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William Sanders VC

On 22 June 1917 Lieutenant-Commander William Sanders was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, available on Naval-History.net, said merely that Sanders ‘had been decorated because of his conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness, and skill in command of one of H.M. ships in action.’ The reason for the vagueness was that Sanders was one of a number of sailors awarded the VC in 1917 for actions involving Q-ships, apparently innocuous merchant ships that were manned by the RN and given heavy but concealed armaments. First World War submarines carried relatively few torpedoes (12 in the newest German boats and six or eight in older ones), so often surfaced to sink smaller targets with gunfire.[1]

William Sanders was a thirty-four year old New Zealander who has been a merchant seaman before the war. He had already been awarded a Distinguished Service Order for unspecified reasons whilst serving in a Q-ship. In early 1917 he was given command of HMS Prize, a Q-ship that had originally been a German ship called Else and was the first enemy ship to be captured by the British in the war.[2]

Prize, a 227 ton schooner, was  armed with two 12 pounder guns [76.2mm} and a Lewis machine gun. At 8:35 pm on 30 April 1917 she spotted a surfaced submarine two miles away. She was U93 (Kapitänleutnant Edgar Freiherr von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim) and was on her maiden voyage.[3]

Speigel had previously commanded U32 and wrote a book called Kriegstagebuch U 202 based on his experiences: there was no U202 in WWI. It was translated into English after the war under the title War Diary of U202.

By 28 April U93 had sunk three sailing ships and a steamer, totalling 5189 tons. One  of the sailing ship was Danish and the other two plus the steamer Norwegian. The largest sailing ship was torpedoed after being stopped, with the others being sunk by gunfire. That day she damaged the 207 ton Danish sailing ship Diana, which was towed into Queenstown: see U-Boat.net.[4]

On the evening of 29 April U93 torpedoed the defensively armed steamer Comedian (4,889 tons) and then the Ikbal (5,434 tons), both British and carrying ammunition. Both were first torpedoed and then finished off by gunfire. In the early hours of 30 April U93 torpedoed and sank the defensively armed British steamer Horsa (2,949 tons). She picked up survivors from both Ikbal and Horsa, who reported that their treatment ‘left nothing to be desired.’[5]

At 6:30 am U93 was in sight of the Russian sailing ship Borrowdale (1,268 tons) and two defensively armed steamers: the Italian Ascaro (3,245 tons) and the British Huntsmoor (4,957 tons). She torpedoed and sank the Ascaro at 7:05 am. Five minutes later the Huntsmoor opened fire. She then sighted U21 and HMS Begonia (Q10) headed to her. Begonia was a fleet minesweeping sloop that had been modified to look like a merchantman rather than a secretly armed merchantman.

At 09:00 am U21 sank the Borrowdale by gunfire. U93 surfaced and transferred her prisoners to the Borrowdale’s boats. At 09:40 am U93 opened fire on Begonia, which replied, forcing U21 to dive. U93 remained on the surface until Begonia had reduced the range to 1.5 miles, when she dived and escaped. At 5:30 pm the same day U93 torpedoed and sank without warning the Greek steamer Parthenon (2,934 tons): see U-boat.net for a list of the ships sunk by U93.[6] 

U93 by now had only two torpedoes left.[7] Three hours after sinking the Parthenon, she encountered what appeared to him to be an innocuous sailing ship but was actually HMS Prize. Following his normal tactics of surfacing to attack small ships with gunfire and torpedoing large ones whilst submerged, Spiegel opened gunfire on the sailing ship at 08:45 pm. Some of its crew apparently panicked and abandoned ship.

U93 scored several hits on her, wrecking her radio room and one of her two engines, and had closed to 80 yards range by 9:05 pm when Sanders raised the white ensign and ordered his concealed guns to open fire. Spiegel tried to ram but U93 was too close to Prize to do so. The British quickly hit the U93′s conning tower and forward gun. Spiegel and two other Germans ended up in the water. U93 withdrew to 600 yards range. Prize could not close the range because her second engine had given out, but U93 disappeared and appeared to have sunk.

Prize picked up Speigel, Warrant Officer Wilhelm Knappe and Petty Officer Walter Deppe. She was very badly damaged but managed to reach Kinsale on 2 May. Three of her crew were wounded. Sanders was awarded the VC and promoted to Lieutenant-Commander. Lieutenant W. D. Beaton received the DSO.[8]

U93 had not sunk. After her forward gun was put out action her executive officer Oberleutnant Wilhelm Ziegner ordered her to zigzag. Hits to her fuel and diving tanks meant that she was listing 14 degrees to starboard, but she was able to get out of range. As well as the three men who went overboard, several were wounded and one died during the night.

U93 had been hit at least nine times, her guns, periscope and wireless masts were out of action and there was damage to he fuel and diving tanks and several valves and compressed air tanks. A hole in the pressure hull meant that she could not dive, although it was above the waterline when surfaced. She had only just enough oil to get home, with no reserve for high speed dashes if she met Allied warships.

Ziegner managed to get her round Shetland, narrowly avoiding British patrols. U93 met a German trawler near Sylt Island and was towed into Wilhelmshaven after running out of fuel. She was cheered by all the ships she passed and Admiral Reinhard Scheer, C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet went on board to congratulate her crew.[9]

Prize was lost with all hands, including Sanders, on 14 August. She encountered UB48 whilst operating with the British submarine D6. The idea was that Prize would attract a U-boat and then signal its position to D6 which would torpedo the German vessel. Sanders, however, opened fire on UB48, which dived and escaped. Now knowing that Prize was a Q-ship, UB48 returned and torpedoed her without surfacing.[10]

Spiegel wrote more books after the war and served in the German diplomatic service in WWII: see Wikipedia. He died in 1965. Ziegner captained UC87 in 1918 but died in December 1919: see U-boat.net.

