[From How the Manx Fleet helped in the Great War, 1923]
DURING the early stages of the War, the Admiralty found it necessary to have auxiliary ships, fast enough to overtake merchantmen, and large enough to accommodate sufficient men to form boarding parties and prize crews.
Suitable ships for this work were found in the cross channel trade. While the Peel Castle was still engaged on the Liverpool and Douglas service, a naval constructor came from London to examine the ship, and she, being favourably reported on was chartered on the completion of the summer service.
The fitting out was done by Cammell Lairds of Birkenhead, and occupied about five weeks. Accommodation was made for about a hundred officers and crew, the military and navigating duties being undertaken by Royal Naval and Royal Naval Reserve men.
The engine department was staffed mostly by employees of the I.O.M. Steam Packet Company.
The Peel Castle was commissioned, and hoisted the White Ensign on November 14th 1914, under the command of Lieut-Commander P. E. Haynes, R.N.R., an able and energetic officer, who had considerable naval experience, and who had, also, been for many years in the service of the P. & O. Company.
Everything being ready, the ship sailed under sealed orders from Birkenhead on the 22nd November, 1914, and, after undergoing gun trials in the Channel, proceeded to sea, being the first ship of this class to sail from Liverpool.
She arrived at Scapa Flow on November 24th, and, after coaling, proceeded to Plymouth. There she had to undergo repairs, owing to certain damage caused by the rough weather the ship had experienced on her passage from Scapa.
From Plymouth she proceeded to the Downs to take up work, which occupied her from January, 1915, to February, 1918.
The Dover Straits had been closed by our mine-fields and anti-submarine nets, and all vessels, bound for Continental ports, had to undergo examination before being allowed to proceed. The Peel Castle became attached to the Downs Boarding Flotilla, a portion of the Dover Patrol under Admiral Bacon. The narrow stretch of water extending between the Goodwin Sands and the Kentish coast, became at this time the busiest spot on our coasts for shipping.
Some idea of the immensity of this undertaking may be gathered from the fact that, during a period of six months, 21,000 merchant vessels passed through the Patrol, an average of 115 vessels per day The work of the patrol boats was carried out with such care, that only four per cent. of them were sunk, with a loss of seventy-seven officers and men.
It has been well said, that, if nothing else proves the greatness of British Sea-power at this time, this crowded patrol does.
The duties of patrol ships consisted of regulating the traffic, examining neutral ships for enemies and contraband, and acting as guard-ships in the Downs. The Peel Castle was alternately ten days at sea, and four days in port at Dover.
A full report of the happenings whilst on this station would fill a book, so my purpose is just to classify and tabulate them as well as I can, in the limited space of this article.
At first sight it might appear that patrol work would be of a somewhat monotonous nature, but, when this account is read, it will be seen to be anything but that.
The first job they had was typical of many others. A steamer that turned out to be of Greek nationality was endeavouring to slip away in the dark. She was chased and brought back. A few days later, a large steamer flying the red ensign, passed through the Downs, and, continuing to proceed after being ordered to stop, the Peel Castle fired at her and gave chase. When off the South Foreland, however, the unknown steamer returned the fire, by a shot from a much larger gun than any aboard the Peel Castle, and there being other craft of ours in the neighbourhood more capable than she was of handling such big game, the work was naturally left to them.
I have said that there was plenty of activity during the three years spent in the Downs. The truth of this statement may be realised from the following list of operations, in which the Peel Castle was concerned.
There were twenty-five air raids on Dover, Ramsgate and Margate, in turn.
Nine attacks by enemy destroyers.
Fourteen times the Peel Castle assisted vessels that had been mined, or that were in distress from other causes.
Whilst searching vessels, she made on many occasions valuable captures of prisoners. An account of some of these will prove interesting.
Information having reached the Admiralty that Germans were returning home by stowing themselves away in the bunkers of neutral ships, orders came, that an engineer officer and a party of stokers were to search the engine-rooms and bunkers of neutral vessels, especially those of ships hailing from United States ports.
On May 1st, 1915, an engineer (a Douglas man) and a party of stokers were searching a Dutch ship, whose engine-room staff were all mustered together in the engine-room whilst the search was in progress. One of the stokers, in going through a coal bunker, was very much surprised to see a pair of eyes staring at him from behind a heap of coal. He quickly got out and returned with the engineer. They then discovered a stowaway, who was soon made prisoner. On examination by the interpreter. after his transference to the Peel Castle, he was proved to be a prominent New York business man. He was promptly sent ashore and interned. This being the first man to be found thus hidden in a coal bunker, the ship, of course, gained considerable credit for herself.
