A combination of historical research and archaeology has helped maritime researchers identify the remains of two First World War German destroyers in Portsmouth Harbour.
The destroyers, one of which fought at the Battle of Jutland, were taken as war trophies by Britain in 1919 and used for target practice before being sold for scrap.
Today, their remains lie on the muddy shore of the Royal Navy base HMS Excellent on Whale Island, opposite the Brittany Ferries Terminal. Thousands of travellers pass them each day with little or no idea as to their true identity.
The identification of the two destroyers from the German High Seas Fleet – named V44 and V82 – has come about through Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War, a 4-year Heritage Lottery funded project devised and run by the Maritime Archaeology Trust. The first clues to the origin of the ships were pieced together by Dr Julian Whitewright who found a reference to two possible destroyers in a previous archaeological report. The ships were identified in photographs from 1939, but to his amazement, when he looked at modern imagery of the area, the remains of the two ships were still there. Further research in UK Hydrographic Office reports revealed that they were German ships that arrived in Portsmouth Harbour in the 1920s.
“Many historical features and artefacts have been picked up in old photography, but when you come to look in the present day, most have been removed or destroyed” observes Dr Whitewright. “Thousands of old ships have been abandoned in Portsmouth Harbour over the years, sometimes for decades, but it’s very rare for any evidence of them to still be there today.”
The significance of the wrecks became apparent when further research showed that one was a veteran of the 1916 Battle of Jutland, one of the biggest naval battles ever seen. The 100th anniversary of the battle will be commemorated in May and June this year.
“Several German language sources list V44 and V82 as being scrapped in Portsmouth Harbour in the early 1920s” says MAT researcher Stephen Fisher. “Initially it proved hard to find English sources that confirmed these were indeed those two destroyers, but one of the key pieces of evidence is a newspaper report from the Portsmouth Evening News. In September 1922, the paper reported that a local youth had been charged with the theft of engine fittings from one of the ships.”
The other destroyer was identified through the discovery of a painting by the war artist W.L. Wyllie in the archives of the National Maritime Museum, which showed V82 grounded at Whale Island. Wyllie lived in Portsmouth and often painted ships in the harbour. With clues as to their identity, the team were able to focus their research and positively identify the ships.
Christine Riding, Head of Art and Curator of the Queen’s House at Royal Museums Greenwich commented that she was:
“Thrilled that a painting in our collection has assisted in the identification of this extraordinary WWI wreck. Wyllie was renowned for the power, beauty and above all accuracy of his marine paintings, and he would be proud to know that his work continues to inspire and inform our thinking today.”
The coming centenary of the Battle of Jutland highlights the significance of V44, which took part in one of the crucial phases of the battle. The full weight of the German High Seas Fleet and the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet clashed on the afternoon of the 31st May 1916, in the largest engagement between battleships in history. After several hours of bitter fighting the German fleet turned away from Admiral John Jellicoe’s fleet and, to cover their escape, Admiral Scheer ordered his destroyers – including V44 – forward to launch torpedoes at the Royal Navy’s warships. Unwilling to risk his battleships, Jellicoe ordered his fleet to turn away and in the gathering darkness they lost touch with the enemy.
Although the battle was ultimately a success for the Royal Navy, for years to come the British public, fully expecting a Trafalgar type victory, considered the apparently inconclusive battle at Jutland a defeat. Historians have long debated what might have happened if Jellico had turned towards the German fleet and whether the war could have ended sooner had the German fleet been destroyed.
Nick Hewitt, Head of Heritage Development at the National Museum of the Royal Navy observes that:
“The Battle of Jutland was the defining moment for the Royal Navy in the First World War. Our blockbuster exhibition 36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won The War opens in Portsmouth on May 12th and it’s amazing to see that literally on our shoreline, we have a survivor of the battle. It’s further evidence that the impact of the battle was experienced nationally. We look forward to working with the Maritime Archaeology Trust to reveal this mystery further.”
The next stage of work will involve the direct archaeological survey of the two ships, a challenging task due to the deep mud surrounding both ships. Both destroyers were extremely similar in design, and archaeology may prove to be the only way to work out which ship is which.
The destroyers are just two of a number of ex-German warships taken by Britain after the war. Many destroyers and U-boats were also scuttled in the Channel in the 1920s and are being investigated by the Maritime Archaeology Trust through the HLF Forgotten Wrecks project.