 

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 175-78.

[2] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 83.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1933 vol. xviii, Home Waters part viii, December 1916 to April 1917, pp. 424-26.

[4] Ibid. pp. 424-5 says Diana was sunk.

[5] Ibid., p. 425.

[6] Ibid., pp. 425-26.

[7] Friedrich Ruge, The Submarine War: a U-Boat commanders view in B. Fitzsimons, Warships & Sea Battles of World War I (London: Phoebus, 1973), p. 140.

[8] Naval Staff vol. Xviii, pp. 426-27.

[9] Ruge in Fitzsimons, Warships, p. 141.

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 117-18; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 170.

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The First Sinking of a U-Boat by a Q-Ship

The Royal Navy, faced with increasing losses of merchant ships to U-boats, came up with the idea of using decoy ships to trap German submarines. They were eventually known as Q-ships after Queenstown, now Cobh, in Ireland, where many of them were based.

Early war U-boats carried only around six torpedoes, so their captains preferred to surface and sink smaller merchant ships by gunfire. A Q-ship would give the impression of being an innocuous tramp steamer. Her armament would be hidden inside false deck houses or lifeboats or on swivel mountings that could appear when needed. Most of her crew, who were volunteers, would also be concealed, with hidden alleyways and special trap doors allowing them to get to their action stations without being seen. The majority of the crew of a warship are concerned with fighting rather than sailing her, so Q-Ships had far larger crews than they would have had as merchantmen. The collier Loderer had a crew of about six officers and 25 men in merchant service and 11 officers and 56 men after being converted to the Q ship HMS Farnborough.[1]

The first Q-ship to see action was HMS Prince Charles, a 373 ton collier that was given an armament of two 6 pounder guns, two 3 pounders and a number of rifles. Her civilian crew of Captain F. N. Maxwell and Chief Engineer Anderson and nine other men volunteered to remain on board. Lieutenant William Mark-Wardlaw RN was given command, with the crew being completed by Lieutenant J. G. Spencer RNR, two RN petty officers and nine RN ratings.[2]

Prince Charles was a civilian ship under charter to the RN and based at Scapa Flow. The terms of her charter allowed her to defend herself. Mark-Wardlaw’s orders of 20 July 1915 from Admiral Sir Stanley Colville included the following clauses (the earlier ones describing the area in which he was to operate have been omitted):

  1. ‘The object of the cruise is to use the Prince Charles as a decoy, so that an enemy submarine should attack her with gun fire. It is not considered probable, owing to her small size, that a torpedo would be wasted on her.

  2. In view of this, I wish to impress you to strictly observe the role of decoy. If an enemy’s submarine is sighted make every effort to escape, if she closes and fires, immediately stop your engines, and with the ship’s company (except the guns’ crews, who should most carefully be kept out of sight behind the bulwarks alongside their gun, and one engineer at the engines) commence to abandon ship. It is very important, if you can do so, to try and place your ship so th a t the enemy approaches you from the beam.

  3. Allow the submarine to come as close as possible, and then open fire by order on whistle, hoisting your colours (red ensign).

  4. It is quite possible that a submarine may be observing you through her periscope unseen by you, and therefore on no account should the guns crews on watch be standing about near their guns.

  5. If by luck you should succeed in sinking a submarine, on no account are you to allow the information to leak out of your ship, the strictest precautions are to be taken on arrival in a harbour, or meeting a ship at sea, that none of the officers or men give away the information.’[3]

Prince Charles left Scapa Flow at 8:00 pm on 21 July. In the early hours of 24 July she encountered a merchant ship stopped near a surfaced submarine 10 miles WNW of Rona. Mark-Wardlaw’s report stated that:

‘Shortly after this the submarine was observed to start her oil engine and proceed towards us at full speed. I then hoisted my ensign. At about 7.5 p.m., submarine being about 3 miles distant, 5 points on the port bow, she fired a shot which pitched about 1,000 yards over.

I then stopped engines, put ship’s head to swell from NNW, blew three blasts, and boat’s crews were ordered to get boats out.

All this time the submarine was coming very fast towards us (20 knots) and at 7.10 she fired a second shot which went between funnel and foremast and landed 50 yards over.

The submarine then turned so as to bring her broadside to us at about 600 yards, and as the submarine continued to fire and seeing that the range could not close any more, I opened fire with both port guns.

Directly I opened fire the gun’s crew of the submarine deserted their gun and entered conning tower and she apparently attempted to dive.’[4]

The submarine, which was U36, was struck by a shell as she dived. She came back up, turning. Prince Charles closed to 300 yards and continued to fire, scoring several hits. U36’s crew abandoned ship, with 15 out of 33 men, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Ernst Graeff, being saved by the British.[5]

The steamer that had been near U36 when Prince Charles came upon them was Danish. Mark-Wardlaw suspected that she had been supplying the U-boat, so ordered her to follow him to port for inspection. The Danes turned out to be pro-British and delighted at the outcome of the action. They agreed to keep quiet about it and were released. [6]

­U36 had sunk a Norwegian sailing ship and steamer, a French steamer, a Russian steamer and nine British trawlers during her cruise. She had also fired on but missed the armed merchant cruiser HMS Columbella and captured the US sailing ship Pass of Belhama, which was sent to Cuxhaven with her cargo of cotton. She later became the German commerce raider Seeadler, like Prince Charles an apparently innocuous vessel with a concealed armament.[7]

 

[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 14-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. Appendix J, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

[5] Ibid., p. 38.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 38-40.

