Lumpy surface conditions and coffee-like visibility off the Isle of Wight can’t stop STUART PHILPOTT exploring this wartime casualty, which sank after losing many crew in a fiery collision. He took the photos
The Isle of Wight coastline is littered with World War One shipwrecks. The steamship War Knight is probably the most famous of them all. Her demise is a story steeped in tragedy and suffering, but also extreme courage.
Dive-boat skipper Dave Wendes has researched the cargo ship’s history and become quite an authority on the subject. I arranged to spend a day out with Dave on his boat Wight Spirit. The idea was to explore the wreck and gather some background information for this article, though things didn’t quite turn out as planned.
I had managed to persuade diving friend Linda Faux to join me. Linda is one of the best tech scuba divers I know, and she also makes a pretty good underwater model. I had promised her mirror-calm seas and crystal-clear visibility, but little did she know!
Dave was born on the Isle of Wight and started diving in 1969. He has long operated from Lymington, with his the only dive boat running between there and Poole. Wight Spirit is available year-round for dive charters, even in January and March (during February the boat is cleaned and overhauled).
Dave says he has the numbers for more than 200 shipwrecks, including some new ones yet to be identified. In 2006 he published South Coast Shipwrecks Off East Dorset And Wight 1870-1979, which covered all the known local dive sites, followed by a supplement containing 24 additional wrecks.
Arrival at the site
The nautical town of Lymington in Hampshire is fairly easy to find. It is well signposted from the M3 or M27, depending on direction of travel. I preferred to take the scenic route, passing through the New Forest and Brockenhurst and dodging wild horses and donkeys clip-clopping along the streets.
Lymington offers a huge choice of pubs and restaurants. The same can be said for accommodation. I opted for the Macdonald Elmers Court Hotel & Resort, but there are numerous B&Bs and boutique hotels to suit all tastes and budgets.
Diving from Wight Spirit was a new experience for me. I spoke to old hand Chris Ringrose, who knew the routine. Unload dive kit next to the slipway (being particularly careful not to upset the harbourmaster) and then carry on to the pontoon, I was told. Dave usually moors up a good 30 minutes before departure, which gives everyone plenty of time to drop off and park up.
The Bath Road Car Park sits beside the slipway and costs around £1 an hour. If it’s an early-morning departure, divers can usually find a free parking space on one of the side roads. There is also a snazzy art deco-looking toilet block for any last-minute pit stops (Wight Spirit also has a toilet).
Après dive, the Mayflower pub is directly opposite the car park. This is a huge family pub with garden. During the summer months, they even fire up the BBQ. Dave’s personal choice, the Fisherman’s Rest, is just a couple of minutes’ drive away. This seemed to be more of a locals’ pub, with a small garden and free parking.
Wight Spirit is an 11m Evolution hull powered by a single 500hp engine. Extras include an electric lift, cabin space and shaded area. Dave provides plenty of tea and coffee, with his wife’s freshly made chocolate cake a bonus.
We had a good mix of singles, twinsets and rebreathers bungeed tightly onto the stainless-steel railings and there was still plenty of spare deck space. The boat is licensed for up to 12 scuba divers. Cost for two dives is £45, and the journey time from the pontoon to Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, is about 50 minutes.
Dave usually drops a shotline on the boilers of the War Knight. There is no permanent marker buoy and the wreck is not accessible from the shore. Little if any boat traffic passes this close to the cliffs, so SMBs are not necessary during the dive.
Dave said that visibility varied from 6m-plus to less than 50cm, tidal flow being the main influence. I would recommend using a buddy-line if guiding inexperienced divers or trainees in low-visibility conditions. Everyone should carry a delayed SMB, just in case they lose contact or wander off the wreck-site.
Linda had brought along her AP Valves Inspiration rebreather and I was using twins with a nitrox fill on our first dive, ss Mendi, and then a single 12-litre filled with air for War Knight, as it seemed a waste to use nitrox this shallow. In hindsight, I probably could have got away with a 10-litre and still managed an hour-long dive.
History of the wreck
In the early hours of the morning of 24 March, 1918, a convoy of 18 merchant ships and six destroyers were cruising past the Isle of Wight bound for London. They included the 125m, 8,000-ton armed cargo steamer War Knight, complete with a crew of 47. She had been built by Union Ironworks of San Francisco in 1917 and was owned by the shipping controller (a government body set up to manage shipping during wartime).
All the cargo ships were carrying supplies needed for the war effort. War Knight’s holds were brimming with oil and foodstuffs, including bacon, lard and flour.
