Diary of the Second World War – November 1942

The E-boats keep coming . . .

Trawler seen in port bow view, with her pennant number 252 in white to left, and land marking the horizon in the background.
HMT Ullswater (FL 20361) at a buoy. Ullswater was lost off the Eddystone in November 1942 while acting as escort for a south coast – Wales convoy. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205121578

The war at sea in English waters in November 1942 was a slightly quieter one than October 1942 had been, and December 1942 would be. For all that the E-boats kept coming (S-boote in German).

On the evening of the 9th the 2nd, 4th and 6th S-boot Flottille, responsible for the loss of several ships of convoy FN 832 off Norfolk in October 1942, opened fire once more on another FN convoy, FN 861, again off the east coast.  

According to Wehrmacht reports, 4 ships from a convoy were sunk, and three ships, two steamers and an escort, were reported damaged. [1] In fact, the only victim sunk on the 9th was the Norwegian steamer Fidelio, torpedoed east of Lowestoft. The steamer Wandle was badly damaged in the same attack, her bows virtually blown off but still partially attached and sinking. Somehow she was kept afloat, albeit awash, and ultimately she reached the Tyne for repair after several days under tow in fog and heavy seas. She would go on to be rebuilt and continue in service until 1959. [2]

On the 15th the British steamer Linwood, on convoy FS (Forth South) 959, struck a mine laid by air off the Long Sand Head in the approaches to the Thames, with the loss of three DEMS (Defence of Merchant Ships gunners). Elsewhere, in the North Sea and the Baltic, similar mines laid by British aircraft accounted for at least 7 ships during the month. [3]

In the early hours of the 19th the six ships of the 5th S-boot Flottille, S-68, S-77, S-82, S-112, S-115, and S-116 located convoy PW (Portsmouth-Wales) 250 off the Eddystone with the assistance of ‘Lichtenstein’ radar apparatus. Most sources state that the attack was carried out by the E-boats alone, but the Merchant Shipping Movement Cards for the three cargo vessels lost in this incident suggest that it was a coordinated E-boat and aircraft attack. [4] That said, there is no explicit mention of attack from the air in the evidence given by the Norwegian survivors of one of the ships on 21 November 1942 at Plymouth before the Norwegian vice-consul though there was a hint by the carpenter, Peder Andersen, that on his lookout he saw a ‘bright light shining down’. [5] The master, Emanuel Edwardsen, introduced his evidence in an understated fashion, stating that he was unable to produce the logbook due to circumstances which would become clear in his account. All the witnesses confirmed that they had felt the shock of not one, but two, successive torpedoes and they were unable to release one of the boats, but successfully got away in the other, to be picked up by a British vessel.

The victims were the former Danish Birgitte now sailing under the British flag, with the loss of 10 crew, the Norwegian Lab with the loss of 3 lives in the stern part of the ship, the British steamer Yewforest laden with steel billets, with 9 crew and 2 of her gunners, and their escort, HMT Ullswater, which was lost with all hands. The four wrecks lie in close proximity to one another and Ullswater is on the Schedule of Designated Vessels under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. [6]

Like many of her compatriots, the Danish Birgitte had come under the control of the Ministry of War Transport (MOWT), having been seized as a prize and requisitioned by the British authorities at Gibraltar in May 1940 after the fall of Denmark.[7] Lab became one of the famed Nortraships (Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission), at that time the world’s largest shipping fleet, while Yewforest had spent her career with Scottish owners since being built in 1910. Intended as a steam whaler, Ullswater was requisitioned on the stocks on the outbreak of war and had spent the war on escort duty.

Their attackers can be seen together at Travemünde in May 1942 on this German-language site, 4th image down: from left to right, S-115, S-112 with the Lichtenstein radar antenna visible, and S-116.

In English waters at any rate the rest of the month was quiet, with no further shipping losses.

Footnotes:

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

[2] Central Office of Information 1947 British Coaster: The Official Story (London: HMSO)

[3] Chronik des Seekrieges

[4] Chronik des Seekrieges; Merchant Shipping Movement Cards: Birgitte, BT 389/4/172; Lab, BT 389/38/249; Yewforest, BT 389/32/198, all The National Archives (TNA)

[5] This account is available in English: https://www.krigsseilerregisteret.no/forlis/221161, and click on Sjøforklaring tab

[6] UK Statutory Instruments 2019 No.1191 The Protection of Military Remains Act (Designation of Vessels and Controlled Sites) Order 2019 Schedule 1

[7] TNA BT 389/4/172

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 Second World War – September 1942

LBBB 332 and LBBB 362: two unlikely ships go to war

The tragic heritage of Exercise Tiger off Slapton Sands, south Devon, in April 1944 as preparation for the D-Day landings in June that year is well-known: the exercise was disrupted by enemy action, with the loss of Landing Ship Tanks LST-507 and LST-531, both now scheduled monuments. (Learn more in this Historic England article with a contemporary photograph.)

Less well-known off Salcombe, south Devon – perhaps because they were on exercise for an operation which never took place – is a similarly fateful attack on two Landing Barges (Landing Barge Barrage Balloon) LBBB 332 and LBBB 362, on 19 September 1942.

A Balloon Close-Hauled on a Barge, Francis Edwin Hodge, 1941 (Art.IWM ART LD 1931) A barrage balloon attached with ropes to a barge being moved at sea. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/13253

During the spring and summer of 1942, the Allied Powers had been in discussion about undertaking an invasion attempt on France in the forthcoming autumn, codenamed Operation Sledgehammer. Heavily promoted by the Soviet Union and the United States, it was viewed in Britain as having little prospect of success and costly in human and material resources, a view to which the US was also eventually persuaded. [1] The debacle of the Raid on Dieppe on 19 August 1942 only served to highlight that the Allies were not yet ready to open a second front in Europe, and instead Allied resources were poured into the North African campaign which would lead to victory at El Alamein in November 1942.

However, with Sledgehammer in mind, over the summer of 1942, Britain pressed some apparently rather unlikely vessels into service. [2] The ‘dumb barges’ of the Thames – so called because they had no propulsion of their own, and could only be towed, or operated with long ‘sweeps’ or oars – would now play their part in the war.

Two bargemen manoeuvring a barge laden with cargo along the River Thames, c.1930-1945. The long ‘sweeps’ can be seen in action. Julian Joseph Samuels Collection, SAM01/03/0089: Source Historic England Archive

They were requisitioned for repurposing as landing craft, valuable for bringing materials ashore from larger ships, their ‘swim’ ends easily convertible into ramps for offloading, and easily beached because of their shallow draught. [The second photo in this gallery of a contemporary model of a Thames lighter, made around 1940, depicts a sloping flat ‘swim’, rather than pointed or rounded and blunt, end.]

