Thursday, December 24, 2020

Eric Woodhouse – The Story of a Second World War Veteran

Matthew Eric Woodhouse, or Eric to his family and friends was born on 5th of July 1924. After attending school in York, where he met some Hitler Youth on exchange, which we now know were spying for the Nazis, he started an apprenticeship at Leadhams Garage near Lendal Bridge in York. The garage he worked at was taken over by the Ministry of Supply to prepare military vehicles for the British army at the outbreak of war as most of the army’s vehicles had been left at Dunkirk. Eric’s main role was an engine mechanic on Churchill tanks, cars and trucks. Eric also worked on Monty’s car before it went to Egypt with the 8th Army. All work was over seen by officers from the army and eventually the  newly formed Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Regiment.

Eric was on fire watch duty on one of the nights of the Baedeker Blitz in York, a bombardment of five major cities by the Luftwaffe. These raids were over several nights between 25 April and 3rd May 1942 which in total left over 1600 dead and destroyed 50,000 homes.

On the night of 28th/29th April the bombers struck the city of York. Watching the aircraft overhead releasing their deadly cargo, he was armed only with a stirrup pump to douse the flames of any bombs that landed on the garage. On this night the bombs were falling relentlessly, huge explosions lit up entire streets and several major buildings were hit. Perched on top of the roof of his garage he must have felt both helpless and nervous at the thought of what he was witnessing around him.

Eric decided to have a break and whilst downstairs in the garage, the place where he had been sat took a direct hit, the entire garage a mass of rubble, flames, smoke and dust. Scrambling to safety it was obvious that his decision to take a break saved his life. Eric’s father, also called Matthew, was the duty station manager at York train station on the night of the raids and thankfully he also survived. Others weren’t so lucky, the death toll in this city was 79.

It is incredible at just how many of his friends did not survive the war. Kenneth Fox went to school with Eric and died when his plane crashed upon landing on the way back from an air raid. A Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve for 514 Squadron, he was just 20 years old; at Kenneth's funeral in York Eric was a pall bearer for his lost friend.

Another school friend also in the RAFVR was James Crawford. He was also killed at a young age with 61 Squadron on 7th December 1941. At just 17 years old his body was never recovered and has no known grave.

Eric moved to Bridlington in 1957 and ran a chain of very successful garages for many years, retiring in the mid-1980s and then being head hunted to work for Thompsons in Hull as their service manager. Eric was married to Olga, who he met when she was working at Leadhams garage for the Ministry of Supply during the war. They had one son, Matthew who sadly passed away in 2015, Olga passed in 2017.

The photograph of him (left) shows him with a stirrup pump from the Second World War at his home in Bridlington.

My aim was to interview Eric when the restrictions were lifted and ask him more about his wartime service so that none of his stories were forgotten, but unfortunately it was too late. Eric passed away just a few weeks ago, on 22nd November 2020 at the age of 96.

I would like to thank his good friend and neighbour Martin Barmby who spent time with him in his final years and spent many hours chatting about his life and war stories and who has given me the opportunity to highlight his career and experiences today. Eric served his country in the Second World War as a vehicle mechanic and without the efforts of people like him in their reserved occupations, the Allies would not have been able to win the war against the Nazis.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Disaster at Ladbroke Grove

Rail disasters are not uncommon, since the days of the first steam powered railway engine there have been incidents that have cost lives and left thousands injured. But as the years go by the safety of the rail networks of the UK became more strict and the disasters became fewer, but that doesn't mean that they were completely eradicated. Over 20 years ago a crash hit the headlines that would shock the capital and leave the rest of the country questioning the integrity of our transport industry and the honesty of the people watching over our safety and comfort during the countless rail journeys.  

In the early morning of Tuesday 5th October 1999, at 0806, a Thames Train commuter journey set off from Paddington station bound for Bedwyn in Wiltshire. Coming in the opposite direction was a faster train, a First Great Western service from Cheltenham due to terminate at Paddington. The two trains had no reason to believe that anything was wrong, but just two minutes out of Paddington, as the Thames Train was approaching Ladbroke Grove, the driver passed a red signal that was obscured for some reason, possibly due to the sun shining directly on the light. 

Either way, the two trains collided head on and devastation commenced. As twisted wreckage flew into the air and in every direction, a fireball ignited and flames shot across the carriages. People trapped within the crumpled cars had to fight for survival as the sudden impact combined with the searing heat of the fire left them with no choice but to scramble to safety as quickly as possible. 

