3. Murky Waters

Great Central Railway Promotional Poster, 1912.

“Men of all other professions in lightning, thunder stormes and tempests with raine and snow, may shelter themselves in dry houses by good fires; but those are the chief times Sea-men must stand to their tackling, and attend with all diligence their greatest labour upon the decks.”
A Sea Grammar. Captain John Smith. 1627

The Humber (1) where, TB1 and other elements of the 7th.Flotilla were to be stationed for many months, begins at Trent Falls, where the rivers Ouse and Trent meet. Here it is 1 mile wide but as it travels 37 miles to the sea it widens until at the estuary mouth it is 8 miles across. The rivers and canals which feed into the Trent and Ouse drain an enormous area and from the Humber estuary there pours into the North Sea the largest single output of freshwater from anywhere in Britain.

Marking the seaward end of the estuary there stands a most remarkable geological feature, Spurn Point (or Spurn Head) which is formed of sand and pebbles, driven south from Flamborough Head and Holderness by “longshore drift”, held together by marram grass and buckthorn. The curving spit, which is only 50 yards wide at some points, stretches 4 miles out into the estuary and is a state of constant change, lengthening and narrowing imperceptibly until, once every 250 years, it is so attenuated that it can no longer resist the power of the sea and is totally destroyed: the cycle of growth and demolition then begins again.

Negotiating the Humber estuary presents difficulties, even for the experienced seaman, for the constricted deep water channel is lined on both sides by mud banks which, affected by strong tidal currents which may reach a speed of 7 knots, drift inexplicably here and there and dry out as far as 2 miles from the shore. (2)

“Owing to the tortuous character of the river, and the amount of matter with which its waters are charged, the navigable channel is narrowed by numerous shoals and extensive flats, and as the tidal streams are rapid and irregular, those of springs and neaps setting in many instances in different directions, and as the low flat shores offer but few objects as seamarks, the navigation of the Humber would be extremely difficult without artificial marks.” (3)

No Admiralty charts or sailing directions were published for the waters above Hull in 1914 because it was considered they were too difficult to navigate “without local knowledge”, an advantage possessed principally by the men of the wind powered, flat bottomed Humber keels and sloops of the early 20th.century who, by skilful use of anchor and sail, harnessed the variable tides and currents to drive them in and out of the estuary and its tributaries.

The Humber has a another characteristic which is much commented upon - its colour. “Taffrail” ( the pen name of Captain Taprell Dorling) described this aspect of the estuary from the point of view of the WW1 Royal Navy sailor:

“The water, particularly on the ebb and after heavy rain, when the soil is washed off the uplands and is carried down-stream in the form of silt to make more mud banks, is the colour and consistency of café-au- lait. So opaque is it, indeed, that when a ship passes up against the falling tide her very bow wash and stern wash are drab coloured instead of white, while after scrubbing decks in the morning - for we still go through the motions of trying to be clean - we invariably find a substantial portion of our native land, in the form of a fine powdery deposit, adhering to the corticene when the heat of the sun has evaporated the moisture.” (4)

On the north bank of the Humber, 25 miles from the sea, stands Kingston upon Hull, a port which, in the years leading up to WW1, was reaching the peak of its prosperity. Over a 100 large vessels, many of them owned by the respected Ellerman line, traded with Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and other countries around the globe while smaller companies had established what was almost a monopoly of passenger traffic to and from northern Europe. In addition to the significant number of ships engaged in the coasting trade there were the many hundreds of trawlers, drifters and smacks which sailed from Hull and made it the biggest fishing port in the world - a claim contested by the fishermen of Grimsby, the Lincolnshire town across the water, who were also convinced that they were tougher, had the better craft and brought home bigger catches than their Yorkshire rivals.

Immingham Dry Dock

Seven miles north west of Grimsby sits Immingham, “the homestead of the family of Imma”, which from its birth in Saxon times until early in the 20th.century, remained a quiet, rural village devoted to agriculture. In 1906, however, the Grand Central Railway, seeking to expand its dock facilities to handle the massive exports of coal from the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire fields, chose not to extend the Royal and Alexandra docks at Grimsby but to build anew at Immingham Haven, which lay closer than the neighbouring town to the deep water channel which traversed the Humber:

“Over several years, the village was to see the influx of a workforce of several thousand men, some with their families, to excavate the forty-five acre dock and develop the 1,000 acre estate.

