Dead Reckoning – GII Aground !

Legends abound on the haunted Northumbrian coast. One of the most intriguing but little known, concerns the crew of a British submarine, which according to the legend, had all got blind drunk on Armistice night and inadvertently drove their boat onto the rocks near Howick. The reality behind this folk story is infinitely more tragic and terrifying.

G11 served with the 10th Flotilla from HMS Lucia at Eston on the Tees. Lieutenant Richard Sandford VC and hero of the Zeebrugge Raid had been appointed commander of G11 on November 1st 1918. He later became gravely ill with typhoid and his place was taken by Lieutenant George Bradshaw. The highly experienced Bradshaw normally commanded HMS/M L11 but this boat was undergoing a refit on the Tyne. This much respected Captain was therefore unfamiliar with G11 and her crew. The High Seas Fleet might have been mutinous but the KDM U-boats maintained a strict discipline. Although the Armistice had been signed, Admiralty feared a Gotterdammerung action against the East coast on the part of German High Seas Fleet U-boat crews. The coast from the Tees to South Yorkshire was considered to be vulnerable so a watch was maintained on the Dogger Bank sector.

G11 at South Bank by William Wyllie

G11 left South Bank at 16:30hrs on November 19th, 1918 to take up her patrol billet on the Dogger Bank. It took the boat one day to reach her position. Now we must move forward to 20:00 on November 20th, when G11 received the ‘Return’ signal from Lucia. Lieutenant Maclure RNR, the Navigating Officer was able to fix the boat’s position by reason of the Dogger Bank Light Vessel but from that point onward, until the Coquet Light was sighted, navigation would be down to dead reckoning. At this time the weather was overcast and the boat’s compass appeared to be faulty. Fixes given by ACW (wireless direction) proved wildly inaccurate. To add to the crew’s discomfort the Logan Log used by the Navigator to measure distances had ceased to function.

Bradshaw formulated a plan and discussed it with Maclure. Bradshaw proposed to pass ten miles North of the newly-laid British protective minefield, then to alter course to 228° once Coquet Light was passed. Bradshaw did not want to travel down the coast using the East Coast War Channel lest bounty-hungry merchants or Auxiliary Patrol vessels mistake G11 for a U-boat, as frequently happened (See ‘Blue on Blue – the Story of J6). There was also the very real chance of a collision in the seaway. Instead, upon adopting a course of 228° the boat would pass between seven and ten miles to Eastward of the coast and keep outside the War Channel. The route leading to Coquet Island Light was known to the submariners of Blyth and Tees as Route ‘C’. The Tees submariners were largely unfamiliar with this approach but the recent extension of the East coast protective minefield as far as Blyth, forced all boats operating on the Dogger Bank to adopt it. Both Bradshaw and Maclure were in agreement that if the boat maintained a speed of nine to eleven knots, Coquet Light should be spotted at 19:00hrs on November 22nd.

Intended and actual courses of G11

At 17:00hrs on November 22nd, Bradshaw mounted the bridge, taking over from the officer on watch, with the experienced Coxswain Palmer as one of the four look-outs. At 17:50hrs with the boat skirting the supposed position of the minefield, Bradshaw issued orders to alter course for Coquet Island. Wind and tide had abated. At 19:00hrs, G11 was estimated to be fourteen miles from Coquet Light. Although visibility was otherwise clear, a curtain of fog screened the coast. Lt. Cdr. Bradshaw:

About 18:40 I observed what I took to be a fog bank ahead. On entering the fog I sensed something ahead. I asked the Coxswain if he saw anything ahead , he replied, ‘No Sir’. Sighting land straight ahead I immediately gave the order, ‘Hard a Starboard’. Stop Both !’ Immediately after the engines stopped we struck a rocky shore a speed of nine knots. The boat ran up the shelving rock until her bows were nearly clear of water and immediately began bumping very heavily“.

G11 was nine miles North of her estimated position. The boat has run aground on Howick Rocks, just North of the Bath House, a location notorious for shipwrecks.