Just a few minutes after the collision, the first fire teams had been called and were on scene immediately. Rescue teams had a huge job of both fighting the flames and dragging survivors to safety. Smoke rising into the air could be seen for miles around as the railway lines were closed. Although the fire was ferocious, it was extinguished fairly quickly, leading to fire teams being able to safely extract what they now found were burns victims as well as other major injuries. 

By now it was obvious that this was a huge incident, the head on collision killed both drivers instantly and it was clear that passengers were also amongst the dead. It would be several days before they would get a final death toll as they combed the charred wreckage for passengers. Eventually they would get a final list of 31 dead, with over 400 injured. 

The questions that were now being asked as the wreckage was lifted off the tracks led to several high profile inquiries and some damning reports into the laxity of the companies involved in ensuring that passengers safety was adhered to. Thames Trains were fined £2 million for violations of health and safety, Network Rail (who looked after the tracks) were fined £4 million and the official inquiry led by Lord Cullen led to the founding of the Rail Accidents Investigation Branch. 

Today a memorial garden is situated overlooking the scene of the disaster next to a branch of Sainsbury's. In the small wooded area there is a monument to remember the 31 who died and provides a place to go away from the outsiders temporarily and to reflect on a rail disaster that despite the tragedy, actually changed the British rail network for the better. For those who were there that day, no amount of regulations and reflection can dampen the horrors that were seen and felt on that day in October when hell came to Ladbroke Grove. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Burning of Grenfell Tower

In the early hours of the morning of Wednesday 14th June 2017 the hot summer evenings had left me restless in the night and I found myself heading downstairs, I would play around online for an hour until I became sleepy again. In the meantime I would do what I always did and have Sky News on in the background. But when I put the TV on, an image filled the screen that was so shocking it instantly grabbed my attention. A huge fire had engulfed over a dozen floors of a block of flats in London and it was live coverage, the flames travelling up the outside of the building and consuming everything in its path. I remember wondering if everybody had got out OK, surely the alarms had alerted the residents and we would be looking at a fair few smoke inhalations and lost homes.

But the following days brought out the shocking truth. People had died in this disaster, at first they said 12 killed, the next day that doubled, then doubled again. After a confusion over the death toll, the final number was put at 72 by the time the official inquiry was commenced.

Over 220 feet high, Grenfell Tower had 129 flats within its 24 floors and it was constructed in the early 1970s, providing housing to around 600 people. Renovation projects were being carried out in the tower blocks around the Kensington area and between 2012-16 Grenfell Tower had work carried out to bring it into a more modern look and less of a 70s eyesore. But little did the residents know this was the start of a chain reaction of the tragic events that followed.

The fire that morning started just before 0100 in a fourth floor flat when a malfunctioning fridge freezer caught fire, but this is where it should have ended, contained within the flat and not extending outside of that area. But a renovation of the building had led to a new cladding being fitted to the outside of the building, but few realised that this type was not only cheaper than the usual style, but also it was highly flammable. When the fire reached the window, the flames took hold and crept up the side of the building, hitting flat after flat, trapping dozens of people in their own homes.

It took over two days for the fire to be extinguished, the exhausted rescue workers cheered on by onlookers, the heroes of the Grenfell Tower fire. But as the tower cooled and the smoke cleared, the fires of anger rose up in its place.

As this is an ongoing investigation it would be unfair to comment further on this tragedy, but already fingers have been pointed at those who knew the dangers of the cladding and the police are currently investigating claims of negligence and possibly manslaughter. Only time will tell as the inquiry goes through its stages and gathers the evidence.

Now we see that the first, second and third anniversaries have come and gone, the tower has since been covered in scaffolding and wrapped in a barrier, partly to preserve the scene, partly to shield the charred building from view. At the very top is a banner that has the words “Grenfell Forever in our Hearts” along with the green heart that has since become the symbol of the remembrance, disaster and the fight for justice.

It was not long after the fire that a friend invited me to his home in London and I was able to see Grenfell Tower myself. By then the whole area was sealed off, the barriers surrounding the building being high enough for onlookers to not see the lower floors, a police officer standing guard near the open residential apartments nearby, but the blackened tower rising high making a terrible mark on the London skyline.

