Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: The First World War Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: The First World War

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
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During the First World War many ships in the waters around the Isle of Wight were sunk by torpedoes, mines and collisions. More than 50 large ships went down within 30 miles of the Island.

During the early part of the war there was little danger. The German Fleet was bottled in by the Royal Navy, and submarines were not yet the threat that they were to become two years later. The main threat to vessels stranded on the Island's shores came indirectly from the Royal Navy. The coastguards had been conscripted, and many lifeboatmen joined up voluntarily, leaving the Island's rescue services severely depleted. Indeed, when the Newcastle schooner Theodora came ashore on Bembridge Ledge in March 1915, the lifeboat crew was so reduced it was unable even to launch the lifeboat. Fortunately Theodora was not in great danger, and was later towed back to sea.

Although smaller vessels had been lost1, the first serious wreck of World War I was that of the paddle-steamer Empress Queen, an Isle of Man ferry that had been converted to a troop ship. On 3 February, 1916, she went aground on the Ring Rocks at Bembridge with 110 men on board. The Bembridge lifeboat was launched to rescue the men, but on her third trip to Empress Queen the lifeboat was driven onto the rocks of the Ledge. The crew battled on nevertheless, and saved all 110 men as well as a cat and a dog. At low tide the masts of Empress Queen can still be seen.

RMS Mendi

The greatest disaster to occur in Isle of Wight waters was the loss in 1917 of RMS Mendi, a steamer carrying more than 800 South African labourers to the Western Front in France, with a destroyer as escort.

RMS Mendi sailed from Cape Town for France on 16 January, 1917, carrying 823 troops of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labor Corps. Mendi stopped at Plymouth before leaving for her final destination, Le Havre.

The men on board were from rural areas of the Pondo kingdom. Rather than fighting they were expected to dig trenches, carry stretchers, repair roads and carry out other hard labour.

It was dark and foggy at 5am on 21 February, 1917. Twelve miles south of St Catherine's RMS Mendi collided with the liner Darro, which punctured her starboard side. RMS Mendi keeled over and sank in less than 20 minutes. The fog and darkness prevented an effective rescue, and in total 650 men drowned or died of exposure and hypothermia due to the icy waters of the English Channel.

The sinking of RMS Mendi was one of South Africa's worst disasters of World War I. Many of the men on board had not even seen the sea before boarding her.

One legend associated with the sinking of RMS Mendi is that the South Africans on board performed a Death Dance as the ship was sinking. A 'Reverend' on board, The Reverend Isaac William Wauchope, is reported to have invited the troops to put aside their ethnic differences and join him in 'dancing our last dance' before the ship sank beneath the waves, taking all on board down with her. Although few witnesses survived the sinking to confirm whether or not this happened, it was widely reported in South African newspapers.

The inquiry found Captain HW Stump of Darro responsible for the wreck. Darro had been travelling at a high speed in thick fog, and failed to sound fog signals. Captain Stump also failed to render assistance to the survivors of RMS Mendi.

The loss of RMS Mendi has been featured on BBC South Today. In the Gamothaga Resort, Atteridgeville, stands a memorial to those who died, reading simply:

For those who know no grave but the sea.

Submarine Warfare

In January 1917 German submarines began a policy of 'unrestricted submarine warfare', which meant that they would sink ships of all nations without warning if they were found within British waters.

British shipping losses soon soared, with eight ships sunk off the Isle of Wight in May 1917 alone. The worst tragedy was the loss of SS Camberwell, sunk six miles off Dunnose Point on 18 May, with the loss of seven lives.

In October SS Redesmere, a 2,100-ton vessel, was torpedoed three miles off St Catherine's. Nineteen men died. In December five ships were sunk, with the loss of 15 men. In January six ships were sunk, including the 9,000-ton Armed Merchant Escort Ship Mechanician. On 20 January she was torpedoed near the Shingles, where she was quickly buried in the shoal.

Also lost was the Armed Merchantman Serrana, a 3,700-ton ship which foundered near the Needles.

In January 1918 HMS Hazard was lost. On 28 January she was steaming up The Solent when she was rammed by Western Australia. HMS Hazard was virtually sliced in half, and sank very quickly. She carried a complement of 120 men, of whom all but three were saved, although a fourth later died from his injuries.

In February five ships were lost, including the 2,000-ton Eleanor in which 34 men died nine miles off St Catherine's. A further 20 men perished in the 5,000-ton Huntsmoor. Also in February, the Cowes-built Torpedo Boat Destroyer HMS Boxer was sunk off Bembridge after a collision.

In April 1918 the 5,500-ton steamer Highland Brigade was torpedoed off St Catherine's Point. She managed to travel towards Shanklin before foundering. On 12 April the 4,284-ton steamer SS Luis, carrying shells, was torpedoed three miles off St Catherine's, with four of the crew killed in the explosion. On 30 April the 2,900-ton SS Isleworth was sunk three miles south-west of Ventnor, with 29 killed. After that, only two more ships were destroyed in the area surrounding The Solent.

As things turned out, Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare did Germany more harm than good, since after the sinking of Lusitania America was brought into the war. In the long run, the Royal Navy proved that Britannia ruled the waves, as her blockade of Germany starved the German people into submission.

SS War Knight

SS War Knight was without doubt the most famous Island wreck of World War I. On 24 March, 1918, she collided with the American tanker OB Jennings, resulting in a large explosion killing everyone on board both ships.

Two destroyers towed them to the Island, with OB Jennings burning for 10 days in Sandown Bay before being torpedoed. She was refloated and repaired, only to be torpedoed again by a U-boat in the Atlantic shortly afterwards.

War Knight struck a mine outside Watcombe Bay, and was then sunk by gunfire. The fire finally stopped, but her cargo of bacon, oil, rubber, lard and flour was spilt into the sea. Since rationing was in force the people of Freshwater considered this a gigantic stroke of luck, and soon carried crates of the remains away. Thirty-eight people were later arrested; the train which took them to Newport was nicknamed the 'Bacon And Lard Special'.

1One such was the Torpedo Boat Destroyer HMS Velox, which had been sunk by a mine near the Nab Lightship in October 1915.

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