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

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