A classic merchant steamer sunk in the Channel during World War One, the Glocliffe offers an intact experience for divers willing to do a little deco, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
HAVING GIVEN ILLUSTRATOR MAX ELLIS so many difficult and broken wreck sketches to turn into a finished illustration last month, I thought that for May I would go easy on him with the nice and intact Glocliffe, a World War One steamship lying on its port side.
Lying across the tide in 40m, about 10 miles straight out of Torquay, the Glocliffe is easiest to shot on a flood-tide, while there is still a little current running to the north. Our tour begins with the shot lying across the keel amidships (1).
Following up the curve of the hull to where it meets the deck, a turn to the left points you towards the stern.
Moving quickly aft at 31m, the hull is coated in a luxuriant forest of plumose anemones. It is pretty much intact, although level with the aft holds the thinner steel of the gunwales has rotted through to leave a ragged skeleton (2). Soon the stern ascends from the deck (3), which is about the ideal place to cut out across the hull to the propeller and rudder (4).
From the rudder, continuing aft along the “rising” curve of the stern is the simplest route back “above” the deck and to the gun-mount and gun (5). There is a heavy net draped over the gun, easily visible and not a serious hazard, though it does make the gun difficult to recognise if you don’t know it’s there!
Forward along the centre-line of the stern deck, a rounded cuddy facing aft covers a hatch down below (6). Then, before the deck drops away to the holds, a winch mounted on the centre-line of the wreck (7) dips into a bank of soft silt that has built up along the wreck.
With the tide coming from the south across a silty seabed at this side of Lyme Bay, and swirling over the wreck, a bank of silt has built up along the wreck pretty much along the centre-line at about 36m, though scoured deeper to 41m at the bow and stern.
From the main deck, the stern is open (8). Here a wooden bulkhead has rotted down to its steel frame, though with the copious soft silt this is not a sensible place to venture inside.
Our route forward continues just above the silt, close to the centre-line of the Glocliffe. First it’s the aft hold (9), then, between the holds, a mast and a pair of winches (10), neatly cut by the silt bank and draped by another fishing-net which, again, is old and heavy and easily avoided.
Crossing the next hold (11) brings our route back to the superstructure, and a railing running across the aft of it (12).
The whole of the superstructure is an anemone-covered skeleton where wooden decking and bulkheads have rotted away. First comes the easily recognised, greenhouse-shaped skeleton of the engine-room ventilator-hatches (13).
Shining a powerful light through the openings, the top of the engine can just be made out though, again with the fine silt, I wouldn’t advise venturing inside.
Next forward is the funnel (14). It is rare to see a funnel intact, as it is usually thin metal and not supported well enough to remain in place. On the Glocliffe, it is supported by the silt bank, so the silt must have reached its current level many years ago and stabilised.
Continuing forward, the floor of the wheelhouse is similarly a grid of anemone-covered ribs (15), as is the starboard bridge-wing projecting from the silt (16).
The area of the forward holds follows the pattern of the aft holds. The Glocliffe was a very conventional two-holds-forward and two-holds-aft steamship. The bank of silt drops away to about two-thirds of the way down the number 2 hold (17) and continues at about this level past a pair of winches and a mast (18), then along the forward hold (19).
The bow rises to give a forecastle above the main deck, with another cargo-winch aft of the forecastle (20) and then the anchor-winch further forward (21).
From the anchor-winch, chains lead forward and down the hawse-pipes, with the anchors still tight in place on either side of the bow (22).
For those ready to rack up further decompression, the hull and keel are covered in an even denser forest of plumose anemones (23). Otherwise, with the current building, it is time to ascend on a delayed SMB.
As the tide turns, the shot will then be pulling away from the keel and should not be too difficult to recover.
NEVER STOP ZIG-ZAGGING
The Glocliffe, a British steamer of 2,211 tons, 87m long with a beam of 13m, was built in 1915 by Craig, Taylor and Co at Stockton-on-Tees. She was well short of a year old when she had her first unpleasant taste of war, writes Kendall McDonald.
On 2 January, 1916, she hit a mine in the North Sea, but was lucky to be beached. After repairs, she went to war again.
This time, her master was Captain Robert T Evans of Cardiff, who had orders to take a full cargo of 3,281 tons of Welsh coal from Barry to Southampton.
Coal was not the only thing loaded at Barry. A 12-pounder 12cwt gun was mounted on her stern, and her crew became 22 when two Navy gunners were put aboard to man the big gun.
All went well for the next two days until Glocliffe, making a steady speed of nine knots, reached Falmouth and began the zig-zag course specified in Captain Evans’ orders for steaming up-Channel. When he reached Start Point visibility became very poor, with heavy rain showers and mist. Evans felt he was too close to land, stopped the zigs and zags and headed further out to sea off Berry Head.
It was then, on 19 August, 1917, that Oberleutnant Howaldt in UB40 of the Flanders Flotilla spotted Glocliffe. He was near the end of his mission and low on torpedoes, but the steamer was a perfect target and made things even easier when it stopped zig-zagging.
Howaldt fired from a hull-down position, hitting Glocliffe amidships in the boiler-room and killing two firemen in the stokehold. Only one of the look-outs had spotted the wake of the torpedo, and though he screamed a warning, it was then only 45m away. The helm was put hard over, but it was too late. Minutes later, at 5.25pm, Glocliffe sank.
The remaining crew and gunners took to the boats and were saved. The gunners, who had been on the steamer’s stern with their gun, had not fired a single round – hardly surprising because, like everyone else aboard, they had failed to see UB40 or her periscope, the only thing showing above the swells.
GETTING THERE: From the M5 or A38 southbound, turn left on the A376 for Exmouth, the A380 and A381 for Teignmouth, or the A380 and A3022 for Paignton.
TIDES: Slack is between 3.5 hours after high water Dartmouth and 2.5 before high water Dartmouth, with the best visibility being after high water.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 27.125N, 3 17.375W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The bow points to the east.
LAUNCHING : The closest slip is at Paignton.
ACCOMMODATION: Tordean Hotel, 01803 294669.
QUALIFICATIONS: Suitable for experienced divers capable of making reasonable decompression dives.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3315, Berry Head to Bill of Portland. Ordnance Survey Map 202, Torbay & South Dartmoor Area. Ordnance Survey Map 192, Exeter & Sidmouth. World War One Channel Wrecks by Neil Maw. Dive South Devon by Kendall McDonald. Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and Lyme Bay by Nigel Clarke.
PROS: An excellent example of a classic merchant ship of the era.
CONS: Visibility can be low, especially after heavy rainfall.
Thanks to Steve Mackay, Andy Micklewright & Chris Yates
Appeared in Diver May 2005