Divernet

The old destroyer lies 60m down, broken in two, in what trawlermen call the Sand Peaks. Its a 29-mile RIB ride from Bridlington in East Yorkshire.
Her stern is halfway down the side of one of the sand peaks. The bow section with the 12-pounder gun is half a mile of dunes away, and well dug in.
Until recently this unknown was one of many WWI wrecks that litter the deeper waters of the North Sea. But now, due to Bill Woolford and an enthusiastic team of Yorkshire wreck-divers, we know it is HMS Falcon, former wartime command of Lt Charles Herbert Lightoller.
It was Lightoller, Second Officer of the Titanic in 1912, who ensured that the women-and-children-first rule strictly applied to both crew and passengers of the sinking liner. It was due to Lights, as he was known in the Merchant Navy world, that six boatloads of women and children survived the sinking of the Titanic.
Bill Woolford has dived since 1973, commercially in recent years. So keen is he on his hobby that he moved from Leeds to Bridlington to get in more wreck-diving in his free time.
You can keep the Red Sea, he says. Theres nothing to beat wreck-diving in the North Sea. And despite his screen diving work - Brookside, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and the movies The Full Monty and Spiceworld are among his credits - he prefers wreck-diving off the East Coast to anything else.

The Falcon story began when Bill, Neville Cockerham, Graham Hirst and other local divers decided that they had covered all the wrecks close to Bridlington and needed to go offshore, looking for charted but undived wrecks.
The stern section of the destroyer showed up on their electronics as a very small wreck, and their first thought was that it was a submarine. When they dived it last year, however, they found that they had half of a naval wreck on the side of one of the sand peaks...

Lights Lightoller had been shipwrecked even before he went do with the Titanic. In his teens, he sailed as an apprentice on the windjammer Holt Hill and was marooned on the island of St Paul in the Indian Ocean, after the ship crashed into it at full speed.

The most senior officer to survive the Titanic disaster, which made him a national hero, Lights continued his career with the White Star Line. He was First Officer of the Titanics sister-ship Oceanic when she was wrecked with no loss of life on Shaalds Reef off Foula, Shetland, in 1914.

Oceanic was operating as an auxiliary cruiser of the Royal Navy, so Lightoller now had the rank of Lieutenant RNR.

At Christmas 1915, he got his first Navy command, on torpedo boat No 117. In action with the Nore Defence Flotilla - he once involved in a gun battle with a Zeppelin airship - Lightoller won a DSC and promotion in 1916 to captain of HMS Falcon, an old destroyer in the elite Dover Patrol.

Falcon was old, and her hull showed it. A three-funnel C-class destroyer of 375 tons, launched in 1899, she was 220ft long with a slim beam of 21ft.

One of the 30-knotters, renowned for the speed that came from 5700hp engines and Thorneycroft boilers, she could still manage high speed in short bursts, but her strength amidships was always in doubt.
Her turtleback bow and big bridge had been rebuilt the previous year after a German shell from a Belgian coast battery scored a direct hit and killed her former captain and eight men. She carried 80 tons of coal fuel and a crew of 60.

When not on anti-U-boat patrol, Falcon would criss-cross the Channel escorting troop ships, or convoys of ammunition, food, fuel and other equipment for the Western Front. Other days were spent laying mines off the Belgian coast, often under fire.

Falcon was fitted with depth-charges, as well as a 12-pounder gun at the bow and five 6-pounders at her sides and stern. Two 18in torpedo tubes were on deck, one between the second and third funnel and the other closer to the stern.

In February 1918, Lightoller was ordered to take Falcon to join the North Sea Patrol, based at Immingham on the Humber. His job was to escort incoming convoys carrying US and Canadian troops and equipment to join in the final offensive against the Kaiser.

Escorting some 40 ships at a time against U-boat attack in mostly foul weather did nothing for Falcons slimline hull. She was not a rough-weather boat, nor could she manoeuvre easily in giant seas. In the darkness it was even worse.
Lightollers worst fears came true minutes into 1 April, 1918. He was asleep below when a huge lurch and a tremendous grinding sound woke him.

For a moment he thought he was back on Titanic. He rushed up on deck and found, not an iceberg towering over him, but the crumpled bow of a trawler close by. The John Fitzgerald, acting as a convoy escort, had hit the Falcon in one of her most vulnerable places, the narrow hull almost amidships.

The thin steel had been cut almost in two, and the impact had pushed the two halves up out of the water. This had slowed the inrush of water, but each swell pushed and pulled the two sections.

Lights had the boiler fires extinguished and steam blown off, then transferred all 31 engineers and stokers to the John Fitzgerald. But the Falcons stern was slowly sinking, and it would not be long before it separated from the bow. The rest of the crew were ordered to abandon ship in the Falcons only two lifeboats, and were picked up by another escort-destroyer, HMS Peterel.

