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.
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.
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.
Today’s record which commemorates a loss on 12 August 1917 came to the Historic England’s national marine database in a roundabout way, when a piece of personal research took a maritime turn and I ended up discovering the story of an aircraft lost in the sea all those years ago.
Background: Dipping briefly into the personal to provide some background, inspired by the national commemorations of the First World War (including Historic England’s commemorative research and this blog’s own Diary of the First World War) I undertook a research project on my family in the Great War, and not a moment too soon, because my principal oral history source and the last living link to the Great War generation has since passed away.
All the other centenary commemorative activities undertaken by many organisations, individuals and historians, have created a rich resource and a considerable legacy of their own, in a freely available online format. They are hugely helpful to anyone researching the events and locations of the Great War today – among them the Red Cross, the Imperial War Museum, and First World War aviation and air accident history experts, particularly the work of Ian Castle of Zeppelin Raids, Gothas and Giants: Britain’s First Blitz, 1914-18.
The story and the challenge: My great-aunt from Southend-on-Sea told the story that as a young woman she had seen British aircraft in combat with Gothas over the Thames Estuary during the First World War, with a dogfight as part of the event. (1) I wanted to see if I could identify the particular event concerned from just those few words gleaned at second-hand.
So what happened during that dogfight? There were several aerial incidents during the First World War over the Thames Estuary, but most could be eliminated on the following grounds:
(a) they were too early, since the Gotha saw service only from 1916 onwards; (b) they involved aircraft other than Gothas, such as Zeppelins; (c) they took place at night, when she is less likely to have seen or watched the aircraft; (d) they were bombing raids either unopposed or opposed only by ground artillery; or (e) they were events in which German aircraft were pursued by British craft without engagement.
The most likely incident, therefore, is one that took place in the early evening of a summer Sunday on 12 August 1917, when the resort of Southend-on-Sea was still full of day-trippers. I suspect it is likely that perhaps my great-aunt, at the age of 18, was out on a Sunday stroll on the promenade looking out over the sea, perhaps even out with her fiancé, who was later killed in action, and whose name, full of grief, she took to the grave with her.
As usual, accounts of incidents during the war vary tremendously, because of differing individual perspectives, the ‘fog of war’, ensuing propaganda claims and counter-claims by each side, and confusion with other similar incidents in the same action all being factors in sometimes making it difficult to obtain a clear and objective account of events.
It all happened very fast, too, which meant it must have passed in a blur for the combatants, and for historians a century later a very difficult task to decipher.
At 5.20 pm British aircraft scrambled from their bases on either side of the Thames Estuary to intercept German aircraft off the Thames. At 5.30 pm Gotha bombers arrived off Southend from their base at Gontrode, Belgium, with the Thames an easy flight path to follow right to the heart of the capital, where they intended to discharge their bombs.
One Gotha broke away from the eastbound trajectory along the Thames to attack Margate around 5.40 pm but was subjected to anti-aircraft fire from the ground and was then chased by RNAS pilots virtually all the way back to Zeebrugge. (2)
The other aircraft carried on at first towards London, with a couple of bombs being dropped on Rochford airfield (where Southend Airport now is) around 5.50 pm, and reaching as far east as Canvey Island, before turning back against the increasing headwind from the south-west and heading on a roughly ENE course, dropping bombs on a path between Leigh-on-Sea, Southend, Bournes Green and Little Wakering, pursued by 61 Squadron of Rochford.
This phase of the action was over land, but close enough to the coast to be visible to day-trippers and cause them to abandon their socks and shoes on the beach. (3) The death toll from bombs in Southend itself was something like 25-30 persons. (4) 61 Squadron then pursued the Gothas out to sea, and at this point pilots from RNAS Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, on the opposite side of the Thames, also rose up to engage eight Gothas as they turned back east.
In the meantime Flight Lt Harold Spencer Kerby, who had joined the pursuit of the lone Gotha off Margate, on the north-eastern coast of Kent, peeled away north-westwards in his Sopwith Pup following the sight of ‘anti-aircraft fire bursting in the direction of Southend’ to join four other ‘British machines’ against the eight Gothas, so this was approximately 6pm or so. (5)
According to eyewitness Kurt Delang of Kasta 15: ‘One single-seater fighter followed us on our course along the east coast of England. This Englishman attacked our Gotha[s] constantly from above and very soon caused heavy damage to our aircraft.’ (6) In other words, Kerby was straightaway on the attack. The Gothas at this point were certainly tracking the coastline from the landward, but Little Wakering was their last landside point and after that they moved out to sea from the Essex coast.
