The wrong wreck
RIC WAS SLIGHTLY AHEAD of me as the wreck came into view below us. Most divers know that feeling, of travelling down the shotline, the water getting colder and the light darker, and then starting to make out a shape below you.
Sometimes you’re unlucky, and a misplaced shot has hit the seabed rather than the wreck – but not today.
The visibility was poor compared to the previous dive we had done on this wreck four months earlier, last November. On that day it had been stunning – 15m at least. We had been diving an “unknown” wreck off Seahouses, in the north-east of England.
Expecting to find a cargo ship, of which there are hundreds off our coast, we had been surprised to see a large, intact submarine reveal itself below us.
The mystery had deepened as Ric discovered the telegraph lying next to the conning tower, with British writing clearly visible on it!
Other clues were also present, the biggest being three propellers. We had some detective work to do!
Mark Dixon and the Darkstar team have been diving wrecks off the coast for years, but had come across no clues about lost British submarines. HMS Unity, near Blyth, had been known about for a long time, and Darkstar had dived the H11 five years earlier.
Our first realisation was that Mr Dixon had put us on the wrong wreck (he did say he wasn’t feeling well!). But some research soon revealed that a British submarine had indeed been lost in this area, and the next few months were to reveal a horrible, tragic tale.
HMS J6 was built at the Portsmouth Dockyard and launched on 9 September, 1915. For her day she was enormous, at 274ft long. Armed with six 18in torpedo tubes (four bow and two beam) and a 4in gun, she had a maximum speed of 19.5 knots on the surface and 9.5 knots submerged.
Crucially, for our identification, she had three 12-cylinder diesel engines, driving three propellers. J-class submarines were the only British vessels to have three props.
So how had we missed the story of the J6 Indeed, what was her story And why had she been forgotten
THE BASIC FACTS ABOUT the sinking were soon established, and we published an article in the local press.
I was soon contacted by relatives of those lost in the tragedy, and only then did the full story emerge.
On 15 October, 1918, HMS Cymric, a British Q-ship, was patrolling near the submarine base at Blyth in the North Sea. There had been a report of a German U-boat in the area, so the crew were on special look-out.
At 4pm, they thought they had found her. Their belief that they could see a ”U” on the conning tower led them to conclude that this was the U6. What they had seen was later believed to be something hanging on the tower next to the “J” to complete the “U”.
The Cymric opened fire, and the very first shell hit its target. An officer tried to fire a signal grenade, but was killed.
One seaman did manage to wave a tablecloth and the Cymric ceased fire, but as the J6 headed into a fog-bank, Cymric’s captain decided that he was being fooled, and opened fire again.
J6 was now sinking, and the Cymric moved in to pick up the “enemy” sailors in the water. It was then that they realised their tragic mistake – they had sunk their own sub.
Less than a month later, World War One would end, and a 100-year “Top Secret” classification would be placed on the file.
Athol Walton was named after his grandmother’s first husband, Athol Lamont. He contacted me after reading the story in the press and told me how Lamont, aged 26, had been one of 15 crew lost on the J6.
His father had tried in vain to uncover the story for his grandmother, but when he died in 1980 the search had stopped.
Pauline Eismark had a similar story to tell. Her grandfather, Philip Tachon, was one of J6’s stokers. The family were told that the sub had been sunk in a collision.
Pauline had been luckier with her search because, being a relative, she was able to access the files in the National Archives before the 100 years was up, and reveal the full tale.
She told me that, at first, she had had mixed feelings about our discovery.
So we had headed back to the J6 with a different feeling to that on our normal trips. This time it was very personal, because I had made a promise to both Pauline and Athol. As we floated above the J6 on a mirror-calm sea, we had held a small ceremony and placed a wreath in the water.
IT WAS WITH ALL THESE THOUGHTS in my mind that the hull of the J6 now came into view. The shot was lying on the port side of the upright vessel, caught in a hole that had appeared in the outer pressure-hull of the sub.
As much as I tried not to show it, there was no doubt that this dive was different. In the 3-4m vis, it took only a couple of fins-strokes to my right and the conning tower came into view.
The wreck is virtually shrink-wrapped in old fishing-nets, so keeping a good look-out is essential.
Despite this, you can still make out a small porthole in the conning tower. Moving to the top, the hatch is firmly closed, and the periscope still stands proud after nearly 100 years.
Towards the stern of the vessel, the aft escape hatch can been seen through the net, clearly open, though whether this was ripped off by trawling or opened at the time is unclear.
At the stern, the three propellers are clearly visible. Swimming back along the length of the sub, past the conning tower, the telegraph with the writing on that helped identify the J6 four months ago has now dropped into the wreckage, but can still be seen lying on its side.
The bow is damaged but recognisable, as are the hydroplanes.
The North Sea in March is not a warm place. The J6 lies in 67m so, anticipating nearly an hour’s deco in temperatures of 5°C, I turned and headed for the shot.
As much as I enjoyed the dive, the most satisfying aspect was receiving the comments from Pauline Eismark and Athol Walton to the effect that we had brought closure to their families by finding the J6 and laying the wreath.
It was the end to an amazing story that all came of diving the “wrong” wreck!