Diary of the War: June 1918

A tale of two ships

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.

(1) https://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-08-HMS_Patia.htm

(2) Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 21 June 1918, No.7,160, p5

(3) Birmingham Daily Post, Thursday 20 June 1918, No.18,738, p7

(4) Western Daily Press, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.18,728, p6

(5) Walsall Observer, and South Staffordshire Chronicle, Saturday 22 June 1918, No.2,591, p3

(6) UKHO 4390

(7) UKHO 16089

(8) UKHO 17227

 

Diary of the War: January 1918

HMHS Rewa

This week we look at a wreck in the Bristol Channel which was first published in most British newspapers on 10 January 1918, six days after the ship was lost on 4 January.

Rewa was built as a liner in 1906 for the British India Steam Navigation Co., along with her 1905 sister, Rohilla, both vessels named after provinces of India. Their careers paralleled one another: both were converted from passenger service to troop transports, taking part together in the Coronation Fleet Review, 1911, and on exercises in 1913 off the Humber. (1) From transport service it was but a short step on the outbreak of war to conversion to hospital ships. Both would be lost in that service and Rohilla was featured in the War Diary of October 1914.

From 1915 onwards Rewa would become one of the familiar sights of the Gallipoli campaign, transporting men out from Suvla Bay to the depot at Mudros (Greek Moudros) to hospital at Alexandria or Malta, or back home. (2) On her final voyage she was bound from Mudros to Avonmouth via Gibraltar, where she had been inspected by a neutral Spanish observer to ensure her bona fides as a hospital ship. (3) There are some conflicts in the numbers on board, but the usual figures given are 207 crew, 80 medical personnel, and 279 wounded men (making a total of 566), although contemporary newspapers gave the rounded figures of 550 and 560. (4)

On his first patrol of the New Year was Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Werner of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) in U-55 off the coast of Cornwall. (5) For almost a year now, Germany had waged unrestricted submarine warfare, torpedoing ships without warning, but, by the terms of the Hague Convention, hospital ships were exempt from attack. They were distinctively painted with a white hull and the internationally recognised symbol of the Red Cross, and were to be lit in the dark for night recognition. The Rewa was accordingly proceeding up the Bristol Channel, ‘brilliantly lighted’ as demanded by the convention. (6) The Captain stated: ‘We had our Red Cross flag up and our lights had been lit at sunset – viz., steaming lights, navigation lights, and Convention lights, and they had remained and were alight at the time of the explosion. All the lights were electric. The ship was hit abreast of the funnel on the port side, as near amidships as possible.’ (7)

Thus when Werner fired the torpedo which caused the explosion off Hartland Point in the Bristol Channel, he must have known that he was contravening the Hague Convention. The captain had seen suspicious lights just before the torpedo struck, and ported his helm, but had not verified the identity of the vessel before the torpedo actually struck. (8)

The explosion is said to have extinguished the lights (many newspapers reported that a fortuitous find of a candle afforded some light, although, less dramatically, emergency candle lamps as a backup system were, in fact, lit) (9) and the ship began to settle. Fortunately for the evacuation, the vessel remained on an even keel before she finally sank, the sea remained calm, and there was time to send a distress call. Within 20 minutes everyone was on board the ship’s boats, even the ‘cot cases’ who were unable to fend for themselves. Given the dark and the imperative for haste, it was impossible for everyone to gather up sufficient clothing to keep warm while exposed to a cold night on the sea.

‘One of the nurses gave all her heavy garments to cover the men who were very ill, and remarking this an officer transferred to her his overcoat’, according to one account that was widely repeated across the press. (10) The number of nurses aboard was put at three, which seems a very small number amongst such a large medical staff with so many patients to look after. (11)

Even as they bobbed about on the sea, the little flotilla of lifeboats kept together on the captain’s orders and burned flares to attract attention – another factor in the survival of so many. (12)

Miraculously, only three men were initially reported missing, believed killed in the explosion in the engine-room, but, in fact, four lascars of the Indian Merchant Service were killed and are commemorated on the Bombay 1914-1918 Memorial, Mumbai: Usman Ghulam Qadir, trimmer, Ali and Said Ahmad Umar, both firemen, and Sultan Shah Azad, paniwallah (water-carrier). (13)

‘Another steamer and three trawlers were speedily on the scene’, although ‘speedy’ might have been a relative term since they were in the water for three hours before being picked up. (14)

The rescue vessels belonged to the Swansea Patrol and survivors were accordingly landed there. (15) The Western Daily Press described the ‘piteous’ sight as survivors came ashore,which moved onlookers to tears: ‘a procession of maimed and limping men, some on the backs of others and all without boots, wended its way under willing hands of helpers to the Coal Exchange . . . all business being suspended, while others were taken to leading hotels . . .’ (16) Some of the survivors were suffering from shock and wounds sustained in the explosion: one of the rescued lascars was reliving the fire in his mind, and another man went about all day without complaint until collapsing in the evening, when he was found to have several broken ribs. (17)

