Diary of the Second World War – October 1943

An obscure incident

Occasionally we come across maritime incidents that remain frustratingly obscure, and the events of 21 October 1943 are among them. Nevertheless these difficult cases provide an opportunity to ‘show the workings’ of what we might do to establish the facts and enhance the record.

Lloyd’s War Losses, generally an impeccable source, informs us that three craft, motor boat HMS Aline, 6 tons, motor launch HMS Astevensa, no tonnage given, and motor fishing vessel HMS Hebudu, 8 tons, were sunk that night in an air raid on Woolwich. All three are named in the Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol. 2. In a later secondary source, however, Astevensa is the only one of the three to be named as a loss in the Thames. [1]

They are not standard Royal Navy vessels, so this suggests that they were auxiliaries of some description, and indeed Hebudu is specifically described in Lloyd’s War Losses as being an auxiliary – the other two are not, although they are also assigned the prefix HMS. They look unlikely, therefore, to be ‘official’ vessels built to Admiralty order for harbour defence and other purposes, such as the one shown below, and another known wreck of October 1943, HMS HDML 1054, lost off the Tees, but must instead be requisitioned vessels. Yet they don’t appear to come up in standard lists. That is unusual, but it isn’t unknown.

Historic black & white photograph of motor launch seen in longitudinal profile in calm seas, her number ML 1368 visible on her bows to the left.
HMS HDML 1368 (ML 1368) seen in port view at sea in a set of official photographs, noting HDMLs as 72 feet long and powered by Gardner engines.
Copyright: © IWM A 28346 Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205159709

There was an air raid on Woolwich that night, when apparently a 550lb high-explosive bomb sank 4 x 30ft launches near the Woolwich Arsenal Pier. The date, location and manner of loss are consistent with the report in Lloyd’s War Losses. The small size reported sounds consistent with auxiliary vessels and definitively rules out naval launches, which were twice the size. Nevertheless, motor vessels made useful auxiliaries, again for harbour defence or other naval use, such as patrol or minesweeping. There are two discrepancies, however, in the account of this air raid: firstly, in number – four, rather than three, vessels; and secondly, all are described as motor launches, but, again, these discrepancies are not unusual in accounts of multiple losses and do not put this incident wildly at variance with Lloyd’s War Losses. It can be seen as essentially a variant account of the same incident. [2]

The location near the Pier and the common manner of loss suggests that they were tied up or moored together. We may well be able to discover more in the Bomb Census records of air raid damage, although for 1943 these are only accessible in person at the National Archives. [Visiting Kew for one record would not be an efficient use of resources, but bundling up records for investigation on a full day of research would.] However, just knowing that the official record for bomb damage at Woolwich exists for the night of 20/21 October 1943 at least confirms the date and location. [3]

We know that because of censorship, minimising the impact of war damage in the public domain for reasons of national security and civilian morale, contemporary newspapers are unlikely to give us any, or any useful, information and are not the resource they are at other periods, so we rule them out as an easily accessible source of information.

The names were surely distinctive enough to trace, and there was some hope that all three might turn up in the press in pre-war guise, but, again, that was not to be, so it is necessary to turn to another of the standard sources which we use to systematically track down vessels, the Official Number Appropriation Books and Mercantile Navy List records made available through the Crew List Index Project (CLIP).

There are a lot of Alines in British registries: at first sight the wooden motor yacht Aline, official no. 164748, built in 1935 with two paraffin motors for John Kennedy of Oban, and registered at Greenock, looks a very promising match at 7 tons gross and a keel of 28 feet 6 inches or 30 feet 5 inches, depending on source. [4]

Her history over the war years is unclear, although she was still in John Kennedy’s ownership according to in 1940, so she was neither requisitioned nor on the Thames at that period. We can see that she had a demonstrably clear history of several owners over the 1960s and 1970s, so that seems to rule her out after all. Is the break in her history between 1940 and 1963 significant? Did she see war service at all? If not, she can be ruled out altogether. If she did, was she sunk in the Thames during the war? If so, was it a temporary sinking and was she recovered? She would not have gone down in very deep water, but she was small and wooden and very vulnerable to explosives, so would she have survived an air raid? Or is she the Aline in question, but only damaged and so not, after all, a war loss? Could the post-war ownership be a clue that she was ‘down south’ between 1940 and 1943? By 1963 she was owned in Clacton-on-Sea on the Essex coast, for example.

The next most immediate question to ask for smaller vessels requisitioned in the Second World War is whether or not there is any involvement in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, but none of these names come up as among the known ‘Little Ships’ that took part.

Aline, therefore, remains a mystery.

How about Astevensa? As expected, it threw up an unique hit in the Appropriation Books assigning the official number to British vessels. Unexpectedly, however, although this one was a motor vessel of 8 tons, she was post-war – registered in 1957. So this one cannot be our Astevensa! [5]

However, there was an application in 1954 to change the name of the motor launch Astevensa IV of Portsmouth, official no. 162804, 7.64 tons gross, previously owned by G V Bridgewater, to Fiona Mary. Following up this official number, we find that in 1940 162804 was a wooden motor-driven vessel built at Portsmouth in 1934, 38 feet 4 inches long and 8 tons gross, and at that time was owned by a different individual under the name of Penguin. [6]

Again, the wreck in 1943 cannot have been Penguin/Astevensa IV. However, the name Astevensa IV suggests a line of Astevensas and the description of Astevensa IV certainly fits the profile of the 1943 Astevensa in length and material, and a tonnage similar to those of the other vessels. The history of the name change may also suggest one reason why these craft have been extraordinarily difficult to trace – it is possible that prior vessels also named Astevensa may have undergone a similar history of name change.

