Diary of the War: April 1917

A Mounting Toll: G42, G85, Ballarat, Medina, and HMT Arfon

In the first of this weekend’s double bill for 30 April and 1 May 1917 we look at the continuing attrition of British and foreign shipping. On 6 April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, as unrestricted submarine warfare also began to take its toll on American ships. Within the extent of English territorial waters as currently defined, the figures demonstrate that 71 wrecks were recorded for this month, of which 32 represent sites, the majority positively identified.

At this point during the war, there were no U-boats reported sunk within English waters for the month of April 1917, appearing to underline the success of the continuing submarine campaign.

German warships were also active in the Channel, mounting a raid on the Dover Patrol on the night of 20-21 April and shelling Margate and Ramsgate on 27 April. In contrast to the lack of sinkings of U-boats, however, two German torpedo boats, G42 and G85, were sunk as the raid developed into the Battle of Dover Straits. G42 was rammed by HMS Broke, while HMS Swift despatched G85 with a torpedo, making these vessels the only two German warships sunk in English territorial waters during the war.

The closing week of April 1917 provides a cross-section of the war at sea:

On 25 April 1917 the Australian troopship Ballarat, was torpedoed, but fortunately without loss of life. Ironically, it was the war itself which was probably the major factor in saving the lives of all on board when she was torpedoed. On that day all were mustered at their stations for a deckside Anzac Day service, remembering their fallen compatriots at Gallipoli in 1915, which in turn allowed for an orderly evacuation.

On 28 April 1917 the P&O liner RMS Medina was sunk. Her history was intertwined with that of the contemporary British Empire and its liner routes which continued to ply during wartime. Her maiden voyage in 1911 was as a Royal Yacht taking King George V and Queen Mary to Delhi for the Durbar of 1911, after which she reverted to the commercial role for which she was built. On her final voyage she left India with passengers and cargo for Sydney, New South Wales, to take on Australian meat and thence for England via the Suez Canal. She was torpedoed off Start Point, the torpedo exploding in the starboard engine room, killing six men, five of them seamen from the Indian subcontinent, known as lascars, who had a long tradition of working aboard British ships, usually, as here, in the engine room. (See previous posts on the Mahratta I in 1909 and the Magdapur in 1939 for more on wrecks involving lascars.)

On 30 April 1917 HM trawler Arfon was mined while on minesweeping duty off the Dorset coast with the loss of ten lives. She lies virtually intact with her minesweeping equipment and deck gun in situ, a rare but representative example of an early 20th century steam trawler adapted for war purposes, and as such was designated under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act in 2016. A new interpretation board at St. Aldhelm’s Head commemorates the site, while an accessible fully-captioned video trail released for the centenary explores the site through 3D high-resolution images.

The last week of April was therefore a crucial week of a crucial month.

The statistics outlined in Lloyd’s War Losses for April 1917 make grim reading. Over the course of the month 220 British, 103 Allied and 135 neutral vessels had been sunk worldwide for 882,227 tons. (1) Statistics for recent shipping losses were published in the press, followed by a stark warning in Parliament which was widely reported.

‘One hears on many sides that people refuse to be rationed or to ration themselves, because they say the shortage is only newspaper talk.

‘The position is now plain, that if within the next six or eight weeks there is not a very substantial reduction “there will be no alternative but to apply compulsion.” (2) That meat aboard RMS Medina, for example, had not got through.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(2) Daily Telegraph, April 26 1917, No.19,356, p5

No.81 Gallipoli

Diary of the War No.9

To commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, which commenced on 25 April 1915, today’s post takes as its theme two wrecks in English waters: one which participated in those landings, and another transporting Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), so closely associated with the Gallipoli campaign.

