Saturday 18 May 2024

Cruising the Caribbean

 At the behest of my wife, I recently spent a couple of weeks in the Caribbean on a cruise ship. On the face of it, not really my scene - but we had a great time. The Britannia is a lovely ship, and waking up every morning docked on a different island presented some great opportunities - white sand beaches, swaying palm trees, exotic wildlife, rum punch and ... military history! Here are five sites that pricked my interest.

Firstly, the North Tanki Maraka Heritage Park on the island of Bonaire. When Holland fell to Nazi Germany in May 1940, the Dutch Antilles were effectively 'orphaned'. German ships were seized and the authorities on the Dutch Islands joined the Allied cause. The islands of the Curacao Colony became important - and a focus of German attention - as local oil production was geared up. Following Pearl Harbour the US Army established a presence on the islands - initially by expanding the airfields and then by establishing a major supply base on Bonaire. 

North Tanki Maraka US Base (1942-47)

The site of the Tanki Maraka base is on the circular route which skirts around the south of the island. We hired a golf buggy and spotted the entrance easily as there is a large interpretation panel next to the entry path. A circular walking route picks out the main points of interest and a series of panels explain the history. The building are long gone, but the concrete footings remain along with old oil drums, cables and long forgotten vehicles. As one strolls along the paths, it is easy to imagine what a hive of activity this place was from 1942 right through to 1947 when it was deciommissioned.

The nearby island of Curacao has a 'modern' history going back to the early 1500s when the native population was enslaved by Spanish colonists. It was fought over by the Dutch and Spanish during the 1600s, until the former gained control - periodically suppressing slave revolts and fighting off the British until oil was discovered in nearby Venezuela and the geo-political importance of the island was transformed.

The Rif Fort on Curacao (1829-1947)

The Rif (Reef) Fort in Willemstad is an easy stroll from the port, so no need to negotiate a taxi ride! Built in 1829, under the direction of King William I of the Netherlands, the fort consists of five foot thick walls made of coral stone built to a height of four stories. It was originally armed with 56 cannons - two of which are sited at the entrance to what is now the Renaissance Shopping Mall. These massive muzzle loaders date to the early 19th Century.

The third site I've chosen for this whistle stop tour is the truly spectacular Brimstone Fort on St Kitts, a sail day away from the Dutch Antilles and back in the British zone of interest. The Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is noted as an 'outstanding example of European military engineering dating from the 17th and 18th Century'. It can be reached by taxi from the port at St Christopher. 

Brimstone Fort, St Kitts (1690-1853)

Lower Bastion, Brimstone Fort

Eagle eyed readers will have noted the rather odd grey colouring of the cannons in the picture above. The reason for this was that at the time of our visit they had just been primed for a coat of black paint. During the American Revolutionary War- in Jan/ Fen 1782, a substantial French Force besieged and successfully stormed the fortress. It was restored to the British a month or two later under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.

Next on my list is the stunningly beautiful and aptly named Nelson's Dockyard on the island of Antigua. Once described as a 'vile hole' by Horatio Nelson, it is now an achingly pretty collection of beautifully restored colonial buildings adjacent to a harbour that is still in use today. No more the preserve of Royal Navy ships, it now serves the super yachts of various non-doms! Abandoned by the British in 1889, the site was superbly restored in the 1950s. Take a taxi, not an organised trip, that way you will have more than 30 minutes to look around.

Royal Navy Offices, Nelson's Dockyard

Above the dockyard at Shirley Heights, one can find Fort Shirley - a British military base which was active from 1781 ton 1825. Aside from the stunning view of the English Harbour (and Eric Clapton's villa and Crossroads rehabilitation centre) one can explore a number of military structures including several blockhouses. Nearby is the military cemetery which includes a striking memorial to the 54th Regiment inscribed with the names of those who were killed during skirmishes with the French, and who died of disease.

Blockhouse on Shirley Heights

Memorial to the 54th Regiment, Shirley Heights

Finally, back on the island of Barbados, a trip to the Gun Hill Signal Station, St George is definitely worthwhile, and can be covered on one of P&Os day trips along with the stunning Sunbury Plantation House. The hill, which offers spectacular views, has military associations going back to 1697 and remained in use to the early part of the 20th Century. The signal station was one of six built in 1818 to warn of invasion or civil unrest. 

Gun Hill Signal Station, Barbados

Inside the main tower at the old station, there is a mini-military museum displaying information and images relating to the West India Regiment and the Barbados Regiment (the latter extant from 1948). Two soldiers from the former won the Victoria Cross and their stories are recounted on well-researched information panels. The case full of military badges and equipment give a flavour of the various units which were stationed at this remote outpost over the years. Near the steps to the tower there is one of two restored early 19th Century naval cannons. Rather mysteriously, one of the has a plaque affixed, commemorating Craftsman Llewelyn Kellond of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Kellond hailed from Hayes in Middlesex and lived in Sheffield, England. He died near Arnhem in 1944, and is commemorated on the Groesbeek Memorial in the Netherlands.