I suspect that this point of the incident is what my great-aunt witnessed from Southend-on-Sea, as she would have been able to see Kerby in his Sopwith Pup making for the anti-aircraft guns at Shoeburyness which came into play as the Gothas moved out to sea, and going on the attack as he crossed their paths. (Kerby described their course as north-easterly, but the trajectory of the bomb drops across the area suggest an ENE course.) (7)
Kerby made a fruitless diving attack about ’30 miles to seaward’ then climbed and singled out ‘one Gotha 4,000 [ft] below the formation, but still flying with it. I attacked from the front and drove him down into the sea, where I observed him turn over. One of the occupants I saw hanging on the tail of the Gotha.’ (8)
The aircraft in the sea was Gotha IV 656/16 of Kasta 16, Kagohl III. (9) Unteroffizier Kurt Delang of Kasta 15 described the same incident in such a way as to suggest it refers to the same incident, albeit with a different outcome: ‘We were already down to 500 metres above the water when the Englishman again attacked. Then he flew beneath us for a long time . . . and pulled up straight in order to gain altitude and strike again from above.’ Delang’s account then diverges considerably from Kerby’s: ‘When the British single-seater had attained only a modest speed, he was right in the sights of our machine guns. Flames burst out . . . he plunged into the North Sea.’ (10)
Accounts then become somewhat more muddled with various claims from all parties as to the place of loss. Other German sources (11) stated that the crew of Delang’s aircraft, had ‘shot down a British single-seater near Southend,’ with two other British losses also claimed on this raid, of a triplane near Margate and a two-seater near Southend.
However, there are no records of Kerby or any other British pilots being shot down that day in home waters, and the only aircraft losses on that day on both sides were on the Western Front, including Delang’s Gotha, which crash-landed just short of its home base at Gontrode. What they reported seems to have been the loss of one of their own. (12)
How could this happen? It was difficult to mistake the two aircraft, with the much larger three-man Gotha bomber having a distinctive pattern of vertical struts arranged in a 2-2-3 pattern between each pair of wings, compared to the Sopwith Pup with its single set of two struts on either side, and each side had recognition markings. As the painting at the top of the article shows, however, smoke and cloud could obscure the view and rapid decisions taken in an emergency could lead to the ‘fog of war’ descending. They fired, but did they miss Kerby and strike one of their own instead as the aircraft danced their fatal dance in the sky?
The confirmation of air combat results is both very specific and very vague. It certainly name-checks the principal theatres of action at Southend and Margate and seems to suggest a wide spread of British aircraft, a one-seater, a two-seater and a triplane, but does not name the models downed, and in any case the main British production triplane, the Sopwith Triplane, saw service overseas, not in home defence. This may therefore be an example of a claim demonstrating some results from what was otherwise an abortive mission which did not achieve its target.
So where did this take place? Delang reported Kerby’s first dive as ‘along the east coast of England’, suggesting that land was in sight at that point, i.e. the Essex coastline, although Kerby suggests it was further out to sea. British sources attribute the loss of Gotha IV 656/16 to ‘some way off Southend’, but this is consistent with Delang on the ‘British’ loss ‘near Southend’. Other German sources suggest that 656/16 was lost off Dover, but not in combat.
The incident certainly took place some distance offshore because Kerby circled the capsized Gotha before ‘returning to England’, and threw a lifebelt to the crew member who had got out onto the tail, which certainly suggests he had a good look at the aircraft and was able to identify it, as shown by the illustration immediately below.
Kerby then attempted to direct some destroyers bound for Dunkirk to assist the stricken aircraft, but his signals were ignored, although these nameless destroyers provide a further clue.
Those destroyers help point us in the direction of where the aircraft came down. The aircraft pursuit took a roughly ENE course along the Essex coast, as revealed by the bomb drops, and the respective pilots’ accounts, then out to sea. Other than the abortive engagement off Margate, no action took place over the Kent coast, so Dover appears too far south for Kerby’s destruction of the Gotha, and Delang’s account that an aircraft had been shot down into the North Sea also suggests a locale further north than Kent. The German source that claimed 656/16 was lost ‘off Dover’ would naturally have had less knowledge of the English coast than the British pilots, so we can suggest that the destroyers Kerby saw are unlikely to be those of the Dover patrol.
Instead, the destroyers he attempted to signal are more likely to have been those of the Harwich patrol, where the 10th Destroyer Flotilla was part of the Harwich force. These destroyers were thus steaming on a south-easterly course and would have been using the swept War Channels safe, as far as possible, from mines, and keeping well clear of the notorious sandbanks at the entrance to the Thames Estuary.
Additionally, for the German aircraft, an easterly course from Essex was unsustainable for their return flight to Gontrode in Belgium with fuel supplies running low, especially after taking evasive action, so at some point the Gothas would also have had to start to bear on a south-easterly course, for which the Dover area would also have been too far south. It thus seems more likely that 656/16 was downed before the formation began to turn their course for home.
We can see that the British aircraft were quite capable of pursuing the Gothas virtually all the way back to Belgium, and, as we have seen, others in this incident were certainly followed 40 to 50 miles out to sea. This suggests that Kerby’s estimate of action some 30 miles offshore is probably correct, with the final downing of his quarry perhaps a little further east and intersecting with the destroyers he witnessed from Harwich making for Dunkirk.
The most likely area fitting the criteria of an easterly to north-easterly course some 30 to 40 miles out to sea from the populated areas of the Essex Thameside coast, and intersecting with the Harwich-Dunkirk route taken by the destroyers, is an area just off the south-western tip of the present-day London Array Wind Farm. Although 30 miles sounds a long way offshore from Essex, this area in fact lies within the UK limit of territorial waters (12 miles) given its greater proximity to the Kent coastline.
