In the Beach Cemetery at Blyth, to the right upon entering you will find a knot of naval War Graves. Adjacent to them, in what appears at first glance to be a conventional civilian grave, you will find the resting place of CERA Charles Bright. His memorial with its poignant inscription provides the last tangible link with a largely forgotten friendly fire incident which occurred in the closing weeks of the Great War. If the story of J6 is discussed at all, it is analysed as a stand alone accident with no attempt to link it to broader issues or events. The J6 incident did not unfold in a vacuum. By examining a broader range of documents it will be demonstrated that the disaster intersected with a variety of problems afflicting naval operations on the East coast.
While the ubiquitous fog of war inevitably clouds the accident, the Inquiry and its aftermath, the writer will argue that the loss of J6 was a preventable accident looking for somewhere to happen. Before we examine these matters, let us pause to describe J6 herself.
Type: British ‘J’ Class Admiralty, Fleet patrol, Group I. Pennant No: J6.
Builders: HM Dockyard, Devonport for Royal Navy. Ordered: J5 & J6 for 1915 Emergency War programme. Keel laid: on 26 April 1915.
Launched: on 9 September 1915
Commissioned: on 25 January 1916 by Commander Max Horton DSO, who was appointed to supervise her building and remained in command for 18-months. Completed: on 31 July 1916.
Surface Displacement: 1,210-tons U/Dt: 1,820-tons LBD: 83.75m × 7.19m × 4.27m. Props: 3 bronze. The wreck of J6 was ultimately identified by virtue of this arrangement..Machinery: 3 × 1,200hp 12cyl. Admiralty type Diesels by Vickers. (1/3 of boat’s space taken up with two engine-rooms.)
S/Sp: 19kts. Op/R: 38-days endurance & 5,000-n.miles @ 12.5kts. Fuel/cap: 80-tons & max. 91-tons. Batteries: lead/acid. U/Power: 3 × 675hp General Electric Motors gave 9.5kts.
Armament: 6 × 45.72cm (18in) torpedo tubes (4 × bow & 2 × beam). Guns: 1 × 12-pounder HA (5,44k) & 1 × 2-pounder (0.9k) Torpedoes: 12. Complement: 44 (5 officers an 39 ratings).
J6 joined the 11th Flotilla, Blyth in August 1916. The boat was initially commanded by Cdr. Max Horton and then from 1 December 1917 to her loss by Lt.Cdr. Geoffrey Warburton. Warburton had previously commanded G7 at Blyth. One essential matter should be understood about the organisational structure of East coast submarine units. The 11th Submarine Flotilla, Blyth, the 10th Submarine Flotilla, Tees and the 13th Submarine Flotilla at Rosyth, operated under the direct control of the Commander in Chief, Grand Fleet, wheras the Harwich submarine flotillas were controlled by Admiralty.
As C.in C. Grand Fleet still harboured dreams of bringing Scheer’s High Seas Fleet to battle in 1917, the Blyth submarines were given primary scouting role of reporting enemy ship movements off Horns Reef on the Danish coast, the Skaggerak and the South coast of Norway. Two to four Blyth submarines were kept on permanent station in these billets to guarantee early reporting should the High Seas Fleet leave the Jade. Patrols were based upon often fragmentary information gleaned by Room 40. They were rarely productive but during one Skaggerak patrol on 30 March 1917, J6 fired a torpedo at the returning U-boat U-61 (Kplt. Vicktor Dieckmann) which narrowly missed.
J6 actually came close to fulfilling Beatty’s ambitions on April 23, 1917. The boat was one of four Blyth boats on station off Horns Reef when a number of warships were glimpsed. Warburton had been warned to expect British cruisers carrying out a sortie in the sector and so did not report these ships. These vessels were actually the light cruisers of the 2nd Scouting Group and a destroyer flotilla. Scheer had sent them forth with designs on sinking a Scandinavian convoy inbound from Norway. Had J6 reported this sighting (several hours before their movement was detected by British radio direction finding) a second major sea battle might have ensued. Of Warburton’s failure to warn of these warships, Beatty wrote to First Sea Lord Rosslyn Wemyss that it had been ‘incredibly stupid and indeed heartbreaking’. Even so, it should be acknowledged that J6 had the benefits of an experienced crew and for the most part, a well regarded commander in Geoffrey Warburton.
In order to understand what transpired on October 15, 1918 it is necessary to survey the broader picture of British submarine activities on the East coast in terms of preceding ‘friendly fire’ incidents concerning the 11th Submarine Flotilla and what they tell us about communication frailties.
Friendly fire incidents had been common since the inception of the 11th Flotilla at Blyth. The decision to pay a bounty to any merchant ship which sank a U-boat was probably to blame for the first incident. G10 had narrowly escaped destruction at the bows of Mayflower in May 1916. The Norwegian collier rammed G10 in the East coast channel. G10 sank and was would have been lost but for a timely blowing of tanks. Later, when the boat was under repair, part of the merchant’s screw was found lodged in the submarine’s conning tower This screw was subsequently hung on the gates of Blyth Docks as a warning to all submarine commanders of the potential danger from friendly units.
The danger to Blyth submarines was not just from bounty-hungry foreign merchants or poorly trained Auxiliary Patrol units. On March 19, 1917 came an indication that the submarine/warship challenge and reply procedure was not working when J1, having earlier exchanged signals with Rival, another British destroyer, was fired upon by the Rosyth based, 13th Flotilla destroyer HMS Orpheus. Orpheus suddenly closed at high speed and fired four rounds at short range at J1, narrowly missing the bridge. It transpired that Orpheus had been oblivious to the interchange of signals between the destroyer Rival and J1, Nor had Orpheus been aware of the presence of a friendly submarine. Approaching at high speed from leeward, Orpheus had not seen the White Ensign flown by J1. Following this incident Admiralty staff made the following observation:
‘It has always been accepted that the first consideration must be the safety of our surface vessels and in the case of our patrols, freedom of instant action. The existing arrangement by which the onus of keeping clear rested upon the submarine was therefore a clear and logical one‘
Naval Staff Monograph, 1917, p 269
In April 1917 the Scandinavian convoy was introduced. Merchant vessels were escorted from Lerwick to Bergen and back. A feeder system was organised along the East coast from the Humber to Lerwick. In its initial stages Rear Admiral East Coast based at Immingham was responsible for escorting the convoys from Hull as far as St Abb’s Head with Grand Fleet units taking over the relay for the remainder of the journey. It is worthwhile pausing to examine the communications system used in convoy operations.