Moments later the bow broke away with a huge cracking noise and within seconds had sunk. Left on board now were Lightoller, his First Lieutenant and the gunner who had been on duty when the trawler struck. The stern appeared to be staying afloat, so HMS Peterel was ordered to catch up with the convoy.

Lights had heard the orchestra playing Nearer My God To Thee as the Titanic started her death plunge. Now he waited for the Falcon to sink beneath him, to the scratchy accompaniment of sea-shanties from a gramophone in his cabin, where the three men sat hoping that a tug or trawler might arrive to tow them to the safety of the Humber.

Three April Fools, thought Lightoller, as a rumbling from below indicated that the bulkheads had given way. Tons of seawater made the Falcon rear up, Titanic-style, and start her plunge.

The three men leapt into the sea and began to swim desperately away from the ship, afraid that the armed depth-charges on Falcons decks would blow when they reached their set depths. They didnt, but the men were clinging to wreckage for half an hour before a trawler picked them up.

At the court-martial all three were cleared of blame. Lightoller was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander and given HMS Garry, a bigger and slightly younger destroyer than Falcon.

He made good use of his new command, twice ramming UB-110 on 19 July, 1918. Sinking her earned him a bar to his DSC. The damage to Garry was so severe that he only just got her back into dry dock before she became his fifth shipwreck!

After the war, Lightoller found his merchant navy career dogged by the Titanic disaster tag, even though his own part had been heroic. He grew weary of being passed over for command of one of the new liners, and finally resigned from the White Star Line.

From then on his contact with the sea was with small boats of his own. In 1940, when he was 66, he took his motor yacht Sundowner to Dunkirk and rescued more than 100 soldiers from the beaches. He then served with the Small Vessels Pool of the Navy, ferrying small ships from port to port around Britain. He was finally demobbed in 1946 when he was 72, and died in 1952.

The Falcon story began when Bill, Neville Cockerham, Graham Hirst and other local divers decided that they had covered all the wrecks close to Bridlington and needed to go offshore, looking for charted but undived wrecks.
The stern section of the destroyer showed up on their electronics as a very small wreck, and their first thought was that it was a submarine. When they dived it last year, however, they found that they had half of a naval wreck on the side of one of the sand peaks...

Lights Lightoller had been shipwrecked even before he went do with the Titanic. In his teens, he sailed as an apprentice on the windjammer Holt Hill and was marooned on the island of St Paul in the Indian Ocean, after the ship crashed into it at full speed.

The most senior officer to survive the Titanic disaster, which made him a national hero, Lights continued his career with the White Star Line. He was First Officer of the Titanics sister-ship Oceanic when she was wrecked with no loss of life on Shaalds Reef off Foula, Shetland, in 1914.

Oceanic was operating as an auxiliary cruiser of the Royal Navy, so Lightoller now had the rank of Lieutenant RNR.

At Christmas 1915, he got his first Navy command, on torpedo boat No 117. In action with the Nore Defence Flotilla - he once involved in a gun battle with a Zeppelin airship - Lightoller won a DSC and promotion in 1916 to captain of HMS Falcon, an old destroyer in the elite Dover Patrol.

Falcon was old, and her hull showed it. A three-funnel C-class destroyer of 375 tons, launched in 1899, she was 220ft long with a slim beam of 21ft.

One of the 30-knotters, renowned for the speed that came from 5700hp engines and Thorneycroft boilers, she could still manage high speed in short bursts, but her strength amidships was always in doubt.
Her turtleback bow and big bridge had been rebuilt the previous year after a German shell from a Belgian coast battery scored a direct hit and killed her former captain and eight men. She carried 80 tons of coal fuel and a crew of 60.

When not on anti-U-boat patrol, Falcon would criss-cross the Channel escorting troop ships, or convoys of ammunition, food, fuel and other equipment for the Western Front. Other days were spent laying mines off the Belgian coast, often under fire.

Falcon was fitted with depth-charges, as well as a 12-pounder gun at the bow and five 6-pounders at her sides and stern. Two 18in torpedo tubes were on deck, one between the second and third funnel and the other closer to the stern.

In February 1918, Lightoller was ordered to take Falcon to join the North Sea Patrol, based at Immingham on the Humber. His job was to escort incoming convoys carrying US and Canadian troops and equipment to join in the final offensive against the Kaiser.

Escorting some 40 ships at a time against U-boat attack in mostly foul weather did nothing for Falcons slimline hull. She was not a rough-weather boat, nor could she manoeuvre easily in giant seas. In the darkness it was even worse.
Lightollers worst fears came true minutes into 1 April, 1918. He was asleep below when a huge lurch and a tremendous grinding sound woke him.

For a moment he thought he was back on Titanic. He rushed up on deck and found, not an iceberg towering over him, but the crumpled bow of a trawler close by. The John Fitzgerald, acting as a convoy escort, had hit the Falcon in one of her most vulnerable places, the narrow hull almost amidships.

