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Torpedoed on the crossing to Dieppe

THUMBING through one of the numerous books on the two great wars which grace the shelves at our museum recently, a familiar view suddenly presented itself.

It was a much clearer version of a scene I had seen years ago. Then, it was a poor newspaper print which had been thumbed so many times, probably for good reason, and was given to me by a family I think who had lived towards the sea end of South Road.

Way back, probably in the 1960s, I had been fascinated by this scene although I had still to learn so much more of the incident concerned.

Recently, I have made several references to what happened to the port of Newhaven, during the First World War; such passenger service as there was, was switched to Folkestone-Dieppe leaving us free for shipping supplies to the various ports on the French coast for the Western Front.

Perhaps at this stage I should describe the picture. It was taken at a strange angle from the foredeck of a steam vessel emitting plenty of black smoke from its single funnel, which though at times unavoidable, does rather betray one's presence to an enemy.

However, on the open bridge of this vessel was gathered a considerable group of young ladies, waving and laughing. The caption beneath stated 'British nurses for the Allied Front, a contingent arriving at Dieppe'.

The only single funnelled vessel from our service which was switched to Folkestone was the Sussex. She had been made redundant in 1913 by the arrival of the new record-breaking Paris (IV) and had been degraded to sitting at the lay-by berth in Sleepers Hole.

As the French had the major investment in our route, they took her over to fill the gap until their wonder-ship the Versailles arrived in 1921, delayed of course by that first terrible war and the recovery time after.

On March 24, 1916, when on passage from Folkestone to Dieppe, the Sussex was torpedoed off Boulogne, her bow from the bridge forward completely blown off.

About 80 passengers were killed or injured, many American and Spanish. Her bulkheads held and she was beached outside the harbour.

One shot of her is from a similar angle to the picture here, except there is no front to the vessel and there are no waving nurses obstructing the view of the wheelhouse.

Pictures taken aboard at the time of the drama show passengers complete with lifejackets, just waiting, but to sea is an upturned lifeboat with a small group on it. Among these was a famous Spanish opera singer and his wife.

They slipped and drowned. A description of this sad incident was included in a small booklet written many years ago by a nurse who was on the vessel and witnessed it.

This 'foul deed' broke an agreement made earlier at Geneva when the Germans agreed not to torpedo passenger ships, without giving the people time to get off first.

The agreement held, with just a few minor exceptions, until the attack on the Sussex, and followed the tragic sinking of the liner Lusitania in the Irish Sea on May 7, 1915. Americans had been lost in both tragedies and the US then declared war on Germany.

It is amazing how little old Newhaven can be linked with all sorts of happenings, and who knows, the old gent who had kept the newspapers from South Road may well have served on the Sussex for much of his time before 1913!

PETER BAILEY

Peter Bailey is curator of the Newhaven Local and Maritime Museum based in its own fascinating premises in the grounds of Paradise Park in Avis Road, Newhaven. Winter opening hours are 2-5pm Saturdays and Sundays or by arrangement. Admission 1 (accompanied children free). Contact the curator on 01273 514760. Log on to the website at www.newhavenmuseum.co.uk

 
 
 

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