On the 21st March 1917 the armed merchantman S.S. Maine set sail from London's East India Docks bound for Philadelphia carrying a cargo consisting of chalk, horsehair, goatskins and fenugreek seeds to run the gauntlet of the marauding U-boat packs in the Atlantic..
She never made it out of the English Channel. On the squally, misty morning of the 23rd March 1917, under the command of Captain 'Bill' Johnston and with his First Officer on the bridge, lookouts stationed on the forecastle head and the poop, and the 12cm gun on the stern manned she was steaming on an evasive zig-zag course at about ten knots approximately thirteen miles South of Berry Head. The poor weather perhaps masked the wake of the periscope of the following U boat. Oberleutnant-zur-see Ralph Wenninger on the U-boat UC17 had spotted the Maine shortly after dawn and was shadowing her. He attacked and at 8:05am the Maine was struck on the port side level with her No.2 hold by a single torpedo.
The damage was extensive; the explosion blew the hatches off No.2 and No.3 holds, smashed the port gig and wrecked her bridge, knocking the captain off his feet. Though serious, the damage was not immediately crippling and Captain Johnston, after sending a distress call, was able to set a course for land under the vessel’s own steam. The crew must have been terrified that the U-boat would return but for some reason the U-boat didn't prosecute his attack. He was either very confident of the kill or lost contact with the Maine in continuing squally weather. Later, as the incoming water soaked her cargo of chalk and quenched her boilers, Captain Johnston ordered the lifeboats swung down and prepared to abandon ship.
The Maine’s distress call was answered by the Royal Navy torpedo boat No.99, commanded by Lt-Cmdr Percy Taylor. The sea by now was calm enough for the torpedo boat to come alongside and recover most of the 43 crew, leaving only the Captain and a couple of others to try to establish a tow. The immediate plan was to take the Maine in tow and beach her at nearby Hope Cove, but unfortunately the available towropes were not up to the job of towing a large merchantman that was by now sitting low in the water.
At noon, the first Admiralty tug arrived and took over the tow, however it was too much for the stricken ship, the bulkheads collapsed and she started going down. Captain Johnston and the remaining crew escaped in the ship's dinghy that had been lowered to deck level. At 12:45 p.m. she sank, in the words of Commander Taylor, "Gracefully, upright and on an even keel". That is how she now lies, at 35m, approximately 1 mile offshore from Soar Mill Cove, between Bolt head and Bolt tail. At 50 12 45N; 03 50 53W
The Maine was just one of 96 ships sunk and a further 9 damaged by the UC-17, 70 of them between 23rd July 1916 & 21st May 1917 while under the command of Oblnt. Ralph Wenninger. He is also credited with the sinking of the Galicia on the 12th May 1917. In November 1917 he was promoted to Kapitänleutnant. On the 22nd April 1918 he became a prisoner of war after hitting a mine near Dover.
In the spring of 1960, BSAC’s Torbay branch, keen for a project that would make use of their diving skills, decided to undertake a systematic survey of all wrecks both charted and uncharted within a 20 fathom line along the South Devon coast. The plan was to explore, photograph and research the history of each vessel which they hoped one day to publish.
The club decided to base the survey operation in Salcombe as their research had shown that many wrecks were located in the area. At this time Torbay BSAC didn’t have a boat of their own to use for the search, so the 30 foot fishing boat 'Princess' owned by skipper Michael Dornom was chartered.
It was during the survey that the wreck, known to local fishermen as the ‘Railway wreck’ was dived. It had been named this by local fisherman, who thought that a metal spar seen at low water was a railway line. The club however were confident that it was the Maine. Derek Cockbill and Terry Downes descended to it and were the first divers to reach the wreck since a diver in standard dress in 1917.
The wreck was found to be in good condition and its propellers, a bronze one on the propeller shaft and an iron spare mounted on the aft deck, were present. The immediate reaction of those on board the Princess seems to have been excitement at the prospect of salvaging parts of the wreck.
As Derek Cockbill was later to observe; "Could we have seen at this stage the work, frustrations and crises that were to face us in the coming months the project might well have folded there and then but being blissfully unaware of the difficulties ahead we began our enquiries"
Extensive enquiries were made both on the Clyde where the Maine had been built and elsewhere in the country. In the 1960s Britain still had an active ship-building industry and there were a number of propeller manufacturers based on the Clyde, so it was assumed that one of these would have made 'our' one. A sample taken from the main propeller was sent to the two largest companies, who confirmed it to be high quality bronze and that its scrap value was about £110 per ton, but no, they hadn't made it.
