Category Archives: maritime history

‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ to hit our screens soon

The Laconia

The Laconia

I’ve just been watching BBC1, and seen a trailer for their upcoming Dramas. Among them is the two-part story of The Sinking of the Laconia. It stars Brian Cox as Captain Rudolph Sharp.

The Laconia was a Cunard Liner, pressed into service as a troop ship in the Seond World War. She was torpedoed in 1942, in what became one of the most moving stories of the war.

I have a keen interest in this programme, as my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard when she went down. He survived and was rescued by the Vichy French. He was interned in Morrocco, and contracted Dysentry. He was liberated, only to die after returning to England in 1943.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Here’s the blurb from the BBC website:

Andrew Buchan and rising German star Ken Duken are joined by Brian Cox and Lindsay Duncan in The Sinking Of The Laconia, a powerful new two-part drama for BBC Two from acclaimed writer Alan Bleasdale. The drama tells the true story of the amazing heroism shown by ordinary people in the face of extraordinary adversity during the Second World War. Brian Cox plays Captain Sharp, whose armed British vessel, the RMS Laconia, was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat 156 on 12 September 1942. Also on board was 3rd officer Thomas Mortimer (Buchan), who heroically risked his life to help the passengers reach the lifeboats.
Six hundred miles from the coast of Africa, the mixture of English civilians, Allied soldiers and Italian Prisoners of War faced certain death until U-Boat Commander Werner Hartenstein (Duken) made a decision that went against the orders of Nazi High Command. The U-boat surfaced and Hartenstein instructed his men to save as many of the shipwrecked survivors as they could. Over the next few days the U-156 saved 400 people, with 200 people crammed on board the surface-level submarine and another 200 in lifeboats. Hartenstein gave orders for messages to be sent out to the Allies to organise a rescue of the survivors but, in an unbelievable twist, they were spotted by an American B-24 bomber who moved in to attack. The Sinking Of The Laconia takes a look at the human side of the remarkable events that took place: the friendships that developed, the small acts of heroism,and the triumph of the human spirit in the most incredible of situations. The cast also includes some of Germany’s biggest names, including Matthias Koeberlin, Frederick Lau and Thomas Kretschmann.

No idea of when it will be on yet, but you can be sure as soon as I know you will read it here!

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Trawlers, Drifters and Tugs: the small ships of WW2

Aside from Battleships, Aircraft Carriers and the like, a huge range of smaller ships also served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. Perhaps not as glamorous as the big guns ships, never the less the Trawlers, Drifters, Tugs and other small ships gave sterling service in many theatres. Some were Navy ships, but most were requisitioned merchant vessels that served under Naval orders during the war.

Small vessels maintained boom defences around vital ports. In the Solent an anti-submarine boom stretched from Southsea Beach, across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. On 30 May 1940 HM Boom Defence Vessel Cambrian, 338 tons and built in 1924, hit a mine and sank in the middle of the Solent and 23 men were killed. Onboard was Riggers Mate Robert Lavender, 41 and from Buckland. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. I recall fishing on the wreck of the Cambrian some years ago, and catching some nice Wrasse.

Meanwhile an armada of small ships were rescuing the British Army from Dunkirk. HM Tug St Fagan was sunk by aircraft on 1 June 1940. The St Fagan displaced 550 tons and was completed in 1919. Among the 17 crew members killed were Stoker Frederick Hatch, 22, Stoker Bernard McBride, 40 and from Hilsea, Leading Steward William Longley, 44, and Stoker William Clark, 22 and from Milton. They have no known grave and are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. On the same day her sister ship HM Tug St Abbs was also sunk by German aircraft. Able Seaman William Cornford, 41 and from Cosham, was among the 20 crew members killed. He is also remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

The Navy also used Trawlers to perform a number of tasks, including minesweeping and coastal patrols. A 344 ton ship launched in 1938, HM Trawler Recoil was lost on patrol presumed mined in the English Channel on 28 September 1940. 25 men were lost, One of them Ordinary Telegraphist Hubert Ewen, 22 and from Surrey. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Drifter Harvest Gleaner (96 tons, 1918) was sunk by aircraft off the East coast of England on 28 October 1940 with the loss of four of her crew. Among those lost was Petty Officer Stoker Seymour Stephenson, 46 and from Eastney. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

