After 44 years of cross-Channel service, this mail-boat finally succumbed to a U-boat’s torpedo towards the end of the Great War. JOHN LIDDIARD is our guide, illustration by MAX ELLIS
WHEN I DIVED the South Western it was an unknown wreck. A considerably larger wreck a couple of miles away was already identified as the South Western.
During the dive, one of the divers found a teaspoon with a “London and South Western Railways” crest on it.
Back on Wight Spirit, skipper Dave Wendes instantly connected the clues and concluded that this was the South Western, and that the other wreck was consequently unknown, though he did have some ideas.
As usual, we begin at the boilers (1), because they are the obvious target onto which to drop a shotline.
The South Western came to rest on the starboard side, and has then broken and collapsed further, with some sections almost rolling over.
One boiler is left supporting the remains of the hull and the other rests against it and slightly aft. As to which boiler is which, I suspect that the port one has rolled out to leave the port side of the hull resting on the starboard boiler, but I could easily be wrong.
Turning aft, the South Western’s triple-expansion engine (2) has fallen from the hull to leave the pistons pointing out along the seabed, then the lower part of the engine twisted upwards so that the base of the engine is now uppermost and supports a section of the hull.
If you want to wriggle, it’s possible to get behind the other side of the engine, between it and the hull. But this is not something to try unless you really know what you’re doing.
Immediately aft of the engine is a single cargo-winch (3), just about showing beneath a hull that soon collapses all the way to the seabed.
The South Western was only 674 tons and just carried light mixed cargo to and from the Channel Islands, so it didn’t have a massive amount of hold space or need for winch-gear.
Further aft, the hull is broken across to leave the propeller-shaft (4), broken at a joining flange, visible from both parts of the wreckage.
The aft part of the wreckage is difficult to work out. The port gunwale now rests on the seabed, and out of view on the other side of our illustration, the wreck has split open along the keel to leave the propeller-shaft visible most of the way to the stern.
At the stern, the propeller and rudder (5) remain in place. Then round on the keel side of the wreck, a small swivel-mount (6) may once have carried the South Western’s 13-pounder stern gun. Tucked in closer to the wreck, a broken crate holds a shell-casing.
Returning forwards, we can now take a short cut across the break in the hull (4) to the boilers (1). A valve at the top of the (presumed) port boiler is bent against the seabed and the fireboxes at the forward end of the boilers give little further indication of which boiler is which, except that neither is in its original orientation.
Forward of the boilers, a large steam pipe (7) snakes across the wreckage and stands in an inverted U.
With no further support, the hull further forward has broken again and is now flat to the seabed (8). This ends rather suddenly in a clean break (9), with no sign of further debris from the bow.
The bow was broken off by the torpedo explosion and could have sunk 20 minutes earlier; in the strong tides south of the Isle of Wight that could put it over a mile away.
Just off the deck side of the wreck, an anchor (10) is large enough that it may have been a spare from the South Western, carried on deck or at the forward end of the forward hold.
A long section of hull (11) lies almost parallel to the main body of the wreck but further out, and marks the limit of wreckage on this side.
Between the aft end of this section and the main body of the wreck is a set of steps (12) that may have led from the forward main deck to the boat deck.
Just aft of these steps, the last item of wreckage on our tour is the toilet (13).
To release a delayed SMB, I would go a few metres forward or aft of the boilers to ensure that it doesn’t foul the shotline on the way up. With big currents building at the end of slack water, swinging on a snagged line is not a fate to risk.
SOUTH WESTERN, mail steamer. BUILT 1874, SUNK 1918
J&W DUDGEON LTD of London built the 674-ton South Western in 1874 for the cross-Channel mail and ferry service operated by the London & South Western Railway Co.
Based in Southampton, the South Western gave a reliable and, some would say, monotonous service to France and the Channel Islands.
The original two-cylinder compound engine was replaced with a triple-expansion engine by Day, Summers & Co of Southampton, enabling the ageing ship to hold her own against the rapidly progressing technology of steamship design.
With the outbreak of the Great War, the service continued with the addition of a 13-pounder gun at the stern.
The South Western began her last voyage at 7:15pm on 6 March, 1918. She left Southampton for St Malo, and after exiting the Solent zig-zagged along at 10 knots.
At 11pm, Captain John Clark spotted a surfaced submarine close to his ship and ordered the gunners to open fire. The submarine dived before they could get the first round off.
Half an hour later, the submarine was spotted again, 200m to starboard.
Again the gunners trained their sights on the submarine, but this time before they could open fire a torpedo struck the forward hold, and the ship was enveloped with smoke.
Kapitanleutnant Erwin Wassner of UB59 reported that the whole forecastle exploded, and that after 20 minutes the South Western had sunk. Three days earlier Wassner had torpedoed the Venezuela, our Wreck Tour from December last year.
Of the crew of 28 and six passengers, only four survived, including Captain Clark, who was initially thrown off his feet by the explosion.
At the subsequent enquiry the missing gunners were criticised for failing to act with sufficient haste, but considering the experience of Erwin Wassner they are unlikely to have made a difference.
During the Great War, Wassner was responsible for sinking 89 ships totalling 135,178 tons, placing him number 20 in the list of successful U-boat commanders.
GETTING THERE: From the roundabout at the M27 junction 1, turn south on the A337 through Lyndhurst and continue on to Lymington. Head towards the town centre until the road takes a sharp right turn uphill to the high street. Rather than go up the high street, continue straight on and follow the road downhill to the river.
HOW TO FIND IT: Approximately six miles south of St Catherine’s Lighthouse; the exact position is not disclosed. The wreck lies with its bow to the west.
TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs 25 minutes after high water Dover. On spring tides, slack is very short, and can be a few minutes later than this. A period of calm weather is advised before venturing to the site.
AIR: TAL Scuba, Christchurch, 01202 473030.
LAUNCHING The slip in the marina at Lymington is tidal and dries towards low water.
QUALIFICATIONS: The 38m depth of the South Western means that divers should have a Deep, Advanced Nitrox or Dive Leader qualification
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2045, Outer Approaches to the Solent. Admiralty Chart 2615, Bill of Portland to the Needles. Ordnance Survey Map 196, The Solent & the Isle of Wight. South Coast Shipwrecks of East Dorset and Wight by Dave Wendes. World War 1 Channel Wrecks by Neil Maw.
PROS: A rarely dived and only recently identified wreck.
CONS: Short slack water and an area not renowned for stunning underwater visibility.
Thanks to Dave Wendes, Derek Bridle, Hamish Morrison, Jay and Dave Robbins.
Appeareed in DIVER February 2013