The name Monarch has a long association with cableships. The first Monarch was a paddle-steamer built in 1830 and converted into a cable-ship 23 years later by the International Telegraph Company. The second Monarch was larger and had a single screw. Built in 1883, it had the distinction of being the first cable-ship built for the General Post Office. During the First World War, it cut the German Borkum-Fayal cable. Unfortunately, it was mined off Folkestone in September 1915 and sank. The third ship is the subject of this article, so let’s skip to the fourth Monarch, the largest cable-ship in the world when it was launched after the Second World War. It had a long and successful career and eventually it was sold to Cable & Wireless, where it was renamed Sentinel. The fifth Monarch was built in the mid-1970s in Dundee and was like its predecessors a GPO ship. It changed hands a few times – BT (Marine), Ltd; Midland Montague Leasing, but managed by Cable & Wireless (Marine), Ltd; Global Marine Systems, Ltd – before it was broken up in Spain in 2003.
HMTS Monarch, the third cable-ship to bear the name, was built by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson, Ltd, in 1916 for the General Post Office. Triple expansion steam engines turning twin screws, with three cable tanks and a crew of 65, the Monarch was designed as a cable repair ship and was based in home waters. Perhaps this third ship would have had an unremarkable career if it was not for a certain invasion of Poland and a declaration of war.
D-Day and After
The history of the Second World War is one rich in stories and those of cableships are no less courageous and hazardous than those of warships. Few were armed and few were escorted, but they had to work hard to severe some cables and lay others. This was no less true in 1944, when the Allies launched Operation Overlord.
Communications would be essential if the Allied invasion of Europe was to proceed according to plan, hence the presence of cableships such as the Monarch and the St Margaret’s. The laying and maintenance of submarine cables was going on during Operation Neptune, the naval component of Overlord, and so in the days and nights following D-Day, the Monarch (under Captain Arthur Troops) and the St Margaret’s, with a cable barge, worked away, laying a 160-mile long telephone cable. By the night of Monday 12th June, the Monarch (with a barrage balloon overhead to discourage air-attack) was the only cableship left and was being watched over by the 1,000-ton Flower-class corvette Trentonian (K368), a warship of the Royal Canadian Navy under the command of Lieutenant William Edward Harrison, RCNVR, and slightly smaller than the cable-ship. What happened next was unexpected and bloody.
(The book to read is ‘White Ensign Flying: Corvette HMCS Trentonian’, by Roger Litwiller, a well-researched and well-written account of the career of the Trentonian, complete with images of the damaged Monarch. Amazon link here [ https://www.amazon.co.uk/White-Ensign-Flying-Corvette-Trentonian/dp/1459710398].)
They did not have the English Channel to themselves, as it was even busier with Operation Neptune underway than usual. A squadron of US warships were nearby and the closest to the Monarch and the Trentonian was the 1,630-ton Gleaves-class destroyer USS Plunkett (DD-431) and the larger, 1,850-ton Somers-class destroyer USS Davis (DD-395). At around 1am in the dark morning of Tuesday 13th June, the Plunkett, commanded by Edinburgh-born William Outerson, detected two unidentified targets on radar to the north and it was thought (correctly) that these were friendly vessels.
This assumption took an hour to change, when the USS Davis (commanded by Commander William Archer Dunn) began asking questions and the Plunkett, watching the range between the American destroyers and the oncoming strangers close, decided to take action. They fired a star shell, but with the range now down to about three and a half kilometres, the shell apparently failed. More were fired and were seen by the Trentonian. The Plunkett then flashed a challenge in the direction of the nearest ship, but it seems the Monarch did not see it or thought it was a prearranged signal from shore. The Plunkett repeated the challenge three times, and getting no reply, the destroyer opened fire.
Trentonian to the Rescue
There was a brief moment when the shells were thought to be coming from German positions on the coast. The Trentonian went to action-stations, but realising the source was an ally, the Canadians did not return fire. Instead, they flashed their recognition lights. The Plunkett turned its gunfire on the Monarch, hitting the barrage balloon overhead. The Trentonian manoeuvred to make its identification as an Allied warship more apparent, but this drew more American fire.
According to Roger Litwiller, the Canadian captain, Harrison (who was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross), shook his fist and cried, ‘Damn poor gunnery for such close range’. That range was now about a kilometre, and the Trentonian’s radio and its signal lamp were both hammering out the message to cease fire. The Trentonian moved between the Monarch and the Plunkett, with all lights shining, and finally the Plunkett’s guns stopped.
Monarch Limps Home
The attack had lasted about 10 minutes. The Monarch had been hit, and its whaling-boat launched to rescue men blown of the cable-ship by the shell impacts. The boat had itself been damaged and sank as it came alongside the Trentonian. The Monarch’s bridge had been destroyed, its superstructure and steering damaged, and its first mate and one seamen killed, whilst Captain Troops had been injured along with 30 others. The telephone cable the Monarch had been laying had been lost over the side. With the Trentonian’s help, the crippled Monarch managed to limp home, where Captain Troops died from his wounds. The Canadians were warned against sharing their story with anyone, and the friendly fire story was buried.
Neither the Trentonian nor the Monarch survived the Second World War – the Canadian corvette (by now commanded by Lieutenant Colin Stinson Glassco, RCNVR) was sunk by the U-1004 (under the command of Oberleutnant zur see Rudolf Hinz) near Falmouth in February 1945 (a video of the wreck can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-80BnjV6us), and the Monarch was itself sunk off Southwold two months later. It is thought the cable-ship either struck a (German) mine or was hit by a (German) torpedo.
Duncan S. Mackenzie, RITTech, AMBCS
Digital Collections Officer, PK Porthcurno
Header image: Cableship Monarch III