Colour poster of a swimming man, captioned 'It is nice in the surf but what about the men in the trenches'
‘Win the War League’ poster promoting Australian recruitment during the First World War. IWM PST 12232. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/25051

The Fauvette was constructed in 1912 for the General Steam Navigation Company, and employed on the London-Bordeaux run, from which she evacuated British nationals when war broke out. Like so many other civilian vessels, she was requisitioned for war service, becoming HMS Fauvette in February 1915, and heading straight for the Dardanelles. By April 1915 she was carrying stores for the Allied landings. On 21 April, the crew of HMS Fentonian, a requisitioned trawler, had difficulties offloading Fauvette‘s buoys: ‘the sinkers were enormous blocks of cement weighing 35 cwt.’ (1) Fauvette continued to see service in and around Gallipoli, Mudros and Suvla Bay until the following year.

On her return to England on 9 March 1916 she struck two mines laid by UC-7 approximately 1.75 miles NE of the North Foreland and sank with the loss of 14 lives. Her position has been securely recorded since 1916 and she was earmarked for post-war dispersal, achieved by 1921. She lies within half a mile of the Emile Deschamps, whose story is told in a previous post, also mined close to home but in a different war.

A few weeks later, 25 April 1916 saw the first Anzac Day commemorating the contribution of Australian and New Zealand troops in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. Ironically, it was on the second Anzac Day on 25 April 1917 that today’s second featured wreck was lost. The Ballarat, a P&O liner built for the Australian emigrant service, was another requisitioned ship, serving as a trooper, shuttling to and from Australia.

On her final voyage the men were being mustered for an Anzac Day service when a torpedo, or “Tinned Fish” as one survivor put it, struck her aft on her port side, tearing off her propeller. (2) She began to settle by the stern, so the order was given to abandon ship, but when the engineer reported that the vessel was capable of limping on, the men were recalled and volunteers requested to man the stokehold. As luck would have it, the Ballarat was carrying men of the Railway Operating Division, who were well used to stoking steam engines, albeit on the rails rather than on the high seas!

However, the engine was flooded, so once more all were lined up to abandon ship. Well over 1,500 people were safely evacuated, including the hospital cases: the Times reported that the two nurses and three chaplains aboard assisted the men to fasten their lifebelts. The parade itself, and the continuous boat muster drill they had practised during the voyage, could be said to have prevented this from becoming another tragedy of the Great War. The men were allowed to take photographs, including one extraordinary view of serried ranks of soldiers awaiting evacuation and during the evacuation itself, leaving behind a well-documented wreck. Efforts to save the ship continued, and she was taken in tow, only to sink 7 miles SW of the Lizard, Cornwall.

Wartime censorship meant that the loss was only officially announced on 2 May. The press and the Australian High Commission praised the orderly evacuation, and the sang-froid of the survivors who sent ‘representatives to London to get a souvenir of the event printed in the form of the last number of the Ballarat Beacon, which was being distributed when the ship was torpedoed.’ (3) And a final word: the Times took care to note that 15 of those rescued were also survivors of the ordeal at Gallipoli.

More Gallipoli news: Historic England has just listed war memorials associated with Gallipoli.

Hand-drawn black and white magazine cover depicting the Ballarat steamship at sea, flanked by two beacons, and a cartouche in contemporary lettering with the title 'The Ballarat Beacon'
Front cover of the Ballarat Beacon, Vol.1, No.1, 1917, National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn3304869

(1) “Dardanelles: Narrative of Mine-Sweeping Trawler 448, Manned by Queen Elizabeth: the landing at “Z” Beach, Gallipoli” Naval Review, Vol.IV, No. 2, 1916, pp185-197. URL: http://www.naval-review.com/issues/1910s/1916-2.pdf 

(2) Memoirs of Hector Creswick, 15 Company Railway Operating Division, http://www.australiansatwar.gov.au/stories/stories_war=W1_id=103.htm

(3) The Times, No.41,468, 3 May 1917, p6

No.55: Sambut

Two sections of Mulberry Harbour used for the D-Day landings of 1944 and relocated to Portland Harbour in 1946. Listed Grade I
Old and new: Two sections of Mulberry Harbour used for the D-Day landings of 1944 and relocated to Portland Harbour in 1946, as seen from Portland Castle. Listed Grade II. (Image courtesy of Andrew Wyngard)


[This blog entry was originally written to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June 2014, and has been updated for the 75th anniversary, 6 June 2019.]

Today, on 6 June, I would like to turn my attention to a wreck which took place shortly after noon on 6 June 1944.