Three railways were laid from Grimsby, Ulceby and Goxhill to access the new port. Seven hydraulic hoists were erected, capable of loading almost 5,000 tons an hour into the holds of visiting ships, with 170 miles of siding to accommodate the full and emptied wagons. A massive grain storage plant was also built and cranes were installed to load and discharge general cargoes, with transit sheds for their storage.” (5)

The new docks were opened with due ceremony on 22 July, 1912 by King George V but 2 years later when Skirmisher, 12 Torpedo Boats and a division of destroyers of the 7th Flotilla arrived to make Immingham their base (soon to be followed by the depot ship Leander, a division of destroyers from the 9th.Flotilla and the boats of the 8th.Submarine Flotilla ) the transformed village still retained much of the atmosphere of a “colonial frontier town”. (6) It was to be many weeks before even a few hours leave was to be granted to the sailors for a “run ashore” but even then there was little recreation to be had in Immingham, certainly not in “tin town”, the conglomeration of corrugated iron bungalows built to house the construction workers, apart from playing football on the pitch adjoining the docks which a beneficent Grand Central Railway made available to the Navy without charge. When, eventually, a few hours shore leave was granted from time to time, the sailors rode the unique electric railway to Grimsby, built to transport dock workers to and fro, to join the hard drinking trawler men in the pubs of Skinner Street.

In 1905, a review of coastal defences was undertaken by the Committee on Armaments of Home Ports which found that the Humber fortifications were quite adequate although they consisted solely of a battery of guns mounted in Fort Paull , a “Palmerston Folly” of the 1860s built to counter the supposed aggressive intentions of Napoleon III . However, the strategic importance of the estuary increased with the emergence of Germany as a potential enemy, and a report of 1911 concluded Fort Paull was too far from the sea and its guns of too Limited a range to deter modern enemy ships intent on shelling targets on the Humber and recommended that 6” gun batteries should be built at the mouth of the estuary at Sunk Island and Stallingborough. At this time, the construction of the port of Immingham, and an Admiralty fuel depot at nearby Killingholme were nearing completion, while an important Wireless Station, designed to serve the whole of the North Sea and equipped with the first high power transmitter in the country, had been erected at Waltham near Cleethorpes.(7) Despite the production of comprehensive plans for the land defence of east coast ports in 1913 which detailed the important areas in “Fortress Humber” which should be protected, construction of the gun batteries which had been recommended 2 years earlier did not start until early in 1914 and neither of them were operational when TB1 and her flotilla mates arrived on 1 August of that year. (8) When TB1 refuelled at the Killingholme depot for the first time 2 days later her men had the novel sight of 3 frail aircraft, operated by the Naval Air Service, parked on an adjacent field, the trail blazers for what was to become an important seaplane base.

When war was declared on 4 August, 1914, (an incident which was not recorded in TB1’s log) the Patrol Flotillas were on their stations in Dover, the Forth, the Humber, the Tyne and the Tees, ready to confront an invasion fleet. But what were the tactics they were to employ if the assault, which many expected, actually took place ?

Winston Churchill’s appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911 did not please all of his political colleagues nor any of the senior officers of the Royal Navy who regarded him as a “determined, cheese-paring, niggardly economist.”(9) Nevertheless, Churchill threw himself into his new job with immense vitality and, encouraged and advised by his friend Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher who was then in retirement, studied the culture, the history, and all aspects of the administration of the Royal Navy with a critical eye:

“During his first eighteen months at the Admiralty he spent 182 days at sea to keep in touch with the actual work of the Fleet. He visited practically every dockyard, naval establishment and important ship in the British Isles and the Mediterranean.” (10)

