How we discovered the wreck of a torpedoed WW1 British ship

The wreck of the ss Hartdale (Bangor University)
The wreck of the ss Hartdale (Bangor University)

A British cargo ship sunk by a U-boat during World War One has finally surrendered its 109-year-old secret, reports MICHAEL ROBERTS of Bangor University

The ss Hartdale was steaming from Glasgow to Alexandria in Egypt with its cargo of coal when it was targeted by a German U-boat in March 1915. The location of the ship had long been a mystery, but my colleagues and I have, at last, pinpointed its final resting place.

The old adage that we know more about the surface of the Moon and about Mars than we do about Earth’s deep sea may no longer hold entirely true. But the reality is that we still have a great deal more to learn.

Even our seemingly familiar shallow seafloors near the coast are relatively poorly mapped. Many people may think such areas are well explored, but there are still fundamental questions we can’t answer because detailed surveys haven’t been done.

The UK’s surrounding seas hold a vast underwater graveyard. Thousands of shipwrecks, from centuries of trade and conflict, litter the seabed like silent historical markers.

file 20240313 18 d09lmt.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The ss Hartdale lies 12 miles off the coast of Northern Ireland (Michael Roberts / Unpath’d Waters)

Surprisingly, even though we know where many wrecks lie, their true identities often remain a mystery. But the Unpath’d Waters project is now linking maritime archives with existing scientific data to help reveal some of these secrets.

History meets science

Scientists are using detailed sonar surveys from more than 100 shipwrecks west of the Isle of Man. Combining this underwater data with historical documents from around the world, researchers are piecing together a massive nautical jigsaw puzzle, finally revealing the true stories of these sunken vessels.

The first successful identification to be made as part of this work is that of the ss Hartdale. When the 105m-long vessel was torpedoed at dawn on 13 March, 1915 by the German submarine U-27, two of its crew were lost and its final location remained unknown.

Researchers began by scanning known wrecks in the attack area, narrowing the possibilities down to fewer than a dozen. Then, they compared wreck details with official records and diver observations, eliminating candidates one by one until the Hartdale emerged as the perfect match.

The vessel is lying at a maximum depth of 125m, 12 miles off the coast of Northern Ireland.

An old longitudinal section drawing of a ship.
Original plans for Hartdale, originally named Benbrook, from 1910 (The Lloyd’s Register Foundation)

Important details about Hartdale are available online via the Lloyds Register Foundation. This includes plans for the construction of the ship, formerly known as Benbrook, built for Joseph Hault & Co Ltd in 1910.

This information, together with eye-witness accounts reported in the national press at the time, have proved to be crucial in confirming the wreck’s identity.

The US historian Michael Lowrey also provided the project team with a translated copy of notes extracted from an official German account and scans of U-27’s official war diary made by its commanding officer, Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener.

These contained descriptions of the events leading up the sinking, co-ordinates for the attack and the exact location on Hartdale where the torpedo struck its hull – a detail strikingly confirmed by the sonar-scan data.

Armed with this compelling evidence, the research team reached a definitive conclusion. The only viable candidate for the Hartdale was a previously “unknown” 105m-long wreck. It has been lying just a few hundred metres to the south of where U-27 launched its fatal attack.

Unrestricted submarine warfare

The highest point on the Hartdale’s hull is 109m and the seabed drops to 125m (Bangor University)
The highest point on the Hartdale’s hull is 109m and the seabed drops to 125m (Bangor University)
Profiling of the Hartdale (Bangor University)
Profiling of the Hartdale (Bangor University)

Following its attack on Hartdale, the U-27 went on to play a prominent role in how naval warfare developed during the rest of WW1. This came during a period of escalating tension in 1915.

Following the sinking of the British ocean liners RMS Lusitania in May and the ss Arabic in August of that year by U-boats, the way the war at sea was being conducted became increasingly heated and controversial.

Shortly after the Arabic was sunk by a different U-boat, the U-27 was itself attacked and destroyed by the Royal Navy Q-ship HMS Baralong. Q-ships were heavily armed merchant ships designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks.

The U-27 U-boat, which itself sank in August 1915
The U-27 U-boat, which was itself sunk in August 1915

The surviving German sailors, including U-27’s commanding officer, were then allegedly executed by British sailors in front of American witnesses. This has since become known as the “Baralong Incident”.

German outcry over this event combined with other factors contributed to the start of “unrestricted submarine warfare” by Germany in February 1917. This meant that warnings were no longer issued to merchant vessels prior to U-boat attacks and loss of life was significantly increased.

MICHAEL ROBERTS is SEACAMS R&D Project Manager at the Centre for Applied Marine Sciences, Bangor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Also on Divernet: Talking wreck-mapping in Bournemouth, Positive ID of ship that tried to save Titanic, That’s no sub: HMS Mercury wreck identified, Archaeological discovery of WWII LCT 326 alters British naval history

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