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Frederick Parslow VC and the Merchantman Anglo Californian’s Battle with U39

On 4 July 1915 the 7,333 ton merchant ship Anglo-Californian was 70 miles south of the Fastnet Rock, close to the end of a journey from Montreal. She normally carried nitrate, but on this voyage her cargo was 927 horses, intended for the Western Front. This was the fifth time that she had brought horses across the Atlantic. She was captained by 59 year old Frederick Parslow, whose son, also called Frederick, was her second officer. As well as her crew of 44 men, there were 50 American and Canadian cattlemen on board to look after the horses.[1]

At 8:00 am the Anglo-Californian, which was then 24 hours from its destination, Avonmouth, was spotted by SMS U39, captained by Kapitänleutnant Walther Forstmann. In order to conserve his torpedoes, Forstmann decided to surface and call on the merchantman to surrender. U39, capable of 16.5 knots on the surface, was three miles away from the Anglo-Californian, which was designed to sail at 12 knots. Parslow, however, believed that his ship, being lightly loaded, could make two knots more than this, so decided to flee.

The Anglo-Californian made radio contact with the Q-ship Princess Ena, a former cross-Channel ferry that had been armed with three concealed 12 pounder guns in order to act as a trap for U-boats. She was capable of only 15 knots, so would struggle to arrive in time, but she called up the destroyers HMS Mentor and Miranda.

Forstmann opened fire at 9:00 am from a range of one and a half miles. Captain Parslow remained on the open bridge with his son, ordering his crew to take cover below. The Parslows had no protection from the German gunfire. They had to lie down, with the son steering from a prone position and the father occasionally lifting his head to command the ship on a zig-zag pattern At 10:30 am Forstmann called on the Anglo-Californian to surrender. Captain Parslow realised that his ship could not escape, so ordered her to stop and the crew to abandon ship.[2]

At this point, Princess Ena opened fire from 9,000 yards. Her shots fell short, but Parslow then received a radio message urging him to ‘hold on’ as the destroyers were on their way. He therefore ordered his crew to return below decks, and to get the ship underway again. The Germans resumed firing, this time with rifles as well as U39’s deck gun. They targeted the bridge, which was soon wrecked, with the steering wheel and compass being damaged.[3]

With several holes in the hull, a fire in the hold and no sign of the Royal Navy, Captain Parslow decided that he had no choice but to surrender. He ordered the engines stopped and the crew to abandon ship. The lifeboats were swung out under the direction of Chief Officer Harold Read. Forstmann, however, was unwilling to risk being tricked a second time, so continued to fire from a range of only 1,500 yards. One lifeboat was upended as it was being lowered into the sea after one of the davits was hit, and another lifeboat capsized.

Captain Parslow was then killed, just as the two British destroyers appeared. Forstmann dived his boat and escaped. Twenty of the men and twenty of the horses on board the Anglo-Californian were killed. She was escorted into Queenstown (now Cobh) early the next day.[4]

Captain Parslow’s son and Chief Engineer James Crawford were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 10 September. The citations below are from Naval-History.net:

 29292 -10 SEPTEMBER 1915

….. award of the Distinguished Service Cross to the following Officers:

Sub-Lieutenant Frederick Parslow, R.N.R. For his services in the horse-transport “Anglo-Californian,” which was attacked by a German submarine on the 4th July, and subjected to heavy gun-fire for an hour and a half. Sub-Lieutenant Parslow steered the ship throughout the action, and maintained his post after his father, the Captain of the ship, had been killed by a shell, until some of our patrol boats arrived and drove the submarine off.

Engineer James Crawford, R.N.R. For his services as Chief Engineer of the same transport, in the escape of which he was largely instrumental by maintaining the vessel’s maximum speed in spite of a shortage of firemen.

Captain Parslow was not given any official award until 23 May 1919, when he was posthumously commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and awarded a Victoria Cross. The Admiralty may have feared that awarding a gallantry medal to a member of the Merchant Marine during the war could have allowed the Germans to claim that its members were combatants.

Parslow’s citation below is from Naval-History.net:

 31354 –  23 MAY 1919

Admiralty, S.W.,  24th May, 1919.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers:

Lieutenant Frederick Parslow, R.N.R.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the Horse Transport “Anglo-Californian” on  the 4th July, 1915.

At  8 a.m. on  4th July, 1915, a large submarine was sighted on the port beam at a distance of about one mile. The ship, which was entirely unarmed, was immediately manoeuvred to bring the submarine astern; every effort was made to increase speed, and an S.O.S. call was sent out by wireless, an answer being received from a man-of-war. At  9 a.m. the submarine opened fire, and maintained a steady fire, making occasional hits, until  10.30 a.m., meanwhile Lieutenant Parslow constantly altered course and kept the submarine astern.

At 10 30 am the enemy hoisted the signal to “abandon the vessel as fast as possible,” and in order to save life Lieutenant Parslow decided to obey, and stopped engines to give as many of the crew as wished an opportunity to get away in the boats On receiving a wireless message from a destroyer, however, urging him to hold on as long as possible, he decided to get way on the ship again The submarine then opened a heavy fire on the bridge and boats with guns and rifles, wrecking the upper bridge, killing Lieutenant Parslow, and carrying away one of the port davits, causing the boat to drop into the sea and throwing its occupants into the water.

