Archives For WWI

HMS Cymric

Oil Painting by Kenneth King
National Maritime Museum of Ireland

Late in 2011, divers from Dark Star dive team discovered the wreck of the British submarine J6 off the Northumberland coast. While the discovery of a submarine may have surprised the team, what is even more surprising, and tragic, are the circumstances by which the J6 was sunk.

On October 15, 1918 the HMS Cymric was on patrol off the Northumberland coast in Northeastern England. The HMS Cymric was originally an Irish schooner launched in 1893. She was later converted by the Royal Navy for use as a Q-ship. Q-ships were modern-day Trojan Horses – camouflaged to look like innocent merchant ships in order to lure unsuspecting German u-boats and merchant raiders to attack. When attacked, the Q-ship crew would reveal a bristling array of hidden armaments and the hunter would become the hunted. Q-Ships claimed fourteen German u-boats destroyed and 60 damaged during World War I through the use of these tactics.

While on patrol, the Cymric’s crew spotted what appeared to be a German submarine with the markings U6 on its conning tower. The Cymric opened fire and sank the submarine. Unfortunately, the markings were in fact J6 and 15 Royal Navy sailors lost their lives to friendly fire. The Cymric’s captain was cleared after a court of inquiry and the matter remained classified until 1969. The Cymric returned to commercial service after the war, but her bad luck continued as she struck a tram with her bowsprit in 1927 in Dublin harbor and then disappeared with all hands while sailing from Scotland to Portugal in 1944. Dark Star divers plan to return to the wreck this year to lay a memorial plaque in honor of the lives lost aboard J6.

operation albion

Sunset over Saaremaa Island, Estonia
CC Image Courtesy of Luke Saagi

In late 1917, the German High Command was desperate to knock Russia out of World War I and devote more resources to the Western Front. Despite upheaval at all levels of society and especially within the military, Russia had remained a belligerent after the Russian Revolution in February 1917. The Russian military had essentially ceased to be an effective fighting force and yet the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky insisted on continuing the fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Thus the Germans devised a plan to invade a trio of islands in what is now Estonia. The operation would achieve two significant objectives and potentially force Russia to withdraw from the war. First, the Russian Baltic Fleet would be all but neutered by German control of the islands and, more importantly, the Russian capital of St. Petersburg would be threatened with invasion.

Dubbed Operation Albion, the plan called for a combined arms operation in which infantry and cyclist troops would land on October 12, 1917 on Saaremaa Island and isolate the garrison. Meanwhile, a naval task force would provide fire support and deal with any attempted intervention by the Russian Navy. Both land and sea forces would be supported by seaplanes which flew reconnaissance and bombing missions.

The Russians had formidable coastal batteries and garrisons on Saaremaa and nearby Muhn Island, however, a combination of poor morale and bold action by the German forces negated any Russian advantages. Russian morale was so low that some coastal batteries refused to engage the German ships in the hope that non-resistance would spare their batteries hostile fire. Russian forces were also hampered by poor communication and a lack of initiative by some commanders.

The German landings were achieved without serious opposition and cyclist troops quickly pushed to divide the Russian forces by occupying a dam which connected Saaremaa and Muhn. The cyclists reached their objectives and wreaked havoc on the Russian forces as they attempted to withdraw across the dam. Russian naval forces and 3 Royal Navy submarines attempted to intervene, however, their efforts were unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of the pre-dreadnought Slava, the destroyer Grom and a few smaller vessels. Apart from damage from mines, the Germans lost no capital ships during the operation.

battleship sinking

Pre-Dreadnought Slava Sinking
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After little more than a week, the Germans had secured the three islands – Saaremaa, Muhu and Hiiumaa and captured 20,000 Russian troops. Most significantly, though, the Germans had successfully launched a combined air-land-sea operation and were now poised to invade St. Petersburg. Less than 6 weeks after the action, the Russians sued for peace and German troops were freed from the Eastern Front to launch a last ditch effort to win on the Western Front.

The operation also had a minor World War II connection. Lieutenant Ernst Lindemann, later the captain of the ill-fated Nazi battleship Bismarck, served in the operation as a wireless officer aboard the battleship SMS Bayern. In 1944, the Soviets would launch their own Operation Albion, this time to wrest control of the islands from Nazi forces garrisoned there.

Merchant submarine

German Merchant Submarines Deutschland & Bremen
Photo: Kevin Heath

During World War I, the Royal Navy blockaded Germany’s North Sea ports and cut off all imports into the country. Desperate for imports of rubber, tin, nickel and other resources unavailable within their borders, the German merchant marine took a page from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and developed blockade running merchant submarines. The subs were built for the North German Lloyd Line and were designed to maximize cargo carrying capacity – unusual for vessels normally viewed as tools of war and not of trade.