In the weeks following the fire it was rumoured that the tower fire had killed several hundred people, a false report that was spurred on by attention-hungry celebrities who wanted nothing more than their own publicity, something that would do nothing but cause further grief to those already suffering from loss. The markings on the nearby bridge walls being used as an outpouring of grief for a community devastated by tragedy, a name that is now infamous to join the likes of other places of tragedy such as Lockerbie and Hillsborough. Never before has a fire gripped a nation and shocked all who saw it since the Piper Alpha oil rig exploded out at sea in 1988. But this was a very different image in the middle of the nation's capital and towering for all to see from miles away. 

Only time will tell how the inquiry will go, what evidence will be found and more importantly if any responsibility will be admitted. Disasters like this do not just happen by accident; we can only hope that the families of those who lost families and homes will get their justice.  

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Wreck of the Stella

The word "hero" is thrown around a lot these days, but for some the title is well deserved and in the case of the passenger ferry Stella, this is one of them. At 253 feet long, this 1059 Gross ton vessel had the capacity to carry over 700 passengers on her routes from Southampton to the Channel Islands.

Built on Clydebank in 1890, she was owned by London & Southwestern Railway and had a successful number of years taking passengers across the Channel, her 43 crew tending to their every needs as the ship would plough the sometimes rough waters at a steady 19.5 knots. 

On 30th March 1899 the Stella sailed from Southampton for her usual run to Guernsey carrying a total of 147 passengers making the most of the Easter holidays, although this was a considerably less number than what she could normally carry. As the ship proceeded at full speed she encountered fog, although her crew did not slow down and carried on towards her destination. 

At 1600 hours that afternoon a group of rocks known the Casquets and clearly marked on charts came into view soon after they had heard the signal from the nearby lighthouse. Without a chance of avoiding them, the captain attempted to avoid them but to no avail as the ship ripped herself apart on the submerged rocks. 

She must have been in a bad way for she was gone in just 8 minutes, in that time only four lifeboats were launched successfully. 86 passengers and 19 crew were killed. 

But as the reports were coming out about the sinking, the name Mary Ann Rogers came to light. She was a stewardess who had given up her lifejacket and had refused a place in the lifeboat ahead of everybody else. A passenger, opera star Greta Williams, was also hailed a heroine for comforting the survivors as they shivered in the boats close to death. 

The official inquiry in 1900 blamed the captain for continuing full speed, allegations of racing another ship to get to their destination first - a claim that was strongly denied. 

The wreck of the Stella was found in 1973 in 161 feet of water. Further expeditions led to the documentary The Wreck of the Stella being broadcast in the 1990s showing footage of the lost ferry, since then several artefacts have been recovered including this plate now in Alderney museum. 

Several memorials were placed around the country for the victims of the Stella. Mary Rogers had a plaque in London's Postmans Park (right) as well as a monument in Southampton near the current ferry terminal (below). A few miles away in the grounds of Peartree Church a grave to the Rosoman family commemorates Richard Rosoman, one of those passengers lost that day (below). 

A stained glass window in Liverpool and memorials at St Peter Port ensures that this disaster is not forgotten for those who take the time to stop and look at these incredible monuments. 

The Stella today remains one of the worst passenger ships disasters off the UK coast, yet few people know her as well these days. Back in 1899 she had made the headlines much like the Herald of Free Enterprise did in the 1980s, the shock of such a major blunder caused by the people who were meant to have their safety as their number one priority causing just as much scandal then as it would now. Thankfully the memories of the heroes of that day will continue to live on. 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

The Greatest Shipwrecks Still to be Found

There are so many shipwrecks around the world it is impossible to document them all, some are  unknown and always will be (think Roman vessels, migrant ships and ancient trading boats). But over the last few hundred years we have come to know many of the more famous names. Ask anybody about the Titanic and the world will tell you a story, the Mary Rose is in a museum for all to see and the Bismarck was always one to admire whether friend or foe. All of these wrecks have been found, photographed and in some cases salvaged. So how many of the more famous wrecks are still waiting to be found? With the recent discoveries of the USS Indianapolis, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror the list is getting shorter. So here are a few of those still to be found. 

