Diary of the Second World War

Welcome to our commemorative page marking the Second World War at sea within English territorial waters. Following on from the success of our War Diary commemorating the centenary of the First World War, we are compiling a new feature for the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September 1939.

The War Diary of the First World War aimed to highlight the impact of the war at sea during a conflict which, over time, has more or less become synonymous with ‘Flanders fields’. Over the four years the diary ran in 2014-18 we featured one shipwreck in English waters with a story to tell each month, to illustrate the breadth of the underwater heritage of the First World War: British, German, Allied or neutral; grand passenger liner, workaday collier or tiny fishing vessel; warship, submarine, or requisitioned vessel, sail, steam or motor-driven.

Historic B&W photograph of paddle steamer with funnel belching smoke on a river, echoing the factory chimneys behind also belching out smoke.
Paddle steamer Plinlimmon (ex Cambria) hired by the Ministry of War Transport in 1939, shown in battleship grey as a minesweeper in 1940, the year she also participated in the Dunkirk evacuation. Source: Historic England Archive CC80/00195

Over the next six years, from September 2019 onwards, the War Diary for the Second World War will follow a similar approach to illustrate an equally diverse underwater cultural heritage within English territorial waters.

The war at sea in the conflict of 1939-1945 is in some respects better known than that of the war of 1914-1918, with its importance being recognised from the outset and in which the capture and deciphering of the Enigma machine played a pivotal role. The conflict not only touched every corner of the globe, but also took place in all the elements: in the air, on and over land, and in and under the sea. The First World War had paved the way with the relatively new submarine and aircraft: twenty years later, both had evolved sufficiently to become the defining technologies of the war, evolving to strike surface targets upon land and sea. The collaboration between air- and sea-craft first seen during the First World war also grew: from providing air cover for convoys to launching long-range battles using the sophisticated aircraft carrier. Aircraft developed specialist submarine-hunter roles and ships were equipped to defend themselves from an onslaught whether it came by air, from the shore, or under the water.

In the same way, both at the time and since, the war at sea has permeated popular culture: In Which We Serve, British, 1942; Sealed Cargo, US, 1943 (as novel The Gaunt Woman), 1951 (film); The Cruel Sea, British, 1951 (novel), 1953 (film); Das Boot, German, 1973 (novel), 1981 (film).

However, within home waters, and within English waters, the impact of the Second World War at sea, is perhaps less clear, despite the fact that the threat of invasion loomed large (particularly in 1940). The key incidents that threatened the Home Front were airborne: the Battle of Britain (1940), the Blitz (1940-1941) and the V1 and V2 flying bombs, while the 1970s BBC sitcom Dad’s Army paid affectionate tribute to the Home Guard and other civilian contributors to the war effort such as Air Raid Wardens.

Poster with text 'Use Spades not Ships' and 'Grow Your Own Food' making use of a visual pun. The image is halved vertically, the same basic shape serving for a spade striking farmland on the left, and the bow of a ship at sea on the right.
The intimate connection between the sea and the Home Front is amply illustrated by this wartime poster encouraging domestic food production. Abram Games, 1942 © IWM (Art.IWM PST 2916)

Many of the most famous seaborne actions and engagements of the Second World War, took place outside home waters, or, even if in home waters, outside English waters. We may name some key events, such as the sinkings of the Royal Oak (Scapa Flow, 1939) and of the Graf Spee (Uruguay, 1939); of the armed merchant Jervis Bay, sunk in the battle to save her convoy (Atlantic, 1940) and of the Bismarck (Atlantic, 1941); the Japanese attack on the US base at Pearl Harbor (1941); the heroic efforts to keep the crippled tanker Ohio afloat, sandwiched between two destroyers whom she dwarfed, in the effort to relieve Malta (1942); the Battle of Midway that same year, fought at long range by aircraft carriers, totally unlike the Battle of Jutland (1916) and Trafalgar (1805); the sinking of the Scharnhorst (Norway, 1943); the deployment of the world’s greatest invasion fleet (D-Day, Normandy, 1944); and the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff (Baltic, 1945).

