Mittwoch, 21. Dezember 2022

Ru Con Battery

Looking for information about the battery on the Rubh-a-Choin peninsula, about 2 miles north west of Aultbea, the first source I discovered was the book “Britain’s Sea Soldiers” by General Sir H.E. Blumberg, dealing with the Royal Marines in the Great War.

Blumberg mentions the battery in a small chapter:

This chapter raised more questions than it answered and became the starting point for my research, which has now lasted half a year and is far from being over.

Here is what I found out so far.

Timeline of the Construction Work

The history of the battery started on August 21st, 1914, when a certain Captain Cyrus Hunter Regnart, RMLI, boarded HMS Illustrious, the ship that would later serve as guard ship in Loch Ewe.

Excursus 1: Cyrus Hunter Regnart

Regnart had joined the Royal Marines in 1897 and was promoted Captain of the Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI) in 1904. Soon after his promotion he went to the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) where he served as Assistant to the Director. After the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, later known as MI6 / Military Intelligence, Section 6) had been established, he worked for the SIS chief. Before he ran the SIS overseas station in Brussels, he had to retire formally from RMLI in 1913. When war broke out, he rejoined the Marines.

Captain Regnart was a very interesting character. For those who would like to learn more about him, I can recommend the following book and two excellent websites:

HMS Illustrious arrived in Loch Ewe on August 30th, 1914, in order to serve as a guard ship. In addition to Captain Regnart, there was a group of Royal marines on board.

For September 5th, 1914, the following entry can be found in the log book of HMS Illustrious:

“10. Landed Marine working Party”

This can be considered the starting point for constructing Ru Con Battery.
The works continued over the next few days, and when the Illustrious left Loch Ewe on September 17th, 1914, Regnart and his Royal Marines remained on Rubh-a-Choin, continuing the construction works. The battery was fully operational on October 6th, 1915, but was further expanded afterwards, just as mentioned by Blumberg.

Captain Regnart served as commanding officer of the battery until the end of the war. There is discussion and speculation on the internet as to why a highly qualified intelligence officer like Cyrus Hunter Regnart, who spoke several foreign languages, had to spend the war commanding a small battery in the Scottish remoteness. Such speculation is pointless - unless documented evidence emerges, we will never know.

Excursus 2: Naming of the Battery

There are different names for the battery in the different sources:

    • In the “Report of Admiralty Committee about 1st September, 1914” that I had mentioned in my last post, it is called “Ru Con Battery”. You can find the same name in a letter from the SNO Aultbea to the C-in-C Grand Fleet, dated February 13th, 1915.
    • In most of the other documents issued by the SNO Aultbea, among them the regulations for passing the boom net gate, it is simply called “The Battery”.
    • In the service records of Captain Regnart, it is called “Shore Battery, Loch Ewe (Aultbea)” and “Fort, Loch Ewe”
    • In his book “Loch Ewe During World War II”, Steve Chadwick calls it “Fort Ru Con or Fort Rubh’ a’ Choin”.

As we shall see, it was definitely not a fort but just a battery; I will therefore stick to the name “Ru Con Battery” in the following.

Original Planning

As I had mentioned in my last post, an Admiralty Committee, a group of representatives of the Director of Naval Ordnance, visited Loch Ewe in August 1914 to draw up a scheme of fixed defences. Amongst others, they proposed the following armament:

  • 8 guns with 150 rounds each (4.7-inch if possible, otherwise 4-inch)
  • 9 Searchlights (24-inch electric, four of them being fitted with 15° divergent lenses, power being provided by petrol driven dynamos)

This armament should have been divided among four batteries, each consisting of two guns:

  • Outer defence line: Gusan Point (western shore ) and Leacan Donna (eastern shore )
  • Inner defence line: Ghambua Point (western shore ) and Ru Con (Rubh a Choin, eastern shore )

(© Open Street Maps Mitwirkende)

Each battery should have been equipped with two searchlights (a searching beam on the seaward flank and a fixed 15° divergent beam on the landward flank of the guns).

The garrison for each battery was proposed to have hut accomodation erected in close proximity to the gun positions with ammunition stores, store rooms etc , so that each unit of the defence may be self-contained.

The garrison for Ru Con battery should have consisted of:

Barracks for
  2 Officers
  1 Quartermaster Sergeant
14 Men Guns Crews (including 2 NCO's)
  9 Men Ammunition Supply (including 1 NCO)
12 Men Searchlights (including 2 NCO's)
  2 Stokers + 1 Electrician Power for Searchlights
  2 Men Orderly
  3 Men Telephones
  1 Cook
  1 Bugler
  1 Armourer
  1 Man Sick Berth
  9 Guards
(summing up to a crew of 59 men including Officers and NCO’s)
1 Cook House
1 Baggage Store
1 Victualling Store
1 Telephone Hut
1 Ammunition Shed
2 Petrol Engine Sheds
2 Huts at Searchlights
1 Ammunition Room
1 Armourer's Shop & Store
4 Earth closets

Roads, fencing and water supply as well as some preparation of ground for gun foundations were considered necessary.

