Shonas Wrecks - HMT Warwick Deeping

This page is an entry in Shonas Wreck Guide.

The final three months of 1940 became one of the worst periods of World War 2 for shipping losses in the Isle of Wight area. The year had been a hard one with Britain braced for a possible invasion from the seemingly unstoppable armies of Hitlers Third Reich, and British intelligence were well aware of the impending “Operation Sea Lion” to invade our shores. The outlook was gloomy and English moral suffered further with each new story of disaster on sea or land, and consequently costal defense craft were stretched far beyond their operational limits.

Off St Catherines Point, The southermost tip of the Isle of Wight, Admiralty vessels patrolled incessantly, as the area was a known favourite for German submarines and “hit-and-run” surface craft. The close proximity to the major ports of Portsmouth and Southamption attracted the enemy vessels like bees to a honeypot, as they knew only too well that their chances of a “kill” were always high. German minelaying activities in this area were also at a peak, with the resultant tragic losses of the submarine HMS “Swordfish” and the destroyer HMS “Acheron” taking place in November and December 1940 respectively.

A large number of British trawlers had been requisitioned during this period by the Admiralty, and subsequently converted to minesweepers and anti-submarine vessels, one of which was the 550 ton Hull trawler "WARWICK DEEPING", (H136). Depth charge racks had been fitted to her stern, and a large 4.7 inch gun mounted on a platform ·near the bow. She had also been frtted with ASDIC, and an oscillator protruded from the keel of the ship, which in turn gave the direction of any target bearing by a thin light beam projected onto a binnacle on the ASDIC bridge. The oscillator was rotated by a brass wheel on the side of the compass binnacle, the two being connected by a steel cable. A large majority of the trawler crews and ASDIC operators were fishermen recruited into the Royal Navy Reserve.

Photo of vessel during wartime
Warwick Deeping in wartime configuration.

Her Majesty's Trawler "WARWICK DEEPING" had been built in 1934 at Cochrane Shipbuilders in Selby, for the Newington Steam Trawling Co. of Hull. She was delivered on 1lth December 1934, and her dimensions were 155ft x 26ft. Her machinery was fitted under contract by Charles D. Holmes & Co. of Hull.

During early October 1940, "WARWICK DEEPING" had been on patrol in the English Channel, and put into Portsmouth to load supplies, which had become very low. Her intention was primarily to resupply with provisions, then move to the coal berth to refuel, and the first of the supplies had only just been taken aboad when she received an emergency message to put back to sea immediately. Despite two of her crew still being ashore, two more men were quickly recruited from another ship to take their place, one of whom was a Polish stoker. Although having not yet refuelled from the coal berth, the ship steamed quickly out of Portsmouth to commence patrol in the English Channel again. Dangerously low on coal, the ship rode high in the water, a fact that was to work very much to her advantage in the events that were to follow.

On the night of 1lth October, in company with another trawler HMT "L'ISTRAC", the "WARWICK DEEPING" was patrolling some miles south of St. Catherine's Point when they were spotted by five "hit-and-run" German destroyers that had been sent out from Cherbourg to disrupt any allied shipping in the area. The German vessels were the "WOLF", "FALKE", "GREIF", "KONDOR" and "SEEADLER" under the overall command of a Captain Henne, who immediately gave orders to attack the two British vessels at full speed. The Germans initially thought that the trawlers were coasters, and the first salvos were fired at "WARWICK DEEPING" at 23.27 hrs.

Both the British trawlers were also in some confusion as to the identity of the oncoming vessels, and at first assumed them to be Royal Navy craft. In this belief, the "L'ISTRAC" switched on her identification lights, and the Germans immediately took full advantage of this, bombarding the 33 year old trawler with shells until her boiler room exploded and she rapidly started sinking. Not content with this, the "GREIF" finished her off with a torpedo and she disappeared below the waves. The survivors were picked up the following day.

The situation aboard "WARWICK DEEPING" was serious, and they knew they had little chance of survival when so outnumbered by the more powerful enemy vessels. The Germans, confident that the trawler would also soon be on its way to the bottom, unleashed torpedoes at her. Fate, however, was on her side, due to the fact that she had not had time to re-bunker with coal, and was consquently floating so high in the water that the torpedoes passed harmlessly underneath her, although apparently one hit the side of the ship below the wheelhouse, but failed to explode.