Once a convoy was about to sail, it was the duty of the convoy intelligence officer based at Immingham to send a secret telegram to the Admiralty Convoy Section at Whitehall. This convoy telegram contained details of the convoy regarding commanding officer, numbers involved, position, speed, escorts, time of departure and likely time of arrival. Once this was received, the Convoy Section was charged with informing the Ministry of Shipping, local Auxiliary Patrol units, in this case the Senior Naval Officers (SNOs) commanding Tyne and Granton and C. in C. Scottish Coast. C.in C. Grand Fleet was also provided with this information by the Admiralty Convoy Section via restricted communications. Conversely it was the responsibility of Beatty’s staff to keep SNOs Tyne, Granton, C. in C. Scottish coast and Rear Admiral East coast abreast of submarine movements. Captains (S) 10 and 11 were to ‘provide updates as appropriate’
It might be thought that the introduction of structure to East coast sailings might have reduced the number of friendly fire incidents but this was not so in practice.
On March 11, 1917, a Granton ‘Q’ ship (Merops Q28) opened fire on G5 off the mouth of the Tyne. Recognition signals had not been seen due to prevailing conditions. On April 4 the returning G5 (Lt. Cdr. F Byron) was returning to Blyth when she was shelled by two Auxiliary Patrol trawlers which only ceased firing when recognition flares were fired for the fourth time. Tragedy ensured on May 3, 1917 when two Northbound escort destroyers, Ouse and Bat, fired on the Tyne defence submarine C10 (Lt. Carson) off Newbiggin in the belief she was a U-boat. The two destroyers were bringing up the rear of the convoy when they spotted the submarine. Despite C10 displaying the correct recognition signals in the appropriate order, one shell hit the submarine abaft the conning tower. The captain of C10 ordered that the reply signal be hoisted continuously up and down and when that did not stop the firing, to wave a white tablecloth. This finally persuaded the destroyers to cease firing. Stoker George State died of wounds following the incident and is buried in Blyth Links Cemetery. In several ways this incident pre-figured the J6 affair and was considered serious enough to merit an inquiry.
And so it continued. On May 7 the seemingly cursed G5 was fired upon by Admiralty yacht Agatha. The damage required three days in dock. On May 20, 1917 at 12:50, the Admiralty yacht Miranda II opened fire on J1 in the War Channel In 1940 Max Horton, who had commanded J6 confided to Second World War submariner, Lt. Michael Lumby, that the St Mary’s Lighthouse keeper used to regularly take pot shots at the returning J6 in the belief she was a U-boat.
The point of citing these encounters is to demonstrate that friendly fire incidents were endemic in the War Channel off Northumberland long before the destruction of J6 in October 1918. It is pertinent to ask the question, why ?
The answer depended upon who was being asked.
The submariners and the Royal Navy in general tended to blame the training level of reservist units. C.in C. Scottish Coast and Rear Admiral East Coast in command of reservist units in turn claimed that C.in C. Grand Fleet and his submarine flotillas were not sharing crucial information with them.
By the Summer of 1918 the Auxiliary Patrol had grown from a pre-War Trawler Section numbering a thousand men to an improvised navy some 39,000 strong. It was largely comprised of fishermen. The Auxiliary patrol bore the brunt of anti-submarine patrols in British coastal waters, thus freeing the Royal Navy and its units for other tasks. Five thousand trawlers and drifters were actively engaged, one quarter of them in dangerous mine-sweeping duties, the remainder in harbour defence, anti submarine patrols or as convoy escorts. The officers tended to be gentleman drawn from the RNR or RNVR but this was also a world in which a humbly educated pre-war trawler skipper could find himself in command of a section of vessels
In terms of social class, a gulf existed between naval college educated elite and their reservist counterparts, who were often despised and knew they were despised by line officers. As far as Admiralty was concerned reservist officers and men were children of a distinctly lesser god as as evidenced by a plethora of war time and interwar court martial proceedings. If a reservist officer could be blamed for an accident, a reservist officer would be blamed.
Reservist units were invariably lumbered with the poorest and oldest equipment, ranging from the ancient ’30 knotter’ and River class destroyers which formed the backbone of the 7th Destroyer Flotilla at Immingham, to the highly dangerous otter gear used in mines clearance by the the trawler sections. Trawlers were fitted with surplus naval six or three pounder guns, but often these guns could not be properly elevated or depressed. Not until late 1917 were Auxiliary Patrol trawlers fitted with the more effective twelve pounder guns. With the exception of hydrophones and the D* depth charges (made available in late 1917) Equipment given to RNR units were usually cast offs from general service. If provided with any signalling equipment at all, were given cruiser arc lamps. Most of the friendly fire incidents outlined above were due to recognition signal failures. The system was widely acknowledged to be unfit for purpose but the newer Aldis lamps were in short supply and tended to be snapped up by Grand Fleet flotillas.
Only one in ten trawlers was fitted with wireless by late 1918. The Auxiliary Patrol and the convoy escort system worked by means of visual signals. The challenge was perhaps the most vital signal of all.
It was imperative that ships at sea could rapidly establish whether a second vessel was friend or foe, particularly if the vessel was a submarine. The challenge consisted of a two letter code transmitted by cumbersome arc lamp. In return the challenged submarine was expected to reply with a second two letter code and fire off coloured smoke grenades as a suitable response. Smoke recognition signals were heavily dependent upon visibility, the speed at which they could be fired and the capacity of the other party to identify and act upon them. It was simply the best procedure the Royal Navy had. Its shortcomings were demonstrated by the loss of Tees submarine G9 off the Shetlands.