Telephone communications should have been established between the PWSS and each battery, between the Commanding Officer of each battery and the searchlights and between the Commanding Officer and the Group Commander.

Transporting guns and other heavy weights to the site of Ru Con Battery was regarded difficult. The following possible landing places and transport routes were proposed:

  • Road from the pier at Aultbea, at that time in a poor condition and ending about half a mile ahead of the battery site
  • One or two little bays close to the gun site which might possibly be used in calm weather.

However, these proposals were never implemented.

About two weeks after the report was issued, on September 15th, 1914, Admiral Jellicoe informed the Admiralty that, with the presence of HMS Illustrious as a guard ship, he considered the inner line of defences proposed by Admiralty Committee dispensable.

In the famous conference held on board the Iron Duke at Loch Ewe on September 17th it was decided not to mount guns as proposed by the Admiralty Committee, but to station 6 destroyers in Loch Ewe and to leave the Illustrious in the entrance as a gun and searchlight defence.

One month later, on October 17th, 1914, the Illustrious left Loch Ewe to serve as guard ship in Loch Na-Keal, but this didn't lead to a different assessment.

On March 18th, 1915, the construction of the batteries proposed by the Admiralty Committee was definitely postponed as the estimated expenditure of BP 10.800 could not be justified. The Admiralty informed the C-in-C Home Fleet “that further consideration of the proposals to provide fixed defences for the antisubmarine boom at Loch Ewe is postponed, and it is not proposed to proceed with the proposals at present.”

By the end of the war, the proposals had not been resumed again.

Ru Con Battery – A Mystery?

Now that you have read that the proposals of the Admiralty Committee to establish batteries for protection of Loch Ewe were never implemented, you will be surprised that there was a battery on Rubh a Choin anyway.

This is truly a mystery as I couldn’t find any written order to establish it, nor could I find any plans or something like a war diary of the commanding officer. However, both the construction of the battery and some details of its operation are mentioned in various documents.

Let's start in chronological order.

The log book of HMS Illustrious is a very important source in this context. In the beginning of this post I had mentioned that there is an entry for September 5th, 1914, 10:00 am, saying “Landed Marine working Party”. 

That this was the beginning of the construction work is revealed from the entries of the next few days:

  • September 7th, 9:00 am: “Landed one Sergt & 8 marines, Capt marines in charge”
  • September 8th, 9:00 am: “Party landing 2 12Pdr Field Guns & Carriage, Landed one Sergt, 12 Marines, Capt Marines in Charge”
  • September 8th, 2:00 pm: “Landed working party 31 hands & one 12 pounder gun & mounting”
  • September 9th, 9:25 am: “Landed Working Party 31 Hands”

This means that the Royal Marines on board together with a part of the ship’s crew built a battery with 3 guns, two of them 12-pdr field guns on carriage and one a 12-pdr gun on a mounting, most probably one of the ship’s own QF 12-pounder 12 cwt naval guns (in 1915, the Illustrious was completely disarmed).

The next important source is a letter from Rear Admiral Purefoy, SNO Aultbea, to the C-in-C Grand Fleet, dated February 13th, 1915, stating “Two 24'' Searchlights are now in working order at RU CON Battery, Loch Ewe.” The two 24-inch electric searchlights, that had been proposed by the Admiralty Committee per battery, were obviously installed (one on the seaward flank of the battery with a searching beam and one fixed on the landward flank with a 15° divergent lense, power for both being provided by petrol driven dynamos.)

When the boom net was officially put into operation on October 6th, 1915, Ru Con battery was also fully operational. Its role was described. The SNO Aultbea informed the Admiralty on that day about the regulations for passing the boom net gate that had to be incorporated in O.D. 21 “Instructions for the entry of H.M. Ships into Defended Ports”. These regulations are very interesting to read as they contain several aspects of the involvement of the battery, for example the following passage:

“Should a ship fail to make her pendants to the Port War Signal Station the following instructions have been issued to the Officer Commanding the Battery:
If a single ship or leading ship of a squadron, when she arrives at 3000 yards range, has failed to comply with the order to show navigation lights and to make her pendants, the Battery is to switch on searchlights and one shotted round is to be fired across her bow; if the order has not been complied with when she arrives at 2000 yards range, fire is to be opened on her by the Battery.”

There is also a warning that at night “the defence searchlights are on no account to illuminate the ship as they pass", most probably to not making them a better target for enemy attacks.

How to imagine Ru Con Battery

There is no source about how battery and garrison may have looked like, neither plans nor photos nor descriptions.

The following are my personal conclusions, based on the sources I described above.

Ru Con Battery was surely not a fortified battery with a lot of concrete elements. I suppose that it was the original intention of the Admiralty Committee to establish such fortified batteries. The result may probably have resembled other British harbor batteries like for example South Sutor Battery, protecting Cromarty Firth.

