Gaze in any direction from St Mary’s Lighthouse, you find yourself surrounded by the savage magnificence of this coast. Storms can blow up out of nowhere and over the centuries the rocks have been mute and pitiless witness to a plethora of shipwrecks. Yet few are aware of the wartime dramas that were played out here. Eighty years ago the strand between Tynemouth Pier and Blyth Harbour was a deadly arena where German U-boats crept in to mine the seaways, while equally determined Auxiliary Patrol trawlers battled to keep them swept and open to the unlovely (but crucial) fleets of colliers and cargo vessels.
What follows is a brief account of events on this stretch of coast between November 1939 and January 1940, the U-boat season.
The Germans were well aware of the importance of NE coal to the national economy. The London power stations depended upon it, as did the economies of Scandinavian countries. A few well placed mines could wreak the same level of havoc and dislocation as the UC-boats of the Great War had caused.
Kiel was the home of the 3. and 5 U-Flotille, known to the men who served in them as the Lohs and Emmsmann Flotille after Great War U-boat heroes. The U-boats belonged to the IIB and IIC classes. Their small dimensions gave they a curious toy-like appearance but these tiny boats were armed with torpedoes and if required, could carry twelve TMC mines.
Oblt. Jürgen Oesten was ordered to load twelve of the TMB experimental mines. His boat, U-61 attached to the 5. Emmsmann Flotille, was to proceed to sea, his objective, to lay these mines just off Tynemouth Pier on 1 December 1939. It would not be an easy operation as the Tyne roadsteads would be teeming with Anti Submarine vessels (A/S) The TMB magnetic mines were said to be more efficient that their predecessors and the Kriegsmarine was eager to learn of evidence as to their worth. The U-crews were slightly apprehensive of these experimental weapons
A TMB magnetic mine. Magnetic mines reacted to the distortion f the earth’s magnetic field caused by a passing ship. Though only minor forces were involved, it worked reliably against average sized ships in water depths not exceeding 100′. Damage was inflicted by the shock wave propagating through the water, rather than through direct contact, unlike a moored mine which blew a hole in the ship through contact, usually forward. The magnetic mine exploded underneath the ship, its shock wave causing great damage to the interior and often breaking the keel of the unfortunate vessel.
U-61 left Kiel at 01:00hrs on Tuesday 28 November on what was to be the boat’s second wartime patrol. At 13:10 the inbound light cruiser Leipzig was sighted. By 23:10 the Boat was off Juist, one of the Frisian Islands. The Kriegsmarine used a simple grid chart which divided a given area into coded squares. The North Sea was coded ‘AN’
By mid-day on 29 November the Boat was in square AN66 The boat’s KTB or Kriegstagebuch notes that at 13:11, the boat dived to avoid fishing boats. The routine procedure was to remain on the surface in sectors where the Germans had aerial supremacy but to dive and proceed at periscope depth in neutral or hostile waters. By 30 November, U-61 had arrived at square AN5522. At 14:11 that day U-61 approached the Swept Channel. Oesten recorded that he spotted a warship but it was too far away to mount an attack. U-61 was to lay three mines just North of Blyth. Oesten would have liked to start the mine-lay in darkness on the 30 November but the presence of Anti Submarine vessels forced him to delay the operation which did not go ahead until 15:52hrs.
The last mine of this batch was laid at 20:05. Oesten did note that the light on Coquet Island had not been extinguished. The Boat surfaced at 18:00 to charge batteries, keeping outside the Swept Channel. At 11.55, U-61 laid the first of nine mines in the grid square AN 5453 in a position logged as three miles out from Tynemouth Pier. The mines were ejected from the torpedo tubes while the boat lay motionless at periscope depth. Should an A/S vessel approach while the boat was committed to the mine-lay, evasive action was impossible. Everything depended upon the instincts and judgement of Oesten. The operation ended at 13:49hrs. Oesten observed that the U-boat was surrounded by A/S vessels throughout the operation.
