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Malcolm12hl

Was the British steamship ROMFORD sunk by a U-Boat mine or torpedo?

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Malcolm12hl

The British steam tramp ROMFORD (3,035 G.R.T., built 1898), owned by the Britain Steamship Co. Ltd., London (Watts, Watts & Co., managers) sailed from Tunis for Bizerte and the U.K. with a cargo of 4,530 tons of phosphate on 9 February 1918, and was sunk at 1 A.M. on 10 February 2 1/2 miles East of Cape Carthage (36.54N 10.24E).  Some sources attribute her loss to a mine laid by UC 67, but the survivors' report of her sinking states that she sank immediately after being torpedoed on the starboard side before the bridge, and both Lloyd's War Losses (which mistakenly inverts the voyage chronology - an error perpetuated in modern databases) and the C.W.G.C. follow the latter line.  The ship sank very quickly at night, however, and there were no officers among the five survivors, so the report of a torpedo hit might be more supposition than fact.  I would be interested to hear if the evidence available to the U-Boat experts on the forum supports one explanation or the other.

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roselyn2

There is some information on google that might help you.   Lyn

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seaJane

This site says mine and does not mention torpedo:   https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?97117.

 

I don't know how common night actions by submarines were, but I suspect not very.

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Malcolm12hl

Thank you Ladies for your input.  I have seen much of the web content, but am concerned that most of it is replicating other secondary sources and possible errors therein, and I am wondering if either Spindler, or a surviving U-Boat KTB can provide a definitive answer.

 

In answer to your point about night attacks by submarines, Jane, I have not carried out a comprehensive survey, but I have formed the impression that these were becoming more common in late 1917/early 1918.  By pure coincidence, the two Watts, Watts & Co. losses to U-Boats immediately preceding the ROMFORD were both the result of attacks launched at night: MOLESEY on 1 December 1917 in the Channel (attributed to UB 81, herself sunk on 2 December), and GREENWICH in the Mediterranean on 5 December 1917 (attributed to UC 67).

 

Malcolm

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seaJane

That's interesting, Malcolm - thanks.

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Michael Lowrey

This sinking of Romford is not attributed out in Spindler. The attribution to one of UC 67's mines came later — it's in the Starke Schell list. That said, as far as I am aware, it is considered still considered valid in U-boat research circles. On August 13, 1917, UC 67 laid three minefeields of three mines each at:

 

36°52'N, 10°24'E, heading 110°, 100 meter interval

36°52.9'N, 10°24.6'E, heading 110°, 100 meter interval

36°52.6'N, 10°25.6'E, heading 10°, 100 meter interval

 

U-boats were certainly capable of night attacks.

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Malcolm12hl

Thank you Michael - a UC 67 mine would certainly seem like the most probable cause in the absence of any reported torpedo attack.  I wonder where the Starke/Schell attribution came from - I had assumed that A. J. Tennent's British Merchant Ships Sunk by U-Boats in the 1914-1918 War was the source, but checking back I see that he classes the loss as probably due to a mine laid by UC 54.  Tennent's book was published 30 years ago, and I had assumed that his attributions were based on Spindler's work, which he does cite among his sources, and to which he would have had access at the Guildhall Library, where he did most of his work.

 

Malcolm

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Michael Lowrey

Malcolm,

 

A. J. Tennent's British Merchant Ships Sunk by U-Boats in the 1914-1918 War is a combination of Lloyd's War Losses: The First World War, British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914-1918, bits from Lloyd's Register of Shipping plus attributions from Spindler. I've seen zero evidence that Tennent had access to KTBs - when he attributed a sinking not listed in Spindler, it was a guess at best and not based upon primary source documents.

 

By the 1990s though, access to U-boat KTBs had become easier, both at BAMA Freiburg and via NARA microfilms. My guess is that someone, not exactly sure who, used the KTBs for the attribution and then informed Tony Starke or Bill Schell about it.

 

UC 54 did lay mines near where Romford sank — on March 10, 1918 (!), so obviously not the answer.