One of the new First Lord’s first moves was to set up a Naval War Staff - a long overdue reform - and the members of that organisation were then bombarded with well reasoned memoranda from their political master designed to encourage a study of strategy, a subject of which many officers in the higher echelons of the Service at that time had little grasp. One of these memos, dated 29 March, 1913, and headed “Notes by the first Lord of the Admiralty”, dealt with invasion and military raids in general and is such a good example of the ways in which the ideas flowing from the young, confident Churchill invigorated his department that it is worth studying in some detail. The First Lord begins by denying that any of the 30 cruisers earmarked to police the 125,000 square miles of the North Sea in time of war would be able to track down an invasion fleet, and he goes on to write:

“The aid that can be given from the British shore by torpedo craft would be partial and fleeting. The weather is frequently thick; on a third of the days in the year the visibility is not more than four miles; on a quarter of the days in a year it is not more than two miles. There are about five days fog per month during the year. April averages ten days fog. At night it is frequently impossible to see a ship without lights at more than a few hundred yards distance and often not at that. It is no exagerration to say that the main risk a single fast ship would run, steaming at night without lights, would be that of collision, which chance may be very well accepted. It will be easy to demonstrate this by experiments in the coming manoeuvres. If, therefore, close and certain observation becomes impossible, there is a very good chance of an indefinite succession of individual transports reaching the British coast without being intercepted by the controlling cruiser squadrons.” (11)

Churchill then considers the problems facing the Admiral of Patrols who has to defend a coastline stretching more than 600 miles with a force numbering less than 100 ships:

“It is quite impossible with such a small force to maintain a regular patrol, or still less a line of observation. These flotillas are not intended for observation, but to attack. To employ them on the former service, for which their numbers are wholly insufficient, would speedily exhaust them: at least half would have to be resting and refuelling. It is not possible with the forces available for the patrol flotillas to prevent enemy vessels reaching the British coast. Our dispositions are intended to make it certain that they will be attacked with the least possible delay.” (12)

And, finally, the brash but brilliant First Lord, a man with little seagoing experience, instructs the old salts how matters should be arranged:

“The Admiral of Patrols must treat his problems selectively and recognise that absolute certainty is out of reach, that his flotillas are for fighting purposes, and that their role of scouting is secondary - - - The patrol flotillas are therefore kept in hand at the best strategic points, neither scattered or exhausted, and a system of land observation by outposts, cyclists, aircraft and signal stations, all connected by telephone, ought to be perfected, from which accurate information can be transmitted to the points where the patrol flotillas are massed.”(13)

Whilst a fully researched account of how far Churchill’s ideas for an integrated onshore spotting plan were implemented in the Humber region has not been attempted. there are certain interesting points which suggest that some sort of coordinated system was constructed. The men of the Coastguard Service were made “aware that the use of communications was becoming vital” and “soon developed into expert signallers” ( 14 ) while, in Lincolnshire certainly, groups of Boy Scouts, adept in semaphore, joined the coastguards on watch and territorial cyclist battalions were stationed on the coast ( 15 ). Aircraft from Killingholme were soon taking to the air as part of a developing system to patrol the eastern seaboard from the Humber to the Thames at dawn and dusk each day, although these early flights did not venture far, cover large areas or rise to great heights as a report from Flight Sub Lieutenant Adams on 18 November reveals:

“Left Killingholme at 0730hrs, turned at Donna Nook 0810hrs, Landed at Killingholme 0845hrs, Altitude 2000ft, visibility 10 miles, weather good, conditions some showers, wind 10mph, Area clear. (16)

We can see from TB1’s movements, as recorded somewhat sketchily in. her log how Churchill’s ideas on the way the Patrol Flotillas were to be used, perhaps conceived with friend Jacky Fisher at his elbow, were refined by the Naval War Staff, passed on as orders to Rear Admiral Ballard and implemented by Captain F.Clifton Brown, Captain (D) of the 7th.Flotilla.