Searching vessels, especially passenger ships, was most interesting work, and we generally found some United States newspapers, which gave American news of the War, some of the articles written at this time being very hostile in their tone to the Allies.
One of the Peel Castles interpreters was a Belgian, who had been in the service of the Antwerp Harbour Board. He could spot a German immediately, and could tell from what part of Germany he came by his dialect.
On June 11th, 1915, an engineer and search-party, on examining the Dutch steamer Rotterdam, captured, disguised as a "greaser", the second engineer of the German auxiliary cruiser Prinz Eitel Frederick, which ship was then interned in a United States port.
On another occasion, while searching a Holland-American ship from New York, they captured two German prisoners, who were kept on board the Peel Castle, and examined by the senior Naval officer of the base. One of them, who went by the name of Emil Gasche, proved to be the notorious Franz von Rinckler, one of Admiral Tirpitzs special spies and the man who organised the campaign in the United States against Great Britain, by means of setting fire to factories, and by placing bombs in ships. The other man claimed to be a railway magnate from Mexico, but he turned out to be Von Rincklers chief assistant. They were promptly imprisoned, and I believe were finally deported to the United States for trial. They were, of course, very important captures, and consequently the Peel Castle won considerable praise.
The experiences of this ship were not, however, without their humorous side. German submarine mine-layers were very active ; one was reported to be in the vicinity, and the Peel Castle, proceeding in search. saw a suspicious-looking grey object just awash She therefore quickly signalled to a torpedo-boat, fired at the object, and prepared to ram it. However, the torpedo-boat arrived there first, and, suddenly turning round, signalled "Your submarine is an overturned boat.". This seemed very hard luck to our men, and the "submarine" joke was, for some time, very popular. However, the fact that enemy craft were in the neighbourhood was proved that same night, when a heavy explosion was heard, and a trawler was blown up.
On another occasion the Peel Castle was credited with having rammed a submarine, when really she had done nothing of the sort. It happened in this wise. Whilst at anchor, a large steamer drifted down on to the Peel Castles stern and broke it, damaging also the plates on either side A collision mat was hung over the stem, and the ship was ordered to proceed to London for repairs. On the way up she passed several ships at anchor including the training ship Worcester The crews of these vessels apparently jumped to the immediate conclusion that she had actually rammed a submarine, having seen the collision-mat upon her stem, and cheered her accordingly. However, when she arrived further up the Thames, an incident of a very different character occurred She was fired upon from a concealed battery on shore, one. shot passing. across her bows, and a second one going between the funnel and the mast. After this, the Peel Castle anchored, and the commander went ashore to investigate matters. He discovered that the authorities had not been notified of their arrival in the Thames, and the result was as stated. The commander's subsequent remarks concerning territorial officers were not, I. believe, very complimentary.
During all the time on this service, the Peel Castle was in constant danger from submarines, and also from mines, and her crew witnessed many a sad sight. The boarding-tug Lydic was mined in the Downs, and all hands,save one, were lost. Almost at the same time, a large oil-tanker was mined, and suck off the South Foreland. On this occasion, the sea was covered with large quantities of oil, and seagulls, whose feathers became coated with oil, were unable to fly, and so were drowned in large numbers.
The need for recreation was not forgotten by those on board the Peel Castle. A concert party was soon organised, and was able to put up a very creditable entertainment. Her crew also did a bit of fishing when things were quiet. On one of these occasions, a party of engineers and a signalman went fishing in the ships dinghy. Towards evening the wind commenced to blow, and when they tried to get back to the ship they found it quite impossible to row against wind and tide. They were in danger of being blown out to sea, until, steering for a Dutch ship that was at anchor, they made their boat fast alongside. Meanwhile, the commanding officer of the Peel Castle grew very anxious, and sent a steam trawler to look for them. Mr. Cannan says : The skipper of the trawler having found us, took his revenge by towing us back at full speed, causing us all to be wet through, owing to the amount of water shipped. We were glad to get back on board, and to put on some dry clothes."
A good deal of the Peel Castle s occupation at this time was of the nature of rescue work Here is an account as handed to me, of what took place in the course of a few days
"December 24th 1915 Picked up the crew of a Greek steamer, which had been torpedoed
"December 29th. Information received that the Dutch steamer Delphland had sailed from New York with one boiler empty, so an engineer and party of stokers were sent to search; it. Found the boiler to be entirely empty.
