No.63 The Magdapur

75 years since the outbreak of the Second World War

[updated: 10.09.2019 for the 80th anniversary of the Second World War]

This week commemorates the first ships sunk in English waters following the declaration of war on 3 September 1939. The period between the declaration of war and the events of 1940 is often known as the ‘Phoney War’, in which nothing much happened militarily. Yet war at sea was already being waged on both sides.

The Goodwood and the Magdapur each foundered after striking a mine in different locations off the east coast, both on 10 September 1939.

They were not the first wartime losses at sea: that distinction belonged to the Athenia, sunk in the Atlantic by U-boat on 3 September. The toll of merchantmen lost on the Allied side worldwide would account for 808 pages of typescript in Lloyd’s War Losses for the Second World War, Volume I: British, Allied and Neutral Merchant Vessels Sunk or Destroyed by War Causes, with an average of five or six ships per page.

The first ship to go down in English waters on that day was the collier Goodwood, early in the morning off Flamborough Head. The Magdapur sank the same afternoon off Suffolk, calling out the RNLI for the first of their many wartime services over the ensuing six years as the Aldeburgh lifeboat sped to the scene. She was the victim of a minefield laid on 4 September, the day after the declaration of war, by U13. That same minefield would shortly afterwards claim the French ship Phryné, on 24 September. U13 would herself be lost off the same coastline at the end of May 1940 when she was depth-charged by HMS Weston, delineating a landscape of war linking attacker and victims, by which time the ‘Phoney War’ was well and truly over.

As her name implies, the Magdapur had strong connections with India. Her owners, the Brocklebank Line, had a long tradition of specialising in the India trade. She was thus one of many British ships who relied on lascars, or Indian seamen, many of whom traditionally worked below in the engine room. The Magdapur had a significant complement of 60 lascars among her 80-strong crew. Six men were lost, of whom four were lascars, commemorated on the dual rolls of honour kept at Bombay and Chittagong. (You can search for any casualty of the two World Wars or later through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Advanced Search page by date of death and service, e.g. Merchant Navy.)

An interesting local history document shows photographs of the wreck event as the Magdapur sinks with her back broken, and some of the rescued lascars with locals: .

The number of lascars working aboard British ships means that their involvement in shipwreck events worldwide and in English waters is significant, particularly in the first half of the 20th century: both in peace (Mahratta I, 1909) and war (Sir Francis, June 1917; Medina, April 1917; Rewa, January 1918). Even in this early period of the ‘Phoney War’, the war was all too real and touched lives around the world.

No.61 The Vina, 1944

Target Practice

I have written before about how the downgrading of ships towards the end of their service life becomes part of a wrecking process (see: Vogelstruis); although the final end of the Vina came about through environmental causes despite being helped along by prior human agency.


Detail of the Vina, courtesy of the Nautical Archaeology Society
Detail of the Vina, by kind permission of the Nautical Archaeology Society

Built in 1894, she was a fairly small steamer of 1,021 tons in use in the Baltic trade for the J T Salvesen company, who had a dozen vessels just before the First World War. As so often, the fleet was much depleted by losses in that war: by 1939 only three ships remained to the company – by which time the Vina was obsolete. A major feature of both World Wars was the requisitioning and purchase of civilian vessels for wartime service in a number of roles: trawlers went from fishing to minesweeping and patrol duties, liners carried troops and wounded soldiers instead of passengers, and cargo vessels carried supplies for the war effort, sometimes what were euphemistically termed ‘Government stores’.

Even if ships like the Vina were no longer fit to put to sea, they could still perform a useful wartime function. From 1940 the Vina was on standby to be scuttled as a blockship at Great Yarmouth in case of invasion, but in 1944 she was towed further north along the Norfolk coast to Brancaster, to be used by the RAF as target practice in testing out a new rocket. It was an ideal location for the plethora of RAF bases in Norfolk and Lincolnshire such as nearby RAF Little Snoring, assigned to Bomber Command.

The final wreck event for the Vina came not from the RAF sinking her, however, but from a gale which sprang up and drove her ashore on 20 August 1944. Here is what is left of her, after being pounded by the RAF 70 years ago, and after 70 years of tides, storms, and partial post-war salvage.

Boiler and engine of the Vina, courtesy of the Nautical Archaeology Society
Boiler and engine of the Vina, by kind permission of the Nautical Archaeology Society


No.51: Charles Lightoller RNR

One of the early Wreck of the Week entries looked at Charles Lightoller, a Lancashire lad who went to sea, and I’d like to revisit his story by looking at his wartime service, as we anticipate the commemoration of the First World War.

Lightoller was one of at least two known survivors of the Titanic, both of whom survived further wreck incidents during the Great War, as it was called by contemporaries. Following the loss of the Titanic, in 1913 Lightoller rejoined the Oceanic, her sister ship, upon which he had served earlier in his career.

Both ships and men were forced to adapt to the conditions of war. Civilian ships were turned over for warlike purposes: Oceanic was requisitioned as an armed merchant cruiser, and Lightoller likewise became part of the Royal Naval Reserve aboard the ship. Oceanic too was wrecked when she struck the Shaalds of Hoevdi Grund, Foula in the early stages of the war in 1914, recorded here on the Canmore database, which records shipwrecks in Scotland in a very similar way to those in English waters on the PastScape database of English Heritage.

His wartime career encompassed at least two more wrecks in the closing stages of the war, both on the north-east coast. As commander of HMS Falcon, he was aboard when she sank after a collision in fog with the armed trawler John Fitzgerald off Flamborough Head in April 1918, but with no loss of life. Her stern section has been located and identified by her name inscribed on interior fittings, and, broken in two, she stands a mute testimony to the effects of the collision in which she was lost.

In July 1918 Lightoller, in his new command HMS Garry, was the cause of, rather than the survivor of, a wreck: a nearby patrol vessel spotted the periscope of UB-110 which was preparing to attack a convoy off Yorkshire. The convoy’s escorts zoomed to the U-boat’s position and depth-charged her: as she struggled to the surface, she was then rammed by the Garry. The position of her sinking is recorded, although it seems that she was raised and broken up shortly before the end of the war: some archaeological evidence may yet remain on the seabed.

Lightoller also went to sea during the Second World War, but that, as they say, is another story. Shipwrecks were an occupational hazard in times of peace and war: what is unusual about Lightoller is that his high profile following the loss of the Titanic makes his career and involvement in further wreck events more visible.