The counter invasion measures developed in 1912 and 1913 were designed to frustrate the enemy if a strike was made before, or coinciding with, a Declaration of War (as the “Bolt from the Blue” school suggested might be the case) and, accordingly, on 1 August all the East Coast Flotillas were instructed “to patrol their areas each night until further orders.”(17) On the following day the hands aboard TB1 “cleared ship for battle”, according to the log, and transferred “all gear not absolutely required” to a tug to be landed for storage (18). At 8 p.m. that evening, the ship took up an “Anchored Patrol Station” - surely an oxymoron ? - off Spurn Point where she remained all night with the ship’s company at Action Stations. The next 33 successive nights (with one exception when her rudder was being adjusted) TB1 spent anchored off Spurn Point or Bull Sand or steaming back and forth across the 5 mile wide deepwater entrance to the to the Humber between Spurn Point and Spurn Light Vessel. (19)

(Click to enlarge)

For the men of TB1 this period was hard but dull; their ship left Immingham at 7.45.p.m or 8 p.m. each evening to take up her patrol station where, anchored or not , the ship’s company went to Action Stations which were maintained until morning. At 4.30.p.m., as daylight came, TB1 would set off for her homeport, sometimes diverting to the Killingholme depot on the way to ensure that her oil tanks were always full to sustain the engines for a long period of conflict when the enemy invasion fleet, as expected, hove in view. Once back in Immingham the remainder of the forenoon was spent in the usual harbour routines with the hands waiting for the Bosun Mate’s pipe of “Up Spirits” to which the sacrilegious always replied with the hackneyed “Stand fast the Holy Ghost”. Then came mid-day dinner and, finally, “Pipe Down” when silence prevailed until the whole topsy- turvy work cycle began again.

There was no shore leave granted throughout August and early September, nor is there any reference in the log to football being played on the pitch adjoining the dock. On Sundays those who wished could leave TB1 to attend divine service aboard the depot ship Leander and there were 3 occasions when the ship’s comp were hardly likely to have been undertaken with a great deal of enthusiasm. On 11 August Lieutenant Morgan ordered his men to perform the archaic exercises “Repel Boarders” and “Prepare to Board”; did he believe that TB1’s role in attacking the troopers and supply vessels of an invasion fleet would involve hand to hand combat or was he seeking to find an unusual activity which would relieve monotony for his crew ? Whatever the reason for the skipper’s orders the resulting hustle and bustle would certainly have provoked laughter and involved much flourishing and clashing of cutlasses which were still standard issue to His Majesty’s Ships (20). There was danger in TB1’s nightly humdrum patrols but it did not come from the enemy but from the swirling currents - an “anchor watch” would have been set when the ship was sitting off Spurn Point, Bull Sand or in the Hawke Road - and, more importantly, from the risk of collision given the volume of traffic passing in and out of the Humber estuary.

“Those of us who were at sea during the first few weeks of war will always remember the amazing amount of traffic - colliers, tramps, even topsail schooners - in one never ending procession bound to and from North Sea ports.” (20)

What was the purpose of patrolling at night between the Spurn Point Lighthouse and the Spurn light vessel, both of them unlit, across a major traffic lane whose users carried no lights ? The nerves of Mate Hanna and Chief Gunner McCarthy, who shared the duties of Officer of the Watch, and of Lieutenant-in-Command Morgan who, given the circumstances, would have spent all night on the bridge, must have been sorely tried.

On 10 September TB1 returned to Immingham from patrol early in the morning as usual and on the following day entered the port’s modern dry dock where she was to remain for the next fortnight. The ship’s log does not tell us whether this was a routine measure or whether there was a mounting list of defects which demanded attention; we are only informed that each day the hands were employed “refitting ship” with the only references to specific tasks being those mentioning scraping and re-painting the ship’s sides - perhaps an unconscious reflection of the pre-war days when a ship’s efficiency was judged by the state of her paintwork. However, it is certain that experts from Captain (D)’s staff, in the depot ship Leander, would have descended upon TB1 to advise, help and drive on Lieutenant Morgan. his officers and men to ensure that the engines, the weapons, the W/T, and all the other technical furnishings of the little warship were restored to a high level of performance in the shortest possible time.

