50 Years of Protecting Shipwrecks

CGI image of 'ship-shape' outline on a sandy seabed with scattered guns inside, and turquoise sea overhead
Still from dive trail of the protected wreck of the Stirling Castle (1703) on the Goodwin Sands
© Trendive

For this blog we welcome our Historic England colleague, Hefin Meara, National Listing Adviser – Marine, who takes us on a voyage from the beginnings of the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973 to Historic England’s work in protecting shipwrecks today.

The origins of the Protection of Wrecks Act

July 2023 sees the 50th anniversary of the Protection of Wrecks Act. The Act was brought into effect in order to prevent damage and destruction of historic shipwrecks as a result of indiscriminate salvage that was taking place, causing public outcry. The late 1960s and early 1970s had seen a great increase in the use of diving equipment, with scuba diving becoming an affordable and accessible pastime. This meant that the large amount of historic shipwrecks that were in relatively easily accessible, shallow depth were suddenly open to access. Several high-profile incidents in the early years encouraged the development of the Act, which was put forward as a private members’ bill.

It was envisioned that only a small number of sites would need to be designated, and that they would be de-designated fairly soon after any significant threat was removed, following the successful completion of any work being undertaken.

One of the key incidents involved in the development of the Act was the salvage on one of England’s most significant shipwrecks, HMS Association (1707), lost among the Isles of Scilly in an unparalleled naval disaster which led to the Longitude Act of 1714. Large quantities of material were removed from this site by competing groups of salvors, which meant that information about the site was lost, as they were not recorded archaeologically.

The first site to be designated under the Act was a 16th century wreck in the Cattewater estuary, Plymouth. This wreck is still designated to this day and is being investigated by Licensee Martin Read. A substantial portion of structure and a large assemblage of finds were recovered in the 1970s. Current research being undertaken by Licensee Martin Read has been reassessing the finds assemblage, and researching potential candidates for the identity of the wreck.  (See Martin’s blog on this site about Cattewater celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Act.)

Since then a wide variety of sites have been designated, forming a representative sample of the broad range of vessels that would have been seen off the English coast over the centuries. These range from Late Bronze Age cargo scatters to the remains of early 20th century submarines and a near complete steam trawler of the First World War era. The most recently designated sites include two wrecks located on the Shingles Bank off the Isle of Wight discovered by Martin Pritchard, and a 13th century wreck in Poole Bay, discovered by charter boat skipper Trevor Small.

Diver to centre right shining a light on a grave slab on the seabed with intact foliate decoration in relief even after 8 centuries underwater.
Decorated 13th century gravestone which helped to date the protected wreck in Poole Bay, and shed new light on the production and transport of grave slabs. © Bournemouth University

Why not explore all of these on the Heritage List for England? Go straight to Advanced Search and turn off all filters except Protected Wreck Site to explore all 57 of the designated wreck sites in English waters.

Location map of 57 wreck sites in England, concentrated along the south coast, with legend 'Protected Wreck sites under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973' at bottom right; Historic England logo at top left
Location map of the 57 wrecks designated in English waters under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973

Access to shipwrecks designated under Act is by a licence, which is administered by Historic England on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The role of the Licensee has played a vital part in the ongoing management of sites designated under the Act, with Licensees operating as the custodians for these nationally important archaeological sites. In recent years there have been over 200 Licensees and team members active on England’s Protected Wreck sites. We would like to say a huge thank you to all licensees past and present for their hard work and dedication in monitoring and investigating the Protected Wrecks.

Changes over the last 50 years

Circumstances have changed considerably since the Act first came into effect 50 years ago. In practice designation is permanent, rather than temporary, for example. Sites which were once considered inaccessible, due to their depth, are now fairly easy to access as a result of developments in diving technology. Furthermore, the leaps and bounds which have been made in the development of geophysical survey technology allow for the discovery and investigation of many new shipwrecks.

Seabed development is currently proceeding at a pace which has never been seen before, with a massive increase in offshore renewable capacity. For example, the production of electricity from offshore wind has risen from an operational capacity of under 700MW in 2009 to more than 10,000MW by the end of 2020. Proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy to meet net zero target by 2050 includes 50GW of offshore wind delivery by 2030.[1] In addition, approximately 21 million tonnes of aggregate were extracted from the seabed last year across multiple different licence areas.[2] As a result many more shipwreck sites are discovered each year.

The management of shipwrecks designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act became the responsibility of Historic England following the National Heritage Act 2002, which modified functions to include securing the preservation of, and promoting the public’s enjoyment of, ancient monuments in, on, or under the seabed. The Act also transferred the administrative functions relating to the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 to Historic England, and provided the ability to grant-aid projects in relation to Protected Wreck sites.

It is our role to ensure that all activities on protected wreck sites are undertaken to the highest standards, which includes for example, being in line with the rules of the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which the UK government has adopted as best practice.

How our role has changed

How has our role in the care of these sites changed in the 20-plus years since we took on responsibility for their management?

Diver exploring a seaweed-encrusted cannon nearly upright on the seabed in murky conditions with heavy seaweed cover.
Colossus Dive Trail © CISMAS
Physical dive trails like these, allowing visitors the experience of exploring protected wreck sites, are now being supplemented by virtual trails reaching wider audiences.

We have worked hard to ensure that protected wreck sites are accessible to all. We’ve encouraged responsible access to the wrecks on the seabed through the commissioning of physical dive trails on the seabed. Mindful that not everyone can dive, we’ve also developed a programme of virtual dive trails which allows those that can’t dive to access the sites without getting wet. To date there are 18 virtual dive trails accessible from the Historic England website, with plans for new ones in the pipeline. These can all be seen in our StoryMap.

As well as managing the licensing of access to protected wreck sites on behalf of DCMS, and providing grant funding for several projects being undertaken on these sites, we are also looking towards the future of heritage protection at sea. We have commissioned several projects with partner agencies and contractors which will improve the protection of heritage assets offshore and secure their preservation for the future.

One of the ways that we’re working to ensure that sites are better protected is through a project being undertaken by MSDS Marine on the development of a product for the forensic marking of material on protected wreck sites. This is similar to the kind of material used to mark lead on the church roofs at risk of theft. The product has been in development for some time, and will be deployed on several wrecks this summer. The marker will be a deterrent to those looking to lift material from sites, and will also allow for investigation and prosecution, should the worst happen and material be taken from the sites. We’ll have more information to reveal about this project later this year. 

We’ve also commissioned a project from the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST) and OceanMind, who have developed the Maritime Observatory. This project will use a combination of satellite data, artificial and human intelligence, to detect patterns of behaviour from vessels around protected wreck sites, in a pilot focused on Poole Bay and the Goodwin Sands. This will aim to detect any unauthorised activity, such as unlicensed diving, as well as potential threats to the sites from other activities. This project will be reporting back later this summer.   

It is not just Historic England working to monitor and care for Protected Wrecks offshore: we work closely with partner organisations who also have the resources and capacity to investigate and monitor these sites. These include the Receiver of Wreck at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCGA), the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), as well as heritage crime officers in various police forces. In order to strengthen this partnership working, we’ve commissioned Plymouth University to produce the Common Enforcement Manual for Heritage Crime at Sea. This will enable improved cooperation and inter-agency working.

Marking 50 years of the Act

In order to mark the 50th year of the Act, we’ve commissioned several projects. These include a broad range of projects which celebrate exciting discoveries, research projects and investigations relating to Protected Wrecks, engage the public and reach new audiences and participants. We’re also reflecting on how the Act has shaped the heritage sector and considering the implications for sector resilience in future, and drawing lessons from the last 50 years that can inform the next 50 years of protecting marine heritage.

We’ve been particularly keen to ensure that we’re not just sharing our stories with the same traditional audiences. We’ve often taken stands to coastal locations while fieldwork is under way, such as the open days in relation to the Rooswijk project in Ramsgate. This year we’re heading inland to bring the story of protected wrecks to people in landlocked counties, with multiple events across locations in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, reaching new audiences and exploring links between these locations and the sea. Check out the calendar of events (until 1 October 2023).

Visitors of all ages explore shells, bones and artefacts from the sea with a helper from MSDS Marine: a Protected Wreck Roadshow banner is in the background
Visitors exploring maritime archaeology finds at one of the ‘Landlocked & Looking Out’ #PWA50 roadshows, 2023 © MSDS Marine

Our work has also often focused on the south coast, so this year we’ve commissioned a project from Tees Archaeology to examine and promote the Seaton Carew protected wreck, engaging with a new audience on the north-east coast.

The timbers of a wreck on a shingle beach fill up with water as the tide comes in, under heavy cloud cover.
Seaton Carew protected wreck, © P Grainger

As part of the call for projects, we were eager to engage with groups we’ve not worked with previously. Therefore we were delighted to receive an application from the volunteer-run Teign Heritage Centre, which holds material related to the late 16th century Church Rocks protected wreck. The centre will use the funding to enhance the museum display, and to enable the deposition of the site archive with the Archaeology Data Service, including dive logs, site drawings, reports and photographs.

We’ve commissioned Cornwall Archaeological Unit to undertake a project looking at the links between protected shipwrecks and the wider landscape. This project includes drone survey of wreck salvage activity in the vicinity of Gunwalloe, and a GPR survey of a mound site, potentially covering a wreck burial or a barrow which was formerly a coastal mark, or perhaps the location of a lost coastal settlement coeval with the nearby wreck of the St Anthony lost in 1527. This project will conclude with an open event for providing identification of beach finds and the sharing of local knowledge.

As mentioned earlier, the contribution of volunteer licensees is vital for the care and monitoring of protected wreck sites. We’ve commissioned the Nautical Archaeology Society to produce a series of bite-sized online training session to assist current and prospective licensees. These cover a variety of topics, including how to apply for a licence, how to help reduce heritage crime, how to apply for funding, and many others. These sessions are recorded and will be made available online in perpetuity – check out the playlist so far.

We’re also eager to ensure that new people come forward to become licensees. We’re conscious that the demographic has been largely male throughout the years. As a result we commissioned the Maritime Archaeology Trust to undertake a project to investigate the engagement of women with protected wreck sites, through a combination of desk-based research, interviews, and an online survey, which is still open for further responses (July 2023).