On September 10, 1917 the surfaced G9 (Lt. Cdr. B Cary) had mistakenly attacked a Scandinavian escort destroyer, HMS Pasley (Cdr.C. Ramsey) with a couple of torpedoes. The torpedoes failed. Cary quickly realised his error and ordered that the recognition signal be sent to the destroyer, now closing in to ram. The cruiser arc lamp procedure was too slow. Pasley rode over the aft section of G9, split the boat and sent her to the bottom. One man survived to tell the dismal tale. If the Royal Navy could not distinguish its own units from those of the enemy and make the communications system work, what chance had the bargain basement equipped, scratch-trained reservist units ?
The training given to the crews was as rudimentary as their equipment. The old pre-war reservists had been given a level of instruction in mine-sweeping, gunnery, navigation and signals but due to the rapid expansion of the reserve, for the newer men it was largely a case of learning on the job. In some cases petty officers were drafted in from general service to serve as ‘third hands’ providing crucial guidance in signalling and navigation. Nevertheless what the auxiliary patrolmen lacked in certain skills, they made up for in enthusiasm, although indiscipline was a problem; fishermen did not take too kindly to the King’s Regulations.
True, some trawler crews were inclined to shoot first and establish the identity of a submarine later. Given how badly the Auxiliary Patrol had suffered at the depredations of the High Seas Fleet U-boats, this is hardly surprising.
As First Sea Lord, Jellicoe had pioneered a training regime for Auxiliary Patrol personnel in 1917 and by 1918 it had started to pay dividends. The destruction of UB-110, UB-30 and UB-115 demonstrated that the Auxiliary Patrol had been forged into an efficient weapon against U-boats. While it is undoubtedly the case that many of the submarine-related friendly fire incidents outlined above were caused by poor training allied to an over zealous mindset on the part of the reservists, the problems went far deeper than the excesses of a bunch of trigger happy sea-peasants. Grand Fleet staff were not keeping the Auxiliary Patrol units informed as one small but key example demonstrates.
The British submarine recognition silhouettes issued to the local Auxiliary Patrol illustrate the problem. Although some units under Admiralty control had been provided with up to date British submarine silhouettes, reservists at Granton were training on 1916 imagery. This hardly mattered with regard to most British boats but as we have seen, the appearance of the ‘J’ class submarines had changed significantly since completion.
At the outbreak of war the British coast had been divided into twenty-one Auxiliary Patrol areas under the overall control of Admiralty. Local command was given a Senior Naval Officer or SNO. The sections which concern us are here are; Forth (VI) Tyne (VIII), and Humber (IX). The SNOs of these Auxiliary Patrol sectors were in turn answerable to C. n C. Scottish Coast and Rear Admiral East Coast respectively. The resources allocated to the SNO in each sector depended upon the presence of naval installations and Admiralty’s assessment of the risk from U-boats and surface raiders. The Blyth submarine base was not established until late 1916 and Admiralty wrongly concluded that the North East coast faced little threat. Sector VIII stretching from St Abbs Head to Scarborough was consequently one of the weakest units on the British coast with just twelve trawlers patrolling 114 miles of coast in 1917. SNO Tyne constantly pleaded in vain for more resources as the role and responsibilities of the Auxiliary Patrol in the North East became more complex with the introduction of convoy.
The work of the Auxiliary Patrol in the Tyne sector was augmented by the patrolling warships of the 7th Destroyer Flotilla based at Immingham on the Humber under Rear Admiral East Coast, Stuart Nicholson. Rear Admiral East coast wisely divided up his flotilla of ancient destroyers, keeping two in the mouth of the Tyne and whenever possible, one at Blyth (under separate control from Tartar and Moon allocated to the 11th Submarine Flotilla and answerable to Beatty commanding the Grand Fleet). By late 1917 there was a significant reservist flavour to 7th Flotilla crews. Officers tended to be RNR or RNVR reservists drawn from the retired list or men with merchant navy experience like Admiral Frank Finnis, Commander of Mekong or Herbert Lightoller of Titanic fame who captained the ancient HMS Falcon and later HMS Garry on the East coast convoy run. Already stretched to the limits in their anti submarine role, the pressures on the 7th Destroyer Flotilla were about to get much worse.
Admiralty had always been averse to operating a convoy system to Norway on the basis that it could not provide the necessary escort force of an estimated twenty-three destroyers. By the Spring of 1918, the convoy system was in full swing but the escort force was three destroyers short for the run between Lerwick and Bergen. Beatty temporarily stepped into the breach by deploying his Grand Fleet destroyers as Scandinavian route escorts but he had no intention of committing any more ships than he absolutely had to. On 13 May 1918 Beatty pressurised Rear Admiral East coast Nicholson to cede three destroyers:
‘Request you will use your utmost endeavor to maintain convoy escorts. Destroyers are doing far better work by escorting convoys where there are many chances of attacking enemy submarines, than by patrolling the coast‘
Beatty copied the telegram to his associates in Admiralty, urging them to ensure Nicholson’s compliance. Nicholson lost his three destroyers and the already depleted East coast defences were reduced to a minimal level It can hardly be co-incidence that this period marked the apex of High Seas Fleet U-boat activities on the North East coast. The tone of some material in the records of Admiralty controlled units points to a rancorous relationship with Beatty and his staff
In January 1918 the system of East coast convoy sailings was restructured. The East coast convoys were designed to dovetail with the Scandinavian convoys now sailing from Methil in Fife to Bergen in Norway. The convoys sailed up the East coast War Channel in two legs, first U-T (T-U in reverse) from the Humber to the Tyne. This was followed by T-M from the Tyne to Methil (M-T in reverse). Rear Admiral East Coast Nicholson based at Immingham was again responsible for providing escorts from the 7th Destroyer Flotilla and associated units.