Smaller ships also served in the Mediterranean and off North Africa. HM Trawler Ouse struck a mine off Tobruk, Libya on 20 February 1941, with the loss of 13 men. She weighed in at 462 tons, and was completed in 1917. Onboard when she sank was Petty Officer Stoker William Horsley, 40 and from Copnor. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. HM Tug St Issey was sunk off Benghazi, Libya on 28 December 1942. 810 tons and completed in 1918, she was presumed to have been sunk by a U-Boat. Among the 36 men lost was Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Keith Hollis, from Southsea. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Trawler Red Gauntlet (338 tons, 1930) met an unfortunate end in the North Sea on 5 August 1943. She was sunk by an E-Boat, the German equivalent of a Motor Torpedo Boat. 21 men were lost. Her Second Lieutenant was 32 year old James Childs, an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve. He was a former pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School, and from Southsea. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

During the D-Day campaign small ships played a vital part. Ships that were employed on minesweeping duties were particularly vulnerable. HM Trawler Lord Austin (473 tons, 1937) was sunk by a mine in the Seine Bay off Normandy on 24 June 1944, with the loss of 7 of her crew. Her Assistant Steward was 35 year old John Cotterell. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

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Portsmouth and Southampton: Chalk and Cheese

Having just watched Pompey demolish the scummers 4-1 today, I could not let the day pass without talking about the massive difference between Portsmouth and Southampton. I would argue that you will not find two cities so close yet so different in every way possible. As someone who has studied the difference between the two cities in detail, I find it difficult to understand why people cannot see why we simply don’t like each other!

Portsmouth is the home of the Royal Navy, and has been for hundreds of years. Until the past 20 years, everyone and everything in Portsmouth has been about the Navy – menfolk either joined the Navy or worked in the Dockyard. The whole ethos of Portsmouth was built around training young men to go out into the world and fight. All this shows in Portsmouth culture – after all, only Portsmouth could have a main street called ‘The Hard’. The city is overwhelmingly working class. It has often been described as a northern working class town plonked on the south coast, and I think that is very accurate both in the city’s culture and its appearance. In a city where most if not all of the industries are controlled by the state, there have been few opportunities for private commerce and as a result no chance for a large middle class to develop. That social structure exists to this day. Also, Portsmouth is an island: and that is reflected in the sometimes insular attitude that pervades.

Southampton is the home of the British cruise liner industry, and also a signficant container port. It has always been a merchant town, principally built around the opportunies to make money. Therefore there has always been a bigger middle class. Look at the amount of and size of the shops in Southampton compared to Portsmouth. Southampton also seems that much more rural, as it is very close to the New Forest and is surrounded by Countryside. Perhaps more gentile than Portsmouth, Southampton seems more laidback and relaxed. The story about Southampton dockers crossing picket lines in the 1930’s seems to be an urban myth, it does to fit in with the mentalities of both cities. The other myth about Portsmouth smelling like fish is, to be totally frank, totally rubbish. We’ve got a tiny fishing port at the Camber – hardly Billingsgate or Grimsby!

So clearly, the cities have very little in common, apart from the fact that they are on the sea. Tension between the cities is not a new thing, for hundreds of years there has been a rivalry. To pretend otherwise is to not only ignore history, but to try and rewrite it – something I’m not very keen on. I would suggest that whether right or wrong, people in Portsmouth don’t have much time for the city up the road. This isn’t just about city rivalry, its also about Portsmouth’ place in Hampshire. Right on the cusp, I doubt few Portsmouth people think of themselves as citizens of Hampshire. Interesting how in the 1987 general election campaign Docker Hughes’s manifesto included proposals to take Portsmouth out of Hampshire.

Mind you, he also wanted to introduce duty-free on the Gosport ferry!

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Revealed: the face of the man who sank the Mary Rose

Mary Rose

The face of the Bosun of the Mary Rose has been can be seen for the first time for over 560 years. The Bosun’s reconstructed head will go on display at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard from tomorrow.

The head has been modelled by the internationally renowned forensic artist Richard Neave and two of his colleagues, from a skull recovered from the wreck. Only a handful of the more than 500 crew and soldiers survived when the ship sank in July 1545 and Henry VIII was reported to have heard the screams of the drowning men as he helplessly stood and watched from Southsea Castle.