The history of those involved with protected wreck sites is fascinating and MSDS Marine will be working with underwater cameraman Michael Pitts to create a short film to communicate this important work on protected wreck sites. The film will celebrate the role of volunteers in the management of wreck sites over the years, reflect on the contribution to knowledge made by the investigation of protected wreck sites, and emphasise the need for new volunteers to become involved in future.

Finally we’ve commissioned the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) to undertake a critical analysis of the Protection of Wrecks Act, and to facilitate a discussion of how things can be improved. This will include a seminar to reflect on what has been achieved and how we can seek to update and improve policy and practice in future. The seminar will take place in November, and there is an online survey that you can complete in advance to inform the discussion on the day.


As you can see, this is a busy year for work in relation to protected wrecks at Historic England. We’ve many projects and events looking at long term legacy, engaging the public, sharing the successes and looking critically at how we can do things better. This is all as well as our continuing programme of work relating to assessing sites for protection, monitoring existing sites, and developing new ways to protect sites from unauthorised activities.

From Bronze Age scatters to 20th century conflict archaeology via the Mary Rose, here’s how to discover protected wrecks in more detail . . .

Learn more

NEW! Our colleague Angela Middleton, Senior Archaeological Conservator, explains conservation of the finds from the protected wreck of the Rooswijk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytaNnO9aTzE

What are protected wreck sites? Further information and links to guidance

Explore the Dive Trails – your chance to explore 18 of the protected wreck sites without getting your feet wet!

Search the List – discover all 57 protected wreck sites (uncheck all Heritage Categories except Protected Wreck Sites)

Check out our past blogs for the Act’s 45th anniversary:


[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1167856/offshore-wind-investment-roadmap.pdf

[2] https://www.thecrownestate.co.uk/en-gb/media-and-insights/news/the-crown-estate-and-bmapa-release-annual-area-involved-report-and-2022-aggregates-review/  

Diary of the Second World War – April 1943

Eskdale: The E-boats strike again

Contemporary black and white photograph of ship, bows to left foreground with riverside buildings in the distance at left.
Eskdale seen on the Mersey in a disruptive paint scheme, possibly around the time of launch in March 1942.
(FL 9757) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205120800

The names of ships matter – they are carefully thought out to display a naval or shipping company heritage, while ships may be renamed for political reasons, as many were in the redistribution of former German ships after the Treaty of Versailles.

Eskdale was a Type III Hunt-class destroyer built under the 1940 War Emergency programme at Cammell Laird, Birkenhead. She became one of three Hunt-class destroyers loaned immediately on completion in 1942 to the Kongelige Norske Marine (Royal Norwegian Navy, also known as the Free Norwegian Navy), her command being assumed by Skule Storheill who would go on to be decorated by not only Norway and the United Kingdom, but also France and the Netherlands, for his war service. (1)

The blog has previously covered the wrecks of Norwegian merchant vessels which were taken into British service during the First World War (see, for example, this post on August 1917) but here the reverse is also true: here are British ships taken into the service of the Norwegian Navy in exile. The Royal Norwegian Navy had escaped in June 1940 after the fall of Norway, along with the King of Norway, Haakon VII, and the government, and would be based in Britain for the duration of the war. Three of the Hunt-class destroyers were loaned to the Royal Norwegian Navy, the first, HMS Badsworth, being renamed Arendal.

It is not clear whether the choice of Eskdale and Glaisdale for the Royal Norwegian Navy had any greater significance than being ships that could be made available for the numbers of volunteers and refugees which swelled the numbers of the Norwegian Navy as time went on, but it would be unsurprising if there was a subtle but reciprocal diplomacy at work: the dale or valley (of Old Norse origin) in those names corresponds to the -dal element of Arendal, so the names were a nod to a common heritage and the compliment was returned by the two ships retaining their English names in Norwegian service. (2)

A group of four Norwegian sailors on board ship making a fuss of a cat and dog. Behind them the ship's funnel blows smoke and the Norwegian flag flies.
Crew of the Eskdale, their cap tallies reading KGL NORSKE MARINE (Royal Norwegian Navy) photographed 27 February 1943, a few weeks before the loss of their ship. This was an official Admiralty photograph intended for publication, as part of the original caption shows: ‘Norway with its long sea tradition has many of her sons fighting alongside the Allies in the battle for freedom. Norwegian sailors with their ship’s cat named Petra and Peggy, a dog visitor who goes on board whenever the ship makes port’
(A 14723) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205147868

For the next year Eskdale and Glaisdale were primarily on convoy operations as escorts, in the Arctic and Channel, but also deployed on operations elsewhere at need. Over January to April 1943 they became regulars on the Portsmouth to Milford Haven run and back, sometimes together, sometimes on separate PW (Portsmouth-Wales) and WP (Wales-Portsmouth) convoys. Under wartime restrictions photograph locations would not be published, but we can see from convoy movements that Eskdale was back in Portsmouth on 27 February, so it seems likely that Peggy the dog as shown in the photograph above this paragraph was a Portsmouth resident! (3)

Both ships were worked hard, returning to Portsmouth as part of convoy WP322 on 12 April 1943, leaving Portsmouth again for Milford Haven on 13 April 1943 with six merchants, and a combined Norwegian-British trawler force as escort reinforcements. Off the Lizard the convoy was targeted by the 5th S-boot Flottille, which was using St. Peter Port, Guernsey, to refuel on its Channel operations at this time. (4)

At 3 o’clock in the morning S 90 fired two torpedoes at Eskdale in a position ENE of the Lizard, with S 65 and S 112 finally sinking her. Out of a crew of 185, 25 men, all Norwegian, lost their lives. (5) The ship has been identified in the position stated at the time of loss with her stern blown away in two separate sections, listing to starboard and evidently well collapsed. She lies near one of her charges from this convoy, the British cargo vessel Stanlake, attacked in a very similar fashion, initially torpedoed by S 121 and then finished off by S 90 and S 82. (6)

The two ships lie close together, a tangible reminder of a time when ‘Home Waters’ for British ships would be the temporary ‘home waters’ for other naval forces.

Two men stand either side of four cannon pointing right and upwards to the sky
27 February 1943: Norwegians at action stations stand by on a pom-pom used for anti-aircraft action on board their destroyer HMS Eskdale. A few weeks after this photo was taken the attack came, not from the sky, but from an E-boat.
(A 14726) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205147870


(1) Mason, G 2004 Service Histories of Royal Navy Warships in World War 2: HNoMS Eskdale (L36) (published online); Wikipedia, Skule Storheill

(2) The diplomatic dance of nomenclature appears to have continued with the formal post-war sale of Glaisdale to the Norwegian Navy, whereupon she was renamed Narvik, which no doubt evoked on both sides the Royal Navy’s participation in the Battle of Narvik only a few years previously.

(3) Convoyweb, movements of PW and WP convoys; movements of Eskdale and Glaisdale

(4) ibid; Rohwer, J and Hümmelchen, G 2007-2022 Chronik des Seekrieges 1939-1945 April 1943 (Württembergische Landesbibliothek: published online) (in German); Historisches Marinearchiv Lebenslauf S 90 (online: in German) Brown, D 1990 Warship Losses of World War Two (London: Arms and Armour)

(5) World War 2 at Sea: Royal Norwegian Navy, Ship Histories, Convoy Escort Movements, Casualty Lists 1940-1947 (nd: published online)

(6) Eskdale: Hydrographic Office 17429; Stanlake: Hydrographic Office 17430 and 17504

A ship with three identities: the Mexico disaster, 1886

We are delighted to welcome as our guest blogger this week Roger Burns, who has researched and written this post. Roger describes himself as a ‘retired civil engineer, who, seeking a hobby, volunteered in 2016 with the Maritime Archaeology Trust, for whom he researches wrecks and drafts articles and blogs, and as a result has become a regular contributor of wreck data to Historic England. Prior to volunteering, Roger had minimal maritime knowledge, but is now fully immersed in such an interesting and rewarding pursuit.’

On the anniversary of the final loss on 27th February 1900, Roger tells the story of a ‘wrecked’ vessel which resulted in a horrific tragedy off the Lancashire coast – one ship, three identities, and two distinct fates, with no apparent connection between the two events until his recent research.

Contemporary oil painting of the hull of a wreck under a dark cloudy sky at low tide, allowing salvors to attend the wreck (on the left).

Figure 1: The wreck of the Mexico, Emil Axel Krause, 1886. As a Lancashire painter born in Germany, the wreck of the Mexico must have held double appeal as a subject.
Source: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-wreck-of-the-mexico-66088
Atkinson Art Gallery Collection CC BY-NC-SA

Early career: as the John Bull

We begin with the launch of a barque on 21 February 1860 as the John Bull by Thomas R. Oswald & Co., Pallion, Sunderland for Temperley & Co., White Lion Court, Cornhill, London, a modestly-sized 3-masted sailing vessel of 484 tons gross. (1) Completed in March 1860, it was registered at London as ON28377 of 484 tons gross. With a single bulkhead, the vessel was constructed (2) throughout of iron protected by red lead paint, except for the deck which was yellow pine, provided with one longboat and two other small boats, certified and classed 12A1 by Lloyd’s.

We are able to trace the story of the John Bull in the British Newspaper Archive and elsewhere. The ship was intended for the London to Quebec and Montreal trade, first arriving on 17 May 1860 and these return voyages endured until November 1872, encountering seasonal ice. Exceptions were a return passage in 1866 to Woosung and Shanghai, another when in December 1872, the John Bull departed London for New Zealand, returning to London the following November, then departed again for New Zealand returning via Australia destined for Leith. The 1872 voyage to New Zealand provides exceptional detail in both British and New Zealand newspapers: over May and June 1873 there were several newspaper Notices of Auctions for three bales of curled horse hair, 79 kegs of crushed loaf sugar, 10 packages of Eleme raisins, one bale of bleached cotton waste, two bales of grey blankets, and an assortment of tin boxes of tin plates, all of which had been landed by the John Bullmore or less damaged by sea-water”. An out-of-character destination in November 1876 when en route London to Montreal was Guadeloupe, either as a diversion, or due to storms. The last Canadian trip appears to be mid-1878 and then, on 28 December 1878, when en route from Baltimore to North Shields with a cargo of Indian corn (maize), the ship’s boy, who hailed from London, fell overboard in heavy weather and drowned.

