A petrol-carrier sunk off Cornwall in 1917 by the ’Killer Captain’ – the most ruthless of U-boat commanders – makes for a diverting dive, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
LIKE MANY OF THE WRECKS OFF THE NORTH SIDE of the Land’s End peninsula, the Saxon Briton has been savaged by the deep groundswell coming in from the Atlantic. Long waves where the surge reaches 40m or more down scour everything with coarse granite sand.
While it is still obvious that the Saxon Briton sank upright, it is now pretty much a silhouette on the sand.
Even so, there remains plenty to see, beginning with the boiler (1), which stands on end largely intact. It is the only part of the Saxon Briton that really shows on an echo-sounder, so the chances are that the shot will have been dropped somewhere close by.
To get orientated, a quick circuit of the boiler should reveal the two boiler-mounts lying across the keel (2), forming a cradle in which the boiler would originally have rested.
Boilers often rolled or even floated out of their mounts as a ship sank, because they would not be attached that rigidly to allow for expansion when they heated. Or perhaps the boiler was tipped up later by the deep groundswell, after the wreck had started to break up.
Aft of the boiler-mounts and still on the centre-line of the Saxon Briton is its two-cylinder compound engine (3). The pistons have fallen to starboard, but are still attached to the crankshaft.
Rather than following the propeller-shaft aft, our route now takes a short diversion to the starboard side of the wreck, where the aft mast has fallen and lodged along the side of the hull in line with the wreck (4).
From the aft end of the mast, cutting back towards the engine, the spare propeller (5) can be seen lying flat against the ribs of the hull.
Aft of the engine is the thrust-bearing (6), enclosed in a rectangular box attached solidly to the keel of the ship. From the thrust-bearing, the propeller-shaft (7) heads aft, supported by bearing blocks every few metres. The tunnel that would have enclosed the shaft at the bottom of the holds has long since eroded, leaving just the ends of some of the supporting frames standing either side of the shaft.
A few sections back from the engine, a pair of bollards just to the starboard side of the shaft (8) mark the point for another diversion to the side, where the winch that would have served the two aft holds is located on its mounting-plate (9).
The propeller-shaft continues for a few more sections before the hull and the shaft come to a fairly clean end, where the stern has at some point in the past broken away from the main body of the wreck.
A few metres out along the line of the shaft is the tail section of the keel and shaft, with the propeller and rudder-mounting (10). Like many of the features already encountered, it is oriented from the wreck having broken to starboard before being erased down to the sand.
Just above this section and to starboard, a curved section of hull-plate from the stern arches out of the sand (11). A little aft from this, I suspect that the flat section of plate with ribs along it was once the rudder (12), though it is hard to be certain.
As our route aft was biased to the starboard side of the wreck, our route forward again is along the port side. Here there is much less to see, the only notable waypoint being a pair of bollards a few metres forward from the break (13).
Things get more interesting back at the engine, where some sections of condenser are exposed to this side of the engine’s base (14).
Forward of the boiler, the orientation of the wreck becomes far more confusing. A few metres out from the boiler and off to port are the remains of a small auxiliary steam-engine (15). Perhaps it drove a pump or a generator. Then, pretty much across the wreck, there is little to indicate which way the forward part can be found; only the occasional bit of metal rising from the sand.
About 10m out from the boiler to the south is one of the anchors (16), soon followed by an anchor hawse-pipe and a second anchor (17).
This all indicates that the Saxon Briton broke in two just forward of the boiler, perhaps across the forward hold, and the forward part actually swung round as it sank so that the bow was pointing towards the aft part. Any further use of the terms port and starboard could be very confusing from here on.
A few metres further on, the anchor-winch rests upright, almost floating on the sand (18).
Continuing along the same line, a section of hull begins cleanly from where the bow broke off but, like the stern, any further bow structure is either demolished or buried.
Working along the line of the keel, a pair of winches can be seen off to the right-hand side (19), which is actually the port of this section, but starboard compared to the more intact aft section. These would have been on the deck between the hatches to the two forward holds.
The hull soon comes to another clean break (20), which I suspect would have originally matched up with the stern section. I looked further out onto the sand (21) but could find nothing, so either this is the limit of the wreck, or anything further is buried.
With a short slack water and a long dive at 40m, the current will by now be picking up, making a delayed SMB the only choice for ascent and decompression.
THE KILLER CAPTAIN
Two of the crew of the 1,337 ton Saxon Briton died when they were torpedoed without warning by U-55 on 6 February, 1917, and the rest were lucky to survive, writes Kendall McDonald.
This was not simply because they were carrying a full cargo of petrol in special tanks from Portishead to Calais, and these failed to explode into flames when the torpedo struck, but because the commander of U-55 was Wilhelm Werner.
Kapitanleutnant Werner was the most savage of all the U-boat commanders. He well deserved the title of “the Killer Captain” and had earned his evil reputation for murdering the survivors of the ships he sank.
He had first appeared on the British List of War Criminals for sinking without warning the steamer Clearfield in October 1916. His next appearance on the list was when he sank the 3,570 ton liner Artist in January 1917, killing all 35 of her crew. Another entry on the list four days later refers to an attack on the little fishing smack Trevone, killing both aboard by gunfire.
Werner found the Saxon Briton just three miles north-east of Gurnard's Head a week later. He sank the 76m petrol-carrier, but stayed off the War Crimes List on this occasion.
His next appearance as a war criminal came after he sank the steamer Torrington on 8 April, 1917. The only witness, her captain, told how Werner lined up 20 surviving members of his crew on the casing of his submarine, ordered him below as a prisoner of war, and then dived the U-boat to drown all the remaining crew.
Werner was believed to have killed other crews in the same way, but his only other appearances on the list were for attacks on two hospital ships. He was expected to be given a death sentence when his case came before the German Supreme Court in Leipzig in 1921, but the whole war-crime trial system collapsed that September.
The worst of all the U-boat war criminals was never brought to trial. And no one knows why Werner left the scene of the sinking of the Saxon Briton without murdering the men in the boats or in the water.
GETTING THERE: Follow the M5 to Exeter, then the A30 to Hayle. The slip is before the commercial quay by the harbour office
TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs 10 to 15 minutes after high or low water Newquay. Slack lasts from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on spring or neap tides.
HOW TO FIND IT: GPS co-ordinates are 50 13.242 N, 005 37.148 W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies from south-east to north-west, stern to the north-west.
DIVING: Ben Slater, 01736 787567.
AIR : Bill Bowen runs a compressor on the pier at Penzance, 01736 752135.
ACCOMMODATION : Ben Slater can arrange accommodation with local B&Bs. There are also many camping and static caravan sites in the area.
LAUNCHING : The closest slips are at Sennen, St Ives and Hale. All dry as the tide drops.
QUALIFICATIONS: Suitable for reasonably experienced sports divers who don’t mind getting into a bit of decompression.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1149, Pendeen to Trevose Head. Ordnance Survey Map 203, Land's End, The Lizard and The Isles of Scilly. Dive The Isles of Scilly and North Cornwall, by Richard Larn and David McBride. Penzance tourist information, 01736 362207.
PROS: Easy to navigate in typically good Cornish visibility.
CONS: An inaccessible stretch of coastline with slips that dry out.
Thanks to Ben Slater, John Slater and Steve Jeffries
Appeared in DIVER April 2006