At about  11am two destroyers arrived on the scene, and the submarine dived

Throughout the attack Lieutenant Parslow remained on the bridge, on which the enemy fire was concentrated, entirely without protection, and by his magnificent heroism succeeded, at the cost of his own life, in saving a valuable ship and cargo for the country He set a splendid example to the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine.

This website includes a painting of the Parslows under fire by Thomas M. M. Hemy, titled Unconquerable, and other pictures of the action, the Parslows and the Anglo-Californian.

 

 

[1] B. Edwards, War under the Red Ensign 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2010), pp. 61-62.

[2] The last 3 paragraphs are based on Ibid., pp. 65-67.

[3] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 18-19.

[4] The last two paragraphs are based on Edwards, War, pp. 68-69.

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Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith VC and HM Submarine E11

Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith was captain of the submarine HMS E11 at the outbreak of WWI. In October 1914 E11 was one of three British submarines that tried to enter the Baltic Sea. The other two succeeded, but E11 was delayed by technical problems. On 19 October she mistook a neutral Danish submarine for a German U-boat, but her torpedo attack fortunately missed. She was spotted by a seaplane whilst recharging her batteries on the surface the next day; destroyers searched for her all day. After trying but failing to get past the Germans patrols again the next day Nasmith headed back to base on 22 October.[1]

On 17 December E11 was at southern end of a patrol line of British submarines in Helgoland Bight. Just after 7:00 am a number of German destroyers appeared, searching at high speed. An hour later large ships, which must have been returning from the German raid on the English north east coast, came into sight. Nasmith approached to 400 yards of one of them and fired a torpedo, but it ran too deep. He tried to get a shot on the third in the German line, but its zigzag course left it 500 yards away and heading straight for E11, forcing Nasmith to dive rapidly. This disturbed the boat’s trim, and she broke the surface when returning to periscope depth. She was able to escape. but the Germans made off at high speed.[2] On Christmas Day 1914 E11 rescued four of the airman who took part in the Cuxhaven Raid.

By May 1915 E11 was in the Dardanelles. On 17 May E14 returned from a successful patrol in the Sea of Marmara that earned her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Boyle, the Victoria Cross and every member of her crew a medal. E11 was to head through the Straits to replace her the next day. The night before Boyle briefed Nasmith on the mines, nets and guns defending the straits.[3]

19 May: E11 set off at 1:10 am on 19 May, passing through the Allied destroyer line at 3:20 am and then diving. At 6:10 am she saw the Ottoman battle ships Targut Reis and Heredin Barbarossa, accompanied by several destroyers. The battleships withdrew and the destroyers fired on E11 whenever her periscope was raised. It was very easy to spot because of the speed that she was making and the light conditions. By 9:45 pm she was through the Straits. At 10:00 pm she surfaced in order to charge her batteries.[4]

20 May: She stayed on the surface, charging her batteries until 4:00 am, apart from 0:30 – 0:40 am, when a destroyer appeared, forcing her to dive. No merchant ships were seen during the day. Generally E11 stayed on the surface at night in order to charge her batteries. During the day she was on the surface if it was safe to do so.

21 May: At 11:30 am E11 stopped a small sailing vessel. Four chickens were taken; the scared but polite skipper declined payment. E11 used the vessel as a screen for the rest of the day: it was then very foggy.

22 May: Only warships were encountered and evaded. Attempts to radio the destroyer HMS Jed failed.

23 May: Course was altered towards Istanbul at 3:00 am. A transport was encountered at 4:50 am, whilst E11 was inspecting a sailing vessel. E11 dived to attack, but the transport spotted her and made off. At 5:50 am the 775 ton Ottoman gunboat Peleng-I Derya was seen anchored off Istanbul.[5] E11 dived, approached her and fired a torpedo into her. The gunboat sank, but first got off rifle fire and shots from her 6 pounder gun; one of the latter put E11’s forward periscope out of action.

24 May: Radio contact was made with Jed. Thereafter E11 and Jed were in regular contact.

At 10:30 am a smaller steamer was spotted heading west. E11 surfaced and ordered her to stop. The steamer tried to flee, but stopped after coming under rifle fire from E11. Her crew panicked and started to abandon ship. The panic was calmed by Silas Q. Swing, the war correspondent of the New York Sun. He said that the steamer was a passenger ship that was heading for Chanak and was not, as far he knew, carrying stores, before just making the last boat.

The steamer was in fact carrying a 6 inch gun, other gun mountings and a large amount of ammunition. After taking some souvenirs E11’s crew set a demolition charge, sinking the ship, which was the 480 ton naval auxiliary Naga.[6]

More smoke had by then been spotted. It was another steamer, similar to the Naga. E11 dived to attack, but was spotted. The target headed for Rodasto, with E11 pursuing on the surface. Large quantities of stores could be seen on the steamer’s deck. She berthed at Rodasto’s pier. E11 dived and approached, but ran aground 2,000 yards away as the water quickly became shallower. She fired a torpedo, which sank the steamer; she was the 512 ton SS Hunkar Iskelesi.[7] E11 then withdrew under rifle fire, which seemed to be aimed at her remaining periscope. It was hit but not damaged.

Another vessel was then observed. It was a small paddle steamer, which initially tried to flee. It stopped after coming under rifle fire, but then tried to ram E11 after realising that the submarine did not have any guns other than rifles. The paddle steamer, which was carrying horses, finally ran ashore. E11 approached, but came under fire from 50-100 cavalrymen. She fired a torpedo, but it missed; only the stern could be targeted and the shallow water made it impossible to close the range.