This man was found with the emblem of his comparatively senior status, his Bosun’s call – a whistle – suggesting he was the man who may have been at least partly responsible for the disaster. Expert analysis has suggested that he was in his 30’s or 40’s. His skeleton indicated that although he was doing a relatively sedate job, at some point in his life he had previously carried out heavy physical work. This suggests that he had worked his way up through the ranks. His teeth reveal that he came from south-west England.

John Lippiett (Chief Executive of the Mary Rose Trust) commented that “it is great to have the opportunity to see what the Bosun looked like after all these years and to welcome his arrival in our Museum”.

The Mary Rose sank on 18 July 1545, during a confrontation with the French Fleet in the Solent, before the eyes of Henry VIII himself. There are many theories about why the ship sank, but evidence from the wreck itself suggests the ship put about with its gunports open, was hit by a squall and sank like a stone. Ensuring that the gunports were closed would have been the Bosun’s job. The Mary Rose settled deep into the silty bed of the Solent, which preserved the many thousands of unique artefacts in excellent condition.

The prominent Historian David Starkey has referred to the Mary Rose as ‘England’s Pompeii’. Not only is the ship important, but the time-capsule like artefacts that have been recovered along with it. The silty bed of the Solent ensured that thousands of arefacts and the remains of many of the crew were preserved.

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Portsmouth Harbour tour #2

There were a couple of foreign warships in port this weekend, so I thought I would take the chance to go on the Pompey harbour tour and take some pics!

FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is a German Frigate of the Brandenburg Class, and its the first time a ship of that class has visited Portsmouth. They’re very impressive ships with a 76mm main gun, Vertical launch anti-air missiles and exocet anti-ship missiles, as well as Rheinmetall 20mm cannons. They’re currently underoing an upgrade and the Vertical launch missiles are being replaced with Sea Sparrow, and the Exocets with RBS 15 Mk.3. Interesting how she looks like a German warship – high, stacked and mean looking.

HNLMS Johann De Witt

HNLMS Johann De Witt

HLMS Johann De Witt is a Dutch Landing Ship. Launched in 2007, she is from a class of two ships. She can accomodate numerous landing craft, which use the stern dock to embark troops. She also has a large flight deck and hangar for up to 6 Lynx helicopters. She can carry 611 marines, 170 armoured personnel carriers or 33 Main Batle tanks – a impressive sealift capacity. The Dutch Navy and Marines can form a joint task force with the Royal Navy’s amphibious task group, so she could well operate with British ships. She’s very similar to the British Bay Class. Unlike the Bay Class however she has good self-defence – 2 Goalkeeper guns and 4 Oerlikon 20mm cannons – and the Bay Class lack a hangar.

HMS Manchester

HMS Manchester

HMS Manchester is a Batch 3 ship of the Type 42 Class of Destoyers. She’s looking her age now and her and the rest of the class are due to be replaced as the Type 45 Destroyers come into service. The Sea Dart missile system is pretty much obsolete now compared to the Sea Viper, even if it hasn’t yet been fully proven in trials. Notice also how shes longer than the earlier Type 42’s – they proved to be very poor in rough seas, so the later ships were lengthened. But this would have cracked the hull, so they had strengthening fitted along their sides.

HMS Iron Duke

HMS Iron Duke

HMS Iron Duke is a Type 23 Frigate. She has a 4.5inch main gun, Sea Wolf verital launch anti-air missile system and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. They were originally designed as anti-submarine ships for the North Atlantic, but nowadays are more likely to be seen fighting pirates and drug-smuggles. The Iron Duke performed well in the Carribean last year, but is a Cold War anti-submarine frigate the best ship for fighting drug smugglers? She has a proper warship name though, named after the Duke of Wellington. My Great-Grandad served on the First World War vintage Iron Duke, a battleship.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible

Finally we see HMS Invincible, the mothballed Falklands veteran aircraft carrier. She was withdrawn from service in 2005 – technically she is in ‘extended readiness’. Not sure what the Navy means by this, as if you look on Google Earth you can see her propellers on the flight deck – I don’t think shes going anywhere anytime soon. She’s probably been robbed of parts to keep her sister ships Illustrious and Ark Royal running. My dad worked on Invincible when she first came into the Dockyard, many moons ago. She’s due to be towed to the breakers yard later this year.

