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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
(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).
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 Jarl. Unity 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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.)
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
(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)
The everyday hazards of the sea never cease, even under wartime conditions. During the Second World War dangerous shoals still required marking, and ships safe guidance into harbour, perhaps even more so after undergoing convoy battles, lone dashes, trusting in speed alone, across the Atlantic, or picking their way through freshly-laid minefields.
By the same token those who saved others from the peril of the sea themselves faced greater peril than ever before, though in peace and war their mission remained the same. Today’s post allows us to revisit the story of lightvessels around the coast which we first covered in an earlier blog post.
Now largely removed in favour of other marks, the few lightvessels on station today are automated and unmanned, but perform the same function as lighthouses, albeit marking offshore hazards. In modern times it is difficult to appreciate their crews’ hard way of life, devoted to maintaining a light beaming a vital message out to sea from an inert and stationary hull: permanently moored with no motive power, either sail or engine, they ran the risk of drifting or being driven in storms onto the very hazards from which they warned others, nor had they any means of avoiding a collision should a ship bear down upon them.
Neither was it easy in wartime to escape drifting mines or, unarmed, to defend a lightvessel against enemy attack. Yet in 1940 men served aboard those lightvessels which had not been extinguished (1) and which continued to offer an ‘equal lamp at peril of the sea’ to passing ships. (2)
The East Dudgeon station marked the Dudgeon, one of the shoals and sandbanks that stretch out long fingers along the east coast of England between the Humber to the north and the Norfolk coast to the south. Between these two points shipping routes largely stood, and to this day stand, out to sea rather than hugging the coast, to avoid some of these hazards, but others, such as the Dudgeon, lie a considerable distance offshore. This meant that the East Dudgeon, to the seaward of the eponymous shoal, was also by some distance one of the more remote lightvessels, which had a bearing on what happened next.
On the morning of 29 January 1940 (3) off the east coast a Heinkel He111 approached the East Dudgeon Lightvessel. The crew were not initially alarmed when they saw the enemy aircraft approaching as, ‘on previous occasions German pilots had waved to them and passed them by.’ (4)
This time there was no friendly wave in passing. The lightvessel was machine-gunned and bombed, the last bomb striking the vessel. The ship began to heel over, but remained afloat, (5) and a photograph depicting her light smashed to pieces surfaced in the press a couple of weeks later. (6)
The crew took to the boat , one man having been ill in his bunk but helped onto deck and into the boat by his comrades. Given the distance offshore they faced rowing for hours in winter conditions, continuing to row on as night fell and they became progressively colder and weaker, before making landfall at around 2.30am. (7)
Their boat capsized in the breakers rolling on the shore and, so close to land and safety, seven men out of the eight crew lost their lives: James Scott Bell, Master Mechanic; Bardolph Basil Boulton, Fog Signal Driver; Horatio Davis, Lamplighter; Roland Robert George, Senior Master; George William Jackson, Seaman. Richard Edward Norton, Seaman; and Herbert Rumsby, Lampman. (8)
The sole survivor was John Sanders, who managed to crawl ashore, somehow finding the strength to break into a house and divest himself of his clothes after coming upon some blankets to wrap himself up in. There he was discovered at 8am. (9) The bodies of the other crew were discovered that morning near their ‘wrecked small boat’. (10)
German radio claimed that same day that the British Naval Patrol Vessel East Dudgeon had been sunk, which elicited a statement from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons that it was: ‘a falsification intended to cover up from the world a deliberate and savage attack on a lightship. To seafaring folks of all nations the East Dudgeon is well known as a lightship, and its identity was unmistakable. She was, naturally, unarmed.’ (11)
As further aerial attacks on lightvessels followed (East Goodwin, sunk 18 July 1940; South Folkestone Gate, sunk 14 August 1940; South Goodwin, sunk 25 October 1940, and East Oaze, sunk 1 November 1940), the British struck back in the propaganda war. The Ministry of Information commissioned the Crown Film Unit in 1940 to produce Men of the Lightship, a dramatisation of life aboard the East Dudgeon, culminating in the attack and its tragic aftermath, which was released in the United States as Men of Lightship 61.
‘Lightship 61’ was laid up and returned to service in the postwar period but her story opened a grim chapter with the onslaught on lightvessels legible in a seabed heritage of those which have remained on the seabed for the last 80 years.
(2) Rudyard Kipling, “The Coastwise Lights of England”, in The Song of the English, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909
(3)Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1; Kim Saul, “Sole Survivor”, quoting an unattributed original source, said to be directly from survivor John J R Sanders, in Memories, Belton and District Historical Society website, published online, 2013. The same text is quoted in Anthony Lane, “Lightship Memories”, Portside, Winter 2017, pp3-5, published online, attributed to Illustrated, 24 February 1940.