"December 31st 1915 Went to the assistance of the Dutch ship Ecuador, which was mined, and sinking. Boarding tugs were giving assistance, but the ship ,:sank on the Goodwin Sands
"January 6th, 1916. A Dutch tug brought the crew of a Norwegian steamer, which was mined off the North Galloper light-vessel. As the crew had very little clothing, the firemen being in their stokehold dungarees, we fitted them out with what clothes we could spare
"January 18th A steam trawler came alongside at night for assistance One of the men had gone mad, and had attacked another member of the crew with a shackle An officer and a party were sent on board, brought the man back under arrest, and, also, the wounded man,who was badly battered about the head. The wounded man was put into hospital, and the other one sent to the Naval base for treatment."
January 28th, 1916. The crew of a Jersey smack, which had been sunk by a German submarine, was placed on board our ship. The men had been adrift for three days, and were in a very bad condition."
There was a Zeppelin raid on Ramsgate on February 2. On the 4th, a very heavy gale, and two ships went ashore on the Goodwin Sands. Stood by all night, lifeboat took the crews off."
"February 5th. Very busy stopping steamers, and our search-parties were out all day."
About 1 a.m., on February 7th, 1916, the Peel Castle met with a very serious disaster. A fire broke out in the stewards storeroom above the magazine. The alarm was given, all the fire hoses were used, and every means taken to extinguish it, but, occurring amongst a quantity of inflammable stores and temporary woodwork, the fire quickly spread We managed to get the magazine flooded. All hands were mustered, and it was found that one of the interpreters, Mr. Steele, was missing, so every effort was made to find him, but without success.
Two other interpreters were sleeping in the Ward Room, just above the place where the fire started, and only escaped by getting through the ports in the ships side. The captain and officers just got away with what clothes they stood in. Fortunately the wind was very light, blowing on the starboard beam, which kept one side of the upper deck clear of smoke for a time, and provided a passage to each end of the ship. To prevent any rush in the event of an emergency, the boats were lowered, and all the men that could be dispensed with were sent away to a tug. A party of about thirty sailors and stokers were retained on board, in order to work the hoses and pumps. The Dover salvage tug Lady Brassey now came alongside, got her hoses to work, and the fire appeared to be well in hand. But about 3 a.m., the upper structure amidships went m flames, the shells in the racks round the guns, the small-arm ammunition, and rockets,. began to explode, so all hands abandoned the ship. After a while, the Lady Brassey got a rope on the Peel Castle and towed her close to the beach, so that if she should sink, she would be in shoal water, and not block the fairway. With her pumps, she kept the fire from spreading, and eventually the amidship portion burned itself out.
After leaving the Peel Castle, the crew were taken to the tug Mirror, then transferred to the yacht Marcella, and then to H.M.S. Louvain, where they were very hospitably received.
About 12 noon, the Captain, with a small party of officers and men, returned to the Peel Castle, and completed the work of extinguishing the fire,which was still burning in the bunkers, and smouldering in different places. They also recovered the remains of Mr. Steele, who had evidently left his cabin, and attempted to escape by the stairway.
The Captains and the navigating officers quarters having been entirely destroyed, we had to make shift as best we could. There was no means of cooking, so we lived, perforce,on tinned meat and bread for some days, which diet, although, perhaps, very wholesome, soon became decidedly monotonous."
"February 9th. An enquiry was held at the Naval Base, Ramsgate, as to the cause of the fire. Whilst this enquiry was in progress, two German seaplanes commenced dropping bombs, so the enquiry was adjourned, while the Court went out to see them. One bomb dropped in a field, so an officer was sent to get it : he brought it back, and handed it round for inspection. It had failed to explode, owing to the safety-pin not having been withdrawn. Considerable damage was done later on by certain bombs that were dropped on the town.
"February 13th. The Peel Castle was towed to Chatham Dockyard for refit. Whilst she lay there, some very extraordinary repair work was in progress to some of His Majestys ships. The light cruisers Conquest and Penelope had both been in action off Harwich. The Conquest was badly holed, one shell exploding under the after gun-turret, lifting the turret bodily up. The Penelope had been torpedoed under the counter, which was turned up at right angles to the deck. The torpedo-boat Viking had been badly damaged, aft of the the engine-room. She was put into dry dock, the damaged portion cut away to the keel, and a new part built in its place. Another notable repair was that of the torpedo-boats Zululand and Nubian. One had the portion forward of the boiler-room blown away, and the other the portion aft of the engine room so the two parts were joined together, and made one vessel, which was appropriately named the Zubian.