I rather assume that Ru Con Battery was kind of improvisational. If you look at Corran Point Battery / Loch Linnhe, you get a good idea on what I’m thinking of. The guns are set up in open emplacements with only enough concrete to fix the mountings, the buildings are not more than wooden huts. The following photos are in the collections of the Imperial War Museums:

The red arrow on the last photo (a close-up of the total view) marks the ammunition storage house behind protecting earth walls.

Assuming that Ru Con Battery looked similar, you would expect the QF 12-pounder 12 cwt naval gun to be mounted with 18 bolts on a concrete slab, the pedestal mounting having a diameter of about 31.5’’ (Source of the following pictures: Wikipedia):

The two 12-pdr field guns on carriage – more precisely QF 12-pounder 8 cwt guns – served originally as landing guns for Navy use ashore. They could be positioned on plain ground without any fixation; the recoil was reduced by metal drag shoes that were placed under the 42’’ wheels.

The two 24’’ searchlights were probably mounted each one in a different way: The searchlight on the seaward flank of the battery had a searching beam; this required a rotating and probably also a pivoting mounting. The second searchlight on the landward flank had a 15° divergent lense which should illuminate the inlet of the loch; this allowed a fixed mounting.

The searchlights of Corran Point Battery give a good impression of how a rotating and pivoting mounting looked like; so does the following photo of the Chanonry Point (Inverness Naval Base) searchlights (source: IWM):

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a photo of a fixed searchlight mounting yet.

All buildings of the battery were most probably made of wood, maybe covered with corrugated iron sheets. I even assume that in the beginning the battery crew lived in tents. At that time there were standardized military huts, the so called Armstrong Huts, in use (you wouldn’t expect Nissen Huts before August 1916), but the improvisational character of the project makes it very unlikely that such standardized military huts were used for Ru Con Battery. It seems that Regnart and his 32-headed crew of Marines rather took advantage of everything they could get a hold of: In a letter from the Admiral Commanding Coast Guard & Reserves, dated October 20th, 1915, I found a remark that “the hut at the old signal station at Aultbea, which was vacated on the establishment of Ru Con PWSS, being transferred to Aultbea for use by Marine Detachment.”

Field Survey of June 9th, 2022

When I came to Loch Ewe in May / June 2022, I hardly had any of the information above. I knew the mentioning of “Fort Ru Con” in Steve Chadwick’s book and I knew the chapter of Blumberg’s Sea Soldiers. Being a member of the Great War Forum, I asked for further information there and learned that a WW1 gun emplacement comprising a small holdfast with a bank running around is still visible but affected by the WW2 gun emplacement; I even got the coordinates.

On June 9th, I explored the Rubh a Choin peninsula for WW1 relics. I found the gun emplacement immediately as the bank around it is still visible:

On the right hand of the photo you see the WW2 gun emplacement with which a part of the WW1 emplacement was overbuilt. Unfortunately, everything was overgrown by thick vegetation, so I couldn’t verify any holdfast. I’m rather assuming that this is an emplacement for one of the QF 12-pounder 8 cwt field guns, but this will have to be verified in my next field survey.

This photo shows the view from the gun emplacement to the loch:

Examining the area south of the gun emplacement, I made an exciting discovery: Roughly about 10 meters south of the gun emplacement I found some rusted metal bolts protruding from the ground. First I could spot only 4 of them; by means of my pocket knife (I had no better tool with me) I could finally uncover 6 bolts, belonging to a circle of 10 bolts with a diameter of about 48 cm.

Before cleaning the area …

… and after:

This photo shows the view from the holdfast to the loch:

This holdfast is much too small for the pedestal mounting of a QF 12-pounder 12 cwt naval gun, but it could belong to the searchlight on the seaward flank of the battery. On my next field survey I will take better tools with me and hopefully be able to fully clear the holdfast.

This map shows the positions of both the gun emplacement (red arrow) and the searchlight emplacement (yellow arrow):

The rest of my visit was rather frustrating. I couldn't find any other remains of the WW1 battery, neither hut foundations (it can be assumed that they were rather made of wood than of concrete) nor gun emplacements. T
he whole area of the WW1 battery, if not overbuilt with WW2 installations, is overgrown with a thick and persistent carpet of plants which makes it impossible to spot something, not to mention the uneven terrain that makes it difficult to advance when you are physically handicapped.

Of course I will return to Rubh a Choin (in fact, my travel is already booked), and of course, I will return with a better equipment, among others a light metal detector that should help me  finding metal bolts ... I will keep you posted!

Montag, 19. Dezember 2022

Loch Ewe in the Great War

This blog post is in English as I assume that more English than German speaking readers may find it interesting.

When preparing my Loch Ewe holiday earlier this year, I consulted of course Steve Chadwick's book "Loch Ewe During World War II" and learned about the military use of Loch Ewe in WW1. I was electrified by a hint that there was a battery on the Rubh-a-Choin Peninsula that was known, among other names, as "Fort Ru Con".

When I asked in the Great War Forum, I learned that the remains of the battery could still be seen, and this started a research that has been ongoing ever since and is far from being over.