HMS Endurance - In 1914 as the First World War was in the early stages, Ernest Shackleton took a crew to the South Atlantic on board the Endurance to explore the Antarctic ice. What was expected was the ship to get stuck, what wasn't planned for was the ship to remain stuck. A year after her last port visit on the island of South Georgia the ship wreck crushed until finally she went down. Thankfully the entire crew were alive and the ship took that long to sink (months rather than hours) that they were able to take everything from the ship that they needed. But now Shackleton and his 28 men had to make their way on foot. The next year would bring hardship, freezing conditions and most likely misery. A sea journey in one of two ships boats led them to an island where several stayed. A further boat journey to South Georgia found them on the opposite side of the island to where civilisation was. A trek across the terrain led to a knock at the door of the whaling station, the owner amazed at the person who greeted him. He had been given up for dead after not being seen for two years. This story of survival has gone down in legend, his entire crew were later picked up from where they had been left and their faces making headlines worldwide. Despite several wreck hunters, including David Mearns, expressing their wish to search for the wreck of Endurance, she has so far been elusive.

General Belgrano - In 1982 the Argentine junta invaded the Falkland Islands and the response by Great Britain was to send a fleet of over a hundred ships to take them back. In the early stages of the conflict an exclusion zone was set up around the islands with a warning that any ship found here would be sunk. On 2nd May 1982 word was received of a fleet of Argentinian ships in the area just outside the zone but en route to an attack position. Near to the fleet was the submarine HMS Conqueror who had been shadowing the ships for several days. One of the ships was the ARA General Belgrano, an old cruiser from World War II that had previously been called USS Phoenix and was the only ship to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor unscathed in 1941 (there is a famous photo of the Phoenix surrounded by burning ships during the attack). With the information relayed back to the UK, the order came from the Prime Minister to sink the General Belgrano. Two torpedoes found their mark and the old cruiser went down with the loss of 323 lives. In 2003 an expedition was launched to locate the wreck failed because of bad weather, but on board were veterans from both sides of the conflict who became friends during the search for the remains. Like many who were there to this day, unlikely friendships were made once the war was over and hopefully over time we can once more look upon this historic vessel. 

Bonhomme Richard - During the War of Independence the first ships of the United States Navy consisted of small converted traders loaded with guns, one of these was the former East Indiaman Duc de Duras. On board was Scottish sailor John Paul Jones who had fled from Britain after a couple of voyages which had ended with a controversial death on each. Now he was captain of this ship and it was renamed Bonhomme Richard. Together with the Pallas, Alliance and Vengeance, the Bonhomme Richard was sailing the North Sea when, on 23rd September 1779, they came upon a British convoy which was protected by HMS Serapis and Countess of Scarborough. Allowing the convoy to escape, a huge battle off the East Yorkshire coast began. What became known as The Battle of Flamborough Head, the Bonhomme Richard was mortally wounded, but not before Jones boarded the Serapis and took control. With his ship sinking he sailed away victorious, both British escorts captured and only one of his ships lost. But since that day the ship has never been seen again. Famous novelist Clive Cussler has tried four times to locate the wreck but was not successful, other local divers have claimed to have found a wreck but nothing that 100% links it to the American ship. The most detailed expeditions began in 2005 when the Ocean Technology Foundation began a search, they have continued this search over the last 15 years and have several interesting targets, but as it stands the whereabouts of the wreck of Bonhomme Richard is still unknown. 

Waratah - One of the greatest sea mysteries is that of the liner Waratah. She sailed from Durban on 26 July 1909 heading to Cape Town with 211 passengers and crew on board, this voyage being only her second voyage, the return trip from her maiden voyage to Australia just months before. Sailing into heavy seas and strong winds, several vessels saw her but on 29th July she never arrived at her destination as planned. A full search and rescue was launched but nothing was ever seen of the Waratah again. Wreckage later found could never be proven to have belonged to her and so she entered the realms of history as a ship that had vanished with all hands. One man who was determined to find out the truth was explorer Emlyn Brown who searched for the wreck from the early 1980s right up until 1999. He did locate a wreck that he thought was the missing liner but this turned out to be the  cargo ship Nailsea Meadow, sunk in World War 2. As it stands the Waratah is still listed as missing without a trace. 

USS Cyclops - The coal collier Cyclops has become the most famous victim of an area known as the Bermuda Triangle due to the huge loss of life. 306 people were on board the Cyclops in March 1918 when she was heading from Rio de Janeiro to Baltimore when she developed an engine fault and had to stop at Barbados where she was inspected and ordered to return to the United States. On 4th March she sailed for Baltimore once again and vanished into thin air. No sign of the Cyclops has ever been found, no wreckage floated ashore, no bodies washed up, no distress calls. Many theories have been put forward as to what happened to the ship ranging from a German attack (it was still wartime) to the more outlandish theories involving supernatural happenings. But no trace has ever been seen of the worst US Navy loss that does not involve enemy action. With the recent discoveries of another Bermuda Triangle victim, the Cotopaxi, it is hoped that one day the mystery of the loss of the Cyclops will one day be solved. 