There was certainly an Astevensa in G V Bridgewater’s ownership in 1930, recorded as participating twice in meetings of the British Outboard Racing Club at the Welsh Harp lake in Hendon, London on 26 April and 14 June. In the first event the Astevensa, with a Johnson engine, came second in the Unlimited Class, Open, at 32.73 knots, and on 14 June came first in the same class with a speed of 30.25 knots, her engine described as a Ludington-Johnson 655cc. [7] Whether this is Astevensa I or even the Astevensa that was lost in the Thames on the night of 21 October 1943 is unclear, but it is clear that the name consistently fits the motor boat/motor launch profile.

Historic black & white photograph of a frozen lake seen from the air, surrounded by fields and a housing estate to the upper right of the photo.
A contemporary image of the Welsh Harp seen from the air:
Brent Reservoir frozen over, Welsh Harp, from the west, 1929.

HMS Hebudu has thrown up no matches, even by testing with variants beginning Heb-, Keb-, Meb- and Neb- to allow for error creep in transcription from any handwritten documents, which is often an issue. Nebula sounds a plausible reconstruction from handwriting that would be hard to read throughout (not just a single letter) and would be fairly typical of successful reconstructions that we have made in the past from putative original transcriptions: ‘N’ can be read as ‘H’ if written a certain way, a lower-case ‘l’ with a loop could be misread as a ‘d’ if the join with the preceding ‘u’ had a loop or a skip in the writing in it, and an unclosed final ‘a’ could be read as ‘u’.

No joy. There are five vessels from historic British registries with the name Nebula, but none have the correct dimensions or date, so that avenue of enquiry seems to have been a dead end, but it was worth a try, and is a good example of the way we sometimes have to apply lateral thinking to tracking down ships in the records!

And this seems a good note on which to end this blog post. Nebula is Latin for fog, hence nebulous – unclear, hazy, indefinite, vague or confused. Astevensa seems the best-documented of the three craft lost that night in the raid, but only because the name is well-attested, not the craft itself – we are not even sure if it was Astevensa I, II, or III that was lost. There are other lines of enquiry we can pursue, and the Bomb Census would be first on the list; there is also a hint that, like Astevensa IV, the antecedents of the others may be hidden behind previous names – they would not be the first or the last to change name on change of ownership, including the common impetus of entering military service.

If anyone knows – please contact us!


[1] Lloyd’s War Losses: The Second World War: 3 September 1939 – 14 August 1945, Vol. I, p714; Larn, R & Larn, B 1995 Shipwreck Index of the British Isles: Vol. 2, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Sussex, Kent (Mainland), Kent (Downs), Kent (Goodwin Sands), Thames (London: Lloyd’s Register of Shipping); Milne G 2020 The Thames at War: Saving London from the Blitz (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books)

[2] Peterson, S 2023 Bombs Royal Arsenal History Blog published online

[3] The National Archives (TNA), Kew HO 192/407

[4] Mercantile Navy List 1940 p442; Caledonian Maritime Research Trust nd “Aline”, Clyde-Built Ships published online

[5] Appropriation Books, Official Numbers 187551-187600 published online

[6] Portsmouth Evening News, 21 November 1954, p21; Appropriation Books, Official Numbers 162801-162850, published online

[7] “The B.O.R.C. Return to Hendon: Successful Opening Meeting at the Welsh Harp”, Motor Sport, June 1930, p61; “B.O.R.C. at Hendon Again”, Motor Sport, July 1930, p60

Diary of the Second World War – September 1943

SS Davaar

Once more my colleague Cal Pols, Maritime Archaeologist at Historic England, contributes an article to Wreck of the Week. This time it is not so much the story of a wreck which happened in this month in 1943 but a wreck whose last physical record is in this month. Cal writes:

The tale of a 19th century ship in a 20th century war and the threat of an invasion of Britain.

The SS Davaar was a passenger ferry built in 1885 for the Campbeltown and Glasgow Steam Packet Company and operated for the Clyde and Belfast summer traffic. She was built by the London & Glasgow Engineering and Shipbuilding Coy., Ltd., in Govan, Scotland, and launched on 17th May 1885. Originally the Davaar had two funnels on her deck, but in 1903 she underwent extensive alterations that saw the installation of a single, larger funnel as well as an expansion to the saloon and other changes for both practical and aesthetic purposes. [1]

Historic sepia photograph of steamer with two funnels in full steam, bows facing left. Handwritten text at bottom right says 'RMS Davaar'.
Publicity image for the Davaar with two funnels. Public domain from the Dalmadan site
Historic sepia photograph of steamer with black smoke pouring out of its funnel, at sea with hills in the background, and a rowing boat at bottom right.
Davaar off Gourock, showing her single funnel. Public domain from the Dalmadan site

The Davaar was last used as a ferry on 15th March 1940 after which she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and sent to Newhaven, East Sussex, in July 1940. Her purpose at Newhaven was to be a blockship; a vessel that can be deliberately sunk in order prevent access and use of a waterway. The SS Davaar was kept in Newhaven harbour entrance in case of an enemy invasion, a possibility that was taken seriously at this time during the war.

