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

Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: The Second World War

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
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In September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany. A year later the English Channel - the sea and sky around the Isle of Wight - had become the front line.

The Dangers Of Wartime Sailing

As happened during the First World War, many men who had previously been lifeguards and so on joined the Royal Navy. The Island's lighthouses were extinguished so as to prevent enemy aircraft using them to help find targets such as Southampton and Portsmouth. Those ships which did sail in the dangerous conditions dared not use lights at night either, for fear of attracting an enemy attack. Lifeboats were not to be launched without first notifying the coastal batteries, which were trained to fire on any unidentified vessels. The waters of the Island were mined.

Any ship forced onto the beaches would have to negotiate anti-invasion defences such as ditches, barbed wire, scaffolding, 'dragon's teeth' cement blocks, cement walls, and minefields, as well as nervous men fearing invaders and manning pill box machine-gun posts.

There were also considerable dangers posed by enemy aircraft, torpedo-boats, and submarines.

HMS Britisher

One of the first wrecks of the war was the trawler HMS Britisher. On the night of 14 November 1939 she was driven onto Brighstone Ledge in a fierce gale. The Yarmouth lifeboat, SGE II, built in Cowes in 1938, struggled down to Brighstone; yet as she approached the wreck, one of her crew collapsed and desperately needed medical attention, forcing the lifeboat back to shore.

Attempts by men ashore to launch a rocket-line to Britisher failed because she was too far out; yet the crew eventually succeeded in getting a line to shore. The line was then, under the most treacherous conditions, carried up the cliff, where a bosun's chair was attached and two men hauled to safety before the return of the Yarmouth lifeboat. The 12 remaining crew on board were then carried by the lifeboat to safety. The rescue took 13 hours.

In January 1940 the Bembridge lifeboat, which had been with the Bembridge lifeboat station for only the few months since July 1939, went to the rescue of the minesweeper Kingston Cairngorm, which had been wrecked off Chichester Harbour. The 21 crew were rescued and taken to Portsmouth.

Convoy CW9 'Peewit'

In August 1940 British convoys still sailed along the English Channel and the waters of the Isle Of Wight, despite being within easy reach of German bases in the north of France. The worst disaster of the war within Island waters was the fate of Convoy CW9, codenamed 'Peewit'. Ships of this convoy assembled on 7 August, some in the Medway and others in the Thames estuary. 'Peewit' consisted of 20 merchant ships with an escort of nine naval vessels. It set off that night under cover of darkness, carrying coal, headed for Dorset.

As it entered the Straits of Dover at dawn on 8 August the convoy was noticed almost immediately by the new German Freya radar installation at Cap Blanc Nez near Calais. Torpedo boats attacked, sinking three merchant ships and seriously damaging three others.

Hermann Goering, Hitler's deputy and designated successor, ordered the complete destruction of the entire convoy. After a few failed attacks by single Dornier Do17s which followed the convoy's progress, the first large attacks of the war assembled. It was also the largest attack on a convoy of the Battle of Britain. That date, 8 August 1940, has been considered by many historians as the first day of the second phase of the Battle of Britain - where the Battle intensified enormously.

The First Stuka Attack

Between 9am and 10am a small number of Junkers Ju87 Stuka dive-bombers from Fliegerkorps VIII, escorted by Messerschmitt Me109s from JG27, approached the convoy from Cherbourg. This attack was prevented by the convoy's anti-aircraft balloons from inflicting too much damage, and was intercepted and broken up by five squadrons from 11 Group and one from 10 Group, who found the slow Stukas an easy target. Stukas were withdrawn from the Battle of Britain ten days later due to their high losses.

The Second Stuka Attack

By noon, when the convoy was approaching the south-east of the Island, a force of 57 Junkers JU87 dive-bombers and 20 Messerschmitt BF110 fighter-bombers, escorted by 30 Messerschmitt BF109 fighters, approached the convoy. The 107-strong German force was intercepted by four and a half squadrons, mainly 18 Hurricanes and some Spitfires, which had been alerted by Ventnor's Chain Home Radar Station. Four merchant ships were sunk in the attack, including the 1,597-ton Coquetdale and the 950-ton Ajax, while the Luftwaffe lost three Stukas, one Messerschmitt Me110, and three Me109s at a cost of five Hurricanes.