At 10:30 pm E11 headed towards Istanbul.

25 May: On the same day as U21 sank the battleship HMS Triumph E11 arrived at the Golden Horn. At 12:30 pm she fired torpedoes at two transports moored at the Arsenal Wharf. One hit and damaged the 3,559 ton SS Istanbul, which beached herself in shallow water, while the other, aimed at SS Kismet, circled back, forcing E11 to take evasive action, before escaping back to the Sea of Marmara.[8] The action was observed by the USS Scorpion, guard ship to the US Embassy. Her log noted that four torpedo boats fired on E11.[9]

26 May: The spare torpedoes were made ready. The rest of the day was spent bathing, repairing and mending clothes and resting.

27 May: An Ottoman battleship and two destroyers were seen at 1:30 am, but one of the destroyers forced E11 to dive as she was about to fire. A small steamer was observed at 5:00 pm, but not attacked after she fired on E11.

28 May: Smoke was spotted at 6:00 am. Half an hour later a convoy of one large and four small transports, escorted by a destroyer became visible. At 7:30 am a torpedo was fired at the largest transport, hitting and sinking the 474 ton SS Bandirma. Nasmith, conscious of the risk to E11’s periscope from Ottoman fire, dived his boat. He brought her back to periscope depth once safely clear, observing the destroyer searching for the submarine and the other transports continuing on their course.

At noon a steamship was seen approaching. A torpedo was fired, but no explosion was heard, although the target was seen to stop briefly. The torpedo was later found floating and hoisted back on board after Lieutenant Robert Browne had removed the firing pistol. Damage to the torpedo’s head showed that it had struck the ship, the 216 ton SS Dogan, without exploding.[10]

A small sailing vessel was stopped at 4:30 pm. She was not carrying any cargo and was allowed to continue after being relieved of various delicacies.

29 May: An attack on a store vessel at 7:00 am failed, with E11 breaking surface. Only two or three destroyers were seen during the rest of the day.

30 May: Day spent mainly in clearing the foul air in E11, cleaning her as far as possible and washing and bathing by the crew.

31 May: At 8:00 am a large ship of the German Rickmers Line was seen embarking troops at Panderma. At 9:20 am a torpedo was fired that hit her. She listed heavily to port, but her crew managed to beach her. The ship, the 3,431 ton SS Madeline Rickmers, was wrecked.[11]

1 June: A quiet day.

2 June: A destroyer was spotted at 8:10 am but E11 evaded her by diving. At 9:00 am E11 surfaced and headed to intercept a ship whose smoke had been observed just before diving. At 9:20 am E11 dived. She fired a torpedo 20 minutes later and the target, which was the 390 ton store SS Tecielli, sank in 3 minutes.[12]

At 12:30 pm the smoke of a small ship escorted by two destroyers was spotted. E11 dived at 1:15 pm. She fired a torpedo at the merchant ship at 2:15pm , but it passed under the target, which was the 400 ton SS Basangic.[13] The torpedo was found and floated back in to E11 via the stern torpedo tube after the firing pistol had been removed.

3 June: Smoke was seen at 3:00 pm. E11 dived and approached the vessel, which resembled a steam yacht. She was not closing the range quickly enough, so surfaced. When the range was down to 2,000 yards the enemy vessel turned and headed straight towards E11, which dived. The enemy had disappeared when E11 surfaced. A destroyer forced her to dive at 4:00 pm and remain submerged until midnight.

4 June: The only ship observed was a destroyer in the afternoon and evening, which was thought to be the one that had been hunting for E11 the day before.

5 June: The day was spent ventilating the boat, charging the batteries and bathing. Problems were found in one of the main motors and the intermediate shaft was cracked, so Jed was asked to give E11 permission to return to base.

6 June: A quiet Sunday of bathing, prayers, exercise and battery charging. A destroyer an some sailing vessels were seen in the afternoon. At 9:30 pm E11 headed slowly on the surface towards the north entrance to the Dardanelles.

7 June: E11 dived at 3:40 am and entered the Straits. At 6:30 am she passed Gallipoli at 90 feet. She examined all the anchorages, but found no battleships. A few small vessels and sailing ships were seen. The nest target was a troopship anchored off Moussa Bank. At noon a torpedo was fired at her. It struck, and the ship, which was the 3,590 ton SS Ceyhan, sank.[14]

E11 passed Nagara Point at 1:30 pm and Chanak 30 minutes later. A large mine became attached to the port foremost hydroplane at Chanak. At 4:00 pm E11 cleared the mine by surfacing stern first and heading astern at full speed. She was then met by the destroyer HMS Grampus, which escorted her to Port Mudros.

On 25 June the London Gazette printed the citation for the award of the Victoria Cross to Nasmith. Lieutenant Guy D’Oyly Hughes, his second in command, and Browne both received the Distinguished Service Cross and every petty officer and rating was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Nasmith’s citation, reproduced on Naval-History.net, said that:

 29206 – 25 JUNE 1915

Admiralty, 24th June, 1915.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant-Commander Martin Eric Nasmith, Royal Navy, for the conspicuous bravery specified below:

For most conspicuous bravery in command of one of His Majesty’s Submarines while operating in the Sea of Marmora. In the face of great danger he succeeded in destroying one large Turkish gunboat, two transports, one ammunition ship and three storeships, in addition to driving one storeship ashore. When he had safely passed the most difficult part of his homeward journey he returned again to torpedo a Turkish transport.