Californian - During the sinking of the Titanic on the night of 14-15 April 1912 one ship was closer than the rest of the ships that were speeding to the sinking liners aid, that ship was the Leyland Liner Californian. There was a problem though - the Californian was stopped in ice, her sole radio operator was in bed and her officers were confused about the distress signals they were seeing. The next morning the full horror of what had happened less than 20 miles away (this figure varies in reports) became apparent and the captain, Stanley Lord, spent the rest of his days trying to explain the ship's actions that night. The hero of the night was the Cunard liner Carpathia who rescued all Titanic's survivors, but this was only a third of the people on board. As the years went by, both Carpathia and Californian were sunk by torpedoes in the First World War. It was hit by torpedoes from two U-boats off Cape Matapan, killing one person. With Carpathia located, it is on a list of Titanic-related vessels that were later sunk and still remain undiscovered. 

USS Oklahoma - The dramatic attack on the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, was an event that stunned the world and drew America into the Second World War within 24 hours. One of the ships that sank that day was the battleship Oklahoma, a 27 year of warship that had taken several direct hits and had rolled over where she lay at anchor, killing hundreds of her crew. With an unsuccessful attempt to locate survivors, the final toll was 429 dead just from Oklahoma, 3000 in total died in the overall attack. The upside down wreck was later salvaged in 1943 but she was deemed too damaged to return to active service (most of the ships sunk were repaired). The wrecked ship was taken away to be scrapped in 1947 but during the voyage she hit rough weather under tow and sank. As it stands no expedition has ever announced a search for the wreck. 

U-110 - The Second World war saw over 700 German submarines lost with 30,000 of her crews, so finding a U-boat that was lost with a famous story is not hard. But for the U-110 it was the sinking of her that turned the tide of the war. It was 9th May 1941 when the submarine was under attack by British warships dropping depth charges and forcing her to the surface. As the sub was sinking, her crew abandoned U-110 and were rescued by the British, but not before it was realised that she was not sinking as fast as her crew had first thought. A boarding party from HMS Bulldog was sent over and found the jackpot - an Enigma coding machine and the code books to go with it. These items were raced back to Britain and handed over to the experts at Bletchley Park. For the damaged U-110, she was taken in tow but sank mid-Atlantic, her legacy being that of utmost secrecy, the Germans always believing she had been lost on patrol with all hands. 15 of her crew died, 32 others were taken to prisoner of war camps. The Enigma was vital for the interception of the German naval codes and is said to be a turning point in the war. 

Merchant Royal - Of all the wrecks in the world, the cargo vessel Merchant Royal is considered the most sought after, due to the amount of treasure said to be on board at the time of her loss in September 1641. She had set out from Cadiz to London loaded with all kinds of gold after a trading expedition with the Caribbean which had lasted over two years. As she approached Lands End a storm was hitting the coast and the vessel was lost with 18 hands, her sister ship in company with her close by recorded the sinking in her log. Since then there have been several expeditions that have been fruitless, but in 2019 it is said that an anchor snagged in a fishing vessel came from the Merchant Royal and therefore out of all the lost ships listed here, it is possible we may see the wreck of this rich vessel sooner than we think. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Rescue of the Saint Malo ferry

The Channel Islands at the very south of the English Channel and only a few miles north of the French coast have for hundreds of years been a stopping point for ships transiting the area and providing a safe haven for those sheltering from storms before continuing their journey. But the countless shipwrecks surrounding these small islands leave the sailor in no doubt that these are also dangerous waters, with hidden rocks tempting the ships to come closer and claim them for their own.

As the modern day has been given way from the sailing age, the Channel Islands have claimed less ships, a motorised vessel being able to steer clear of the hazards and the Admiralty charts giving clear indications of obstructions, wrecks and other dangers to navigation.

But on the morning of Monday 17th April 1995, during the busy Easter holidays, the island of Jersey was host to a rescue operation that had not been seen in this scale for decades as the catamaran ferry Saint Malo almost became a victim of the rugged shores.

The twin hulled hydrofoil ferry was operated by Channiland, a French company that delivered hundreds of passengers at a time from the port of St Helier, the Jersey capital, over to the smaller but nearby islands of Alderney and Sark. Only two years old, the ship was 136 feet long with a beam of 36 feet, 585 gross tons and could carry around 300 people.