What I found on site will be described in a later blog post. However, it was much more interesting what I found out about Loch Ewe’s history in WW1 after my return in June 2022, and that's what this post is about.

Since then, literature research took up literally every minute of my spare time and costed a lot of money. The main literature sources that I used are listed at the end of this blog post; they include both print editions which I acquired, as well as digital documents from various archives and online sources. The list is not complete nor is it academically accurate, and I have not referenced the sources in the text - remember, this is only a blog post, not a thesis.

But now to the subject of this blog post:

As early as August 10th, 1914 – only a few days after Great Britain had declared war on Germany - the British Admiralty was sure that the fleet base Scapa Flow had been discovered by the enemy and consequently decided to establish Loch Ewe as a secondary coaling base. Rear-Admiral Richard P. F. Purefoy was appointed Senior Naval Officer (SNO) of the base. He was appointed primarily for the base administration under the direct orders of the Admiralty, but this did not render him independent of the Admiral Commanding, Coast of Scotland (at that time Admiral Sir Robert Swinburne Lowry), to whom matters involving his general responsibility had to be referred. At the same time he was to fulfill to the best of his ability the requirements of the Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet, with regard to supplies, communications and other services.

Along with the appointment of Rear Admiral Purefoy, some colliers from Cardiff were diverted to Loch Ewe instead of Scapa Flow. In addition, Admiral Jellicoe, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, sent 12.000 tons of coal to Loch Ewe. A temporary signal station in Aultbea and a motor bus service for mails and provisions from Achnasheen were established.

On August 12th, Admiral Jellicoe sent the 3rd Battle Squadron to Loch Ewe to coal and to test the suitability of this base and its capability for defence against submarine attack. However, when they arrived at Loch Ewe on August 13th, they found themselves in a harbour completely devoid of defences. Rear Admiral Purefoy pointed out the need for defences if it was intended to make any considerable use of Loch Ewe as a base in the future.

On August 16th, the Dreadnought Battle Fleet was sent to their new fuelling base, Loch Ewe, where they arrived on the 18th; on August 20th at 6:30 pm they returned to their previous cruising area east of the Orkneys.

The forces that anchored in Loch Ewe on August 18th were

  • HMS Iron Duke,
  • The 1st, 2nd, and 4th Battle Squadron
  • The 1st Light Cruiser Squadron (less HMS Falmouth and HMS Liverpool),
  • HMS Bellona, 
  • HMS Boadicea and 
  • HMS Assistance.

 These are the ships:

The National Archives in Kew have an undated, very rough sketch of the anchorages in Loch Ewe; it shows most probably the situation on August 18th

I tried to transfer the information from this sketch to a map:

(© Open Street Maps Mitwirkende)

It is remarkable that according to the original sketch, the pier for the fleat was the one south of Midtown on the western shore whereas the headquarter of the naval base was at Aultbea.

The Imperial War Museum has two photos of ships mooring in Loch Ewe in their collection. They are associated with the battle of Jutland but give a good impression how the situation in August 1914 may have looked like. The first photo shows the HMS Vanguard:

(Source: Imperial War Museums)

The second photo shows ships of the 4th Battle Squadron:

(Source: Imperial War Museums)

At the beginning of the war it was assumed that the Germans had advance bases in Norway or the Shetlands and would employ mainly torpedo craft to attack the Grand Fleet. In the meantime however, the thread of submarine attacks was also taken into consideration. Loch Ewe had neither protection against torpedo crafts nor against submarines, so the fleet could never remain longer than it was necessary for fuelling purposes. In the event of an alarm being given of the presence of a submarine, the only possible action was to take the fleet to sea immediately.

On August 28th, the Admiralty advised Admiral Jellicoe to have HMS Illustrious proceed to Loch Ewe (arriving on August 30th) to provide a temporary defence there, but the presence of a guard ship could only be a temporary measurement.

On September 2nd, the HMS Assistance arrived at Loch Ewe in order to serve as a base ship.

Excursus 1: HMS Illustrious and HMS Assistance

HMS Illustrious was a pre-Dreadnought battleship of the Majestic Class. It was built at the Chatham Royal Dockyard and launched September 17th 1896; she was commissioned into the fleet in April 1898. When WW1 broke out, she was one of the oldest battleships and served as guard ship at various harbours. In 1915 she was disarmed and became depot ship or unarmed transport. She was paid off in April 1919 and sold for scrapping in June 1920.



BL 12-inch naval guns


QF 6-inch naval guns


Q.F. 12-pdr. 12-cwt. guns


QF 3-pdr. Hotchkiss guns


18-inch torpedo tubes (torpedos partly fitted for gyroscopes)

Armament plan of a Majectic class battleship according to Rickard, J., Plans of Majestic Class Battleships:


This is how HMS Illustrious looked like:


HMS Assistance was originally planned as a civilian ship and purchased for use as a floating workshop and water-distilling ship while it was still in construction. She was launched December 22nd, 1900, and served as fleet repair ship in WW1. In August 1914, she belonged to the 2nd Battle Squadron. She was scrapped on March 11th, 1937.
Her only armament were 6 4-inch guns, most probably BL 4-inch naval guns.

