Article by David Chamberlain
Sadly missed are the group of masts from a wreck that graced the skyline off Deal for 49 years. Almost five miles offshore, on the Goodwin Sands, were the remains and the masts of a 7,612 ton American vessel. Although they were precariously angled they were always visible at all states of the tide. They stood 30 feet high with one of the mast's crosstrees looking like a monumental crucifix. One by one they were slowly removed by winter gales until the last single remaining mast disappeared, almost unnoticed, in the last weeks of January 1995. Taken for granted all of those years, they were always a welcoming sight to the Deal boatmen - to view them looming out of the mist gave them their position instantly in an otherwise fogbound surround.
It was fog that was the cause of the wrecking of the Lyke Line's North Eastern Victory. She was steaming up Channel at the maximum speed that her 6,000 horse power engine could propel her. The captain wanted to spend Christmas day in Antwerp and as it was the morning of Christmas Eve 1946 he was pulling out all of the stops to attain his goal. Unbeknown to him, a spring tide was increasing his speed by an extra four knots, and he sped through the Straits of Dover at 21 knots. As he passed the South Goodwin lightship he did not notice, or perhaps ignored, that the light-float was firing a cannon to summon his attention.
The American War Administration had cautioned the Victory's captains against taking on pilots in this part of the coastline, deeming it unnecessary. According to them there were few dangers lurking in the Straits of Dover or the North Sea. They also issued charts without the details ofthe light vessels and buoys Which surrounded one of the most dangerous sandbanks in the world, the Goodwin Sands. The South, East and North Goodwin lightships had only just been replaced on station after the battering they had endured during the war. It would be the crews on these vessels that had seen the most cavalier actions taken by the Liberty and Victory ships' captains in and around the Sands. In the past 12 months there had been two total ship losses and many near escapes - all of them American.
With the warning gun of the lightship going unheeded, it was to be the Deal boatmen that would need to get prepared for any events that were about to happen. These shots were aimed as a forewarning to the North Eastern Victory that she was steaming too close to the Goodwins. The ship's speed of 21 knots soon carried them past the light vessel as it disappeared into the fog.
The whole ship juddered to a halt as she ran up in the shallow water onto the sandbank near the East Goodwin Lightship. Not only did the impact smash most of the ship's crockery but it also carried away her wireless aerials. The 440 feet welded steel hull lay motionless, completely and helplessly stranded. No distress call could be made on the wireless equipment and with the fog engulfing her it would have been pointless to have set offflares or rockets.
Joe Mercer's age was close on 70 and he was the ex-coxswain ofthe Walmer lifeboat, however, that did not stop him going afloat. At the sound of the South Goodwin light vessel firing her guns he knew there might bea chance of a bit of work to be had. In the Deal motor boat, RoseMarie, he set a compass course of east-southeast through the fog and towards a part ofthe Goodwins they had nicknamed 'Calamity Corner'. He was not to be disappointed as he and his two crewmen came across the slab sided ship almost high and dry.
With the dexterity of a man half his age he climbed up the rope and wooden slatted ladder that had been offered. lle went and looked forward, aft then amidships of the vessel, shaking his head continuously. In conversation with the North Eastern Victory's skipper, Captain Kohstrohs, he stated 11m! the ship had little water around her and even less amidships. This would mean that the ship would soon break her back. Within minutes of this pronouncement the chief engineer entered the bridge and reported to the captain that there were splits in the hull and the engine room was becoming flooded. This gave credibility to Mercer's statement and the captain became pensive for a while.
Kohstrohs had not counted on this delay - he had 5000 tons of flour, 1000 tons of rice, 10,000 cases of grapefruit, plus cotton and lead in his holds; which had to be offloaded at Antwerp, Rotterdam and Bremen. He conferred with Mercer as to what course of action he should take. The answer was not what he had wished for. The exlifeboat coxswain declared he felt that there was no chance for the ship and recommended that his main concern should be for the welfare of his crew. The captain begrudgingly accepted his predicament and asked the Deal boatman to summon the lifeboat. Before Joe Mercer left the stranded vessel, Captain Kohstrohs offered him a leg of turkey that the cook had been preparing. With a good hearted retort the old boatman proclaimed he would sooner have a piece of the prime cut, off the breast, than a leg, and left the ship for the last time.
Late that afternoon he got ashore and reported to the lifeboat coxswain, Freddie Upton, the circumstances. At five minutes past five that afternoon, the Charles Dibden launched into an unruffled sea.
With the sea being calm the rescue was a simple one. Thirty-six of the crew were transferred into the lifeboat without difficulty. The captain and his six officers decided that they would remain aboard the stranded vessel and await and see what salvage efforts could be made. As Upton left, he noted that the ship was almost completely broken in half with her side split and a two-foot gash through her deck By 10 0' clock, that night, he had offloaded his human cargo, re-fuelled and was back on station alongside the North Eastern Victory.
The vigil was to become a night of adversity in the freezing conditions. Their only relief was the cold turkey that the ship's crew had abandoned and few tots of rum. Dawn, Christmas day was greeted with a blood-red sunrise - a sure sign that there was bad weather coming. Through the Charles Dibden's wireless, the coastguard alerted coxswain Upton that a gale was already sweeping up Channel. Even the lifeboat was restlessly surging against her mooring ropes that tethered her alongside the ship. The men knew it was time to leave. The ship was making noises unnatural to their ears. Sounds of groaning, creaking and cracking. The rent which had appeared immediately forward of the bridge and down the hull was noticeably opening up andthe vessel took on a list.
Freddie Upton convinced the Officers that there was nothing more to be done and with the look of shock they left their ship that was less than a year and a half old. As they boarded the Charles Dibden one of the ships officers commented that a rusty shipwreck half a mile away, on the same sand bank, had a similar outline to their own Victory ship. Upton merely nodded; he knew it would only be a matter of time before this ship became the equivalent to the nearby wreck of the Luray Victory, The lifeboat raced for home and the crew spent what was left of Christmas Day with their families.
Days went by and the familiar characteristic peculiarity of the bow leaving the rest of the welded ships hull quickly happened. It was swept 100 feet away and disappeared into the sand. From the remaining non-submerged part of the ship the cargo was salvaged, in-between gales, by Risdon Beazley Ltd. Strangely, at that time, the ration restricted households of Deal seemed to have a plentiful supply of tins of grapefruit - origin on the tins, New Orleans, the port of departure of the North Eastern Victory.
Shortly after, the American War Administration board revised their orders to the captains about not taking pilots - and also revised the charts. They now issued ones that marked the Goodwin Sands as a danger; however, it was only a matter of three months later before another of their ships was lost on Calamity Corner, a few hundred yards away from the others.
The weakness of these mass produced ships were in their welded hull, nevertheless, many survived and sailed the oceans of the world for many years on. Even the masts of the North Eastern Victory endured the Channel gales for almost half a century until they disappeared for ever and became sadly missed by the local populace.
Position of NORTH EASTERN VICTORY 51°-12'- 38N. 001°-32'- 42E. Steam ship. Built in 1945 by Permanente Metals Corperation, California. Length 439 feet. Beam 62 feet. 7,612 GRT. Ran aground on the Goodwin Sands 24.12.1946. At time of loss owned by Lyke Line.