Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bell's Submarine

The First World War could be thought of as the first modern war, with many new methods of warfare being employed. Often the governments involved had to react to the changing situations. We've already had one brief look at submarine warfare, today I want to sort of revisit that topic. Only from the point of view of the merchantmen.
The British suffered massively during the first year of the war at sea. Being in many respects totally unprepared for Submarine warfare. Things came to a head with the public outrage over the destruction of half of the 7th Cruiser squadron by a single U-boat on the 22nd of September 1914. The loss of 1459 sailors only added to the public shock. The 7th Cruiser squadron had been engaged in protecting allied shipping along the coast and across the channel. As losses increased new ships were sourced from other nations. One of these was the SS Thordis, a 500 ton steamer from Norway. On the 25th of February, 1915 she was transferred to English registration. On the morning of the 28th she was off Beachy Head carrying a shipment of coal to Plymouth. Beachy Head area would be come the site of a U-boat campaign later in the war.
Her captain was John William Bell. Looking out across the rolling waters of the Channel Mr Bell spotted something moving off to starboard. Peering closer he saw it was a submarines periscope. The Thordis was utterly unarmed, as were most merchants of the time. Mr Bell's only hope was to avoid detection. He cut his engines, hopping that without sound this ship wouldn't be found. His next action was to bring his crew up on deck, to give them the best chance to survive if the worst should happen.
As the Thordis drifted to a stop the periscope got closer. The wake indicating the Submarine's direction was heading on a course, that would intersect with the Thordis. The periscope drifted silently past the Thordis' bows. At its closest the submarine was only about 30 yards away on the port side. The range began to lengthen as the crew watched apprehensively. After some moments the periscope suddenly changed course. Swinging about to head back towards the Thordis. From the point blank range of 700 yards a torpedo was launched. The crew saw the line of bubbles from the steam driven torpedo, drawing a straight line towards them. In desperation Mr Bell put the engines to full speed in a futile attempt to dodge the Torpedo. If it hit, the 270Lb warhead would obliterate the Thordis and pitch them all into the cold sea.

Seconds from impact the heavy swell lifted the stern of the Thordis and the German torpedo streaked under her hull. Now starting to pick up speed Mr Bell went on the offensive. He aimed his bows right down the throat of the German submarine. Engines thrashing at full power the Thordis hit the Submarine, with a rending screech of metal the sub ground down the keel. A hole had been torn in the Thordis' bow, just above the water line by the impact. Looking behind him Mr Bell saw a pool of Oil spread across the surface of the sea.
 When he reached Weymouth he reported the incident, and was credited with sinking the Submarine. Mr Bell was promoted to Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve and awarded a Distinguished Service Cross. The ships crew were awarded a large sum of money to be split amongst them as well. Lt Bell was also given a gold watch by the ships owners. This seemed to be a common practice during the war, and it would seal the fate of another merchantman.

However, despite the British claims, the German submarine, SM U-6, wasn't sunk. She'd suffered damage, including losing her periscopes so she aborted her patrol and returned to port with the news. The German authorities were outraged at the idea of Merchants attempting to ram their submarines, and claimed the attempts were outside of international law.
The crew of SM U-6
On March 3rd 1915, off the coast of the Netherlands another British merchantman was going about its Business. The SS Wrexham was under command of Mr Charles Fryatt. When a U-boat tried to attack them. Normally the Wrexham could barely manage 14 knots. As the U-boat appeared Mr Fryatt put on full steam, and ordered all hands to help the stokers in the engine room. Their efforts got the Wrexham up to 16 Knots. And so began a chase that lasted for 74km. Eventually the U-boat gave up the chase and the Wrexham reached port. The crew had run the Wrexham's boilers so hot that the funnels of the ship were charred and burnt. For his efforts he was awarded a gold watch.

A few weeks later on the 28th Mr Fryatt was captaining the SS Brussels, when a U-boat surfaced to his front. Mr Fryatt immediately aimed his ship at the U-boat, which crash dived and avoided the attack. The Brussels escaped unharmed as well. For that encounter Mr Fryatt was awarded another gold watch.