The successful invasion and occupation of Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, and France by German forces in April-June 1940 increased the threat of a full-scale invasion of Britain. To prepare, coastal defences in the south of England needed to be strengthened. In Sussex, cliffs dominated most of the coastline (which would prevent enemy forces landing) but Newhaven and Cuckmere Haven were identified as possible landing locations due to their large beaches. Newhaven was thought to be particularly vulnerable due to its port facilities.

The Davaar is shown in the harbour entrance by the war artist Eric Ravilious, who completed a series of painting on the coastal defences at Newhaven in the autumn of 1940. His paintings give a great insight into the wartime defences at Newhaven but also hint at his own views on the war. In the painting below, the coastal fort at Newhaven dominates and obscures a clear view of the sea. To the left of the painting, SS Davaar sits in the harbour entrance while just out to sea, the mast and wires of HMS Steady, a naval mooring vessel sunk by a mine in July 1940, stick out from the water. Aerial photographs from the time corroborate the location of the Davaar at the harbour entrance, where she could be sunk to block access to the harbour – for example a RAF aerial photograph in the Historic England Archive shows her in January 1942 (see figure 34 in this report).

Watercolour painting of harbour with ship to left; to right, black concrete harbour structures, and to top right, the fort looms over the harbour and sea.
Coastal Defences, Eric Ravilious, War Artists Advisory Committee, 1940
Davaar can be seen in the harbour as a blockship, while the remains of HMS Steady are visible beyond
© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 5663. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/22483

In an air raid on Newhaven harbour in March 1942, the Davaar was narrowly missed by bombs dropping either side of her. Although apparently sustaining no major damage, she does not appear in air photographs of the harbour in June 1942, suggesting a further incident between March and June. She was finally beached east of Newhaven pier by July 1943 to be broken up for scrap. Photographs from September 1943 show her on the beach in the breaking-up process, the beach defences being neatly parted to allow her to rest on the sand, indicating the decreasing threat of a seaborne invasion of England by the Axis powers. [3]

Aerial photograph of Newhaven to foreground, pier to centre ground, wreck across beach behind the pier, and the rural coastline with patchwork fields and beach stretching away beyond.
The Davaar on the beach at Newhaven, in September 1943. Historic England RAF Photography TQ 4500/4 05-SEP-1943

The SS Davaar gives us a microcosm of the Second World War; a 19th century civilian ship repurposed for a 20th century war. She shows how seriously an invasion of Britain was taken in the early years of the conflict as well as the involvement of civilian shipping, later famously highlighted by the ‘Little Ships’ of the Dunkirk evacuation. Her depiction in paintings and the record of photographs act as a reminder of all the activities of the war that do not leave any physical remains behind; unlike the pillboxes and forts, we can no longer see the barbed wire lining the beaches at Newhaven or the ships sitting waiting to be sunk, but they played just as vital a role in the protection of Britain.


[1] Valeman, G. (2016). Campbeltown Steamboat Company

[2] Carpenter, E., Barber, M., and Small, F. (2013). South Downs Beachy Head to the River Ouse: Aerial Investigation and Mapping Archaeological Report. Research Report Series No. 22-2013. Swindon: English Heritage

[3] Cant, S. (2013). England’s Shipwreck Heritage: From Logboats to U-boats. Swindon: English Heritage.

Diary of the Second World War – August 1943

HMS/HMT Red Gauntlet

It is my pleasure to introduce for the first time my new colleague Cal Pols, Maritime Archaeologist at Historic England, and in his inaugural article for Historic England, Cal covers the loss of HM Trawler Red Gauntlet in August 1943. We have previously looked on several occasions at the work of the minesweeper-trawlers of the First World War, and Cal now turns to covering the minesweeper-trawler service during the Second World War.

He writes:

Fighting to keep British waters safe . . . .

Historic black & white photo from the railings of a ship at sea which blur the bottom foreground, looking towards five minesweepers at work on the horizon
The sweep begins: trailing long steel wires, the little trawlers spread out across the Channel to start their search for enemy mines, November 1941. Copyright: © IWM A 6300 Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205140435

HMT Red Gauntlet was a steam powered fishing trawler built in 1930 by Smith’s Dock Co. Ltd, at South Bank, Middlesborough, on the River Tees in north-east England. [1] Pre-war images of Red Gauntlet with her London fishing number of LO33 can be explored on Tees Built Ships (hover to expand images).

On August 29th 1939, less than a week before the declaration of war on Germany (September 3rd 1939), Red Gauntlet was requisitioned by the Royal Navy to operate as a minesweeper. [2]

A short film issued by Gaumont British News on October 30th, 1939, entitled Britain’s Minesweepers at Work, provides a glimpse of the important role minesweepers like Red Gauntlet played in the war. Flotillas (groups) of minesweeper-trawlers would be put to work clearing important shipping routes around Britain of contact mines – a dangerous job that involved dragging a weighted line under water to pull enemy mines away from their positions.