There were several changes of ownership, with the John Bull being regularly advertised for sale between November 1879 and March 1881. During this time, it had been dry-docked, chipped and painted internally and externally and provided with new main mast, main and foretopsail yard, jibboom and windlass. Contained in a Lloyd’s dated 19 May 1881, was another change of ownership to Gebrüder Oetling of Hamburg, including the construction of a ‘house’, 6.55m long, 4.15m wide and 1.96m high, on the deck between foremast and main hatch – unfortunately, records do not show details of previous accommodation. (3)

A change of name: Mexico

At this point it was also renamed the Mexico, re-registered at Hamburg, and a Captain Burmeister assumed command, signalling a change in routes through until summer 1886. Reported ports of call included, in chronological order, Santos, Valparaiso, Iquique, Hamburg, Arica, Corinto, Liverpool, Marseilles, Hamburg, Pauillac, unidentified ports in Central America, Hamburg, La Union, La Libertad, Tebuantepac and Liverpool. Between September and November 1886, regular advertisements appeared for repeat sailings between Liverpool and Guayaquil, Ecuador.  

Between 1860 and 1881, there were 18 Lloyd’s reports, of which eight were regular Annual Surveys, the remainder including repairs, mostly of checking and repainting the hull, always retaining its original classification, thus supporting its ‘For Sale’ advertisements which drew attention to its pedigree.

The first wreck as Mexico, 1886

Media reports of the wrecking of the sailing barque Mexico appeared in the newspapers of 10 December 1886, notably the local Lancashire Evening Post, intimating that the vessel had gone aground just off Southport, was dismasted, and its 12 crew were saved, but also that disaster had struck two RNLI lifeboats, from Southport and St. Annes, with 27 of 29 of their crews drowned. (4)

Map of the Ribble Estuary, showing the location of the wreck west of Southport, with St. Annes and Lytham to the north; inset map at top left showing the location on the north English coast.

Figure 2: Location of the first wrecking of the SV Mexico, and the three involved communities
(Maritime Archaeology Trust)

The Mexico had departed Liverpool the previous night with a general but valuable cargo for Guayaquil, Ecuador but managed only some 15 miles, encountering atrocious weather. The Southport lifeboat, the Eliza Fernley (5) was launched first, but capsized and was swept ashore, with only two of the 16 crew surviving. The St. Annes lifeboat, the Laura Janet (6) was also launched but it too capsized with all 13 crew being lost. The Lytham lifeboat, Charles Biggs, was launched for its maiden rescue, and succeeded in bringing all 12 crew of the grounded Mexico safely ashore. The loss of 27 RNLI volunteer crew remains to this day as its worst crew death toll in its long and distinguished history.

The newspapers were awash with reports for days afterwards. It is salutary to read the experience of John Jackson, one of the two survivors from the Eliza Fernley, who had been a volunteer lifeboatman for 15 years, transcribed from the 10 December 1886 issue of the Lancashire Evening Post:

‘At ten minutes to ten (pm) the horses set off with the boat, and, after experiencing considerable difficulty, launched the boat at eleven o’clock. A large crowd saw us off and the excitement was tremendous. The boat was launched successfully and went nicely for a time. A very heavy sea was running at the time, and our troubles soon commenced. Captain Hodge and Peters, the second coxswain, were at the helm, and as sea after sea washed over us, every man stuck grimly to his seat. We were beaten back several times and shipped an immense quantity of water. It was pitch dark at the time, and the only indication of the distressed barque was the faint glimpse of a lamp, which, as we got closer, we saw hung from the mizzen top. I was able to discern that the vessel had lost her foremast and mainmast. We were at length within 30 yards off the vessel, and could hear no shouting, indeed the storm rose to such a pitch that it was with difficulty that we could hear our own voices. I was just about letting go the anchor to get the boat alongside the vessel—we were then I should say, twenty yards from the barque—when a tremendous sea caught the boat right amidships, and she went over. We expected her to right herself, but she remained bottom upwards. Some of us managed, at length, to crawl out. I and Richard Robinson held firmly to the rowlocks, and was buffeted about considerably. With some difficulty I got underneath the boat again, and spoke, I think, to Hy. Robinson, Thos. Jackson, Timothy Rigby, and Peter Jackson. I called out, “I think she will never right; we have all to be drowned.” I heard a voice–I think it was Henry Robinson’s–say, “I think so, too.” I got out again and found Richard Robinson “fairly done.” He leaned heavily on my arm, and I think he must have been suffocated. Another heavy sea came, and when it receded, he had disappeared, and I never saw him again. While underneath, I called out to my brother “Clasper!” — that is a sort of nickname we gave him—but could get no answer. The boat eventually drifted bottom upwards to the shore, and those who were rescued, like myself, clung to her. I don’t know what became of the rest, I was exhausted. I remember seeing two or three struggling to reach the boat, but I do not know who they were. I drifted with the boat, bottom upwards, to the beach—and staggered home, about three o’clock in the morning.’

The RNLI have authored several reports, including this one on the centenary of the event in 1986.

The ensuing 2½ years

There was an outpouring of condolences from all walks of life, including Queen Victoria. The public relief fund, over an extended period, raised £35,000 (approx. £3.5m in 2022) to which the Emperor of Germany contributed £1,300. Just a few days after the disaster, the National Lifeboat Association announced that they would pay the cost of the funerals, held on 14 December 1886 and witnessed by huge crowds, and would also provide monetary assistance to the families until the public fundraising was complete: later, annuities from the relief fund were distributed to the families, sadly comprising 16 widows and 50 fatherless children. (7)

The St. Annes and Southport lifeboats were replaced in late 1886 with improved with improved water-ballast versions, but still powered by oar, and, weather permitting, sails. (8)

At a ceremony on 1 February 1887, the crew of the Charles Biggs were each thanked in person by Mr Babr, the German Consul, with a modest reward in appreciation of saving the Mexico’s German crew. (9)

On 11 March 1887, after three months partly under water, tugs towed the Mexico to Lytham where it was beached – Messrs Allsopp and Sons of Preston had secured the wreck for £70 in the expectation of reaping the rewards of its cargo, although a significant amount had been salvaged soon after the disaster and sold in local shops. During 1888, three obelisks and a memorial were erected in memory of the 27 lifeboat crew who were drowned.

Montage of four colour photographs of monuments in different styles; top left, obelisk; top right, chest tomb with broken mast feature; lower right, statue of lifeboatman on plinth; lower left, Gothic spire on plinth.

Figure 3: The four memorials, all listed structures, clockwise from top left: lifeboat monument, Southport; monument to the Southport lifeboat Eliza Fernley; lifeboat monument near St. Annes Pier; monument to the St. Annes lifeboat Laura Janet

It was right that the 1886 tragedy brought the RNLI into focus, precipitating the first public street collection in Britain in 1891, nearly seventy years after the RNLI’s inception in 1824.

The Mexico resurrected

A ‘For Sale’ advertisement in Lloyd’s List of 11 February 1889 offered the hull of the Mexico where it was lying on Lytham beach, with anchors, chains, steel hawser, some timber, ropes and a derrick, and with mizzenmast standing. Three months later, the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette of 14 May 1889, reported that the Mexico had arrived at the Old West Dock in Greenock for an expected two months of repairs by a Mr Thomson, boilermaker, in preparation for the West India trade. It must have been considered a worthwhile investment despite its wide-ranging voyages as John Bull, grounding off Southport as Mexico, enduring over two years of storms at Lytham, and then towed some 200 miles to Greenock, thus being a credit to the structural design and skill of the builders who specialised in iron ships from 1860 – regular survey by Lloyd’s and essential maintenance by the owners also contributed.

Final fate as the Valhalla

The new (managing) owner was Lewis T. Merrow, 65 West Regent St., Glasgow and the Mexico was re-registered with 477 tonnage at Glasgow until 1898. Ownership was then briefly held by J.P. Clausen, Nordby, Fanø, Denmark, who renamed the vessel Valhalla. The final owner was A/S Valhalla, managed by Hans Blom & Frithjof Ohlsen, Fredriksvaern, Norway. By now, it was registered in Fredriksvaern, with new number 1028377, and her tonnage recorded as 494 gross/476 net. The voyage history after repairs at Glasgow is sparse and lacking detail in the cargoes carried, but ports visited from the Clyde included the Demerara region of Guyana, Pensacola, and Belfast.

With nine crew and the master (whose name is either omitted from both British and Norwegian newspapers, or variously spelt as Servig, Sorvig, Sowig etc.) the Valhalla departed Gravesend for Grangemouth in ballast, and while off the North Berwick coast on 27 February 1900, encountered a rain storm, haze, and heavy sea, and ran aground opposite Tantallon Castle. (10)

Location map showing the wreck of the Valhalla off Tantallon Castle; inset map at top left showing the relative location near Edinburgh

Figure 4: Location of the final wreck SV Valhalla (Maritime Archaeology Trust)

The North Berwick lifeboat was called out, and like at Southport, four lifeboatmen were washed overboard but fortunately regained their lifeboat. The Valhalla’s crew were pulled ashore in their own boat, aided by a rocket line from shore, and, except for one injury, were safe and well. (11) The Valhalla was dashed to pieces, and the crew were repatriated.

Text in Norwegian (translated in caption) in Black Letter Gothic typeface from contemporary newspaper

Figure 5: Contemporary report in Norges Sjøfartstidende, 5 March 1900, p2 (excerpt).
Translated, this reads: ‘Valhalla. Dundee, 28th February. Norwegian barque Valhalla has now completely broken up.’
Source: Nasjonalbiblioteket, Oslo, Norway. CC-BY-NC-ND

We would like to express our appreciation to Roger for telling the fascinating story of the Mexico/Valhalla, a ship that was wrecked twice over in two different places, and also to Julie Satchell of the Maritime Archaeology Trust for her kind assistance.

The connection between the two events has until now been obscure, with the two years between the first wreck event involving the Mexico and its eventual recovery for sale highly unusual, to sail again as the Valhalla, and the different names under which the barque went ashore on those two occasions.