At about the same time as HMS Illustrious and HMS Assistance arrived at Loch Ewe, a group of representatives of the Director of Naval Ordnance visited Loch Ewe to draw up a scheme of fixed defences. In their report dated September 1st  they considered a day or night attack by torpedo craft as the most probable form of attack, followed by a cruiser attack and finally a submarine attack. They recommended measurements against torpedo craft attacks but postponed  protection against cruisers and submarines as „matters for further consideration“.

Here is in brief what they recommended:

  • 4 batteries with 2 4.7-inch or 4-inch guns and 2 searchlights each with the option of expansion by one or two guns and searchlights per battery if necessary
  • A Port War Signal Station (PWSS) near Leacan Donna
  • Garrison for the four batteries in close proximity to the gun positions
  • A headquarter in Aultbea
  • A water catchment, filtering and distribution system
  • Supply of fresh provisions from Glasgow
  • Improvement and extension of existing roads
  • Establishing the necessary telephone communication between PWSS, headquarter and batteries, including a submarine cable across Loch Ewe
  • Supplying one large steam or motor boat and a skiff for communications, for the supply of the batteries and for enabling HQ & medical staff to visit the batteries on the western shore. The garrison should be completely independant from any other ship present in the Loch.

Two enclosures to their report describe in detail the necessary staff and the resulting buildings that needed to be constructed.

Excursus 2: The Port War Signal Station (PWSS)

Overall concept for observation of the Scottish coast:

The indentation of the Scottish coast together with the sparseness of the population made a close watch for enemy vessels necessary, with a focus on the north coast of Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides and the Minch.
An important role in this close watch played the so-called “Auxiliary Patrol”, consisting of units of armed trawlers, yachts and motor boats. 3 of those units were assigned to the Shetlands, 6 to Loch Ewe and Stornoway and 8 yachts and 72 trawlers to the Orkneys.
The creation of this Auxiliary Patrol made it necessary to expand the system of distribution of naval intelligence. In order to pass information rapidly from the coast signal or observation stations to the Naval Centers and to the Auxiliary Patrol and vice versa, eight small wireless telegraphy stations were equipped in early 1915 to maintain touch, one of them at Aultbea. Intelligence gained was passed to the Auxiliary Patrol vessels, and all information gathered by
the Auxiliary Patrol vessels was reported to the Naval Centers. From November 1914 on, special arrangements were made by which the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet could get information of hostile or suspicious vessels or mines gathered by the war signal stations that were established between Cape Wrath and Ardnamurchan Point, with its center at Aultbea.

The role of the PWSS in the defence of Loch Ewe:

Aultbea’s Port War Signal Station (PWSS) was an important element of the defences of Loch Ewe. It was a central collection point for information about all ships approaching the port with the aim of identifying them as friendly or enemy vessels.  This information came from the Auxiliary Patrol via W/T and from the surrounding signal or observation stations via telephone lines and was passed by the PWSS to the harbor defence facilities like the battery on the Rubh-a-Choin peninsula (see below).
I found some evidence that at the beginning of the war, there was a first PWSS located at Aultbea, but unfortunately I don’t have any details about it except that it consisted of two wooden huts.
In the report of the Director of Naval Ordnance dated September 1st, 1914, it was proposed “to establish a Port War Signal Station on a commanding hill near the Leacon Donna battery” (author’s note: this refers most probably to the scheduled Rubh-a-Choin Battery). At the time of this proposal, hut accommodation for the PWSS crew (1 officer, 6 men, most probably Coast Guard personnel) had already been arranged for, but it seems that the works for the new PWSS didn’t start before the turn of the year 1914/15.
In a private letter dated January 15th, 1915, Captain W. B. Forbes of the HMS No. 6 (SS Oruba), a ship of the 10th Coasting Squadron (see below), at anchor in Loch Ewe, wrote: “Today I was to have gone ashore to inspect some works at the signal station, but it's blowing too hard for the boat.” Work on the PWSS was obviously in progress that day; some documents about a corresponding tender and the approval of funds, dated February 11th, 1915, that I found in The National Archives collections support this. The wireless telegraphy (W/T) station mentioned above was established and began operations on February 26th.
Unfortunately, I have not found any further documentation about the PWSS, only a letter from the Admiralty to the Senior Naval Officer Aultbea dated March 16th, 1917 approving “to remove the look-out near the War Signal Station at Ru Con (author’s note: Rubh-a-Choin) to a new position at Gob a Gheoda and also to extend the telephone from the present look-out to the new one”.

From September 1st on, i.e. soon after her arrival, the crew of HMS Illustrious was – according to the ship‘s logbook - employed fitting brails for „boom defence“. This is quite mysterious as I couldn’t find any mention of a boom defence at Loch Ewe before that date. I’m also not aware of any order to construct such a defence at this time.