Four years later, on August 5th 1943, Red Gauntlet sank after being torpedoed by a German E-Boat (S-86) in the North Sea off Harwich. [3] The E-boat was the Allies’ name for the German fast attack craft, the S-Boot or Schnellboot (literally, ‘fast boat’), that often operated as either patrol or torpedo vessels during the war. (See previous articles on E-boat attacks in English waters: e.g. Convoy Battle! October 1942).

Author Nick Stanley provides an excellent overview of the important role undertaken by British minesweepers during the war, with a parallel day-by-day account of Royal Navy minesweeping, which highlights the staggering undertaking of the men aboard these vessels, who often gave their lives trying to keep Britain’s waters clear. During Operation Overlord, the massive Allied invasion of Europe in summer 1944, minesweepers played a crucial role in securing a successful amphibious assault. Mines posed a serious threat to the invasion and even with the efforts of the Allied minesweepers, mines were the single greatest cause of loss of Allied vessels before and after the D-Day invasion on June 6th 1944. [4]

By the end of the war in August 1945, RN minesweepers had cleared over 20,000 mines and the original fleet of minesweepers from September 1939 had risen from just 36 fleet sweepers and 40 trawlers (like HMT Red Gauntlet) to 250 fleet sweepers and nearly 250 trawlers as well as 307 motor minesweepers (MMS), 136 British ‘Yard’ Minesweepers (BYMS), and many motor launches and drifters. Over a million tons of British shipping were lost to mines and, at times, Britain was in serious danger of being starved of necessary resources coming in from her allies due to Axis blockade efforts. However, in part due to the efforts of the minesweeper crews, crucial access to British ports and shipping was never fully stopped.

Minesweeper vessel losses and casualties were heavy; 45 fleet sweepers, 10 paddle sweepers, 3 mine destructor dhips, 34 MMS, 6 BYMS, and at least 223 trawlers, plus 22 auxiliary vessels, were lost over the course of the war. All the men on board HMT Red Gauntlet, 21 in total, sadly lost their lives when she sank. Most of them are commemorated on the Grade-II listed Lowestoft Naval Memorial, alongside nearly 2400 other sailors.

Modern colour photo of circular base of memorial, the text flanked on either side by the badge of the Royal Naval Patrol Service, an anchor in a shield encircled by laurel and oak leaves
Base of the Lowestoft Naval Memorial, whose inscription reads:
These officers and men of the Royal Naval Patrol Service died in the defence of their country and have no grave but the sea 1939 – 1945
© Adrian Pye, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED original source


[1] Requisitioned trawlers were given the prefix HMT (His Majesty’s Trawler) but are often referred to by the standard naval prefix HMS in contemporary and later records; Appropriation Books and Mercantile Navy List, 1940, placed online by the Crew List Index Project; Tees Built Ships, entry for Red Gauntlet

[2] Colledge, J.J,, 1987. Ships of Royal Navy (Vol. 2): navy-built trawlers, drifters, tugs and requisitioned ships from the fifteenth century to the present, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press.

[3] Tees Built Ships, entry for Red Gauntlet; Colledge 1987

[4] Stanley, N 2020 “Minesweeping in the Second World War”, The Vernon Link, published online

Diary of the Second World War – July 1943

A Thames Barge

Historic black and white photograph of barges with furled sails in centre ground on a moonlit night.
A view of Thames barges on the River Thames, with Vauxhall Bridge in the background, c.1920-1940. Charles William Prickett CXP01/01/110 © Historic England Archive

Like June 1943, July that year was a quiet month in terms of shipping losses, with only two recorded ships lost – the Davaar, which pops up in both July and September 1943 (see September 1943 post) and the Thames barge J B W.

The J B W was built at Millwall in 1907 and is clearly recorded as a spritsail vessel, 72 tons, in early documentation. [1] At that time Millwall was a busy shipbuilding area, and in Historic England’s records we know of at least one other spritsail barge built at Millwall in 1888, the Lizzie, which was hulked and subsequently broken up, 1945-6 [2] but Millwall also saw the construction of much more substantial and famous vessels . . .

Historic black and white photograph of ship under construction on the bank of the Thames on the right, with barges on the river to the left, seen from behind scaffolding in the foreground
The SS Great Eastern under construction at Millwall, by Robert Howlett, 1857. Howlett was commissioned by the Times newspaper to document the construction of the Great Eastern. The well-known photograph of her designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in front of the ship’s giant launching chains, was also part of this commission.
BB88/06275 Source: Historic England Archive

From J B W‘s place of build on the Thames, her tonnage, and the spritsail description, we can be confident that she is a Thames barge – by definition they are spritsail vessels. That would have been immediately obvious to a contemporary observer of the Thames, but is the kind of knowledge that has largely passed into heritage or maritime spheres of knowledge. The spritsail is a fore-and-aft sail rigged onto both a standing mast and a diagonal mast known as the sprit. This model of a Thames barge under full sail in the National Maritime Museum clearly shows the sprit behind the mainsail and illustrates how the sail plan functioned.