That day she sailed from Jersey at around 0945 and headed off towards Sark, the smallest of the Channel Islands. Her captain, Captain Philippe Peneau, was taking her past Cobiere Point at around 37 mph when he suddenly realised that the ship was off course. In an attempt to get the vessel back on track, he did not slow down and just 15 minutes after setting sail the vessel struck rocks and began to take on water.

With 307 people on board, they had a standard time of 30 minutes to evacuate the Saint Malo, liferafts were deployed and a distress call was sent. Ships in the area raced to the scene as the ferry started listing dangerously to port as one half was now completely filled with water, threatening to sink the rest of the vessel.

It didn’t take long for a nearby ferry to head to the site and with helicopters inbound the rescue operation was now in full swing. Many of the passengers were now jumping straight from the side of the ship onto the inflatable life raft and 55 people received injuries doing this. Some of the passengers caught the evacuation on camera and it was flashed on the news bulletins that day.

After 77 minutes the ship had been abandoned save for the captain and a few crew members, but this had taken over double the time it should have taken. The ferry was taken in tow and beached nearby, the tide exposing the damage caused by the rocks.

An investigation later blamed Captain Peneau for “recklessly endangered the lives” of his passengers, although no charges were brought in relation to this.

The Saint Malo was later repaired and put back into service, being renamed Condor France in 1996, Acacia in 1998, Spirit I in 2008 and finally she is still operating today as the Lovely I under the flag of St Kitts in the Caribbean (left).

In 1997 a sculpture of two clasped hands was placed on the cliffs above the area where the rescue of the Saint Malo passengers took place, a hundred people there to unveil the plaque and to commemorate the day that could have ended in disaster, it being described as a miracle and a testament to those who risked their own lives to save others.

Monday, October 26, 2020

An Interview with a Shipwreck Hunter (Part 2) - Neil Cunningham Dobson

The second interview I have conducted is with Neil Cunningham Dobson, deep water marine archaeologist and salvor. He became famous during the many shipwreck hunts that Odyssey Marine Exploration conducted where he was the expert that they turned to in order to identify and give a deep insight into the wrecks that the team had found. The searches made headline news and were a popular TV series Treasure Quest which astounded the viewer with the incredible finds and fantastic images of some of the more famous wrecks by the use of the ROV Zeus and the research vessel Odyssey Explorer.

Neil agreed to answer some questions about the world of shipwrecks from his personal perspective.  

Could you explain what drove you to pursue a career that involved shipwrecks?

Gosh, a long story as I am old and have 47 years working at sea.  I wanted to be a history teacher, but I also wanted to see the world. I have always been interested in ships and the sea.  My career route is not a normal one. It certainly helped that I had a career at sea, I understand the sea and ships and combined with my passion for shipwrecks, I have the best of both worlds.  I love to see how present offshore technology can be used and developed to find and investigate shipwrecks. Every shipwreck is different. Shipwrecks are events that are not supposed to happen. Shipwrecks are in some ways like crime scenes. You need to look at the clues and what you find on the seabed to try and piece together what happened to the ship and the people onboard. I am really an underwater detective.

As I live by the sea and I learned to sail I decided at 17 to join the merchant navy and I got a cadetship with Ben Line Steamers Ltd, affectionally known as the Scottish navy. I completed my cadetship but there was a decline in the UK merchant navy, so I ended up in 1979 going out to the North Sea on oil rigs as a stability officer. During my time offshore I learned to sport dive with the Sub Aqua Association (became DO of a local club I started) and was interested in shipwrecks and their history. I then started a successful a career as an offshore survival instructor/examiner for RGIT Ltd at their survival school base at Dundee docks. During my time ashore I did more diving and gained my HSE part III Commercial Diving qualification. I was approached by the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies where I got involved with marine archaeology. After joining the Nautical Archaeology Society, I became a tutor with them. I then made the decision to become a marine archaeologist and did a Masters course at St Andrews University. Working with St Andrews university on various maritime projects included a Cromwellian wreck off Duart Castle, Isle of Mull. My contract with the university ended and they closed the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies and I found myself out of work and very few marine archaeology jobs about. I decided to combine my 16 years in the offshore industry with my marine archaeology and I completed a one-month ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) course at the Underwater Centre in Fort William. In 2001 I became self-employed and started my own archaeology and exploration company Rovarch. I was approached by Odyssey Marine Exploration, Tampa, Florida where for 19 years I researched, looked for, discovered and excavated many interesting and high-profile shipwrecks. For the last three years I have been involved with more ship salvage work than marine archaeology. The recovery of valuable cargoes using ROV and a suite of salvage tools for various clients.