As has been noted It was the explicit responsibility of the staff of C.in C. Grand Fleet and his deputies, Captains (S) 10 Tees and 11 Blyth to keep Rear Admiral East Coast and C. in C. Coast of Scotland (who was in turn to advise SNO Granton) abreast of submarine movements. It is clear from a series of memoranda to Beatty from Rear Admiral East Coast that this was not happening in practice. Only the vaguest submarine movement reports were forwarded to Rear Admiral East Coast – if any were circulated at all. For instance among a list of warships expected to enter or depart the War Channel in October 1918 a telegram sent from the Grand Fleet to Rear Admiral East coast late on October 14 stated that submarine G10 ‘‘leaves on patrol am tomorrow. Expected off Coquet Island sometime after 19th instant’. G10 actually returned to Blyth on October 22. This was the only warning Admiral East Coast was given of Blyth submarine operations that week.
Returning British submarines were supposed to transmit estimated time of arrival wireless messages to Titania or Lucia when five to ten miles from the War Channel. Information was also to be provided with regard to which of the entry points to the War Channel was to be used, St Abbs Head (Route A), Longstone (Route B), Coquet Island (Route C) or St Marys Light (Route D). Staff officers attached to Lucia an Titania were then to send updates via restricted telegrams to interested parties, including Rear Admiral East coast and C. in C. Coast of Scotland. Judging from the notes made by Convoy Intelligence Officer, Captain Beautement RNR at Immingham, these updates were not being sent. However there does not appear to have been the same level of communication failure in relation to the Tees Flotilla boats. It is not clear why this was the case. There is no surviving response to the questions posed by a bewildered and frustrated Rear Admiral East Coast to Beatty’s staff and speculation must fill the void. We do not know at what level the decision to refuse providing information regarding submarine movements was made but there can be no doubt that Beatty was aware of these failures. Possibly this communications impasse was due to shortcomings in wireless technology, after all information regarding submarine movements was usually out of date almost as soon as it was received. Security issues may also have played a role.
Captain S (10) Stanley Willis was possibly afraid that transmissions detailing submarine movements could be detected by the enemy. Willis (or Beatty) may have concluded that the risk posed by enemy detection was greater than the threat to his submarines from the Auxiliary Patrol or the convoy escorts. As Nicholson’s successor, Rear Admiral East Coast, Robert Hornell warned in a prescient memo of June 7, 1918, friendly fire incidents were particularly frequent at the point at which the Longstone/Lista Light route met the War Channel. This was to be the sector where J6 was attacked.
With the allied advance on the western front continuing unabated, there was widespread expectation that the High Seas Fleet and its associated units were likely to make some form of riposte. Room 40 warned C. in C. Grand Fleet, Admiral Coast of Scotland and SNO Granton on October 12 that a major sortie was in the offing. Since late Summer U-boats had been laying mines in an arc off the East coast of Britain designed to destroy Grand Fleet units based on the Forth. There was evidence that this arc was now being extended Southwards in readiness for a major operation. Local coastal look-outs had reported a U-boat off North Sunderland on October 14. That same day Room 40 warned that at least one UC boat of HSF I Flotille, quite possibly two, were expected to lay mines between Longstone and Blyth on or around October 14-16. UB-121 was certainly operating off Blyth on October 28. It was decided to send a Granton ‘Q’ ship to investigate.
Granton Harbour was the base for the VI (Forth) sector trawlers engaged in escorting Scandinavian traffic. It was also the base for a special service unit of ‘Q’ ships under Captain James Startin. From humble beginnings in 1915 this unit had grown by 1918 to a fleet of twenty-nine comprising thirteen armed trawlers, four coastal steamers, one tug and eleven sailing ships.
In fact the day of the ‘Q’ ship was over by February 1917 when the KDM decisively adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Now that the U-flotillas had been freed to make torpedo attacks from periscope depth, the odds were tipping against the ‘Q’ ships and losses mounted accordingly. Of the one hundred and ninety three ‘Q’ ships in service, forty-four were sunk for the loss of fifteen U-boats. By the Autumn of 1918, Startin’s ‘Q’ ships were reduced to trailing East coast and Scandinavian convoys, acting the part of the straggler in the hope of enticing U-boats to make a surface attack with their guns. By the time of the J6 accident the Granton unit had amassed five DSOs, fifteen DSCs and fifty DSMs. A brace of these DSOs and DSCs had been awarded to Lt Frederick Peterson
Lt. Frederick Peterson DSO*, DSC* RNR had been hunting U-boats since 1915. Peterson had earlier commanded the Granton based ‘Q’ trawler Taranaki in a tandem operation with Leith submarine C24 (Lt F Taylor). On July 26, 1915, Taranaki was in a fight with U-6 which may have left the U-boat damaged.
On April 24 1917, Peterson, now in command of trawler, Roskeen fought an inconclusive gun duel with UC-29 off Amble, Northumberland. The U-boat dived to safety. Roskeen suffered shell damage to her bridge. On May 15, 1917 ‘ Roskeen had fought a gun duel with UC-40. The U-boat escaped. Peterson was seriously wounded with shrapnel puncturing his face and lungs. Several men were wounded. Roskeen suffered significant shell damage and was taken out of service. Frederick Peterson returned to active service in the Summer of 1918 and was given overall command of the barquentine Cymric (Master: Elam Taylor).
Cymric was powered by sail, but fitted with a 52hp 3-cylinder triple expansion auxiliary steam engine. Not only could she travel at speed, she packed a punch having been armed with a four inch gun, two twelve pounder guns and a howitzer.
Cymric was ordered to investigate the War Channel at the junction with the old Longstone/Lista Light route, a favourite ambush point for U-boats, on October 15. Peterson was to patrol between Dunbar as far as Coquet Island, paying special attention ‘to the point at which the War Channel was joined by independent sailing Scandinavian traffic from Bergen’. Peterson was given leeway to investigate as far along the Longstone/Lista Light route as he thought necessary.