We know that by 1910 she was owned by the Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers Ltd., Dixon House, Fenchurch Street, London, in whose ownership she remained at least ten years, but towards 1930 or so the vessel came into the hands of successive private operators. [3]

Historic black & white photograph of a Thames barge under sail, to left foreground, towing a boat. To the right another Thames barge looms out of the mist in the distance.
A Thames barge operated by a brickmaking firm, as shown by the words BRICKMAKERS on her mainsail, c.1920-1940. The word WOODS is partly visible on her topsail, revealing her to have worked for Eastwoods Brickmakers, Lower Halstow, Kent, as shown by the Westmoreland barge: characteristic of the industrial cargoes carried by the Thames barges, including J B W in her Portland Cement heyday.
Charles William Prickett CXP01/01/109 © Historic England Archive

The location of loss can be an important part of confirming the characterisation of a vessel, which is certainly the case here: north of the NE Maplin Buoy in the Thames Estuary, or in a position described in contemporary sources as 51˚ 37’ 6” N 001˚ 05’ 9”E, which places her in the channel between the Maplin Sands to the west and the Barrow Sand to the east on the Essex coast off Foulness Island. [4]

This area of the Thames Estuary is full of sandbanks which appear on charts as if someone has decided to paint diagonal yellow stripes right across the estuary, creating shoals and narrow channels, impossible for larger craft to negotiate. For that reason, the region is very well-buoyed and marked throughout for the safe navigation of smaller vessels: the shallow and flat-bottomed Thames barge was built to work this difficult area of shifting sandbanks and shoals. These vessels could come off much more easily if they ran aground than large ships or even smaller vessels with much sharper hull profiles. They worked the coast up to the farmlands of Essex and Suffolk and beyond, and serviced the industrial works on the Kent side, or crossed to the Netherlands, where there are similar coastal conditions.

Historic black and white photograph of road leading to the post-mill in centre ground. To the left, the barge with its masts upright, sails furled, and to the right, another dilapidated wooden building
A Thames barge moored beside the post mill on the saltings at Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, before it was demolished in 1921. This mill ground cereals which were then transported to market by Thames barges, and is characteristic of the more rural trade in foodstuffs carried on by the Thames barges at the time the J B W was in operation. By the time of the photograph the mill was already dilapidated.
BB81/01297 Source: Historic England Archive

Thus the place of loss confirms that our identification of vessel type is correct, and is part of a holistic picture of assessment.

A wooden sailing vessel such as this one had no chance against a mine, and both her crew – they typically operated with a couple of crew or a few hands at most – were killed. We can see that there were five other vessels lost to mines off the Essex coast in 1943: three were much larger cargo vessels lost on the edge of the War Channel on the approaches to the Thames, while the patrol HMS Ocean Retriever, a patrol vessel was another War Channel loss. This would be the characteristic pattern of shipping losses to mines – it was the principal shipping routes which were targeted and needed to be swept constantly, and it was just those vessels finding themselves in and around the War Channel – the cargo vessels and the patrol vessels and the minesweepers which tried to keep them safe – which were the victims. [5]

The sandbanks were also, generally, a danger to minelaying submarines (see post from October 1939 about a U-boat on the Goodwin Sands), and the War Channels offered richer pickings so this was where enemy efforts were concentrated.

Yet mines could strike on the sandbanks closer inshore, forming a slightly different distribution pattern largely relating to the Thames barge – as J B W demonstrates. The Thames barge was able to operate in and among sandbanks and shoals inaccessible to the average cargo steamer and to serve smaller ports.

We see this distribution pattern with other mined barges off the Essex coast: the Rosmé off the Maplin Sands, the Golden Grain on the Maplin Edge, and the Blue Mermaid off the Whitaker Channel, all in 1941, Unique off the Maplin Edge buoy in 1942, and the Ailsa just off the Whitaker Spit in 1943. On that occasion both crew survived ‘despite being blasted into the air with the sand’. (See post for January 1943). [6]

How did the mines get there when it was the principal shipping routes further out to sea which were the prime target? One plausible explanation is that those mines among the sandbanks were strays, either naval mines which had come adrift or parachute mines dropped by aircraft earlier in the war, of types which may occasionally still be dislodged and come to light even today.


[1] Appropriation Books, placed online by the Crew List Index Project, Official No.123813; Mercantile Navy List, 1910, placed online by the Crew List Index Project

[2] Historic England Research Records, Lizzie

[3] Mercantile Navy Lists, placed online by the Crew List Index Project 1920, 1930, 1940

[4] Lloyd’s War Losses: The Second World War 3 September 1939-14 August 1945, Vol.1, p695; British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914-18 and 1939-45, Section IV, p49

[5] Historic England Research Records, data for 1943

[6] https://www.shipsnostalgia.com/media/repertor-and-wyvenhoe.333334/

Diary of the Second World War – June 1943

HMS Sargasso

From the point of view of shipping losses, June 1943 – in English waters at any rate – was a quiet month with only two recorded losses. One of those was HMS Sargasso, a yacht requisitioned in 1939 as a danlayer.

At this distance in time, danlayer operations are somewhat obscure so it is worth explaining exactly what a danlayer is, or was. They were primarily small coastal fishing or other craft which were requisitioned the Second World War to operate in tandem with minesweepers, themselves often trawlers.