 

Best wishes,

Michael

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Malcolm12hl

Thank you again Michael

 

I must confess that I had assumed Tennent's attributions of sinkings to individual U-Boats were firm because they were based on Spindler (which he does list in his Bibliography) - I am sure you are correct in believing that he had no access to KTBs.  With the sands having shifted now on three Watts, Watts & Co. war losses, I will clearly have to revisit the other U-Boat attributions for their war losses.  In most cases, I do have the British survivors' reports which might help provide supporting information.  I do hope you won't mind continuing to help me on this front.

 

Malcolm

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Michael Lowrey
Posted (edited)

Malcolm,

 

If you have any other questions or concerns, I'll gladly look over them.

 

One obvious issue is Aldershot, which was sunk by either UB 113 or UB 104 — we're unlikely to know which any time soon.

 

Best wishes,

Michael

Edited by Michael Lowrey

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Malcolm12hl

Thank you again Michael

 

I'll leave the ALDERSHOT for now, and start by checking on the other Mediterranean attacks - five ships being sunk there apart from the ROMFORD.

WOOLWICH - 3 November 1915 - 104 miles S of Cape Sidero, Crete

TOTTENHAM - 4 August 1916 - 22 miles SW of Planier Island
Both of these losses are attributed to U 35, and as both vessels were captured first and then sunk, and their crews interrogated by the U-Boat commander, I would assume there is little if any doubt over the identity of the assailant.

CHERTSEY - 26 April 1917 - 4 miles N of Algiers

GREENWICH - 5 December 1917 - 9 miles S of Planier Island
Both of these losses are attributed to UC 67 (whose mines also sank the ROMFORD).  I have no details of the first sinking, but the GREENWICH might have attracted some comment her assailant, first because she was of a distinctive trunk-deck design, and second because she was torpedoed twice - first at 1 A.M. and then again at 6.45 A.M., when under tow by a French trawler.

CHATHAM - 21 May 1918 - 80 miles SW 1/4 S of Cape Matapan
This loss is attributed to the Austro-Hungarian U 32, of which I know very little - the report of her sinking says that she was torpedoed while in convoy and that the enemy submarine was not seen.

 

I would be very grateful to hear any comments you might be able to make on these attributions.

 

Malcolm

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Michael Lowrey

Malcolm,

 

The Mediterranean sinkings are generally cleaner, as you have a relatively low density of U-boats and few missing steamers. You do get occasional issues with Austrian and German U-boats both attacking the same convoy, but those have been resolved.

 

Woolwich and Tottenham are quite certain and confirmed by German primary source documents.

 

Chertsey is also clean, the UC 67's KTB givings the name of the vessel sunk as Reynolds, which is Chertsey's former name.

 

Greenwich also looks good. Spindler notes both torpedo hits and that UC 67 external damage when the steamer exploded after the second hit.

 

Chatham is not a problem. Clearly an Austrian sinking claim there.

 

Best wishes,

Michael

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Malcolm12hl

Michael

 

Thank you for confirming that all of the U-Boat attributions for the Mediterranean are correct.  The mis-identification of the CHERTSEY is not surprising, as Watts had only bought her from the Bolton Steam Shipping Co. Ltd. on 30 November 1916.

 

I wonder if you can now have a look at the two earliest Watts submarine losses: 
DULWICH - 15 February 1915 - English Channel, 6 miles N of Cap d'Antifer

RICHMOND - 1 July 1915 - Atlantic, c.54 miles SW by S of Wolf Rock

 

The DULWICH is attributed to U 16, and although the Master's report indicates that there was no interaction between the submarine and her victim's crew (the ship was torpedoed without warning in the dark of the evening, and although a U-Boat was sighted on the surface after the crew had taken to the boats, it did not answer the Master's hail and disappeared into the dark), I would assume that at this very early stage in the submarine war there weren't too many other submarines in the vicinity.  Incidentally, the photograph of a vessel named DULWICH which appears on the Uboat.net website page, is not the 1893-built ship sunk in 1915, but a more substantial vessel of the same name built for Watts in 1931.

 

The RICHMOND is attributed to U 39, and in this case, the ship was captured and then shelled to destruction.  The Master's report indicates that the U-Boat ordered his boat alongside and then confiscated all the ship's papers, so once again I would assume there can be little doubt over the identity of the culprit (which was busy sinking another steamer, the CRAIGARD, when the RICHMOND hove in sight, and went back to finish the job after dealing with the Watts ship).