The image is deceptive. Each U-boat carried twenty-four men and the Control Room would have been crowded during the mine-lay. Note the two wheels on the right used by depth-keepers. Only the most experienced POs were allowed to handle the depth-wheels during a mine-lay. The wheel forward of the search periscope standard was used by the Bootsmann – another highly experienced PO. The array of wheels to the left of the Bootsmann’s position controlled valves vital to diving and surfacing the boat. The would originally have been colour coded red and green. Unlike British submarines in which the attack or mine-lay was made from the Control Room (Zentrale) the German commanders made their attacks from a small chamber within the conning tower
At 15:00, U-61 started to withdrew from the patrol area,in silent routine on her motors. This was just as well because at 15:20 a destroyer, was sighted. This destroyer approached U-61 which was forced to lie on the bottom in dead silence. The destroyer (presumably part of the Rosyth Escort Force) did not move off but remained stationary, listening. At 17:46hrs the destroyer was gone. The batteries were all but depleted to Oesten surfaced the boat to run out to sea on his engines. At 08:13hrs on December 2, the relieved crew loaded torpedoes in place of the mines. This took until 10:30hrs. After this point there is little to report, U-61 made a fast run home on the surface using her engines. At 09:48hrs on 3 December, U-61 passed the Island of Juist. on her port beam At 16:50, U-61 arrived at Wilhelmshaven. Job done. The next boat to carry on the work that U-61 had started would be U-22.
Consequences: The only ship directly credited to U-61 was the damage caused to Gryfevale. At 13.40 hours on 22 December 1939 the Gryfevale was damaged by a mine laid on 1 December by U-61 three miles east of the Tyne Piers. The 4,434 ton Gryfevale part of convoy FN 56 bound from Southend to Methil in Fife. The crew abandoned ship. Volunteers re-boarded and
Gryfevale made it back to the Tyne under her own power, eventually arriving at South Shields. The ship was repaired The Middle Docks & Engineering Co. Ltd., South Shields
The minefield which damaged Gryfevale was located and duly swept before it could do any more damage but the weather was turning against the Mill-Dam based mine-sweepers.
Vesikko was basically a Typ IIB submarine built for the Finnish navy by a Dutch company, drawing upon the German Typ II design. Now preserved at the Maritime Museum at Suomenlinna, Vesikko is externally identical to U-22
One last minor epic remained to be played out off Whitley Bay. U-22 served with the 3. or Lohs Flotille based at Kiel. U-22 was a Type IIB U-boat, visually identical to U-61. The IIB could carry 12 mines and five torpedoes and like U-61 she carried a crew of 24. U-22 could travel at 12k on the surface but this was reduced to 7k once submerged and powered by her motors. 28 year old Kplt. Karl-Heinrich Jenisch, one of the most promising of the new U-boat commanders, was issued with orders to lay nine mines off Blyth with the intention of causing havoc on the NE coast, particularly in destroying submarines, the Germans now being well-aware after the Leipzig attack that Blyth submarines were operating in the Helgoland Bight.
U-22 left Wilhelmshaven for her eighth patrol at 12:08hrs on December
16. Jenisch kept the boat on the surface for most of the North Sea crossing, reaching Square AN 68 by the next day.
Once within range of RAF Coastal Command aircraft, U-22 dived during daylight hours, surfacing to charge batteries only when it was dark at 16:38 hrs. On Monday December 18, U-22 was keeping to seaward of the Swept Channel. British charts claimed this area had been defensively mined but in reality the minefield existed only on paper. At 11:15hrs, some five miles off Newton Point, Jensich noted an approaching destroyer. The warship did not move off as he had hoped but speeded up and commenced zig-zagging. A sure sign it was about to attack. Jenisch turned the periscope, a second warship was bearing down fast. Jenisch knew these waters were shallow, U-22 would not be able to dive deep. Rather the young Commander turned the U-boat’s stern towards the destroyer and lay on the bottom in silent routine. All mechanical equipment was turned off, the crew kept absolutely silent. Three depth charges were dropped. None was particularly close.
It seems likely that U-22‘s scent had been picked up by the ASDIC operators on board HMS Wallace and HMS Stork, two escorts of the Southbound convoy FS 57. Three more depth-charges were dropped in what Jenisch recorded as a ‘desultory fashion’, then the warships moved off to rejoin the convoy. Next morning at 02:07hrs on December 20 , U-22 was in position at Buoy 20R, marking the Blyth roads (Square AN 5432 or 55°27’00″N, 001°15’00″W). Jenisch was able to take his bearings from St Mary’s Lighthouse . A total of nine TMB mines was laid, the last at 02:50hrs. U-22 now began a slow withdrawal to the North, once again keeping seaward of the Swept Channel.