These are only a few incidents in a total war in which the key naval narrative from the British point of view was the Battle of the Atlantic, keeping the key Atlantic seaway open. Convoys criss-crossed the globe, from the Arctic to the Pacific, while the Queen Mary ran unescorted, ferrying thousands of troops from the US to Europe, and the world’s largest mercantile fleet, the Nortraships, was formed from Norwegian ships of various companies, ordered to run for New York or London after the fall of Oslo. Naval fleets were scuttled (the French fleet, Toulon, 1940) and ships were displaced from national companies and traditional routes, repurposed to serve new owners in a wartime guise.

Yet all of these played their part in the war in English waters too. The aim of the War Diary is to contribute to knowledge and awareness of an underwater cultural heritage that is out of sight and out of reach to most people even though it is very close.

Even Dunkirk (1940) and D-Day (1944) are seen as events ‘over there’, indelibly associated with France, without the realisation that ships sank in home waters on the way to and from Dunkirk, and en route to D-Day and the ensuing invasion effort which continued for months after D-Day itself. Likewise, aerial combat had a maritime component, as aircraft on both sides were shot down or crashed into the sea, not only during the Battle of Britain, but throughout the war.

Yet, as in the previous conflict, fishing vessels once more resumed patrol and minesweeping duties (some even reprising the same roles in which they had served in the First World War, and occasionally surviving a second war); and, despite the precautions of the swept channels and convoy, ships sank because of mines and U-boat activity in English waters. Some ships, indeed, were lost to the same war causes on the same routes with the same cargoes in the same sea areas as in the First World War, in particular the colliers off the north-east coast.

This War Diary will follow the same pattern established in the earlier War Diary, based on key primary sources and highlighting the involvement of ships of all types and of all nations in all roles in a war that came closer to the shores of England than many knew at the time.

As with the First World War, censorship designed to keep morale at home high and to avoid passing on information of use to the enemy, and a culture of secrecy permeating every wartime institution (Bletchley Park, for example) and propagated by wartime posters on both sides of the Atlantic (‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’) meant that details of many incidents remained secret until after the war, including the mass tragedy of Exercise Tiger in Lyme Bay (1944). Details of events are also further obscured by claim and counter-claim from either side in the propaganda war, and the ‘fog of war’ from those who survived these traumatic events.

Some of the primary sources echo those of the First World War: the typewritten ‘ledgers’ of Lloyd’s War Losses for the Second World War and the official HMSO publications, Navy Losses and Merchant Shipping (Losses), 1939-45, but we will also draw upon other archival sources and sources particular to the Second World War, such as the contemporary pamphlets published by the Ministry of Information, which are of interest as much for what they don’t say as for what they do, and how they say it, as are the contemporary newspaper accounts which did make it into the press.

Modern colour photograph of 4 wartime publications, 'Fleet Air Arm', 'His Majesty's Submarines', ' His Majesty's Minesweepers' and 'Merchantmen at War'.
Contemporary Ministry of Information publications detailing the war effort at sea. Serena Cant

Other primary source material was gathered by those present, such as Hervé Cras, who became an eminent French naval historian, or has been revealed through mass participation projects such as the BBC’s People’s War resource.

Just as there are significant traces in the terrestrial landscape of structures surviving from the war (pillboxes, for example) or of war damage (Coventry Cathedral), there remains a significant underwater cultural heritage of ships of all kinds lost during the Second World War. It is not just a heritage documented on paper but one which has left tangible traces of a landscape of war just beyond our shores. It is such a significant heritage that we have previously covered Second World War wrecks on occasion.

In addition to the War Diary series posts listed below as they appear, other Wreck of the Week posts can be found in the blog using the search box on the home page, using the relevant tag: ‘wrecks in 1939’ and so on. The first instalment will appear on 15 September 2019. 


September: Alex van Opstal

October: U-16