The double ‘loss’ of the same ship under different circumstances several years apart is also unusual: it is not unknown, but is a relatively rare event (one of the better-known examples being HMS Thetis, sunk in Liverpool Bay in 1939, which was salvaged and re-entered service as HMS Thunderbolt, only to be lost with all hands in the Mediterranean in 1943).

There are also more interesting features about this ship since it illustrates over the course of the two wreck events that, on the one hand, a shipwreck such as Mexico may entail loss of life (in this case of the lifeboatmen who went so gallantly to the rescue) but the ship itself is recovered; on the other, as Valhalla, the crew may be saved, but the vessel itself lost.


(1) http://www.sunderlandships.com/view.php?year_built=&builder=&ref=105355&vessel=JOHN+BULL/

(2) Iron Ships Report for John Bull, 23rd February 1860 – https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/archive-library/documents/lrf-pun-iron434-0176-r

(3) Report of Survey for Repairs, &c for Mexico, 19th May 1881  https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/archive-library/documents/lrf-pun-lon665-0613-r

(4) Mexico; https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=3ca4c738-ba17-4906-87cc-d5ec4943fe42&resourceID=19191

(5) ibid (Mexico); Eliza Fernley: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=2e1647cd-fc97-44ae-843b-692e41686884&resourceID=19191

(6) ibid; Laura Janet: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=fd3d560b-8ff7-4e25-99ba-c5240fb2e12f&resourceID=19191

(7) https://rnli.org/about-us/our-history/timeline/1886-southport-and-st-annes-lifeboats-disaster

(8) Leeds Mercury, 15 December 1886; https://lifeboatmagazinearchive.rnli.org/volume/13/143/the-life-boat-disasters-at-southport-and-st-annes?searchterm=fernley&YearFrom=1886&YearTo=1888&page=1

(9) Lancashire Evening Post – 1 February 1887

(10) https://canmore.org.uk/site/120022/valhalla-tantallon-castle-gin-head-firth-of-forth

(11) North British Daily Mail, 28 February 1900

Diary of the Second World War – February 1943

The Lindbergh

Historic colour photograph of fisherman in typical navy blue fishing gear and cap standing beneath drying nets and looking out to sea.
Portrait of a Belgian fisherman. (TR 1868)
Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205123994

Sometimes the tragedy of a shipwreck can also reveal a hidden heritage which has all but slipped out of living memory – and the events that unfolded on that day of 19 February 1943 are all the more moving because of it.

After the fall of Belgium in May 1940 fishermen from Nieuwpoort, Ostend and Zeebrugge left for England either directly or via French ports. They, of course, had better means than many of making their escape in their fishing boats, and were able to take other refugees with them. The testimony of Pierre Logghe, who left Belgium as a boy with his family, recalled their boat, hosting three other refugee families, coming under bombardment at Calais and seeing a mine off Dieppe claiming another Belgian trawler, O.288 Normandie, and they were again bombed as they set out once more on the last leg for England. (See note 1 to read his story in full.)

As Pierre recalled, and as research by the Ministry of Information at the time demonstrated, (2) many of the fishermen remembered only too well the horrors of the First World War, something that in itself we often overlook: those born around 1900 would see war twice before they were 50.

Belgian drifters and trawlers were a familiar sight on the eastern and Channel coasts from the late 19th century onwards, encountered both as working vessels and as wrecks, as for example the Vierge Marie, which stranded west of Tater-Du, Cornwall, in heavy seas in January 1937.

Pierre’s father’s ship was the O.280 Pierre, registered at Ostend, was recognised in harbour as one of their own, having previously been Brixham smack BM 1, Superb, sold on in 1919. Nor were the Logghes the only Belgian refugees to come to Brixham, which soon hosted a community in exile of 2,000 Belgians (3) from fishing families who followed a similar tradition of trawling from sailing vessels as the Brixham fleet – for that very reason, it is unsurprising that at least one Brixham trawler had been sold on into Belgian service. (If you’d like to follow up the heritage of the Brixham sailing trawler, have a look at a past post on a former Brixham sailing trawler that went to war, HMS Brown Mouse.)

Historical colour photo of a group of three fishermen in typical navy blue fishing gear with caps on their heads, with a blurred view of terraces behind them.
A group of Belgian fishermen on the quayside at Brixham, 1944 (TR 1864) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205123992

The Belgians became well-established in Brixham, settling into homes nearby, a Belgian school for children hosted in the Town Hall, and a sea school for boys established. A documentary short (Little Belgium / Klein België), following the lives of the fishermen, their families, and their community, was shown in cinemas: it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film in 1942.

The film depicted the success of the community at work, school and play, but British gunners shown boarding the fleet setting out to sea to provide some defence against air attack showed the dangers they still had to face. Pierre Logghe recalled his father being strafed by aircraft on several occasions while out fishing, and also the fate of other Belgian trawlers fishing from Brixham: ‘two ships were lost through mines and the third by an explosion in their net.’ (4)

We can identify the Belgian trawler which sank after netting a mine as the Marie Robert, lost off Wolf Rock, between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly, on 2 April 1942. We cannot confirm with certainty the identities of the other two ships lost to mines, as there are more than two candidates in the frame (including Ster der Zee and Irma Germaine, sunk off Berry Head in October 1942 and August 1943 respectively) but it is likely that one of those to which he referred was another Ostend ship in the fleet operating out of Brixham, O.260 Lindbergh, lost on 19 February 1943.

Our best source for the sequence of events comes from a Flemish-language fishermen’s newspaper, Het Nieuwe Visscherijblad, published after the war, with its attractive masthead of two trawlers, one sailing and one steam, heading into harbour amid strong breakers. (5) Commemorating the third anniversary of a loss that was still raw, under an English-language heading of ‘Remember . . .‘ the newspaper recounts a sequence of events that must have come down from the sole survivor, Arthur Vinck.

The Lindbergh was fishing off Brixham harbour in a position about 15 or 16 miles south of Berry Head together (6) with other Belgian trawlers of the Brixham fleet. Vinck was on deck at the bows, with the skipper Fransciscus Vanneuville in the wheelhouse. The moment of the explosion must have been frozen in his mind, as he recalled the exact position of everyone in the crew: the two Vandammes, father Lodewijk and son Marcel, were chatting behind him to Jozef Monteny, and the cook Jan Michel Duyck was in the galley. ‘Suddenly, there was a tremendous explosion and the stern flew up in the air. The vessel sank immediately.’ N.63 Sincerity of Nieuwpoort, also in the surrounding fleet, and based in Newlyn, (7) set course for the site and picked Arthur up after an hour in the sea, having been kept alive and afloat by a lifebelt. Out of the other five crew, nothing could be discovered other than the body of Marcel Vandamme, the ship’s boy.

The skipper who performed the rescue was awarded a medal for his efforts from the Belgian government-in-exile in London.

Prayer cards for the deceased survive in online Belgian collections. (8) They reveal that Marcel was not yet 16 when he died, much the same age as the boy shown taking his examination at the Belgian Fishing School in Brixham below.

Historical black and white photograph of a teenage boy at left stands before 7 men at a table under fishing nets suspended from a ceiling.
A pupil (left) at the Belgian State Fishing School, run by the Belgian Government, in Brixham, Devon, is questioned on what he has learnt by a panel of experts. (PD 196)
Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205202835

An account of Marcel’s funeral in the local press revealed more about wartime censorship than details of the circumstances behind his death, for details of deaths to war causes were minimised (9) so as not to reveal to the enemy the success or otherwise of their operations:

A spacious public hall, kindly loaned by the public authority in a South-West town, was crowded last week by Belgian and Fighting French refugees at the Requiem Mass for Marcel Dandamme [sic], aged 15, whose mortal remains were brought into the hall by four stalwart compatriots . . . The funeral was attended by the chairman and members of the local authority and officials of the Belgian and Fighting French Mercantile Marine. (10)

Marcel’s body was repatriated after the war and now lies in his home town of Ostend. (11)

The wreck is a tangible memorial not only to the crew, but also to an uprooted culture and community which found a temporary home in a comparable community, but which could not wholly escape the spectre of war.


(1) Logghe, P 2012 The Story of Brixham’s Belgian Visitors: “Our Escape from Belgium” and “Life in Wartime EnglandDevon Heritage, published online; Logghe, P 2020 “Pierre’s Story”, Brixham Future, published online

(2) See, for example, a photograph with the biography of fisherman M Major and his family https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205202833

(3) Ministry of Information / Ministerie voor Voorlichting van België (Belgian Ministry of Information) 1942 Little Belgium / Klein België (film) (British Paramount News) See, for example, Brixham Heritage Museum’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDM2nj3eWyw (in Flemish, auto-captions in that language available)

(4) See note 1.

(5) Het Nieuwe Visscherijblad, 16 February 1946, No.12

(6) Lloyd’s War Losses for the Second World War, 3 September 1939-14 August 1945, Vol. 1, p625 (London: Lloyd’s of London Press)

(7) The Flemish newspaper article does not name the ship other than its fishing number, N.63, and the name of the skipper, but the fishing number can be traced. https://freepages.rootsweb.com/~treevecwll/family/belgianfv.htm

(8) The crew’s names vary slightly between the newspaper article and the prayer cards, partly because of different linguistic registers and naming conventions with which the English-language reader may not be familiar. The versions on the prayer cards have been preferred.

(9) For further reading on this topic Thompson, G 1947 Blue Pencil Admiral (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd.) is revealing. Rear Admiral George Pirie Thompson was Britain’s Chief Press Censor during the Second World War.

(10) Western Morning News, 2 March 1943, No.25,940, p2

(11) Entry for Marcel Vandamme: https://www.wardeadregister.be/fr/dead-person?idPersonne=71888

Diary of the Second World War – January 1943

A fairly quiet month – apart from the weather

January 1943 was a fairly quiet month in terms of shipwrecks in English waters: 8 ships were recorded as lost, of which one, Bolbec, was refloated in September 1943.

