically relocated to Swansea in 1909-10. (6) [Take a look at Historic England’s picture gallery for the Norwegian church, Rotherhithe, built in 1927, including its war memorial dedicated to the seamen of Norway lost in the First World War, which was listed in 2017.]
Rouen, on the River Seine, was used as a supply base for the British, and was also a major hospital base for injured soldiers, with a number of large, well-run, hospitals. Coal was a much-needed resource for both the French and English troops, as well as the French population.
As the Heidrun set out on her ill-fated journey, the Christmas truce of 1915, less well-known than the 1914 equivalent, was taking place on the Western Front. Coal-fired braziers were lit in No-Man’s Land and troops on both sides sang hymns and exchanged small gifts. (7). For the Heidrun, the weather on the outward journey south towards Land’s End was poor, with a developing low pressure system bringing SW gale force winds, not the most attractive way to spend Christmas. (8)
Mullion Coastguard were later to report that, about 10.30am on 27 December, at the height of the gale, a steamer was observed some 4 miles off Mullion pitching and tossing in the terrible sea that was running in Mount’s Bay, buffeted by the ‘howling’ SW gale. For half an hour, her laboured progress was watched with anxiety by those on shore – and then she disappeared from view. (9)
There was no help at hand, and no ships close by to go to her aid. The last Mullion lifeboat had been removed in July 1908 and in such a SW gale the Penzance and Porthleven lifeboats would have been unable to launch.
Evidence of the steamer’s identity gradually reached the shore when wreckage and lifebuoys were washed up bearing the names Heidrun and Christiana. The coastguard passed the information to Lloyd’s in Penzance, who matched the information with the departure of the Heidrun from Swansea on 24 December.
There were no survivors, with an unidentified male body being recovered at Halzephron on 28 December, and two more at Poldhu on 29 and 30 December. (10) At the subsequent coroner’s inquest evidence of drowning was given and the evidence of the wind and tide led to their identification as the crew of the Heidrun. (11) Two further bodies were found at Porthleven on 25 January, with it being concluded that they were ‘found drowned’ and probably came from the wreck of the Heidrun. (12) There is no recorded evidence that the bodies of the remaining crewmen ever came ashore. On 10 February Heidrun was added to Lloyd’s ‘Missing’ list. (13)
It seems that much of the above information was never subsequently considered and it was recorded in some quarters that she had quite likely struck a mine (for example, ‘missing, presumed mined’ in Lloyd’s War Losses). (14) Reviewing the sinking also suggests that there has since been only a superficial examination of weather data at the time of loss.
However, in the Meteorological Office (Met Office) summary for the month of December 1915, gales were reported ‘every day’ from the 22nd onwards, in particular noting that:
A deep system travelled up from the Azores, arriving on the Irish coast in the morning of the 27th and reaching Denmark the following day. It was a fast-moving system . . . marked by the most destructive gale of the month with a strong to a whole SW gale, raging over England generally . . . with violent squalls . . . winds which attained a velocity of 39 m/s [metres per second] at Plymouth and 40 m/s at Scilly and Pendennis.’ (15)
These wind speeds at the time Heidrun was passing through Mount’s Bay, (which lies between the observation points of Scilly to the west and Pendennis to the east), translate to 87-89mph [140-143kph]. Further detail is available in the daily weather reports, showing that at Newquay, Cornwall, the wind was WSW force 8 all day, while on the Isles of Scilly it was observed to be at SW force 8 between 7am and 1pm, gusting at 39 m/s at 9am. At Falmouth the wind was observed to be at WSW force 9 between 8am and 1pm, gusting to 40 m/s at 9.45am. (16)
It is suggested that the evidence for a mine or torpedo strike is not present as no evidence of an explosion was seen or heard by the watchers on shore. [Serena adds: Assessment of the other wrecks in English waters for that month strengthens this suggestion. In terms of losses to war causes, December 1915 was a relatively quiet month, with one vessel torpedoed, one sunk by gun action, and 11 mined, primarily among the minefields on the east coast. (17)
No other vessels were lost on 27 December 1915 to storm conditions, but on 31 December, another ship, the schooner Dana of Helsingør, was a victim of the storms reported by the Met Office as continuing up to the end of the month. (18) She sprang a leak after labouring for several days across the North Sea in a storm with high seas, again consistent with the Met Office’s reporting of its trajectory. It was then decided to steer for the nearest land, and she drove ashore at Cullernose Point, Northumberland. (19)]
The date of the Heidrun wreck in 1915 also excludes another cause of loss particular to Norwegian ships later in the war, in 1917, which also specifically affected those leaving Norway itself. Even so, it is an interesting story in its own right and worth covering briefly here. In 1917 Norwegian concern grew over a number of their ships which had been mysteriously lost at sea, mostly with all hands, although the survivors of some of these mysterious incidents reported sudden explosions and fires which broke out in such a manner as to convince those present that they were due to ‘infernal machines’ – rather than an explosion through an external cause such as mine or torpedo. (20)
Investigations by the chief of Oslo police, Johan Søhr, led to the discovery of a bomb plot led by one ‘Baron von Rautenfels’, a Finnish national who was working for German intelligence under cover of the diplomatic service. Diplomatic baggage was used to courier explosives into Norway, including incendiary devices disguised as pieces of coal to be placed in the coal bunkers, where in some cases they were discovered shortly after leaving harbour in Norway. (21) [An online album by Norwegian broadcaster NRK (in Norwegian) depicts the quantities of smuggled bombs. The sixth picture in the album shows a bomb disguised as a piece of coal.]