Outcome: I was not at all hopeful that I would even be able to identify the incident my great-aunt witnessed. Years of professional historical research have taught me that sometimes the unexpected happens and a trail that seems at first to be unpromising proves to be a fascinating piece of research (and vice versa). Even so, I was astonished that by retracing the flight paths of Flight Lieutenant Harold Spencer Kerby and Unteroffizier Kurt Delang, I ended up with a record of an aircraft lost to the sea, and one which was new to the Historic England national marine database.
(1) As told by the author’s great-aunt (1898-1994) to her father (1922-2020), and preserved in an unpublished family history document, Serena Cant 2018
(8) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1, Harold Spencer Kerby’s own words, derived from official sources and repr. in Franks, N. 2012 Sopwith Pup Aces of World War I (London: Bloomsbury Publishing); http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html
Our War Diary for the month of June 1940 focuses on another rare aircraft, Armstrong Whitley Whitworth N1476, lost on 20 June 1940, which, like the Blackburn Botha (February 1940 entry), was another example of an ‘extinct’ aircraft of which no complete or airworthy examples survive. (1)
This aircraft had entered service just a month earlier, on 20 May 1940, when it was allocated to 77 Sqn, RAF Driffield, Yorkshire. Introduced into service in 1937, the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley was a heavy bomber used by the RAF until 1944, although its main period of service was 1939-41. (2)
On the night of 19 June 1940 N1476 left Driffield for a bombing raid on the Ruhr piloted by Pilot Officer Andrew Dunn. N1476 and its five-man crew were struck by repeated anti-aircraft fire en route to their own target of the marshalling yards at Wanne-Eickel, before then coming under attack ‘by a Messerschmitt 109’. (3)
The first attack put the intercom out of action and wounded both the observer, Sgt Bernard Savill, and the wireless operator, Sgt Joseph Dawson. The rear gunner, Pilot Officer Leslie Watt, managed to shoot down the Messerschmitt as it attacked again, but not before it had hit and disabled the Whitley’s port engine, which caught fire. (4)
The crew then managed to attack their target and turn around for the return leg. The fire on the port engine was extinguished, but it burst into flames once more, was put out again, and the engine shut down. It was a long three and a half hour flight on a single engine across the North Sea, dropping as low as 400ft, while the second pilot, Pilot Officer Charles Montagu, made everything ready for abandoning the aircraft. (5)
They then ditched in the sea just off Hastings Pier (reported at the time as merely ‘off the south coast’) at 04.27am and issued a mayday call to which motor launches of Coastal Command responded. All five crew survived and were immediately recognised for ‘gallantry in flying operations’, the three Pilot Officers receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and the two Sergeants, as ‘other ranks’, the Distinguished Flying Medal (a distinction which has since been abolished). (6)
Parts of the aircraft have been reported from the sea from time to time: a tyre from the undercarriage recovered in the 1980s, initially believed to be a bomb, now in the Robertsbridge Aviation Society Museum, which was identified as being part of N1476, and in the 2010s, a nut stamped with the RR logo, indicating a Rolls-Royce engine was also discovered near Hastings Pier. (7)
As the Whitley was powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, N1476 is likely to be the prime candidate for this latter find, since the five other aircraft reported as having ditched or been shot down off Hastings during the Second World War were all German. Thus other aircraft which also had Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, such as the Spitfire, can be excluded from the candidates for consideration. (8)
However, as the ‘bomb’ which was a tyre demonstrates, these finds are open to revision and interpretation: a find in the sea reported off Norfolk through the Offshore Renewables Protocol for Archaeological Discoveries (ORPAD) in 2015 was initially attributed to a recorded loss of another Armstrong Whitworth Whitley in the same vicinity, but after re-examination of the evidence in 2017 it was reported as being a part from a German Jumo engine and thus from something like a Junkers Ju87 or 88 or a Heinkel He111H. (9)
This means that the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley off Hastings is a rare confirmed find. To date there has only been one other report of an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley in the sea off the south coast, without an identification attribute, so even as a subset of aircraft wrecks in the sea, they are rare.
(2) Holyoak & Schofield 2002, p8; Leverington, K (ed.) 1995 The Vital Guide to Fighting Aircraft of World War II (Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing Ltd.) p5
(3)London Gazette, 12 July 1940, No.34,896, p4,289; this aircraft is variously referred to as the Bf109 or the Me109. Detailed target information from the Museum Manager, Robertsbridge Aviation Society pers. comm., 2020
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on 8 May 1945 we look at the very last craft of any kind to be lost off the coast of England.
The last few months of the war saw a significant decline in shipping and aircraft losses over the sea attributable to war causes. The last six weeks of the war saw 10 shipping casualties to war causes in English waters. Over the same period there were 6 aircraft lost to non-war causes (mechanical failure or accident, for example).
The seventh and last aircraft, and last loss of the war in English waters, was the exception, and a war loss, despite its peaceable mission – just one day before the celebration of Victory in Europe. And it is to events in Europe we must turn first of all to understand the mission of the last aircraft of the war to find a grave with most of its crew in England’s territorial sea.