The thin steel had been cut almost in two, and the impact had pushed the two halves up out of the water. This had slowed the inrush of water, but each swell pushed and pulled the two sections.

Lights had the boiler fires extinguished and steam blown off, then transferred all 31 engineers and stokers to the John Fitzgerald. But the Falcons stern was slowly sinking, and it would not be long before it separated from the bow. The rest of the crew were ordered to abandon ship in the Falcons only two lifeboats, and were picked up by another escort-destroyer, HMS Peterel.

Moments later the bow broke away with a huge cracking noise and within seconds had sunk. Left on board now were Lightoller, his First Lieutenant and the gunner who had been on duty when the trawler struck. The stern appeared to be staying afloat, so HMS Peterel was ordered to catch up with the convoy.

Lights had heard the orchestra playing Nearer My God To Thee as the Titanic started her death plunge. Now he waited for the Falcon to sink beneath him, to the scratchy accompaniment of sea-shanties from a gramophone in his cabin, where the three men sat hoping that a tug or trawler might arrive to tow them to the safety of the Humber.

Three April Fools, thought Lightoller, as a rumbling from below indicated that the bulkheads had given way. Tons of seawater made the Falcon rear up, Titanic-style, and start her plunge.

The three men leapt into the sea and began to swim desperately away from the ship, afraid that the armed depth-charges on Falcons decks would blow when they reached their set depths. They didnt, but the men were clinging to wreckage for half an hour before a trawler picked them up.

At the court-martial all three were cleared of blame. Lightoller was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander and given HMS Garry, a bigger and slightly younger destroyer than Falcon.

He made good use of his new command, twice ramming UB-110 on 19 July, 1918. Sinking her earned him a bar to his DSC. The damage to Garry was so severe that he only just got her back into dry dock before she became his fifth shipwreck!

After the war, Lightoller found his merchant navy career dogged by the Titanic disaster tag, even though his own part had been heroic. He grew weary of being passed over for command of one of the new liners, and finally resigned from the White Star Line.

From then on his contact with the sea was with small boats of his own. In 1940, when he was 66, he took his motor yacht Sundowner to Dunkirk and rescued more than 100 soldiers from the beaches. He then served with the Small Vessels Pool of the Navy, ferrying small ships from port to port around Britain. He was finally demobbed in 1946 when he was 72, and died in 1952.

Despite the depth and the fact that they were in a sandy area of the North Sea, the viz the day Bill Woolford and his team first dived the Falcon was an amazing 20m. The half-wreck was on an even keel and ran from two boilers with two engines past a torpedo-tube ring mounting to the stern, with a six-pounder gun and two big propellers, one clear of the sand, the other with just a tip showing.
The starboard side stood 3-4m proud of the sandbank, but the port side was heavily covered with sand to more than deck level, where the crest of the sand peak was starting to break up.
The first divers down, Graham and Neville, landed almost on top of the wreck. They surfaced after decompression stops with a 5in deck-light cover. Bill Woolford knew at once that this was a Navy ship, because he had been responsible some years previously for finding and identifying HMS Fairy, a C-class 30-knot destroyer, near Flamborough Head. Hed found an identical deck-light on Fairy.
On his first dive on the stern half of the unknown ship, Bill Woolford confirmed his first impression that this was a similar, slim-bodied destroyer. He could see that it was sliced off near the second boiler, which appeared to have been wrenched out of line by a trawl, and that it had two huge engines.
I quickly finned aft and there, sure enough, were the stern telegraphs. That confirmed that she was an old 30-knotter destroyer or torpedo boat. But we still didnt know which.
The divers plunged into research. Their mystery wreck could be one of several destroyers - Kale, Itchen, Lightning, Coquette and Falcon were all possibles. They dived again, hoping each time that a small artefact would give them the vital clue. But several months passed before Bill Woolford solved the problem while cleaning steam gauges from the wreck.
Scratched on the back of one he found the words Auxiliary steam, and the letter F. On the next were scratchings which read: Low pressure steam. Falcon. The third too was clearly marked Falcon. It all fitted into place. They had found the second shipwreck from which Lights Lightoller had escaped with his life.


HOW WE DIVED THE FALCON  
HMS Falcon is at 54 07.45N; 00 22.10E, at a depth of 60m. We used the following dive profile:
  • 20 minutes bottom time at 60m
  • 3-minute stop on air at 9m
  • 5-minute stop on O2 at 6m
  • 12-minute stop on O2 at 3m
We have been using this method of decompression diving for some three years. We feel a lot better in ourselves by using the oxygen on the last two stops. Before, on deep dives on air only, we were tired out to say the least! Some people might frown at this use of pure oxygen, but we find it suits us and our kind of diving.

- Bill Woolford



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