Minesweeper and danlayer personnel received a common training – there was an officers’ course, which took in Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officers from Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand, as well as US personnel, Belgians, Dutch and Norwegians. For ratings there was a three-week ‘Hostilities Only’ course ‘so that they may take their places as efficient members of any minesweeping ship, whether she be trawler, drifter, dan-layer or fleet sweeper.’ [1]

The minesweeper-trawler went back to the First World War, but the danlayer is a specifically Second World War concept, and, as a consequence, lost danlayers are also a form of loss unique to the Second World War.

Like minesweepers, they were particularly prone to being lost to unswept mines on the periphery of the swept area, as in fact happened to HMS Sargasso. Girl Helen and HMS Elk, also sank in this way in 1940, but HMS Comfort was lost in a collision in the melee off Dover while coming to the assistance of torpedoed vessels in Operation Dynamo, 1940, and HMS Gulzar was bombed from the air, also in 1940. [2]

The Germans also requisitioned ships as danlayers in a very similar fashion during the Second World War and the Dutch coaster Seaham, ex Oceaan, was commandeered on the fall of the Netherlands for this purpose, serving as Wangerooge. Post-war she was returned to her owners and reverted to the name Seaham, trading once more with Britain. She was lost in 1952 off Lowestoft on the Hull-Rotterdam route. [3]

So what exactly was a danlayer? For every channel that was swept clear of mines by the sweepers, it had to be marked. They were marked by dan buoys, which, according to dictionary definitions, is specifically British English usage. A dan buoy is a ‘small buoy used as a marker at sea’, particularly ‘used as a marker in deep-sea fishing’ or ‘showing the limits of area cleared by minesweepers’, and with a ‘coded flag’ at the top. [4] So the danlayers followed the sweepers as the gulls follow a trawler at sea.

The photograph below shows a danlayer at work in clearance operations in the immediate post-war period.

Historic B&W photo of ship seen in port profile view at sea from the railings of another ship in the foreground. Behind her a marker rising out of the sea can be seen (image can be explored in more detail by following the link in the caption)
‘Making the Seas Safe Again’ The danlayer St Kilda, following in the wake of the sweepers, marks the swept area in the Gulf of Genoa, working from surrendered enemy charts in August 1945.
The dan buoy, with its marker flag, can just be made out astern of the ship. (A 30174)
Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205161352

Of the known danlayer losses of the Second World War within England’s Territorial Sea two have been discovered and charted, HMS Sargasso and HMS Elk (the remains of the latter not confirmed). HMS Sargasso has been identified off the coast of Dorset with weights for dan markers discovered aboard and forming part of the identification process. [5]

Already a rare group of vessels, confined to the war years, few have been identified, and only on this one example is the function of the vessel legible in the remains: the Sargasso has a significance beyond her size.


[1] Ministry of Information, 1943 His Majesty’s Minesweepers (London: HMSO)

[2] Historic England Research Records

[3] Historic England Research Records

[4] Entries for dan in this sense: Collins English Dictionary which notes that this is specifically British English; Concise Oxford Dictionary, 7th Ed., 1982 [Oxford: Clarendon Press]; not in Merriam-Webster [US English]; Danlayer

[5] UKHO 61787

Diary of the Second World War: May 1943

The mystery of the ferro-concrete ships in the River Wear

Even for relatively recent wrecks such as those of the Second World War, little is sometimes known. Vessels lost offshore, running without convoy and mined in the dark, sinking without witness, are understandable mysteries. Yet there remain ships lost inshore about which very little is really known, and what remains are fragments of a story.

How much more interesting is that story when it involves some of the most unusual vessels among England’s recorded losses? Here is the intertwined story of the Cretestem, recorded as lost in May 1943, and the Cretehawser, 1942.

Towards the end of the First World War steel was both in short supply and in great demand for shipbuilding to replace tonnage lost to war causes. Among the remedies put into execution towards the end of the war, and into the immediate post-war period, was the construction of ferro-concrete ships as barges and tugs. Ferro-concrete ships had been produced in other countries for some years and the adoption of the technology met a significant need. All such British ships of this era had the prefix Crete- as a nod to their common build material, while the naming pattern demonstrated that they were built under official programmes (much as the prefix War had done for ships built under the War Standard programme). [1]

(The Hughes & Stirling collection shows concrete vessels under construction 1918-19 and can be explored online in the Historic England Archive.)

Historic black & white photograph of men at work in early 20th century working gear, on the bottom and side sections of a concrete ship shored up by scaffolding.
General view of men at work on prefabricated concrete sections for a vessel, once believed to be the Cretemanor, at the Concrete Seacraft Company, Penketh, Fiddlers Ferry, Warrington, 10 September 1918. Historic England Archive, BB96/00023

The idea of a concrete vessel seems counter-intuitive – how can such a thing float? – but float they did, and in fact more ferro-concrete barges would be constructed in the Second World War and see service into the post-war period.  

