Anti-personnel warheads from 18-pounder shells on the Volnay. These rotting steel tubes are filled with a mixture of explosives and lead shot
Great War wrecks
AS DIVERS, WHILE WE APPRECIATE the wrecks as dive sites, the centenary of World War One underlines how we should also appreciate the sacrifice and acknowledge the loss of life involved.
So our start-of-season round-up this year provides a divers’ cross-section of WW1 wrecks. For knowledgeable divers, some obvious wrecks such as the Kyarra and Moldavia have been left out or mentioned only in passing.
This is not a “best” or “most dived” list. It is not chronological. But, for a variety of reasons, each wreck is significant.
Located in the shelter of Porthallow Bay on the east of the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, this wreck is convenient for club training trips based at Porthkerris, Porthoustock and Falmouth.
This is the Easter issue, and on an Easter training trip in 1979 the Volnay became my first-ever wreck dive. I have returned many times since. I’m sure the Volnay fills a similar spot in the logbook of many other divers.
The 4096-ton steamship was a fairly typical large and state-of-the-art cargo ship, built in 1910 and owned by Gow, Harrison & Co of Glasgow.
After a transatlantic convoy from Montreal to Barry, she was proceeding alone to Plymouth. Her zig-zagging may have avoided U-boats, but not a mine laid by UC64, one of a field laid east of the Manacles. Forty-five minutes after midnight on 14 December, 1914, she struck a mine two miles “east by south” (about 101°) of the Manacles.
The captain made for Falmouth, but as the ship was taking on water too quickly, he aimed to beach in Porthallow Bay. The Volnay foundered about half a mile offshore in 18-22m, depending on tide.
According to my logbook, for that first wreck-dive I didn’t have much of a clue where my buddy was leading me, other than that the shotline was beside the boilers. What did amaze me was the scattered spaghetti of cordite, shell-casings, lead shot and fuses from the cargo of 18-pounder shells destined for the trenches in France.
These days many new divers will get a briefing from Wreck Tour 24, so can have a better idea about what they are diving on than I did.
On my second dive I found a prized brass fuse of my own. After the dive a member of the club showed me how to take it apart to remove the detonator and powder to make it safe.
In those days we were less well-educated about such things. The fuse has since been declared to the Receiver of Wreck and confirmed safe with the MoD.
On 5 September, 1914, the light cruiser HMS Pathfinder entered the history books as the first ship to be sunk by a submarine-launched powered torpedo, though not the first shipping casualty of the war, that distinction falling to HMS Amphion.
A deficiency in bunker capacity meant that Pathfinder was steaming at a sedate 5 knots to conserve fuel when the torpedo from U21 struck her forward magazine.
The explosion cut off the bow just aft of the bridge and the ship reportedly sank in four minutes, leaving only nine survivors. The aft section now rests, with the main deck at 56m.
I dived the wreck a few summers ago on a beautiful calm day with perfect tides. The sort of day that divers will be hoping for on the centenary dive planned for later this year.
The wreck stands upright, so while I did drop to 64m to see the pair of high-speed bronze propellers, I could easily have kept the dive to 56m and the main deck. There is plenty to see, with deck-mounted torpedo-tubes and guns along the side and at the stern, ammunition strewn on deck, the famed row of three toilets with accompanying portholes, and ammunition scattered all over.
So while HMS Pathfinder is a technical dive requiring trimix, on a good day it is an ideal dive for a new trimix diver venturing below 50m.
When I dived the wreck it was still thought that the bow had been destroyed, as per wartime reports. However, it has since been located and dived some two miles from the main wreck.
It may have taken its time to settle to the seabed, or perhaps the reported ”four minutes” is inaccurate. More about HMS Pathfinder on Divernet.com
An almost-endless list of WW1 wrecks can be dived across Lyme Bay, including the liner Salsette, the dredger St Dunstan, U-boats, armed trawlers, the steamships Elsa, Bretagne, Greatham, Lord Stewart, Moidart, Pomeranian and Frogner.
Even a systematic wreck-diver such as myself has not dived them all, but my selection is the lowly Ailsa Craig.
Among all the big ocean-going steamers, the staple of coastal shipping all round the British Isles and across the North Sea was the small two-hold coaster.
It had a single boiler and steam engine aft, holds forward and a wheelhouse either immediately forward of the boiler or between the holds.
Long before the wartime mass production of standard ships, coasters such as the 246-ton Ailsa Craig (Wreck Tour 166) were produced in multiples of similar design.
Coasters were the Transit vans of our shipping. You couldn’t write about armed robbery without mentioning the Transit, so I can’t write about WW1 wrecks without including a coaster.
There are many to choose from all round the British Isles. If you want to get technical there is a line of at least three between the Farne Islands and Eyemouth, two of which have appeared as Wreck Tours (150 Havlide and 175 Aulton).
I have selected Ailsa Craig because it was a wartime casualty, is easily accessible from all corners of Lyme Bay and the seabed is at 35m, so most divers can access the wreck.
