No.91 The Africa

Diary of the War No.14

This month’s First World war wreck was a ship sunk en route to France on 16 September 1915.. The terms boat train and train ferry are familiar to many: the former a train service timetabled to connect with a scheduled ferry service, the latter a vessel transporting a train across a body of water. Less well known are ships carrying locomotives and rolling stock as cargo, in this case to the First World War battlefields of France, where they were needed to transport men and materials to the front, and as ambulance trains to bring back the wounded. (My own grandfather was among them, invalided out by trench fever in 1917.)

Black and white photograph of crane at right with suspended railway carriage over the deck of a ship.
GWR railway carriage, marked with a Red Cross, being loaded onto the SS Africa. Photo courtesy of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon

During the night of 15 September, UC-6, one of the new coastal minelaying submarines, slipped through the Straits of Dover to lay a minefield ‘across the passage abreast of the South Goodwin Light Vessel.’ (1) The first anyone on the British side knew of this new minefield was when the SS Africa struck one of these mines on the evening of the next day. The potential of the German minelaying submarine was not yet fully understood by the British (despite the activities of UC-11 as noted in Diary of the War 11 for June 1915) and at first the field was believed to have been laid by an enemy steamer under the colours of a neutral vessel.

Black and white photo of steamship with single funnel, and four carriages aboard, partly reflected in the water below.
The SS Africa in dock with all four carriages loaded onto the vessel, two fore and two aft. Photo courtesy of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon

The Africa did not sink immediately, and, in fact, it was noted that ‘these UC minefields [laid in late September 1915] in the thickly peopled Dover area brought about the total loss of very few ships: many of those mined were safely beached on the shelving shores of Kent, and after repair continued their voyages’. The Africa was among those beached near Deal, but became a total loss, unlike other vessels beached for recovery on what became known as the ‘Hospital Coast’ of  stricken ships. In fact, the Africa was dispersed in 1917.

Contemporary newspaper photo showing the stricken SS Africa as beached near Deal. The railway carriages are awash at roof level and the image has been retouched by a contemporary hand to make the carriages easy to discern. By courtesy of STEAM - Museum of the GWR, Swindon.
Contemporary newspaper photo showing the stricken SS Africa as beached near Deal. The vessel is awash and the image has been retouched by a contemporary hand to show the roof line of the sunken railway carriages. Photo courtesy of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon.

There is some irony in her final location on the ‘Hospital Coast’, because the railway carriages aboard the Africa were intended for use as ambulance trains and were built by the Great Western Railway (GWR) in Swindon. Elaine Arthurs from Swindon’s STEAM Museum adds to the story:

‘The Great Western Railway supplied and constructed 16 ambulance trains at Swindon Works during the First World War. This equated to 256 carriages. The trains were used on both the home front and abroad, transporting injured troops to military hospitals. The trains that were used abroad were transported from Britain to France by boat. A team of men from the GWR went with the carriages to see their safe transit to the continent. Whilst on one trip to France from Tilbury Docks the SS Africa, carrying both GWR ambulance carriages and employees, was mined off the coast of Kent. The ship and its contents were lost, along with two crew members, but the GWR employees survived.’

With many thanks to Elaine and to the STEAM Museum, Swindon. This wreck site marks the intersection of two significant strands of Britain’s industrial heritage in the age of steam, shipping and the railways: in a similar vein, it so happens that the STEAM Museum is also adjacent to the Historic England office in Swindon, where I have written this blog today! For more on wreck sites laden with First World War rolling stock, please see the St. Chamond, torpedoed in 1918.

7. Water, Water, Everywhere

[Written in 2012/updated 2020]

Things are a little bit different this week (November 2012) with severe flooding having affected my railway line, preventing me from reaching my office, so trains under water naturally sprang to mind.

Today’s wreck contained five locos. The St. Chamond was torpedoed in 1918 while moving locos as deck cargo, consigned to France for the war effort. Wrecks such as these form part of a landscape of war, destined for another landscape of war, where British industrial output directly affected the French landscape. The British required coordinated transport between the ports and the Western Front for men and munitions, and of course, a rapid reverse flow as casualties were cleared and sent back home for recuperation, my own grandfather among them. Some of these ambulance trains were actually built at the Swindon Works, part of which is now the EH Swindon office. (Follow this link for history on the Swindon army base; Chiseldon Camp)

Here are some fabulous Futurist images by Gino Severini of trains speeding into or out of Paris during WWI:

Suburban Train Arriving in Paris, 1915

Armored Train in Action, 1915

Train de Blessés, 1915

Such wrecks, containing rolling stock and other items, such as railway sleepers, are fairly common, and illustrate the export of British railway engineering worldwide from the early days of the industry. The latest wreck containing rolling stock, as far as I know, may be that of the Fort Massac on 1 February 1946.

I came across a reference to a Darlington loco consigned for South Africa lost in the Thames Estuary in 1946 in the latest issue of my husband’s Railway Magazine. It just goes to show that you can find wreck information in the unlikeliest of places, buried deep among accounts of terrestrial infrastructure! The unnamed wreck in the article fits the profile of the Fort Massac in date and place of loss, and the fact that the vessel was outward-bound from Middlesborough.

To date, however, I have found no reference to a loco in either the UKHO record for the wreck site or in the contemporary press. There were certainly references to her ‘vital’ export cargo: the vessel was ‘loaded with the products of Britain’s export drive – silverware, bicycles, blankets, silks, steel manufactures and chemicals. It had taken nearly a month to load her.’ (1) Elsewhere her cargo was described as ‘a shop-window cargo of silks, taffetas, worsteds and silverware for the South African market.’ (2) These loads suggest that Yorkshire products were being specifically showcased, for example from the textile mills of West Yorkshire and the steel mills of Teesside.

So if there was indeed a loco on board, where did it come from and why wasn’t it newsworthy enough to be mentioned among what was admittedly a cargo that would have been accurately described as ‘general’? Both Hunslet of Leeds and Robert Stephenson and Hawthorns of Darlington built locos for the South African market and were sited in the ‘catchment area’ for the cargo: the former had a history of building smaller locos for the sugar trade such as at Gledhow in 1942, the latter supplied Class 19D locos for South African Railways after World War II.

Robert Stephenson and Hawthorns lost engine 2734, works no. 7247 consigned for South Africa off the east coast of England, but this is noted as 1947 (3); however, we can tell from profiling our other wreck records that there are no other vessels which fulfil the criteria of being lost off the east coast during the period 1946-1948, while bound to South Africa, other than the Fort Massac. Can anyone tell us more about her cargo?

(1) Hull Daily Mail, No.18,789, 02 February 1946, p1

(2) Shields Daily News, 02 February 1946, p8

(3) Holland, D F (1972) Steam Locomotives of the South African Railways. 2: 1910-1955 (1st ed.). Newton Abbott: David & Charles. pp. 93–96