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Empire of the Seas: High Tide

This is the third and penultimate episode in this BBC series, presented by Dan Snow. And having watched it last night, and again this morning on catch-up, I think its the best of the bunch. I’m still fed up with seeing shot after shot of Dan Snow climbing rigging, rowing in boats or sailing yachts – after 3 episodes its getting a bit boring now, and precisely how much did it all cost?

This programme does an excellent job of showing how Nelson’s Navy evolved into the magnificent machine that it became by the time of Trafalgar. The wooden walls and jack tars didn’t suddenly turn up off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Their development was a long process. There does also seem to be an assumption that the loss of the American colonies was a grievous blow, but in truth the West Indies sugar islands and – increasingly – India were far more lucrative. Arguably, the loss of the 13 colonies freed up the Navy. And the combinaton of men, ships and gunnery almost always proved critical, wherever they were in the world.

Empire forced the Royal Navy into become a global force, with highly trained and ambitious men. The Navy was overwhelmingly a meritocracy, due to the constant pressure it commitments made on it. Men such as Nelson came to the fore. And the succesful protection of Imperial trade, combined with an exploring ethos, led to further imperial expansion.

Perhaps too often we think of the Navy as being a fighting force. But in peacetime brave officers spent years exploring, surveying and charting. These kinds of activities were very much in keeping with the Navy’s aggressive, global outlook.

That the Navy has such a central place in British culture and society is important to grasp. The need to fund the Navy led to the Income Tax. And technological innovations were driven by a need to make the fleet efective. Copper sheathing is a brilliant case in point. And tchnology in turn fuelled British industry.

Snow also makes the extremely relevant point that a Navy that isnt fighting, almost always becomes inefficient and loses its sharp edge. The Politicians and Admirals might like to bear this in mind when they give our ships off Somalia restrictive terms of engagement.

Catch Empire of the Seas: High Tide here on BBC iplayer

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Dan Snow’s Empire of the Seas: Heart of Oak

In this series Dan Snow charts the role that the Royal Navy played in shaping modern Britain. As someone with a keen interest in naval and maritime history, and a confessed non-admirer of Mr Snow, I have been keenly awaiting the first programme.

The Royal Navy’s dominance of later years grew out of its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and a need to protect the seas around the British Isles. It was but a small step from passive defence, to an aggressive form of defence, taking the fight to enemies such as the Dutch, the Spanish and the French.

Out of this dominance of the seas came an ability to trade. Trading networks grew around the globe branching back to Britain: from the Baltic, the Americas, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Far East. These were the beginnings of the British Empire. And Empire that was built wholly on the Oceans.

Many other aspects of the modern British state also grew out of the Royal Navy: administration, central organisation and a place in British national heritage. A huge supportive infrastructure also grew up out of the maintenance of the Royal Navy and commercial shipping. Patriotism, trade, Protestantism and national identity welded together to provide a crucible for the Royal Navy that would develop over the next few hundred years.

This programme also introduces some interesting aspects that are little-known to a modern audience, in particular the threat of the Barbary Corsairs, Pirates who operated out of the North African coast and preyed on fishing vessels at sea, and even the Southern Irish and South West British coastline. The Royal Navy patrolled the coastlines in defence. Lessons could be learnt here for the current scourge of Piracy off the Somalian Coast.

I do feel however that some earlier developments have been ignored. The Royal Navy was really founded initially by King Alfred, long before Snow’s series starts. And how could England launch succesive invasions of France during the Hundred Years War, other than with sea power? Henry VII and Henry VIII did much to develop maritime trade, and the Mary Rose in 1545 saw the Navy defending the realm against a foreign agressor 33 years before the Armada, yet somehow this is omitted.

This is a most interesting programme, and should hopefully inform a wider public about the long tradition of British naval power. What is most disappointing, however, is the discovery that the ‘historical consultant’ for the series is Brian Lavery – a well known Naval writer and academic. Seems that Dan ‘son of John’ is none other than a presenter. I could take him a lot more seriously if he actually did some work for the programme.

If you missed it, Episode 1 can be watched here on BBC iplayer

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