What has been your most “wow moment” in your career?

This is a hard question. So many “wow moments”. For me being the first to see the shipwreck since it sunk is great. Visually, many wrecks are amazing. Some that stick out for me are the discovery of the American sidewheel steamer SS Republic off the coast of Georgia, USA. The sight of a sandy mound where there were broken kegs of gold and silver coins was amazing. Finding the final resting place of the WWII British cargo ship SS Gairsoppa at almost 5,000m deep, sitting intact and upright on the seabed was wonderful. My late father served on similar ships as a radio officer during WWII. Being one of the first few people to see many large bronze cannon lying in clusters on the seabed from the wreck of HMS Victory (1744) and finding undiscovered German WWII U-boats are all a “wow moments”.

How many shipwrecks have you investigated and/or dealt with?

I have never counted them but its in the hundreds. Everything from 1st century Roman amphora wrecks, 17th century pirate ships, 19th century sidewheel paddle steamers, 1744 HMS Victory, German U-boats, a few aircraft, and many WWI and WWII merchant ships and passenger liners.

What, in your opinion, would you say was your most important discovery either at sea or in the archives and why?

Finding HMS Victory (1744, the one before Nelson’s) was the most important discovery for me. It was found almost 100 miles west from where it was believed to be. This ship was the “death star” of its day.  The bronze cannon spread on the seabed is amazing. It is a highly significant shipwreck that should be investigated and excavated. Sadly, the wreck lies unprotected in international waters and under threat.  There are for sure amazing and wonderful discoveries to be found just under the seabed on this site.  The archives always turn up important and significant discoveries. Good research is key in finding a shipwreck. (The image above shows Neil documenting one of Victory's recovered cannon)

Do you still get speechless when making new discoveries today?

Shipwrecks never fail to amaze me and there are always new discoveries to be found. Yes, I get speechless quite often. I have seen some weird and amazing things on shipwrecks and ocean floors.

What was your last project and what did you achieve?

My last project was a WWII cargo passenger ship in the North Atlantic. I cannot divulge details of this most recent project as it is ongoing.

What are your hopes for your future discoveries?

My hopes are that through good research I will find more targets and be successful in making more exciting discoveries and recoveries. I enjoy being able to share these through publications and TV shows.

Is there anything else you would like to share that would interest the reader?

The world of marine archaeology is a colourful one and full of many characters.

Working in commercial archaeology is difficult.  Personally, I conduct archaeology to a high standard and within the guidelines of my profession. Sadly, there are many who do not value my work or fully understand the use of ROV systems. Marine archaeology is rife with differing opinions and egos, sometimes obstructing facts and accuracy. However, I will never give up as I follow my dreams and continue being a pioneering deep -water marine archaeologist working with ROVs, deep water survey/salvage and seabed intervention systems making new and exciting discoveries and sharing those with the public.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Friendly Fire Tragedy – Imber 1942

Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire is the largest military training ground in the United Kingdom and plays host to exercises with all members of the worlds armed forces, but this is not just something that came about recently. During the Second World War this whole area was vital to the military as it prepared for D-Day invasions and the later Victory in Europe.

During this testing time, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was to see a demonstration of military power and amongst the planned displays was a fleet of 12 aircraft that would attack a collection of vehicles and dummies in a series of manoeuvres that would install both pride and confidence in the might of the British fighting force.

On 13th April 1942 a dress rehearsal began in weather that was pretty hazy but not bad enough to cancel the flying. People from all over had come out to see this, including a few members of the Home Guard and they were excited at the thought of seeing real training action up close.

Six Hawker Hurricanes from the RAF’s 175 Squadron and another six Supermarine Spitfires from 234 Squadron swooped over the village and did their demonstration, first the Spitfires, which made their pass without firing, then they were closely followed by the Hurricanes.

But the final Hurricane in the line was flown by a 20 year old pilot of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Sergeant William McLachlan. He got into position and lined his aircraft up with the dummies as planned and raked them with machine gun fire. Confident that he had put on a successful display he carried on the routine until the job had finished.