The U-22 sketch shows that her mines were laid North and South of Buoy B1, some distance from the East Coast shipping artery
At 19:25hrs. Off Alnmouth (AN 5522) Jenisch made a surface attack on a lone ship. The torpedoes missed. The ship turned her helm and made an attempt to ram U-22 at maximum speed. The quick reactions of the men on watch on the conning tower saved U-22. The U-boat returned via Squares AN 5461 / AN 55 / AN 5522 and the return trip was otherwise uneventful for Jenisch and his crew. The Boat tied up at Wilhelmshaven at 11:03hrs on December 22 in time for the crew to spend Christmas ashore. For the sailors of North East England it was to be a Christmas filled with terror…
Mars was the first victim of U-22‘s mines. The 1,912 ton Mars was sailing from Helsingborg in Sweden to London with a cargo of wood pulp. Inbound Scandinavian traffic was directed to Methil in Fife prior to joining one of the F/S convoys bound for the Thames. At 14:30hrs on December
20 (the same day that U-22 had laid her necklace of mines) the Swedish merchant ship detonated a mine in the Swept Channel one mile east of St. Mary’s Lighthouse. Mars sank quickly, taking seven men with her but nine survived to be picked up and landed at North Shields.
What is believed to be the wreck of Mars has been found at 55° 03′.819 N 001° 24′.192W. Like most wrecks, Mars now resembles an underwater scrap heap, some 90m long and 30m wide. The wreck is now very broken up with few identifiable elements beyond the bows and stern.. The ship rises to 4m around her ‘midships boilers which are exposed now that the ship has collapsed upon itself.
Pandora had actually been built as Seti which served as a liner in Egypt. Seti was purchased by Admiralty in November 1914 to service British submarines. The ship was renamed HMS Dolphin in October 1924 and moored at Gosport. Pandora/Dolphin was decommissioned in 1939. It was planned to use her as a block ship in the Clyde. The ship was under tow up the Swept Channel on December 23, 1939 when she detonated a mine off Blyth and sank. Thankfully there were no casualties. The substantial wreck was systematically salvaged over the years and very little remains apart from a section of the bows.
The story of Hanne is quite tragic. At 09.32 hrs on December 28 the Danish ship was making final course adjustments to enter the Blyth piers when she triggered one of U-22′s mines and sank in less time than it took me to type this. The explosion occurred just off Beach Cemetery, Blyth. The Blyth harbourmaster, his staff and a number of submariners, witnessed the ship simply blow up and sink with all hands – and there was nothing anyone could do. Hanne was in ballast sailing between Copenhagen and Blyth and had been due to load a cargo of coal. The following men died: Andersen S (42), Fireman, Holst, J. (50), Steward, Jacobsen C. (43) Chief Engineer, Jensen M. (49) Engineer officer, Johansen H (30) Fireman, Jorgensen, K. (19) Ordinary Seaman, Kallesen, S. (51) Officer, Larsen, L. (53) Master, Michesen, J (27) officer, Niesen, C. (46) Fireman, Petersen F. (22) AB, Rossing, P (21) AB, Tarby J. (17) Junior Ordinary Seaman, Woxnaes, K (24) Junior Ordinary Seaman
The wreck of Hanne lies at 55°06.’066.N, 01 ° 27′.3981W. It is in two distinct parts and is now largely broken up. Some dispersal may have taken place as the vessel lies in the Blyth fairway.
Loch Doon (Official No.165659) was a steel-hulled 534-ton British steam trawler. Smith’s Dock, Middlesbrough built and completed her in 1937; she was launched on April 12, 1937 for Loch Fishing Co., Hull. In August 1939 the Admiralty requisitioned and converted her to an anti submarine trawler to operate under the Tyne unit of the Royal Naval Patrol Service. The crew of Loch Doon drew the short straw on Christmas Day, 1939 and were ordered to patrol along the channel between Blyth Harbour and Buoy 20R. Loch Doon was expected to return to North Shields by 15:00hrs but the ship did not return. The probability is she detonated a mine laid by U-22. Loch Doon was lost with all hands but one, 26 year old William Seymour was washed ashore on Blyth Beach and was buried in the nearby Beach Cemetery. The men who died on Christmas Day: Altass, F, Engineman, Cressey, A. Seaman, Hunter, J. Stoker, Johnson, E. Seaman, Kaveney, J. Seaman, Mercer, J. Seaman, Milne, J. Stoker, Seymour, W. Seaman, Spice, L, L/Seaman, Teasdel, L. Seaman Cook, Thompson, G. Skipper RNR, Wadsworth, F. AB, Walker G. Ordinary Seaman, West, R. Engneman, Winpenny, C. 2nd Hand, Storey, E. Stoker
The wreck of Loch Doon has never been positively located but some say she lies at 55º07’835″N, 01º21’105″W. in a depth of. 47m.