The Britannia from Fort Frederick, Grenada

So, that's it. Just a taster of some of the fascinating military history that one can explore whilst on a Caribbean Cruise. Time to venture beyond the beaches?

Tuesday 6 February 2024

The Woodspring Bay Wrecks (1944)

 At low tide two Second World War era shipwrecks are visible in Woodspring Bay, to the west of the village of Kingston Seymour. Indeed they are visible for walkers covering my Clevedon Military History trail which can be accessed here. Although the coast is not easily accessed in direct proximity to the wrecks, I had the pleasure of spending a day with three local farmers who share my passion for history and were an encyclopedia of knowledge about the impact of the war on this fascinating spot on the North Somerset coast.

HMS Fernwood and HMS Staghound

Apparently it is possible to walk out to the wrecks on a very low tide, if you have the local knowledge. Having witnessed the RNLI rescuing people from the mudflats I opted for a shoreside view through binoculars. However, one of my companions, a third generation Kingston Seymour farmer, was able to share photographs and observations from trips he had made in the past.

The picture above, shows the two ships at low tide. They are resting on the side of a mudbank (Langford Grounds) with a flow of shallow water behind. The larger of the two ships, HMS Fernwood is on the left with her two boilers clearly visible, even from the shore. According the Historic England archive, HMS Fernwood, the larger of the two vessels at 1,892 tons, was a British collier vessel which from the outbreak of the Second World War was used as a coal storage hulk - permanently moored midstream at Dartmouth.

Fernwood's boilers - Photo by Ken Kingcott

At 11:30am on 18th September 1942, the Fernwood was sunk, with 700 tons of coal aboard, at its Dartmouth moorings during a Luftwaffe attack. Sadly one of the 20 man crew was killed. John Emlyn Evans a 27 year seaman from Barry in Glamorgan is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. At the time of the loss, she was coaling a minesweeper aboard which, four more seaman were killed. The Fernwood was subsequently salvaged and the forward section of the ship was towed to its current location in 1944 where it was filled with ballast and used for gunnery practise by the military gunnery range at nearby St Thomas's Head.

Staghound with Fernwood (behind) - Ken Kingcott
Model of SS Staghound

HMS Staghound is located 140 metres away from Fernwood. Historic England research records show that she was destroyed off Torquay on 27th March 1942 without loss of life. Staghound was a 468 ton steamer originally requisitioned as a distilling ship (for fresh water) and was used as a block ship. After the attack she was raised and berthed alongside Haldon Pier before being towed to her current location on Langford Grounds (probably in 1944 as per Fernwood). Like the Fernwood, she was used for gunnery practice by the personnel at the St Thomas's Head Special Weapons establishment. Note: Since writing this article, the Grandson of a sailor who was on board Staghound at the time of the attack, Nigel Cowling, has told me that both ships were used for trialling 'Beehive' demolition charges which were to be used for clearing blockships from the channel ports after D-Day. From a lead provided by Nigel, it has been possible to identify the aircraft and pilot responsible for the sinking of Staghound. It was Oberletenant Frank Liesendahl of 10 (Jabo) / JG2 flying a Messerschmidt BF 109. See foot of article for the source*. 

Ken Kingcott on board HMS Staghound

Ken Kingcott has visited the site a number of times, and being a boat owner himself, has spent time identifying the remaining parts of both ships. I'd previously heard that the ships had been filled with concrete for ballast but Ken has concluded that both hulks are full of building rubble, probably from the Bristol Blitz. It is known that debris from Bristol was transported to various places including New York where it was used in the construction of the famous East River Drive.

*Bf 109 F/G/K Aces of the Western Front: No. 29 (Aircraft of the Aces) mentions Oberleutnant Frank Liesendahl, Staffelkapitän 10.(Jabo)/JG 2. He claimed to have sunk 20 ships between March and June 1942 but the book does not specifically mention the 27 March 1942 attack or SS Staghound. A better source, Luftwaffe Fighter-Bombers over Britain by Chris Goss, describes the attack, carried out by two planes of 13./JG 2, another two attacking Brixham at the same time. Liesendahl is listed in Appendix 8 as the pilot sinking SS Staghound.

Thanks to Nigel Cowling for the images

The National Archive holds records pertaining to the use of Beehive charges and the use of concrete filled ships under Ref. ADM 280/841. Apparently the file contains before and after photographs of both ships. Thanks to Nigel Cowling for this information. 

For my blog about the Military Gunnery Range at St Thomas's Head click here.