What he didn’t know was that he had accidentally opened fire on the crowd of spectators and the result was devastating. The death toll that day was 23, another two succumbing to their injuries over the next few days with another 71 injured. Five of the dead were members of the Home Guard.

A court of inquiry was set up and the pilot was cleared of any wrongdoing, the official blame being placed on the weather at the time and also that of McLachlan’s error of judgement due to him losing the rest of the other aircraft in the hazy conditions and believing he had genuinely found the correct target to fire upon.

A later inquest returned a verdict of misadventure and recorded the deaths as being attributed to gunshot wounds. Again the pilot was called forward to give evidence and he confirmed that he had mistaken the people on the ground for the dummies.

As with any wartime situation there are never any real winners and tragically on 28 June 1942, just 1 ½ months after the Imber incident, McLachlan was once again at the controls of his Hurricane on a mission over France and was shot down and remains missing to this day, presumed dead.

After the deaths of the 25 spectators at Imber it became apparent that having a bunch of civilians smack bang in the middle of a military training ground was both dangerous and reckless. As the houses were owned by the military, plans were drawn up to have the rest of the area requisitioned. On 1st November 1943 the entire village was called to gather in the schoolroom for a public meeting where they were told the devastating news that they had just 47 days to vacate the village.

Today Imber is a shell of its former self, open for visitors in controlled numbers in guided tours that can take a small number of people to the church and the village centre just a few times a year.

The victims are today remembered in a plaque that was unveiled on the 70th anniversary of the disaster at St Giles Church in Warminster after a campaign by the Wiltshire Historical Military Society. Recently former MP Michael Portillo featured the village in his series Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain with a book of the same name. A fascinating yet tragic chapter in English history.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Helicopter Crash at the Clutha Bar

It is inevitable that aircraft will crash from time to time, many have simple problems that can be rectified and prevent a reoccurrence but other times the cause of such a crash may need a lot of work to investigate what happened in order to find a cause. One such incident is the tragic crash of a police helicopter in 2013.

The Scottish city of Glasgow is one of the busiest places in the United Kingdom and third most densely populated and one of the things that attracts people is the nightlife and the range of old style pubs that seem to be on every corner. At the edge of the River Clyde at the Gorbels Street Bridge is a bar that looks from a distance to have had its top floor sheered off and a temporary roof in its place, entry into the pub confirms that this did indeed have further floors in its heyday with a set of stairs leading to nothing. This had been the result of a fire in the 1960s and the building having several storeys removed, but this particular venue now would become infamous for what happened this one particular night.

On the evening of Friday 29th November 2013 a police helicopter was scanning the streets of the city looking for evidence of earlier reports of a trespasser before being retasked to Dalkeith. After completing its mission the pilot and his two police officers on board were given clearance to land at Glasgow City Heliport and this is where the aircraft was heading.

Meanwhile in the Clutha bar a band was playing to the crowd as is normal for a Friday night here, normality is live music on the stage and everybody generally having a good time, regulars mixing with those that have just come in for a quick pint. Then in an instant, all hell broke loose. The time was 2222 hours and Glasgow was about to make national headlines for the wrong reasons.

The roof of the Clutha collapsed on top of the customers and smoke filled the rooms, masonry and brickwork flying everywhere as people became trapped under rubble, injured people struggling to get out in the suddenness of what was happening. At this point nobody knew, but the police helicopter flying overheard and dropped like a stone above the pub and plunged through the flat roof into the crowded bar.

Glasgow emergency services were immediately on scene, fleets of ambulances turning up and taking stunned and injured to hospital, so many more needed recovering from the rubble, the fire teams working into the night, but by now it was obvious that all three had died in the helicopter and there were several more dead within the bar.

The following morning the daylight showed the extent of the damage, the helicopter sticking out of the roof at a crazy angle and dozens of people waiting nearby for news of their friends, some of whom were still missing. When the rescue operation turned into a recovery, they found that seven of the pubgoers had been killed.

An investigation revealed that a low fuel warning had been ignored and that the engines had been starved of the little fuel remaining after the fuel transfer switch had been deactivated for some unknown reason.

The Clutha pub reopened and is today still frequented by drinkers and the live music continues. There is no plaque to the ten people who died that night, but for those whose lived were affected by this tragic event, it will be a long time before this disaster fades from the memory of the Glaswegians. The bar itself shows no evidence that anything on such a scale ever happened, but for those who were there that night, the name Clutha will forever live in the hearts of those who lost loved ones on that Friday night in the winter of 2013.