Portsmouth’s sleeping shipwrecks of the First World War

PUBLISHED: 12:40 21 November 2017

Photographing one of the wrecks (Maritime Archaeology Trust)

Photographing one of the wrecks (Maritime Archaeology Trust)


Across the centuries, Portsmouth’s waters have harboured an extraordinary maritime heritage. And now the sleeping shipwrecks of the First World War are getting their due respect, as Viv Micklefield finds out

Few would disagree that the major maritime relics found submerged in Portsmouth’s waters – Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose being the most famous example – deserve to be cherished. However, recently, archaeologists have been getting just as excited about the rediscovery of the many shipwrecks surviving from the Great War.

Coordinated by the Maritime Archaeology Trust, Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War is a four-year Heritage Lottery Funded project running the length of the south coast, including Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, which highlights the bravery and sacrifice behind these underwater and coastal memorials. For the Southampton based Trust, the centenary provides an opportunity to show another side to the conflict, and allows them to set the record straight on what’s actually down there.

“Often the focus is on terrestrial battles and the Western Front,” says project manager Amanda Bowens. “We’re looking to change that and to let people know that there are over 1000 shipwrecks off the south coast dating back to WW1. Amanda adds: “Many of these, are not ‘celebrity’ wrecks. They tell the story of ordinary life and of daily struggles.

“Using the data we now have, we can see patterns emerge of how many vessels hit a mine laid by German submarines, or were torpedoed with or without warning, or perhaps were scuttled. During the early years of the war, there’s evidence to suggest that U-boats would surface and allow the crew to get off the vessels into their own rowing boats, before they sank the vessel either by gunfire or by planting a bomb on board.”

Understanding the tactics of warfare amid the seemingly never-ending passage of supplies and people, has been just one of the project’s findings. Until recently, the Admiralty’s 1919 publication British Vessels lost at Sea, 1914-1918, had been used to indicate the number of losses sustained – 4,223 is the combined total given for warships, fishing, auxiliary and merchant vessels. Yet researchers have learnt, that is doesn’t account for those vessels believed lost to the normal hazards of the sea and later found to be lost to enemy action or captured. And the misidentification of wrecks is not unknown.

“Trying to decipher which wreck is which from what’s left on the seabed, can be quite a puzzle,” admits Amanda, who’s indebted to the hundreds of local volunteers who’ve filled-in the gaps. “Our army of volunteers has also been doing historical research. And then, we’ve got sites that we physically visit. So these will involve either diving or will be foreshore and intertidal areas.”

One headline-making discovery came in March 2016 when two wrecks partially visible at low tide off Whale Island, were formally identified as WW1 German warships. It’s a site which, Amanda says, along with 20 or so others had been short-listed for investigation.

“We’ve tried to focus on a few examples of losses both during and post-war, so it might be a wooden hulk, or a steel destroyer as in the case of these two. They’d been forgotten over time and certainly the Navy wasn’t aware of what was in their back yard.

“Research at the National Archives was undertaken to try and find out what happened after their attempted scuttling at Scapa Flow; we found out they were brought down to Portsmouth for gunnery practice and there are records of the damage inflicted. So, by comparing these with what’s in the mud, we can confirm these were the actual vessels that were being tested on.

“What makes them significant is that even though they relate to something which happened 100 years ago, which in archaeological terms isn’t very long at all, most of the vessels which survived the war were scrapped soon afterwards. So there are very few surviving examples of the types of boats in use at that time.”

And for those who’ve dived some of the 40 wrecks explored during the past three and a half years, there’s a lasting memory.

“It’s a real honour to dive the WW1 wrecks and is often a very poignant experience,” says veteran diver and dive supervisor Jan Gillespie, who comes from Fareham. “The visibility underwater is one of the biggest challenges and, sometimes, it’s very dark. Because we’ve had a team doing the research, we do know a little bit about each wreck but won’t always know the condition before seeing it.

“The boilers are always the biggest part of any wreck and unlike other parts of the vessel, don’t usually break-up. In the dark we use these to orientate ourselves. Different types of ships have different size boilers, so this helps with identification.”

Jan explains that as many of the WW1 vessels lie submerged at a depth of around 40 metres, the divers have to wait for ‘flat water’ when the tide turns. Added to which: “You can’t stay down there for too long because of the bends.

“When we’re down there we take measurements and do plans. If visibility is good, we’re able to take lots of photographs.”

By combining data gathered from dives, the historical research and existing geophysical surveys of what’s on the seabed, a much better picture is built-up. And, using state-of-the-art technology some of these forgotten wrecks of the First World War are being brought to life with the creation of 3-D models and the chance to take a virtual ‘swim’ around them.

So what does the future hold for these relics beneath the waves?

Amanda points out that as only a handful currently require a license to dive, most can be visited on a “look but don’t touch” basis. The UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Underwater Heritage automatically protects anything which has been submerged for over 100 years, a milestone that these vessels are reaching. So, if the UK Government can be persuaded to back this Convention, the wrecks will be safe from the threat of salvage, which has to be a good thing.

“These vessels are often war graves,” she says. “It’s important they are preserved, as well as they can be, out of respect for the people who were on board when they went down. They are, after all, historic monuments.”

Portsmouth’s Maritime Heritage

Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum, Arreton, Isle of Wight: The WW1 collection is now available digitally alongside new illustrations by Mike Greaves and virtual reality head-sets

Sunken Secrets Archaeology Discovery Centre, Fort Victoria Country Park, Freshwater, Isle of Wight: Bringing to life the island’s shipwrecks and submerged landscape with year-round exhibitions

Nautical Archaeology Society, Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth: Courses, children’s activities and talks

Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth: The display, along with many of the 19,000 artefacts recovered from the seabed, is a highlight of any visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Forgotten wrecks, forgotten stories: WWI wrecks closest to Portsmouth were, mostly, casualties of mines or collisions. They include:

• Ludlow and Lucknow: Both minesweepers were sunk by mines in May 1915, with 15 casualties

• Velox: An early steam-driven torpedo boat destroyer, part of Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla. With a monkey kept as the ship’s pet, in October 1915 it was mined and four crew lost

• Hazard: A former torpedo gunboat, converted into the world’s first submarine depot ship was rammed, in thick fog, by SS Western Australia in January 1918. Most of the 120 aboard survived, Hazard though sank rapidly and lies upside down at 30m

• Boxer: A rare smaller torpedo boat destroyer, collided with an ambulance transport ship in February 1918 with one loss. Three boilers stand upright above the seabed, with other remains scattered beneath 16m of water

• UB-21: One of three types of U-boat active off the south coast during WW1, this coastal torpedo attack boat surrendered and permanently sank en route to being scrapped in September 1920

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