Bow of the Alaunia with its deck-planking visible.
Unlike War Knight, no diver could pass over the wreck of ss Alaunia by mistake. The 165m Cunard passenger liner, one of the largest wrecks in the UK, lies off the East Sussex coast. At between 24 and 36m, with the bow particularly well preserved and rising to 12m off the seabed, it’s a popular dive-site.
Alaunia sailed routes from North America to the UK, and was requisitioned as a troopship during the war. She was the first Cunard ship to transport Canadian troops to Europe and, in 1915, was involved in transport for the Gallipoli campaign.
In addition to troop transport, Alaunia continued commercial trips and was on route from New York, unarmed, when she struck a mine on 19 October, 1916. Two of the 165 crew died (including the 16-year-old trimmer, who was working in the engine-room).
HMD JOHN MITCHELL
In contrast, probably only a dozen people have dived HMD John Mitchell. It was just the kind of small ship that is often left out of the story of WW1.
Like other fishing drifters built for managing huge drift-nets in heavy weather, she was readily adapted to war duties. In 1915 the John Mitchell was armed and deployed as a “net vessel”, patrolling anti-submarine nets.
The wreck now lies 15 miles off Swanage, Dorset at 40m, having collided with ss Bjerka in November, 1917. The ship had been one of at least 40 steam drifters hired by the Admiralty and lost off the South Coast alone.
The wreck is fairly intact, though much of the wooden planking on the starboard side is gone.
Thanks to some amazing visibility, the project team were able to measure, video and take thousands of photos as part of a photogrammetry survey, and then pieced it together to produce a full virtual-reality 3D tour of the John Mitchell.
A few miles south-west of the John Mitchell, the wreck of the large steamship ss Gallia lies on its port side in 38-40m about 11 miles off Anvil Point on the Dorset coast.
Divers on the wreck of the Gallia.
With parts of the wreck, including hull-plating, still intact, it’s a fascinating wreck-dive, but its identity had never been confirmed.
Gallia was an Italian collier steaming from the Tyne to Savonia in Italy in 1917. Without warning, on the afternoon of 24 October, it was torpedoed by German submarine UB40.
The torpedo struck on the port side, penetrating the engine-room, and the ship sank fast. All but one of the 27 Italian crew were rescued, though two died soon afterwards.
When the MAT team dived the site in June, 2015, they had exceptional visibility in excess of 30m. Again the team surveyed and recorded the site and produced a 3D model. With the images and model, combined with historical research, MAT confirmed the wreck’s identity.
THE STORIES OF THESE four wrecks, though extraordinary, were also everyday during the war. Germany was intent on squeezing Britain’s military supply lines, but also on targeting its merchant and transport shipping.
The 1100-plus wrecks in the project area reflect the scale and breadth of the vessels lost during the conflict. They include ocean-liners, cargo-ships, fishing-trawlers, submarines, troop-carriers and hospital ships – naval and commercial, steam and sail.
Perhaps surprisingly, 66% of the wrecks were merchant vessels and 9% fishing-boats, compared to 8% military and 4% on mine-sweeping duties.
Similarly, many of the ships, such as the Gallia, were not British but from all over the world (10% were Norwegian, 6% German and 7% French).
Everyone has a story worth telling. Robert Morgan, one of the volunteer-divers on the trust’s team, had never been involved in archaeological diving before, and found that the project reminded him “of the history and value of the sites we dive… I think that divers sometimes need reminding that wrecks aren’t just tangled messes of rusting metal on the seabed; they tell an otherwise-forgotten story of individuals and societies that most people aren’t lucky enough to see or feel.
“Once you know the stories of these wrecks, it’s very hard to see them as just metal and wood on the seabed. It changes the way you see – and dive – them.”
In August, 2018, skipper Dave Wendes and members of the MAT team returned to the site of ss War Knight – this time with two relatives of the men who died as a result of the collision, to lay poppies above the wreck.
Remembrance and commemoration are key to the project, through uncovering stories and connecting people’s lives to these wrecks, through exhibitions, articles and videos, but also through the experiences of the divers.
Project divers on the boat.
Many of the volunteers, even the experienced divers, found the project changed the way they approached wreck-dives.
“As a cameraman, it’s easy to be detached from the realities of what happened,” explains Mike Pitts. “I stay focused on the dive, my depth, my remaining air and how best to film in a relatively short window of time, but on the ascent, when I leave the wreckage behind, I look back down and think of the souls that are still there.
“On land-based equivalent sites it’s rare to see the aftermath of war like this. But here, the First World War is open to those that make the journey.”
MAT is hoping that all the research and resources available through the wreck map will enable other divers to make that journey. The four wrecks mentioned here are just a snapshot of the 1100-plus sites in the map, which you can find on the Forgotten Wrecks project website forgottenwrecks.maritimearchaeologytrust.org.
There are so many more stories and possible dives just a few clicks away. If you’re interested in diving with MAT on future projects, becoming a friend of the trust or checking out its other projects, more information can be found at maritimearchaeologytrust.org