As the end of the war approached, there was real desperation in the occupied Netherlands after the arduous Hongerwinter [“Hunger Winter”) of 1944-5, of whom one of the best-known survivors was the actress Audrey Hepburn, whose mother was Dutch and who grew up in the Netherlands.
The Hongerwinter arose from a terrible combination of circumstances, any one of which on its own would have been bad enough Although the Allies pushed ahead after breaking out from Normandy, the objective of Arnhem in the Netherlands in September 1944 during Operation Market Garden proved a ‘bridge too far’. Attempted strikes by Dutch railway personnel led to retaliation by the occupiers, preventing food supplies from getting through, and when this blockade was lifted, there were overwhelming obstacles to overseas relief efforts. Although the Allies had managed to capture Antwerp in September 1944, it was several weeks before the port could be used and, even if it had been in use earlier, the the occupied western provinces of the Netherlands with the greatest population density, and least agricultural land, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam, remained cut off. The canals and rivers froze early that winter and fuel for lorries was scarce. Limited relief supplies from neutral Sweden and Switzerland had helped a little but the situation remained dire. (1)
The relief effort:
Even as the Allies closed in on Berlin and the end of the war in Europe, they were able to refocus from a purely offensive approach towards a relief effort and the rebuilding of a new Europe. The Lancasters of the RAF and the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF based in England, which had so recently been deployed on bombing missions were perfectly suited to dropping food parcels to the Netherlands, and thus Operations Manna (RAF) and Chowhound (USAAF) were born.
It was a massive logistical effort which drew upon the resources of the Allied airfields of East Anglia at very short notice from mid-April 1945, with the situation becoming urgent against German resistance and the risk of further deliberate flooding both of agricultural fields and transport infrastructure a real possibility. There were no spare parachutes available, so safe conduct for low-level food drops was arranged, to begin in late April 1945.
Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640 of the 334th Bomber Squadron, 95th Bomb Group, set out from USAAF Horham in Suffolk on 7 May 1945, the day after the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands and the day before Victory in Europe day. Along with its precious cargo of food there were 13 on board, including observers from the station’s Photographic Section, all anticipating a routine mission.
Following a successful drop 44-8640 turned for home. There were still pockets of resistance from the occupation forces, which is believed to have had a bearing on subsequent events. No. 2 engine was reported as ‘running rough’, with smoke and oil, thought to originate from rogue flak fired by the occupation forces at the aircraft in the IJmuiden area. (2)
According to a crashed aircraft recovery specialist based at RAF Ford, Sussex, in 1944, crew would nurse their crippled aircraft, whether shot up, suffering mechanical failure, or simply running out of fuel, back from overseas missions to the English coastline, but would then often be forced to crash-land at or near the nearest available base, unable to make it back to their home bases. (3)
As the situation worsened, the crew of 44-8640 realised that reaching the coast was going to be impossible and, fearing an explosion, they baled out over the sea off Suffolk, in the vicinity of Benacre Ness or Southwold, with one survivor recalling that the engine dropped away in a ‘ball of flame’ as he got away. The aircraft then fell into the sea.
Two men were picked up alive by a Catalina flying boat after some time in the water, and it is their testimony that enables us to know what happened to 44-8640, but the remainder of the crew were killed, including the observers.
Those of the crew whose bodies were recovered were interred at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, Cambridge, but others were never found and are presumed entombed with the aircraft on the seabed.
This, the final loss of any craft in English waters to war causes, was also one of the cruel tragedies of the war: to be shot at over the Netherlands and to keep the aircraft airborne so many miles only to lose the battle so close to the English coast, and all on a humanitarian mission. Somewhere off the coast lie its remains, which are yet to be discovered but which are automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.
Victory in Europe was, perhaps, a collective sigh of relief, but it was not the end of the war, which would only come in August 1945 with VJ Day. It was a victory achieved at a huge human cost which has left legible traces in the historic environment – the destruction of historic fabric from London to Coventry and beyond, the legible traces in standing buildings from the suburban semi to national museums, the construction of military installations that have since become ‘historic’ in themselves, the legacy of commemoration – and the remains of ships and aircraft on the seabed, lost to war causes over the years from 1939 to 1945.
(1) For more detail on this subject, see Sutch, A. 2016 “Manna from Heaven”, RAF Museum blog, online
(2) Onderwater, H. 1985 Operation Manna/Chowhound: the Allied food droppings April?may 1945 Netherlands: Unieboek
(3) Oral history testimony, Ronald Cant (RAF Corporal, 1942-1946) as told to his daughter in reminiscing over D-Day, 2019.
One key respect in which the conduct of the Second World War at sea differed from the First was the number of aircraft involved. Since the previous war, aircraft had evolved to become capable of significant offensive and defensive roles, reflected in the numbers lost over both land and sea. In and around English waters these included well-known aircraft on both sides, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters, Ju88s, Me109s and He111s, as well as many less familiar aircraft types.