It is rumoured the Germans hatched a plan to capture Mr Fryatt, to discourage the practice of ramming. On the night of 25 June, 1916 the Brussels set course for England carrying cargo and passengers. There are stories about a passenger signalling land and replying signals. What is certain is five German destroyers intercepted the Brussels almost immediately capturing and escorting the Ship to a German port. From there Fryatt was imprisoned and then tried in a Court martial, for sinking the submarine on March 28th the previous year. One of the pieces of evidence where Fryatt's gold watches. Mr Fryatt was found guilty and executed by firing squad. Oddly the notice of his execution lists his crimes as "[...]attempted on March 28th, 1915, to destroy a German submarine[...]".
Mr Fryatt and the SS Brussels, scuttled by the Germans.
But what of Lt Bell and the Thordis. Well the Thordis was armed with a 13Pdr gun and continued to serve until the 10th of August 1918 when she was torpedoed off Scarborough. Lt Bell survived the war and died in 1932.


  1. "The First World War could be thought of as the first modern war" - I disagree. In fact, I think that the Great War was the last of the old wars, especially in its early stages. Not sure about marine tactics, but on land, the 19th century war mindset did create possibly the most dreadful war in human history (yes, I know World War Two was a horror too... but there is something terribly unsettling about the Flandres mud-and-trenches battlefield).

    1. On the flip side you have U-boats, Ariel Bombing and modern industrialised warfare.

      But as its open to debate that's why I said "Could"

    2. http://images4.fanpop.com/image/polls/810000/810077_1313792425623_full.jpg

      Poor little Ariel, what has she done to deserve being bombed? :D

    3. No-one ever accused me of being good at English :P

    4. Ariel reminded more of this - http://www.sostav.ru/articles/rus/2009/28.01/news/images/1ariel.jpg

    5. I think to be honest it was the turning point - the transition between old ways of fighting and find new ways to do it. Obviously the development of new technologies - such as aircraft and internal combustion played a huge part, but even now nearly a hundred years later we still need the infantry on the ground.

  2. You could have added the Olympic which actually sank U103 :D

  3. Such a disappointing end to Captain Fryatt. First he runs away, possibly wrecking the ship in the process (funnels burnt?). In any case costly repairs, angry bosses, he needs a new tactic! So 25 days later when the next sub tries to sink/kill him he floors it and tries for a ram. Three months later he's bushwhacked, and executed. I thought there had to be more to this story, so I checked did a little searching... NOPE! It really was as bad as you said. The only joy I took from that search was reading the worlds outrage over the murder of that man.

    ] In Switzerland, the Journal de Genève said "It is monstrous to maintain that armed forces have a right to murder civilians but that civilians are guilty of a crime in defending themselves".

    1. Glad to hear people are doing further reading on what I write.

  4. Found this nugget extremely funny amid the tragedy :
    It was indeed a pleasure and a relief to see again the released stewardesses of the s.s. 'Brussels.' Mrs. Elwood, Miss Elwood, Mrs. Stalker, Miss Bobby and Miss Smith have passed through a most [p.274>] trying experience and have done so in a manner of which G.E.R. women can be proud. The Germans who boarded the 'Brussels' wondered at their calmness and asked if they were not afraid of being shot. 'We are Englishwomen' was considered sufficient reply.

    The Great Eastern Railway Magazine, November 1916, pp. 273-4

  5. Hi Overlord,

    being of topic again. I have seen WG has change the Name of the "PzKpfw V Panther" to "Panther I". Is this a foreshadow for the changes to come, like that the E 50 will be tier X? Because I dont mind, I actually think it will be a great Idea. As the E 50 will be more a Sniper-Medium as the E 50 M, given that the future E 50 gets higher DPM & less mobility as the current E50M. I think such a tier X would fit nicely in the sniping medium branch (medium/average mobility, "above average" armor, good accuracy...etc...). As for the reason I post, I thought that the naming change would give WG the chance to add a fantasy tier IX (Which will be less controversial as a fantasy tier X, aka E50M). So my Idea would be add tier IX a "Panther III"; which should/could be a nice fit as medium sniper with "above average" armor and average mobility...etc What I mean exactly (gun, engine), I can flash out if needed :)


    P.S. I think a Serbs"turbo-panther" (Panther armor, with high mobility) would be a little out of branch/line; just my 50 cents :)