Diary of the War: July 1917

The Vanland

July 1917 saw the loss on the 9th of the unique battleship HMS Vanguard in Scapa Flow in an explosion with 843 lives lost, now a Controlled Site under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

This month’s War Diary looks at a wreck in English waters with a not dissimilar name, the SS Vanland, a story of a valiant attempt to evade attack and salvage cargo. On 16 July Vanland left her home port of Gothenburg, bound for London, under the command of a temporary captain, one Grönvall, since her usual master was on leave. (1)

She was laden with characteristic exports from her resource-rich and forest-dense homeland: iron goods, paper, boxwood and undipped matches. An uneventful voyage led to a call at the Tyne: thence she commenced an unescorted journey through the East Coast War Channels. (2)

It might be thought that the ships belonging to the belligerent nations had the worst of it – but this was not necessarily the case. Those of neutral nations were hard-pressed, particularly those from Scandinavian countries which had to traverse the North Sea with its extensive minefields, submarines lurking beneath the sea, and search patrols blockading trade with the enemy. Mines were no respecter of nationality, but at least the swept War Channels provided some protection from that particular danger.

Neutrals, however, had no protection against torpedoes, and in British waters ships trading with Britain were considered legitimate targets for attack by Germany regardless of their belligerent status (or otherwise). By this point in 1917, the convoy system was under way, but it was difficult for neutrals to join convoy, since by doing so, they were de facto aligning themselves with the escorting power. Nor could they carry armament for self-defence, since their home nations were neutral, unlike British cargo vessels, which were routinely armed with at least a stern-mounted quick-firing gun and dedicated crew to operate them. Either way, neutrals were very vulnerable. In English waters alone, dozens of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish ships fell victim to U-boat torpedoes, and dozens more to minefields.

In desperation, from as early as 1915, neutral ships from the Nordic countries adopted a generic livery as their best hope of self-defence. They had no guns, but they had paint. Their national flags were painted fore and aft, sometimes amidships as well, and the ship’s name and nationality, NORGE or SVERIGE, were painted amidships in bold white capitals, emphasizing their neutral status, that could be easily read from a distance through a periscope. Indeed the Vanland was painted in such a livery, as in this image from 1915. Yet the torpedoes kept coming. (3)

Thus all Vanland could do was steam south unescorted and hope for the best. On 23 July a periscope was sighted off Kettleness Point (or Kettle Ness) and evasive zig-zagging action was taken to keep the U-boat astern.

The U-boat, however (believed to be UB-21), was not to be so easily shaken off. She surfaced and began to shell the Vanland, so the next evasive manoeuvre was to try to run her ashore in Runswick Bay. Unfortunately she then struck on Kettleness Point, leaving her still long enough to be vulnerable to a torpedo. The subsequent explosion killed six men, although 18 other crew escaped and were rescued by the Runswick lifeboat. They were then taken to a local inn to recover, an incident recalled years later by the then landlords’ son, John ‘Jazzer’ Johnson. (4)

It seems that the vessel was shelled again, probably while the escape and rescue were taking place, since the International Conference of Merchant Seamen in 1917, which took place not long afterwards, named the Vanland as an example of survivors of U-boat attack being fired upon in their boats, accusations which refused to go away. (5)

The Vanland then burned for a week before sliding beneath the waves, inevitably assisted by her combustible cargo of boxwood, greaseproof paper, and matches. Astonishingly, some of it must have escaped the flames, for a few weeks later, some boxwood and rolls of paper were salved and offered for sale by auction. (6)

Portrait format photograph showing all that remains of the burnt-out Falcon, with the bottom ribs infilled with stones and green seaweed, sea lapping at the upper right-hand edge of the photograph.
Wreck of the Falcon, Langdon Steps, Dover, lost when her cargo of jute and matches caught fire in 1926. DP114192 © Historic England

Over half a century later, the Vanland‘s bell was also recovered and presented to representatives of her owners: and the little boy who had seen the rescued men in his parents’ hostelry was chosen to make the presentation. (7)

The remains of the wreck site are known locally and are well dispersed and broken, consistent with the circumstances of her loss, although, with the recovery of the bell, little remains to conclusively identify the site, and a nearby site is charted with another name, that of the Onslow of 1911, so there is some confusion. (8)

The wrecks in the Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment are indexed according to their manner of loss, often with a cause and an effect (e.g. torpedoed and foundered), so that vessels can be searched for or statistically interpreted by cause of loss. It is not enough to state that a ship was torpedoed, and assume that she then foundered: not all torpedoed vessels were lost, while others managed to limp in to the nearest friendly harbour and were then abandoned as a constructive total loss.