A few days later, on September 6th, a group of Royal Marines started to establish a battery on the Rubh-a-Choin peninsula. I was not able so far to find any written order to do so, but the time course is well documented in various documents. I will go into more details of this battery in a separate blog post including the results of my field survey in June 2022.

On September 9th the Dreadnaught battle fleet arrived at Loch Ewe for coaling after the entrance had been checked for mines. On September 7th at 6:00 am they proceeded to sea. On September 13th they returned for coaling and repair.

The arrangements made for the defence of the fleet at Loch Ewe were the following:

  • Two destroyers patrolled outside day and night
  • Three picket boats were on patrol day and night across the harbour entrance
  • HMS Illustrious and HMS Seagull (torpedo gunboat) anchored in positions on the western shore to guard the entrance
  • The Sound entrance was guarded by destroyers anchored there
  • Outer ships of the battlefleet were ordered to have guns and searchlights ready
  • All ships had to be darkened and to have net defence out at night.

On September 15th Admiral Jellicoe pointed out the necessity of net defences to the Admiralty as it would not be possible to anchor ships in exposed positions in winter, nor would an efficient patrol be possible by destroyers and patrol boats in bad weather. In a telegram to the Admiralty he wrote „A submarine obstacle would be of considerable value at Loch Ewe and could be quickly prepared at dockyard and quickly placed. Request that one similar to that proposed by Admiral Colville for Scapa may be made and sent up. It would be placed from Ghamnha Point to Sgeir an Araig and from Gob na Lice to point east of big sand bay.“

On September 17th a conference was held on board the HMS Iron Duke at Loch Ewe between Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the principal members of the war staff and the chief officers of the fleet, at which various important questions of policy and strategy were discussed. Concerning Loch Ewe it was decided not to mount fixed defences, but to station six 30-knot destroyers there, to leave the Illustrious in the entrance as a gun and searchlight defence, and to provide a submarine obstruction if possible. This is quite remarkable as the work for establishing a battery on Rubh-a-Choin was still in progress and was not stopped.

By October 2nd, a submarine obstruction was not yet provided. Admiral Jellicoe wrote to the Admiralty:

„… recent experience has shown the necessity of a submarine obstruction, and I shall be glad to know whether it is prepared for Loch Ewe. One of either the Scapa or Cromarty pattern is very necessary, but the Scapa pattern would probably be kept in place under bad weather conditions more easily than that constructed for Cromarty.“

Again, nothing happened.

It was an incident a few days later that finally led to a decision by the Admiralty. Admiral Jellicoe wrote in his book: „At 5 A.M. on October 7th a submarine was reported inside Loch Ewe, being sighted by a collier and by the Assistance; she was fired at by the latter ship, in misty weather. On receipt of the report I ordered all vessels to leave Loch Ewe at once, and sent a division of destroyers there from Scapa to search for the submarine. Later investigation indicated that the report was well founded.“ In a telegram to the Admiralty he wrote: „… it has been reported that one if not two enemy submarines entered harbour yesterday morning being seen by Assistance and a collier. … Assistance fired at her. … Until harbour is defended and submarine obstacle is provided it will not be safe to use this base. Can steps be taken to hasten provision of obstacles both for Scapa and Loch Ewe. It is very undesirable to have all heavy ships at one base and neither is safe now.“

One day later, on August 8th, the Admiralty confirmed the provision of an anti-submarine defence for Loch Ewe.

Excursus 3: The submarine sighting in Loch Ewe

First of all: The incident did not occur on October 7th, but on October 6th. The HMS Assistance logbook reads that day: "5.55 Submarine reported"; on October 7th, the Assistance was already on her way to Scapa Flow. 

What is striking in Jellicoe's report is the statement that the Assistance shot at the supposed submarine, and did so in misty weather. I couldn't find out which ships anchored in Loch Ewe on October 6th, but the expression "all vessels" definitely suggests several ships. In addition to the HMS Assistance, only the HMS Illustrious and the Palma, a supply ship, are known to me by their names. The misty weather can be confirmed in HMS Illustrious‘ logbook. 

In a harbour of 3x6 miles, in misty conditions and in the presence of other ships, shooting at a supposed submarine seems more than negligent. Interestingly, the Assistance‘s logbook does not report any shots. The complete entry of 5:55 is: “Submarine Reported. Hands man + arm ship. ”The next entry was made at 9:30 a.m.:“ Hands employed as requisite ”. In the Illustrious‘ logbook there is only one entry at 6:00 a.m., i.e. immediately after the supposed submarine sighting: "Hands cleaning ship". Would you assume that a crew cleans their ship in the middle of a battle between another ship nearby and a (supposed) enemy submarine?

The statement that the supposed submarine was shot at can therefore be doubted.

Now let's look at the opposite side, the supposed submarine itself. According to Jellicoe, the sighting was "well founded".