Upon learning of the Room 40 warning C. in C. Grand Fleet notified his own units, including Captain (S) 11 Stanley Willis, ordering his boats to carry out anti U-boat patrols in the War Channel and the Longstone /Lista Light route. J2 carried out an uneventful patrol in the vicinity of St Abbs Head on October 14. G10 and J6 were selected to carry out patrols the following day. Captain (D) 13 Rosyth, a Grand Fleet unit was informed that the two Blyth submarines might be expected in the War Channel but at no stage were SNO Tyne Captain Bowden-Smith, Rear Admiral East Coast, Robert Hornell or crucially, SNO Granton acting Captain Sir Drury Wake or his staff, made aware of the movements of J6. On October 14 A general warning was issued by the staff of C. in C. Coast of Scotland to Grand Fleet and East coast units to the effect that Cymric was exploring reports of U-boat operations on the Longstone/Lista route. This was not discussed at the subsequent inquiry and it appears that Warburton had no knowledge of it. .The upshot is that both J6 and Cymric were to be hunting U-boats in the same sector, the Longstone/Lista Light route but incredibly neither was warned of the other’s presence.
G10 (Lt Bennet) left Blyth at 10:15 on October 15. Her billet took her some distance along the Longstone /Lista Light route and into the Skaggerak. J6 left Blyth at 14:10. The boat was streaming a large White Ensign. The boat adopted a Northerly course but skirted the War Channel. Conditions were clear, there was a slight breeze and the sea was smooth. Off Longstone J6 altered course to the East. At 15:20 hrs one of the lookouts, AB Luff, reported a sailing ship on the beam without an ensign. Lt. Brierley, the officer on watch, peered at Cymric but saw nothing to give alarm.
Cymric had proceeded South down the War Channel as far as St. Abbs Head before pursuing a more South Easterly course, which had taken her outside the War Channel, well East of Longstone Light some forty-three miles along the Longstone/Lista route. The crew of Cymric stared at a submarine, fully buoyant, men on the bridge, gun unmanned. Lt. Peterson had not been warned to expect any allied submarine movements.
Evidence of Lt. Frederick Peterson DSO*, DSC* RNR:
“At about 15.30 on the 15th October a submarine was spotted on the surface steaming towards Cymric. Visibility at this time was about 6,000-yards and when first spotted the submarine was from two and a half to three miles off. She continued on an opposite course to Cymric and I decided she was a friendly submarine…I recognised the bow of the ship as typical of the ‘J’ Class. When first sighted ‘action stations’ were sounded, but when I decided this submarine was friendly I told the gun crews, but ordered them to ‘stand by’.”
Lt. Peterson was disturbed by the position of the submarine’s gun, as it did not correspond to any of the friendly submarine silhouettes he had been issued with for identification purposes. As the lettering on the submarine’s conning tower became clearer, suspicion grew that the submarine was an enemy. Some eyewitnesses on Cymric claimed that an object was partly obscuring the lettering on the conning tower. Lt Peterson describes what happened next:
“Shortly after this, when the submarine’s letter and number could be seen clearly, it appeared to me to be ‘U-6’; the submarine at that time was still on the bow: I waited until the submarine was on the beam and still being convinced she was ‘U-6’, I gave the order for action. The White Ensign was hoisted on the mizzen truck of Cymric. There was a pause, but no recognition was shown by the submarine at that time.”
It will be recalled that Peterson had fought an inconclusive duel with U-6 back in July 1915. U-6 had in fact been sunk off Stavanger by the submarine E16, on September 15, 1915. There was a great deal of service scepticism about sinking claims.
Lt. Peterson erroneously believed that it was the responsibility of a British submarine to make the initial challenge to a surface vessel. The challenge consisted of a two letter code, in this instance ‘FO’ to be answered by another two letter code ‘BY’, followed by three green smoke grenades. The subsequent Inquiry held that Peterson had acted incorrectly and that responsibility for making the challenge lay with the surface vessel. However an examination of ADM 1/8558/135 ‘Signals, Recognition and Identification’, indicates the challenge/reply choreography was far from straightforward:
‘Should two vessels challenge each other simultaneously, the one to the Northward (magnetic) or due East (mag) should continue to make the Challenge; the one to the S or due W should change her signal to the Reply.‘
The onus does appear to have been on Cymric to make the challenge to the submarine. The apparent failure of J6 to respond to the challenge convinced Lt Peterson and his crew that the submarine must be German. The Skipper and Sailing Master of Cymric, Elam Taylor appears to have been unconvinced. In his evidence to the Inquiry, Taylor stated in response to questioning that he had recognised that the submarine was flying a White Ensign before the the order to open fire had been issued. He also added that he had kept this view to himself.
It should be noted that flying a White Ensign was a common ruse de guerre on the part of KDM units operating against the East coast. Elements of the High Seas Fleet had run close inshore and had flown the White Ensign prior to bombarding Hartlepool in December 1914 and more recently, in the course of a surface attack on an MT convoy on December 12, 1917, German destroyers of the 4th Flotille had run up White Ensigns prior to sinking a couple of convoy stragglers in the War Channel.
Lt. Charles Mutch shared his captain’s belief that the submarine was a U-boat:
“After a short pause, the order was given, ‘Drop the bulwarks and open fire!’. By this time the submarine was well abaft the beam and the range given to the starboard twelve-pounder was 1,800-yards. The first two shots were short, but the third hit the submarine near the after end of the conning tower. The order ‘independent fire’ was made and our guns made several hits”.
J6 was engulfed in devastating shell fire as Lt.Cdr. Geoffrey Warburton DSO, testifies:
“As I got out of my bunk, the messenger rushed forward shouting, ‘a ‘Q’ ship firing!’ and I heard the reports. I shouted out ‘full speed on the engines’, as I thought from the sound that one engine had stopped. When I arrived up on the conning tower we were stern on to the barquentine (which was) firing fast. Signalman Field fell down with a rifle in his hand without firing and the (recognition) grenade rolled out over the side. Lt. Brierley, the officer on watch, had his jaw blown off. I fired six grenades which all went off correctly.”
