History 2: Loss of the James Eagan Layne
The sea on 21st March was calm but patchy fog made visibility difficult. At 1:30pm the convoy was sighted sailing 12 miles off Plymouth by Commander Heinz Buhse in the type VIIC U-boat U-399, and in the lead was the James Eagan Layne. A torpedo fired from the U-boat hit the starboard side of the ship just aft of the bulkhead between #4 and #5 holds, flooding the aft holds, blowing off hatch covers, cracking the hull on the port side and damaging the propeller shaft and steering gear. After fifteen minutes the crew abandoned ship and most were picked up by the British steamship Monkstone then landed at Southampton, while the remainder were taken aboard the Favourite class rescue tug HMS Flaunt. The James Eagan Layne was the only vessel lost in convoy BTC-103 and there were no casualties amongst her crew of 69; she joins the list of over 200 Liberty ships lost during the war.
Despite the damage to her stern and the aft holds being full of water the James Eagan Layne refused to sink. An hour after the torpedo struck a skeleton crew including the Master, 14 crewmen and 4 guards boarded the ship and rigged her up for towing as the rescue tugs HMS Flaunt (W 152) and Atlas (W 41) had sailed from Plymouth and were standing by to provide assistance. Taking the ship in tow, the tugs initially headed for Plymouth but with the James Eagan Layne slowly sinking deeper by the stern they decided to beach her in Whitsand Bay to the west. At 7pm the ship grounded aft in 22m and eventually settled on the bottom, held in place by anchors and chains. A day later the Admiralty Salvage Officer reported that the aft holds were freely flooding but the forward holds were still dry and the engine room had just 7ft of water. The ship was split across the deck aft of No. 4 hatch and the stern was expected to break away. The aft engine room bulkhead gave way on 24th which flooded the engine room so by this time the ship was submerged to No. 3 hatch. A survey by HMS Gulnare on 25th April reported that the upperworks of the James Eagan Layne were showing at low water and the four cargo masts and funnel would show at high water.
Some material was immediately salvaged from the ship including the guns, some of the deck cargo and part of the cargo in the forward holds before they too flooded. Some of the deck cargo was washed ashore and was recovered by the coastguard. In 1948 a company bought the ship for scrap but the sale was rescinded as no work was done, so the ship was again sold in 1952 to another salvage company with operations starting in 1953. The salvage work removed most of the remaining cargo and the superstructure leaving only one cargo mast standing, but by 1974 this too had collapsed. Later salvage work in 1967 recovered the spare propeller, shaft and condenser. Sports divers visiting the site also removed a large quantity of the non-ferrous cargo, most of which was sent to the scrap yard.
Which U-Boat sank the James Eagan Layne?
The U-1195 is often blamed for sinking the James Eagan Layne however recent research has shown that she was sunk by a torpedo from U-399. The confusion may be because on the same day the U-1195 was nearby off the Lizard in Cornwall where she sank the Liberty ship John R. Park.
The James Eagan Layne was first visited by recreational divers in 1954 when the sport of SCUBA diving first began to emerge in the UK. The intact nature of the wreck, its accessibility at a depth within the range of the very basic diving equipment available and its proximity to the first national diving centre at Fort Bovisand in Plymouth Sound all ensured that the James Eagan Layne became one of, if not ‘the’ iconic UK wreck dive. As such it introduced literally thousands of UK divers to wreck diving and is now an intrinsic part of the history of the sport of recreational diving in the UK, in the same way that the Oval is symbolic to cricket or Wimbledon is to tennis. In addition to its role as a foundation of UK recreational diving (or should that be a ‘Mother Ship’ ?) the wreck has become a noted artificial reef in the otherwise largely flat and featureless sandy bed of Whitsand Bay. As such she provides a very valuable habitat for marine biodiversity in the area.
Second World War sunken warrior, the subject of innumerable salvage activities, foundation of UK recreational diving and vital oasis for marine life: there is only one James Eagan Layne. Her service above and below water and her gentle decline over the decades to her present state all deserves adding to the record of human endeavour.
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