Archives For UK Shipwrecks

message in a bottle

Sister Ship of SS Naronic

“Feb.  19, 1893- Naronic sinking. All hands praying. God have mercy on us.”  ~L. Winsel

On February 11, 1893, the White Star Line steamer SS Naronic departed Liverpool for New York with 74 crew as well as 3,600 tons of general cargo. Built in 1892 by Harland and Wolff, the same company that would build the ill-fated Titanic, the Naronic measured 470 feet in length and had twin coal fired reciprocating engines capable of propelling her through the waves at a steady 13 knots. Although the ship had been built as a cattle vessel, additional passenger accommodations were added to permit her to earn extra revenue on non-New York routes.

After landing her pilot at Point Lynas, Wales, the Naronic sailed for New York and entered the mists of history as neither she nor any of her crew members were ever seen again. On March 3, a bottle washed ashore in Bay Ridge, New York with the contents “Feb. 19, 1893 – Naronic sinking. All hands praying. God have mercy on us.” The note was signed by a L. Winsel, but there was no L. Winsel on the Naronic’s manifest – the closest name being John L. Watson. Three more bottles were found over the next six months – one in Virginia, another in the Irish Channel and a fourth in the Mersey River. None were signed by identifiable members of the ship’s crew, but two contained generally the same story – the ship had struck an iceberg in a storm and sunk over the course of a few hours.

A subsequent British Board of Trade inquiry dismissed the iceberg theory as not fitting the weather patterns, but local reports in New York placed icebergs in the general vicinity of where the Naronic was sailing. Two separate reports were made of ships sighting lifeboats from the Naronic but the exact location or cause of her sinking has never been determined – it was even speculated that the ship was the casualty of a terrorist bombing.

Royal Navy

HMS Liverpool
CC Image Courtesy of Jonathan Jordan on Flickr

On Friday, the UK Ministry of Defence announced the solicitation of bids for the scrapping of two of its Type 42 destroyers, HMS Liverpool and HMS Manchester. Both ships were launched in 1978, commissioned in 1982 and saw service the First Gulf War. The scrapping of their sister ship HMS Edinburgh was announced last year and drew record crowds when she was open for tours in Liverpool for the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic in May 2013.

Today the Type 42s have been replaced by the Type 45s in their fleet air defense role. Unfortunately for the United Kingdom, NATO, the US and all who rely on the US, the UK and their allies to ensure the freedom of the seas, the vessels are being replaced at a ratio of 2:1 with only six joining the fleet. While only two of the six Type 45s have officially joined the Royal Navy’s fleet, one, HMS Dauntless has already been deployed to the Falklands to ensure the continued liberty of the Falkland Islands. While the Type 45s are vastly more capable than the Type 42s they replace, the Royal Navy will lose the quality that comes with quantity and be forced to further rely on allies and “hope” as a strategic defense policy. All the while, many of the Royal Navy’s vessels, including the carrier HMS Ark Royal, face transformation from mighty vessels of war to lowly razor blades.

On the night of December 19, 1941, a half dozen Italian frogmen slipped into the British naval anchorage at Alexandria, Egypt. Sitting astride human torpedos, the frogmen quietly went to work placing explosive charges under British warships including the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. Although all six of the frogmen were captured as they tried to make their escape, their charges successfully detonated around 0600. The Valiant and Queen Elizabeth both settled quickly on the shallow bottom of Alexandria’s harbor while a Norwegian oiler, M/V Sagona and the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Jervis, she was refueling were also severely damaged.

Despite these successes, the raid was not nearly as successful as the Italians had hoped for two reasons. First, the original assault plan had called for the initial charges to sink the tankers in the harbor and spread fuel oil across the surface of the anchorage’s water. Secondary incendiary devices were then to ignite the fuel oil and turn the harbor into a blazing inferno. The Sagona’s oil tanks, though, miraculously failed to rupture and the incendiary devices, despite exploding as planned, had nothing to ignite. Second, because the two battleships sank on an even keel, post-raid aerial reconnaissance mistakenly thought the ships had not been damaged at all. As a result, the Italians failed to take advantage of a vastly changed strategic situation in the Mediterranean with the British battle fleet seriously weakened.

The Valiant and Queen Elizabeth both underwent repairs in South Africa and the US respectively and returned to the war effort in 1943. Both served in the Pacific Theater before returning to the UK where the Valiant was scrapped in 1945 and the Queen Elizabeth in 1948. A new Queen Elizabeth is set to join the Royal Navy in 2017 for sea trials and the ship will mark the return of carrier borne fixed wing aviation to the Royal Navy.