(4)Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1
(5) See note (3): Saul, “Sole Survivor” and Lane, “Lightship Memories”; Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1
(6)Liverpool Daily Post, 15 February 1940, No.26,392, p5, and other regional press
(7)Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1
In wartime there are some vessels whose fate seems to involve one thing after another, exacerbated by the ‘fog of war’ in which events are not wholly clear even to those who have taken part in them: War Knightduring the First World War was a case in point, and U-16on 25 October 1939 another.
The news of U-16‘s loss followed the recent tragedy of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed in the apparent safety of the Scapa Flow anchorage, Orkney, on 14 October 1939, by U-47 under the command of Günther Prien. Barely six weeks into the war it was already apparent that the U-boat threat to Britain was significant.
On the afternoon of Tuesday 24 October 1939 an anti-submarine indicator loop at St. Margaret’s Bay, Kent, picked up suspicious activity in the Straits of Dover. The Kingfisher-class patrol sloop HMS Puffin and the requisitioned trawler HMS Cayton Wyke were sent to investigate. So far the defence of the Straits of Dover differed little from the previous war in the use of loops (see post of August 1918), of smaller patrol vessels in the form of naval and requisitioned fishing vessels, and of a mine barrage.
As their counterparts had also done in the previous war, one after the other, the two vessels dropped depth charges in the vicinity of their target some three miles east by south of St. Margaret’s Bay. (1)
It seems that the effect of this was to disable the submarine, but not so severely that communications were disrupted: the U-boat was able to send a radio message in the early hours of 25 October 1939. (2)
On Thursday 26 October, a German U-boat was discovered stranded on the Goodwin Sands but with no explanation of how it had got there. A statement prepared by the Admiralty and widely disseminated in the press, said:
‘How the submarine went aground was not explained last night. Gunfire was heard off Deal on Wednesday, when it was believed that an enemy submarine might have been attacked, but nothing could be seen because of mist.
‘Another theory is that the submarine may have been sunk a few days ago off Folkestone and may have drifted or bumped along the sea bed and become fast on the Goodwins.’ (3)
There was not only a sea haar, but also a smokescreen thrown up by the Admiralty. Both ‘theories’ allowed to materialise in the press certainly had a germ of truth to them – an enemy submarine was certainly attacked ‘a few days ago’ somewhere between Deal and Folkestone barrage. An emphasis on ‘gunfire’ nicely side-stepped the use of depth charges or the presence of a mine barrage, although some further conjecture from Deal also made it into the press release, albeit still carefully worded:
‘It is thought possible at Deal that the U-boat did not go on to the Goodwins under her own power, but was sunk in deeper waters by depth charges or bombs and that some of her bulk heads may have remained undamaged, permitting her to bump along the seabed, carried along by the current.‘ (4)
To coin a phrase apt in the maritime context, the waters were muddied by a claim that ‘a large German submarine has been sunk by the French. This is confirmed by the finding of the bodies of the crew. A message from Dunkirk states that the British Admiralty was represented when the French authorities gave a Naval funeral yesterday to a U-boat officer and five German sailors . . . ‘ (5)
This funeral was well attended by both French and British naval representatives, and jointly led by both Protestant and Catholic clergy to cover Germany’s two principal religions. (6) The Yorkshire Post was of the view that the funeral was ‘almost the last flicker of chivalry in warfare’.
The German High Command admitted the loss of three U-boats. (7) Five are recorded as lost for the month of October 1939, but none of these are attributed to French action. Two were depth-charged by British ships in the North Atlantic south-west of Ireland on 13 and 14 October respectively (U-42 and U-45) , and three in the Straits of Dover: U-12, which was mined on 8 October; U-40, which also fell to a British minefield on 13 October; and U-16, attributed to a British minefield. (8)
Could French action have contributed to the demise of U-16? The French press reported that their Navy had recently been active and that a patrol vessel had recovered some bodies from a submarine sunk off Dunkirk. (9) That patrol vessel was the Épinal, which had launched a night attack on a submarine on 26 October (presumably in the early hours of that day), while acting on intelligence that U-boat activity was expected in the Straits of Dover on 26-27 October. (10)
It thus seems that the Épinal might have been the last on the scene, which is also suggested by her crew recovering the U-boat commander alive. (11) Action by British and French patrols, unknown to each other, would also account for the actions reported in the press as heard at different times in different places. Some sources suggest that the Épinal was first on the scene, with the British second, but this fits less well with the time frame and the known actions of Puffin and Cayton Wyke.
