Friday, 18 May 2018

South Shields May 1918

Header of a map showing South Shields coast (May 1918) (D/DLI 2/3/10)
D/DLI 2/3/10 Header of a map showing South Shields coast (May 1918)
Most of the First World War maps in our collection are trench maps of France and Flanders. However, we do have one that is a bit different. It shows the coast defences of the 3rd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, in May 1918. We do not have anything else in our collection quite like it. It shows trenches, billets, stokes mortar and machine gun emplacements, bomb stores, and regimental first aid posts. 

In the first days after England declared war, Colonel Hubert Morant was in charge of getting the 3rd Battalion in order and to South Shields. He writes the following in his memoirs:
‘By 2pm [8 August 1914], the battalion (3rd) marched off and entrained for South Shields, its War Station, held during the first four days of mobilisation by the territorials and various detachments of regulars, including companies from 2nd Battalion from Litchfield.
The 3rd Battalion marched off some 200-300 men short, and I was left behind to bring on the stragglers – mostly drunk. All the afternoon I was hustling drunken men and marching them down to the station in parties as they were dressed.
At 6am next morning (Sunday), I left Newcastle for South Shields. Here chaos reigned. The battalion was finding three companies to furnish posts along the coast… Also guards at Smith’s Docks, Palmers Dock, Hawthorn, Leslie, and Jarrow, ranging from one company to a small detachment.

The remainder of the men were billeted in Westgate Road School, where men were constantly arriving… During this time, I busied myself in planning and constructing trenches for the defence of the coast. These were not up to modern standards. I had not made a trench for 25 years!'
Section of map showing the gun emplacement at Frenchman's Bay (May 1918) (D/DLI 2/3/10)
D/DLI 2/3/10 Section of map showing the gun emplacement at Frenchman's Bay (May 1918)
'A big gun (4.7?) was on its way to its position in Frenchman’s Battery, this was being man hauled at the rate of a few yards per diem. It was not until about 15 August that it arrived at the Battery, but when it was got actually into position, I do not know’.

The 3rd Battalion map shows the gun emplacement at Frenchman’s Bay. The photograph is from Britain From Above, showing the battery in 1943.
Frenchman's Battery, 1943, Copyright Historic England
Frenchman's Battery, 1943,
Also shown on the map of coastal defences at South Shields, is the seaplane sheds. These were used by the Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War. Their location made them a useful spot for refuelling planes between Killingholme, Lincoln, and bases in Scotland. The crew based there were used for escorting convoys of boats and look out for suspicious activity at sea. 

In 1972, the Imperial War Museum conducted an oral history interview with Vice Air Marshal Christopher Bilney. His first posting to an operational station after he had completed his training was to South Shields seaplane station in 1917. In the interview, Bilney describes it as:
‘A small seaplane station, with, I think, three or four pilots, and the CO [commanding officer] who was a pilot, but never flew as far as I know. Our main job was escorting coastal convoys between the Farne Islands and the Tees. The actual station was situated on the Herd Sands in the harbour at the entrance to the Tyne, and we had a [corrugated] steel hangar… and a slip way… and some workshops. The harbour was generally too small for us to take off in. If there was a strong wind, sometimes you could scramble over the sea walls. So mostly we had to go outside to try and get off the water and that was usually pretty rough.’
Section showing the seaplane sheds (May 1918) (D/DLI 2/3/10)
D/DLI 2/3/10 Section showing the seaplane sheds (May 1918)
Bilney goes on to describe the impact the commanding officer had on their activities:
‘I fear that like many of the senior naval officers, he had absolutely no idea whatsoever the capabilities of aircraft, and he used to order us out in the most impossible weather… Then go outside [the harbour] and frantically taxi around, get soaked to the skin and never have a hope in hell of getting off the water. Or go out, and it was so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, so you weren’t likely to see any enemy activity even if you got airborne’.

You can read more about other men who were stationed at the seaplane base at South Shields by following the related stories links at the bottom of the page:

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