The Third Stuka Attack

Around 3.30pm an even larger force attacked, consisting of 82 Junkers 87 with 70 Messerschmitt 110s and Messerschmitt 109 escort. The 110s shot down the convoy's barrage balloons so that the Stukas were able to dive-bomb the convoy. The Messerschmitts meanwhile engaged the attacking Hurricanes and Spitfires.

By the time the attack ended, another merchant ship, the 1,042-ton Empire Crusader, had been sunk; six were so badly damaged that they could not continue; four of the Naval vessels were forced to go to port for repairs; and of the 29 ships that had left the night before, only four made it.

In the biggest air battle of the war so far, 14 Hurricanes, three Spitfires and a Blenheim were lost, and eight RAF pilots were killed. The Luftwaffe lost 19 planes, with 21 men killed and one captured.

Only one of the 19 planes lost by the Luftwaffe crash-landed on the Island, the first German plane to do so since the war began. It landed at The Shute, St Lawrence. It was a Junkers Ju87b Stuka, the first Stuka to land in good condition on English soil. This was quite impressive considering it had hit a tree with a full bomb load! Sadly, only one of the two-man crew survived.

Only one RAF plane crashed on the Island - a Hurricane piloted by P/O HC Upton, who walked away from the crash uninjured. The last aircraft loss of the day was a Heinkel He59 air-rescue seaplane, which went down just south of the Island with the loss of all her crew.

HMS Swordfish

On 7 November 1940 the 'S' Class submarine HMS Swordfish left Portsmouth to patrol the Bay of Biscay, but was never heard from again. At the time it was assumed that it had been sunk by a German destroyer in its patrol area, but its exact fate had not been fully explained.

'S' Class submarines were 217ft long. They had been developed from the Shark class submarine, and were originally intended to operate around the coast of the British Isles, but were successfully used throughout Europe, especially in the Mediterranean. They had a crew of 48 and were among the most advanced submarines of the day, able to dive in half the time it took a German Type VII. Many 'S' class submarines continued in use after the war. The last of them, HMS Seraph, was not broken up until 1965.

In June 1983 Martin Woodward, a local diver, found the wreck of HMS Swordfish south of St Catherine's Point. She was lost with all 40 hands after being blown in half when she hit a mine. Although the escape hatch had been opened, the crew did not have a chance of surviving. Many of the items recovered from the wreck are on display at the Bembridge Maritime Museum.

HMS Acheron

On 17 December 1940 the 1775-ton destroyer Acheron left for trials south of the Island, with 290 crew and 25 officials on board. Around 7am she struck a German mine, and Acheron was blown in two, with the bow sinking almost immediately. Most of the men went down with the ship. Only 19 of the 315 men on board survived.

The End Of The War

In 1941 German submarines continued to hunt for ships around the English Channel, and German aircraft dropped mines. Luckily, after having learnt lessons from the failed convoy CW9, the Channel was little used, with British ships going to safer ports out of the reach of German bombers.

Despite this, losses continued. One such was the 342-ton PS Portsdown, which was sunk by a mine near Spit Bank Fort on 20 September 1941. Despite the efforts of a Naval Pinnace, which rescued 17 people, 22 men died in the explosion.

In 1944 the Isle of Wight was one of the bases from which the giant D-Day invasion fleet left; one of the British landing-craft foundered off the Needles.

On 10 June 1940 German torpedo boats sank the 621-ton SS Dungrane and the 535-ton MV Ashanti in the waters south-west of St Catherine's. On 18 June 1940 the 1,765-ton SS Albert C Field sank with her cargo of ammunition 20 miles south-west of the Needles. On 27 July 1944 HMS Prince Leopold, an infantry landing ship converted from a Belgian cross-channel ferry, was torpedoed 13 miles east of Dunnose Point.

By the end of 1944 all the German naval bases in France that threatened the Channel had been captured by Allied troops, and the Channel was all but clear of the enemy.

SS Cuba

The last incident of the war was the sinking of SS Cuba. She was a 11,420-ton passenger liner, sailing across Sandown Bay with an escort of six destroyers to Portsmouth, where she was to pick up troops. She was, however, torpedoed by U1195 ten miles east of Dunnose Point. The destroyers then hunted down the submarine, with depth charges from HMS Watchman destroying her as she lay quietly on the sea-bed 12 miles south-east of Sandown Bay, hoping to avoid detection.

In May 1945 Berlin was conquered, and the war in Europe and the British Isles was over.

Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks

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