They were then initially fitted with British engines, but were soon re-engined with US-made Chrysler marine engines, supplied under Lend-Lease. [3] Some of this group were then able to perform exercises under their own power at various locations, with five barges undergoing trials at Salcombe in September 1942.

It would seem that among them were LBBB 332 and LBBB 362, each converted into a Landing Barge Barrage Balloon, amphibious vessels tethering airborne craft. Barrage balloon vessels were not, in themselves, a new idea. From the early days of the war, barrage balloons had been deployed for home defence, compromising the accuracy of enemy aircraft in range-finding and gunnery by forcing them to fly higher. Barrage balloons were thus placed around towns, strategic sites, and, crucially, harbours – anywhere that was a target for air attack.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BALLOON COMMAND, 1939-1945. (C 726) A Barrage Balloon Section, housed in a converted sugar barge in the Thames Estuary, sends up a kite balloon from its cradle. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205207526

Those balloons defending ports and harbours were flown from requisitioned barges and other small craft, and several were themselves victims of air attack, among them British drifter Lavinia L, sunk off Sheerness June 1941; and two ex-Belgian fishing vessels in British Admiralty service following the fall of Belgium in 1940, the Borealis, off the Isle of Wight, August 1940, and the Cor Jesu off Alnmouth, August 1941. These losses expose one of the key weaknesses of barrage balloon defence – their very presence signposted sites of importance. (Indeed, the contemporary photograph in Historic England’s aerial photography collections shows barrage balloons off Slapton Sands.)

Other barrage balloon vessels, while guarding against attack from the air, fell victim to the sub-surface wartime dangers of the sea, such as the British drifters Lord St Vincent, mined off Harwich in July 1940, and Carry On, also mined off Sheerness, December 1940. A similar fate befell the tug Lion, again off Sheerness, in January 1941. Her actual role is slightly unclear: she was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for barrage balloon duty but was towing a barge at the time of loss, which might perhaps have been a barrage balloon vessel, given the numbers stationed at Sheerness. [4]

The vessels at Salcombe and elsewhere represented a development of the need for harbour defence from the air. There were two new elements: one was the idea of an air shield while en route, supplementing conventional air cover, and the other the amphibious component, providing cover forward for the offloading of troops and ammunition on the beach. Salcombe was an ideal test location, since it was one of the existing harbours covered by seaward, but static, barrage balloon defences. [5]

However, as the other barrage balloon barges sunk elsewhere in the war attest, the barges on exercises became very visible targets for bombing raids. On 19 September 1942, a Luftwaffe air raid took place on Salcombe. It was in that raid that Landing Barges Barrage Balloon LBBB 332 and LBBB 362 were sunk by a Focke-Wulf of 10/JG 26. [6]

The papers of those involved in the extensive discussions over Operation Sledgehammer laid a documentary trail for something which never, ultimately, took place: the wrecks of the LBBBs form the tangible archaeological counterpart for that documentary trail.

Those wrecks also form a historical bridge between two events which did take place: in their small size and unlikely guise, they were akin to the ‘little ships’ which participated in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940; and they were the precursors of the landing barges and the barrage balloon vessels that went in 1944 to the D-Day landing beaches as part of Operation Overlord with both British and American units – the history of the barrage balloon barges has, until recently, has been a crucial, but largely overlooked, heritage in both ships and personnel. [7] In the same vein, the LBBB wrecks at Salcombe help chart the little-known story of Britain’s preparations for Overlord as early as 1942.

Footnotes

[1] The National Archives, Churchill Archive, CHAR 20/77/87-90; Matloff, M. & Snell, E (1990) Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare (Washington DC: Centre of Military History, US Army) 266-292, as published online

[2] Smith, G. nd “Thames Lighters at War in Time for D-Day”, Naval-History.net Part 1 and Part 2

[3] Ibid.

[4] United Kingdom Hydrographic Office 12806

[5] “Barrage Balloon Vessels”, Barrage Balloon Reunion Club, published online

[6] Designated as LBBB 332 and LBBB 362 in British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1914-18 and 1939 45 (Yeovil: Patrick Stephens Ltd) (reproduction of HMSO originals), p51; described as ‘dumb barges of 150-ton type’ in Smith Part 2; Brine, M nd “Casualties of the Bombing at Salcombe”, Devon Heritage (published online); Goss, C, Cornwell, P, and Rauchbach, B, 2003 Luftwaffe Fighter-Bombers over Britain: The Tip and Run Campaign 1942-3 (Manchester: Crécy Publishing Ltd.)

[7] Hervieux, L 2015 “How Black Barrage Balloon Troops Kept the D-Day Beaches Safe”, Military History Now, published online; Military Health Systems Communications Office, 2022 “This D-Day veteran hit the beach strapped to a barrage balloon”, We Are The Mighty, published online

The Battle of Britain

The maritime aspect of the Battle of Britain: 80 years on

Battle of Britain Day, 15 September, is so designated since it marks the anniversary of the day the tide turned in favour of the RAF in the aerial battle for Britain 80 years ago in 1940.

Text: 'Never was so much owed by so many to so few' at top of image over a group portrait of five airmen
Never Was So Much Owed by So Many to So Few (Art.IWM PST 14972) © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/32404

That day, though a turning point, was by no means the end of the Battle of Britain, which continued until 31 October 1940. The end of the Battle overlapped with the beginning of the Blitzkrieg (‘Lightning War’), shortened in Britain to ‘The Blitz’ – the aerial raids on British towns, cities and infrastructure – which continued on until May 1941, and which included the destruction of Coventry and its Cathedral in November 1940. 

The Battle of Britain was not wholly unique in the six long years of the maritime war. Throughout the duration, ships and aircraft attacked one another, but the Battle of Britain saw a significant shift in the conduct and outcomes of the war at sea that was not replicated at any other time within English waters. 

The data from Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) captures the significance of Battle of Britain over the sea as the RAF sought to intercept and repel the Luftwaffe.

The Battle was fought primarily in the skies over the south-eastern counties of England. Figures for those aircraft recorded as part of the historic environment show that one-third of the aircraft lost on both sides during the Battle of Britain were actually forced down into the sea in English waters, a total of 353 aircraft, of which 217 were German and 136 British. 

In turn these 353 aircraft account for 24% – almost one quarter – of all aircraft lost in the sea in English waters during the entire war in Europe from September 1939 to May 1945, a total of 1476 altogether. 

