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)


No. 74 The Bramble Bank

Hoegh Osaka aground on the Bramble Bank: Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Hoegh Osaka aground on the Bramble Bank: Maritime and Coastguard Agency

Inspired by the vicissitudes of the car carrier Hoegh Osaka on the Bramble Bank since January 3, and her safe arrival last night (January 22) in Southampton, I thought I’d take a look this week at wrecks on the Bramble Bank.

Our earliest recorded shipwreck in the locality is an anonymous brig which was reported in Lloyd’s List as going ‘on the Brambles’, and ‘since bulged’, that is, bilged, or ending up with a hole in the bottom of her hull, after a ‘hard gale at NW’ on 18 December 1790. (1)

It can sometimes be very difficult to know the date of the earliest shipwreck on a particular feature: quite apart from the issues of the selective survival of documentary evidence, there is also the vagueness of contemporary reports, characteristic of the 18th century and earlier. It is likewise quite possible that contemporary or earlier wrecks or grounding incidents (in which the ship was, like the Hoegh Osaka, refloated) are masked by the brevity of such reports: a place of loss might simply be specified as ‘near Southampton’, ‘near Portsmouth’, and so on.

From the 19th and 20th centuries, however, a handful of wreck incidents involving the Bramble Bank are recorded, illustrating more regular and accurate reporting, rather than the bank becoming an increasing hazard to maritime traffic.

The most recent wreck to leave archaeological remains was Bridge No.4, formerly a chain ferry across the River Medina on the Isle of Wight, in 1976. Replaced by Bridge No.5 in 1975, she was decommissioned and foundered off the Bramble Bank en route to the breakers at Southampton in early 1976. This wreck demonstrates the diversity of 20th century wreck archaeology and is in good company with the remains of the King Harry Ferry, similarly lost off St. Agnes’ Head, Cornwall, en route to the Clyde in 1936. Chain ferries still remain in operation at Cowes and Falmouth.

The Bramble Bank also has another unusual heritage: an annual cricket match on the bank at low tide, probably inspired by similar matches on the Goodwin Sands, which we will revisit next week with a follow-up to the Turner post.

(1) Lloyd’s List, 21 December 1790, No.2,257