That U-boat commander subsequently died despite being taken to hospital. He was identified as Kapitänleutnant Horst Wellner and, it seems, the loss may have been attributed to U-14. It is possible that his lifejacket was marked U-14, which he had commanded up until two weeks previously, his service aboard U-14 ending on 11 October 1939, before taking on the command of U-16 the following day.
The British and French press widely reported the discovery of ’50 or 60′ bodies, surely a conjecture or an exaggeration for propaganda purposes, since the normal crew complement was 22-24. (12) In total 19 bodies washed ashore or were picked up at sea on the Kent coast, near Dunkirk, and Ameland, Netherlands. (13) It seems likely that four bodies were recovered from the wreck by the British, since four German seamen whose date of death is 25th October 1939 are buried in Cannock Chase German Cemetery, namely, Paul Hanf, Hans Keil, Rolf Krämer, and Friedhelm Mahnke, and these four, together with the other 19 bodies, would fit with a crew complement of 23. (14)
Did the Goodwin Sands themselves play a part in the U-boat’s loss? It would have been all too easy for a disabled submarine to drift helplessly and become ensnared upon the sands, an easy prey for any patrol vessel happening by. The ‘Demon Sands’ headline in the Manchester Evening Press made good copy and the article rehashed the many legends of the Goodwin Sands: though fanciful, it almost seems to suggest that the Sands themselves had reached out to snare the enemy. (15)
The expression ‘ships that pass in the night’ reveals a fundamental truth about not only shipping movements but also shipping losses: a spider’s web spins out interconnecting one wreck with another. Wellner in U-14 (which would be scuttled in 1945 off Wilhelmshaven as the Allies closed in on Germany) had been responsible for the reconnaissance mission which had led to the very recent loss of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. (16)
Similarly, U-16‘s British attacker HMS Cayton Wyke would herself be lost to war causes on 8 July 1940, near the U-16 on the Goodwin Sands: her position of loss links her both to her victim and to the landscape of war in which she served as patrol vessel. HMS Puffin would survive the war, closing the war as she had begun, by accounting for a German submarine.
By the end of October the U-16 was regarded as unsalvageable: ‘The submarine is little more than a shattered wreck, and the remains are gradually sinking into the sand owing to the continuance of the bad weather.’ (17)
Fairly unusually for the Goodwin Sands, where even very recent wrecks have disappeared completely, the site of theU-16has a secure charting history since early 1940 as the location of a submarine, although the identity of the site is not confirmed. (18) However, the description of her position ‘near’ two other wrecks, now among those which have disappeared, may provide a clue to their location: the uncharted Sibiria and the Val Salice, both lost in the same storm in 1916, whose charting is now regarded as ‘dead’.(19) This suggests that in 1939 either that they remained partially visible or at least their positions were still within living memory among the seamen of the Kent coast.
(1) based on the location of the vessel identified as U-16, UKHO 13666.
(10) ibid; also an article from 11 years later in Le Nouveau-Nord, 27 October 1950, clearly commemorating the anniversary of previous events, similarly repr. http://dkepaves.free.fr/html/u_16.htm (in French)
This is the tale of two events across the Channel – one in French waters on this day a hundred years ago (29 March 1917) during the First World War, and a later wreck in English waters from the Second World War, linked by a name.
The latter was one of the very first wrecks I ever encountered on the database 20 years ago, with the unusual and evocative name of Mousse Le Moyec. The name has stuck with me ever since: mousse means ‘ship’s boy’ in French (“a young sailor under the age of 17”, according to Larousse) so I always wondered who he was and why he was commemorated by having a ship named after him.
On 29 March 1917 a French sailing trawler, the Irma, took up her station 15 miles SSW of Cordouan, off the Gironde, France, with her crew of five. As she was preparing to shoot her nets, a U-boat commenced shelling the vessel, approaching closer with each shot. The ship’s boat was shot away and mousse Maurice Le Moyec, aged 14, was killed.
The master was seriously injured, but the other three members of the crew, the mate, aged 18, and two boys, aged 15, remained calm under fire, even though also injured, and got the little ship back to the Gironde under a jury rig. The survivors were decorated for gallantry.
After the war, a number of French colliers were built for the French Government to a standard design, each named in honour of one of those who had fallen for France. The vessel named after mousse Le Moyec was built for a company which had also lost a ship called Irma, in 1916, so it may be that there was some confusion over the ship on which young Le Moyec was lost.