The figures for August 1940, perhaps the most acute phase, show that 174 aircraft found a watery grave that month, whether off the south-east coast or in the Thames. For what has become known as ‘The Hardest Day‘, 18 August 1940, when operational losses and destruction of aircraft on the ground, reached their zenith, 12 aircraft are recorded as having been lost in the sea. On the British side the losses that day were four Hurricanes and a Spitfire, while the Luftwaffe lost a He111, four Ju87s, and a Me110. 

Historic B&W photograph of two soldiers standing in mud on the foreshore examine aircraft wreckage.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, JULY-OCTOBER 1940 (HU 89288) Soldiers examine an MG 15 machine gun and part of the tail assembly of a German Dornier Do 17Z bomber of the KG 2, shot down over the Thames Estuary during attacks on Eastchurch aerodrome, 13 August 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205094199

Eighty years ago today on that first ‘Battle of Britain Day’ on 15 September, the losses had diminished somewhat, all German, and all in the Thames Estuary. That day three Do17s came down: Do17Z (3405) U5+FT crashed and Do17Z (2578) F1+BS was shot down, both off Herne Bay, Kent; Do17Z (1176) 5K+DN was shot down into the Thames.

What is perhaps most distinctive about this phase of the sea war was that during the Battle of Britain aircraft losses within English waters outstripped ships sunk in the same area by roughly 2.5 to 1.

Those figures reveal a completely opposite pattern to the figures available for maritime losses in the other months of 1940: in the previous six months aircraft comprised one-third of maritime losses, and likewise for the remainder of 1940.  In other words, there was a unique spike in aircraft lost to the sea. 

The Battle of Britain was an aerial battle, stretched out over many long, exhausting, days, weeks and months, but what these figures also show is that during the Battle of Britain the sea war became an air war. 

 

Diary of the Second World War: July 1940

The Talvaldis 

This month we commemorate something of a mystery ship lost 80 years ago in July 1940, as we take a look at the Talvaldis: the aim of publication is to see if we can discover more and flesh out the history and details of this vessel for the record.

Here is what we know:

The Talvaldis was built as Teign I in 1912 for E P Hutchinson of Hull, then renamed Westerham in 1916, when she passed into the ownership of Cunningham, Shaw & Co., Ltd. She remained registered at Hull through two more changes of ownership until being sold in 1927 to M Stahl & Co (M Štāls, D Tomsons & Co.)  of Riga, when she received her Latvian name of Talvaldis. (1)

Thereafter she was a regular trader between the Baltic and Britain and further afield, appearing frequently in arrivals and departures lists in British regional newspapers with a variety of cargoes: trading herring from Fraserburgh to Riga and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in 1931, timber to Bordeaux via London and Hull in early 1939, and discharging bog ore from Delfzijl at Sharpness in April 1939. (2)  She is last heard of in print before the war in late August, passing Dover from Bordeaux for Gravesend on the 27th, with a quick turnaround, being seen once more southbound off Dover on the 30th.  (3) 

Just above the last notice for the Talvaldis in the Liverpool press, a stern notice appears in bold:

Owing to the international situation, news concerning the movements of British ships is necessarily restricted, and publication of the foreign mail list is suspended.

The news of a week earlier had been grim indeed with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August 1939, a German-Soviet mutual non-aggression pact leading to the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, and the declaration of war by Britain and France on 3 September. On 30 August, therefore, when the Talvaldis appeared for the last time in pre-war English-language shipping columns, the world was four days away from six years of war.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact led to the Soviet Union increasing pressure on the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which had enjoyed just over 20 years as independent nation-states – then in June 1940 Soviet troops occupied them all.

During the period between the outbreak of war and the Soviet occupation, Talvaldis then seems to fade from view, with the exception of a probable sighting in March 1940. Censorship of shipping movements played its part here, of course.  A Latvian ship named Talwadis, which seems otherwise attested anywhere, shows up in convoy OB21 bound from Swansea to Oporto with coal in March 1940, and is reasonably suspected of being the Talvaldis. (4)

So when we next discover the (correctly spelt) Talvaldis, it is as part of a 21-strong British convoy coded CW2 from Southend to Yarmouth Roads on 8 July 1940, by which time Latvia is no longer a free nation. (5) Her captain may have been the A Lejnieks who was recorded against her name in a list of Latvian shipping as at 1 January 1940, but this is not certain, as anything could have happened in the interim.  (6)

Most of the ships in this convoy were British, but it also included one ship each from Denmark and Norway, and three from the Netherlands – all neutral countries which had recently fallen under Nazi occupation.

What were they all doing in the convoy? These, and other ships from those countries, may have been in, bound to, or diverted their course to, Allied ports at the time their respective nations were invaded, and thus able to operate out of the reach of occupation authorities. 

For example, ships slipped out of Amsterdam or other occupied ports all over Europe and ran under cover of darkness to Allied ports. Similarly, intense negotiations between Norway, the UK and the US saw the creation of the world’s largest shipping company, the Nortraships (Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission). (7)

Negotiations also took place around Latvian and Estonian ships in both the US and UK, and may offer a clue as to why and how the Talvaldis disappeared from the records for several months, in addition to the censorship situation. In the US it was reported that: ‘The USSR has failed in some quiet finagling to obtain use of the Latvian and Estonian ships sequestered by the US Treasury when the Soviet [sic] seized the Baltic states . . . this Government still refuses to recognise Russia’s Baltic conquests, and, hence, release of the ships is out of the question. Actually ten of the vessels are now plying the New York – Liverpool run in British convoys.’ Their earnings went to the support of their respective diplomatic representatives in the US. (8) 

As in the US, Latvia retained diplomatic representation in London looking after Latvian interests in the absence of any formal government-in-exile. It is also clear that there were similarly high-level discussions in Britain over the prevention of Russian control, and the possibility of British requisitioning, of Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian ships. (9) 

After arriving at Yarmouth Roads on 9 July, the Talvaldis left later the same day, sailing independently for Lisbon. At 7.10 that evening the Prawle Point Signal station on the south Devon coast reported a steamer three or four miles out to sea under attack by enemy aircraft, Ju87s (better known as Stukas) of StG 2. (10)

German aircraft with Iron Cross painted on its wings in vertical position against a cloud backdrop.
Bombs falling from a Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber during the Battle of Britain, July-October 1940., taken by a German photographer in an accompanying aircraft © IWM GER 18

Local RNLI services swung rapidly into action as the Salcombe lifeboat, Torbay lifeboat, and a motor boat from Lannacombe all put to sea. The motor boat was first on scene, finding one man dead from the combined bombing and machine-gunning of the vessel, which was by now rapidly sinking, and taking off six men, but standing by the other six crew in the ship’s boat until the arrival of the Salcombe lifeboat at 8.45pm, for which service the master of the Talvaldis gave each man of the Lannacombe motor boat £1. The lifeboat then took all 12 survivors on board. (11) 