There were a few ships lost to war causes: first, patrol trawler HMT Kingston Jacinth was mined with considerable loss of life off Portsmouth on 12 January. Two wooden sailing Thames barges were lost to mines off Burnham-on-Crouch on the Essex coast: on 13 January, Ailsa struck a mine on the edge of Foulness Sand off the Essex coast, although fortunately her crew were saved, and on 28 January, Resolute, bound from London to Ipswich with wheat, struck a mine off Holland-on-Sea. When the lifeboat arrived on scene the crew found only wreckage, but the master had been picked up by another barge and was transferred to the lifeboat, although the mate was lost with the vessel. It sounds as if the barge had been blown to smithereens by the explosion.

Two groups of Thames barges moored on the river, with their sails furled. Behind them lies an industrial landscape of chimneys and dock cranes on the far bank of the river.

Thames barges moored at Greenwich, taken by photographer S W Rawlings between 1945-1965. He was the photographer for the Information Office of the Port of London Authority, recording the working river in the postwar period. S W Rawlings Collection, AA001107 © Historic England Archive

The cargo vessel Longbird collided with the Beltoy off the north-east coast while sailing independently for Hull with foodstuffs on 16 January 1943, having parted convoy on her ‘northabout’ voyage round the Scottish coast from the Clyde. She was a fairly unusual vessel type, having been launched as a steam naval gunboat in 1919, but sold into commercial service in 1920 and converted to a cargo vessel.

The 7-ton Landing Craft Personnel (Medium) No.17 or LCP (M) No.17 was lost off the Isle of Wight on 5 January, cause of loss unclear. There does not appear to have been anything exceptional about the weather, but loss even in fairly calm conditions is not unknown.

It was a different story for our other wrecks this month, where the weather appears to have been the major factor accounting for their loss. Firstly, the cargo vessel Wyetown foundered in ‘heavy weather’ off the Suffolk coast on 14 January, while bound from Hull for Ipswich, consistent with the gale warning issued for London and the east coast at 01.45am earlier that day. (1)

On the last day of the month HMS Bloodhound, a pre-war motor torpedo discharge vessel built by Vosper of Portsmouth in 1937 was wrecked at her station off Bincleaves, Portland.

Historic aerial photograph taken only four years after our wreck, showing Bincleaves groyne, one of the breakwaters enclosing Portland harbour, from the east, looking towards the land, with small harbour craft dotting the water. To the right, outside the groyne, the water is fast-moving and agitated, within the groyne on the left, much calmer: a breakwater captured doing its job. If wrecked within the groyne, the water must indeed have been turbulent that day.
© Historic England. Aerofilms Collection Historic England photograph: EAW010943 flown 24/09/1947

Bloodhound was an interesting small experimental vessel, with a fascinating background. She had been part of ‘stone frigate’ (shore establishment) HMS Vernon, Portsmouth, as part of the Admiralty Torpedo, Mining and Electrical Training Establishment, based on the old Gunwharf (now the Gunwharf Quays development). Vernon was dispersed after air raids on Portsmouth, the Establishment being based at Roedean School for Girls for the rest of the war, and Bloodhound sent to Portland.

The wreck of HMS Bloodhound occurred in severe weather, with a gale warning issued for points on the SW coast at 6am on 30 January; a further prediction was a ‘south to southeast gale, veering southwest to west, severe at times especially on parts of the coast, beginning to moderate tonight’. (2)

Not only were there few wrecks for January 1943, detail on the ships involved is sparse and/or widely dispersed among sources, not helped by wartime censorship of sources we would normally rely on, such as newspapers. As Wyetown and Bloodhound demonstrate, weather data helps to fill the gap for vessels not lost to war causes.


(1) Daily Weather Report of the Meteorological Office, Air Ministry, London, Wednesday 14th January, 1943, No.25638 https://digital.nmla.metoffice.gov.uk/IO_5245f1c2-b185-42e0-99d5-3aefd5c4acaf/

(2) Daily Weather Report of the Meteorological Office, Air Ministry, London, Saturday 30th January, 1943, No.25654 and Sunday 31st January, 1943, No.25655 (Met Office Digital Library and Archive, Daily Weather Report January 1943 https://digital.nmla.metoffice.gov.uk/IO_5245f1c2-b185-42e0-99d5-3aefd5c4acaf/

Disability History Month 2022

Shipwrecks: an investigation of disability in shipwrecks

Contemporary black & white print of tavern scene with disabled sailors in the foreground and other sailors in the background

Fig.1 Image caption: etching by Isaac Cruikshank, c.1791, depicting an old sailor with a wooden leg in the foreground, and, to left, an armless man being assisted to drink. (Wellcome Collection 26889i)

This blog post takes a look at shipwrecks in our waters through the stories of disabled sailors and passengers as part of Disability History Month 2022 (16th November – 16th December).

As a maritime historian, the language used in historical maritime records, particularly those of shipwrecks, is fascinating. One phrase that has always jumped out at me is the description of ships as ‘disabled’ by the loss of masts, rigging, anchors or other equipment as a precursor to ultimate loss in a storm: another phrase is ‘distressed’.

We might think of these as very ‘human’ terms, used in an anthropomorphic sense, but these phrases are used in a very technical sense to indicate that the ship is no longer capable of navigation or of avoiding natural hazard, as in this account from a watcher at the Spurn Head light during the Great Storm of 1703:

And then Peter Walls observed about six or seven and twenty sail of ships, all driving about the Spurn Head, some having cut, others broke, their cables, but all disabled, and render’d helpless.’ [1]

Seafaring has always been a dangerous profession – and even now the capacity of a ship’s equipment to cause death and life-changing injuries is added to the inherent dangers of the natural hazards of the sea: the potential for shipwreck is ever-present. Records tend to concentrate on the event itself and injuries which presented at the time, so it is difficult to follow up on their lasting impact, but occasionally there are hints of life-changing disabilities and this must have been more common than the documentary record, based primarily on the loss event itself, actually shows, as the lasting impact of injuries did not, generally, make it into the press record.

For example, in 1899 the French brigantine Gazelle went ashore near Boscastle in a storm, two men being rescued from the wreck by being carried with some difficulty up a rope ladder thrown down the cliffs. One man had a broken leg which was so in such a ‘precarious condition’ that amputation was considered likely. [2]

Text reads: Loss of a Boulogne Vessel. The brigantine Gazelle of Boulogne was totally wrecked at Boscastle, North Cornwall, in the gale of Friday last week. She was laden with coal, and carried a crew of four hands, two of whom were drowned.

Fig. 2 News of the wreck made it into the English-language Boulogne Times and Visitors’ List, April 13 1899, p2, which had begun publication in 1898 as a ‘tried and trusted friend’ for English residents and visitors alike.
Boulogne Times and Visitors’ List, April 13, 1899, p2 Source gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France

In a similar vein, in 1810 the Prussian ship Apries, laden with wheat from Dantzic (now Gdansk) stranded on the Whiting Bank off Suffolk during a gale: the sea was running high and ‘the current drew them’ (and other ships) onto the Whiting. The crew saved themselves while the captain was examining the chart and he found himself ‘abandoned, and the ship going to pieces’, whereupon he ‘got upon the mast, and remained in that perilous situation all night.’ He was rescued by a passing boat the next morning, but ‘one of his hands is so dreadfully bruised, that he will be obliged to have one finger amputated.’ [3]

There are other stories of that ilk among shipwreck accounts around the coastline – sometimes the effects may be amplified through recollection or through secondary sources and it can be difficult to tell what the real consequences were for the individuals concerned. For example, the main source for the wreck of the Norwegian barque Patria, which stranded on Chesil Beach, Dorset, in 1903 appears to be based on personal recollection, but has elements of the ‘seamen’s yarn’ about it, at any rate in the way that the story has been told. One of the crew was stated to have had his leg amputated as a result, but another was said to have ‘run mad’, in the language of the time, and then put in a straitjacket. Newspaper accounts of the wreck mention neither, though both amputation and mental trauma are quite plausible under the extreme stress of a shipwreck event, and this is another good example of how reliance on press reports can obscure the real physical and mental effects of shipwreck. [4]

So sources can be either frustratingly silent or difficult to interpret on the extent of injuries suffered and the permanent effects on survivors are difficult to establish. Given the precarious situations both crew and passengers found themselves in, particularly in winter conditions with prolonged exposure to the elements, there must have been many very serious and debilitating injuries with life-changing impact.

As well as in the usual run of accidents as the ship broke up, with falling debris and splinters, and injuries sustained in scrambling to safety, winter storms carried the additional and very real risk of hypothermia and frostbite, historically known as ‘exposure’ which probably caused the loss of many fingers and toes.

In 1881, the Norwegian brig Hasselø stranded on the Maplin Sand on the approaches to the Thames. They had, ‘at great risk, cut away the masts and rigging, which proved to be a very wise step’ in a ‘blinding snowstorm’, where they were ‘more than knee deep in water’: it took 20 hours for the lifeboat to make the round trip and return after their successful rescue of all the crew, 7 men and a boy. Even the lifeboatmen were suffering from exposure, ‘some of their hands being much swollen’, but the shipwreck victims were in much worse case. [5]

Elsewhere, hospital ships carrying the sick and wounded from naval combat, and conveying soldiers away from sites of terrestrial conflict, have a long history. The earliest known wreck of such a hospital ship in English waters is the San Pedro el Mayor, which came to rest with her passengers of sick and wounded men at Hope Cove, Devon, in 1588, having battled together with the other surviving ships of the Spanish Armada the complete circumnavigation of the British Isles. The English authorities dealing with the wreck called her a ‘Samaritan’, derived from the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, who tended the injuries of a man left for dead – although initially the authorities were rather less well disposed towards their prisoners of war, and were at first considering their execution! [6]

During the First World War hospital ships brought back badly injured men from the Western Front and other theatres of war – the prominent Red Cross painted on these ships should have protected them from attack at sea, in accordance with the Hague Convention (1899), but in practice this was not necessarily the case, and a number of hospital ships and ambulance transports were sunk by enemy action in English waters, leaving disabled men and ‘cot cases’ who were unable to get up independently very vulnerable in the event of attack (for the case study of the Rewa, please see an earlier entry in Wreck of the Week January 1918).