A very remarkable repair to a submarine was carried out at this time in the dockyard. One of the H. class submarines came in, having struck a mine, when submerged, and had the outer end of her torpedo-tubes damaged. Inside the tubes were live torpedoes, and great care had to be taken in extracting them, but this was successfully , accomplished without accident.
It took six weeks to put the Peel Castle once more into condition for further work. On the 9th August, 1916, she went back to her old job in the Downs. , Things were then pretty lively in that neighbourhood, German submarines being very active, and soon -the Peel Castle had to take over the crews of two ships which had been torpedoed German aeroplanes dropped bombs, meanwhile on Dover and Deal, but met with a heavy fire
"September 26th 1916 At midnight all hands were called to quarters, as German destroyers were about. All our ships were collected ready to be convoyed either to Dover or to the Nore as required The Germans fired a number of shells into Ramsgate, and then made off at full speed
"October 19th Another German destroyer raid at 2 a m .s9 collected the merchant shipping and convoyed them to the Thames
Everything was favourable for the Germans in their destroyer raids,. because any ship they met was an enemy, whereas a British destroyer meeting any other ship, must first challenge her. If she were a British ship, they received the reply , if she were German however they received instead a salvo of shells at close range These raids continued for some time, and the Peel Castle was kept busy collecting and convoying shipping
But, in spite of all the dangers with which they were surrounded, the desire for recreation and relaxation continued and on November 14th, that being the second anniversary of the ships commissioning, and being a slack day the crew went in for a. little sport in the way of a regatta. The stokers and the R.N.R. sailors had an eight oared race in the ships lifeboats. There was great excitement when the stokers, under Coxswain Morrison, (a Douglas man), won the race. Part of the prize was a pint of beer for each man, and one of the stokers, who had just finished doing cell punishment for some offence, vowed he would have rowed three times the distance for it. The officers rowed the petty officers, and the marines rowed the stewards. Altogether they had an. enjoyable afternoon, and finished up with a. concert party at night. The Peel Castle was able to put up quite a good concert party. One member of the R.N.V.R.s had been a pianist in a cinema so he made an excellent accompanist. The electrician was conductor. and managed the lighting effects. There was a fine array of vocal talent, and not only did they give concerts amongst the flotilla, but even in Ramsgate, for the wounded soldiers.
About this time the Germans were very daring. One of their seaplanes alighted on the water, fired a torpedo at a Monitor moored off Ramsgate, and got away unharmed. The torpedo missed its mark, and ran into the sand in Ramsgate harbour.
An interesting incident is recorded on November 24th, 1917. "At 7 a.m. a call to action stations. Received a signal that a submarine was north of the Gull Light vessel, so , proceeded there at full speed,and found a German submarine ashore on the Goodwin Sands. The mine-sweeping drifter Feasible; when sweeping the Channel off the North Foreland, fouled the sweep. Presently a submarine broke the surface of the water, on which the sweeper opened fire. The submarine returned the fire, and, as the water was too shoal to dive, attempted to escape by zig-zagging, when she ran ashore on the Goodwins. The other sweepers closed round, and shot one end off the submarine. When the Peel Castle arrived, the crew were in the conning-tower with, their hands up, so we stood by for a while, and a torpedo boat came, and took off eighteen prisoners out of a crew of forty men. About 4.30 p m one of the boarding officers went to see the submarine, which was then dry on the sands, and when walking over the deck; was surprised to see a man come up from below, and stagger about The officer brought him back to the Peel Castle, where our doctor patched him up, and sent him ashore to the hospital, but he was so badly damaged that he died three days afterwards. He was the boatswain of the submarine, and could speak English perfectly.
Air raids in this locality were of common occurrence, but an exceptionally heavy one is recorded on Sheerness at night on December 6th 1917. Bombs were dropped in the Dockyard. Houses and shops outside the Dockyard gates were destroyed, eight houses in one street being blown up, and, of course, there were numerous casualties. One of the officers of,the Peel Castle, Paymaster Clarke, and his wife, had a very narrow escape. The incident is worth recording. The house, where he lodged, happened to be the last of the block of eight which was blown up. The wall and a portion of the bedroom floor were blown away, leaving a triangular piece of floor in one corner, on which the bed hung by three legs. During this raid the Peel Castle had a narrow escape, as the tail vanes of a bomb fell on board, whilst the bomb fell so close, that it splashed water through the open port of the Chief Stokers room.