In the meantime the Torbay lifeboat passed the Dutch motor vessel Jola, which had also been attacked and was putting into Dartmouth, with three crew having been wounded by machine-gun. This reveals that the Talvaldis was not the only vessel sailing independently, after parting company with Convoy CW 2. The Jola had also been one of the three Dutch ships in the convoy, and was also continuing her journey, some distance behind – sufficient distance, probably, to ensure that they were not mistaken by hostile eyes as forming part of any convoy or association for mutual assistance. (12) 

The remains of a ship believed to be the Talvaldis are charted some 2 miles south of Start Point, more or less three miles east of Prawle Point. The vessel is recorded as intact, broken amidships, but with bows WNW, orientated in the direction of travel, but little is known about the remains. Thus the Talvaldis remains obscure in terms of both her history and final voyage and her physical remains which have not been positively identified. (13)

Where had she been between August 1939 and March 1940? What was her cargo, if any, to neutral Lisbon? Does  the March 1940 voyage shed any light on her later voyage – was she bound once more on a Swansea-Portugal run with coal? This in itself would suggest that the vessel was operating in British colliery interests.

Her obscurity is rooted in the very nature of the intense period of the war in which she was lost. Latvia had just been occupied and would shortly be formally annexed by the USSR. News of the loss reached Riga fairly quickly, but we can only tell this from an intermediary report printed in neighbouring Estonia: ‘Riga: 12 July. Unverified reports from England state that the Latvian steamer Talvaldis has been sent to the bottom after an air attack.’ (14) This was just one incident in the Kanalkampf, the Luftwaffe battle against Channel shipping which began in early July 1940, but which would intensify and broaden its scope the day after the attack on the Talvaldis.

On 10 July 1940, the Battle of Britain began.

Footnotes: 

(1) Miramar Ship Index[subscription service]: entry for the Talvaldis; Latvian orthography from Jurnieks, 1 January 1940, No.1 [in Latvian], accessed from the National Library of Latvia, Digital Library 

(2) Fraserburgh Herald, 14 August 1956, p ; Gloucester Citizen, 17 April 1939, p7

(3) Liverpool Daily Post, 28 August 1939, p3, Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 28 August 1939, p6, Liverpool Daily Post, 30 August 1939, p14

(4) Convoyweb ; the name Talwadis is not attested elsewhere in standard shipping sources, e.g. the Miramar Ship Index 

(5) Convoyweb 

(6) See note 1. Jurnieks means ‘Sailor’ in Latvian, so this publication is ‘The Sailor‘; cf. the Jurneks of Riga, lost off the Tyne in 1901 (also recorded in variant spellings in English, and even on its own nameboards, as Jourhneeks, Jurhneek, Juhrneeks, and Jurneek). 

(7) For example, the Dutch Johan de Witt, which saw worldwide service as a trooper for the Allied cause, carrying over 39,000 troops, from 1940.

(8) Newsweek, ‘The Periscope’, Aug 11, 1941, p11, repr in Magazine Abstracts, Vol. VII, No.34, 20 August 1941, p106, (Washington: US Office of Government Reports, Division of Press Intelligence)

(9) A number of relevant documents survive at the National Archives for 1940-1,  e.g. Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ships: prevention of Russian control (CO 854/331/8) and the Requisitioning of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ships (MT 59/502B) As early as 1939 there were also discussions over the possible chartering of Latvian tonnage (MT 59/1564).

(10) Sturzkampfgeschwader (‘Dive Bomber Squadron’)

(11) Miramar Ship Index [subscription service], entry for the Talvaldis; Bertke, D, Kindell, D, Smith, G,  2009. World War II Sea War Vol. 2 Britain Stands Alone: Day-to-Day Naval Actions from April 1940 through September 1940 (Dayton, Ohio: Bertke Publications); RNLI, 1940. Services by the Life-boats of the Institution and by Shore-boats during 1940 , p88, p146 [which, incidentally, spells Lannacombe as ‘Lannercombe’.]

(12) Convoyweb: Jola would survive the war, being scrapped in 1984: as part of her war service, she took part in Operation Neptune.

(13) UKHO 18046

(14) Uudisleht, 12 July 1940, No.181, p3, [in Estonian]; accessed via the National Library of Estonia, DIGAR (Digital Archive)

Diary of the Second World War: June 1940

Armstrong Whitworth Whitley N1476

Historic black & white photograph of aircraft on the ground, nose to left of image.
Whitley T4162, (like N1476, a Mark V), of 102 Sqn at RAF Topcliffe, North Yorkshire. This aircraft failed to return from a raid on Cologne in March 1941. Serials T4151, T4159, T4160 and T4172 are also known to have crashed or ditched into the sea off the English coast. © IWM CH 2052

Our War Diary for the month of June 1940 focuses on another rare aircraft, Armstrong Whitley Whitworth N1476, lost on 20 June 1940, which, like the Blackburn Botha (February 1940 entry), was another example of an ‘extinct’ aircraft of which no complete or airworthy examples survive. (1)

This aircraft had entered service just a month earlier, on 20 May 1940, when it was allocated to 77 Sqn, RAF Driffield, Yorkshire. Introduced into service in 1937, the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley was a heavy bomber used by the RAF until 1944, although its main period of service was 1939-41. (2)

Historic watercolour showing four aircraft lined up, with the wing frame of a fifth being built in the background.
The distinctive rear turrets of the Whitley bomber are seen in this record of aircraft production in which the artist specialised. Rear Turrets of Whitley Aircraft. Raymond McGrath, 1940. Purchased by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 149

On the night of 19 June 1940 N1476 left Driffield for a bombing raid on the Ruhr piloted by Pilot Officer Andrew Dunn. N1476 and its five-man crew were struck by repeated anti-aircraft fire en route to their own target of the marshalling yards at Wanne-Eickel, before then coming under attack ‘by a Messerschmitt 109’. (3)

Contemporary artwork showing 4 bombers in action over Germany.
Target Area: Whitley Bombers over Berlin. Paul Nash, 1940. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 827

The first attack put the intercom out of action and wounded both the observer, Sgt Bernard Savill, and the wireless operator, Sgt Joseph Dawson. The rear gunner, Pilot Officer Leslie Watt, managed to shoot down the Messerschmitt as it attacked again, but not before it had hit and disabled the Whitley’s port engine, which caught fire.  (4)

