Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks: The Second World War

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The Second World War

In September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany, a war which, a year later, was fought with the front line now the English Channel; the sea and sky around the Isle of Wight.

The Dangers Of Wartime Sailing

Again, as during the Great War, many of the men who had previously been lifeguards etc. joined the Royal Navy. To prevent enemy aircraft using their beacons as navigation lights to help find targets such as Southampton and Portsmouth, the Island's lighthouses were extinguished, and the ships which did sail in the dangerous conditions dare not use lights at night for fear of attracting an enemy attack. The lifeboats were not to launch without first
notifying the coastal batteries trained to fire on any unidentified vessels and the waters of the Island were mined.

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

And these were just the dangers not posed from enemy aircraft, torpedo-boats and submarines.

H.M.S. Britisher

One of the first wrecks of the war was the trawler H.M.S. Britisher. On the night of 14th November, 1939, she was driven onto Brighstone Ledge in a fierce gale. The Yarmouth lifeboat, S.G.E. II, built in Cowes in 1938, struggled down to Brighstone yet, on approaching the wreck, one of the crew collapsed and desperately needed medical attention, forcing the lifeboat back to shore.

Attempts by men ashore to launch a rocket-line to the Britisher failed due to it being too far out, yet the crew eventually succeeded in getting a line to shore. This was done, and under the most treacherous conditions, carried up the cliff, where a bosun's chair was attached, and two men were hauled to safety before the return of the Yarmouth lifeboat. The twelve remaining crew onboard 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 since only 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, codename Peewit. On the 7th August the convoy had assembled in the Medway, Thames Estuary, and consisted of 20 merchant ships and 9 Naval
vessels as escort. They set off in the cover of darkness that night carrying coal headed for Dorset.

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

Goring ordered the complete destruction of the entire convoy, and 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, and the date, 8th August, has by many historians been considered the first day of the Second Phase of the Battle of Britain - where the Battle intensified enormously.

The First Stuka Attack

Between 9 and 10 o'clock a small number of Junkers JU87 Stuka dive-bombers from Fleigerkorps VIII escorted by Me 109s from JG27 approached the convoy from Cherbourg. Their attack was thwarted from inflicting too much damage by the convoy's anti-aircraft balloons, and was intercepted and broken up by 5 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 10 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 were 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, whilst the Luftwaffe lost 3 Stukas, one Me 110 and 3 ME109s at a cost of 5 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 only 4 of the 29 ships that had left the night before, only 4 made it.

In the biggest air battle of the war so far, 8 RAF pilots were killed out of the 14 Hurricanes, 3 Spitfires and a Blenheim lost, whilst the Luftwaffe lost 19 planes with 21 men killed and one captured.

Only one of the 19 planes the Luftwaffe lost crash-landed on the Island, the first German plane to do so since war began, when 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 had survived.

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

H.M.S. Swordfish

On the 7th 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 217 feet long, built between 1941 and the end of the war. They had been developed from the Shark class submarine, and were originally intended to operate around the coast of the British Isles, but were succesfully used throughout Europe, especially in the Mediteranean. 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 which, 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. It 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.

H.M.S. Acheron

On December 17th 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 the Destroyer was blown in two, with the bow sinking almost immediately. Most of the men went down with the ship. Only 19 of the 215 men onboard 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 the 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, there continued to be losses. One such was the 342 ton P.S. Portsdown, which was sunk by a mine near Spit Bank Fort on September 20th 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, and one of British landing craft foundered off the Needles.

On the 10th June 1940, German torpedo boats sank the 621 ton S.S. Dungrane and the 535 ton M.V. Ashanti in the waters South-West of St. Catherine's. On the 18th June 1940, the 1,765 ton S.S. Albert C. Field sank with her cargo of ammunition 20 miles South-West of the Needles. On the 27th July 1944 H.M.S. 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.

S.S. Cuba

The last incident of the war was the sinking of the S.S. Cuba. The S.S. Cuba was a 11,420 ton passenger liner which was sailing across Sandown Bay with its escort of 6 Destroyers to Portsmouth, where it was to pick up troops. However, it was torpedoed by U1195 10 miles east of Dunnose Point. The Destroyers then hunted down the submarine, with depth charges from HMS Watchman destroying it as it lay quiet on the seabed hoping to avoid detection 12 miles South-East of Sandown Bay.

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

Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks

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