 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

 

Best Regards

 

Malcolm

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Michael Lowrey

Malcolm,

 

There's no issue with either attribution. Have taken the picture of Dulwich down.

 

Best wishes,

Michael

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Malcolm12hl

Thank you once more, Michael

 

Before finishing off with the potentially more tricky 1918 losses, I would be grateful if you could comment on the two remaining 1917 cases.

 

LEWISHAM - 17 May 1917 - Atlantic, W of Ireland

MOLESEY - 30 November 1917 - English Channel, SW by W of Brighton Light Vessel

 

The sinking of the LEWISHAM is attributed to U 46 - a very successful submarine which accounted for a number of other vessels in the same week.  The Germans are reported to have taken the Master and two gunners prisoner, and as the submarine survived the patrol (and the war), I would assume that they knew exactly which vessel they had sunk.  I don't have a survivors' report yet on this sinking, but the reported loss of 24 men would suggest that one lifeboat might have been picked up by another vessel, or, less probably given the distance, made it ashore.

 

The sinking of the MOLESEY is attributed to UB 81 - the only success of a submarine sunk in well-documented circumstances a few days later.  A handful of survivors were picked up by the British, so there might be German testimony to the attack, which was unusual in that after the initial torpedo hit, the U-boat surfaced and then used the Master's lifeboat to board the MOLESEY and sink her with bombs; perhaps an unnecessary risk to take in crowded waters, even at night.

 

I look forward to hearing what you think.

 

Best Regards

 

Malcolm

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Michael Lowrey

Malcolm,

 

There's no issue with the attributions for either sinking.

 

For UB 81, there are survivor statements in both German and British files. Most of what has been republished (see Dwight Messimer's Verschollen) focuses on the sinking of UB 81. As for how Molesey was finished off after being torpedoed, I can't comment as I haven't seen the file on the sinking and don't have full survivor statements at hand. (Have the German ones on microfilm, but getting access to a microfilm reader is a bit of an issue at the moment.)

 

Best wishes,

Michael

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Malcolm12hl

Michael,

 

Thank you again - just four more vessels to go!  Three of these were sunk in British waters within a month of each other in the spring of 1918:

 

HENLEY - 10 April 1918 - English Channel, 25 miles SW 1/2 W of the Lizard

ISLEWORTH - 30 April 1918 - English Channel, 3 miles SW of Ventnor Pier, Isle of Wight

SANDHURST - 6 May 1918 - North Channel, 6 miles NW by W 1/4 W of Corsewall Point

 

I have the British survivors' reports for all three vessels, but although each was torpedoed in broad daylight, they add very little as no submarine was seen by any of the victims. The HENLEY, carrying coal, sank in just 11 minutes, while the ISLEWORTH and the SANDHURST were both carrying iron ore from Bilbao and sank immediately with heavy loss of life.

UB 109 is credited with sinking the HENLEY, one of four vessels she sank over a period of just over a week before returning safely from that patrol.

UC 17 is credited with sinking the ISLEWORTH, and this very successful boat survived both this patrol and the war.

UB 72 is credited with sinking the SANDHURST, and with two subsequent attacks as she made her way southwards through the Irish Sea from Germany towards a billet at the mouth of the English Channel.  She was sunk by the British submarine D 4 in the Channel six days later, I believe as the result of a radio intercept, so I wonder if there is German confirmation of the sinking - there were 3 survivors of the sinking, so there might have been some testimony.

 

As always, I look forward to your comments.

 

All the Best

 

Malcolm

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Michael Lowrey

Malcolm,

 

Henley — matches nicely to an attack described in UB 109's KTB.

Isleworth — I don't have UC 17's KTB at hand but there don't seem to be any obvious issues. The location in Spindler matches British sources.

Sandhurst — Oliver Lörscher has seen the survivor statements and says they aren’t very helpful. The survivors were all on their first patrol on a submarine and were sort of overwhelmed by the experience. Accurately reconstructing UB 72's actions based upon their statements was not really possible. That said, UB 72 was the only U-boat sunk in the area at the time from which useful statements aren’t available, so the Sandhurst attribution stands. The more interesting issue is whether UB 72 also sank the steamer Eveleen (434 grt, built 1891), which went missing after sailing from Ayr for Belfast on May 6 with a cargo of coal.