Today, on the 80th anniversary of its loss on 24 February 1940, we feature our first case study of an aircraft lost at sea during the Second World War. (Others will follow in due course.) The reasons for aircraft loss were many and varied: aerial combat, mechanical failure, and training accidents among them.
We begin with L6111, an example of a lesser-known type, the Blackburn Botha, developed and built over 1936-8 as a reconnaissance aircraft and a torpedo bomber. In early 1940 the Botha was not yet on active service, but remained under test for the Air Ministry at the Torpedo Development Unit (TDU), RAF Gosport, Hampshire, to which L6111 was allocated. (1)
On the morning of 24 February 1940, L6111 was on torpedo-dropping exercises over the Solent between Gosport and Ryde, Isle of Wight, when the engine cut out and the crew were forced to ditch in the sea. All four men were providentially able to get into a dinghy before their aircraft sank. (2)
Not all Botha crews were so fortunate: exactly one year later, on 24 February 1941, Blackburn Botha L6262 crashed into the ground close to its destination airfield of RAF Detling, Kent, killing all four crew. (3) Even against the context of training and operational losses for all aircraft, these and other accidents ensured that the Botha was quickly rendered obsolete as a frontline aircraft. Only 580 were ever built, compared to the production runs for the more successful types such as the Spitfire (over 20,000 constructed).
Debris in the Solent off Fort Gilkicker was confirmed in 1990 as the scattered wreckage of an aircraft and would tally well with L6111‘s flight path. (4) As an aircraft having crashed on military service, it is automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986. (5)
It also has some significance as one of 21 ‘extinct’ British and German aircraft types of the 1930s and 40s, with few or no surviving complete examples in any context. (6) (See also an earlier blog post on a Do17 ‘Flying Pencil’ recovered from the sea in 2013, another, more intact, example of one of these rare types.) By contrast more Spitfires were produced, served in action and survived the war: this means that more Spitfires likewise survive in preservation, including airworthy examples, or as archaeological remains within both the terrestrial and marine environments.
History has a habit of repeating itself, not least at sea. Today’s First World War wreck has a namesake with a very similar history in the Second World War: both vessels were owned by the same firm originally and were likewise lost to enemy action on Admiralty service in English waters, both with significant loss of life.
On 13 June 1918 HMS Patia was sunk by in the Bristol Channel in a position said to be 25 miles west of Hartland Point, while on service as an armed merchant cruiser. She was built in 1913 for Elders and Fyffes (of banana fame), whose early 20th century ships took advantage of modern refrigeration technology to transport bananas across the Atlantic to ensure fruit reached market in peak edible condition.
A photograph of her sinking is in the Imperial War Museums Collection online.
Their second Patia, built in 1922, entered Admiralty service first as an ocean boarding vessel, then underwent conversion to a fighter catapult ship. She too was sunk on 27 April 1941 off Beadnell Point, Northumberland, by an aerial attack, but not before her crew had downed the attacking aircraft – continuing the theme of mutually-assured destruction covered in last month’s post.
It’s worth reiterating that the War Diary has showcased the war service of many of the world’s commercial shipping fleets during the First World War, and these companies would reprise that service during the Second.
Wartime deployment would depend to some extent on their original civilian roles. We have already seen how trawlers became minesweepers, Scandinavian colliers were requisitioned and redeployed in British collier service, and ocean liners became troopships and hospital ships – and also armed merchant cruisers, a form of vessel we have not hitherto covered in the War Diary.
Patia‘s speed as a specialist banana carrier made her suitable for carrying out this auxiliary naval role, which she successfully performed from November 1914 right up until 13 June 1918, armed with 6 x 6in howitzers and 2 x 3pdr anti-aircraft guns. She served principally in the North Atlantic between Scotland and Iceland, and from 1917 took up convoy escort duties. Her logs survive up till 30 April 1918, showing that in February she had escorted a convoy home from Dakar (Senegal) before docking at Avonmouth on the 25th for maintenance. Subsequent entries reveal “chipping and painting” over the next month, that is, getting rid of rust before applying a fresh coat of paint. (1)
No further logs survive, highlighting one of the key difficulties in researching the events of a century ago. As usual, the Admiralty press release was extremely brief, hiding the location of loss:
‘The Admiralty on Monday night issued the following: – H.M. armed mercantile cruiser Patia, Acting Captain W. G. Howard, R.N., was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on the 13th inst.
‘One officer and 15 men, including eight of the mercantile crew, are missing, presumed drowned. The next-of-kin have been informed.’ (2)
The details which made it into the press at the time focused on the human interest aspect, including the deaths of local men, which had been depressingly regular reading in regional newspapers since the outbreak of war. For example:
‘CASUALTIES AMONG MIDLAND MEN.