The physical and psychological damage of the First World War was immense, not only in limb loss, sensory trauma (blindness, deafness) and shell shock, but in syndromes such as ‘disordered action of the heart’, which was so common that it was simply named ‘DAH’. DAH was also known as ‘effort syndrome’ or ‘soldier’s heart’, in which stress and fatigue had physiological effects. An English Channel infested with mines and with the ever-present danger of torpedo attack from unseen submarines must have presented an immense psychological barrier for already traumatised, injured and sick soldiers until they set foot ‘back in Blighty’ on the other side of the Channel.

Such injuries must have had a significant impact on a sailor’s ability to earn a living – this was as true of men in the mercantile service as of those who crewed warships.

Like the need for hospital ships, the need to make provision for sailors disabled in the course of their duties was also recognised early on. On the English side of the combatants in the 1588 Armada, the Chatham Chest was an early form of pension fund set up to assist English naval men wounded or disabled in the wars with Spain, paid for by official deductions from their wages.  Greenwich Hospital was founded by Royal Charter in 1694 to support naval men ‘who by reason of age, wounds or other disabilities’ were ‘incapable of further service’ and eventually absorbed the Chatham Chest fund in 1803.

Black and white photograph of colonnaded building with a cupola seen through the columns of a building opposite, and a lamp at top right corner.

Fig.3 Exterior view of the Royal Naval Hospital looking towards the Queen Mary block from the colonnade of the King William block. Eric de Maré AA98/06416 © Historic England Archive

The various wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw many troop movements across the seas and numbers of troopship losses, including those of homeward-bound troop transports carrying the sick and wounded. In February of 1776, the year that would see the US Declaration of Independence, the Lion transport ‘made the Island of Scilly in about 21 days from Boston’ homeward bound with ‘invalids and wounded men’. She made landfall there to revictual and repair and was about to resume her onward voyage when ‘a perfect hurricane’ blew up, and she lost her anchors, ‘standing in for a dreadful rock, about 15 yards in height, but suddenly struck upon a hidden one . . . which turned her half round. Thus did Providence, by this unseen rock, save our lives, as the general opinion was we had not half a minute to live.’ [7]

Despite the vulnerabilities of many of those on board, there was no loss of life, but it was still a difficult situation for Captain Pawlett of the 59th Regiment, ‘who lost one of his legs at Boston-Lines by an eighteen-pounder, when commanding a working party of 100 men.’ [8]

Four men load a cannon.

Fig. 4 Re-enactors dressed in American uniforms of the Revolutionary War load an 18-pdr siege cannon at Yorktown National Park. Yorktown (1781), which resulted in the surrender of the British troops under Lord Cornwallis, was the decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War (United States National Park Service: Wikimedia Commons)

As we have seen from other accounts of shipwrecks, the newspapers are silent on his ordeal in the immediate aftermath of the wreck, although he was presented to King George III and later in 1776 he was made the captain of an Independent Company of Invalids at Jersey, a post in the gift of the King. [9] Such companies were made up of wounded and disabled military men who were thus enabled to continue home service. 

Only Pawlett’s obituary (a mere five years later in 1781) gives us a hint that the safe evacuation of the man with the missing leg might have been less than straightforward: ‘On his return to England he was ship-wrecked on the Isle of Scilly, and preserved with great difficulty.’ [10]

It is the only example we have so far found of the experiences of someone already disabled managing to survive shipwreck in English waters, but there must surely have been others. Zoom in to the terrifying experience of escaping from a similar wreck in The Wreck of a Transport Ship by J M W Turner, c.1810, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon on Google Arts and Culture.

Warfare at sea is another cause of life-changing injuries. It was the most ‘egalitarian’ of all industrial disabilities in the sense that it was equally likely to affect all ranks – i.e. the officer ranks were not removed from the cause of injury (as, say a factory owner might have been from the industrial injuries on the shop floor of a mill). [11] Horatio Nelson is perhaps the most famous example: the sight in his right eye was impaired by action at Corsica (1794) and his right arm shattered by a musket ball at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1797) and amputated as a result.

As the case of Captain Pawlett demonstrates, cannon had enormous power to cause death and disability. During the age of sail their terror lay not only in direct contact but also on their terrifying impact on a ship’s hull, sending massive splinters of timber flying to kill and maim human beings as collateral damage.

One stanza in a Victorian poem looks back to the First Battle of Copenhagen (1801) and describes both this leading cause of disability in naval engagements, and a famous, if probably apocryphal, incident of Nelson literally turning a blind eye to a signal to retreat, turning it to his advantage and that of the fleet. Disability ties together the ordinary sailor and the most famous of British admirals:

Splinters were flying above, below,
           When Nelson sailed the Sound:
 “Mark you, I wouldn’t be elsewhere now,”
           Said he, “for a thousand pound!”
 The Admiral’s signal bade him fly
         But he wickedly wagged his head:
 He clapped the glass to his sightless eye,
        And “I’m damned if I see it!” he said.

(Admirals All, Henry Newbolt, 1897)

Black and white photo close up view of statue of Nelson, atop the capital of the column with ornamental leaf design

Fig. 5. Horatio Nelson at the top of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, 1933. Arthur James Mason Collection, AA64/00493 © Historic England Archive.

If historical sources use the language of disability and distress to describe wrecks, disabled seamen could also liken their physical condition to wrecked vessels. A song, The Greenwich Pensioner, by Charles Dibdin (1791) makes this connection with a pun upon the tiers of ships (rows of ships at a mooring in a river, particularly the Thames and Tyne) and the location of the Hospital. (The song was accompanied in print by the Cruikshank caricature illustrating the beginning of the article.)

Yet still am I enabled
     To bring up in life’s rear
 Altho’ I’m quite disabled
    And lie in Greenwich tier

These tiers of ships could be subject to damaging incidents and mass wreckings. We read of wrecks to these tiers of ships, for example in 1752 ‘during a gale of wind, a tier of ships at Limehouse broke loose, and the Wiltshire . . . being the outside ship, ran aground on the opposite shore, and lighting on a ledge, she overset and is entirely lost’, with a similar mass stranding in 1773, also at Limehouse. [12]

Dibdin’s folk song is thus full of psychological insight, grounded in the everyday reality of the nautical idiom, suggesting that disabled seamen felt a certain vulnerability despite the shelter of Greenwich and the company of their peers. This everyday reality leaves frustratingly little trace in shipwreck accounts yet it must have been very common: what seems much clearer is that the language of shipwreck gave seamen a language with which to articulate their own disabilities.


[1] Defoe, D, 1704 The Storm; or, a Collection of the most remarkable casualties and disasters which happen’d in the late dreadful tempest, both by sea and land (London: G Sawbridge)

[2] Royal Cornwall Gazette, 13 April 1899, No.4,994, p3

[3] Suffolk Chronicle, 20 October 1810, No.25, p4

[4] Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol.1: Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset Section 6, Dorset (AJ), based principally on Rasmussen, A H 1952 Sea Fever (London: Constable); a recording of Albert Henry Rasmussen singing sea shanties and mentioning the Patria in passing can be accessed via the British Library online

[5] Essex Standard, 22 January 1881, No.2,615, p8

[6] Dasent, J R (ed) 1897 Acts of the Privy Council of England Volume 16, 1588 (London: HMSO) p328-330 British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/acts-privy-council/vol16 [accessed 12 December 2022]; Knox Laughton, J 1894 State Papers relating to the defeat of the Spanish Armada Vol. II (London: Navy Records Society) p289-296

[7] Derby Mercury, Friday 23 February to Friday 1 March 1776, No.2,289

[8] Norfolk Chronicle, 2 March 1776, Vol.VII, No.361, p2

[9] Reception by the King: Northampton Mercury, 4 March 1776, Vol.LVI, No.51, p1; Hibernian Journal, 13 March 1776, Vol.3 No.33, p4; preferment: Kentish Gazette, Wednesday October 9 to Saturday October 12, 1776, No.880, p2

[10] Norfolk Chronicle, 8 December 1781, No.653

[11] I am grateful to my colleague Ken Hamilton for sharing his thoughts on this subject.

[12] 1752: Lloyd’s List, 14 November 1752, No.1,769; Norwich Mercury, 11 November to 18 November 1752; 1773: Lloyd’s List, 26 February 1773, No.410; Kentish Gazette, 27 February to 3 March 1773, No.501

Diary of the Second World War – November 1942

The E-boats keep coming . . .

Trawler seen in port bow view, with her pennant number 252 in white to left, and land marking the horizon in the background.
HMT Ullswater (FL 20361) at a buoy. Ullswater was lost off the Eddystone in November 1942 while acting as escort for a south coast – Wales convoy. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205121578

The war at sea in English waters in November 1942 was a slightly quieter one than October 1942 had been, and December 1942 would be. For all that the E-boats kept coming (S-boote in German).

On the evening of the 9th the 2nd, 4th and 6th S-boot Flottille, responsible for the loss of several ships of convoy FN 832 off Norfolk in October 1942, opened fire once more on another FN convoy, FN 861, again off the east coast.  

According to Wehrmacht reports, 4 ships from a convoy were sunk, and three ships, two steamers and an escort, were reported damaged. [1] In fact, the only victim sunk on the 9th was the Norwegian steamer Fidelio, torpedoed east of Lowestoft. The steamer Wandle was badly damaged in the same attack, her bows virtually blown off but still partially attached and sinking. Somehow she was kept afloat, albeit awash, and ultimately she reached the Tyne for repair after several days under tow in fog and heavy seas. She would go on to be rebuilt and continue in service until 1959. [2]

On the 15th the British steamer Linwood, on convoy FS (Forth South) 959, struck a mine laid by air off the Long Sand Head in the approaches to the Thames, with the loss of three DEMS (Defence of Merchant Ships gunners). Elsewhere, in the North Sea and the Baltic, similar mines laid by British aircraft accounted for at least 7 ships during the month. [3]

In the early hours of the 19th the six ships of the 5th S-boot Flottille, S-68, S-77, S-82, S-112, S-115, and S-116 located convoy PW (Portsmouth-Wales) 250 off the Eddystone with the assistance of ‘Lichtenstein’ radar apparatus. Most sources state that the attack was carried out by the E-boats alone, but the Merchant Shipping Movement Cards for the three cargo vessels lost in this incident suggest that it was a coordinated E-boat and aircraft attack. [4] That said, there is no explicit mention of attack from the air in the evidence given by the Norwegian survivors of one of the ships on 21 November 1942 at Plymouth before the Norwegian vice-consul though there was a hint by the carpenter, Peder Andersen, that on his lookout he saw a ‘bright light shining down’. [5] The master, Emanuel Edwardsen, introduced his evidence in an understated fashion, stating that he was unable to produce the logbook due to circumstances which would become clear in his account. All the witnesses confirmed that they had felt the shock of not one, but two, successive torpedoes and they were unable to release one of the boats, but successfully got away in the other, to be picked up by a British vessel.