The number of ships that E11 was credited with sinking ties in with the ships named by Nicholas Lambert in his footnotes to the Navy Records Society’s reprint of the report of E11’s patrol on which the above is based. Their total tonnage was 13,211 tons.

This was only the first of three patrols that Nasmith and the crew of E11 made in the Dardanelles. The other two will be the subject of later posts.

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, pp. 237-38.

[2] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 45-46.

[3] Ibid. vol. iii, 32.

[4] This account of E11’s patrol is based on [142] ‘The First Sea of Marmora Patrol’ by HM Submarine E11, 19 May to 7 Hune 1915 by Lieutenant-Cammander Martin Nasmith, Lieutenant Guy d’Oyly Hughes and Lieutenant Robert Browne, document no. 142 in N. A. Lambert, ed. The Submarine Service, 1900-1918 (Aldershot: Ashgate for the Navy Records Society, 2001), pp. 301-13. Additional comments made by the editor are footnoted.

[5] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 303.

[6] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 305.

[7] Ibid. Footnote 2, p. 305.

[8] Ibid. Footnotes 1-3, p. 306.

[9] Ibid., p. 307.

[10] Ibid., pp. footnote 1, p. 309.

[11] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 310.

[12] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 311.

[13] Ibid. Footnote 2, p. 311.

[14] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 313.

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Trawler and Submarine Trap Sinks U-boats.

It was hard to detect or attack submerged submarines in June 1915. The only way of finding them was visual, mainly by spotting a raised periscope and/or the wake that it produced. It was also possible to see a submerged submarine that was close to the surface in the clear waters of the Mediterranean or the Dardanelles, but not in the Atlantic or North Sea.

Hydrophones, which detected submarines by sound, were introduced later in the war. Some were based onshore. Those on ships had the problem that the ship had to stop in order to prevent the sound of her engines interfering with that from the submarine: not ideal when a submarine was around.

There was also a lack of anti-submarine weapons. One not very efficient one was for ships to towing explosive sweeps. Ships fired on periscopes with their guns or tried to ram the submarine. Most submarines sunk early in the war, struck mines, suffered accident or were caught on the surface. The limited number of torpedoes carried meant that submarines preferred to surface and use guns to sink smaller ships.

One method of attacking submarines was to trick them into surfacing in order to attack with gunfire an apparently innocuous merchant ship. It would then open fire with its concealed weapons. These ships were called Q Ships and will be the subject of several later posts in this series.

A variation on this tactic was suggested by Acting Paymaster F. T. Spickernell, Secretary to Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty. It was that a trawler should tow a submerged submarine in areas were German U-boats were expected to be operating. The trawler and the British submarine would be in contact with each other via a telephone cable. A U-boat would surface to attack a trawler by gunfire rather than wasting a torpedo on a small craft. The trawler would then inform the British submarine by telephone. It would slip the tow and manoeuvre to torpedo the U-boat whilst herself remaining submerged.[1]

After a period of trials in the Forth in May, C class submarines from the Forth Local Defence were transferred to Aberdeen and Peterhead to work with the trawler Taranaki. The first patrol took began on 24 May, but no U-boats were encountered until 8 June, when Taranaki, towing C27, spotted U19 a mile and a half away, 30 miles east by north off Peterhead. She informed C27, which confirmed the situation by periscope before slipping her tow. She approached the German boat, raising her periscope again when she should have been in firing range only to see that U19 was heading towards her at 15 knots. C27 had to dive, and U19 was out of sight when she returned to periscope depth..[2]

Nothing had happened to make the Germans suspicious, but Taranaki’s appearance was changed as a precaution. She sailed from Aberdeen early on 23 June, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Harrington D. Edwards, accompanied by Lieutenant Frederick H. Taylor’s C24. At 9:30 am the next day they were at sea to the south east of Aberdeen when U40 surfaced 2,500 yards away and fired a shot across Taranaki’s bows. A problem with the telephone meant that it was three more minutes before C24 was informed. She was unable to release the cable, so Taranaki had to release it from her end. C24 was not free until 9:45 am, during when Edwards had to keep his trawler under way. [3]

A trawler not stopping when approached by a U-boat might have made the Germans suspicious, but U40‘s captain, Kapitänleutnant Gerhardt Fürbringer, saw nothing to fear, although one of his junior officers was suspicious. [4] U40 was on her first war patrol. The British hoped that a U-boat would assume that the tow line was drawing the trawler’s net.[5]

U40 stopped 1,000 yards from Taranaki, whose crew pretended to panic and abandon ship. C24 was finding it difficult to maintain her trim because she was still attached to 100 fathoms of towing rope and telephone cable. Once this problem had been overcome, she raised her periscope, found U40 1,000 yards away, closed to 500 yards, positioned herself for a beam shot and fired a torpedo at U40 at 9:55 am. It struck the U-boat, which sank immediately. Fürbringer, another officer and a petty officer were picked up by the British. The other 29 crewmen went down with U40.[6]

The success of this method, which was kept secret, meant that the scheme was considerably expanded: C26 and C27 were to work with trawlers from Scapa Flow; C14 and C16 from the Tyne; C21 and C29 from the Humber and C3 and C34 from Harwich.[7]

On 18 July Lieutenant-Commander Claude C. Dobson’s C27 and the trawler Princess Marie José, temporarily renamed Princess Louise, set out on patrol from Scapa. The trawler was captained by Lieutenant L. Morton, but Lieutenant C. Cantlie and Lieutenant A. M. Tarver were also on board in order to train the crew. Cantile, who was the only regular officer of the three, the others being peacetime merchant marine officers who were members of  the Royal Navy Reserve, took command during the subsequent operation.[8]

At 7:55 am on 20 July Cantlie telephoned Dobson to tell him that a U-boat had been spotted 2,000 yards away. The phone then broke down; Dobson waited five minutes before slipping the cable; contact had not been restored, and he could hear gunfire.