‘The following additional particulars of local men killed have been supplied:-
‘Signalman William Harold B. Roe, RNVR, HMS Patia, lost his life through the Patia being torpedoed on the 13th inst. The elder son of Mr William Roe . . . he was educated at King Edward’s Grammar School, holding scholarships. On leaving school he entered Lloyds Bank and rapidly progressed. On January 10, 1918, he was married to Miss Alice Williams . . . ‘ (3)
Likewise, the Western Daily Press reported:
‘A Portishead man, Mr Leslie Victor Atwell, lost his life in the ill-fated Patia. He was a naval reservist and joined up on the outbreak of war. He was 35 years of age, married, and previously an employee of the Docks Committee.’ (4)
More happily, another feature referred to the ‘Exciting Experiences of Famous Young Walsall Violinist’:
‘One of the able seamen who was saved from the Patia was Harold Mills, Walsall’s brilliant young violinist. He arrived in Walsall after a short stay in an English hospital, and in a chat with a representative of the Observer, spoke on all subjects except his being torpedoed.’
It emerged that he spent an hour in a boat which then picked him up and transferred him to an American destroyer. Mills gave good copy:
‘Most of his kit was lost, including his violin, but, as he philosophically expressed it, it was not his best.’ (5)
The stories of the two Patias are not wholly similar, however. The second Patia is almost certainly identified off the Northumberland coast (6), whereas the location of the 1918 Patia is not fully clear.
A site formerly attributed to Patia has since proved to be the Armenian, another First World War casualty of 1915, identified by her bell. (7)Patia is now believed to lie in a different location in the Bristol Channel, itself further west than the stated position of 25 miles west of Hartland Point, although such positions are not necessarily reliably expressed. That site’s charting history reaches back to 1928 but no further: this does not necessarily preclude its identification with Patia, since, after all, many First World War vessels have only been discovered in recent years. (8)
The submarine which attacked the first Patia in 1918 was herself sunk in August of that year off Start Point by HMS Opossum. The Heinkel responsible for sinking the second Patia in 1941, and shot down in its turn, has to date not been located.
By December 1917 the citizens of London were used to air raids at regular intervals: it was terrifying enough, although nothing like on the scale of the Blitz of the Second World War. The wreck highlighted today in this month’s War Diary is representative of a new form of accident out to sea which would become more prevalent as aerial warfare developed.
On 18 December 1917 another raid was carried out by around 16 to 20 aircraft of Bogohl 3. (Bombengeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung, High Command Bomber Squadron, also known as the Englandgeschwader, or ‘England Squadron’.) Two groups of Gotha bombers flew in over Kent and Essex around 6.30pm with the aim of bombing London. Some of the bombers got through and inflicted damage on Lincoln’s Inn which can still be seen today.
Nevertheless, after the cumulative experience of several raids, there were now several lines of defence which prevented all the raiders reaching London. Firstly, anti-aircraft guns swung into action and turned at least some of the enemy away. Secondly, barrage balloons were moored to protect London, a response more usually associated with the Second World War. One contemporary headline, ‘Barraged Gothas’ implies that the balloons were a major factor in preventing the majority of the Gothas from reaching London. (1)
At this point I made an unexpected discovery and this is where I digress briefly. I’d already earmarked Frank Dobson’s image as an illustration to this post, having seen it in an exhibition earlier this year, and saw then the balloons protected Kynoch’s munitions factory. (2) Researching this article, I then discovered that this same factory at Corringham, Essex, was targeted early on in this specific raid. (3) Nor was this the only coincidence. One of the supervisors at that very factory was my grandmother – and I wonder now if she was there at the time or had already gone home for the day! (Here’s a photograph of female workers at Kynoch’s: my grandmother is the girl in the sailor suit.)
The third line of defence was aerial combat. Fighter pilots from the Home Defence Squadrons also took to the air to challenge and intercept the raiders, among them Captain Gilbert Ware Murlis Green of No.44 Squadron, Hainault Farm, Essex, in his Sopwith Camel. (4) Up he went in his single-seater to duel with the three-man Gotha bomber, crewed by Oberleutnant G von Stachelsky (pilot), Leutnant Friedrich Ketelsen, and Gefreiter A Weissman. Three times he went in to attack, and then, blinded by his own muzzle flash, he was forced to pull away, while the searchlights that made the Gotha visible to him also made him a target for its return fire. His fourth attack found its mark.
Green had not immediately downed his opponent, but damaged it enough for it to be doubtful if it could return across the Channel. The press took up the tale: ‘One raider was hit by gunfire and finally came down in the sea off the Kentish coast, two of its crew of three men being captured alive by an armed trawler.’ (5)
As the aircraft crossed the coast, observers noticed it sounded as if it was flying low, and therefore clearly struggling, and then the sound of its engines was heard to cease suddenly out at sea. The “All Clear” was then sounded, followed by an offshore explosion shortly afterwards. Searches found the stricken aircraft and the trawler picked up von Stachelsky and Weissman, but Ketelsen had perished in the incident.
Ketelsen was a Danish-minority German from Pellworm in Schleswig-Holstein. A very interesting website, mostly in Danish, commemorates the Danish minority reluctantly mobilised into the German forces, with a page dedicated to Ketelsen. His name appears on a hand-painted memorial tablet which is very moving to see (if you follow the line across from the lower left-hand column to the right it leads easily to his name).
As for the rescued men, much was made of their youth and demeanour: one of the prisoners was described as ‘very sullen and dejected’, as well he might have been. (6)
It would have been absolutely freezing exposed at several thousand feet high on a cold December night, and the sea would have been no better. The two rescued crew were very fortunate to live to see another Christmas, even if it wasn’t exactly how they planned to spend it!