Eighteen survivors were taken to the Dan-y-Coed Red Cross Hospital (18) while others were despatched onwards to Southmead Hospital in Bristol. (19) It seems that Dan-y-Coed was a specialist in prosthetics made by a member of staff, so perhaps that was where some of the ‘maimed’ men ended up. A Dr Harrison was himself a hospital case with dysentery. Another medic, one Dr Lambert, had served since 1915 aboard Rewa at Gallipoli and had found romance and marriage in 1917 with one of her nurses, Alice Lockhart. He was with Rewa to the bitter end, receiving compensation for the medical instruments he had been forced to abandon on the sinking ship, but it is not yet known if his wife was also aboard at the time. (20)

The official German position cast doubt on the possibility of a submarine attack and suggested that a mine had been responsible for sinking the vessel, but the news triggered worldwide condemnation. As it was the Rewa would be cited as a war crime for which Wilhelm Werner was held responsible, although he would ultimately escape prosecution for this and other attacks on shipping.

The lights may have gone out on the Rewa as the torpedo struck, but, a century on, we are able to shine a light on some of those affected, whose stories are not always told in the accounts of shipping losses during the First World War: ordinary men and women, British and Indian, patients and crew, walking wounded and those severely ill and maimed.

Poster with text 'What a Red Rag is to a Bull - the Red Cross is to the Hun', with image of a U-boat and a torpedo track towards an illuminated red cross on a ship.
British propaganda poster of 1918. The striking of the Rewa amidships led to accusations that U-55 had fixed on her painted red cross as a target. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13547)

 

(1) Online sources frequently state this as the Coronation Review of 1910, but 1910 was the year of George V’s accession, not his coronation. The review took place in June 1911; see, for example, The Times, 26 June 1911, p10. For the Humber exercises, see, for example, The Sphere, 2 August 1913, Vol.LIV, No.706, p11.

(2) Casale, F. 2008. “Dr John Lambert on HS Rewa at Gallipoli”, Proceedings of the History of Anaesthesia Society,  Vol.39, 2008, pp20-24

(3) i.e. that she was not being used for any military purpose. Spanish confirmation of their compliance, and of British compliance with the conditions of the Convention, was received from the observer who disembarked at Gibraltar. The Scotsman, 16 January 1918, No.23,284, p5

(4) New York Times, 10 January 1918, p1; The Times, 11 January 1918, No.41,684, p5; Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6

(5) For the dates of U-55‘s patrol on this and other occasions, see https://uboat.net/wwi/boats/successes/u55.html

(6) Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1918, No.19,577, p5

(7) Birmingham Daily Post, 10 January 1918, No.18,602, p2

(8) ibid.

(9) Newcastle Journal, 14 January 1918, No.22,657, p5

(10) Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6

(11) Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1918, No.19,577, p5

(12) Birmingham Daily Post, 10 January 1918, No.18,602, p2

(13) Commonwealth War Graves Commission

(14)  Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6; Birmingham Daily Post, 10 January 1918, No.18,602, p2

(15) Crawford, J. 2014. GGAT 130: First World War Scoping Study: Glamorgan and Gwent: a report for Cadw pp99-100

(16) Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6; Revd R G James, British and Foreign Sailors’ Society https://www.sailors-society.org/about-us/press-room/rewa/

(17) Daily Telegraph, 10 January 1918, No.19,577, p5

(18) Powell, C. nd. Caring within the Community: Mumbles Red Cross Hospitals

(19) Western Daily Press, 10 January 1918, No.18,589, p6

(20) Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 10 January 1918, No.15,682, p4; Casale, F. 2008. “Dr John Lambert on HS Rewa at Gallipoli”, Proceedings of the History of Anaesthesia Society,  Vol.39, 2008, pp20-24

No.80 The Strange Case of the Madonna del Rosario . . .

Today’s wreck holds the record, I think, for having the longest name on our database of shipwrecks around the English coast: normalised to the modern spelling as far as I can make it, she was the Madonna del Rosario Sant’Antonio di Padova e la Stella delle Mare.

Ongoing research means that we often have to substantially revise our records for documented wreck events. This usually entails adding more detail or narrowing down the area of loss to a more specific location from the initial vague reports ‘near’ or ‘off’ a particular place. The length of the name in this case gave me room for some doubt since it is not unknown for the names of ships lost in company in the same location to be run together, particularly if they were foreign, and I had wondered if this long name masked more than one wreck event. It did, but not in quite in the way that I expected!

The first we knew about this wreck was a report that the ‘Catharina . . . and Madonna del Rosario and St Antonio de Padova e la Stella delle Mare, Captain Mellin, are both lost in Bristol Channel.’ (1) I had hoped that we would be able to revise their location to somewhere more specific, but what I was completely unprepared for was to find that the specific position for the Madonna del Rosario would be on the other side of the country!

She next turns up in the press in the Ipswich Journal, which states that a ship of that name (so we are clear that there were no multitudes of vessels hiding behind the one name), a Venetian, had struck on the Shipwash on 29 December 1781, on the approaches to the Thames off Suffolk, and that the crew had escaped and landed at Aldeburgh. (2) This was the preamble to an appeal to salvors from the area to come forward to receive ‘legal salvage’, but it also warned that there was a reward of ‘Five Guineas’ (£5 5s, or £5.25) for the discovery of any person concealing salvaged goods.