The U-boat, which was U23, had fired one warning shot before firing at the trawler. She stopped, raised the Red Ensign and dipped it as a sign of surrender, whilst her crew prepared to abandon ship in an apparent panic. This was in accordance with the plan, which was to trick the Germans and hopefully persuade them to come closer. It worked so well that U40 stopped near the trawler.[9]

The trawler’s crew did not know where C27 was, but she was only 500 yards away on U40’s starboard beam when Dobson raised her periscope. He fired a torpedo, but U40 then started her engines, and it passed under her stern. He fired another that hit and sank U40. The British rescued 10 survivors, including her captain, Oberleutnant Hans Schulthess, and two other officers. The British Naval Staff Monograph, written after the war for internal Royal Navy use only, stated that the prisoners ‘gave a good deal of information, not only of a technical character…but also on the general work of German submarines’, which it suggests may have been a result of their good treatment.[10]

The reason why the captains and a high proportion of officers of both U-boats sunk in this manner survived was that they would have been on the bridge whilst their boats were on the surface.

In both instances the more senior of the commanders of the two British vessels involved, Edwards and Dobson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the other one, Taylor and Cantlie, the Distinguished Service Cross. The coxswains of Taranaki and C24 were also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal after the earlier action. Dobson was later awarded the Victoria Cross.[11]

U23 was the last U-boat to be caught in this way. Her survivors managed to inform some German civilian internees who were being repatriated from the United Kingdom to Germany about her fate. Consequently no more U-boats fell into the trawler/submarine trap.[12]

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1925 vol. xiii, Home Waters part iv, February 1915 to July 1915. p. 249.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 250.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 46.

[6] Naval Staff vol. Xiii. p. 250.

[7] Ibid., pp. 250-51.

[8] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. p. 34.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Ibid.

[11] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 48, note 1; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 55-56.

[12] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 22-23.

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The First VC Awarded to a Submariner

The first submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, captain of HMS B11. He received Britain’s highest award for gallantry after his boat sank the elderly Ottoman pre-dreadnought battleship Messudieh (alternatively Mesudiye) on 13 December 1914.

The British Admiralty, keen to move as many ships as possible to the Grand Fleet, had proposed that the blockade of the Dardanelles be left to the French. However, the threat from the German battlecruiser Goeben, now flying the Ottoman flag, meant that the French insisted that the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable should remain.

Consequently, the blockading force consisted of Indefatigable, the light cruiser HMS Dublin and the French pre-dreadnought battleships Gaulois, Vérité, St Louis and Charlemagne, the armoured cruiser Amiral Charner and seaplane carrier Foudre. Each navy also contributed six destroyers and three submarines.[1]

The British submarines were B9, B10 and B11 of the B class. Although only eight years old, the rapid pace of development of submarines meant that they were obsolescent by 1914. They were designed for coastal patrol work with a range of 1000 nautical miles at 8.75 knots surfaced, a maximum speed of 12 knots surfaced and 6 knots submerged, an armament of two 18 inch torpedo tubes and a crew of 15. The petrol engine used on the surface made conditions for the crew even worse than in later diesel powered boats.

They had hydroplanes on each side of their conning towers to improve underwater handling, an innovation that was not repeated until US nuclear submarines were similarly fitted for the same reason 50 years later.[2]

The Ottoman navy was active against the Russian one in the Black Sea, but sat on the defensive at the Dardanelles. The Messudieh was positioned as a stationary guard ship.

The Allies conducted an active submarine campaign in the Dardanelles from December 1914, two months before the Gallipoli campaign began with a naval attack and four months before the first troops were landed. There was, however, a bombardment of the forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles by British and French warships on 3 November 1914, five days after the Ottoman fleet attacked Russian bases in the Black Sea, but two days before Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Entering the Dardanelles was difficult for submarines even without the Ottoman minefields because of the current and differences in the layers of the water that made it hard to manoeuvre underwater. The British submarines were more manoeuvrable, and thus more successful, than the French ones.[3]

On 13 December 1914 B11 was chosen to be first Allied submarine to enter the Straits. They were protected by five lines of mines, but her diving planes were fitted with special guards to prevent her becoming tangled up in the mines’ wires.

Holbrook dived his boat underneath the mines, succeeding in passing them despite the strong current. He then came up to periscope depth, spotted a large enemy warship, closed to 800 yards range, fired a torpedo and dived. After hearing an explosion, he brought his boat back to periscope depth and saw that the enemy ship was settling by the stern.

The return journey was made more difficult by the fact that the lenses of B11’s compass had steamed up, making it unusable. Holbrook was not even certain where he was and had to estimate the time that it would take to clear the minefields on the way home. B11 bumped along the bottom several times. Eventually, he felt it safe to return to periscope depth. He could then see the horizon and steer for it. However, the compass was still unusable. B11 returned to base after being submerged for 9 hours to learn that she had sunk the Messudieh.

