12. The Swiss Navy

Happy New Year to you all.

In an example of the “history begins yesterday” approach the recording of post-1945 wrecks began in 2010, when something like 500 modern wrecks were input onto the National Record of the Historic Environment (now under the aegis of Historic England, but at the time when this post was originally written, part of English Heritage).

That old joke about the Swiss Navy isn’t quite as far fetched as you might think: in the 20th century there was, and indeed into the 21st there remains, a Swiss mercantile marine not confined to the shores of Lake Geneva!

Today’s wreck is the Nyon, a Swiss ship which foundered off Beachy Head with a cargo of Mercedes cars following a collision with the Jalazad in 1962. Not only was she Swiss-registered, she is unusual for another reason.

In fact, she is a double wreck, in fact, because part of her had been left behind when she was hauled off the Byrips off St. Abb’s Head, Scotland, in 1958, and so is in the records of the Canmore database (Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of Scotland) as a wreck. She was repaired and re-entered service until her final loss in the 1962 incident. This form of double wrecking in different locations at different times, though rare, does occasionally happen and we signpost as appropriate to other records, as in this instance.

This interesting picture story recounts this initial incident.

Similarly landlocked at first sight are the ships which used to belong to Austria-Hungary, but the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formerly much greater than the borders of the eponymous constituent countries today, and had an outlet to the sea at Trieste in modern Italy and at ports on the Croatian coast.

We know of at least 60 ships which either belonged to Austria-Hungary at the time of loss or had borne an Austro-Hungarian nationality at an earlier period. One of the latter was the Elmcrest, torpedoed in 1940, having formerly borne the Hungarian name of Auguszta Főhercegnő (Archduchess Augusta). In other words, within our records is a body of evidence for ships registered in countries that have never had (Switzerland), or formerly had (Austro-Hungary), an outlet to the sea.

3. Coals to Newcastle

I realised today that I’m now one of the dwindling number of *ahem* slightly older people for whom the expression coals to Newcastle, to describe a pointless endeavour, is current!

Today’s wreck is the wonderfully-named Light of the Harem which was driven on the infamous Black Middens at the mouth of the Tyne during a snowstorm in 1870, along with a number of other vessels.

Thereby hangs a tale. Secondary accounts of the story say that coal was pillaged from the Light of the Harem as she broke up, an example of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

There was pillage from the other wrecks, but not from the Light of the Harem, because further research shows that she was inbound for the Tyne from her home port of Lowestoft, and can’t therefore have been carrying coals to Newcastle! Typically colliers entered the Tyne in ballast – the trade in ‘black diamonds’ was so profitable that an exchange or return cargo was usually unnecessary.

The crew were rescued by the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, who operate to this day outside the auspices of the RNLI, together with their counterparts at South Shields. The TVLB has an interesting little museum where you can see artefacts from shipwrecks, including the Light of the Harem.

You’re probably wondering why she had such an exotic name for the Victorian period, when the other vessels involved had the much more prosaic, and unexceptionable, names of the Anne, Helena, and Susannah. It derives from a section in Thomas Moore’s “Oriental” romantic poem Lalla-Rookh, published in 1817, which became a sensation and a popular 19th century classic, inspiring music and art. Here is Frederick Lord Leighton’s painting of the subject. We also have three other 19th century wrecks called Lalla Rookh, showing how much the theme took hold in the Victorian imagination.

2. Auf Gefechtsstationen!

I had the opportunity some time ago to visit the Naval Historical Branch to look at U-boat logs. These were spirited out of Germany towards the end of WWII by, I believe, one Ian Fleming, in an act worthy of 007 himself.

The originals have now been returned to the U-boat Museum in Cuxhaven, but all bear the Admiralty stamp, and copies remain archived at the NHB, from which I’ve translated quite a few to enhance our records.

Today’s wreck features the U-boat ace Günther Prien, responsible for the sinking of the Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in October 1939.

In his log for 6.12.1939 he identifies the victim, Britta, in the very first line of the report as Norwegian, yet Norway was neutral. Britta was one of about 60 Norwegian ships which were to sink during the course of the war around the English coastline.

Prien also notes that a nearby Fischdampfer (steam trawler) appeared “unconcerned” by the exploding Britta, attributing it to some sort of ‘C’est la guerre!’ sang-froid, but more likely, I think, some understandable wariness about drawing attention to herself when a U-boat was so obviously in the vicinity.


1. Royal George

The subject of our first Wreck of the Week is the Royal George (1782), a very good example of wreckage which is widely dispersed not only on the seabed, but in a terrestrial context. Our database records are placed online and you can follow the vessel’s full story by expanding each link. 

It seems that there were plenty of salvageable timbers . . .This image from the Historic England Archives shows a billiard table at Windsor made from timbers salved from the Royal George, taken, appropriately, by the architectural photography firm Bedford Lemere and Co., who took photographs of both terrestrial and ship architecture. I saw the Burghley House table not long ago on a trip to Stamford.

In the Historic England library at Swindon there is a book about the history of the wreck and the 1840s operations, which is bound in thin slivers of timber from the wreck – a very nice seaside souvenir and a popular one, judging by the number of editions it went through.