The crew then managed to attack their target and turn around for the return leg. The fire on the port engine was extinguished, but it burst into flames once more, was put out again, and the engine shut down. It was a long three and a half hour flight on a single engine across the North Sea, dropping as low as 400ft, while the second pilot, Pilot Officer Charles Montagu, made everything ready for abandoning the aircraft. (5)

They then ditched in the sea just off Hastings Pier (reported at the time as merely ‘off the south coast’) at 04.27am and issued a mayday call to which motor launches of Coastal Command responded. All five crew survived and were immediately recognised for ‘gallantry in flying operations’, the three Pilot Officers receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and the two Sergeants, as ‘other ranks’, the Distinguished Flying Medal (a distinction which has since been abolished). (6)

Historic black & white photo of Hastings beachfront taken from an aircraft, whose wing is visible top left.
The town and seafront from the pier to Claremont, Hastings, shortly after the Second World War in 1946. EAW002408 © Historic England Britain from Above https://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/en/image/EAW002408

Parts of the aircraft have been reported from the sea from time to time: a tyre from the undercarriage recovered in the 1980s, initially believed to be a bomb, now in the Robertsbridge Aviation Society Museum, which was identified as being part of N1476, and in the 2010s, a nut stamped with the RR logo, indicating a Rolls-Royce engine was also discovered near Hastings Pier. (7)

As the Whitley was powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, N1476 is likely to be the prime candidate for this latter find, since the five other aircraft reported as having ditched or been shot down off Hastings during the Second World War were all German. Thus other aircraft which also had Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, such as the Spitfire, can be excluded from the candidates for consideration. (8) 

However, as the ‘bomb’ which was a tyre demonstrates, these finds are open to revision and interpretation: a find in the sea reported off Norfolk through the Offshore Renewables Protocol for Archaeological Discoveries (ORPAD) in 2015  was initially attributed to a recorded loss of another Armstrong Whitworth Whitley in the same vicinity, but after re-examination of the evidence in 2017 it was reported as being a part from a German Jumo engine and thus from something like a Junkers Ju87 or 88 or a Heinkel He111H. (9) 

This means that the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley off Hastings is a rare confirmed find. To date there has only been one other report of an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley in the sea off the south coast, without an identification attribute, so even as a subset of aircraft wrecks in the sea, they are rare.

I would like to thank Trevor Woodgate, Museum Manager at the Robertsbridge Aviation Society, for his very kind assistance.

Footnotes: 

(1) Holyoak, V, and Schofield, J. 2002 Military Aircraft Crash Sites: archaeological guidance on their significance and future management (Swindon: English Heritage)

(2) Holyoak & Schofield 2002, p8; Leverington, K (ed.) 1995 The Vital Guide to Fighting Aircraft of World War II (Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing Ltd.) p5

(3) London Gazette, 12 July 1940, No.34,896,  p4,289; this aircraft is variously referred to as the Bf109 or the Me109. Detailed target information from the Museum Manager,  Robertsbridge Aviation Society pers. comm., 2020

(4) ibid; Allenby, R. (nd) Whitley N1476 at Finningley Airfield in Yorkshire Aircraft: aircraft accidents in Yorkshire

(5) London Gazette, 12 July 1940, No.34,896, p4,289

(6) ibid.; medal group and log of Sgt Bernard Savill; information from Robertsbridge Aviation Society

(7) The Museum Manager, Robertsbridge Aviation Society, pers. comm., 2020; Forces War Records 2013 Rare WW2 bomber found near Hastings

(8) Source: National Record of the Historic Environment database, Historic England

(9) ORPAD reports DOW_10284 (2015, 2017), as recorded in the National Record of the Historic Environment database, Historic England

VE Day

Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on 8 May 1945 we look at the very last craft of any kind to be lost off the coast of England.

The last few months of the war saw a significant decline in shipping and aircraft losses over the sea attributable to war causes. The last six weeks of the war saw 10 shipping casualties to war causes in English waters. Over the same period there were 6 aircraft lost to non-war causes (mechanical failure or accident, for example).

The seventh and last aircraft, and last loss of the war in English waters, was the exception, and a war loss, despite its peaceable mission – just one day before the celebration of Victory in Europe. And it is to events in Europe we must turn first of all to understand the mission of the last aircraft of the war to find a grave with most of its crew in England’s territorial sea.

Background:

As the end of the war approached, there was real desperation in the occupied Netherlands after the arduous Hongerwinter [“Hunger Winter”) of 1944-5, of whom one of the best-known survivors was the actress Audrey Hepburn, whose mother was Dutch and who grew up in the Netherlands.

The Hongerwinter arose from a terrible combination of circumstances, any one of which on its own would have been bad enough Although the Allies pushed ahead after breaking out from Normandy, the objective of Arnhem in the Netherlands in September 1944 during Operation Market Garden proved a ‘bridge too far’. Attempted strikes by Dutch railway personnel led to retaliation by the occupiers, preventing food supplies from getting through, and when this blockade was lifted, there were overwhelming obstacles to overseas relief efforts. Although the Allies had managed to capture Antwerp in September 1944, it was several weeks before the port could be used and, even if it had been in use earlier, the the occupied western provinces of the Netherlands with the greatest population density,  and least agricultural land, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam, remained cut off. The canals and rivers froze early that winter and fuel for lorries was scarce. Limited relief supplies from neutral Sweden and Switzerland had helped a little but the situation remained dire. (1) 

Sepia pen and ink wash of seated woman in hat with a boy and a girl in the background.
‘They have taken all, and our food’, Netherlands. Eric William Taylor, 1944, purchased by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Taylor would go on to record the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.  © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 4989

The relief effort: 

Even as the Allies closed in on Berlin and the end of the war in Europe, they were able to refocus from a purely offensive approach towards a relief effort and the rebuilding of a new Europe. The Lancasters of the RAF and the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF based in England, which had so recently been deployed on bombing missions were perfectly suited to dropping food parcels to the Netherlands, and thus Operations Manna (RAF) and Chowhound (USAAF) were born.

Historic B&W photo of six men loading the sacks, their uniforms streaked with escaped flour.
Operation Manna: Ground crew of No.514 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, loading cement bags filled with foodstuffs into the bomb bay of a Lancaster bomber, 29 April 1945, destined for those parts of Holland still under German occupation. © IWM CL 2490

It was a massive logistical effort which drew upon the resources of the Allied airfields of East Anglia at very short notice from mid-April 1945, with the situation becoming urgent against German resistance and the risk of further deliberate flooding both of agricultural fields and transport infrastructure a real possibility. There were no spare parachutes available, so safe conduct for low-level food drops was arranged, to begin in late April 1945.