Bradshaw again:

On grounding she was holed somewhere on the port quarter, either in the motor room or the engine room. Subsequently the port hydroplane shaft was snapped off and the shaft forced into the boat. She was badly holed in the port engine room bilges and after flat. Most of the keep was torn away from the pressure hull…all moveable gear fell into the port bilges, water was seen entering the motor room and the First Lieutenant reported that he could hear the electric battery containers cracking.

The boat began to take a dangerous roll to port, which increased with each roller breaking over her. I concluded that the boat was hopelessly aground and in imminent danger of capsizing and sinking. I therefore gave the order, ‘All Hands on Deck’. I spotted low-lying land ahead at about twelve to twenty yards from the bow. The boat was now lying at an angle of fifty degrees and bumping so heavily that I considered she would be holed and flooded at any second and that the only possible course was to try and save the crew.

G11 aground

I ordered the men on deck and lined them up along the starboard side of the casing. I then ordered First Lieutenant Smith to go forward to the bows and endeavour to get ashore with a heaving line and then to haul a help rope ashore. According to PO Palmer, Stoker Foster was thrown overboard from the port side of bridge by the tower hatch following a heavy bump made by the boat just after he had emerged from the conning tower hatch. The deck at this time was nearly vertical. While the crew were coming up by the conning tower and working their way forward I head someone say, ‘There is a man overboard !’. I switched on the Aldis lamp and eventually saw a man swimming towards the rocks about twenty yards on the port beam and about twenty yards from he rocks. The surf was so bad that I did not allow anyone to go in after him but gave an order to throw a heaving line. I regret that owing to the almost vertical position of the upper deck, it was impossible to get the casing flaps open for some time and long before this the man was swept out of sight and I fear, killed on the rocks”

In pitch darkness and at great personal risk, Lieutenant Smith and AB Birch succeeded in clambering over the slippery rocks to secure a line. Bradshaw ordered his men to line up on the starboard casing. One by one they used the line, initially to hang on to, and then to guide them to the safety of the shore while Bradshaw trained the Aldis light on the rope, providing as much light as he could. Holding on to the rope was in itself a hazardous undertaking and Telegraphist George Back slipped to his death in the cold November sea. As soon as Lieutenant Smith discovered that two of the crew were missing, men volunteered to go back to the shore line to mount a search. The freezing and bedraggled survivors were given sustenance at a nearby shepherd’s house and by the folk of Craster. The indefatigable Bradshaw walked to the Craster coastguard station where he telephoned the senior naval officers at Blyth and Eston to inform them of the catastrophe. Throughout this ordeal, the crew of G11 had behaved in an exemplary manner.

The subsequent inquiry held that Bradshaw, having been more used to L11 had miscalculated the loss of speed on entering heavy seas, a reduction which would have been greater in his old submarine than in G11. It was this miscalculation coupled with the fog curtaining the shore which had proved fatal to the boat:

We are of the opinion that the accident was primarily caused by overestimating the loss of speed due to the sea running at the time…Sounding were not taken prior to grounding owing to the conviction of the CLO that he was at least sixteen miles from shore at the time…The fog was a severe one…it was not possible to take any immediate action to salve the ship and that all possible steps were taken for the essential and expeditious removal of the crew from the boat…while the sextant may have been read incorrectly…we are of the opinion that no blame be attributed.. First Lieutenant Birch and AB Birch (Helmsman) are singled out for praise for their work in the rescue

The Grave of Tel. George Back, Longhaughton St. Peter and Paul Churchyard

The body of Stoker Foster was never recovered and he is remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, however Telegraphist Back’s body was recovered and buried in the South West corner of the sleepy little churchyard of St. Peter’s at Longhaughton near where he was washed ashore.

Fragments from G11 still lie scattered among the rocks. This is a hatch. Ron Young described the G11 surrounds as ‘a good rummage dive’.

There is perhaps one other casualty to mention – Lieutenant Sandford died of typhoid just a day after his boat was lost. He was buried in Eston Cemetery in Plot JU 79. George Bradshaw’s career did not suffer. After the inquiry he returned to Lucia to serve as Spare Commanding Officer. George Fagan Bradshaw was appointed in command of K15 in 1921. He retired from the Royal Navy in 1927. He died in 1960.

ADM 137/3807 The Loss of HMS G11

Silent Warriors Vol 1 by Armstrong and Young