Today, Wells-next-the-Sea is at peace and a magnet for holidaymakers, day-trippers, sailors and bird-watchers. But that was not always so, particularly during the Second World War, when a somewhat unfortunate incident occurred just off its shores in this part of the North Norfolk coast. But only a handful of people ever knew about it at the time.
During the Second World War the waters just off the East coast of Britain were some of the most dangerous anywhere in the world and often protected by mines. Sadly therefore, the legacy from that time is a seabed littered with wartime wrecks and some incredible tales of heroism. Allied shipping was being decimated by German torpedo boats (or E-boats) which would often race across from occupied Europe, quickly attack and hastily retreat. So, for protection, convoys would huddle together in a narrow channel of water often protected by mines.
In June 1941, HMS Umpire (N82) a newly built Royal Navy U-class submarine was sailing from Chatham Dockyard in Kent, to Scotland. She was on her way up the East coast for sea trials in Scotland and fearing attack, joined a convoy of ships also heading northward along what was known as E-boat alley. Her eventual destination was Dunoon where she would join the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. From there she was to carry out a single working-up patrol in the North Sea before heading off to the Mediterranean. After leaving Chatham, she made an overnight stop at Sheerness on the Ise of Sheppey, to wait for assembly of a north-bound merchant convoy leaving the Thames and gathering off Southend. The following day, she duly joined the convoy and headed North.
As early as the first night with the convoy a German Heinkel attacked the convoy and Umpire took evasive action by crash diving to well below the surface. However, on surfacing, one of its diesels developed a fault and had to be shut down. The propellers had to be driven purely by electric motors on the surface and when submerged, the submarine had no mechanical linkage to the diesel-powered units. This, inevitably, reduced the Umpire’s speed and a radio message was sent to the Commodore of the convoy, reporting this. A Motor Launch was sent back as escort but lost Umpire in the gathering darkness.
The Northbound convoy, of which Umpire was now a part, passed the Southbound convoy FS44 around midnight on the 19th June 1941, about 12 nautical miles off Blakeney. Both passed starboard to starboard which was unusual, since ships and convoys normally passed port to port. No vessel was lit because of the risk of attack from German E-boats, nevertheless and despite having dropped back from its convoy, Umpire spotted the southbound convoy and altered course to port to avoid a collision. Then suddenly, as if nothing more could go wrong, her steering faltered and she veered sharply into the path of an armed escort trawler named the ‘Peter H. Hendriks’, which was part of the southbound Convoy. Unavoidably, the trawler struck the Umpire near its bow, flooding the forward torpedo-room and rapidly sinking her in about 18 metres of water. The 180ft, 540-ton HMS Umpire settled on the seabed with a 30-degree list to starboard.
According to a Kendall McDonald – “The two vessels clung together for less than a minute before the HMS Umpire heeled to port and went down. Four of Umpire’s crew members were on the bridge at the time of impact – the Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, the navigator, Tony Godden, and two lookouts. Only the CO survived the cold water and was rescued by the trawler; both lookouts sank before help reached them. ………… Four men in her control room had managed to seal the compartment. They knew from the depth gauge near the periscopes that they were at 24m, and though they had no Davis escape gear they decided to make a free ascent from the conning-tower hatch without delay. They made a good exit and all four reached the surface, but two had held their breath and, though picked up, died later from ruptured lungs………
Due to the list, the bulkhead door of the engine-room would not close properly and the compartment was slowly but steadily flooding. Twenty men had taken refuge here and prepared to escape using the Davis escape trunk. Only 17 had Davis escape gear, so three of those went first, with the three without escape lungs clinging to their legs. Two of the latter did not make it to the surface, as they were knocked unconscious after hitting gear outside the escape hatch – and let go.
A seaman called Killan then took charge of those who were left in the engine-room. First, he ducked under water into the trunking and went up it to make sure it was all clear before returning to the engine-room. Then he sent the others up one by one. He was the last to leave and was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery.”
Edward Preston Young was a junior officer on board the HMS Umpire at the time, and who was to go on to have a distinguished career as a submarine commander himself. His story about his experience on the HMS Umpire comes from his classic memoir of British submarine warfare, ‘One of Our Submarines’. in which he wrote:
“The sea continued to pour in on us, with a terrible and relentless noise, and the water in the compartment grew deeper every minute. As the level crept up the starboard side, live electrical contacts began spitting venomously, with little lightning flashes. Vaguely I wondered if we were all going to be electrocuted.In the half-darkness the men had become anonymous groping figures, desperately coming and going. There was no panic, but most of us, I think, were suffering from a sort of mental concussion. I discovered one man trying to force open the water-tight door that I had shut earlier. “My pal’s in there,” he was moaning, “my pal’s in there.” “It’s no good,” I told him; “she’s filled right up for’ard and there’s no one left alive on the other side of that door.” He turned away, sobbing a little.
For some reason we decided it would be useful if we could find more torches. I knew there must be one or two others somewhere in the wardroom, so I made yet another expedition down the slope, wading through the pool that was now waist-deep and already covering the lowest tiers of drawers under our bunks. I spent some time in the wardroom, shivering with fear and cold, ransacking every drawer and cupboard, pushing aside the forsaken paraphernalia of personal belongings — under-clothes, razors, pipes, photographs of wives and girl-friends. But I could find only one torch that was still dry and working. Holding it clear of the water, I returned to the control-room. It was deserted.
The door into the engine-room was shut. Had I spent longer in the wardroom than I thought? Perhaps they had all escaped from the engine-room escape hatch, without realising that I had been left behind. Even if they had not yet left the submarine, they might already have started flooding the compartment in preparation for an escape, and if the flooding had gone beyond a certain point it would be impossible to get that door open again. I listened, but could hear nothing beyond the monotonous, pitiless sound of pouring water. In this terrible moment I must have come very near to panic.”
Young was not on duty at the time and after the collision found himself in a flooding boat resting on the bottom of the North Sea in 60 feet of water. Having tried to surface the boat using compressed air and having searched for other survivors, Young ended up in the conning tower with the First Lieutenant, an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) and an able seaman. They estimated that as a result of the angle of the boat and the height of the conning tower there was only about 45 feet above them and that they should attempt to swim to the surface. Closing the hatch below them, they forced open the upper hatch and escaped. The ERA was never seen again and the First Lieutenant drowned after reaching the surface.
Young and the seaman were picked up, along with several men who had escaped through the engine room hatch. The Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, had already been rescued, having been on the bridge when the collision occurred. All told, 2 officers and 20 ratings died with only 2 officers, Young and Wingfield, and 14 ratings surviving.
So, just nine days after being commissioned by the Royal Navy, their newest possession at 58 metres long and 730 tons displacement, had gone. The loss of HMS Umpire was not a direct result of any enemy action, but from an entirely and unfortunate accident. Today, the wreck is designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. However, although it is legally a war grave, it can be filmed, so long as nothing else is touched nor moved. The wreck lies on the seabed about 15 miles off the Norfolk coast between Blakeney and Wells in part of what is called today the ‘Sheringham Shoal’ – an eerie memorial to its brave crew and the horrors of war.
(For a tour of the wreckage site go to Archive Divernet (here)
There seems to be some debate about the wreck of HMS Umpire being classified as a War Grave; some have pointed out that the wreck was reported as having been sold for scrap after the war and most of the damage to be seen today by divers was caused by the heavy use of explosives by the salvors.