She was carrying coal from Cardiff to Granville for the French State Railway. Captain Millikew was on the bridge, ironically ordering a zig-zag change of course, when a torpedo from UB80 struck. He ordered abandon ship, and the Ailsa Craig went down in two minutes.
What I enjoy about small coaster wrecks are the subtle differences
between them. The location of the helm indicates a central or aft wheelhouse. Here it is central.
The position of winches and ideally mast-feet indicate how the cargo was handled. The engine can be triple-expansion or, as on the Ailsa Craig, two-cylinder compound.
Before Liberty ships became famous in terms of mass production, those of a ”Standard” design were built for the Ministry of War Transport though WW1, at first in the UK and Canada, then later in the USA when it joined the war in 1917.
Mass production was still expanding when the armistice was signed on 11 November, 1918, with many standard ships still in the yards, so these continued to be completed after the war, and more than a few ended up as WW2 casualties.
The 7951-ton War Knight was the victim of a navigational mistake in a convoy of 16 ships plus escorts.
Just after midnight on 24 March, 1918, the commanding ship of the convoy escort, HMS Syringa, ordered a change of course in response to what may have been an explosion to the south.
Half the ships in the convoy missed the order and it broke into two groups. In trying to regroup the War Knight sliced into the starboard side of the tanker OB Jennings beneath the bridge.
Naptha oil leaking from the tanker set surrounding water and the War Knight’s deck ablaze, killing the commander and many crew. War Knight was taken under tow only to strike two mines laid by UC17, finally being sunk by gunfire in Watcombe Bay on 25 March, 1918.
At a seabed depth of 12m, the War Knight is accessible to all divers. Despite this shallow depth and exposed location, the outline of the hull is easily discernible.
The key point of interest is the massive gearbox at the forward end of the propeller shaft. The War Knight was driven by steam turbines, the speed of which had to be reduced to turn the propeller. Largely made of non-ferrous metals, these have been salvaged.
The Hunsdon was in ballast from Le Havre to Belfast when torpedoed by UB94 on 18 October 1918, three-quarters of a mile from Strangford Loch light buoy.
This 2899-ton steamship was one of the last maritime casualties of the war. Following behind her were the Fleet Auxiliary Industry and her escort, the armed trawler Persian Empire.
Persian Empire radioed that she had picked up survivors from the RFA Industry with survivors from the Hunsdon among them. UB92 is credited with torpedoing RFA Industry.
The Hunsdon was built as the German ship Arnfried in 1911 for the Hamburg-America line, then captured at Douala in German West Africa (now Cameroon) and re-registered under the British flag as the Hunsdon on 4 May, 1915.
Considering how close it is to Strangford Loch, slack on the Hunsdon is surprisingly generous, so dives can be a nice relaxed experience on neap tides, with two waves of divers so no one has to miss out while minding the boat.
The Hunsdon (Wreck Tour 102) is a good typical steamship wreck. With the holds empty, the main points of interest are the bow, boilers and engine, and stern, where the gun is tipped over the starboard side. At just past 30m most divers will have plenty of time for a little deco and a twin-set of nitrox.
For those thinking of diving the RFA Industry, a slightly later Great War wreck, the charted depth is 84m to the seabed.
As we focus on loss of shipping, we must not lose sight of the purpose of much of it – bringing in supplies to the trench war in France and Belgium. As supplies came off the ships they needed to be moved to the front, and for that purpose large numbers of railway locomotives and wagons were shipped to France.
The St Chamond was carrying Pacific-class locomotives from Glasgow to St Nazaire – five of 695 supplied to French Railways through the war. They had no tenders, the intention being that they would be paired with those from locos previously “lost to enemy action”.
On 29 April, 1916, the St Chamond was torpedoed and sunk by U60, three miles north of St Ives Head, in 25m.
When I dived this wreck for Wreck Tour 38, I found six locomotives but local divers say there are in fact seven. So there are one or two more than the five listed as official cargo – were the records incorrect
Perhaps once loaded there was space for more – cargo held over from a previous shipment, or queued on the dock. Or maybe the additional locos are from a different order, class or maker and covered by different paperwork.
There is plenty of scope for further investigation through diving and searching the archives. Perhaps by 29 April, 2016, some diver can provide an answer for the centenary.
Considering how much of our coastal shipping was sunk by mines, it would be a shame not to include a UC-class U-boat.
The UC class were specialist mine-layers with a line of six mine-laying tubes running vertically through the forward part of the hull.
Each tube contained three stacked mines to give a total load of 18.
UC-class boats laid minefields that trapped ships indiscriminately, from trawlers and coasters through to capital ships. They also had two forward and one aft-facing torpedo tubes and a naval 8.8cm gun, all used successfully.
Many UC-class U-boats were lost, so should I pick the wreck of one that was individually significant, or one readily accessible, or one with easy diving conditions
I was tempted by UC70 off Whitby (WT 10), notable for being killed by air attack from a Blackburn Kangaroo, but this isn’t the easiest place to find a boat space and is frequently subject to challenging visibility.
