Ralph Wenninger Responsible for Sinking 98 Ships

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David Barnicoat has written about the historic German U-boat which sank 98 ships in World War 1 in his latest article published in Falmouth Packet. Today we will be discussing that incident.

What happened?

German WW1 U-boat ace Kapitanleutnant Ralph Wenninger wreaked havoc off the coast of Cornwall and in the Western Approaches during his various patrols in 1916 and 1917.

He was responsible for sinking 98 ships with a total of 102,638 GRT during his war career.

Wreck Discovery

The WW1 shipwreck of the naval auxiliary St Ives, on which a Falmouth man died, has been located by divers in Falmouth Bay. The loss of the steam trawler St Ives was a direct result of mines being laid off the port by Wenninger in the U-boat UC 17, which carried 18 mines.

The Rescue Operation

The trawler St Ives and her 11-man crew were lost in December 1916 after the vessel hit a mine during mine sweeping operations and blew up two miles south west of St Anthony lighthouse. Onboard was trimmer/cook Albert Henry Prout of 34, Langton Road, Falmouth.

The Attack Strategy

German U-Boats had laid mines around Falmouth, which was a vital deep-water port and in a strategic position for ships navigating Atlantic trade routes.

The St Ives was one of about 400 trawlers used as minesweepers because their crews knew UK waters.

St Ives requisitioned by the Navy in March 1915 was converted into an auxiliary patrol vessel before entering service two months later.

The Chain of Events

  1. On the 21st December the St Ives came into contact with a mine laid by UC17 in Falmouth Bay and as a result the vessel sank. The officer and ten ratings on board were lost.
  2. The Commodore at Falmouth sent a telegram; “Regret to report trawler 1192 ST.IVES blown up by mine two miles W.S.W. of St. Anthony Falmouth. Sent to Admiralty and Devonport. 0845.”
  3. The wreck of the St Ives was found in the debris field of the tanker Caroni River which herself fell victim of a German mine in 1939.
  4. Following a refit in dry-dock, the 8,000 ton Houlder Lines tanker Caroni River left the relatively safe confines of the docks to undergo sea trials in the bay.
  5. During the trials the tanker was rocked by a huge explosion and immediately began to sink by the stern.
  6. Coastguards based at the St Anthony lookout reported a ship flying a distress signal at 11.20am and requested the lifeboat to launch.
  7. Under the command of coxswain John “Janner” Snell Falmouth’s new Watson-class lifeboat Crawford and Constance Coneybeare launched on service.
  8. The lifeboat rescued 27 crew from the Caroni River before the tanker sank by the stern.
  9. The day before 35 crew were rescued from the cargo ship Kirkpool in gale force winds for which coxswain Snell was later awarded the RNLI’s Silver Medal for gallantry.

Port Activity at That Time

  1. Ralph Wenniger returned to local waters in 1917 this time in U-boat UB55.
  2. The Falmouth Harbour Master’s Journal of November 1917 gives a fascinating insight into port activity. “The British Clan Cumming having been torpedoed was towed here by government tugs and placed on the Western Bank with several men killed onboard.”
  3. The 3,107 tons Clan Line vessel under the command of Captain West was inward from Baltimore to Brest with a general cargo when she was torpedoed by the U-boat resulting in the loss of the 4th engineer and 10 Laskars who were drowned in the stokehold.
  4. UB55 torpedoed the turret ship Clan Cumming, 20 miles SW of the Lizard on November 5th 1917. The ship was towed into Falmouth, beached and later refloated.
  5. Ralph Wenninger joined the U-boat force in December 1914. He first served on the UB 17 from 4 May 1915 and took command of UB 55 on 1 July 1917.
  6. In November 1917 he was promoted to Kapitan Leutnant, and on 30 March 1918 he was awarded the Pour le Mérite.
  7. He became a prisoner of war with a part of his crew on 22 April 1918 after his command UB 55 hit a mine in the Dover Barrage while running underwater.
  8. Between 15 and 20 men escaped from the sinking submarine, but only 8 were found alive by the British trawler Mate.

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Source: Falmouth Packet

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