Thus the very specific wind conditions under which the Heidrun was labouring on 27 December 1915 seem the most likely explanation for her loss, probably compounded by other factors. Was the fully-laden steamer able to handle such sea conditions and high winds? Might she have developed an engine fault or had water ingress through open hatches, which were both common causes of foundering for colliers? [Serena adds: for example, the fate of her compatriot Odd, which foundered in 1910 with all hands in a gale off Woolacombe, Devon, sounds very similar. In 1894 the British collier Zadne capsized and sank off Worthing, which was attributed to a shift in her cargo, while another British collier, the Grimsby, sprang a leak and foundered off Westward Ho! in 1897. Such incidents were not, of course, unique to colliers or confined to steamships, but certainly give an idea of the variety of severe structural and mechanical stresses possible under ‘stress of weather’, in the historic maritime phrase. (22)]
We may never know, but by November 1916 242 Norwegian ships had been sunk, comprising 182 steamers and 60 sailing ships, insured for 142m kroner or almost £8m. By 1918 the figures for Norway’s commercial shipping losses had risen to 829 ships for 1,240,000 tons, representing an insurance loss of approximately 1,000m kroner. (23)
The toll in lives lost was immense, including the 15 crew of the Heidrun. Following enquiries from the lost crew’s relatives in Norway some 20 years ago, a memorial stone was placed in the burial ground at the Church of St. Winwaloe, Gunwalloe.
The wreck now attributed to the Heidrun in Mount’s Bay was described in 1981 as the ‘wreck of an old steamer of the era 1880-1900’ and has since been observed as having a 2-cylinder compound engine, consistent with the vessel as built at Palmer’s, Jarrow, in 1871 and replaced by their subsidiary, John Eltringham, South Shields in 1881. (24) No anthracite cargo was observed, and it may well have been washed away, particularly given the collapsed state of the wreck, but the recovery of a maker’s plate before 2003 enabled identification of the site as the Heidrun. (25)
The wreck is no longer intact and has collapsed outwards. Perhaps this is partly due to historic salvage, but from the 2003 observations one feature jumps out: the port boiler was in place but the starboard boiler lies at an angle. (26) Could this suggest one of the possible mechanical stresses on the vessel during that storm over a hundred years ago?
(1) Auction Notice for Vildosala and Chavarri, The Gazette for Middlesborough 1.5.1872
(2) Kottingham wreck: Lloyd’s List 1.11.1897. For some of the other incidents, please see, for example, collision with Patria, off Berdyans’k, Lloyd’s List 2.5.1878; collision with Tagus at Shields, 1894, Aberdeen Press and Journal 6.2.1894; Drogden lightship incident, York Herald, 25.6.1899; collision with other steamers in Gravesend Reach, Shields Daily Gazette 20.7.1901, all as Vildosala; and as Dal’niy, collision with Fountains Abbey off Queensferry, Linlithgow Gazette 10.11.1903
(3) Shields Daily Gazette 28.11.1902; Lloyd’s List 24.5.1909
(4) Shields Daily News 9.11.1915
(5) The Scotsman 30.12.1915
(7) “The forgotten Christmas Truce” , Daily Telegraph, 26.12.2015
(8) Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Monthly Weather Report for the Meteorological Office, Vol. XXXIII (New Series), No.XII, December 1915
(9) “The Mullion Disaster”, Cornishman, 6.1.1916
(10) “The Mullion Disaster”, Cornishman, 6.1.1916; Cornishman, 13.1.1916
(11) Cornishman, 3.1.1916
(12) “Bodies washed ashore at Porthleven”, Cornishman, 27.1.1916
(13) Cornishman, 10.2.1916
(14) Lloyd’s War Losses for the First World War: casualties to shipping through enemy causes 1914-18, p299
(15) Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Monthly Weather Report for the Meteorological Office, Vol. XXXIII (New Series), No.XII, December 1915
(16) Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Daily Weather Reports for December 1915, 27 December 1915, p112
(17) Source: examination of Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, April 2020
(18) Source: examination of Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, April 2020
(19) Handelsministeriet, 1916: Statistisk oversigt over de i aaret 1915 for danske skibe i danske og fremmede farvande samt for fremmede skibe i danske farvande indtrufne søulykker (in Danish) (Copenhagen: Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri)
(20) The Globe, 25.6.1917
(21) “Bombs at Christiana”, Cambridge Daily News, 25.6.1917; “Discovery of a vast German plot against Norway”, Yorkshire Telegraph and Star, 25.6.1917
(22) Source: examination of Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, April 2020
(23) Gloucestershire Echo, 5.12.1916; Derby Daily Telegraph, 6.1.1919