Holbrook’s VC was gazetted on 22 December, making it the first ever awarded to a submariner and the first of the war to a sailor to be announced. Commander Henry Ritchie’s VC was given for an act of gallantry on 28 November, but gazetted later than Holbrook’s. Every member of B11’s crew was decorated: Lieutenant Sydney Winn, the second on command, received the Distinguished Service Order and the other members of the crew either the Distinguished Service Cross or the Distinguished Service Medal. The DSC was awarded to officers and warrant officers, the DSM to petty officers and ratings.[4]

The citation for Holbrook’s VC, taken from this website, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery on the 13th December 1914, when in command of the Submarine B-11, he entered the Dardanelles, and, notwithstanding the very difficult current, dived his vessel under five rows of mines and torpedoed the Turkish battleship “Messudiyeh” which was guarding the minefield.

Lieutenant Holbrook succeeded in bringing the B-11 safely back, although assailed by gun-fire and torpedo boats, having been submerged on one occasion for nine hours.

Note that English spelling of Turkish names differ.

The Ottomans blamed the loss of the Mesudiye on the Germans, who they said had insisted on putting her in an exposed position despite their opinions. She sank in shallow waters, making it possible to cut holes in her in order to extract trapped men. 37 men were killed out of a crew of 673. Many of her guns were salvaged and used in shore defences of the Dardanelles.[5]

In August 1915 the town of Germanton changed its name to Holbrook. Norman Holbrook visited Holbrook several times and his widow donated his medals to it a few years after his death. His VC is now on display at the Australian War Memorial, with a replica on show in Holbrook near a model of B11.

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 70-72.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 87. This source has been favoured where its information differs from the Wikipedia entry linked in the text.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 119.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 72-73.

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 73, note 1.

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U-21 Sinks HMS Pathfinder 5 September 1914

On 5 September 1914 U-21, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing, torpedoed and sank the scout cruiser HMS Pathfinder, leader of the Eighth Destroyer Flotilla, off St Abbs Head on the south east coast of Scotland. This was the first time that a submarine had sunk a ship using a motor powered torpedo.

The Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sank the sloop USS Housatonic during the American Civil War by attaching a spar torpedo to her hull. The word torpedo was then used to describe weapons that would now be called mines. A spar torpedo is more akin to a limpet mine than to a twentieth or twentieth century torpedo.

The sea was very rough, meaning that U-21 was plunging up and down, but Hersing succeeded in hitting his target with a single torpedo. It struck Pathfinder under her forward funnel. Her forward magazine blew up and she sank within four minutes, too quickly for her to launch her boats.

Most of her crew went down with Pathfinder, but sources differ on the exact number of men killed and saved. A BBC report on the laying of a wreath on the wreck on the 100th anniversary of the sinking by divers says that 18 survived and 250 died. Wikipedia names 18 survivors, but adds two civilian canteen assistants to the total on board, giving 252 dead. R. H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast write in The German Submarine War that 259 were lost.[1] The website Naval History gives 278 on board, of whom 16 survived. Elsewhere it lists the casualties.

The survivors included Pathfinder’s captain, Francis Martin-Leake, who was wounded. He was adamant that his ship had been struck by a torpedo, although it had at first been thought that she had been struck by a mine. His report can be found on the website The Dreadnought Project.

The 7 September 1914 edition of The Scotsman newspaper reported an official press release that stated that Pathfinder had struck a mine.[2] The next day it printed an eye witness account that talked of ‘the diabolical policy pursued by Germany in strewing the sea with floating mines in tracts where peaceful fishermen are as likely as the crews of warships to be the victims.’[3]

By 15 September, however, The Scotsman was reporting that Pathfinder had been sunk by a torpedo fired by a U-boat that it claimed wrongly to have been sunk by the ‘brilliant British gunnery’ of a number of cruisers.[4]

‘Another eye witness to the sinking was the writer Aldous Huxley, who was staying at St Abbs at the time. He wrote to his father saying that:

I dare say Julian told you that we actually saw the Pathfinder explosion – a great white cloud with its foot in sea.

The St. Abbs’ lifeboat came in with the most appalling accounts of the scene. There was not a piece of wood, they said, big enough to float a man—and over acres the sea was covered with fragments—human and otherwise. They brought back a sailor’s cap with half a man’s head inside it. The explosion must have been frightful. It is thought to be a German submarine that did it, or, possibly, a torpedo fired from one of the refitted German trawlers, which cruise all round painted with British port letters and flying the British flag.’[5]

The sinking of Pathfinder by a U-boat made a big impression on Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who decided to keep his Grand Fleet as far north as the Admiralty would allow. However, other British admirals ignored the threat from submarines to surface ships, leading to disaster later in the month.

Martin-Leake’s brother Arthur became the first man to be awarded a bar to the VC for his courage as an army doctor at Zonnebeke between 29 October and 8 November 1914. He had previously been awarded the VC in the Boer War.

[1] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 6.

[2]<<http://search.proquest.com.connect.nls.uk/hnpscotsman/docview/488299365/7D816E4C02324A85PQ/10?accountid=12801>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014. Note that this and the next two references are to a password restricted subscription website. I have access to it via the National Library of Scotland.

[3] <<http://search.proquest.com.connect.nls.uk/hnpscotsman/docview/488297648/7D816E4C02324A85PQ/9?accountid=12801>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014.

[4] <<http://search.proquest.com.connect.nls.uk/hnpscotsman/docview/486241221/7D816E4C02324A85PQ/6?accountid=12801>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014.

[5] <<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Pathfinder_(1904)>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014.

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