Could a BSAC club rise to the technical and logistical challenge of raising the propeller? First it had to find the ship’s insurance underwriters and negotiate salvage rights. This they managed to do for a 'nominal figure' of £100. Now they had to finance the project. Members of the club decided to raise funds by creating a salvage syndicate and issuing £5 shares, with a maximum of two shares per member.
The club then turned to the question of how the propeller should be detached from the vessel and recovered. Various options like unscrewing and sawing were considered and were felt to be too laborious. One method sounded like fun, so, beating Michael Caine to the punch by several years, it was decided blow it off. Several members attended a one-day explosives course, followed by a quick phone call to ICI to obtain the blasting material.
ICI deemed that the safest way to transport a large quantity of explosives was by rail. This resulted in a cardboard box stuffed full of submarine blasting gelatine and Cordtex making its way down to Torbay by train. On arrival the consignment was dumped unceremoniously and unattended on the platform of the passenger station in the centre of Torquay. The attitudes to Security and Health & Safety were a little more relaxed in those days.
On the 15th June, 1961, MV 'Princess' left Salcombe to carry out the first major blasting operation. The Maine had already been permanently marked with a buoy tied to the barrel of the stern gun, so it was not long before Terry Downes, Tony Hayward, Neil Howick, Terry Hall and Derek Cockbill were diving in relays to set the necklace of charges round the prop shaft with a Cordtex trigger line and a slow burning fuse on a float to start the whole thing off.
The resultant explosion cleared all marine life from the propeller (a tad enthusiastic with the quantities, perchance?) and examination of the boss revealed the maker’s mark cast into the metal; "Stones Bronze London 1904 440". A search of trade directories led to J.Stone Co. Ltd of Deptford who not only confirmed that they had manufactured the propeller but agreed to purchase it for a scrap price of £137 per ton and to transport it at their own expense from the landing point.
How then should the propeller be raised to the surface? There were three methods considered for raising the screw: Buoyancy – using lifting bags, tidal – attaching the propeller to a barge or floating platform at low tide, then towing it once the tide had risen or simply winch it on to a large vessel or barge. Having weighed up the options the club decided to winch the propeller to the surface and land it in Plymouth that provided the necessary facilities and infrastructure for onward transport.
An article about the ship appeared in the ‘Liverpool Echo’, prompting now retired Capt. H. J. Chubb, to get in touch. He had served his apprenticeship aboard the Maine from 1909 to 1913 and made several drawings of her from memory. Later Paul Truscott made a full scale drawing of the vessel that proved invaluable during later exploration of the wreck. Other memories were stirred. Commander Taylor who had moved to Florida read about the club’s plans in the magazine ‘Sea Breezes’ and got in touch. He had been in command of the flotilla of minesweepers that had come to the aid of the Maine at the time of the sinking.
Initially the club thought of hiring an admiralty mooring vessel but it was not possible at that time, but the 85 foot MFV Universal Dipper, owned by Universal Divers Ltd of Liverpool was in the area and she was chartered for the task.
The 6thDecember 1961 was set as the date to lift the propeller, and initially the weather remained good. After a lifting strop had been connected to the propeller boss, the weather deteriorated rapidly and the lift had to be aborted. The winter of 1961/62 was one of the harshest in memory and kept just about all ships in Salcombe in harbour for the next three months, so the lift was postponed until spring brought calmer weather.
By March an admiralty lifting vessel was at last available, but the club had to undertake to insure the vessel for the duration of operations. The insurance indemnity figure that had been quoted was £25,000, BSAC was able to arrange this for £20. Unfortunately a change of personnel at the Admiralty led to them reassessing and asking for £200,000 indemnity. Fortunately, a local broker came good with a quote of £15. This was accepted with alacrity. It seems that insurance was as much a minefield in the 60’s as it is now, and they didn’t have the advantage (?) of on-line brokers and comparison websites to ‘assist’ them.
Finally, on Thursday the 25th April 1962, Princess once again left Salcombe and headed for the Maine with the lifting wire and four divers aboard, Roy Hawkins, Terry Downes, Geoff Sanders and Derek Cockbill.
The winter seas had carried away the existing buoy. This had to be replaced before the lifting operations could commence. The divers then descended to the stern of the wreck to attach the lifting cable to the propeller and a lighter buoyed line to be picked up and haul the cable aboard the lifting vessel.
