The First World War saw hundreds of civilian ships commissioned as troop and supply ships, as well as minelayers and minesweepers. This disorganized merchant navy predecessor included the HMT Arfon, a trawler built at Goole in 1908.
The Arfon served Britain as a minesweeper for three years from 1914, clearing underwater explosives laid by German ships and submarines in an attempt to starve their enemy of supplies from the States -United.
A sturdy metal-hulled boat with a large clear deck for handling fish catches, the vessel was ideal for conversion to minesweeping duties. The trawling apparatus was replaced with mine-sweeping equipment and a six-pounder gun was added.
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The role of minesweepers was to bring sunken mines – which exploded on contact with a ship or its magnetic field – to the surface by catching them with a wire. The crews then fired at the mine with their weapon until it exploded.
Arfon was armed with 13 members of the Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section), a new force created in 1910 on the recommendation of Vice-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford and made up of professional civilian sailors.
So many fishing trawlers were requisitioned to protect British waters during the war that the supply of fish was severely limited. By the end of the conflict, over three hundred had been lost with half their crews – making the job more dangerous than the Western Front.
In April 1917, a record 881,027 tons of British ships were sunk in a period of relentless and unrestricted submarine warfare. On April 30, Arfon will experience the same fate.
The ship’s captain was John Abrams, a Royal Naval Reserve sailor who was a peacetime fisherman. He was mobilized in November 1914 and served on minesweepers in the Mediterranean, during the Dardanelles campaign.
He then returned to the United Kingdom where he took command of the Arfon. On April 30, the 227-ton vessel was searching for mines in Weymouth Bay, just off St Alban’s Head, not far from its Portland harbor base, with a crew of 13 on board.
That day, the minesweeper itself had the misfortune to hit a mine laid by the German submarine UC-61. The device blew a huge hole in the Arfon and the ship sank just two minutes after the strike.
The explosion destroyed the ship’s bow and forecastle. Everyone on board was killed – including Captain Abrams – except for three men who were thrown off the deck and later rescued from the water.
What remains of the Arfon lies about 40 meters below the waves with much of her hull, wheelhouse, propeller and winching gear intact. It was discovered in 2014 by Swanage Boat Chartersa diving company run by Martin and Bryan Jones.
The site is now protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, with diving on the site prohibited unless specifically permitted, due to the “historical, archaeological or artistic significance of the vessel”.
Of 236 steam trawlers wrecked during World War I, only 71 were found. Of these, the Arfon is the most complete example of a minesweeping trawler discovered under British waters.
Many similar sites have been looted as souvenirs but that of Arfon, now designated as a war grave, cannot be disturbed. Historic England has made a detailed survey of the site.
The shipwreck is a ‘rare survivor’
Archaeologist Dr Joe Flatman told the Royal Navy’s official website: ‘The Arfon wreck is a rare survivor of a type of ship once very common around the British coast, but which has now disappeared entirely, surviving only in documents and as wrecks like this.
“Trawlers, minesweepers and other coastal patrol craft played a crucial role in keeping the sea lanes around the British Isles open during both World Wars – a part of the war effort that is often overlooked.”
He added: “The crews who served on these ships faced enormous dangers with unrelenting bravery and dedication. Historic England is proud to help tell some of this hidden story of naval effort in the First World War through our work.
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