SS Ferryhill of Aberdeen struck a mine at 21:30hrs when SE of Blyth in the fairway some 1.5 miles from St Mary’s Island, on January 21, 1940. The 1,086 ton collier had been sailing between Blyth and Aberdeen with a cargo of coal. The Admiralty Drifter, Young Jacob was patrolling nearby and managed to pick up the First Mate and the Second Engineer. Eleven men, including the Master were lost. The men who lost their lives on Ferryhill: Cracknell William Stoker, Innes, James, AB, Irvine Robert,Cook, Mennie, George, Ordinary Seaman (aged 16) Nolan, James, Fireman, Pirie, Edward, Fireman,Ross, Peter, Chief Engineer Officer, Scarborough, William, Second Officer, Smith, William, AB, Stephen, John, Master.
It appears the Ministry of War Transport dispersed the wreck of Ferryhill during the war years. The remains are spread over a large area, now completely broken up at 55°05′.66 N 01° 26′.932W.
SS Eston (Master H. Harris) left Hull in ballast on 26 January bound for Blyth. Off Hull she joined Convoy FN 81. However Eston struggled to keep up with the rest and was officially listed as a ‘straggler’.
She was last seen in the Blyth roads off St Mary’s Island on January
28 at dusk but she failed to make Blyth Harbour. It was assumed she was sunk on one of U-22‘s unswept mines right on the threshold of safety.
Eston sank with all hands. The youngest was a 14 year old cabin boy, Robert Robinson, the eldest was 66 year old Engineer officer Bill Stiff, in short Eston’s crew was a cross section of the wartime Merchant Navy. The crew is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial. One crew member, G. Sproates, has a known grave at Linthorpe on Teesside.
Three others who were washed ashore nearby are buried as ‘Unknown’ Merchant Navy, in the Beach Cemetery, Blyth.
What became of the German U-boats and their crews ?
Karl-Heinrich Jenisch, Commander of U–22, torpedoed HMS Exmouth (Cdr. R. Benson) in his next patrol. Exmouth sank with all hands off Tarbet Ness in the Moray Firth. However Jenisch and his twenty-six crew did not long survive the episode. U-22 disappeared without trace on March 27, 1940, probably somewhere in the Skaggerak. The boat likely fell victim to a mine or a collision with a merchant ship or buoy. Conversely, following a distinguished career in which he sank eighteen ships, Jürgen Oesten, much respected Kaleunt of U-61, survived the War. He died in his bed aged 96 in 2010. The Type II U-boats were relegated to training roles as soon as the new Type VII c boats entered service. The new boats were big and their favoured environment was the Atlantic rather than the North Sea. In fact barring a brief but productive foray on the part of Joachim Schepke in January 1940, the U-boats avoided the NE coast altogether. Even though British East coast minefields tended to exist in charts rather than reality, the Kriegsmarine did not see the point of risking U-boats in coastal waters when easier prey could be found elsewhere. In future mining was left to the Luftwaffe, KG26 in particular. The U-boats did return to the NE but not until the end of the War.
That just about concludes this largely forgotten tale of how two small U-boats wrought havoc off the Tyne 1939-40. Even the shipwrecks are being reclaimed by the sea. Soon only a handful of scattered graves will remain to testify of the toll taken on merchant shipping and the Auxiliary Patrol. Next time you stroll along the Whitley Bay sea front, look out to sea and spare a moment to remember these brave men.
Sources: T1022 Rolls 30019/1-8, 30058/1-14, KTBs of U-22 and U-61
Ron Young, ‘Ultimate Shipwreck Guide NE’
© P Armstrong