An incident is recorded about this time that shows how indifferent to danger men can become. A floating mine had drifted ashore in Pegwell Bay. Some Air Service men tried to salve it, when it exploded, killing twelve of them.
After the completion of a refit, instead of returning to the Downs, the Peel Castle received , orders to take up the Norwegian Convoy work. This, it is said, caused a great flutter, as a whole convoy had been destroyed by German cruisers the previous December.
On board the Peel Castle, some of the P.O.s and pensioners developed "weak hearts" and pains across the chest, and were invalided ashore.
About this time, Commander Haynes of the Peel Castle was promoted to be Captain R.N.R., and was sent to take charge of the Atlantic Convoy. We were very sorry to lose him, and, I believe, he made a record for promotion, being a Lieutenant at the commencement of the War, and reaching Captains rank in three and a half years.
Certain alterations were made at Leith to fit her for the new work which she was to take up. The after mast was removed, and the boat deck was extended to form a landing platform for the Kite Balloons. Depth charge throwers were fitted, also shoots on each side, which carried twelve depth charges, each with spare throwers and releasing gear. Paravanes, to prevent mines striking the ship were also fitted
The Peel Castle's patrol was between the Orkney and Shetland Islands, where German submarines usually passed through to get to the Atlantic
The next change of work for the Peel Castle was to the Humber-Tyne convoy, which was reckoned to be one of the most dangerous on the coast, the deep water between Flamborough Head and the Tyne giving submarines depth enough to operate. The great amount of traffic from North-East ports, gave the Germans a good opportunity of doing business in these waters. They carried on the destruction of our ships with great success. The number of wrecks in the original Channel became so great, that a fresh Channel had to be swept through the minefield. Here is a description of the work of the Peel Castle at this time.
"We arrived at the Tyne, and proceeded next day with a convoy to the Humber, and docked at Immingharn to change the balloon. On the 17th August, 1918, whilst going North, we received a signal that a ship of the South-bound Convoy had been torpedoed off Scarborough on the 16th. Left the Tyne at 8 a.m. and at 8.30 the balloon fed into the sea, so had to rip it open and pack it up. On the 4th Sept 1918, we received a signal that a submarine had been sunk off Whitby, and next day, on the South-bound Convoy, we saw the place where the submarine had sunk. A trawler was standing by, and the place marked by four bouys. A stream of oil was rising to the surface and floating away with the current. With the balloon up 1200 feet we could see about twenty miles radius, and get a real birds-eye view of the coast from the Tyne to Flamborough."
The convoy usually consisted of between thirty to sixty ships going seven, eight or nine knots per hour according to the speed of the slowest ship, and preceded by a convoy leader, a destroyer. The Peel Castle, flying the observation balloon, sailed on the out or seaward side of the channel, going about fourteen knots up and down the convoy. If the weather were favourable, airships and aeroplanes escorted the convoy from one station to another, up and down the coast, but, if the weather were rough, the convoy leader and the Peel Castle had to take the convoy themselves.
This work went on with very little variation, excepting that the balloon sometimes got into trouble. One day it fell into the sea, but the observer was rescued. On another occasion, the guide wheel of the balloon winch became jammed, the balloon and the observer could neither go up nor down, and, although the aviators had their own experts, the ships engineers had to go to their assistance."
The War was now drawing to a close.
On the 11th November, 1918, news came through to the Peel Castle that the Armistice had been declared, everyone had a holiday, and the ships in the Immingham docks blew their whistles, but the Peel Castles syren could make more noise than any one of them. Next day they took a convoy to the Tyne, and saw the peace celebrations at Newcastle, and the following day took the last convoy south. They docked at Immingham, and lay there until the 30th December, when they received orders to proceed to Liverpool. They left Immingham on the 31st December, and had a good passage to their old station in the Downs.
The once "Terror of the Downs," as the Peel Castle was called, was now ignominously held up by a miserable boarding tug. After passing Dover, she spent two days in the Channel in a heavy gale, which washed the forward anti-aircraft gun away.
She arrived in Liverpool all safe on the 4th January 1919. After taking stores and guns out of the ship, the crew were paid off, and they returned to barracks on the 17th January.
The useful war work of the Peel Castle was not yet finished, however, for, after docking at Cammell Lairds, Birkenhead, she was fitted up for carrying troops, who were returning from the Western front, and, about March, she went to Southampton to take up trooping work there. This work was carried on until May, when the ship returned to Liverpool, and was fitted out once more for carrying passengers to the Isle of Man.