Liberty Shipwrecks and the West Country
On 21 March 1945, the SS James Egan Layne, carrying US Army engineering stores to Ghent, Belgium, was torpedoed about 6 nautical miles east of the Eddystone Lighthouse. The ship was one of the class of Liberty Ships built by American yards to an essentially British design used by J L Thompson & Sons of Sunderland. The US Maritime Commission modified the design, replacing riveted joints with sections that were welded together to save time in construction. In 1941, each ship took about 230 days to build but the average later fell to about 42 days with the record time of just over 111 hours from laying the keel to launch.
It was reported that the damaged Layne was rounding Rame Head in company with other boats during the evening of 21 March 1945. Coast guards on shore were reported to hear voices of men from the ships but they were unable to see them because of dense fog and heavy drizzle. Polhawn CG Station reported that the ship had anchored about one mile off shore, and on 23 March the Naval Authorities had been informed that the ships engine room was flooded and she was firmly held aground by the sandy bottom of Whitsand Bay, off Tregantle Fort, thankfully with no loss of life.
Sixty years later most of the superstructure of the ship has succumbed to the winter storms of the South Cornwall coast. However, the remaining submerged structure has become one of the most popular amateur dive sites in the South West, being in shallow, clear water within easy reach of the shore by small boat. Charts show the wreck to be in the same general area as that of the recently scuttled HMS Scylla that is now a major maritime attraction of the Plymouth area, with video pictures from remote cameras that can be viewed in the Plymouth Aquarium and on-line.
Another South West Liberty shipwreck is the Black Hawk . Michael Sullivan comments I was a crew member of the Black Hawk when she was torpedoed on December 29, 1944.
She can be found standing only a couple of metres proud of the sea bed, a mass of twisted material. The wreck is split in two halves, the bow section about 50 metres and slightly out to sea of the other section. She did not sink until the following year when they sank her because she was becoming a hazard to the shipping lanes. The last time I saw her, the stern was gone and only the section from the bow to number 4 hold was still afloat. A British Corvette, K 59, pulled us from the water.
The site is within the Lulworth Gunnery Range. Its position is 50°36.42'N 02°12.19'W.
The sub U772 which sank her was sunk the following day and lies nearby.
Gordon Le Pard adds The Black Hawk was a Liberty Ship built in New Orleans in 1944 in just ten days from prefabricated parts. She made two successful Atlantic crossings and had almost completed a third when, in the evening of 29th December 1944, off Portland, she took a torpedo in the aft hold. The ensuing explosion blew her stern section clean off, killing one member of the crew. This part now rests off Portland at 48 metres. The forward three quarters of the ship was taken in tow with the intention of docking her in Poole or beaching at Studland. However a gale blew up, the tow broke and the damaged Black Hawk finally sank in 20 metres of water in the middle of Worbarrow Bay, about 1½ miles east of Lulworth Cove.
Subsequently the wreck was declared a hazard to shipping so her superstructure was wire drawn. Finally the remains were blown up again to clear a path for the cooling water outlet for the atomic reactor at Winfrith.
The wreck is now a notable site for marine wildlife. In 2002 the Weymouth Carpet Coral, Hoplangia durotrix, was discovered on the wreck. This was only the second record of the living coral in Dorset since it was first described from a specimen brought up from somewhere in Weymouth Bay in 1860.
In 2000 the Black Hawk was 'adopted' by the Winfrith Sub Aqua club, under the Adopt a Wreck scheme of the Nautical Archaeological Society which aims to encourage divers to research and care for the wrecks they dive.
Early in 2004 the name board of the Black Hawk was discovered in a Dorset garden. It has been given to the Marine Centre at Kimmeridge where it is intended to display the board together with photographs of the wildlife to be found on the wreck today.
Liberty Ships were operated by the US and British Merchant Services to maintain allied merchant fleet strength during its severe attrition by aircraft and U boat attacks in the war of the Atlantic. 2751 ships were built between 1941 and 1945 with a design life of 5 years, though many survived far longer. Two ships remain in operation today after more than 60 years, the SS John W Brown and the SS Jeremiah OBrien, despite the propensity of the class to suffer from severe cracking and fatigue failure. Repeated hogging and sagging of the hull may have given rise to more than 1500 incidents of brittle fractures, and to 19 ships breaking in half without warning. Cracks were thought to have been initiated by low temperature embrittlement rather than weld failure.
Edited from contributions by Bill Kelly, Michael Sullivan, and Gordon Le Pard on our website.
By Jonathan Seagrave (Ed.)
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