Recovered cash box
Recovered cash box complete with cash.

High on the ASDIC set above the bridge, Acting Leading Seaman Jim Fuller and another rating concluded that there was nothng of further use they could do up there, and they descended to the bridge to find it unmanned with the vessel not being steered. Jim took the wheel and rang for 'double full ahead' to George the Chief Engineer, who was a fellow Hull trawlerman, and soon the trawler was surging forward and hurriedly heading north towards the relative safety of home shores. Frustrated at being cheated of an "easy kill", the Germans gave chase and pounded the "WARWICK DEEPING" with heavy gunfire, the first of which struck near the 4.7 inch gun forward, rendering it inactive, although luckily just before the Gunnery Officer and his crew had manned it.

The pounding continued as Jim zigzagged the ship northward while the weighted secret code books were dumped overboard to prevent the enemy getting them. The trawler was taking several hits from the Germans, and eventually she was struck in the engine room and the ingress of water increased. Jim's initial fear had gone, and he now felt calm, muttering a few silent prayers as he concentrated hard on steering the ship two points either side of North in an attempt to dodge the endless German bombardment. She was not steering well now, and he was conscious of the water slopping around in the bottom of the ship, making her more unresponsive to the helm by the minute. The suspense was unbearable as Jim pleaded with the trawler to keep going, and she seemed to be desperately trying to oblige. Jim had a great affection for the vessel, as he had started the war in her with several patrols in the Bristol Channel area, and she was also from his home port of Hull. He coaxed her on towards the Isle of Wight, with the German shells raining down on the ship, one of which smashed the wheelhouse windows, showering glass around and cutting Jim's forehead close to his eye, although luckily not harming him too badly.

Eventually, the water level rose up around the ship's engine and it ground slowly to a halt, causing an eerie silence as the ship wallowed to a standstill and listed further to port. Fate, however, smiled once more on the crew of "WARWICK DEEPING" as the Germans suddenly ceased their bombardment and headed south into the distance. A sense of relief swept through the crew, and ASDIC man Len Smith from Grimsby congratulated Jim Fuller on his actions to help save the ship and escape the enemy. The order was given to abandon ship, and the lifeboat and Carley Floats launched, with the crew hurriedly manning the boats as the trawler settled lower in the water. Jim Fuller felt very emotional as he patted the rail of the "WARWICK DEEPING" for the last time, and said "Well done old girl, and thanks".

The overcrowded lifeboat headed away from the sinking ship with the carley floats in tow, carrying the rest of the crew. It was a very dark night, and they thought they were about 20 miles south of the English coast, so they headed north with only a morse lamp as a light. Fortunately after only an hour, a local fishing boat saw the signal, and towed them in to the south side of the Isle of Wight. They stumbled ashore, found a large house and knocked on the door, but received an unfriendly welcome from a haughty couple who sent them on their way, because they would "mess up their carpets". Cold, tired and wet, they next tried a public house up the road, and this time were given warm hospitality by the landlord and his wife, kept awake by the gunfire, and who produced bottles of spirits and blankets for the shipwrecked crew. Despite it being three in the morning, the "WARWICK DEEPING'S" crew were soon happily singing away, relieved at having come through such an experience without losing even one of the 22 man crew.

Today, the wreck lies sunk into the soft seabed on an even keel in approx 40m of water at position 50 34.21N, 01 27.69W. She lies with her bows to the East, as if steeming for the safety of St. Catherines Point, a few miles South of Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight. She is very much intact with access to her engine room and galley possible from their deck skylights. The deck around the miships section is strewn with heavy calibre machine gun ammunition, with boxes of ready ammunition still placed next to the guns behind the wheelhouse. Amongst other things, the ships strongbox has recently been recovered which was found to contain approx 180 coins of the period, perhaps the ships pay?

The other British vessel involved in this conflict, the "L'ISTRAC", lies some more miles to the south, having been sunk that night. She lies upright on a shingle seabed, with her stern engine and boiler being the prominent feature of this wreck. A number of large 4 foot shells lie scattered around the midships section, brass boxes of 6 x 37mm shells and boxes of nose fuses for the large shells can still be found amongst the wreckage. This wreck is also known for having all-iron portholes!