Crucially, due to the smoke made by their own guns, the crew of Cymric did not spot these recognition grenades. Lt.Cdr. Warburton:
“During this time we were hit repeatedly, the telegraph being knocked out and a large hole blown in the starboard side of the forward engine room. The gun tower was hit abaft the gun and the conning tower was also hit but not perforated. The ship was now listing heavily to port, because the external main ballast tanks were holed. Lt Robbins having arrived up, I ordered him to get the hands fallen in on the disengaged side and to take of his shirt and wave it. The Coxswain was then at the wheel and zig-zagging. During this time our Ensign was streaming out astern from the W/T mast”
Below, Lt. Edward Loly was in his bunk when the first shell hit J6:
“As I turned out a shell hit the port side of the control room forward and blew up the switch board. This must have been the shell, which hit the gun tower. At the same time the boat began to list to starboard. I was about to start the blowers when the order came ‘go full speed’…the blowing was having no effect. The engine room was reported to be making water very fast and by this stage the engines had stopped. I got the men out and sent up all available woodwork. Leading Tel Wickstead and ERA Robertson remained below”
CERA Robertson was in the engine room:
“I got the order to stop all engines from the captain and called through the voice pipe to the after engine room but received no answer. I stopped the starboard engine and received an order to ‘close bulkhead doors’. I went into the motor room to find out if anyone was there. One stoker came out but I was forced away because of the fumes and smoke. I tried once again but there was no answer. I was able to close the forward bulkhead of the motor room”
When the crew of Cymric spotted the white ‘flag’, the order was given to ceasefire. At this time Lt. Mutch observed signal smoke of an indeterminate colour, which convinced him more than ever that this was an enemy submarine as the Germans were known to copy British signals. Equally damning in the eyes of the Cymric crew was the failure of the submarine to stop engines. Unfortunately J6 was unable to stop. The submarine maintained her course and speed. Cymric’s gunners now brought their howitzer into operation as they pursued the stricken submarine into a fog bank. By the time Cymric caught up with J6 the submarine was clearly sinking.
Lt.Cdr. Warburton went below:
“I went aft to the engine room. There was about three feet of water above the engine room plates and water was coming in very fast from the starboard group exhaust valve. Chief Stoker Joyner was closing the motor room door and clipped up the beam tube door. I then went forward and closed the foremost door and gave orders to Leading Tel. Wickstead to make an urgent morse-code signal for help, which he did. By this time water was coming through the beam tube door. There was no chance of saving the boat and I sent everybody on deck. The Coxswain urged me to come up too and she sank about twenty seconds later.
There were about twenty men in the berthon boat with the rest holding on to the woodwork. I saw Lt. Brierley in the water and exchanged waves with him. Shortly afterwards he disappeared. Cymric came up in about twenty minutes and lowered boats”.
Upon realising their mistake, Lieutenants Peterson and Mutch dived into the water in order to save the floundering submariners .
One of the crew of Cymric later wrote:
“The first thing I noticed was the marking ‘HM Submarines’ on the bands of the men’s hats. We had sunk a British submarine by mistaking the ‘J’ for a ‘U’. I can remember a big red headed chap who was badly wounded shouting at us from the boat ‘Come on you stupid ##### these are your own ###### side! Give them a hand’.
We pulled over to the sinking men. One man was holding up his commanding officer. He yelled come and help me save Mr Warburton. Others were drowning. We dived in and rescued all that we could. One we took out of the water was too far gone and died on board…We sent a signal to Blyth that we were making for the port with the survivors of J6 aboard. I will never forget entering the port. As we rounded the pier and worked our way into the basin where the depot ship Titania and the other submarines were moored, we could see the wives and children of the submarine gazing with anxious eyes to see if those dear to them were among the survivors”
T.M. Jones in ‘Watchdogs of the Deep’ claimed that some of the crew of J6 had felt a premonition of disaster prior to the boat’s departure. Jones knew the crew of J6 personally and was present when the survivors were landed at Blyth.
On learning of the disaster Captain Willis sent the following transmission to Beatty:
‘Captain (S) Blyth to C-in-C. 15/10/18 2200. Priority…….. Following from the S.S. Vessel “Cimric” by W/T: – Submarine J6 sunk by “Cimric” who is returning to Blyth with 30 survivors.‘
Sadly nothing could be done for Artificer Engineer Bright, despite frantic attempts at resuscitation. Bright died of shock and was buried at the Beach Cemetery, as previously mentioned. Of the sixteen men who were lost, his was the only body recovered. The remainder are commemorated on the Portsmouth and Plymouth Naval Memorials.
The Inquiry October 16, 1918
The speed at which the, ‘Court of Inquiry into sinking of HMS/M J6 by Special Service Vessel Cymric under LT. F.H. Peterson D.S.O. DSC RNR’ was held next day at Blyth onboard HMS Titania, is one of the most intriguing facets of this dismal tale. Beatty as C. in C. Grand Fleet had acted with remarkable rapidity in convening this board at such short notice. Willis as Captain (S) 11 presided. Alongside Willis were Captain Archdale of Vulcan who commanded the 14th Submarine Flotilla at Blyth, Commander Robert Ramsay of the submarine M1 temporarily attached to the 11th Flotilla. Ramsay’s input was particularly valuable as Willis and Archdale had commanded submarine depot ships but had no direct submarine experience themselves, whereas Ramsay had captained E25 and latterly J1 at Blyth. Acting SNO Granton was not invited to attend or submit evidence. Peterson faced his accusers without support beyond his crew. The RNR man, could expect little empathy from the line officers sitting in judgement. One by one the dramatis personae were questioned. Of the Cymric men only Elam Taylor deviated from the collective line that the crew believed they were firing at a U-boat. Most curiously Taylor was not pressed on this issue by the board.
The Inquiry conclusion delivered that day was never in doubt:
‘We have this day held careful enquiry into the loss of H.M Submarine J6 on 15th October 1918 and find that –
We attribute blame to:
The Commanding Officer of Cymric in that he was not justified in opening fire before he had established her identity, J6 being in full buoyancy, men on conning tower, mast up, ensign flying, gun unmanned and not acting in any way suspiciously.’