 

Best wishes,

Michael

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Malcolm12hl

Thank you again Michael,

 

The survivors' report on the sinking of the SANDHURST is very brief, saying little more than that she was torpedoed and sank right away.  It doesn't even state where the torpedo hit, but it may well be that the Master, who survived, wasn't on the bridge at the time and simply didn't know.  The report does, however, give the time of the attack as 7.20 in the morning - unless the EVELEEN left Ayr in the very early morning, and was able to steam faster than I would have thought a 25+ year-old coastal collier capable, she was probably still some distance northeast at the time of the attack on the SANDHURST.  I guess this doesn't really get us very far, but it does at least give you a reasonably accurate idea of one time/location plot for UB 72 on the day.  As far as I am aware, no bodies or wreckage from the coaster were washed ashore, and no likely wreck site has been identified.

 

My only outstanding Watts, Watts & Co. case is the ALDERSHOT, torpedoed in the English Channel, 5 miles ESE of Dartmouth on 23 September 1918.  I don't have a survivors' report on this one yet, and had been assuming that she had been sunk by UB 113 until your post last Wednesday alerted me to the speculative nature of this attribution and that the possibility existed of UB 104 having been the attacker, the problem, I assume, being that both of these boats were verschollen, with no likely attacks or possible wreck sites giving any indication of their possible whereabouts at the time the ALDERSHOT was torpedoed.

 

According to Messimer, UB 104 left Zeebrugge on 6 September and UB 113 same base on 19 September, both boats heading north around Scotland for a patrol beat in the English Channel, the former exchanging signals with another U-Boat at the entrance to the North Channel on 11 September.  I see that the Uboat.net credits UB 104 with sinking 5 vessels off the Dorset coast on 14 thru 17 September, but that the ALDERSHOT is the only success potentially credited to UB 113 on her second and last patrol.  Before I close the file on Watts war losses and move on to my next firm, are there any other points regarding this sinking that you are aware of?

 

I look forward to hearing back from you - and promise that it will be a wee while before I pester you for any more guidance!  When the National Archives re-opens over hear, I will be more than happy to look for British reports relevant to any incidents in the U-Boat war you might be interested in.

 

Best Wishes

 

Malcolm

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Simon S.

Hi Malcolm, hi Michael,

 

UB 113 left Zeebrügge on September 14th not on 19th hence that boat is a better candidate for sinking the ALDERSHOT than UB 104. Both of the boats had usually order to return to base after 14 days so UB 104 must have been on an homebound course on September 23rd, far away from the position where ALDERSHOT met her fate.

 

Best regards

Simon

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Michael Lowrey

Malcolm/Simon,

 

This gets into the Northern Barrage, which is the most complicated aspect of the U-boat war. The Northern Barrage was a massive series of American and British minefields designed to keep U-boats from getting into and out of the North Sea. It becomes really relevant in September 1918 — we know (identified wreck) it accounted for two German submarines (U 92 and U 102) and can fairly safely presume it accounted for two more ( U 156, UB 123 — the boats radioed while homebound before encountering the minefield). There are four more boats that could have been lost on the Northern Barrage — UB 83, UB 104, UB 113, and UB 127 — and that’s where it gets really messy. 

 

There are some potential claims for UB 113. For example, Tomas Termote claims to have found four UBIIIs off Flanders. It gets weird quick, as it's not obvious that the fourth of these wrecks is actually a UBIII. If it where though, it would necessitate that UB 113 were mined soon after it sailed and those that UB 104 sank Aldershot. (None of the other wrecks have been identified, but UB 57, UB 103, and UB 108 are the obvious answers for the other three.) (I don't think Termote is right about last wreck is actually a UBIII.)

 

UB 104 and UB 113 were on unusual routings as they were Flanders-based boats assigned to operate in the English Channel. Rather than sail through Dover, they took the long way around, sailing around Scotland. UB 113 actually sailed on September 14, not September 19.

 

On September 20, American minelayers were out with British destroyers when “a dead body of a German sailor wearing a life jacket was observed by the leader of the escorting destroyers. It is quite probable that he was one of a crew of a submarine that had been destroyed by the barrage.”