The histories of Cretehawser and Cretestem are relatively briefly recorded, but seem to go adrift around the late 1930s and their circumstances during the war are also somewhat obscure. We know that Cretestem, 306 tons, was built by the Amble Ferro-Concrete Co. Ltd., launched on 31 October 1919, with machinery by McColl & Pollock of Sunderland, and registered in London on 13 December 1919. [2]

In 1920 Cretestem was still under the aegis of the Shipping Controller, changing hands to the Board of Trade in 1921, thence to the Crete Shipping Co. Ltd., London (Stelp and Leighton Ltd.) in 1922, in whose ownership she is still recorded in 1930. [3]

Cretehawser‘s story was similar, except that she was built by the Wear Concrete Building Co. Ltd. at Southwick, Sunderland, in 1919, with machinery by Central Marine Engine Works, West Hartlepool. [4]

In 1935 Creteboom, Cretehawser and Cretestem were to be broken up by the South Stockton Shipbreaking Co. The marine column in the Shields News noted somewhat disdainfully that ‘Dozens of these concrete tugs and barges were built at the end of the war and shortly afterwards. Although they suited the purpose at that time, they were never successful and the majority have since been disposed of for breaking up.’ A month later they were at R Duck’s on the Tees. [5]

Elsewhere they were much admired. A correspondent to the Edinburgh Evening News stated in 1940 that the Creteboom and Cretestem ‘both did service in the Baltic, where they encountered the arduous tests of frozen waters. The Cretestem also survived a head-on collision.’ The author continued that ‘they spent the last few years prior to 1934 in idleness in the Tyne, were examined in that year and found to be as strong and watertight as ever.’ [6]

Attitudes were just as divided as ever when an announcement was made that concrete ships would once more go into production in 1941, for their ‘saving in steel’ with a photograph of the Cretestem used to illustrate the concrete ships ‘of the last war’. [7]

Cretehawser‘s register was closed in 1936, and Cretestem‘s in 1937. [8] Thereafter the waters are somewhat muddied in the records and it is difficult to disentangle fact from fiction, or at least from stories that have gained traction. In 1937 a Tyneside newspaper correspondent wondered ‘if there are any of the war-time stone coffins still afloat? By stone coffins I refer to the concrete barges and tugs which were built in large numbers during the war period.’ The writer continued: ‘Many readers will recall the tugs Cretehawser, Cretestem, etc., which towed concrete barges from the Tyne to London . . . ‘ [9]

As stated above they weren’t actually very far away after being sold to the South Stockton Shipbreaking Co., but it does illustrate that they were a bit of a mystery locally. It is said variously that Cretehawser was gutted for possible use as an emergency breakwater in 1935, dismantled in 1936, and beached 1936 at South Hylton, and likewise Cretestem was dismantled in 1937. Elsewhere both vessels are recorded as having been bought by the River Wear Commissioners for breakwater use. They were then moored in the South Dock until required. [10]

Thereafter the story of the two ships diverges again. In other sources Cretehawser does not end up at South Hylton, where she now lies, until 1942 when she was damaged in a bombing raid, being towed up the River Wear and beached. [11]

Modern colour photograph of the River Wear in the foreground, with the dark shape of a concrete wreck against the backdrop of the green riverbank on the far side.
Hulk on the Wear – the Cretehawser as she now lies © Richard Webb Creative Commons CC-BY-SA and published on geograph.org.uk

The end for Cretestem is said to have come during a bombing raid on 24 May 1943, when, according to Lloyd’s War Losses, she was sunk by aircraft in Hendon Dock. Damage in Sunderland was extensive and there was significant loss of life. We know that there were a number of high explosive bombs dropped in and around Hendon Dock. Two 250kg high explosive bombs exploded in the Dock outside Monsanto works, and another in the works; a smaller 50kg bomb exploded west of Hudson Dock Bridge [sic] and another one ‘outside No.31 Coal Staith, Hendon Dock.’ [12] The latter may be the coal staith shown alongside the Hendon Dock Swing Bridge that divided the Hendon Dock from the Hudson Dock to the north in historic Ordnance Survey mapping (1919-39) – the staith and bridge can be seen in this aerial photograph of 1928 on Britain from Above. (Check out the pins on the photograph.) ‘Hudson Dock Bridge’ in the bomb report could refer to the Gladstone Swing Bridge to the north of Hudson Dock but this seems unlikely as it is clearly marked as the latter on the OS map, so it must refer either to the Hendon Dock Swing Bridge between the two docks, or the bridge from Hudson Dock to the lock to the east and a direct outlet to the sea.

Whatever the ambiguities, it is clear that Hendon Dock received some damage.

What happened to Cretestem after that? Once again the story varies – her remains were lifted and dumped on the docks, or the wreck was towed out to sea.

We know from contemporary reports that ‘one vessel was sunk in the River and two in South Docks [i.e. Hudson and Hendon Docks] received damage.’ [13] Cretestem is the only war loss and only ship sunk of which we are aware for 24 May 1943 and the days immediately before and after, so we cannot find any record of a ship sunk in the River Wear. So the Cretestem must be one of the two ships damaged in the docks: the date is correct and brings together the known damage in the docks with the Lloyd’s casualty report. Could it be that, as often happens with wreck reports, two details have been conflated and the ship that sank in the River Wear is also one of the two vessels which sank in the Docks, i.e. one of the two damaged vessels was in fact damaged so badly that she sank?