China submarine

In his new book, Poseidon, expat journalist and diver Steven Schwankert brings alive the unfortunate sinking and mysterious salvage of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Poseidon. Over the course of several years, Schwankert meticulously researched the history of the Poseidon via trips to UK archives, Chinese museums and libraries and even a dive on the wreck of her sister ship in the Ionian Sea. Schwankert’s research shows in the compelling manner in which he unfolds the story of the Poseidon, her crew and their fate, and the subsequent history of the vessel in the context of greater Chinese/world history.

The book especially shines in Schwankert’s dogged determination to get to the bottom of the story. His investigative efforts bear fruit in the later pages of the book as he brings to life the terrestrial surroundings of Poseidon’s sinking on Liu Gong Island. Readers will be engrossed by the dramatic escape of some of Poseidon’s trapped crew members and the mysterious disappearance of the wreck from the sea floor. Poseidon helped make a trans-Pacific flight pass by in almost no time at all and is well worth the read. China history buffs, maritime historians, lovers of detective novels and any fan of Dirk Pitt will enjoy the tale told by Schwankert in Poseidon.

Robert Holland

Robert Holland’s Blue-Water Empire is a phenomenal history of British engagement in the Mediterranean world from 1800 to the present. Holland takes the reader around the entire circumference of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Malta to the Ionian Islands to Cyprus to Suez and leaves the reader struck by the influence the United Kingdom exerted in places many could not even locate on a map. Instead of focusing explicitly on social, political, military, diplomatic or economic history, Blue-Water Empire masterfully weaves them all together to present a comprehensive account of Great Britain’s strategy (or lack thereof) in colonizing and policing the Mediterranean over the course of three centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how Great Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean continue to echo today. For example, Holland carefully analyzes the trajectory of Cyprus under British rule and the air fields retained by the United Kingdom after her political withdrawal from the island. Those same air fields at Akrotiri and Dhekelia have been used as staging grounds for any action against Syria in 2013 or 2014. Also addressed in the book is the perennial question of how best to deal with the flood of refugees that accompanies unrest in North Africa or the Middle/Near East. Not only has the Arab Spring resulted in the destabilization of the region, but it also has driven refugees to seek asylum in places like Malta and Italy. Tragically, many of those refugees have died en route as their vessels are overcroweded and unseaworthy and subsequently sink.

Overall, Blue-Water Empire will not only entertain the casual reader, but will also inform the curious as to some of the origins of today’s headlines.

Brummer & Bremse

October 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

german cruiser

During World War One, Germany’s Kaiserliche Marine often sallied forth with light units and sometimes even battle cruisers to harass English fishing and merchant vessels and to bombard English coastal towns. One of these minor raids occurred early in the morning on October 17, 1916 when the German cruisers SMS Brummer and SMS Bremse chanced upon a convoy of twelve merchantmen escorted by 2 armed trawlers and 2 destroyers – the HMS Strongbow and Mary Rose. The Brummer and Bremse had been designed as minelaying light cruisers and were among the most modern ships in the German cruiser fleet at the time of the action.

Mistaking the German ships for British cruisers, the Strongbow and Mary Rose failed to engage the Brummer and Bremse until they were fired upon at the relatively close range of 2,700m. By comparison, the opening salvos of the Battle of Jutland earlier in the year had occurred at 14,000m. The two British destroyers were quickly sunk (the Mary Rose joining her earlier namesake in Davy Jones’ Locker) and the German cruisers proceeded to attack the now vulnerable merchantmen. The Brummer and Bremse sank 9 of the vessels before breaking off the engagement to avoid any Royal Navy response. The cruisers successfully returned to port and survived the war only to be scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919.

Scapa Flow

SMS Brummer on the Scapa Flow seafloor
Sonar Image Courtesy of UK Department for Transport

royal navy

Scapa Flow Anchorage
CC Image Courtesy of John Haslam on Flickr

On the night of October 13, 1939, Kriegsmarine Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien and the crew of U-47 launched one of the most daring submarine raids of World War II. With hostilities barely a month old, the Kriegsmarine dispatched Prien to the Royal Navy’s vaunted Scapa Flow anchorage with orders to penetrate the harbor and sink one of the Royal Navy’s capital ships. Scapa Flow, situated in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, provided the Royal Navy with a vast secure anchorage in which it could maintain its Home Fleet. Basing the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow allowed the Royal Navy to more effectively deny the Kriegsmarine access to the Atlantic via the North Sea. A succesful strike within the protected confines of Scapa Flow would not only cause serious consternation in the British Admiralty, but it would also serve as a propaganda coup for the Kriegsmarine as Scapa Flow was the site of the internment and scuttling of the German Imperial High Seas Fleet following World War I.