 

In its original list of U-boats destroyed, the Royal Navy has UB 104 as mined in Area B on September 19, 1918. It’s not obvious how the Royal Navy could come to believe this unless it presumed the body came from a just sunk UB 104. The British had a poor understanding of the movements of both UB 104 and UB 113, as they did not intercept any radio traffic from these boats. This presumption is incorrect, as UB 104 has sailed from Flanders on September 6, and was operating in the English Channel by the 14th, where she sank at least five ships. However, if the inference is that the body came from a just sunk Flanders U-Boat (or a U-boat in general), then UB 113 could be a fit, as she sailed on September 14, and should have gotten to the Barrage on about the 18th.

 

The suggests that Aldershot may have been sunk by UB 104 comes from Robert Grant in U-Boat Intelligence.

 

I get what Simon is saying, but I'm not sure it's definitive. Flanders U-boat commanders did occasionally stay out a few days longer — the median patrol length of a Flanders UBIII operating through Dover was 16 days, with the longest patrol being 22 days — so I do think there's a chance that UB 104 sank Aldershot.

 

Best wishes,

Michael

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Malcolm12hl

Michael

 

Thank you for laying out the complications of the UB 104/UB 113 case in such detail.  As you make clear, the evidence just isn't there to be certain which one sank the ALDERSHOT, and unless some new evidence comes to light things might just have to stay that way.  The case for UB 104 seems to revolve around her having been sinking ships in the same area up to 17 September, while the case for UB 113 appears to be based on her being the only other candidate that might have been operating in the area if UB 104 had already left for home.  The worrying thing about the candidacy of UB 113 seems to be that there is no evidence trail for her at all after she left Zeebrugge.

 

If you will permit me a few last questions:
Have the UBIII wrecks off Flanders been mapped, photographed and documented in the same way as Innes McCartney has done for the U-Boat wrecks elsewhere in the Channel?
Where does the 20 September report of the U-Boat crewman body come from, and might there be more about this in TNA?

 

Best wishes

 

Malcolm

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Michael Lowrey
Posted (edited)

Malcolm,

 

The UBIIIs have not been documented to the same degree as in Innes McCartney's book. That said, there is a some detail in Tomas Termote's War Beneath the Waves: U-Boat Flottilla Flandern 1915-1918. Termote's book is not without its flaws, including that he didn't use minefield data to help interpret the wrecks he describes. (It matters.) There also have been three additional wreck discoveries off Flanders since the book came out (not UBIIIs) and two of the wrecks described in the book have since been identified (also not UBIIIs).

 

The September 20 quote comes from a report from Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss, commander of the U.S. minelayers on the sortie. The U.S. official history The Northern Barrage and Other Mining Activities says much the same thing, adding the sailor was identified as German by the type of life preserver he wore.

 

I also came across a reference to the body in the water in a British document recently. I'll see if I can find it.

 

I know that Oliver Lörcher has looked for more information at TNA on this incident, without much success.

 

Best wishes,

Michael

 

Edited by Michael Lowrey

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Malcolm12hl

Michael

 

In normal times I visit TNA twice a week, so I will certainly see if I can find anything referring to the body in the water incident when I am working on W.W.I Admiralty files.  It isn't clear yet when it will be re-opening, but in the meantime please do let me have anything else that comes to hand.  Does the U.S. material identify the R.N. ships acting as escorts on the mining mission in question?  If they do, looking at these ships logs might reveal something.

 

I must admit that I was a bit disappointed with Termote's War Beneath the Waves: U-Boat Flottilla Flandern 1915-1918.  There does seem to be a real need for a new comprehensive study of First War U-Boat war losses incorporating all of the evidence that his come to light since Verschollen was published back in 2002.  Do you know if any such work is planned?

 

Best Regards

 

Malcolm

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Michael Lowrey

 

31 minutes ago, Malcolm12hl said:

I must admit that I was a bit disappointed with Termote's War Beneath the Waves: U-Boat Flottilla Flandern 1915-1918.  There does seem to be a real need for a new comprehensive study of First War U-Boat war losses incorporating all of the evidence that his come to light since Verschollen was published back in 2002.  Do you know if any such work is planned?

 

Yes, such a work is planned. I'm working on it and need to find a publisher for it.

 

Will send you what I have on the destroyers escorting the U.S. minesweepers.

 

Best wishes,

Michael

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