This is all very specific, so why did she end up being reported in the Bristol Channel instead? The confusion probably arose because of another Venetian vessel that was indeed lost off the Bristol Channel coastline of Wales, on Friday 28 or Friday 21 December 1781:

‘Extract of a Letter from Swansea, dated Jan. 5.

“Last Friday Se’nnight in the morning (3) a large Venetian Ship, laden with Cotton, Marble, and Coral, was stranded on the Skerr-Rocks, in this County. Soon after the Accident, the Country People commenced the barbarous Practice, usual on such Occasions, of plundering the Distressed and Helpless . . .’ (4)

I haven’t yet traced the Catharina in the contemporary press, although her voyage, also from Livorno to London or Ostend, suggests that she was also more likely to have been lost in the North Sea rather than the Bristol Channel, but there is the possibility that she can indeed be identified with the ship lost off Wales. There is no record of a Catharina or of a Venetian ship indexed in the region in the Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Vol. 5: West Coast and Wales (Larn and Larn, 2006), nor are the arrivals and departures lists in Lloyd’s List any help (although often very helpful, they are selective at best, and the distinctive name of the Madonna del Rosario was absent).

Can anyone help with either vessel? If the Catharina is distinct from the Welsh wreck and was also lost on the east coast, then it would also be great to relocate the record for this wreck and help build up a more accurate picture of the archaeological potential around the English coastline. At the moment it looks as if she may be ‘lost’ in the other sense in the Bristol Channel . . .

(1) Lloyd’s List, 4 January 1782, No.1,324

(2) Ipswich Journal, 12 and 19 January 1782, No.2,242 and 2,243, both p3

(3) Se’nnight, that is, ‘seven-night’, cf. fortnight, still in use. January 5 was a Saturday so it might mean either ‘a week [counting from] the Friday just gone’, i.e. ‘a week ago yesterday’, or ‘a week ago on Friday last week’ depending on local usage. Interestingly newspapers of this time often copied news items verbatim from other papers, and the date of loss can vary by a week or two depending on how many times it was copied, and whether or not the local editors changed the date accordingly, or how they understood ‘Friday last’!

(4) Oxford Journal, 12 January 1782, No.1,498, p3

No. 65 A Complete Absence of Fishermen’s Ganseys

It’s often said that ganseys (knitted sweaters) with traditional village-specific patterns have been used to identify the bodies of fishermen drowned at sea. It’s also often said it is a myth, so I thought the wealth of shipwreck data we hold would be an obvious place to shed light on this question!

In all my years researching wrecks, I do not recall ever coming across such a story, but I decided to take a more scientific approach: mining the database with its wealth of primary sources. The starting point was data for any fishing vessel lost in English waters 1750-1950, with 2,655 hits, using keywords for knitted clothing, bodies and the identification thereof. (1)

This approach yielded no results for any fishermen identified by their clothing, ganseys or otherwise.

The closest story was that of a French fishing vessel lost in October 1826 on the Kentish Knock at the entrance to the Thames. In early November some bodies washed ashore at Margate, ‘judged to be part of the crew of a French fishing boat, reported to have been lost on the Long Sand or Knock.’ This suggests their garb was distinctively French, but this clue was clearly combined with local knowledge of tides and currents and prior knowledge of the wreck.

By contrast, records of passenger vessel losses are rich in detail of bodies identified, and how, so here are just a few examples:

When the Elizabeth foundered in the Bristol Channel in 1781, the stockings on one victim identified him, but his clothing is likely to have been distinctive, since he was a Quaker. Again, when the Piedmont transport struck Chesil Beach, Dorset, in November, 1795, an officer was recognised by his scars (suggesting fairly rapid recovery of the body, consistent with a stranding).

In 1814, Captain le Coq of the Mentor, lost off Cornwall, is said to have been recognised by his gold watch and seal (from an as yet untraced citation from a primary source, indicating the body washed up fairly quickly afterwards). Who identified these individuals, all unknown in the communities where they met their final resting place?

In all three cases above there were survivors who would have provided corroborative information. Where the blanks could not be filled in, they were published in newspapers to aid identification. A night of carnage on the Bamburgh coast in 1774 resulted reports of bodies being washed ashore, among whom was a lady with ‘five diamond rings on her fingers, and gold ear-rings in her ears’.

The 1826 case on the Kentish Knock shows how difficult it was to identify fishermen washed up far from home and from the location of the wreck site. At the present state of knowledge there appears to be no reported evidence for the use of ganseys alone to identify drowned fishermen in English waters, unless a well-corroborated story comes to light.

Can anyone help?

(1) The National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) curated by Historic England. Keywords were: gansey and its synonyms guernsey, jersey, sweater, jumper + knit-; body/ies, corpse(s), remains; identified, known, proved (as in ‘proved to be’), recognised