The Admiralty ship Barbastel arrived and the cable was (with much effort) hooked up for the lift, unfortunately the cable became detached from the propeller and frantic arrangements had to be made to go down again and reconnect it. Drifting slowly westwards the Barbastel dragged the propeller clear. Following its trail along the seabed divers found it gently bumping against the bottom over clear sand.
The Royal Navy ship HMS Barbastel (Z 276) was a Boom defence vessel of the Bar class. She was laid down in May 1944 by George Philip & Sons Ltd. (Dartmouth), launched 26 July 1945 and Commissioned 2 November 1945. She was decommissioned and sold in 1964 and scrapped in February 1965. The name Barbastel is the common name of the bat Barbastellus communis the ship was named thus possibly because the admiralty was running out of ideas, as all the boom defence vessels were given names beginning with B. More charitably, we could suggest it was because her task was listening for submarines while operating the boom defences of a harbour.
Now that the propeller was clear of the wreck it could be winched to the surface to the excitement of the waiting divers. The Barbastel took the propeller to Plymouth where on the 6th June 1962, a dockyard crane loaded the propeller onto a railway truck for its final journey to London. The sale of the propeller fetched £840.16.9d.
Part of the profit from the venture was used to fund the creation of a film entitled "When you know how". Written, filmed, acted and directed by club members. This was designed to attract new members to the club to learn to dive. It even had a soundtrack of music performed by a group formed by club members. The film was entered in an international festival and won a Gold medal in the U.K. class, Silver medal in the International class and the BSAC Triton award. Torbay assigned control of the finished film to BSAC HQ to use for promotions. It can still be seen through the wonders of modern technology on YouTube!
Unfortunately, the 120mm (4.7") gun that should be on the stern was later taken without permission by an unknown group of divers.
In 1983 members of the club, in honour of the 20th anniversary raised the ship’s spare iron propeller, from the deck. It remained for some years the showpiece of a Paignton shopping centre before developers disposed of it without a hint of ceremony. It now lies at the entrance to a South Devon farm; A rather unusual final resting place.
The long sought after prize of the ship's bell was not discovered until May 1987 when it was found and raised by two divers from Bracknell BSAC, making their first visit to the Maine. It was presented to Torbay with great ceremony, and now takes pride of place in the club's compressor room.
The club still dives the wreck on a regular basis. On one occasion, diving from a member's boat we had great difficulty locating it. A visiting group of divers in a RIB asked if they could dive it – to which we replied, “If you can find it, we give you permission to dive it”. Turned out the problem was that our marks were in Degrees Minutes & Seconds and the shiny new GPS was set to Degrees Minutes & Hundredths. We won't be making that mistake again!
In July 2013 to mark the 60th Anniversary of the formation of BSAC – the 59th birthday of Torbay Branch, 51 years from the raising of the Bronze propeller and 30 years from the raising of the Iron propeller, members of the club returned to dive the Maine in the company of Mike Dornom, Terry Downes and many others involved in each salvage project.
Dramatis Personae (alphabetically)
- Richard Blair Current Chairman of Torbay BSAC 0008.
- H. J. Chubb Capt. formerly an apprentice on the Maine. Contacted the club and assisted with information about the ship.
- Derek Cockbill Member of Torbay BSAC who later served on the BSAC national committee and as BSAC National Diving Officer from 1966. Passed away in 2005.
- Pat Dean Later ran the dive boat Lodesman.
- Michael Dornom Skipper of the fishing boat 'Princess' still lives in Torbay and visited Torbay BSAC in 2012 to tell his reminiscences of the event.
- Terry Downes No longer active member of Torbay BSAC but can occasionally be persuaded to join us for a Red Sea diving holiday.
- Terry Hall ex member Torbay BSAC
- Roy Hawkins ex member Torbay BSAC
- Tony Hayward ex member Torbay BSAC
- Neil Howick ex member Torbay BSAC
- 'Bill' Johnston Captain of the SS Maine.
- Nick McVernon Current D.O. Of Torbay BSAC
- Colin Praill as per Terry Downes
- Geoff Sanders as per Terry Downes
- Percy N. Taylor Lt-Cmdr, D.S.C., R.N.R. Captain of Royal Navy torpedo boat No.99.
- Paul Truscott Made scale drawings of the Maine.
- Ralph Wenninger Kapitänleutnant commanding UC-17