Black & white photo of Dutch citizen waving at three aircraft flying low over a town.
Dutch citizens wave as food is dropped from Lancaster bombers over the Netherlands in April 1945. Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst Eigen © Nationaal Archief, CC0 120-0739

The mission: 

Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640 of the 334th Bomber Squadron, 95th Bomb Group, set out from USAAF Horham in Suffolk on 7 May 1945, the day after the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands and the day before Victory in Europe day. Along with its precious cargo of food there were 13 on board, including observers from the station’s Photographic Section, all anticipating a routine mission.

Nose and two engines of silver aircraft inside a hangar with white roof.
A B17G Flying Fortress under restoration at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, Georgia, USA. Jud McCranie, CC BY-SA 4.0

Following a successful drop 44-8640 turned for home. There were still pockets of resistance from the occupation forces, which is believed to have had a bearing on subsequent events. No. 2 engine was reported as ‘running rough’, with smoke and oil, thought to originate from rogue flak fired by the occupation forces at the aircraft in the IJmuiden area. (2) 

According to a crashed aircraft recovery specialist based at RAF Ford, Sussex, in 1944, crew would nurse their crippled aircraft, whether shot up, suffering mechanical failure, or simply running out of fuel, back from overseas missions to the English coastline, but would then often be forced to crash-land at or near the nearest available base, unable to make it back to their home bases. (3) 

As the situation worsened, the crew of 44-8640 realised that reaching the coast was going to be impossible and, fearing an explosion, they baled out over the sea off Suffolk, in the vicinity of Benacre Ness or Southwold, with one survivor recalling that the engine dropped away in a ‘ball of flame’ as he got away. The aircraft then fell into the sea.

Two men were picked up alive by a Catalina flying boat after some time in the water, and it is their testimony that enables us to know what happened to 44-8640, but the remainder of the crew were killed, including the observers.

Commemoration: 

Those of the crew whose bodies were recovered were interred at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, Cambridge, but others were never found and are presumed entombed with the aircraft on the seabed.

Five aircraft seen in a blue sky with angel h
Detail of a mosaic on the ceiling of the chapel at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, depicting aircraft being escorted by angels. James O Davies DP180621 © Historic England Archive

This, the final loss of any craft in English waters to war causes, was also one of the cruel tragedies of the war: to be shot at over the Netherlands and to keep the aircraft airborne so many miles only to lose the battle so close to the English coast, and all on a humanitarian mission. Somewhere off the coast lie its remains, which are yet to be discovered but which are automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Victory in Europe was, perhaps, a collective sigh of relief, but it was not the end of the war, which would only come in August 1945 with VJ Day. It was a victory achieved at a huge human cost which has left legible traces in the historic environment – the destruction of historic fabric from London to Coventry and beyond, the legible traces in standing buildings from the suburban semi to national museums, the construction of military installations that have since become ‘historic’ in themselves, the legacy of commemoration – and the remains of ships and aircraft on the seabed, lost to war causes over the years from 1939 to 1945.

References: 

(1) For more detail on this subject, see Sutch, A. 2016 “Manna from Heaven”, RAF Museum blog, online

(2) Onderwater, H. 1985 Operation Manna/Chowhound: the Allied food droppings April?may 1945 Netherlands: Unieboek

(3) Oral history testimony, Ronald Cant (RAF Corporal, 1942-1946) as told to his daughter in reminiscing over D-Day, 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diary of the War: April 1940

HMS/M Unity

This month the focus in our diary of the war at sea is on the submarine HMS Unity, sunk on 29 April 1940.

One of the key dangers for submarines in the early decades of the 20th century was the risk of collision with surface ships, although this risk lessened with the increasing sophistication of detection technologies.

At the same time, while convoy provided ships with a degree of safety against a common enemy, it also occasionally raised the risk of collision with other ships in the convoy. For example, there are sporadic reports of collision in convoy in English waters during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while they also occurred during the First World War (see our previous post on War Knight, 1918).

For HMS Unity it was a collision of causes, as well as a collision in fact, as she came in contact off the Northumbrian coast with a surface ship, the SS Atle JarlUnity was on the North Sea patrol and left her base at Blyth on 17.30 on 29 April 1940 on a northerly course in conditions of poor visibility, while Atle Jarl was steaming south in convoy from Methil to the Tyne. Neither vessel saw the other until they were virtually on top of one another and Atle Jarl struck the submarine upon the port bows, sinking within five minutes. (1) Four of the Unity‘s crew would lose their lives: Lt John Niven Angus Low and AB Henry James Miller went down with the submarine, while Leading Seaman James Sneddon Hare and Stoker 1st Class Cecil Shelton drowned before the boats sent out from the Atle Jarl could rescue them. (2)

Historic B&W photograph of submarine on the surface of an otherwise empty sea.
HMS Unruly, like HMS Unity a U-class submarine, seen from the air in February 1945. © IWM (A 28318)

The voyages of both vessels were connected with the same event on the international stage – the fall of Norway on 9 April 1940. On 6 April Atle Jarl had left Shields on the north-east coast for Trondheim in Norway. She put into Methil Roads in Scottish waters the following day then set off for Norway, but events then forced her to put back. She then left Methil to return to Shields on 29 April. (3) On that same day Unity‘s intended voyage was in the opposite direction, to Norway, where the Allies were still involved in a campaign to dislodge the Nazi occupiers.

The previous month Unity had made headlines in Britain and the Netherlands with her rescue of eight survivors from the crew of the Dutch trawler Protinus, who had been bobbing about without food or water in an open boat in the North Sea for six days, after their vessel had been attacked and sunk by a German aircraft. Two men were killed in the attack and two succumbed afterwards as they drifted: eerily prefiguring the losses aboard Unity, two in the incident and two in the sea afterwards. The survivors were landed at a Scottish east coast port and Unity‘s crew ‘received the congratulations of Queen Wilhelmina, of Holland.’ (4)

Historic B & W photograph of men surrounding a survivor in a cork lifejacket.
A survivor from Protinus is helped from HMS Unity by her crew in one of a sequence of photographs which shows individual survivors being landed. Some of these images were then published in Dutch newspapers. © IWM (A 16)

The loss of Unity herself, however, was a completely different matter. The press was silent on the subject, although allusions to the rescue of the Dutch fishermen cropped up at intervals during the war, either as her crew subsequently took part in successful engagements, or were awarded medals. The only clue to the submarine’s loss, perhaps, was that they gained these awards in other vessels: but this would only be known by the men and their families, and to the outside world their presence aboard other submarines would have been masked by the transfer of postings through career progression, particularly for officers.

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we are able to read between the lines.