The victims were the former Danish Birgitte now sailing under the British flag, with the loss of 10 crew, the Norwegian Lab with the loss of 3 lives in the stern part of the ship, the British steamer Yewforest laden with steel billets, with 9 crew and 2 of her gunners, and their escort, HMT Ullswater, which was lost with all hands. The four wrecks lie in close proximity to one another and Ullswater is on the Schedule of Designated Vessels under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. [6]

Like many of her compatriots, the Danish Birgitte had come under the control of the Ministry of War Transport (MOWT), having been seized as a prize and requisitioned by the British authorities at Gibraltar in May 1940 after the fall of Denmark.[7] Lab became one of the famed Nortraships (Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission), at that time the world’s largest shipping fleet, while Yewforest had spent her career with Scottish owners since being built in 1910. Intended as a steam whaler, Ullswater was requisitioned on the stocks on the outbreak of war and had spent the war on escort duty.

Their attackers can be seen together at Travemünde in May 1942 on this German-language site, 4th image down: from left to right, S-115, S-112 with the Lichtenstein radar antenna visible, and S-116.

In English waters at any rate the rest of the month was quiet, with no further shipping losses.


[1] Convoyweb; Rohwer, J and Hümmelchen, G 2007-2022 Chronik des Seekrieges 1939-1945 November 1942 (Württembergische Landesbibliothek: published online) (in German)

[2] Central Office of Information 1947 British Coaster: The Official Story (London: HMSO)

[3] Chronik des Seekrieges

[4] Chronik des Seekrieges; Merchant Shipping Movement Cards: Birgitte, BT 389/4/172; Lab, BT 389/38/249; Yewforest, BT 389/32/198, all The National Archives (TNA)

[5] This account is available in English: https://www.krigsseilerregisteret.no/forlis/221161, and click on Sjøforklaring tab

[6] UK Statutory Instruments 2019 No.1191 The Protection of Military Remains Act (Designation of Vessels and Controlled Sites) Order 2019 Schedule 1

[7] TNA BT 389/4/172

Diary of the Second World War – October 1942

Convoy Battle!

The summer of 1942 had seen two key convoy battles – Arctic convoy PQ17 which battled through during the first half of July to Archangel and Murmansk with the loss of two-thirds of its ships; and Mediterranean convoy WS21S of August, in which victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat by delivering the tanker Ohio to the relief of Malta.

It is these famous incidents, and others like them, which we tend to think of when we consider convoy battles of the Second World War – yet convoy battles were an everyday reality and took place not only ‘over there’ during the Battle of the Atlantic and in the foreign theatres of war, but ‘in home waters’ also around the coasts of Britain.

Every convoy was a potential battle.

In the early hours of 7 October 1942 three groups of E-boats were lurking off Cromer to intercept any passing convoys. The term ‘E-boat’ is a linguistic legacy in English of the Second World War: ‘E-boat’ (‘Enemy boat’) referred to the German Schnellboot or S-boot (‘fast boat’), broadly equivalent to an Allied motor torpedo boat, so the terminology differs between British and German sources.

E-boats and E-boat Admiral surrender, 13 May 1945, HMS Beehive, Felixstowe. (A 28559) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205159904

Out of the three E-boat groups present that day, the 2nd S-boot Flottille, with six craft, and the 4th, with three, found a target in convoy FN (Forth North) 832, an east coast convoy from the Thames for Methil, Scotland, with a Trade Division Signal report of 26 ships. Shortly after 4.30 in the morning they opened fire on FN 832. [1]

Some 10 or so miles NE of Cromer lie the remains of some of the convoy, all securely charted since the day they sank in 1942. {2] To seaward lies the remains of ML 339, a British motor launch of Fairmile B type that became a versatile multi-function asset used in several roles and theatres of war, particularly as a submarine chaser.

ML 340 seen in port view with troops on board, off Skiathos, Greece. (A 26457)
Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205119921

Around half a mile to port of ML 339 lie the remains of the Jessie Maersk, a British freighter under the control of the Ministry of War Transport (MOWT). As her name implies, she originally belonged to the Danish shipping line of Maersk, whose ships are still a familiar sight in ports around the world.

In 1940 Jessie Maersk had been at sea with a cargo bound for London when Denmark fell under Nazi occupation, and on that voyage was ordered over the wireless by the new regime to put into a neutral port. The master decided initially to put into an Irish port, but, as more information came in, the crew mutinied, took charge of the ship, and put her instead into Cardiff. There the master lodged a complaint with the police, who arrested the crew, but it did not quite end as he clearly expected. Far from being had up before a British court for mutiny, the crew were released by the British authorities with thanks for their action, and the Jessie Maersk, as with so many ships from Nazi-occupied countries, came under the auspices of the MOWT. (On her final voyage two years later she would be crewed by both British and Danish sailors. [3]) By contrast, in 1940, the possible internment of the master as an enemy alien or enemy sympathiser was discussed at Parliamentary level – in the Commons. [4]

Jessie Maersk had an eventful, if not positively hard, war, with a litany of incidents necessitating repairs – collisions in convoy, aircraft damage, and groundings, before being torpedoed and sunk on that day in October 1942. [5]

Another half a mile to port again lie the remains of HMS Caroline Moller, an Admiralty tug, i.e. one requisitioned from civilian service to act as a rescue tug. On the seabed the three ships appear at regular intervals, as if keeping station as they did so long ago in convoy above, with ML 339 still in her protective position guarding against seaward attack on the starboard flank.

Ships lost from the same convoy naturally frequently lie in close proximity, sometimes very close together, but to see three ships in a clear pattern on the seabed, a similar distance apart, is slightly more unusual. This pattern seems consistent with the rapidity of the simultaneous attack from multiple E-boats, and suggests that their victims all sank equally rapidly.

The British coasters Sheaf Water and Ilse were also damaged in the attack, and dropped out of the convoy, returning under tow to the southward. The damage they had sustained overwhelmed them as the turned back, and they too also now lie relatively close to one another, but as a distinct group, some distance from their convoy sisters. [6]

The Merchant Shipping Movement Card for Sheaf Water reveals what we would now call a ‘live feed’ or a ‘real-time update’ in red ink: ‘Torpedoed by E-boat between 57F and 67B buoys [of the swept War Channel], 7.10. Badly holed, now anchored Sheringham buoy. (8.10) Vessel now partly submerged. Report 9/10 states: only two masts visible high water. No further action will be taken (10.10). Now in about 8 faths [fathoms], salvage not practicable. (5.12)’ [7]

This was the second major incident in the Ilse’s wartime career. On a similar convoy voyage from Southend for the Tyne in June 1941, she had struck a mine on the 20th off Hartlepool. She seems to have gone down by the bows as her Shipping Movement Card notes: ‘the after end of the vessel floatable. Fore end constructive total loss.’ The stern half arrived at Hartlepool 10 days later and was docked, before being taken up the river to Middlesbrough for repairs, where a new forepart was built on, and by February 1942, she was back on the east coast convoy run. She was ‘presumed torpedoed by E-boat’ between the same two buoys as Sheaf Water. She then ‘sunk in tow’ (8.10) and by the 12th October she was ‘Submerged 2 mls [miles] E of Haisboro, 4ft of mast above water at low water spring tides.’ Salvage was also dismissed ‘not practicable’ on 5 December. [8]

The Ilse herself is thus also an unusual wreck, where parts of the same ship are charted in two distinct locations from different wreck incidents a year apart. [9] (In a previous blog, we’ve covered the loss of the Nyon, 1958/1962.)

We can see that the events of 7 October 1942 resulted in archaeological patterns not always seen on the seabed as a result of convoy attacks, in which ships scatter, take evasive action, drift after being struck before finally sinking, return fire, cover for other ships in convoy, put themselves in the line of fire in rendering assistance, or are attacked several times over the course of a voyage, with separate losses in quite different locations. On that day it seems that the E-boats swept in with such speed there was little time to return fire, resulting in three ships sinking together in short order and two that sank shortly afterwards as they turned back.

It was less a convoy battle than a devastating ‘hit and run’ raid leaving an archaeological legacy which forms a memorial to the lost crews. That archaeological legacy also preserves in lasting and concrete form some rather less tangible things: firstly, the locations of the buoys marking the swept War Channel, against which all the attacks were recorded, and which naturally disappeared after the war; secondly, it would appear, the disposition of the convoy relative to one another as they turned north-west on their voyage.

Crew of the Pole Star refuelling a war channel buoy, seen from HM Trawler Stella Pegasi. (A 18188) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205150957


[1] Convoyweb; Rohwer, J and Hümmelchen, G 2007-2022 Chronik des Seekrieges 1939-1945 Oktober 1942 (Württembergische Landesbibliothek: published online) (in German)

[2] United Kingdom Hydrographic Office: ML 339 UKHO 9243; Jessie Maersk, 9238; HMS Caroline Moller, 9231

[3] Daily Herald, 22 April 1940, No.7,546, p10; widely reported in national and regional press

[4] Hansard, House of Commons Debate 30 April 1940, Vol.360, c.541

[5] Merchant Shipping Movement Card, Jessie Maersk, BT 389/17/22, The National Archives

[6] United Kingdom Hydrographic Office: Sheaf Water, UKHO 10554; Ilse, 10562

[7] Merchant Shipping Movement Card, Sheaf Water, BT 389/26/230, The National Archives

[8] Merchant Shipping Movement Card, Jessie Maersk, BT 389/16/65, The National Archives

[9] United Kingdom Hydrographic Office: UKHO no. 5624 (section, off Hartlepool, 1941); UKHO 10562 (off Cromer, 1942)

Diary of the Second World War – September 1942

LBBB 332 and LBBB 362: two unlikely ships go to war

The tragic heritage of Exercise Tiger off Slapton Sands, south Devon, in April 1944 as preparation for the D-Day landings in June that year is well-known: the exercise was disrupted by enemy action, with the loss of Landing Ship Tanks LST-507 and LST-531, both now scheduled monuments. (Learn more in this Historic England article with a contemporary photograph.)

