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The Curious Case of the Franz Fischer

The Curious Case of the Franz Fischer

Amid the horror and destruction of the First World War there were many acts of humanity, moments of genuine humour and many strange stories and coincidences.

Take for example, the curious case of the FRANZ FISCHER. In 1881, the West Hartlepool shipyard of Irvine & Company launched a small iron well-deck cargo steamer, the ROCKLANDS, for local shipowners Hardy Wilson & Company. Of just 952grt and dimensions 224.3’ x 31.5’ x 12.3’, she was fitted with a T. Richardson & Sons 105nhp 2-cylinder Compound engine, with cylinder diameters of 27” & 50” and a 33” stroke.

In 1894 she was sold to Robert Hardy & Co, West Hartlepool and then to Gebr. Petersen, Flensburg, Germany in 1896. In 1913 she was bought by F.W. Fischer, Rostock, and renamed Franz Fischer. The names of some of her Masters include: 1881 Scott: 1882 J. Dean: 1885 John Burgess: 1885-88 J.J. Carter: 1891-92 Buck: 1894-95 J.E. Venus: 1897-99 J. Seiver: 1900-02 E. Funck: 1904-06 C. Kahle: 1907-09 H. Muller: 1916 John Davies.

Unfortunately for the FRANZ FISCHER, the outbreak of war found her berthed at Sharpness on the River Severn, where she was immediately seized and requisitioned for use by the British Admiralty (managed by Everett & Newbiggin, London). On the afternoon of Monday, 31st January, 1916, she left Hartlepool bound for Cowes on the Isle of Wight with a cargo of coal.  The following evening she was off the Kentish Knock, a series of shoals and sandbanks east of the Thames Estuary - and here the story becomes a little confused.

At around 10:30pm that evening, the FRANZ FISCHER and a number of others ships at anchor in the same area came under attack from a German Zeppelin, the L-19.

The Times newspaper of February 8th reported: “The captain of the SS Paul in a letter to Messrs. Sutcliffe & Co of Boston, Lincs, referring to his last journey says: On my voyage from Calais to Goole, at 10.45 on the night of February 1 (Tuesday), while at anchor off the Kentish Knock, we met with a terrible experience. The ex-German steamship FRANZ FISCHER, which was lying about half a mile SW of me, was bombed by some aircraft & sank in a couple of minutes, the crew being either killed or thrown into the water. We heard a loud report, followed by cries for help, but it being so dark we really did not know what had happened, and decided to wait events. The cries became more distinct as time passed, and in the meantime we launched a lifeboat. Presently we distinguished clear cries from three men, apparently in the water. The mate, boatswain, an AB & a fireman got into the boat & went to the rescue in the dark night. At that time a strong tide was running, & the boat soon drifted away astern. After a time a signal was made by them which, I understood, was that they were unable to come back to the ship. My windlass, being in a poor condition, finally broke when we were trying to heave the anchor, and I had to steam to them with my anchor still just at the bottom.

Finally, after three hours' work, we were able to pick up the boat, which had rescued the three men, who were exhausted. One was in a serious condition, and we had to work on him for over an hour to get him to life again, in which effort we succeeded. Next morning we handed them over to a British vessel. One of the three survivors, Charles Hillier, recalled that the Zeppelin appeared right over the vessel at around 10:30pm and dropped a high explosive bomb which struck them amidships. The steamer remained afloat for only two minutes, the captain & 12 others being drowned.”

Two of the lost crew, both Able Seamen, were from West Hartlepool: Alfred William Rogers Charlton, aged 28 and Henry Patterson, aged 42. Alfred Charlton (son of Mary and the late William Charlton), was born in West Hartlepool and lived with his wife Mary Charlton (nee Spalding), at No.3 Albany Street. Henry Patterson, born in Montrose, was residing in Westmoreland Street.

The other men lost were: Davies, John, Master, age 59, Rhyddings Rd. Swansea; Hillier, Albert, Able Seaman, Point aux Gauls, Newfoundland; Inkster, William, 2nd Mate, 56, b. Shetland, resided South Shields; Jenkins, David Bevan, Fireman, 27, Pembrokeshire; Kyriakos, John, Fireman, 21, b. Cyprus; Lennard, Christopher Charles, 54, b. Woolwich, London; Noble, Abraham, Mess Room Steward, 59 (son of Abraham & Margaret); Powell, Henry Alexander, 2nd Engineer, 36, b. Cambusland; Prior, William, Fireman, 40, b. South Shields; Skimin, George, Mate, 48, b. Bangor, Co. Down; Vidolich, Emmanuelle, Donkeyman, 42, Casal Zabbar, Malta.

