Diary of the Second World War – October 1942

Convoy Battle!

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

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

Every convoy was a potential battle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diary of the War: January 1917

Henry Blogg and the Fernebo

On the stormy winter morning of 9 January 1917, a distress signal brought out the lifeboatmen of Cromer in their lifeboat Louisa Heartwell, which launched into heavy seas to reach the Greek steamer Pyrin, drifting two miles out at sea. Since all men of fighting age were away at war, the lifeboat crew were all either middle-aged or elderly men, and were led by coxswain Henry Blogg, who had joined the crew in 1894, and a relative youngster at the age of 40. It took a party of 40 men, including soldiers, to launch the lifeboat, and over two hours for the crew to reach the wreck and successfully rescue and land 18 survivors.

henry-blogg-modified-photo-1
Henry Blogg. RNLI

In the middle of this force 9 gale, another ship got into difficulties. The Swedish Fernebo, en route from Gavle for London with timber, was in distress, lurching in the sea with one crew member injured – and was even further out to sea, between 3 and 4 miles offshore.

The very wildness of the weather meant that none of the other local lifeboats could put out to the rescue the crew of the Fernebo in the stead of the Cromer lifeboat. The Louisa Heartwell was the nearest and the only suitable craft, being larger and heavier than other local lifeboats, but several attempts to launch her failed, even with all the willing helpers from the town.

A party of men aboard Fernebo saw their chances of rescue slipping away and took matters into their own hands, launching one of the ship’s boats. Almost at the shoreline the vessel capsized and it took a party of onlookers, led by Private Stewart Holmes, one of the soldiers stationed locally, to rescue them by forming a human chain at the risk of their own lives. By this means all six men were rescued from their little boat, which had somehow made it all the way to shore despite the storm.

In the meantime further disaster had literally struck the Fernebo, in the form of a mine laid by UC-19, which had been caught and depth-charged off the Isles of Scilly in the previous month, leaving behind a deadly legacy of sown mines. The explosion split the steamer in two, but her timber cargo kept both halves afloat: fortunately all the crew were in one half, rather than drifting apart on two different wrecks.

The storm drove the stricken Fernebo closer inshore, where, around 5pm, both parts struck Cromer beach, but in different locations. The aft section of the Fernebo came ashore near the groyne at the Doctor’s Steps, Cromer. Once more it was clear that only the Cromer lifeboat and her crew stood between the Swedish sailors and death: with the help of army searchlights trained on the beach and the wreck, further attempts were made to launch. Once launched, several oars were wrenched from the lifeboatmen’s hands and others broken by the violence of the sea, so the crew had to put back then, then return with fresh oars.

At last – success! The crew managed to reach the survivors, safely bringing off eleven men, eleven people who would have died had it not been for the ‘great intrepidity, splendid tenacity, and endurance’ quoted in the citation for the RNLI’s gallantry award to the Louisa Heartwell‘s crew. (1)  This was the occasion on which Henry Blogg, the ‘greatest lifeboatman of them all’, received his first RNLI gold medal, but the entire crew also received awards, with another being made to Pte. Holmes, leader of the shore party which rescued the six men from the boat.

Black and white photograph of two rows of en, seated in front, standing at the back, in front of the open doorway through which the bows of a lifeboat can be seen.
The crew of the Cromer lifeboat, wearing the medals awarded for this rescue. RNLI

But for the courage of the Cromer lifeboatmen, the Fernebo‘s crew would all have shared in the fate of their injured colleague, who was killed when they struck the mine. This was certainly a rescue against all the odds, when human endurance overcame the power of nature and the violence of war.

Colour photograph of ribs of wreck, partly covered in seaweed, in the foreground of the image, on a beach, which stretches to the background of the image. The top sixth of the image is taken up by a flat band of blue sky and sea.
The wreck of the Fernebo as she now lies at Cromer. RNLI

Over 5,000 lives were saved by the RNLI during the First World War: their work is showcased in an RNLI travelling exhibition Hope in the Great War, which is touring the country for the duration of the centenary. It features the Fernebo, and another rescue we have already featured in the War Diary, the Rohilla. Do go and see it – check for a venue near you.

(1) Widely reported in a nationwide press release, for example in the Newcastle Journal,  13 February 1917, No.22,371, p3