Recalling the loss of UC 44

It was just about midnight on a calm moonlit night in Waterford Harbour. Aboard the WWI mine laying submarine UC-44, her skipper, Kurt Tebbenjoahnnes, satisfied himself as to their position and gave the orders to start deploying her load.  The UC class of sub were a relatively new design and although they could deploy mines from the surface, secrecy was paramount.  As the night was so clear and they were initially so close to land (at Creaden Head, Co Waterford) Tebbenjoahnnes gave the command to submerge. These mines were stored in chutes in the forward section of the submarine. Each mine was dropped individually and the position carefully recorded.  As the mine dropped out, the sub floated astern on the tide.  As it hit the bottom, a soluble plug held the mine in position, allowing plenty of time for the sub to clear.  Saltwater reacted to the plug, which eventually dissolved and released the mine which floated up to a predetermined height on a wire.

A sketch sketch of the mines deployed

Beneath the mine was a hydrostatic valve that was set to a specific depth which controlled the position of the mine.  Whatever way the tide was running, it maintained the mine beneath the surface making detection much more difficult.  There the mines waited for an unsuspecting ship to pass over and strike the protruding horns which triggered an explosion.

While this operation was ongoing Tebbenjoahnnes remained in the conning tower, checking the boats position and plotting his course for Queenstown (Cobh) in Cork harbour.  Suddenly he heard and felt a loud explosion and his boat lurched downwards and struck the seabed.

Tebbenjoahnnes found himself on the bottom of Waterford harbour in the conning tower and was speedily joined by two other submariners; chief engine room officer Fahnster and a young apprentice named Richter.  Any attempts to raise the submarine were in vain and with no communication with the rest of the crew and waters rising around them they were faced with only one choice, to try for the surface which was 90 feet above. All three emerged from below almost as one, but eventually they drifted apart. Miraculously Tebbenjoahnnes was pulled aboard a local fishing boat later that morning by Dunmore East fishermen. Tebbenjoahnnes was cared for in the home of Mrs Chester and was seen to by Mr Austin Farrell. Later that morning he was turned over to the authorities and began his journey to London and life as a POW.

Removing the remaining mines following salvage. Courtesy of Paul O’Farrell

The rescue of Tebbenjoahnnes would trigger a series of events over the next few days and weeks that would see the death of a crew man aboard the minesweeper Haldon and the dramatic salvage of the submarine that would have a major part to play in the allies winning WWI.

All that was to come however. On that morning of the 5th August, Tebbenjohannes had breakfast before commencing his new life as a POW under escort to London for interrogation.

A story of the salvage and the implications of WWI is subject of a new book by Tony Babb. It makes for an interesting read


Please join me for Heritage week at Cheekpoint from Saturday 24th to Sunday 25th where the focus will be on the three sister rivers and Water Heritage Day

Death on the Paddle Minesweeper Haldon

In a dramatic few weeks in August 1917 Dunmore became the center of a naval espionage operation that saw the destruction of a U Boat, the rescue and interrogation of her captain and a salvage operation to lift the boat from the depths of Waterford harbour.  But another event happened during this time, the damage of a minesweeper off Creaden Head and the death of one of her crew.
The destruction of UC44 at Dunmore East on the 4th August 1917 is relatively well known locally as it was commemorated by the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society on its centenary. Whilst laying mines in the harbour she struck her own mine and plunged to the floor of the harbour.  Three of her 29 crew escaped the sub, but only one, the Commander Kurt Tebbenjohannes, survived.  Whilst he was transported to London for interrogation and a salvage crew arrived in Dunmore to attempt a daring feat of retrieval, a more mundane but vitally important event was happening in the harbour; mine clearance.
Accessed from https://www.clydeships.co.uk/view.php?year_built=1916&builder=94&ref=6033&vessel=HALDON
Mines were a constant hazard to shipping in the first world war in the harbour.  To counteract the threats they posed the dangerous work of minesweeping was required.
Underlying the dangers I have recorded the loss of two ships off Dunmore already.  UC44 had laid her mines in a line from Creaden Head seawards. Many, me among them, would probably think in trying to destroy ships, the mines would be laid in a line across the mouth of the harbour. However, it makes much more tactical sense to lay them in the line described, as all ships would have called close to Dunmore to collect a pilot, and then proceed towards Creaden Head. (1)
I’m unsure if more than one ship was employed in the work that August, but I’d presume two.  But one of these mine sweepers was the Haldon; an Ascot or Racecourse class of paddle minesweeper.  The Haldon was purposely built for the work by Dunlop Bremner Co Ltd of the Glasgow.  She was launched on the 29th March 1916.

The work of such ships was typically countless hours of slow sweeps of vacant waters, interspersed by short periods of tension and drama on locating a mine. Here’s a short description of the work:
“Early British minesweeping was limited to the towing of a ground chain from two spars set across the stern of a vessel but this resulted in an extremely narrow swept path and the chain was easily snagged by seabed obstructions. The next development was a serrated wire sweep towed between two ships. Otter boards, used by fishermen to keep open the mouths of their nets, were employed to increase the width of the bight of wire in contact with the seabed. This simple design frequently became snagged on rocks and wrecks on the seabed but technicians based at HMS Vernon overcame this problem with the introduction of redesigned otter boards known as kite otters. These were not only used to divert the ends of the sweep laterally but others could be rotated 90 degrees and used to depress the ships’ ends of the sweep wire to a chosen depth. This was the basis for the British Type Actaeon or ‘A’ sweep used for almost all Royal Navy minesweeping operations during WW I. It was effective for depths down to 50 fathoms.” (2)
The mine sweepers swung into action very quickly.  Although they could not know it, at least seven mines had been laid before the accident.  Fatefully it would appear to have been the last mine to be cleared on August 7th, which would lead to the damage to the Haldon.  Although I have no details as to exactly what happened, one common accident was caused by mines slipping under the ship along the towing cable and detonating.  The Haldon although badly damaged survived the war. A deck hand was not so fortunate. 
John Gowans was previously recorded as having died as a result of illness. It was subsequently clarified by family members that he was killed in action on the minesweeper that day of Tuesday August 7th off Creaden Head.  John was twenty-seven, from the fishing village of St Monans in Fife, Scotland.  He was the son of William and Agnes Gowans and is buried at Cobh old church cemetery.  But is also remembered on his family’s headstone at his local cemetery.
With thanks to Frank Murphy
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/98115073/john-gowans#view-photo=89790989
While searching for the details of John I was struck by the similarities between his home place and Dunmore.  A fishing village, where men set out clear in their minds of the risks associated with the ocean, but resolute. From contemporary local newspapers it seems the Gowans of St Monans shared in that tradition, with one at least receiving an award for life-saving of fellow fishermen.  I have no information as yet on his career with the navy, no notion of his life aboard the ship or whether he ever set foot in Waterford or Dunmore East. Knowing so little also set me to wonder would anyone light a candle to him at this stage? Would anyone remember him in their prayers? Would anyone place flowers upon his grave? Another victim of the war to end all wars and another name that is deserving of remembrance.
A grey granite celtic cross is the war memorial at St Monans,
John Gowan is listed amongst the sailors.  Thanks to Brian Moyes
http://www.clydesideimages.co.uk/war-memorials-fife.html
(1) Details gleaned from last years Friend and Foe seminar
(2) Accessed from https://www.navy-net.co.uk/community/threads/how-did-minesweepers-operate-in-ww1.72601/
I want to thank Eddie Mulligan, Frank Murphy and Brian Moyes for assistance with details of this mornings blog
I publish a blog about Waterford Harbours maritime heritage on the last Friday of the month.

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