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.

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