If TB1 had been dry-docked at Portsmouth, Chatham or Devonport her crew would have lived in the Royal Naval Barracks in one of those ports while their ship was re-fitting, being marched down to the dockyard every morning to begin work. But while their ship was in Immingham dry dock TB1’s ship’s company lived aboard which was not a pleasant experience. A journey to a dockside facility was required for a visit to the “heads” (the lavatory), for a wash or a bath, to dispose of rubbish or to carry out the “dhobeying” dear to every matelot’s heart. It is difficult to see how adequate meals could have been prepared and cooked with no power available and fires banned. Still no shore leave was granted: the only time a rating left the ship while she was dry-docked, unless he was nominated for the odd store party, was to attend divine service aboard Leander or to stride out with his shipmates on the only occasion when one of those interminable route marches around the town was ordered. What a deliverance it must have been on 25 September when brown Humber water began to trickle and then flood into the dock, the ship began to lift off her chocks and curtsey to the incoming tide until, finally, massive gates were opened to allow TB1 to “proceed out of dock into basin”, an entry in the log which gives the ship a certain dignity. On the following day the hands employed “preparing ship for sea” would have set about their tasks with some enthusiasm.

From the time that TB1 arrived in the Humber until the day that she left Immingham dry dock there had been 2 periods during which, so cabinet members and some senior officers of the services believed, there was a very high risk of a German invasion force being despatched. The first, of course was during the days immediately preceding or following a Declaration of War when our enemy would assume that he could catch our sea and land defences unprepared, and the second during the transfer of the British Expeditionary Force to France leaving England defenceless on land, so the Germans would think, or, at best, protected by a skeleton, largely untrained force. (22) In any event, our enemy might well believe that the defence of the English Channel would be the main concern of the Royal Navy while the BEF was being transhipped to the continent, leaving the east coast open to attack. As it happened 4 infantry divisions and a cavalry division of the British Army, with their arms and supplies, were shipped across to France between the 9th. and 25th.August so that by the end of the first month of the war British divisions stood shoulder to shoulder with our continental allies, having crossed the Straits of Dover in safety. The east coast of England remained inviolate but the patrol flotillas, conforming to Churchill’s ideas, remained concentrated in the Humber, the Tees, the Tyne and the Forth, each of them like a wolf pack (if one consisting of somewhat elderly animals) ready to ready to emerge to worry and harry the flanks of an invasion fleet when it appeared.

A Humber Keel


1. There are those who claim that as the Humber is an inlet, which is tidal up to the point where it is entered by the Trent and the Ouse, it is an estuary throughout and never a river.
2. It was not unusual for the ferries which crossed the Humber from New Holland to Hull, before the famous bridge was opened in 1981, to run aground on an emerging sandbank.
3. North Sea Pilot, Vol III.
4. “Taffrail”. “A little Ship.”
5. Brian Mummery and Ian Butler. “Immingham and the Great Central Legacy”.
6. Ibid.
7. Powered by Grimsby Corporation Electricity Works.
8. 5 pre-dreadnoughts were sent to Hull as guard ships until these batteries were ready to engage the enemy.
9. Arthur J.Marder. “From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol.II ”.
10. Ibid.
11. Winston S.Churchill. “The World Crisis.”
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. The Coastguard Agency. “The History of H.M.Coastguard.”
15. Mike Osborne. “Defending Lincolnshire.”
16. Immingham Museum. “Killingholme Seaplane Base, 1914-1919.”
17. Naval Staff Monographs, Vol.X, Part 1.
18. The memoirs of officers serving in the capital ships of the Grand often mention the “landing of gear not required” when war broke out, which in their case usually meant surplus wardroom furniture. TB1 was sparsely furnished throughout and it is difficult to know what gear would have been “not required.”
19. TB1’s log does not always specify what a night’s assignment was, just recording that the ship was “undertaking patrol duties.” 20. On 22 March, 1915, while patrolling between Beachy Head and Brighton, TB1 lost a cutlass overboard.
21. E.Keble Chatterton. “The Auxiliary Patrol.”
22. Most senior army officers thought that the war would be short and that 5 infantry divisions should be sent to France. However, Kitchener. Secretary of State for War, foresaw a long conflict and insisted that a regular, trained division should remain in England to strengthen home defence and be ready to reinforce the BEF when necessary.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to hear about the Wireless Station at Waltham. There also seems to be the remains of a later long range radio station also down the road at Humberston.