The trawler Elk was hired by the Admiralty in 1939, but after just one year of service she was sunk by a mine off Plymouth during trials of experimental mine countermeasures equipment. The Elk was one of 120 requisitioned trawlers sunk during WWII from a total of 300 minesweepers that were lost.
The Elk was a side trawler built by the famous trawler shipyard of Cook, Welton & Gemmell Ltd. at Beverley near Hull in the north of England. Elk was launched on 21st August 1902 as yard number 329 and official number 113235, the 33m (108ft) long vessel was built from steel with a displacement of 181 tons (gross) and 70 tons (net) and she had a crew of 10. She had a typical small trawler design for the turn of the century with wheelhouse aft of the engine; side trawlers tow their trawl nets over each side of the ship with the trawl warps or wires passing through blocks suspended from curved steel gallows to a huge winch mounted on deck in the middle of the vessel. The Elk was powered by a 62 hp triple expansion steam engine built by Amos & Smith in Hull, fed by a single coal fired boiler driving a single screw at up to 10 knots, but she also carried sails being ketch rigged with a foresail, mainsail and mizzen on her two masts. Her first owner was Morris & Fisher in Grimsby where she operated under the port number GY1235.
In the First World War the Elk was hired as a minesweeper, given the Admiralty No. 706 and fitted with a 3 pdr gun. The Elk saw service in the Dardanelles and her contribution is noted on the Helles Memorial, the Commonwealth battle memorial for the Gallipoli Campaign. At the end of the war she was renamed Elk II but reverted to the name Elk on return to her owners, Victoria Steam Fishing in Grimsby. In 1929 she was registered in Milford to Oliver Curphey in Hakin with port number M36 where she landed fish between October 1929 and January 1932. In June 1932 the Elk was sold to the well known fishing boat operator William Nichols in Plymouth who also became her skipper.
At the start of World War II the Admiralty requisitioned many trawlers for use in minesweeping duties including them as part of the Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS). The Elk was hired by the Admiralty as a danlayer in November 1939 becoming HMT Elk with Captain J. S. Bush RNR in command, she was given pennant number FY 4.24 and armed with one 6 or 12 pdr gun. Trawlers were ideal vessels for minesweeping duties as towing sweeping gear was much like towing a trawl net, so with her fishing gear removed and her fish hold converted to accommodation the armed trawler Elk was ready to go to war. As a danlayer she would follow the minesweepers and mark the edge of the swept channel with buoys.
In January 1940 Charles Walter Albert Chapple was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for work done during minesweeping trials on board the Elk. Acoustic mines were a new and unknown problem at the time; in the week the Elk was lost a total of 14 acoustic mines had been detonated by HM ships passing close by them in coastal waters. Within Plymouth, the armed trawler Lord Inchcape was sunk on 25th October, on 7th November the Free French vessel Poulmic was sunk by an acoustic mine while on mine watching duty and on 10th November the armed trawler Kingston Alalite was sunk in the western entrance to Plymouth Sound. So in the race to develop new countermeasures more minesweeping trials had to be undertaken. On the 27th November, just a month after the first acoustic mine had been taken apart, the Elk was off Plymouth trying out a new acoustic mine clearing device. That day she was sweeping in the approaches to the main entrance to Plymouth Sound, on the west side just off Penlee Point, moving at a steady 5 knots with the armed trawler HMT Sasebo nearby. Over the port side of the ship she had an experimental steam powered apparatus that was designed to set off acoustic mines, this new device had been designed by the Royal Naval Engineering College in Keyham, Plymouth. While busy sweeping there was a big explosion right underneath ship which lifted the Elk out of the water and fractured her hull from the engine room to the stern, the vessel caught fire but stayed afloat for 45 minutes allowing all of her crew to escape unharmed.
There had been considerable mine laying activity in approaches to the Sound but none had been reported by the mine watching vessels in the area where Elk sank. The approach channel was swept for moored mines each day by minesweepers carrying oropesa gear and it was swept each morning and evening for magnetic and acoustic mines by trawlers carrying LL (double longitudinal) sweeps and the recently developed SA (Sweep Acoustic) equipment. Many ships had passed over the same location where Elk was sunk so perhaps the experimental noise-making gadget she was testing worked too well. The Admiralty were unaware of this new design and in a letter to CinC Western Approaches on 21st December they requested that the Admiralty be consulted before any other experiments were undertaken!
A picture of a trawler called the Elk on many web sites about this ship show a vessel with port number H440, but this shows a different vessel that was built in Glasgow and scrapped in 1933.
The shipbuilders Cook, Welton & Gemmell Ltd. constructed thousands of vessels and many of them were wrecked and still remain on the seabed. The Elk is similar to the trawler Sheraton wrecked on Hunstanton Beach, she was built by the same shipyard five years later than the Elk. The steam trawler Viola was also built by the same company in 1906 and she is still afloat at Grytviken, a deserted whaling station in Cumberland Bay on the remote South Atlantic island of South Georgia.
Diving the Elk
HMT Elk was reported to have been located in 1977 but was finally located in June 1981 with her hull intact, lying upright on a flat sandy seabed with her bows to the north west (329° T). To the south and west 60m away from the wreck is the large expanse of Elk reef. The first divers to see her reported that the wheelhouse and masts had sheared away with nothing remaining above deck level. In 1983 the Elk was the subject of a wreck search project by Plymouth Polytechnic and was surveyed using side scan sonar for many years after.
Today the remains of the Elk are still upright on a sandy seabed, largely complete but missing the deck superstructure, deck and masts. Place the shot at 50° 18.424N 004° 10.306 W and it will be just to the north of the wreck alongside the boiler. Starting from the bows at deck level, a depth of 25.4m plus tide height, you first notice the stem post as the gunwales have long since fallen away. Until recently the foredeck was in place with the anchor windlass fixed to the deck beams but this has now collapsed down into the forward compartment.
The empty fish hold is full of sand and silt to a depth of approximately 2m leaving 3m space between the seabed and the deck above. Aft of the collapsed foredeck at deck level is the remains of a hatch into the fish hold, the step for the main mast and the three rollers used to guide the trawl and sweep warps. Further aft is the large trawl winch in the centre of the deck, mounted on top of what used to be the coal bunker. The engine room is now completely open but filled with sand and debris, much collapsed since Peter Mitchell in 1986 gained access to the engine room via a hole in the starboard side. The top of the single large boiler can be seen and aft is the top of the triple expansion steam engine with its three cylinders of different sizes. Behind the engine are the remains of the wheelhouse and a deck light over the stern compartment. The stern is largely intact where the remains of the steering quadrant can be seen still fitted on the top of the rudder, but the counter stern has been pushed upwards and forwards, perhaps hinting that the Elk landed stern first when she sank to the seabed.
Over the stern rail and down to the seabed a little way below you can just see the top of the rudder post showing above the sand under the stern counter. On either side of the ship lies debris from the vessel, masts and sections of the upperworks while at the bows a 2m deep scour pit has formed so the Elk's forefoot and deep keel can be seen.
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