For example, the news that AB Jones had received the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for ‘daring, enterprise and devotion to duty on successful patrols in HM Submarines’ was accompanied by a reminder of the Protinus rescue and the fact that he was ‘subsequently posted to HM Submarine Utmost.’ (5) Most of the crew were indeed subsequently divided between Utmost and Upright, and at least one went to submarine P311(6) 

Nor were the survivors the only ones to receive gallantry awards. On 16 August 1940 both Lt Low and AB Miller were posthumously awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal, which was exchanged for the new award of the George Cross instituted just a month later. Even then only their branch of service was recorded: ‘HM Submarines’ – but the citation was specifically for ‘gallantry in loss of ship in collision’. (7) 

The sinking of Unity by collision at 7.15pm on 29 April ‘off the Farne Islands’ did not reach the public domain, but was reported on 1 May to the War Cabinet, who were also notified that ‘Divers from Scapa were being hurried to the Tyne.’ (8) It was noted at the next day’s meeting, however, that diving operations had been unsuccessful and that: ‘The few men remaining in her could only be saved, however, if they made their own escape by using the Davies [sic] apparatus.’ (9)

Historic B&W photograph of man wearing the apparatus in a tank while the trainees watch.
An instructor coming to the surface during a demonstration of the Davis apparatus, as trainees for the submarine service look on, at HMS Dolphin, Gosport, 14 December 1942. © IWM (A 13884)

It was only after the war in Europe was over in May 1945 that the news of Unity‘s loss made its way into the public domain when the Admiralty ‘revealed its secret losses, which could not be announced before without giving Germany information.’ (10) 

The managed lack of information was one thing; it was a necessity for the safe conduct of the war and for public morale, and did not mean at all that nothing was done behind the scenes. As we have seen, the War Cabinet was notified of a rescue attempt, and the gallantry of Lt Low and AB Miller in remaining behind and assisting their crewmates to escape, even at the risk of their own lives, was recognised within months of the event.

In the interim, a Court of Inquiry was convened at Blyth. There it emerged that the poor visibility was not the only contributory factor to the disaster, but a missing piece of information had also played its part in shaping the course of events, and that was an entirely different matter.

A signal had come through to Blyth from Rosyth to warn of the impending Methil-Tyne convoy in the swept war channels, but this, for some reason, had not reached Unity. This reasons for this were examined in detail, but no-one recalled having sight of the signal – neither the signalman who should have been able to collect it before sailing, nor the navigating officer, nor the commanding officer. Procedures at the shoreside signal distribution office were minutely examined to account for the discrepancy, but as the confidential papers had gone down with the submarine, there was no conclusive paper trail to demonstrate or corroborate whether the signal had been collected or not collected, never seen or seen but overlooked in the haste to put to sea. (11)

These seemingly routine tasks could make the difference between life and death, and it could be said that ‘for want of a signal a submarine was lost’, and four lives. Whether her presence would have altered the course of the struggle for Norway, we will never know, but it is a reminder that in wartime each person was a very small cog in larger cogs that moved enormous wheels, and individual events had a cumulative effect on outcomes far away. The history of Unity also reminds us that while ships have always saved people from wrecks, only to be wrecked in their turn (sometimes many years later), under the circumstances of war these sequences of events were both more frequent, and compressed into shorter spans of time.

 

References: 

(1) Atle Jarl entry onwarsailors.com 

(2) Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, results for 29.04.1940

(3) p1 of Atle Jarl‘s convoy register (in English), National Archives of Norway, repr. on warsailors.com

(4) Algemeen Handelsblad (in Dutch), 30 March 1940, No.37,063, p3; Daily Record, 1 April 1940; Middlesex Chronicle, 16 May 1942, No.4,352, p5

(5) Birmingham Post, 7 November 1940, No.25,681 p3

(6) Middlesex Chronicle, 16 May 1942, No.4,352, p5; Evans, A. 1986 Beneath the Waves: A history of HM Submarine losses 1904-1971 (London: William Kimber)

(7) London Gazette, Friday 16 August 1940, No.34,924, p5059; TNA ADM 1/11525

(8) TNA CAB 65/7/1

(9) TNA CAB 65/7/2

(10) “Naval Chronicle”, Hampshire Telegraph & Post, 25 May 1940, No.8,469, p12

(11) Evans, A. 1986 Beneath the Waves: A history of HM Submarine losses 1904-1971 (London: William Kimber)

 

Diary of the War: March 1940

Capitaine Augustin

This month’s War Diary commemorates the loss of the French collier Capitaine Augustin on 17 March 1940. She was built for the Union Industrielle et Marine by Chantiers Navals Français in 1922. In common with many other French ships, both civilian and naval, constructed immediately after the First World War, she was named after a ‘naval hero of the late war’ whose family remained untraced, or they would have been invited to the launch ceremony on 14 February 1922. (1) [See also our previous post on another, similarly named, collier, Mousse Le Moyec, which would in her turn be wrecked in December 1940.]

Reporting of the incident through official British channels (the Press Association War Special) was terse: ‘The French steamer, Capitaine Augustin (3,137 tons), of Havre, bound in ballast to an East Coast of England port, was mined and sunk off the East Coast on Sunday, and two of her crew of 30 were killed.’ (2)  Similar clues, or even fewer, were present in French sources: for example, in the extract illustrated below, the only clue as to the whereabouts of the wreck lies in the reporting of the wreck from Londres or London.

French language newspaper extract consisting of headline at top, black and white photograph of stern view of ship with her name Capitaine Augustin in white letters in the middle, followed by short French text below.
Headline from L’Ouest-Eclair, 20 March 1940, No.15,835: “War at Sea: the cargo vessel Capitaine Augustin sinks after being mined. Two injured, two missing.” Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Some detail did emerge: the injured were the wireless operator and a gunner, which suggested that the vessel was armed for self-defence. In fact, Capitaine Augustin had been requisitioned by the French authorities in December 1939, so it seems likely that she received her armament then. (3)

The explosion took place within sight of shore: ‘hundreds’ locally heard the explosion and ‘watched from the pier while the lifeboat dashed seven miles to the sinking ship.’ (4) The survivors were landed at a ‘south-east coast town’. Eight must have endured quite a fright as the ship began to sink, as they were trapped below by ‘some doors which had jammed’, but they were fortunately rescued by their crewmates hacking the doors down. (5)  It was for just this reason that internal steel netting was provided at least on British ships later in the war, so that in the event of the ship being struck and stairways destroyed, those below decks had a ladder and a means of scrambling up on deck to the lifeboats. (6) 