The following article is from a scuba-diving website (www.divernet.com): “L-19 was one of nine Zeppelins despatched just before noon on 1 February, 1916 from Germany to bomb Liverpool. Kapitanleutnant Loewe was in command, with Leutnant Schirlitz as his executive officer. They rode in the foremost gondola under the 536ft long hull, packed with 1.13 million cu ft of hydrogen in 16 separate gasbags. Other cars slung under the ship housed four 240hp petrol engines. Their propellers could push the airship along at 60mph. Altogether 16 men were charged with delivering 5000lb of bombs.

The nine raiders lost sight of each other as darkness fell and seemed unaware that a strong southerly wind was pushing them far from Liverpool. L-19 finally crossed the coast at Sheringham, Norfolk at 7.20pm. Loewe, completely lost, is believed to have bombed Burton-on-Trent and possibly Birmingham. He was heard by British radio stations calling for bearings which put him somewhere near King's Lynn.

At about this time he found the 970 ton British collier Franz Fischer, anchored in the mouth of the Thames estuary. One of the 224ft collier's three survivors saw a bomb fall from the Zeppelin, which was stationary above the ship. It entered the Franz Fischer's funnel, the explosion blew out her bottom and she sank in less than a minute (if you want to dive her she is upright with her coal all around her, 6m proud in 23m, at 51 37.02N; 01 40.28E).

While this is clearly the accepted version of events, a website that specifically records the histories of German U-boats in both World Wars, www.uboat.net, cites an entry in the German submarine UB-17’s war journal (its Kreigstagebucher, or KTB), recording the torpedoing of the Franz Fischer off the Kentish Knock.

This being the case, the U-boat certainly benefitted from the distraction caused by the Zeppelin’s bombing, and with all eyes turned to the skies, UB-17 was able to carry out her successful attack remaining unseen and undetected.

 As for the Zeppelin L-19, she never made it home. The following morning her wreckage was sighted in the North Sea by the skipper of the steam trawler King Stephen. The divernet article continues: “The next we know of L-19 is that her captain reported: 'Radio equipment at times out of order. Three engines out of order. Approximate position Borkum Island.' Sentries in neutral Holland put him further south over Dutch territory and fired at him with everything they had until he disappeared out to sea.

A Grimsby steam-trawler skipper, William Martin, said that before daybreak on 2 February he saw lights flashing in the distance. 'I went towards the lights and discovered a huge mass of wreckage on the water,' he told a Times correspondent. 'I stood by and at daybreak found the wreckage was that of a large German airship bearing the identification mark L-19. The cabins were under water and so was a large part of the envelope, but a large portion was still above’.
'On a raised platform on top of the envelope were seven or eight members of the crew, who hailed us in broken English saying: 'Save us, save us! We will give you plenty of money'. An officer offered gold, but as he did so, 20 crew appeared.'
The skipper of the unarmed trawler felt it would be unwise to take the Zeppelin's men aboard, as they outnumbered his own crew, so he went off and reported the incident to a British naval vessel. As he sailed away the Germans were shouting 'Gott strafe England!' but a gale then got up and the airship probably foundered.

This extraordinary tale gives little idea of the exact position of the Zeppelin, but a further amazing twist does tell us where Kapitan Loewe thought he was sinking. A bottle with a note in it was washed ashore six months later in Sweden. The message read: 'With 15 men on the top platform and backbone girder of the L-19, floating without gondolas in approximately 3? east longitude, I am attempting to send a last report. Engine trouble three times repeated, a light headwind on the return journey delayed our return and, in the mist, carried us over Holland where I was received with heavy rifle fire; the ship became heavy and simultaneously three engines failed. February 2, 1916, towards 1pm will apparently be our last hour. Loewe.'

So there we have it, a very tragic and curious tale. The research for this story has been undertaken by Volunteers as part of our Heritage Lottery-funded ‘Heroism & Heartbreak: True Tales from the Hartlepools at War’ Project.

We would very much like more information about this story, particularly as we still do not have any photographs, either of the two lost Hartlepool crewmen or of the ship herself. If you can help, please get in touch, either in person at Hartlepool Central Library Reference Section, or by e-mail infodesk@hartlepool.gov.uk

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