This collier, commemorating a victim of the First World War, would play her part in the Second. In the 1920s and 1930s she regularly criss-crossed the Channel to pick up Welsh coal for France. After the fall of France in 1940, she was therefore a natural candidate to bring over a number of young Frenchmen to Britain, answering de Gaulle’s call for Free Frenchmen to join him in the fight against the Nazis. Their story can be read here(in French): one of those passengers was André Quelen, who is remembered here (in English).
As with so many other vessels which escaped to Britain from occupied Europe, she was then placed at the disposal of the British Government (my own father travelled on a Dutch trooper under the British flag, which had escaped the night Amsterdam fell). Mousse Le Moyec continued to ply her usual trade as a collier, but solely within English waters on the Bristol Channel – Plymouth run, until she was wrecked near Hartland Point in December 1940.
When I first encountered Mousse Le Moyec all those years ago, the internet was in its infancy and it was difficult to find out more. Thanks to the power of online resources, in particular the French pages14-18 forum, I have been able to discover the moving connection between a wreck in English waters in 1940 and the French counterpart of Jack Cornwell, of Jutland fame, who died 100 years ago today, a reminder of cross-Channel co-operation in time of war.
In the second part of our Christmas double bill, we commemorate a loss on Boxing Day 1915 and finish off with a poem as an extra special feature.
We have looked at fishing vessels in the War Diary before – how, at the outbreak of war, neutral fishing vessels found themselves on an unexpected front line of minefields, how the sailing fishing fleets of Lowestoftwere targeted and how they fought back.
In commemorating the loss of HMT Resono 100 years ago, today’s post pays tribute to the efforts of the steam trawling fleets. They saw action principally as minesweepers and patrol vessels, many requisitioned from the beginning of the war. They were eminently suitable to backfill these roles: as smaller ships, they were at less risk of detonating mines, their crews knew the seas intimately, and they needed little modification.
Sweeping was monotonous, deadly, and dangerous, with a high casualty rate: it was inevitable that a number of sweepers and patrol vessels would be lost in the minefields littered around the coastline. On 26th December 1915, Resono, one of the famous Sleight fleet of trawlers operating out of Grimsby, was blown up 2 miles SE of the Sunk Light Vessel in the Thames Estuary.
The Sleight fleet saw distinguished service in both World Wars. Sir George Sleight’s obituary of 1921 states that over 50 of his ships were requisitioned: it also states that he developed from a cockle-gatherer to the owner of the largest steam trawler company in the world. (1) His fleet is readily identifiable among wartime casualty lists by its distinctive house naming scheme: Recepto, Remarko, and Remindo were other First World War losses from the fleet. Many Sleight vessels participated in both wars: Resolvo and Resparko, First World War veterans, were both lost in 1940. Yet others survived two wartime services, including the Revello, built in 1908 and therefore a contemporary of Resono, which was eventually wrecked in 1959.
To conclude this month’s edition of the War Diary, here is Kipling’s poem Mine Sweepers, also a century old. It was first published as the introduction to an article on the work of the minesweeper-trawlers for the Daily Telegraph, 23rd November 1915: the original can be read here.
Dawn off the Foreland – the young flood making
Jumbled and short and steep –
Black in the hollows and bright where it’s breaking –
Awkward water to sweep.
“Mines reported in the fairway,
“Warn all traffic and detain.
“Sent up Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”
Noon off the Foreland – the first ebb making
Lumpy and strong in the bight.
Boom after boom, and the golf-hut shaking
And the jackdaws wild with fright!
“Mines located in the fairway,
“Boats now working up the chain,
“Sweepers – Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”
Dusk off the Foreland – the last light going
And the traffic crowding through,
And five damned trawlers with their syreens blowing
Heading the whole review!
“Sweep completed in the fairway.
“No more mines remain.
“Sent back Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”
To borrow a phrase: the poem counted them all out and counted them all back!
(1) The Times, Monday 21 March, 1921, No.42,674, p16.
Inspired by my recent holiday in Croatia, I thought I’d turn this week to looking at wrecks in English waters from that part of the world. I’ve touched before on how changing national boundaries and ideas of nationhood affect the way we classify wrecks – the nationality recorded at the time of loss is often very different from the nationality now, and this is as true for Croatia as for the subjects of my previous articles on Estonia, Finland and Hungary.