Tanker OB Jennings, built in 1917 by Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock in the USA and carrying a crew of 72 was also part of the convoy. At 151m and 10,289 tons, she was probably one of the largest tankers in the world. Her holds were filled with the highly flammable liquid naptha.
The convoy went on U-boat alert after flashes of light were seen and explosions heard in the distance. Standard protocol in these situations was to extinguish all lights and begin a zig-zag course to make ships less of a target for enemy torpedoes. Orders were issued from the lead vessel HMS Syringa to alter course at different time intervals.
With a convoy of this size it’s difficult to get a quick synchronised reaction from all the ships and inadvertently the convoy split into two groups. While attempting to re-unite the groups, War Knight and OB Jennings collided, sending naptha flooding over the decks and onto the surface of the sea.
Both ships were instantly engulfed in a fireball. Below decks on War Knight, Chief Engineer David Falconer’s quick thinking saved a number of crew-members from the raging fire. With some help from the third officer, George Brown, they miraculously escaped through a skylight in the mess-room.
Meanwhile, apprentice Reginald Clayton managed to open a valve that flooded the magazine, preventing another massive explosion that would undoubtedly have killed many more crew – 34 of whom were burnt alive. Eleven survived, but two more died of their injuries later.
Still ablaze, War Knight was towed into shallower water but struck a mine, which led to further explosions and fire. The burning hulk eventually settled in Freshwater Bay.
The crew of OB Jennings were rescued, with only one fatality. The ship was then intentionally sunk to extinguish the flames, and re-floated and repaired some months later.
Falconer and Clayton were among the dead and posthumously received the Albert Medal for bravery. Because of red tape, War Knight’s loss and the sacrifices made by the crew were never formally recognised by the War Office. In a poignant gesture, Dave has taken some of the crew’s descendants out to the wreck-site so that they could pay their respects.
Even though there had been a long stretch of calm weather, the day I turned up an easterly wind had started blowing. Dave had already forewarned me that easterlies created a short steep sea that, in turn, would create a bumpy boat-ride out. But the sun was shining and I was even wearing shorts, so how bad could it get?
Well, I should have listened to wise Dave. Golden Rule number one – the skipper is always right!
Conditions were reasonable until we passed the headland, and then it started to get very choppy. Even the sight of Dave’s wife’s chocolate cake made my stomach churn! Poor Linda was suffering the most, but to be honest we were all starting to turn an iridescent shade of green.
We completed our first dive and then sped over to Freshwater Bay off the Isle of Wight. This at least provided some protection from the prevailing wind, but by now everyone just wanted to get in the water, complete the dive and go home.
An ominous-looking brown slick spread across the dive-site. Dave had mentioned that the ebb tide would reduce visibility, but the sea looked like my mug of coffee. Arriving on the seabed, I realised that there was fat chance of getting any decent pictures. Visibility must have been less than 50cm, with a heavy surge.
This was definitely English diving at its best! Linda, professional as always, was running on autopilot, swallowing rapidly in an attempt to avoid regurgitatation. We spent a good 10 minutes looking around the bow area and I even managed to wedge Linda inside the chain-locker. This turned out to be my only halfway reasonable shot of the dive.
We slowly finned along the wreckage, and every few seconds I would stop and turn to check that Linda was still following. Bollards, winches and twisted metal plates lay all over the sand and shingle. Everything was covered in a thick layer of weed, making it difficult to differentiate reef from wreck.
The boilers stood out most, but I just couldn’t get any good wide-angle shots. We reached the remains of the unique steam turbine engine and then turned and retraced our route. Miraculously, we managed to find the shotline.
This was the first time I had dived out of Lymington and I will definitely go back again, if not for diving then just to explore the town and sample some of the local pubs and restaurants. Dave Wendes is a very competent skipper and it was a bonus that he knew the history of the wrecks inside out. Wight Spirit transported us to and from the dive-sites safely and as comfortably as possible.
Dave did forewarn me about the weather and, in hindsight, I should probably have postponed the trip. At 50cm, the visibility was probably the worst it could have been, so my apologies about the poor standard of images, although bonus points for Linda, who was a trooper to the bitter end!
From what I could see, most of the wreck was low-lying, with one or two very tight overhead sections, but at 125m there was plenty to look at. I can now understand why this site is popular with dive-clubs for training, or as a first wreck dive.
The story of War Knight’s demise has stuck in my mind, especially the bravery of David Falconer and Reginald Clayton. Dave has been trying to persuade the local parish council to build a memorial on the cliff-tops overlooking the wreck-site, but after their initial acknowledgment, he says they have not bothered to contact him again.