With the kind support of the German Submarine Museum Cuxhaven, I searched the logbooks of all 34 German submarines that were launched before October 7th and can confirm that none of these submarines can have been in Loch Ewe. The missions of the German submarines in 1914 are well documented; documents that order or describe submarines of the Imperial Navy to penetrate into Loch Ewe on October 6th, 1914 are not known. The submarines mainly carried out reconnaissance trips in the North Sea in search of the Grand Fleet and the British blockade lines. Only occasionally more modern diesel-driven submarines were ordered to the bases of the Royal Navy on the British east coast in order to intercept British combat ships.

Conclusion: No matter what was sighted in Loch Ewe on October 6th, it was not a submarine and it is very unlikely that it was shot at.

As a result of this incident, Loch Ewe could no longer be considered a safe anchorage until the installation of a submarine defence was completed. All the colliers, store and ammunition ships were diverted to other bases. HMS Illustrious was recalled as Loch Ewe‘s guard ship; she left Loch Ewe on October 14th first to Lerwick, then to Loch na Keal in the Isle of Mull. HMS Assistance was sent to this harbour too.

Completion of the submarine defences at Loch Ewe were being pushed forward with all possible speed. It was decided to install the same submarine obstruction that was used at Cromarty base. On October 29th, Commander Donald J. Munro, King’s Harbour Master at Cromarty, was appointed to supervise the anti-submarine defences of Scapa, Cromarty, and Loch Ewe.

Along with the construction of submarine defences, the naval base was expanded.

End of October, the Admiralty approved stationing armed trawlers or drifters at various strategic positions along the coast. They were grouped in units of six boats, each boat armed with one or more guns. Loch Ewe was allotted 2 of those units.

In a message to the Admiralty dated November 5th, 1914, Rear Admiral Purefoy described the situation as follows:

„Two Yachts, the coast guard cruiser "Safeguard" and five motor boats, shore staff and a party of marines at the battery are at present based here, shortly to be augmented by 12 trawlers“.

He requested a depot ship with a medical and an Accountant Officer, as the absence of HMS Illustrious had led to „unnecessary delay in obtaining pay vouchers and money“ and „the nearest medical officer lives 7 miles away and the next 14 miles, neither of these gentlemen are Surgeon and Agents“. On November 20th, the steam yacht HMS Vanessa under the command of Capt. Le Marchant was sent to Loch Ewe to serve temporarily as a depot ship. It was planned that it should be replaced by HMS Aro in December, but as far as can conclude from the documented discussions, that was not the case until later in 1915 – if ever.

In a note dated December 9th, 1914, Sir William Frederic Nicholson (head of the Military Branch of the Admiralty Secretariat) listed the vessels that were ordered to serve as tenders for the Vanessa:

Yacht - Hersilia No. 2
Trawlers - Orlando 365
Natal 305
Calliope 367
Cardiff Castle 638

Yacht - Rhouma No. 22
Trawlers - Lacerta 625
Newhaven N.B. 82
Bellona 23

Yacht - Lorna No. 24
Trawlers - Settsu 650
Kimberley 11
Owl 373
Oriole 636

Yacht Calanthe No. 43

 Remark: The numbers are the pendant numbers that served to identify ships.

Excursus 4: HMS Vanessa and HMS Aro

HMS Vanessa was a steam-powered yacht built in 1899 and made available to the Navy on October 15th, 1914. She was iron-plated and served as an Auxiliary Patrol yacht with two 6-pounder guns. In February 1917 she was renamed Vanessa II and returned to her owners in March 1919.

The following photo shows Vanessa before her conversion for military use:

HMS Aro was built in 1898 by Sir Raylton Dixon & Co., Middlesbrough, and launched on May 9th under the name Albertville. She served as a passenger and cargo steamer in Africa and was renamed Aro in 1905. In October 1914 she was sold to the Royal Navy and served as a torpedo sub-depot ship and troopship during the war. In January 1920 she was sold to W. R. Davies, Liverpool and renamed Stella. After being sold subsequently two more times it was finally broken up on June 23rd, 1925.  

On December 6th, 1914, the old Edgar class ships of the 10th Cruiser Squadron were paid off and replaced by armed liners. 4 of them were put in charge of the Sappho, an Apollo class cruiser, and patrolled from December 7th on from the Hebrides north-westward, mainly for the purpose of stopping ships which might be carrying contraband destined for Germany. Their base was Loch Ewe, and they were under the command of Admiral de Chair.

