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.

Sunday 4 February 2024

My Father & the Runaway Plane (April, 1955)

Whilst working at RAF Thorney Island my father witnessed a rather unusual incident - one that ended in tragedy when a stolen Vickers Varsity training aircraft crashed near Valenciennes in France, killing three civilians and injuring three others. During the subsequent Court of Inquiry my father, a meteorologist,  gave evidence about the weather conditions prevailing at the time. 

Contemporary newspaper reports

The story is a strange one. At 7 pm on 25th April a Royal Air Force Varsity aircraft took off from RAF Thorney Island, piloted by Leading Aircraftsman Nanik Agnani, an Indian national. No flight plan had been logged, and the departure was not authorised. Indeed, Agnani had failed his Pilot Training Course on account of poor eyesight - he was reported by one journalist as wearing very think glasses, although this was not evident in a head and shoulders mugshot which also featured in subsequent newspaper reports. As the pilot of the stolen aircraft struggled to gain height virtually everyone on the station - 650 in all - turned out to watch the spectacle. 

A contemporary newspaper report reported that a twenty year old ground-crew airman, 'Nick, Agnani, took off in a twenty seater training plane and was later seen speeding across London at an altitude which occasionally dipped to 200 feet. Apparently Agnani had fuelled the aircraft up for an eight hour run, leading some to suggest that he was looking to fly the aircraft back to his home town on the sub-continent. 

Vickers Varsity - Copyright BAE Systems

After a failure to prevent the aircraft leaving the ground at Thorney Island through the positioning of a fire tender on the runway, another Varsity piloted by Flight Commander, Flight Lieutenant Smiles, set off in hot pursuit. Airfield landing lights were switched on at various locations in the vicinity but Smiles lost visual sight of his prey in failing light. At one point Smiles managed to get in front of the stolen aircraft and the other crew member, who was positioned in the Varsity's astrodome, said afterwards that at one point the two planes were within fifteen feet of one another. An eyewitness described the chase to a reporter shortly after the news broke.

It came low over the rooftops. It was in a semi-stalling condition, its' throttle seemed to be fixed, but the pilot kept altering the propellor pitch. I followed the plane with my binoculars, but I could not spot the pilot. He was obviously trying to gain height but kept stalling. He circled to the west of Chichester, over Bosham and Chidham, for about 15 minutes at 1,000 feet. Then a second Varsity appeared and started chasing the first one, going close to give either Aldis or hand signals. They went round and round west of Chichester, coming over Parklands about fifteen times. I expected the first Varsity to crash any minute, and thought it was someone trying to show off".

The stolen Varsity was tracked by radar over the channel and was later spotted circling the military airfield at Trouvy-Valenciennes. The aiircraft lost height and 'exploded' into the side of a small house bringing down the roof and the walls. The house was in the tiny mining village of Vicq and the crash caused the death of three civilians and injuries to three others. Two of those killed, and the three injured, belonged to a Polish mining family. Stephen Skalecki, who had left his native Poland in 1929, lost two of his grandchildren - Vladislav and Stephanie. Madame Henriette Gillerand also lost her life in the stricken property. A tragic end to a foolish act.

Armstrong Whitworth Argosy at RAF Thorney Island

The Court of Inquiry failed to discover the reason for Agnani's criminal act. One observer noted that Agnani had enough fuel for 1,700 miles but that India was 4,000 miles away. Other suggestions were that this was an act of treason with the pilot heading for a Warsaw Pact country, or that he was rebelling against his failure to attain a pilot license. Maybe it was simply the case that he was looking for excitement and took a rather extreme course to achieve it. Whether my fathers' meteorological evidence at the Inquiry contributed much to the understanding of what exactly happened is a moot point, but the fact that he kept the cuttings and wrote about the incident in his private diary demonstrates that it left quite an impression on him.