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The chilling story of submarine warfare around Wales and the shipwrecks that are still there today.

by Gary Reading, Jul 2018

Under full moonlight, the Apapa ship carried around 250 people and a hull full of silver and ivory along the coast of Anglesey.

The First World War was under way and the ship was travelling from an African port towards Liverpool at a steady pace on choppy waters on the night of November 28, 1917.

Just 10 minutes after the ship’s second engineer officer had carried out his checks, the vessel was struck. A torpedo fired from a German submarine caused a “tremendous crash” which “shook the ship from stem to stern”.

Water flooded the engine room, and the damage was so severe that the ship sunk three miles off Anglesey.

Of the 249 people on board, 77 passengers and crew lost their lives. 174 people managed to board the ship’s six lifeboats and were taken to Holyhead.

The attack on the Apapa was down to Germany’s U-boat campaign.

The war at sea began when the UK declared the North Sea as a war zone, ordering that any cargo heading to the central powers, including Germany Austria-Hungary and Turkey, would be confiscated.

Germany responded with a declaration that all waters around Great Britain and Ireland would be treated as a warzone in a bid to cut off supplies.

In February 1917, Germany launched a new phase of submarine warfare where any Allied or neutral ship would be attacked on sight. The U-boat campaign meant the number of people to die at sea in Welsh waters sharply increased from February 1917.

The attack on the Apapa was documented at the time in The North Wales Chronicle newspaper. In a report dated little more than a week after the attack, the second engineer officer said: “I had relieved the watch at 4am and found everything in order; the ship was making about 13 knots.

“About 4.10am there was a tremendous crash, which shook the ship from stem to stern, accompanied by a terrific rush of water into the engine-room.

“A torpedo had struck the ship about the starboard thrust recess, and the water striking the bulkhead came pouring on the starting platform, where I was standing at the time.”

He said: “While waiting [for people] to get into the boat I put on my boots and coat which as was just completed when there was another terrific explosion on the starboard side, a second torpedo having struck the ship which caused terrible havoc.”

Just seven minutes separated the torpedo attacks, and the vessel soon descended to the seabed.

One surviver of the Apapa attack described the German submarines “like a dark shadow on the surface of the water”.

They told the newspaper: “The Germans would have you believe that their torpedoes are meant only to destroy ships.

“Their actions, however prove that they are intended to destroy the lives of people, whether they are connected with the war or not.”

This story of crews trying to safely manoeuvre Welsh waters in the grips of the First World War is just one of several documented by a Heritage Lottery-funded project instigated by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW).

The ‘U-Boat Project Commemorating the War at Sea/Prosiect Llongau-U: Yn Coffáu’r Rhyfel ar y Môr’ has documented 17 wrecks in the depths of the ocean, delving into the circumstances around how and why they sunk.

The U-Boat Project 1914-18 is a collaboration between the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Bangor University and the Nautical Archaeology Society.

The 17 sites chosen are a small sample of the 170 vessels lost, and here are where those 17 are around the Welsh coast:

Vessels travelling around British waters were given advice from the Royal Navy on how to protect themselves.

They were told to steer in a zig-zag course or paint their ships with dazzle camouflage which could confuse enemy ships.

Some Merchant Navy ships were fitted with deck guns and provided with naval gunners.

But, despite best efforts to avoid attacks, ships in Welsh waters were no match for the German U-boats.

The Hopemount

The Hopemount ship was travelling from Cardiff to Alexandria, Egypt, carrying Welsh coal and several crew members.

The ship left the capital in June 1915 but was soon attacked by submarine shell fire.

A report printed in the Abergavenny Chronicle on 18 June that year said: “Captain Robert Gibson, interviewed at Barry Hospital, said that the Hopemount, sighted the submarine about 6am on Sunday morning when about 70 miles west of Lundy Island.

“The submarine commenced to fire shells, several of which struck the ship, and fragments hit him (the captain) on the arms and neck.

“He and the crew took to the boat which had been flung out in readiness, and when they last saw the Hopemount she was settling down rapidly.

“After being in the boat about twelve hours they were picked up by a Greek steamer.”

The SS Cartagena

The minesweeping trawler was one of 60 ordered for the Royal Navy during the First World War.

Although sunk 10 years after the end of the First World War, it is unknown how the ship ended up on the seabed.

On January 15, 1928, the ship set out in a westerly gale and was not seen again.

There were 13 crew members and one passenger on board.

One of the trawler’s lifeboats was picked up off Llandudno and the Cartagena was eventually posted missing with all hands.

It has been suggested that changes to the ship’s ballast and additional coal being carried could have caused it to sink.

But the project said carrying this extra load “was considered uncommon practice”.

HMS Marmora

Since the project began, people have been encouraged to send their own stories.

One came from the nephew of seaman Arthur Morris. Arthur’s mother tried to stop him from going on his last journey aboard the HMS Marmora from Briton Ferry.

The boat was sunk by a German torpedo in July 1918. He had been planning to get married on his next leave.

Untold tales of the war at sea

Several of the ships were recorded using a sonar system on board Bangor University’s research vessel.

The vessel sends out soundwaves and the amount of time which it takes for the waves to bounce back allows the crew to build up a detailed model of the sunken ship.

The data provides clues of the ships’ last moments by revealing damage caused by torpedoes, exploding mines and ramming.

Some of the wrecks are still intact, but others are beginning to collapse after more than 100 years on the seabed.

At the end of the war, the 200-strong German submarine fleet surrended.

One ended up in Porthmadog, with residents allowed onboard for a small charge.

The UB 98 submarine was scrapped in 1922 but several pieces remain today.

Various parts were used in projects across the area, including sheets of metal used in making a tunnel on the Ffestiniog Railway.

A programme of marine geophysical survey undertaken by the Centre for Applied Marine Sciences, School of Ocean Sciences, Bangor University in the spring and summer captured the wrecks.

Additional survey work, involving the Nautical Archaeology Society, will include the capture of underwater video footage on five of those wrecks, which will be combined into 3D inter-active digital models for use in the project’s website and a travelling exhibition.

The project’s travelling exhibition will visit 18 Welsh maritime museums from July 2018, before closing in December 2019.

Deanna Groom, senior investigator (maritime) at the RCAHMW, said: “We are enormously grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for its support during the development of this project and also to the museums and community groups who have shown such continuing interest.

“These sites are poignant and evocative. They represent small battles fought on the high seas between people who, apart from division of war, would undoubtedly have shared the special comradery known to mariners.”