Although the south coast was the prime departure location for D-Day, it’s important to remember that other ports also contributed to the huge invasion effort with ships, men and materials crossing the Channel from other ports. Air cover and support operations for Normandy also took place from airfields that were not necessarily the closest to the invasion sites, such as RAF Rivenhall/USAAF Station AAF-168.

The Thames was another focal point of activity in the run-up to the Normandy landings and beyond. For example, in the run-up to D-Day aircraft struck at the Pas-de-Calais, drawing enemy attention away from the actual invasion site, as part of Operation Fortitude, a co-ordinated deception operation. The Thames also played its part on D-Day itself.

On D-Day -3, 3 June 1944, troops had embarked on SS Sambut in London, including members of the 92nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery. (1) It was common during wartime for embarkation to take place several days beforehand and there were cases later in 1944 when troops ‘swung at anchor at Glasgow in the murk for five days before we finally set sail.’ (2) On 6 June 1944 convoy ETM-1 left Southend under the command of Captain Willis, bound for Normandy, composed principally of escorts and American Liberty ships loaned to Britain under the Lend-Lease programme, Sambut sailing with her sisters Samark, Samarovsk, Sambut, Samdel, Saminver, Sammont, Samneva, Samos, Sampep, Samphill, Samvern, and Samzona, (3) carrying troops, vehicles, and ammunition. Cargo was stowed inside other cargo to maximise space: lorries were filled with motorbikes in some cases, gelignite in others.

Unfortunately, shells fired at random from German gun batteries on the Calais side struck the Sambut off Dover at 1215. Lorries and petrol cans on deck caught fire, followed by a gelignite explosion in the hold. The troops tried to jettison some of the munitions but it was quickly realised that it was a futile effort. Within 15 minutes the order was given to abandon ship, and by 1245 the ship had been completely abandoned, although not without the loss of 136 crew and military personnel out of 625 (562 military/63 crew) on board. (4)

She was the first Liberty ship to be lost in Operation Overlord, half way through D-Day itself: other Liberty ships would follow as the Normandy campaign wore on over the ensuing weeks and months, such as the well-known Richard Montgomery, also off Southend, in August 1944.

The Sambut shares several features in common with other 20th century wartime wrecks. Primarily, of course, her combustible cargoes contributed to her loss, but blazing wrecks in navigational channels were also a danger to other shipping, and this hazard was compounded under wartime conditions by their potential to direct enemy attention towards operations.

Her master had been ordered to lower the ship’s barrage balloon to make the vessel less conspicuous against the white cliffs of Dover, but it was already too late: either the ship had already been spotted or the barrage from the shore had managed to score a lucky hit.

As with the War Knight off the Isle of Wight in 1918, so with the Sambut in the Straits of Dover in 1944: the burning ship was scuttled by her own side, as the Royal Navy fired a torpedo to finally sink her. (5)

One other feature of 20th century wrecks, as we have often recorded in this blog (for example, the Ballarat, 1917) is that they tend to be well-documented by ‘real-time’ evidence in a way that was not possible before the advent of photography, and of course it then became critical to document operations as they unfolded, for both record and propaganda purposes. This moving film in the IWM Collections records a church service aboard Samarovsk followed by a view of the Sambut on fire, with explosions visible at intervals.

At one and the same time the vessel is characteristic of the archaeological remains of 20th century conflict around the English coastline, and a unique reminder of a specific day which turned the tide of the war.  Today she lies intact and upright on the seabed, a tangible reminder of 6 June 1944.

(1) William Wills, “92 LAA Regt. Loss of the Sambut on D-Day“, BBC People’s War archive, 10 July 2005

(2) Oral history reminiscence, Corporal Cant RAF, Convoy KMF 36, November 6, 1944

(3) Convoy ETM-1, Arnold Hague Convoy Database

(4) Tom McCarthy, True Loyals: A History of 7th Battalion, The Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire/92nd (Loyals) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, 1940-1946, 2nd ed., Countyvise Editions Ltd., Birkenhead, 2012, republished online

(5) ibid.

(6) UKHO 13665