(1)Sheffield Daily Telegraph, No.19,485, Thursday 20 December 1917, p5
(2) The Imperial War Museum catalogue entry for The Balloon Apron, suggests that it depicts balloons over Kynoch’s factory at Canvey Island. However, Kynoch’s premises on the island comprised an hotel and powder hulks located just offshore, but no factory. Kynoch’s factory was at Corringham, Essex, and, given the multiple factories depicted in the background of the painting, it appears more likely that the image shows the industrial landscape around Corringham. See also: Penn, J. nd. The Canvey Explosives Scheme of 1875: Dynamite Hulks and the Canvey Hotel
In the second part of our Zeppelin double bill, we turn now to the tale of L15 as a counterpart to the story of L19 and Franz Fischer in Part 1. Like L19,L15 was a veteran of the raid on the West Midlands of 31 January/1 February 1916, and had, unlike the former, returned safely from that operation. She would survive to see two more months of activity.
Her final operation, together with six other Zeppelins, was planned for the week beginning March 31, when there would be minimal moonlight. (1) Admiral Scheer’s signal, briefing the German High Sea Fleet on the impending raid on southern England that night, was intercepted by British intelligence and a minesweeper tracked the Zeppelin, sending a report to Lowestoft. The British naval machine swung into action, with destroyers taking station off the east coast, just as the raid began over Essex and Suffolk.
L15 crossed the coast over Suffolk and, according to the later British official history, ‘followed the track of the Great Eastern Railway towards London, dropping a few bombs on Ipswich and Colchester as she passed’. As she lumbered south-westwards over the Thames ‘she was heavily engaged by the numerous anti-aircraft batteries’ on both the north and south banks at Purfleet, Erith, and Plumstead. L15was forced to jettison her bombs over Rainham and turn back towards Germany, but not before the Purfleet battery had scored a hit.
The disabled Zeppelin was then intercepted by Alfred de Bathe Brandon of the Royal Flying Corps at Hainault, in a BE 2C biplane: he climbed above his target, attempting to bring her down by means of Ranken darts, a specific anti-Zeppelin weapon designed to pierce the skin of the hull. The airship then circled over Foulness, Essex, and dropped away, crashing into the sea near the Kentish Knock.
It has been a matter of speculation ever since whether the Purfleet gun battery or Brandon’s action was ultimately responsible for the Zeppelin’s demise, or whether it was the combination of the two that made her the first Zeppelin to come down within English territorial waters. Official sources say nothing about a small explosion on board, but contemporary newspapers suggest that the crew had drawn lots as to who would be the last to stay behind after the rescue and blow up the airship, which would have meant almost certain death for the unlucky crew member. (2)
In the event, no self-immolation occurred, although, as the patrol trawler Olivine approached, a small explosion in the motor room was noted just before the Zeppelin crew surrendered. (2)
In contrast to the story of L19, the crew were not left to their fate by the trawler. All but one of the crew were rescued by the Olivine, and taken prisoner, although one had drowned before he could be picked up. But then the Olivine was not out alone in the remote expanses of the North Sea, but in a busy shipping lane bristling with warships and civilian vessels alike. The Zeppelin came down ‘in a flotilla of net drifters’ which the Olivine was guarding (1) and other patrol vessels were nearby: ‘That stretch of water . . . swarms with patrolling craft.’ (2)
‘She came down like a sick bird, flopping at both ends as though they were wings’, said one witness. (2) An hour and a half later, destroyers from the Nore tried to take her in tow but the operation was fraught with difficulty, since ‘her stern was under water, the envelope was partly broken, and her back was broken.’ (1) After proceeding a very short distance, she collapsed and sank within hours of coming down, but was eventually salvaged off Westgate, Kent.
The crew were taken to Chatham and the New York Times conducted an interview with the prisoners at the barracks, interrogating them on the impact of the raids and the loss of life among civilians, particularly women and children, so that on the whole the authorities’ decision to allow access to the prisoners resulted in a pro-British piece in the US press.
It turned out that Lieutenant Kuehne had been married only 8 days previously and he ‘was rather surprised to learn that his captors would allow him to write a letter to his bride. He confessed that he had no idea that the British could be so sympathetic.’ (3) He also sent his greetings to a London newspaper editor whom he had met before the war, demonstrating that there was still a residue of the mutual cordiality of pre-war Anglo-German relations. One final detail that emerged from the interview was that the night had been so cold and the Zeppelin flying so high that it was coated in frost and they ‘suffered severely’.
I’d like to end this blog on a personal note. Zeppelins would continue their raids on England in 1916 and beyond: for me these raids are only two generations away. My paternal grandmother went to see the site of another Zeppelin which came down at Great Burstead, Essex, in September 1916. She found the wreck guarded by policemen and soldiers but was profoundly shocked on arrival to see that the soldiers had already looted pieces of debris and were selling them to the public! This was hardly surprising since souvenirs from L15are also known to survive, with several being in the collections of the Imperial War Museum, London (no images available).
