No.71: Remember Scarborough!

Diary of the War No.5

Scarborough Castle from the air
Scarborough Castle from the air:  N061078, © English Heritage Picture Library

One hundred years ago this week three German warships loomed out of the North Sea in the early morning of 16 December 1914, and commenced shelling Scarborough, Whitby, and Hartlepool. Whitby Abbey was struck by the light cruiser Kolberg, causing considerable damage, and Scarborough Castle by the battle cruisers Derfflinger and Von der Tann. Civilians going about their ordinary morning business were also killed in this, the first attack on English soil of the First World War.

Whitby Abbey, West Front as seen from the east. This window was badly damaged in the shelling of 1914.  N080802 © English Heritage Photo Library
Whitby Abbey, West Front as seen from the east. This window was badly damaged in the shelling of 1914. N080802 © English Heritage Photo Library

Local residents and heritage sites were not the only victims of the raid, which screened the Kolberg‘s true objective of laying a minefield. That minefield claimed three victims the same day: the British collier Elterwater, bound from the Tyne for London, which sank in three minutes, three miles east of Scarborough itself; the Norwegian collier Vaaren, bound with Tyne coal for Palermo; and the British cargo vessel Princess Olga, laden with a general cargo, from Liverpool for Aberdeen. As the days and weeks went by, Kolberg‘s mines claimed further victims.

The mines off the Yorkshire coast were continually replenished during the war, designed to catch victims such as the Elterwater and Vaaren, and to strike at the coal trade on which Britain depended so heavily for heating, lighting, and export. The North Sea off the Yorkshire coast became a field of death and destruction, with the fishermen of Grimsby and Hull in the front line, manning the requisitioned trawlers turned minesweepers: as fast as they swept, more mines were laid, and as fast as they were laid, they were swept again.

Remember Scarborough! became the slogan of a recruitment poster. One hundred years on, we remember not only Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool, but also the deadly Scarborough minefield.

This is the first of a Christmas double bill: there will be another Wreck of the Week on Monday.

No.64: HMS Fisgard II (Diary of the War at Sea No.2)

The Royal Navy Gears Up for War

This week we commemorate the centenary of the loss of HMS Fisgard II on 17 September 1914, an example of a vessel designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Built as the Audacious-class steamer HMS Invincible on the Clyde in 1870, she started out as an ironclad with a central battery of armament, rather than the broadside arrangement of guns, which had been so typical of the sailing fighting ship, and thus marks a point in the evolution of the 19th century Royal Navy.

As with other superseded warships before and since, when no longer suitable for frontline warfare she continued in service in less active roles. By 1906 she had joined her sister ship HMS Audacious, renamed Fisgard I, at HMS Fisgard, a navy training establishment for engineers at Portsmouth, becoming Fisgard II: four Fisgard hulks, all former warships, made up the establishment.

In 1914 a pressing need to train men up for wartime naval duty became apparent, and to that end, although Fisgard II was on the disposal list, she was instead retained and despatched for Scapa Flow in September.

While under tow in the Channel it was seen that water was coming in through her hawse-pipes, so that Fisgard II and her tugs all turned about for Portland. Before they could make it, she foundered relatively close to safety within 3 miles SSW of the Bill of Portland, with the loss of 14 hands from the 64-strong crew.

Contemporary newspapers noted approvingly that: ‘Discipline was maintained throughout. Every man was cool and good order was kept to the last.’ The Coroner, however, did not mince his words: ‘ . . . the ship was entirely unfitted for the sea. The Admiralty might just as well have put the men into a tub and towed them into the Channel and then wonder why they lost their lives. It did not seem right to send out a ship in such a condition.’ (1)

Fisgard II was therefore lost not to war causes nor in action, but to the exigencies of a war to which she was by now ill-suited.

She would not be the first, nor the last, hulked naval vessel to be lost while under tow: they were vulnerable because they lacked the necessary propulsion to manoeuvre out of trouble. This point was picked up by a survivor at the inquest, who drew attention to her lack of steering gear. Nor was she the only training ship that got into trouble at sea, but the tale of training ships is an interesting one in its own right, which will be told in another post.

(1) The Times, 19 September 1914, No.40,640, p3

No.62 Diary of the War at Sea 1

Diary of the War at Sea: an Icelandic trawler, 1914

This week marks the first edition of the ‘Diary of the War at Sea’ element of Wreck of the Week, in which one post a month will be devoted to a wreck from 100 years ago, for the ‘duration’ of the First World War Centenary.

On the night of 26-27 August 1914 a series of explosions occurred off the Tyne as one by one six ships fell victim to a newly-laid minefield. The first victim was the Skúli Fógeti, an Icelandic trawler homeward-bound for Reykjavik from Grimsby.

The sowing of mines brought the war close to the English coast, but losses of neutral vessels caused consternation, with the press inveighing against ‘promiscuous mine-sowing’: ‘this callous and inhuman mode of warfare, if it can be called warfare . . . more likely to do harm to peaceful trading ships than to the fighting ships of a belligerent’. (1)

The Times published a list of the nine neutral vessels sunk in the North Sea since the outbreak of war: two Dutch, two Norwegians, and five Danish vessels. (2) Among the ‘Danish’ vessels was the Skúli Fógeti although she was correctly described elsewhere as Icelandic: the confusion probably arose because Iceland was yet to achieve full independence from Denmark (1918, with ties to the Danish crown being severed on the proclamation of the republic in 1944).