The human interest angle, so important in journalism at any time, came to the fore in wartime. Here we can see how the details of the crew looking after their own, while onlookers willed on the lifeboat speeding to the rescue, took precedence over any locational detail either of the mine or of the ship’s intended voyage, other than in the most vague terms. That way such details receded into insignificance and gave little or no information to the enemy on the success or otherwise of their operations. (7)

The mines had been laid the previous month by 1. Zerstörer-Flotille (1st Destroyer Flotilla) of the German Kriegsmarine in the ‘Shipwash area’ off the northern approaches to the Thames. This tallies with the emphasis on the east and south-east coasts in the details given in the British press. (8) An unattributed French source, based on the activities of 1. Zerstörer-Flotille, states the location of loss as 2.5 miles 126 degrees from the Tongue lightvessel in the Thames Estuary. (9)  

The wreck site has been securely charted since 1940, and, of course, at the time the position of the vessel would have been noted by the rescuers. The timing of its first charting is interesting, as it was charted in mid-June 1940 as a dangerous wreck, so of course it suggests that it was one more hazard to avoid for all the ‘Little Ships’ that shuttled from the Thames Estuary to Dunkirk and back between 26 May and 4 June 1940.

Following dispersal in 1946, the location of the wreck was reported in relation to a wartime feature constructed since the date of the wreck, the Tongue Sand Tower (Tongue Sand Fort) – rather than being noted in relation to the lightvessel, even though the latter remained on station until its decommissioning after 1980. The Tongue Sand Fort was one of the Maunsell Forts built for the defence of the Thames Estuary during 1942-3. (For more on the Maunsell Forts, see 7 Treasures of the Thames Estuary on Historic England’s other blog, Heritage Calling.)

Contemporary B&W photograph of twin-legged sea fort painted in dazzle camouflage
The Tongue Sand Tower was a Maunsell ‘Navy’ type fort, such as the one depicted here. © IWM (A 26878)

All that now remains of the Tower is a stump following its collapse in 1996, while the dispersed wreck site of the Capitaine Augustin appears to have disappeared beneath the sands, (10) yet together they point to the wartime legacy of this patch of the Thames Estuary.

(1) L’Ouest-Eclair, 15 February 1922, No.7,409, p6

(2) Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1

(3) Bulletin officiel des armées: arrêté no.56 de 12 juin 1954 (in French)

(4) Hull Daily Mail, 19 March 1940 [no issue number], p1

(5) Thanet Advertiser, 21 March 1940, p5

(6) Oral history testimony from Corporal Cant RAF, 2006, recounting his experiences aboard the Dutch troopship Johan de Witt operated by the British Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) in convoy Clyde – Lagos, November 1944.

(7) Thomson, G (1947) Blue Pencil Admiral  (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd) provides an informative account of how censorship and information management worked in practice for the duration of the war.

(8) Rohwer, Jürgen & Hümmelchen, Gerhard, “Februar 1940“, Chronik des Seekrieges, published online (Württembergisches Landesbibliothek, 2007-2020) (in German)

(9) http://uim.marine.free.fr/hisnav/archives/carpass/cap_augustin.htm (in French)

(10) http://www.bobleroi.co.uk/ScrapBook/TongueTower/TongueTower.html, which provides an interesting overview and many photographs of the Tower throughout its history; UKHO 14046

Diary of the War: February 1940

Blackburn Botha L6111 

One key respect in which the conduct of the Second World War at sea differed from the First was the number of aircraft involved. Since the previous war, aircraft had evolved to become capable of significant offensive and defensive roles, reflected in the numbers lost over both land and sea. In and around English waters these included well-known aircraft on both sides, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters, Ju88s, Me109s and He111s, as well as many less familiar aircraft types.

Today, on the 80th anniversary of its loss on 24 February 1940, we feature our first case study of an aircraft lost at sea during the Second World War. (Others will follow in due course.) The reasons for aircraft loss were many and varied: aerial combat, mechanical failure, and training accidents among them.

We begin with L6111, an example of a lesser-known type, the Blackburn Botha, developed and built over 1936-8 as a reconnaissance aircraft and a torpedo bomber. In early 1940 the Botha was not yet on active service, but remained under test for the Air Ministry at the Torpedo Development Unit (TDU), RAF Gosport, Hampshire, to which L6111 was allocated. (1)

Historic B&W photograph of Blackburn Botha aircraft parked facing with its nose prop to the left in front of the gables of a hangar.
Blackburn Botha Mk I L6107, stablemate of L6111, at the Torpedo Development Unit, RAF Gosport © IWM (MH 131)

On the morning of 24 February 1940, L6111 was on torpedo-dropping exercises over the Solent between Gosport and Ryde, Isle of Wight, when the engine cut out and the crew were forced to ditch in the sea.  All four men were providentially able to get into a dinghy before their aircraft sank. (2)

Not all Botha crews were so fortunate: exactly one year later, on 24 February 1941, Blackburn Botha L6262 crashed into the ground close to its destination airfield of RAF Detling, Kent, killing all four crew. (3) Even against the context of training and operational losses for all aircraft, these and other accidents ensured that the Botha was quickly rendered obsolete as a frontline aircraft. Only 580 were ever built, compared to the production runs for the more successful types such as the Spitfire (over 20,000 constructed).

Debris in the Solent off Fort Gilkicker was confirmed in 1990 as the scattered wreckage of an aircraft and would tally well with L6111‘s flight path. (4) As an aircraft having crashed on military service, it is automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986. (5)

It also has some significance as one of 21 ‘extinct’ British and German aircraft types of the 1930s and 40s, with few or no surviving complete examples in any context. (6) (See also an earlier blog post on a Do17 ‘Flying Pencil’ recovered from the sea in 2013, another, more intact, example of one of these rare types.) By contrast more Spitfires were produced, served in action and survived the war: this means that more Spitfires likewise survive in preservation, including airworthy examples, or as archaeological remains within both the terrestrial and marine environments.

(1) The National Archives (TNA), Records of the Aircraft Torpedo Development Unit and Projectile Development Establishment and successors; TNA AVIA 16/54; Aviation Safety Network, Wikibase Occurrence #71958, last updated 2018; MH (131)

(2) Aviation Safety Network, Wikibase Occurrence #71958 (2018); Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives, Crash of a Blackburn B-26 Botha off Ryde (nd)

(3) Aviation Safety Network, Wikibase Occurrence 153107, last updated 2018

(4) UKHO 19602

(5) Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986, Application of Act: Section 1, Paragraph 1

(6) Holyoak, Vince, and Schofield, John, Military Aircraft Crash Sites: archaeological guidance on their significance and future management(English Heritage, Swindon, 2002)