Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks: The Great War

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The Great War

During the First World War, many ships in the waters around the Isle of Wight were sunk, by torpedoes, mines and collisions - over 50 large ships within 30 miles of the Isle of Wight. The greatest loss of life was that of the RMS Mendi, in which 650 men drowned.

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

Although smaller vessels, such as the Torpedo Boat Destroyer HMS Velox which had been sunk by a mine near the Nab Lightship in October 1915, had been lost, the first serious wreck of the Great War was that of the paddle-steamer Empress Queen, an Isle of Man ferry that had been converted into a troopship. On the 3rd February 1916 she went aground on the Ring Rocks at Bembridge. She was carrying over 100 men. The Bembridge lifeboat launched to rescue the men onboard, yet on the third trip to the Empress Queen the lifeboat was driven onto the rocks of the ledge. Nevertheless, the crew battled on and saved all 110 men on board, as well as a cat and dog. At low tide, the Empress Queen's masts can still be seen.

RMS Mendi

The greatest disaster to occur in Isle of Wight waters was the loss of the RMS Mendi. She was a steamer carrying over 800 South African labourers to the Western Front in France on the February 20th 1917, with a destroyer as escort.

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

The men onboard were from rural areas in the Pondo kingdom, and were expected to dig trenches, carry stretchers, repair roads and carry out other hard work. rather than fight.

It was a foggy night. At 5am on February 21st, twelve miles south of St. Catherine's, she collided with the liner Darro, which punctured her starboard side. The 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 in the English Channel.

The sinking of the Mendi was one of South Africa's worst disasters of teh Great War. Many of the men onboard had not even seen the sea before boarding her.

One legend associated with the the sinking of the Mendi is that the South Africans onboard performed a "Death Dance" as teh ship was sinking. A Reverend onboard, Reverand Isaac William Wauchope, is reported to have ivited 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 onboard with her. Although few witness survived the sinking to confirm whether it happened or not, it was widely reported in South African newspapers.

The inquiry found Captain H. W. Stump of the Darro responsible for the wreck. Captain Stump had been traveling at a high speed in thick fog and failed sound fog signals. He also failed to render assistance to the Mendi's survivors.

The loss of the RMS Mendi was recently featured on BBC South Today, and there is a memorial to those onboard in the Gamothaga Resort, Atteridgeville, 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.

Soon, British shipping losses soared, with 8 ships sank off the Isle of Wight in May 1917 alone; the worst tragedy was the loss of the SS Camberwell, sunk 6 miles off Dunnose Point on May 18th with the loss of 7 lives.

In October, the S.S. Redesmere, a 2,100 ton vessel, was torpedoed 3 miles off St. Catherine's. 19 men died. In December 5 ships were sunk with the loss of 15 men. In January 6 ships were sunk, including the 9,000 ton Armed Merchant Escort Ship Mechanician. On the 20th January she was torpedoed near the Shingles, where she was quickly buried in the shoal.

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

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

In February 5 ships were lost, including the 2,000 ton Eleanor in which 34 men died 9 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 the 12th April the 4,284 ton steamer S.S. Luis carrying shells was torpedoed 3 miles off St. Catherine's, with 4 of the crew killed in the explosion. On April 30th the 2,900 ton S.S. Isleworth was sunk 3 miles South-west of Ventnor, with 29 killed. After that, only 2 more ships were destroyed in the area surrounding the Solent.

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

War Knight

The S.S. War Knight was without doubt the most famous Island wreck of the Great War. On 24th March 1918 she collided with the American tanker O.B. Jennings, resulting in a large explosion killing everyone onboard the two ships.

Two destroyers towed them to the Island, with the O. B. 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 after.

The War Knight struck a mine outside Watcombe Bay, and was then sunk by gunfire. The fire then finally stopped, but her cargo of bacon, oil, rubber, lard and flour was spilt into the sea. As rationing was in place, the people of Freshwater considered it a gigantic stroke of luck, and soon carried crates of the remains away. 38 people were later arrested, and then taken by train to Newport on a train nicknamed the "Bacon And Lard Special".

Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks

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