On a prima facie basis Peterson was indeed culpable. He had wrongly expected J6 to challenge him and opened fire when she failed to reply. Peterson’s instinct had overridden procedural reason with disastrous consequences. However if responsibility for the loss of J6 is to be attributed to Peterson, extenuating circumstances should be also acknowledged. J6 had not been trimmed down for diving and her gun was not manned as might have been expected of a marauding U-boat – except that was not necessarily how U-boats operating inshore on the East coast had behaved in Peterson’s previous engagements – and he had rather more experience in dealing with U-boats than any of the men sitting in judgement, including Bertram Ramsay who himself had made several torpedo attacks on U-boats while in command of J1. Ramsey had made his attacks far out to sea in open waters where the U-boats were invariably trimmed down, zig-zagged and kept their guns manned – but this was far a universal procedure as the local Auxiliary Patrol units could have told him. If British submarines could be expected in the War Channel, so could U-boats.
U-78, U-80, UC-40, UC-59, UB-21, UB-34, UB-67 and UB-77 all operated in this sector from June to September 1918 (Spindler Band 5). It is pertinent to relate that UB-115 had been destroyed in the War Channel by 7th Flotilla convoy escorts a short distance from Blyth as recently as September 29. There were (false)reports of a U-boat off the Farnes on October 14. Moreover Room 40 had issued SNO Granton with specific intelligence that a UC mining operation beyond the confines of the War Channel was highly likely. The crew of Cymric had every reason to be on edge though none of this intelligence was discussed at the Inquiry.
‘The essence of a ‘Q’ ship attack lay in rapid and overwhelming attack at close range’
So wrote Gibson and Prendergast in ‘The German Submarine War 1914-1918’. In Peterson’s world U-boats flew White Ensigns as a ruse de guerre, they maintained full buoyancy inshore to look like ships, they mounted sails and they had no need to man their guns (secondary armament post February 1917) providing the bow tubes were flooded and ready at a moment’s notice. For Peterson and his ilk the North Sea was a cruel Darwinian arena in which a second’s hesitation was fatal and he had the scars to prove it.
Had this incident occurred today, any defence counsel worthy of its name would point out that Peterson had been seriously injured and had only just returned from sick leave. It could be argued that he was suffering from PTSD. However the past is a foreign land, the author is not a psychiatrist and neither Peterson nor anyone else offered up this defence on his behalf.
As previously mentioned some the men on Cymric‘s bridge thought read the ‘J’ painted on J6′s conning tower an a ‘U’. The implications of Lt. Peterson believing he was being confronted by his old adversary, U-6, might well be imagined.
The board also highlighted that the late twenty-two year old Lt. Roger Brierley, the relatively inexperienced Officer on Watch on J6 at the time of the incident had approached Cymric “unduly close”. In this the board may have been mindful of the staff guidance issued in the wake of the Orpheus incident the previous year, described above.
The Inquiry findings continued. If it was difficult to take issue with its primary conclusion, its concluding deliberations nevertheless seem profoundly cynical:
‘We attribute blame to:
‘the officers responsible for giving orders to ‘Cymric’, in that the Commanding Officer of ‘Cymric’ was not given the necessary information regarding the movements…(or) provided with the latest information of the appearance….. of British submarines….’
The Inquiry terms of reference had been kept as narrow as possible, thus cauterising the loss of J6 from previous friendly fire incidents, a submarine challenge/reply system that was manifestly unfit for purpose and above all the astonishing failure of C.in C. Grand fleet and his staff to communicate details of submarine movements to Admiralty units operating on the East coast, directly resulting in submarine and a ‘Q’ ship both hunting U-boats in the same billet, neither aware of the other’s presence. Quite apart from failing to advise SNO Granton, neither SNO Tyne nor Rear Admiral East coast had been made aware that J6 was patrolling near the War Channel that day, even though a large escorted convoy was due to pass through this very sector.
As regards the failure to disseminate information regarding the altered bridge configuration of the ‘J’ class submarines, responsibility for ensuring other units were aware of changing structural configurations lay with Grand Fleet staff alone, specifically Captain (S) 11. Of course Captain Willis was presiding over the present Inquiry.
The board’s chicanery went beyond being economical with the truth. The wording of its conclusions functioned to deflect blame away from Grand Fleet staff and towards the administration of acting SNO Granton instead. The role played by C.in C. Grand Fleet and his deputy Captain (S) 11 in this state of affairs was shielded from critical analysis. Captain (S) 11, Stanley Willis relinquished command of Titania and with it the Blyth Flotilla, on 28 October 1918. This departure was not a sacking. It was widely recognised that Captain Willis had served the 11th Flotilla with distinction but a fresh administrator was required to facilitate a peace time re-organisation.
Thus, a series of issues arising from fog of war namely human error, technical shortcomings allied to a communication breakdown between Beatty’s Grand Fleet units and their reservist counterparts at Granton, issues which in themselves would not have been fatal, here fell into a deadly alignment. In many ways this was simply bad luck. The disinclination of the Inquiry board to examine the broader picture can only be explained by Beatty and his staff imposing a deliberately narrow remit. It can be observed that the Inquiry was suffused with expediency at every turn. No investigation into the all too evident communications problems followed. The J6 Inquiry was an opportunity lost.
In so many ways the destruction of J6 raised far too many questions than answers and in some cases the answers, particularly regarding accountability, are simply not there. The files ADM. 156/13 , 156/147 ADM 156/131 and 156/172 were only opened in 1997. This closure was likely imposed to protect the reputation and identity of Lt. Peterson. Whenever the case of J6 is cited, it is described as an isolated tragedy. The author would contend that sundered from the context described above, the Inquiry files are void of meaning.
It is recorded that when the Inquiry closed as Lt. Peterson turned to leave the courtroom, the survivors of J6 stood smartly to attention, saluted and cheered him. Surely the supreme accolade, hardened submariners could bestow, and perhaps implicit recognition between submariner and ‘Q’ ship sailor a shared knife-edge existence. All that remained was the question as to whether Peterson should face court martial.
In a hand written note to David Beatty (by this stage First Sea Lord) Commodore S.S. Hall (Senior Officer in Command of the Submarine Service) made the following observations following the board’s findings:
“It does not appear reasonable that an officer whose particular business it was, should be capable of mistaking the silhouette of J6 for ‘U-6’ even if he did not know that U-6 had been sunk 3 years ago…The C/O of Cymric seems to have expected J6 to challenge and to be unaware that it is clearly laid down that the surface craft should challenge and submarines only to reply. To expect a German submarine in this position to have mast up and colours flying, gun unmanned and men on deck in low visibility shows a further want in judgement – particularly in an area where he must have known that British submarines are constantly on passage…it is not known what other action could have been taken by J6”
Hall (no stranger to facing court martial procedures himself ) added the following rider on January 13, 1919:
‘No useful object will be achieved in pursuing this matter further. It is now two months since the inquiry was held and I propose that no action be taken…..’.