But why would the two ships be treated so differently after such a similar fate? Cretehawser towed up the Wear to be dumped, Cretestem dumped in or around the docks or out to sea? As we have seen, Cretehawser survived an air raid and remains indestructibly in the Wear 80 years on. Clearly a vessel sunk in a dock is an undesirable obstruction, so if this did indeed happen to Cretestem, she was almost certainly lifted.

Where she then went is a moot point. She would have had to be fairly intact to be towed out – a vessel in bits would not have been capable of being towed. In a war context, being towed out to sea seems perhaps less plausible, with the vessel towing her making what could be regarded as an unnecessary journey negotiating the convoys plying the swept War Channels, and the war perils lurking outside the Channels – not to mention the risk of causing an obstruction should the towed vessel suddenly sink, as hulks and submarines without their own motive power and damaged or beyond repair have a habit of doing.

Once again aerial photography comes to our aid. We cannot see Cretehawser and Cretestem in dock in RAF aerial photographs of 13 March 1941. However, they are identifiable side by side in RAF aerial photos of 22 October 1941 at the south-eastern end of the Hudson Dock, adjacent to the Hendon Dock Swing Bridge. They can be shown on photographic rectification to be the correct length and to share the distinctive characteristics of the Crete- ships. (Creteboom, also sold to the South Stockton Shipbreaking Co., was sold on out of the country in 1937, so is out of contention.) They are seen again in May 1942, almost exactly a year prior to the events of May 1943 (below).

Aerial view of Hendon Dock to the left, separated from the Hudson Dock on the right with its rail lines leading to the coal staiths by the Hendon Dock Swing Bridge. Cretehawser and Cretestem are the two vessels side by side on the right-hand side of the bridge. Historic England Archive (RAF photography) Historic England Photograph raf_1cu_ah_o_ah413 flown 27 May 1942. This image can be explored in greater detail on its dedicated page on the Historic England Aerial Photo Explorer.

They are both still together in the same position on 1 September 1942. There were both human and building casualties of an air raid in Hendon, Sunderland, on the night of 16-17 October 1942, but the bombs seem to have fallen slightly further west than the later raid, and the casualties were nowhere near as heavy. so it seems unlikely that Cretehawser was damaged in an air raid of 1942, as often stated, and towed away up the Wear then.

It seems likely, then, that it was the Hendon Dock Swing Bridge that was damaged on the night of 24 May 1943, and that Cretehawser and Cretestem were the two vessels that sank in the docks that night. Not quite ‘Hendon Dock’ as was stated in Lloyd’s, but not very far off at all.

So it was probably 1943, not 1942, when Cretehawser was towed away up the Wear. We can surmise that she was the less damaged of the two vessels, and Cretestem took the most impact from the blast, so Cretestem was probably the one immediately next to the bridge, with Cretehawser on the outside. Cretehawser was towed away, perhaps, to allow Cretestem to be dealt with.

We can see in the 1919-1939 mapping that there were travelling cranes around the seaward side of Hudson Dock. Was Cretestem then craned off and then perhaps dumped as infill for war blast damage? That sounds plausible – there is a long heritage of obsolete and damaged ships being used as the foundations of and infill for breakwaters, jetties and harbour walls. Perhaps this happened here.

We may never know – but at least aerial photography has shed new light on the story of Cretehawser and Cretestem.

This article would not have been possible without the invaluable help of my specialist colleague in the Historic England Archive, and Richard Lewis of The Crete Fleet blog. As ever, I am profoundly grateful for their kind assistance.


[1] Further discussion on the Crete– ships, their build and loss, in Cant, S 2013 England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats (Swindon: English Heritage); see also The Crete Fleet website

[2] North-East Heritage Library nd “Amble Shipyard” The Ship-Building Archive published online; Morpeth Herald and Reporter, 7 November 1919, p5 Appropriation Books 143951-144000

[3] Mercantile Navy List 1920, p135; Historic England Research Records, Cretestem; Mercantile Navy List, 1930, p136; Shields Gazette, 21 September 1937, p6

[4] Appropriation Books 143101-143150; Mercantile Navy List 1920, p135; Historic England Research Records, Cretehawser; Mercantile Navy List, 1930, p136

[5] Shields News, 9 May 1935, p4; Northern Daily Mail, 5 June 1935, p6

[6] Edinburgh Evening News, 19 February 1940, p4; information regarding Cretestem‘s service in the Baltic attributed by the writer of the letter to Fougner, N K 1922 Seagoing and Other Concrete Ships (London: Henry Frowde and Hodder & Stoughton) but probably sourced from some other publication, as not, apparently, in this text.

[7] Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, 26 September 1941, p2

[8] Cretehawser: TNA BT 110/1015/8 Cretestem: TNA BT 110/1015/9

[9] Shields Gazette, 21 September 1937, p6

[10] Historic England Research Records, Cretehawser and Cretestem; “Sink me if you can!”

[11] “Sink me if you can!”

[12] Lloyd’s War Losses: the Second World War 3 September 1939 – 14 August 1945 Vol.1 p678; Ripley R & Pears B 2011 North-East Diary 1939-1945 Incidents 23rd/24th May 1943 to 9th September 1943

[13] North-East Diary 1939-1945 Incidents 23rd/24th May 1943 to 9th September 1943