The New York Times republished an official British communiqué denying British involvement in minelaying: ‘The Government has learned that on or about Aug. 26 an Iceland trawler is reported to have struck a mine . . . At least one foreign newspaper has stated that the mine was English.’ (3) Inevitably it was front-page news in Iceland: it was reported that the vessel was insured for 155,000 kronur, but she had no war risk insurance (4), something that by 1915 was becoming the norm, certainly among Danish ships. (5)

In the first month of the war, therefore, we can see it is already a World War, with the consequences of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 reaching further afield to touch more and more non-combatants.

Aerial view of Tynemouth Castle and Priory, looking out to the North Sea.  K920310 © Skyscan Balloon Photography. Source: English Heritage
Aerial view of Tynemouth Castle and Priory, looking out to the North Sea. K920310 © Skyscan Balloon Photography. Source: English Heritage

(1) Times, 28 August 1914, No.40,618, p6

(2) Times, 29 August 1914, No.40,619, p5

(3) New York Times, 30 August 1914, accessed via < > article and issue date citation only

(4) Morgunblaðið, 28 August 1914, No.293, p1,369

(5) Statistisk Oversigt over de i aaret 1915 for Danske Skibe i Danske og fremmede farvande samt for fremmede skibe i Danske farvande indtrufne Søulykker, Bianco Luno, Copenhagen, 1916

11. Wrecks on Christmas Day

Wrecks on Christmas Day are somewhat inevitable when the prime ‘wrecking season’ is between October and March in our northern hemisphere. There are numerous instances of such wrecks, so here are a few representative examples – there are far more in our records than I can possibly include here. However, it does show that it is possible to mine the database for the same day regardless of year, as well as a specific date.

Plymouth in particular seemed really rather dangerous on the 25th December in the late 17th century: on 25th December 1675 the George  and Spread Eagle, both from Bordeaux with wine, were lost west of the Citadel, as was a Dutch ship, the St. Job of Naarden. On 25th December 1689 a similar event happened, resulting in the loss of the CenturionHenrietta, Blade of Wheat, Dover Prize, Eendracht  and two unknown French prizes which had been sent into Plymouth. However, accounts are probably skewed by Plymouth’s status as a naval base and importance as a port, making it one of the premier ‘reporting ports’ for the few newspapers at this time.

In 1810 a gale on Christmas Day accounted for four wrecks in various locations, two of them in Liverpool. The wind conditions on that day were reported at Deal as ‘West, blows hard, a tremendous gale in the morning.’ On the same day a year later, the crew of the Giertru Chrestiane from Drammen in Norway were picked up in their boats after striking the Leman and Ower off Norfolk on Christmas Eve.

On 25th December 1814, the Valette schooner went to pieces off Warkworth, Northumberland, with what sounds like a very Dickensian cargo of toys and clocks from Rotterdam. In 1830, the German brig Anna, bound for her home port of Hamburg with coal, came ashore at Mundesley, Norfolk, on Christmas night at 9pm in a ‘strong gale and a very severe frost’.

One hundred years later, the crew of the Norwegian collier Eli,  bound from Blyth for Rouen with coal, had a most un-festive shock when their ship was mined on 25th December 1914 off Scarborough – a reminder that while the Christmas truce was holding across much of the Western Front, mines could strike at random.

Happily all the crew were saved, hopefully to enjoy the remainder of their Christmas!

4. What links hospital ships, women’s rights, and the Titanic?

I can’t promise that every wreck will be topical – after all, in the northern hemisphere the prime ‘wrecking season’ is between October and March, and I also want to make the selection fairly random! However, this week features the Rohilla, a hospital ship which struck the coast of Whitby on 30 October 1914, i.e. 98 years ago this week.

Rohilla is one of a number of hospital ships which were lost during World War I, but she is the only one who is almost certainly not a war loss (the initial cause of loss was thought to be a mine explosion).

Of course, the cause of women’s rights was greatly advanced by the shipboard nurses who faced danger on the high seas, as well as the other women who stepped into wartime roles. One nurse on board Rohilla had had previous experience at sea as a stewardess, when she was rescued from the most famous wreck of all time, so our topicality extends to this year’s centenary of the loss of the Titanic.

For more on Rohilla, please see ‘one I made earlier‘:  including a link to genuine amateur footage of the rescue operation, redistributed by Pathé.

Rohilla was not the only wreck to carry a Titanic survivor who also survived a second wreck. Another wreck was HMS Falcon, in 1918: which was commanded by Charles Lightoller, the senior surviving officer on board the Titanic – again, he survived. As you can see, we try and tell a story and make links to events and people of cultural and historic interest to contribute to scholarship and drive public engagement with heritage. Charles Lightoller is also entered as a Person of Historic Interest, so all monuments linked to a particular person can be searched for.

If you know of any more Titanic survivors on other wrecks, please let me know – and I can update our records.