In response Beatty replied;
“It is not proposed to submit that Lieutenant Peterson be tried by Court Martial; this officer has done excellent service and the fact that Officers and Men of HM Service have lost their lives through his action is sufficient punishment.”
We will never know whether Grand Fleet and Admiralty staff officers reflected upon the wisdom of ordering a ‘Q’ ship and a submarine to hunt U-boats in the same billet, each oblivious to the other’s presence but in the author’s opinion this is the real reason why J6 was sunk at a cost of sixteen lives.
One direct legacy arose from the board’s findings. Following the loss of J6 the the bracket for holding a signalling rifle stand was mounted next to the periscope in new build submarines. This was the only effort made to address the all too obvious shortcomings in submarine recognition procedures. Arguably this was a lost opportunity to reform the challenge/reply system. Re-positioning the rifle bracket did not prevent HM S/M Triton from mistaking her Dundee stablemate Oxley for a U-boat while patrolling the Obrestad Line off Norway on September 10, 1939. Due to a challenge/response signal failure, Triton torpedoed and sank Oxley. There were three survivors. The lesson of J6 had not been learned. The first victim of the Submarine Service during the Second World War was one of its own.
The wreck of J6 was not discovered until 2011. It was much further East than had been thought at the time of her loss. Indeed the wreck lies over thirty five miles East of Seahouses. The identity was confirmed by Polish divers hunting for the legendary ORP Orzel. The dimensions on sonar readouts (80m length) were similar to those of Orzel but the presence of three screws established the identity beyond reasonable doubt as J6.
At the time of discovery the telegraphs were present on the bridge and bore inscriptions in English. J6 lies upright with her bows pointing South West. She leans slightly over to port. The entire submarine is wreathed in fishing nets but a scuttle reveals itself through the filament like a peeping eye. Not only is the conning tower leaning, the bridge and most of the superstructure, including the gun sponson have collapsed into the wreck.
At the time of writing one of the telegraphs was lying inside the pressure hull.
Although bent and battered, one of the periscopes stands proud. This is odd because the periscopes would have been housed at the time of her loss. This can only be explained by the activity of fishing vessels over the years. The casing and much of the pressure hull has gone from the bow section. It is not clear whether this was caused by shell fire, or collision with the sea bed or trawl nets. The hydroplanes are in the stowed position as might be expected Divers have reported evidence of shell fire damage aft of the conning tower.
J6 is a serene War Grave as dangers from nets tend to deter sports divers from penetrating the pressure hull. Under questioning as to how many men had gone down with the boat, Warburton replied: ‘I think two ERAS, two stokers, and three ABs went down in the boat as they were in the after compartment, and I think the boat was hit aft………..I think the others were drowned on being precipitated into the water’. The conning tower hatch is closed but further aft the engine room hatch is open. Possibly this was torn open by trawl nets but it may be evidence that the trapped men survived the initial flooding and attempted to make an escape bid. From a depth of seventy nine metres, without breathing apparatus or any means of slowing their ascent, the bid was doomed.
The Crew of HM S/M J6 15 October 1918
|RN Lt Cdr Geoffrey Warburton|| |
|RN Lt Edward Masterman Loly ||RN Lieutenant Harry Robbins|
|RNR Officer Casualties:|
|Artificer Engineer Charles Bright, 40 ||Roger Ingham Brierley 22|
|CPO Alfred Phillips||PO Philip Groves|
|PO Herbert Bertrand Green ||PO James Felix Luff|
|L/Sea Frederick Noakes ||AB Dennis Deasey|
|AB Harold Hall||Sig George Field|
|Sto John Preston||Tel Leonard Warner|
|CERA John Robertson O/N RNR||Ch Sto Albert Joyner|
|Sto William Crancher||Sto Sidney Knibbs|
|Sto William Hockridge||Sto Albert Rawlings|
|Ratings Casualties: |
|L/Sea Edward Rayner 24||AB Arthur Hill 27|
|AB William Russell ||AB Frank Tyler|
|AB Henry White 23||L/Tel George Wickstead 21|
|Boy Tel Henry Sexton 17||ERA3 Ernest Armstrong 24|
|ERA3 Athol Lamont 27 ||ERA4 Herbert Burwell 22|
|L/Sto Percival Stevenson 27 ||Sto Albert Savidge 23|
|Sto Philip Tachon ||Sto William Thompson 21|
There is a surprising postscript to this sad story. By a process of elimination, the recent identification of the Tees boat G8 off Hirstalls in Denmark can only mean that a second ‘G’ class wreck in the Farnes Deep must be G7. The wreck of G7 is in generally in good condition but everything beyond the aft hydroplanes is missing. Divers experienced with submarines have told me that the damage is inconsistent with mining and may be a sign that G7 was rammed while inbound on the Lista/Longstone Route on the night of 29/30 October, in circumstances unknown. This route was heavily used by individual merchant vessels averse to convoy and it was a routine beat of the Auxiliary Patrol.
Along with J6, G7 was the only Blyth submarine lost in the First World War. How tragically ironic if both losses, suffered within a fortnight of each other, had been due to ‘friendly fire’.
ADM 1/8558/135 Signals, Recognition and Identification
ADM 137/1890 Secret Pack Recognition signals 1917-1918
ADM. 156/13, 156/147 ADM 156/131 and 156/172
Naval Staff Monographs
Technical Staff Monographs: Scandinavian Convoy and East Coast Convoy
Fishermen, the Fishing Industry and the Great War at Sea: A Forgotten History? Robb Robinson
Southern Thunder S Dunn
Room 40: The Fleet in Being by H.J. Koerver
J6 File Submarine Museum
© P Armstrong