Located off Cork, UC42 (WT 165) is readily accessible in 28m and typically in good visibility. This submarine is recorded by German records as lost on 10 September, 1917, the date UC42 was scheduled to return from patrol.
A depth-charge attack by patrolling torpedo-boats on 31 October, 1917, was on a submarine already long dead.
So how did UC42 really meet its end One possibility is that it struck one of its own mines while laying a minefield. Another is that the crew lost control and crashed in the shallow water.
The wreck was first dived by hardhat divers from the naval base at Queenstown on 2 November, 1917, and the only damage noted was to the stern.
At some point UC42’s location was lost, then it made headlines in 2010 when rediscovered by local divers.
The highest point and most significant point on the dive is the starboard propeller. As on any WW1 U-boat, this carries its identity, and the relevant section has been lovingly polished repeatedly by divers’ hands.
Holes in the outer and inner hull are just big enough for looking inside at the engines and stacks of batteries. In the forward section we have the mine-tubes, all still carrying mines in various states of decomposition.
Readers who know the area may wonder why I have not also featured the steamship Aud, significant for its attempt to support the 1916 uprising.
Don’t worry, we’re preparing a special extended Wreck Tour in preparation for the centenary.
HMS Amphion – The first Royal Navy loss
On 4 August, 1914, the Konigin Luise, a former Hamburg ferry pressed into service as a minelayer, set sail from Emden loaded with mines. The minefield was laid off the Thames estuary and the vessel turned for home.
Meanwhile, on 5 August the light cruiser HMS Amphion set out on patrol from Harwich, accompanying the Third Destroyer Flotilla.
The Konigin Luise was painted in the same colours as Great Eastern Railway ferries, but a trawler observed her crew throwing objects over the stern and reported this to the Royal Navy patrol. She was soon overhauled and sunk by gunfire. Forty-six of the 100 crew were rescued and taken aboard the RN ships.
Unknown to the patrol, on 6 August their course for home took them back across the new minefield. With the mines set at 3.3m, the destroyers just passed overhead.
HMS Amphion was not so lucky, and with many of the crew below deck for breakfast, they stood little chance of escape. In all 151 from a crew of 290 and 19 German prisoners were killed, many by the initial explosion.
While badly damaged, the remaining crew abandoned ship in an orderly way before the Amphion ran into a second mine.
This time a magazine exploded, with debris contributing to the losses by striking crew from the Amphion and a prisoner on the deck of one of the accompanying destroyers.
Large numbers of Admiralty trawlers were built for the Royal Navy or called into service from fishing fleets in both world wars, as general- purpose escorts, net-tenders, submarine-hunters and minesweepers. They were cheap, easy to crew and relatively expendable.
Most of those I have dived were sunk by mines, but the 285-ton Balfour is an exception. On 13 May, 1918, she was escorting the steamship Nidd across the Channel to Dieppe.
The excitement started at 9.15pm when the Nidd ran over a U-boat. The sub surfaced astern of the Nidd and Captain Kitwood ordered his stern-gunners to open fire.
In the rush to clear its guns to join in, Captain Howe of the Balfour turned from his position ahead and cut across the Nidd’s bow. The Nidd struck the Balfour on the port side amidships, and quick-thinking Captain Kitwood ordered full steam ahead and kept the stricken Balfour lodged against the Nidd’s bow while Balfour’s crew climbed across.
Further quick thinking by James Howard of the Balfour’s crew was to run and disarm the depth-charges lined up at the stern, so they did not explode as Balfour went under the Nidd.
The Nidd’s gunners claimed one hit on the U-boat, later identified as UB74, though it suffered only minor damage at the time. UB74 failed to return from that patrol, being sunk on 26 May in Lyme Bay by a depth charge from HMY Lorna.
UB74’s log was recovered by RN divers and confirmed the incident with the Nidd.
Diving the Balfour, you can see the evidence of this story. The hull is stove-in on the port side amidships where the Nidd struck. Among the debris beneath the stern are unexploded depth charges, so hurriedly disarmed (WT 131).
|Lost Beneath the Waves|
This Nautical Archaeology Society initiative invites divers to mark the centenary of any WW1 wreck with a dive and commemoration as close to the anniversary as possible.
Nevertheless, you don’t need to wait until then. Participating divers can always make warm-up dives on their selected wreck, gather information and turn the memorial dive into the culmination of a much larger group project.
The project will be accompanied by a Twitter feed, Facebook page and YouTube channel to which divers can contribute.
HMS Pathfinder, 5 September 2014, Marine Quest, Eyemouth:
A technical week with the focus on diving both forward and aft sections of HMS Pathfinder.
RMS Lusitania, 9-10 May 2015 (7 May 1915), Kinsale:
Not diving, but a weekend of wreck-diving talks about Lusitania and other ships, accompanied by shallower diving including wrecks from WW1.