The first sub, Deutschland, made her maiden voyage in June of 1916 and arrived in Baltimore, Maryland a month later carrying dyes, gemstones and pharmaceuticals. Deutschland had successfully threaded the needle of the Royal Navy blockade without even being detected. Returning with a load of valuable nickel, tin and rubber, the Deutschland’s maiden voyage not only paid for itself, but it netted a massive profit for her North German Lloyd Line owners.

The Deutschland made one more voyage to the United States before deteriorating relations between the US and Germany precluded further trade. Deutschland was later converted to u-boat use by the Imperial German Navy, sank 42 vessels and was turned over to the Royal Navy after the Armistice. The Deutschland’s sister ship, Bremen, sailed for the US in September of 1916, however, she never arrived and was presumed lost at sea. One of Bremen’s oil stained life preservers was discovered near Cape Elizabeth, Maine indicating the ship may have made its way as far the American coast. The ship’s disappearance, though, remains a mystery. Various reports indicate she might have been depth charged or mined by Royal Navy vessels, but perhaps Bremen felt drawn to her Jules Verne origins and fell prey, like Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, to the Moskstraumen.

One of the most unusual clashes in naval history occurred on September 14, 1914 when two former passenger liners fought one another off the coast of Brazil’s Trinidada Island. At the outbreak of World War 1, both the British and German navies put into effect plans calling for the arming of certain ships as auxiliary cruisers to act as wartime supplements to their naval forces. Two such ships were the SS Cap Trafalgar and RMS Carmania.

The SS Cap Trafalgar had been built in 1913 and operated between Hamburg, Germany and South American ports. Following the declaration of war, her civilian crew was replaced by officers and seaman of the German Imperial Navy and she was armed with 2 4.1in. guns. Thus she became SMS Cap Trafalgar and was charged with hunting down and sinking Allied shipping in the South Atlantic. SMS Cap Trafalgar’s opponent, RMS Carmania, was a British mail liner built in 1905 for the Cunard line’s Liverpool to New York route. Similar to SMS Cap TrafalgarRMS Carmania was commandeered by the British Admiralty and became HMS Carmania on August 8, 1914 when she was armed with 8 4.7 in. guns. Unlike Germany’s auxiliary cruisers, Britain utilized its cruisers to protect merchantmen or assist in the hunt for Germany’s merchant raiders.

The two ships were destined to come across one another after each were given orders to proceed to Trindade Island – the Germans were to rendezvous with colliers and the British suspected the island was being used by the Germans as a supply point. Caught with two colliers in broad daylight, the Cap Trafalgar at first fled from the pursuit of the Carmania, however, the Germans reversed course and turned to engage the Carmania. After a brisk 70 minute battle, with both ships ablaze and holed below the waterline the Cap Trafalgar capsized and sank with the loss of 51 officers and crew. While the Cap Trafalgar had been sunk, it had inflicted serious damage on the Carmania and she required extensive repairs at Gibraltar’s dry dock. The Carmania finished out the war in British service and was eventually scrapped in 1932. Even though it involved two of the largest, fastest and most expensive ships in the world, the engagement was of little strategic consequence and is now merely a strange footnote in naval history.

89 years ago today, air power advocate General Billy Mitchell sank the battleships USS New Jersey and USS Virginia in his third demonstration of the potential of air power in naval warfare. General Mitchell proved that only a handful of bombers and airmen could render impotent 2 former crown jewels of the US Navy.

Two years earlier, in July of 1921, General Mitchell had successfully sunk the former German dreadnought SMS Ostfriesland and vindicated his theory that precision bombing could sink naval vessels. General Mitchell followed up several months later with further tests on the USS Alabama. While tactical bombing had been performed on both sea and land during World War I, no naval vessel had yet fallen prey to air power until Mitchell’s successful tests off the Virginia coast.

After World War I, General Mitchell returned to the US convinced that air power could fundamentally change the way naval warfare was waged. Facing opponents both within the military and in the halls of Congress, Mitchell’s tests on the Alabama, New Jersey, Ostfriesland and Virginia helped pave the way for the age of the aircraft carrier and the obsolescence of the big-gun battleship. General Mitchell was later court-martialed for statements he made about the competence of certain Army commanders. Although Mitchell passed away prior to World War II, his foresight proved prescient as numerous battleships succumbed to air power during the war, most notably HMS Prince of Wales & HMS Renown and the Japanese super-battleship Yamato. The North American B-25 Mitchell bomber was named for General Mitchell – 16 of which would later be launched from the USS Hornet in the Doolittle Raid against the Japanese home islands in 1942.