Less well-known off Salcombe, south Devon – perhaps because they were on exercise for an operation which never took place – is a similarly fateful attack on two Landing Barges (Landing Barge Barrage Balloon) LBBB 332 and LBBB 362, on 19 September 1942.

A Balloon Close-Hauled on a Barge, Francis Edwin Hodge, 1941 (Art.IWM ART LD 1931) A barrage balloon attached with ropes to a barge being moved at sea. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/13253

During the spring and summer of 1942, the Allied Powers had been in discussion about undertaking an invasion attempt on France in the forthcoming autumn, codenamed Operation Sledgehammer. Heavily promoted by the Soviet Union and the United States, it was viewed in Britain as having little prospect of success and costly in human and material resources, a view to which the US was also eventually persuaded. [1] The debacle of the Raid on Dieppe on 19 August 1942 only served to highlight that the Allies were not yet ready to open a second front in Europe, and instead Allied resources were poured into the North African campaign which would lead to victory at El Alamein in November 1942.

However, with Sledgehammer in mind, over the summer of 1942, Britain pressed some apparently rather unlikely vessels into service. [2] The ‘dumb barges’ of the Thames – so called because they had no propulsion of their own, and could only be towed, or operated with long ‘sweeps’ or oars – would now play their part in the war.

Two bargemen manoeuvring a barge laden with cargo along the River Thames, c.1930-1945. The long ‘sweeps’ can be seen in action. Julian Joseph Samuels Collection, SAM01/03/0089: Source Historic England Archive

They were requisitioned for repurposing as landing craft, valuable for bringing materials ashore from larger ships, their ‘swim’ ends easily convertible into ramps for offloading, and easily beached because of their shallow draught. [The second photo in this gallery of a contemporary model of a Thames lighter, made around 1940, depicts a sloping flat ‘swim’, rather than pointed or rounded and blunt, end.]

They were then initially fitted with British engines, but were soon re-engined with US-made Chrysler marine engines, supplied under Lend-Lease. [3] Some of this group were then able to perform exercises under their own power at various locations, with five barges undergoing trials at Salcombe in September 1942.

It would seem that among them were LBBB 332 and LBBB 362, each converted into a Landing Barge Barrage Balloon, amphibious vessels tethering airborne craft. Barrage balloon vessels were not, in themselves, a new idea. From the early days of the war, barrage balloons had been deployed for home defence, compromising the accuracy of enemy aircraft in range-finding and gunnery by forcing them to fly higher. Barrage balloons were thus placed around towns, strategic sites, and, crucially, harbours – anywhere that was a target for air attack.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BALLOON COMMAND, 1939-1945. (C 726) A Barrage Balloon Section, housed in a converted sugar barge in the Thames Estuary, sends up a kite balloon from its cradle. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205207526

Those balloons defending ports and harbours were flown from requisitioned barges and other small craft, and several were themselves victims of air attack, among them British drifter Lavinia L, sunk off Sheerness June 1941; and two ex-Belgian fishing vessels in British Admiralty service following the fall of Belgium in 1940, the Borealis, off the Isle of Wight, August 1940, and the Cor Jesu off Alnmouth, August 1941. These losses expose one of the key weaknesses of barrage balloon defence – their very presence signposted sites of importance. (Indeed, the contemporary photograph in Historic England’s aerial photography collections shows barrage balloons off Slapton Sands.)

Other barrage balloon vessels, while guarding against attack from the air, fell victim to the sub-surface wartime dangers of the sea, such as the British drifters Lord St Vincent, mined off Harwich in July 1940, and Carry On, also mined off Sheerness, December 1940. A similar fate befell the tug Lion, again off Sheerness, in January 1941. Her actual role is slightly unclear: she was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for barrage balloon duty but was towing a barge at the time of loss, which might perhaps have been a barrage balloon vessel, given the numbers stationed at Sheerness. [4]

The vessels at Salcombe and elsewhere represented a development of the need for harbour defence from the air. There were two new elements: one was the idea of an air shield while en route, supplementing conventional air cover, and the other the amphibious component, providing cover forward for the offloading of troops and ammunition on the beach. Salcombe was an ideal test location, since it was one of the existing harbours covered by seaward, but static, barrage balloon defences. [5]

However, as the other barrage balloon barges sunk elsewhere in the war attest, the barges on exercises became very visible targets for bombing raids. On 19 September 1942, a Luftwaffe air raid took place on Salcombe. It was in that raid that Landing Barges Barrage Balloon LBBB 332 and LBBB 362 were sunk by a Focke-Wulf of 10/JG 26. [6]

The papers of those involved in the extensive discussions over Operation Sledgehammer laid a documentary trail for something which never, ultimately, took place: the wrecks of the LBBBs form the tangible archaeological counterpart for that documentary trail.

Those wrecks also form a historical bridge between two events which did take place: in their small size and unlikely guise, they were akin to the ‘little ships’ which participated in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940; and they were the precursors of the landing barges and the barrage balloon vessels that went in 1944 to the D-Day landing beaches as part of Operation Overlord with both British and American units – the history of the barrage balloon barges has, until recently, has been a crucial, but largely overlooked, heritage in both ships and personnel. [7] In the same vein, the LBBB wrecks at Salcombe help chart the little-known story of Britain’s preparations for Overlord as early as 1942.


[1] The National Archives, Churchill Archive, CHAR 20/77/87-90; Matloff, M. & Snell, E (1990) Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare (Washington DC: Centre of Military History, US Army) 266-292, as published online

[2] Smith, G. nd “Thames Lighters at War in Time for D-Day”, Naval-History.net Part 1 and Part 2

[3] Ibid.

[4] United Kingdom Hydrographic Office 12806

[5] “Barrage Balloon Vessels”, Barrage Balloon Reunion Club, published online

[6] Designated as LBBB 332 and LBBB 362 in British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1914-18 and 1939 45 (Yeovil: Patrick Stephens Ltd) (reproduction of HMSO originals), p51; described as ‘dumb barges of 150-ton type’ in Smith Part 2; Brine, M nd “Casualties of the Bombing at Salcombe”, Devon Heritage (published online); Goss, C, Cornwell, P, and Rauchbach, B, 2003 Luftwaffe Fighter-Bombers over Britain: The Tip and Run Campaign 1942-3 (Manchester: Crécy Publishing Ltd.)

[7] Hervieux, L 2015 “How Black Barrage Balloon Troops Kept the D-Day Beaches Safe”, Military History Now, published online; Military Health Systems Communications Office, 2022 “This D-Day veteran hit the beach strapped to a barrage balloon”, We Are The Mighty, published online

The Battle of Britain

The maritime aspect of the Battle of Britain: 80 years on

Battle of Britain Day, 15 September, is so designated since it marks the anniversary of the day the tide turned in favour of the RAF in the aerial battle for Britain 80 years ago in 1940.

Text: 'Never was so much owed by so many to so few' at top of image over a group portrait of five airmen
Never Was So Much Owed by So Many to So Few (Art.IWM PST 14972) © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/32404

That day, though a turning point, was by no means the end of the Battle of Britain, which continued until 31 October 1940. The end of the Battle overlapped with the beginning of the Blitzkrieg (‘Lightning War’), shortened in Britain to ‘The Blitz’ – the aerial raids on British towns, cities and infrastructure – which continued on until May 1941, and which included the destruction of Coventry and its Cathedral in November 1940. 

The Battle of Britain was not wholly unique in the six long years of the maritime war. Throughout the duration, ships and aircraft attacked one another, but the Battle of Britain saw a significant shift in the conduct and outcomes of the war at sea that was not replicated at any other time within English waters. 

The data from Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) captures the significance of Battle of Britain over the sea as the RAF sought to intercept and repel the Luftwaffe.

The Battle was fought primarily in the skies over the south-eastern counties of England. Figures for those aircraft recorded as part of the historic environment show that one-third of the aircraft lost on both sides during the Battle of Britain were actually forced down into the sea in English waters, a total of 353 aircraft, of which 217 were German and 136 British. 

In turn these 353 aircraft account for 24% – almost one quarter – of all aircraft lost in the sea in English waters during the entire war in Europe from September 1939 to May 1945, a total of 1476 altogether. 

The figures for August 1940, perhaps the most acute phase, show that 174 aircraft found a watery grave that month, whether off the south-east coast or in the Thames. For what has become known as ‘The Hardest Day‘, 18 August 1940, when operational losses and destruction of aircraft on the ground, reached their zenith, 12 aircraft are recorded as having been lost in the sea. On the British side the losses that day were four Hurricanes and a Spitfire, while the Luftwaffe lost a He111, four Ju87s, and a Me110. 

Historic B&W photograph of two soldiers standing in mud on the foreshore examine aircraft wreckage.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, JULY-OCTOBER 1940 (HU 89288) Soldiers examine an MG 15 machine gun and part of the tail assembly of a German Dornier Do 17Z bomber of the KG 2, shot down over the Thames Estuary during attacks on Eastchurch aerodrome, 13 August 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205094199

Eighty years ago today on that first ‘Battle of Britain Day’ on 15 September, the losses had diminished somewhat, all German, and all in the Thames Estuary. That day three Do17s came down: Do17Z (3405) U5+FT crashed and Do17Z (2578) F1+BS was shot down, both off Herne Bay, Kent; Do17Z (1176) 5K+DN was shot down into the Thames.

What is perhaps most distinctive about this phase of the sea war was that during the Battle of Britain aircraft losses within English waters outstripped ships sunk in the same area by roughly 2.5 to 1.

Those figures reveal a completely opposite pattern to the figures available for maritime losses in the other months of 1940: in the previous six months aircraft comprised one-third of maritime losses, and likewise for the remainder of 1940.  In other words, there was a unique spike in aircraft lost to the sea. 

The Battle of Britain was an aerial battle, stretched out over many long, exhausting, days, weeks and months, but what these figures also show is that during the Battle of Britain the sea war became an air war.