(1) Naval Staff Monographs No.31, Vol. XV: Home Waters: Part VI: From October 1915 to May 1916, pp178-180. Admiralty, London
Interned German vessels have been a recurring theme or leitmotiv in this Diary of the War blog. This month’s double bill begins with another example, the Franz Fischer, detained as a prize at Sharpness in 1914, and the doubts over her manner of loss.
It is a story that exemplifies the dangers of the sea as the war drew near to its half-way mark, with terror from above and a message in a bottle.
As with most other detained prizes, Franz Fischer helped to fill the gaps in the ranks of sunken colliers, being one of 34 ships managed as colliers for the Admiralty by the Newcastle firm of Everett & Newbigin.(1) (Ironically she was the ex-British Rocklands, sold to Germany in 1913.) Despite reverting to Britain as a prize, she retained her recent German name, and it was as the Franz Fischer that she set off on her final voyage from Hartlepool on 31 January 1916, bound for Cowes with 1,020 tons of coal.
Around 9.30pm the following evening, having been informed that there were mines to be seen ahead, Franz Fischer prudently joined a group of laden vessels at anchor off the Kentish Knock Buoy.
What happened next was shrouded in some mystery. At 10.30pm Franz Fischer was rocked by an explosion amidships and sank within a couple of minutes at most. Only three men out of her 16-strong crew – a seaman from Newfoundland, the chief engineer, from Tyneside, and the steward, a Londoner – survived to be picked up alive by the Belgian steamer SS Paul, by which time they were ‘close to collapse’, having heard the cries of other survivors gradually dying away overnight. (2)
Their story was told by Alfred Noyes in his serial for the Times, “Open Boats”, (3). (His radio drama of the same name was published in the New York Times as a powerful illustration of the sufferings endured by torpedoed crews.) The crew heard a noise approaching from the SE, which appeared to go away, then became ‘deafening’. As they investigated in the ‘black dark’ they were knocked off their feet by a ‘great mass of sea water which had been heaved up by the explosion.’ One survivor described an eerie sense that there was an aircraft ‘circling overhead in the darkness, dropping closer and closer to the vessel, like a great night-hawk’, the noise ‘several express trains all crossing a bridge together’ followed by a brief silence, then the explosion.
The chief engineer managed to swim to the lifebelt box, which rolled over when some of the crew tried to get onto it, so he decided to swim away. He managed to grab a lifebelt before passing out in the water: when he came to, he was aboard the Paul. (3)
The British press kept a beady eye on their German counterparts in a war of words that mirrored the physical war. The Wolff Bureau circulated a press release to German news outlets, claiming that the Franz Fischer had been sunk by a Zeppelin returning from the raid on England. The raid is well-documented, taking place on the night of 31 January to 1 February, so even at the Zeppelins’ lumbering speed they had already crossed the North Sea by the time the Franz Fischer was attacked.
All except one. L19 had engine trouble and crashed into the North Sea, where she was eventually found by a British fishing vessel, the King Stephen. The trawler crew rejected appeals from the Zeppelin crew for rescue, fearing that they would be overpowered and their vessel hijacked. The last heard from L19 was a despairing final report cast away in a bottle, dated at 1pm on 2 February, ‘wohl die letzte Stunde’, ‘at our last hour’. This message would wash up on the Swedish coast some 6 months later.
The trajectory of L19 can be reconstructed, from the Midlands (although the crew believed they had targeted Liverpool) to the east coast at Winterton, Norfolk, well north of the Kentish Knock, whence she drifted as far east as the Dutch coast. Anti-aircraft fire from the Dutch drove her away again and she came down in the North Sea. The wreckage was eventually discovered some 120 miles off the Spurn, so her wanderings throughout appear to have been too far north for her to be Franz Fischer‘s nemesis.
The most likely cause of the explosion was not from the air but from below. UB–17 was in the area, and her Kriegstagesbuch, ‘war diary’ or log book survives (4) noting an attack on a steamer at the Hoofden (the Kentish Knock). The first torpedo missed her target, but the second struck, sinking her within a minute and sending up a ‘column’ of smoke. This sounds close to British accounts, and by the time the official history of the war had been written in the 1920s, the wreck had been attributed to UB-17. The official history of the war at sea also came to the same conclusion: UB-17 was responsible, since ‘no enemy aeroplane or seaplane from Belgium is known to have gone out that evening; and probably the aircraft heard was one of our own.’ (5)
One hundred years ago the survivors of Franz Fischer felt themselves overshadowed by an aerial presence, which had nothing to do with the loss of their ship. L19 has overshadowed the story ever since. However, recent research and retranslation of the very difficult Suetterlin script of the original Kriegstagesbuch has uncovered that the first torpedo not only missed the target, but also misfired. ‘No track was to be seen: it was a dud.’ Could this misfiring have been part of the ominous noise heard by the survivors?
With especial thanks to Thomas Foerster,who transcribed the Kriegstagesbuch, and helped unlock its meaning, and to everyone who helped in various ways with this story – Angela Middleton and Marion Page of Historic England, and Matt Skelhorn of the MoD.