Merchant Navy Flag

UK Merchant Navy Ensign
CC Image courtesy of L2F1 on Flickr

Today the United Kingdom, along with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, remembers the sacrifices of their merchant marine from World War One to the present day. The Merchant Navy has served in WWI, WWI, Korea, the Suez Crisis, the Falklands War, and Gulf Wars I & II. More than 14,500 seamen lost their lives in World War I and another 30,000 perished during World War II. September 3rd was chosen as the date to honor the Merchant Navy because September 3, 1939 marked the first loss of British shipping in World War 2 – the SS Athenia. Two shipwrecks, SS Storaa and M/V Atlantic Conveyor, have subsequently been designated protected places under the UK Protection of Military Remains Act. Storaa was lost in World War One to a German u-boat while Atlantic Conveyor is the most recent Merchant Navy loss, having been sunk while supporting British efforts to free the Falkland Islands from their Argentinian invaders.

As this year’s recovery season winds down, noted exploration company Odyssey Marine is wrapping up two deep water recoveries (the SS Gairsoppa and SS Mantola) and currently on hold with the excavation of HMS Victory.  The 2012 season marked several firsts for Odyssey – the completion of a shipwreck salvage under government contract, the validation of their deepwater recovery methods and the beginnings of legitimacy for their role in “academic” archaeology with their efforts on the HMS Victory. What lies ahead for Odyssey is a question of much debate.  Below are five of the most discussed targets for Odyssey along with pros and cons for each.

1.  Merchant Royal – widely believed to be the target of Odyssey’s “Atlas” search, the Merchant Royal went down in a storm off Great Britain in 1641 with a cargo of gold and silver valued around ~1 billion in current dollars. This is the Holy Grail of shipwrecks and would be an incredible find both for the monetary and publicity windfall. Apart from the difficulty involved in locating the wreck, there are no significant cons to recovering the Merchant Royal.

2.  Prins Frederik – sunk in 1890 after a collision with the Marpessa in the Bay of Biscay, this Dutch mail steamer carried 400,000 silver rijksdaalders in its bullion room. Disputes over the actual location of the ship (and thus who was to blame for the collision) have created a wide search area and significantly affect the depth of water it could be located in – 500 feet if where the captain of the Prins Frederik claimed or 6,000 feet if where the captain of the Marpessa claimed. A British company claimed to have found the wreck in shallow water in 1994 which could generate legal issues for Odyssey if it is indeed the Prins Frederik. Odyssey could also face legal claims from insurers who paid out on claims or the Dutch government as the cargo was for payment of colonial forces in Indonesia. The Prins Frederik would be an excellent target for an arrangement similar to the Gairsoppa and Mantola where the Dutch government receives a portion of the proceeds after expenses.

3.  I-52 – re-discovered in 1995 by Paul Tidwell, the I-52 was sunk by American naval forces in 1944 while en route from Japan to Nazi Germany. The I-52 was carrying 2.2 tons of gold and now sits in 17,000 feet of water. While Odyssey’s deepwater recovery methods would enable recovery of the wreck, apart from a multi-party agreement on salvage rights between Tidwell, the Japanese government and Odyssey no recovery is possible. Tidwell has also stated he is pursuing recovery of the sub and it is doubtful Odyssey would be brought in on the deal.

4.  Port Nicholson – a British freighter loaded with $3 billion in platinum, the Port Nicholson was torpedoed off the coast of Massachusetts in 1942 and was located in 2008 by Sub Sea Research.  Sub Sea Research gained title to the ship in 2009 and planned recovery in 2012. No word has emerged on whether or not the group has been successful in their salvage and there are doubts as to whether the platinum even exists onboard.  If Sub Sea is unable to recover the wreck due to a lack of expertise or funding, then a collaboration with Odyssey would benefit both parties and be the most valuable recovery yet, surpassing even Odyssey’s Black Swan recovery (and subsequent loss).

5.  Bonhomme Richard – John Paul Jones’ famous flagship went down after his epic battle with HMS Serapis. The past few years have seen renewed efforts to find the ship, but any recovery would be limited by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Because the Bonhomme Richard was an American warship it cannot be salvaged without the permission of the US government. An arrangement with the US government similar to that of the HMS Victory one is a possibility, but doubtful because the upside isn’t nearly as high as it is for other wrecks.

There are dozens of other wrecks Odyssey could be pursuing – the company claims to have dozens of high value shipwreck targets in its proprietary database. Based on Odyssey’s stated business model of pursuing high value targets with easily ascertainable legal ownership and inaccessible to normal salvors, Odyssey will most likely pursue deepwater commodity shipwrecks where the cargo can be quickly monetized and not the storied Spanish Galleons of treasure hunting lore.

Disclosure: I am an Odyssey Marine shareholder.