Prien and his crew deftly negotiated the outlying islands, blockships and harbor defenses and shortly after midnight on the morning of October 14, arrived within the anchorage. By an act of Divine Providence, the Royal Navy had recently removed its most important capital ships from the anchorage and Prien was forced to settle upon a World War I vintage Revenge class battleship, the HMS Royal Oak, as his target. Two years later, a similar act of Divine Providence would occur when the US Navy’s aircraft carriers were notably absent from Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Prien lined up his boat and launched a salvo of four torpedoes, only one of which found its mark. After two more attempts, Prien’s torpedoes finally struck home and the Royal Oak swiftly capsized and disappeared beneath the cold waters of Scapa Flow.

A combination of Prien’s skill and confusion within the anchorage allowed the U-47 to successfully escape. Upon their arrival back in Germany, Prien and his crew were feted and presented with Iron Crosses for their incredible feat. Britain, meanwhile, mourned the loss of 833 of Royal Oak’s crew, many of whom were mere boys in training. Although the strike was successful, it failed to accomplish anything strategically significant. The Royal Oak, while an important capital ship, was already obsolete and not essential to Britain’s continued naval dominance. Nor did the strike enable the Kriegsmarine to have a clearer route to the North Atlantic. The Royal Oak was never salvaged and today still lies at the bottom of Scapa Flow.

british battleship

3-D Sonar Imagery of Wreck of HMS Royal Oak
Photo: Divernet

U-Boat

September 2, 1917 brought happy hunting to Commander Georg Schmidt and his crew aboard the U-28 as they came upon a convoy of helpless Allied merchantmen. Commander Schmidt navigated the U-28 among the Allied vessels and opened fire on the British steamer SS Olive Branch. All but one of the crew aboard the Olive Branch were able take to lifeboats and they immediately put as much distance as possible between themselves and their former ship. The crew knew something the doomed U-28 didn’t – that the Olive Branch was loaded to the gunwales with a load of highly volatile ammunition.

As more of the U-28’s shells found their mark, one struck the Olive Branch’s less than peaceful cargo and a spectacular explosion destroyed the Olive Branch and heavily damaged the U-28. Instead of extending an olive branch to the now shipwrecked German crew of the U-28, the convoy sailed on and all 39 hands aboard the U-28 were lost to the clutches of the Arctic Ocean.

British warshipOne of the worst maritime disasters to strike Great Britain and the Royal Navy in home waters occurred off Portsmouth on August 28, 1782. The HMS Royal George, a 100 gun ship of the line, had just returned from North American waters and was preparing to accompany HMS Victory to Gibraltar when it capsized just off the entrance of Portsmouth harbor. Compounding the disaster was the fact that more than hundreds of women and children had boarded the vessel to visit with friends and family. The Royal George had been careened on its side for maintenance and the sea quickly engulfed the vessel through open gun ports. More than 900 died in the tragic accident including 360 women and children.

For nearly 50 years the ship lay intact in shallow waters near the entrance until two enterprising divers contrived a plan to remove the ship’s remains which were now a hazard to navigation. From 1834 to 1836, the divers, brothers Charles and John Deane, attempted unsuccessfully to salvage the vessel. Although failing, the brothers did discover the wreck of the Mary Rose which would later be successfully raised and preserved in the early 1980s. Several years later, from 1839-1844, the Royal Engineers performed salvage efforts on the vessel and raised many of her bronze cannon and other items. These cannon were later melted down and used to craft part of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. As a final exclamation mark in the story of the Royal George, the Royal Engineers detonated a massive controlled explosion that shattered windows ashore as far as two to three miles away from the wreck site.

HMS Fury

August 25, 2013 — Leave a comment
HMS Fury

HMS Fury’s Sister Ship Trapped in Ice

The search for the fabled Northwest Passage captivated European explorers for much of the 1500s through the early 1900s. Alas, like Ponce de Leon’s mystical Fountain of Youth, the Northwest Passage proved elusive and commercially non-existent. Not until Roald Amundsen’s journey through the passage from 1903 to 1906 was someone able to complete the journey completely by sea.

Among the numerous expeditions sent to explore the far reaches of the Arctic Sea were two led by Royal Navy officer Sir William Edward Parry. For seaborne transportation Parry relied on two bomb ketches – the sister ships HMS Hecla and HMS Fury. Only a few months before the expedition’s return to England in October 1825, the Fury was severely damaged by ice floes which had trapped the ship. Despite numerous efforts to rescue the vessel, the Fury had to be abandoned on August 25, 1825.

Before she was abandoned, though, the vessel’s extensive stores were moved ashore and deposited into a supply cache. Four years later those supplies would save the life of Arctic explorer John Ross and his team before they were rescued. The site of the Fury’s loss is now called Fury Beach; however, it remains unclear if the Fury slipped beneath the waves when the ice floes parted or if she drifted off to sink into the clutches of the Arctic Sea in another location.