Croatia has a long and proud seafaring tradition with many rocky islands rising steeply out of the sea, affording little shelter to anyone unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked there. Indeed, Richard the Lionheart caused an ex voto church to be built at Lokrum in 1192. The islands are well marked with picturesque lighthouses and it is worth exploring this fantastic gallery here. Though there may be a number of earlier vessels in our records whose Croatian origins are masked by the lack of detail in contemporary sources, they first come to our attention in English waters during the 19th century, when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
One such vessel was Barone Vranyczany, lost in 1881 off Suffolk, named after a local noble family who had Magyarised their surname from the Croatian Vranjican. Her home port had the Italian name of Fiume (now Rijeka): the name of her master, Pietro Cumicich, reflects a dual Italian-Croat linguistic heritage. With the help of the Austrian consul at Lowestoft, acting as interpreter, a fellow master from Fiume identified Cumicich’s body through his wedding ring inscribed with his wife’s initials and the date 10-12-77.
Croatia’s Italian heritage is very strong, reflecting its Venetian past and its proximity to the Italian coast. (The island of Korcula is traditionally said to have been the birthplace of Marco Polo, although this is disputed.) The Croatian littoral passed out of Venetian control to become the Republic of Ragusa, centred on Ragusa itself, now Dubrovnik: the two names, Latin and Croat, existed side by side until 1918 when Dubrovnik alone was officially adopted.
This link is clearly seen in the ship Deveti Dubrovački of Ragusa. She was one of a fleet belonging to the Dubrovnik Maritime Company, whose ships had a very simple house naming scheme. She was ‘The Ninth of Dubrovnik’: all the fleet were likewise named in order from ‘The First of Dubrovnik’ onwards. (1) She met her end in 1887 through a collision with a British steamer off Beachy Head, another wreck that illustrated the bond between husband and wife. The captain tied a rope around his wife, from which she was hauled in her nightdress aboard the steamer, despite her ‘imploring him not to mind her’: alas, she had the misfortune to see her husband go down with his ship. (The fact that the steamer did not also sink in this collision was attributed to the cushioning effect of the wool tightly packed in her hold.) (2)
Several ships have Italian names, such as the Fratelli Fabris, whose remains (1892) are said to lie close to Tater-Du on the coast of Cornwall, and which is known locally as the ‘Gin Bottle Wreck’. Indeed, a 1927 wreck was recorded in contemporary sources as of Italian nationality: the Isabowas built as Iris in Lussinpiccolo (now Mali Losinj, Croatia), then Austro-Hungary, a part of Croatia which became Italian in 1918.
At the same time the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created, to which the Slava, a war loss of 1940 off Porlock Bay, belonged. Only nine ships out of the country’s fleet survived the war. (3) After the Second World War Yugoslavia became a Socialist Federal Republic, of which Croatia was a constituent part. Our final wreck today is the Sabac, which belonged to that country’s nationalised fleet, and which was lost in 1961 in a collision off the South Goodwin light vessel.
Since 1991 Croatia has been an independent state, but one whose long maritime history endures, intertwined with that of many other nations, past and present. Its heritage is part of our own heritage too, from Lokrum to the wrecks around our coastline today.
In this week’s post, we commemorate the loss of the US Liberty Ship James Eagan Layne70 years ago on 21 March 1945, torpedoed while bound from New Orleans, last from Barry in Wales, for Ghent with what was then termed ‘Government stores’. Translated, that meant military vehicles and other war materials destined for the liberation of Europe as the war was drawing to a close. Historic recoveries from this vessel have included numerous shell cases. (1)
TheJames Eagan Layne was one of several Liberty ships and other vessels bound for Belgium in the spring of 1945, following the successful conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. The Allies had repulsed the German advance, or ‘bulge’ in their lines, with heavy loss of life, particularly among the US troops who bore the brunt of the fighting. Allied access to the Belgian ports was now secured, barring minefields and U-boats, resuming the communication links severed by the fall of Belgium in 1940.
The pattern of wrecks on the seabed mirrors the fate of those communication links. Ten ships, bound either to or from Belgian ports, were sunk in English waters following the declaration of war in September 1939. It was a similar figure in early 1940 prior to the fall of Belgium in May, with 11 ships sunk by mine or torpedo on the same route.
Transport links with occupied Belgium were then severed and are reflected in the lack of corresponding wrecks from late 1940 to early 1945: then, as Allied ships were once more able to reach Antwerp and other ports, there was also a recurrence of wreck events. Between January and May 1945, 10 ships are known to have been sunk in English waters en route to or from Belgium: they included other Liberty Ships, the Henry B Plantand the James Harrod. The John R Park was also torpedoed the same day as the James Eagan Layne, albeit on a different route, bound from England for the United States.
For more on the James Eagan Layne, please have a look at the dedicated SHIPS (Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound) and Promare Liberty 70 site.
(1) Receiver of Wreck droits.
With many thanks to MSDS Marine and Swathe Services for permission to reproduce these beautiful images.