The Vanland was shelled (gun action), then grounded on Kettleness Point, was then torpedoed, caught fire (burnt), and finally she capsized and foundered after the space of a week: quite an eventful end, even by wartime standards.

(1) Kalmar, 27 July 1916, No.118, p5, and 28 July 1916, No.119, p6 (in Swedish)

(2) Carl Racey, East Coast Shipwreck Research, 2009, published on http://wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?10921

(3) For more on this subject, please see Cant, England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats, Historic England, 2013, pp89-91. In undertaking the research for that volume, I was very kindly given access to Fred. Olsen’s archive of ship photographs, showing many in such wartime livery, one of which is published in the above book.

(4) Racey, 2009; “War on Shore”, untraced newspaper clipping of 1997,  published on http://wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?10921; Jazzer Johnson, The Nagars of Runswick Bay, Runswick

(5) Times, 20 August 1917, No.41,561, p4; People’s Journal, 26 October 1918, No.3,174, p3

(6) Whitby Gazette, 10 August 1917 [issue number illegible as digitized], p1

(7) Receiver of Wreck droits, NHRE record for Vanland; “War on Shore”, 1997.

(8) UKHO 6026; Video footage of the wreck of the Vanland, 2008

No.78 U-8, Straits of Dover

Diary of the War No.8

On 4th March 1915 the first confirmed loss of a German U-boat in English waters during the war took place with the capture of U-8 off Dover, the culmination of a hunt that began when she was spotted in the Channel by HMS Viking. Viking opened fire, forcing U-8 to submerge but not without returning fire with a torpedo which missed its target, and U-8 was lost to sight.

Black and white illustration of U-8 submarine on the surface being approached by a destroyer, the crew assembled on the conning tower appealing for help.
Postcard of a contemporary illustration of U-8 being approached by a British destroyer. It is a work of subtle, as well as overt, propaganda, the text being complemented by the viewpoint from the side of a British destroyer, her lifeboat hanging from its davits, suggesting British humanity in coming to the rescue of an enemy crew appealing for help. By courtesy of Mark Dunkley

As the submerged U-8 continued on her way through the Straits of Dover, she became enmeshed in an anti-submarine net barrage. The requisitioned drifter Roburn spotted movement in the nets, and alerted the destroyers of the Dover patrol for assistance. The destroyer Ghurka* towed an anti-submarine sweep wire. These wires were fitted with explosive charges which detonated on contact with the target. Successful contact forced U-8 to the surface, whereupon Ghurka and Maori opened fire.

The crew were taken off and an attempt was made to tow the submarine back to Dover, but she foundered approximately one and three-quarters of a mile west of the southernmost tip of the Varne Bank, where she has now been positively identified by internal features.

The rescued crew, now firmly in British custody, were lined up at Dover on arrival. As the Daily Telegraph for 6 March 1915 (p9) had it: “The Germans were for the most part sturdily-built fellows – no doubt the pick of the German naval service mans the submarines”. The prisoners were marched through the town, escorted by the garrison of the Castle, and a crowd of local sightseers curious to see the enemy, to the Castle itself.

A view of Dover Castle on top of the hill, with the town below.
Dover Castle viewed from the High Street, Dover DP049659 © English Heritage Picture Library

The official Admiralty communiqué quoted in the paper gave away few details, stating only that U-8 had been sunk in the Channel off Dover, but the human interest aspect of the prisoners’ reception more than made up for it, as did the speculation over the intelligence value of the submarine (p8) and what it was thought to reveal about the U-boat war.

As for Roburn and Ghurka, they resumed their successful patrols off Dover, but they, too, were destined to fall victim to enemy action in the Straits of Dover. Roburn sank on 27 October 1916, after being shelled in a Channel raid by German torpedo boat destroyers. She was lost together with a Tribal class destroyer, which formed the nucleus of the Dover Patrol (Ghurka, Maori and Viking, as their names implied, were also Tribal class ships). Ghurka herself was mined on 8 February 1917 off Dungeness, and is one of those vessels whose remains are designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act.

The seabed of the Straits of Dover reveals a common heritage of sunken British and German vessels, a memorial to the warfare on the surface a century ago.

*not a misspelling: she was indeed Ghurka, rather than Gurkha.