Later they were transferred to Scapa Flow for other patrol and boarding duties

A quite extraordinary class of ships started its career on the same day: The „10th Coasting Squadron“ (or "Special Service Squadron") under the command of Commodore Haddock. It consisted of 14 merchant ships that were disguised with dummy turrets and guns and their appearance was altered to represent British battleships and battle cruisers. They were first stationed at Scapa Flow, and it was planned that they should accompany the fleat at sea. However, they were significantly slower compared to real battle ships what made them useless for their original purpose. From January 6th, 1915, at least a part of them was detached to Loch Ewe where they were worked up to carry out fleet movements. What I could find out is that HMS No. 6, the former merchant ship SS Oruba, aka HMS Orion (the ship it was meant to represent) was the first to arrive, followed by 8 others until January 26th, 1915. In a private letter, Captain W.B. Forbes, the commander of HMS No. 6, wrote: „I think at present my job is being a scarecrow - and queer rumours are afloat, some day perhaps the crows will refuse to be scared and the job will end.“

However, it turned out differently: The speed of the dummy ships could not be improved and in consequence, no practical use for them could be found. From summer 1915 on, the ships of the squadron were diverted to other duties or sunk as blockships (among them HMS No. 6).

This is a photo of HMS No. 6 from the collection of the Imperial War Museum:

 (Source: Imperial War Museums)

Excursus 5: The Shore Gyroscope Station

The next interesting episode in the military history of Loch Ewe in WW1 was the establishment of a gyrocope testing and repair station.

In a torpedo, a gyroscope was connected directly to the steering and was used to compensate for undesirable influences such as drift in the drive in order to maintain the programmed course.

From November 1914 on, work began on building a shore gyroscope station at Loch Ewe (I have not been able to determine the exact position so far).

In a message to the Admiralty dated November 5th, Admiral Purefoy wrote that the material for a „gyro testing room“ had arrived. Two months later, on January 8th, 1915, this shore gyroscope repair station was approaching completion.
At this time, it was already planned to send HMS Aro, a torpedo sub-depot ship with facilities for „torpedo and gyro work“ as new depot ship to Loch Ewe, see above.
Given this future redundancy, the Admiralty asked Admiral Jellicoe „whether this shore station is required to be kept in full working order, if not it is proposed to keep reduced staff there“. Admiral Jellicoe agreed to this proposal the same day.
On January 22nd, 1915, the Admiralty informed Admiral Jellicoe and Rear Admiral Purefoy that the staff of the shore gyroscope station had to be reduced. As long as HMS Aro was not yet on duty at Loch Ewe, the torpedo sub-depot ship Sobo would inspect the station regularly.

As stated above, I couldn’t find any evidence as to whether and when HMS Aro entered service at Loch Ewe, nor what fate the shore gyro station took. Both of these will be subject of my further research.

In the beginning of 1915, on January 9th, there was another sighting of an unknown submarine in Loch Ewe, but soon after, a new threat emerged, this time from the air.

In a private letter dated January 26th, 1915, Captain W.B. Forbes, whom I mentioned above, wrote: “There is a yarn that airships or zeppelins were over this Harbour on Saturday” (author’s note: January 23rd, 1915). The next day, he specified this information: “… there were certainly '3 of 'em,' when I investigated evidence today to report to Admiral, I found this out but I can't say more.”

It can be doubted that German airships actually advanced as far as Loch Ewe. Captain Forbes' statements are probably caused by the general hysteria that arose following the first German airship attack in a completely different place 700km = 435mls south-east of Loch Ewe on January 19th/20th, 1915:

On January 19th, the Zeppelins L3,  L4 and L6 took off from Germany. The purpose of their mission was on one hand reconnaissance over the North See, on the other hand to bomb targets near the Humber estuary. However, strong winds from the north forced them to change their plans; instead of the Humber estuary they attacked the Norfolk area in the late evening, causing only little material damage but killing two people. On January 20th they arrived back in Germany.

I have no idea what evidence Captain Forbes claims to have found, but other Zeppelin missions around the end of January are not reported, and the 3 Zeppelins that took part in the Norfolk attack have definitely not reached Loch Ewe.

From January 30th, 1915, Loch Ewe served as coaling station for the 10th Cruiser Squadron following increased German submarine activities in the Irish Sea. Admiralty instructed the SNO at Stornoway to make every effort to protect Loch Ewe from attack. On the first view it seems to be remarkable that the SNO at Stornoway and not the SNO at Aultbea was instructed. The reason was a reorganization that had taken place end of 1914:

Given the isolated position of Loch Ewe and the assessment that it lacked of supply and repair facilities, it was decided that Stornoway would be a better base for Auxiliary Patrol Area I than Aultbea. As a result, Rear-Admiral Reginald G.O. Tupper was appointed Senior Naval Officer of Patrol Area I at Stornoway on January 7th, 1915.

This led to the situation that in the same Patrol Area, there was a Rear-Admiral at Stornoway and a Rear-Admiral at Aultbea. It was decided that until Loch Ewe was adequately protected and became a base for the Fleet, there was scarcely room for two flag officers in Area I. Rear Admiral Purefoy was therefore replaced by Commander Cecil Watson as SNO Aultbea, a position subordinate to the SNO Stornoway.

Excursus 6: The Senior Naval Officers at Aultbea in WW1

It was rather difficult to follow the sequence of Senior Naval Officers at Aultbea. Here is what I could find so far:







Richard Purefoy FitzGerald

Rear Admiral



The last letter from Rear Admiral Purefoy as SNO Aultbea that I found is dated February 13th, 1915

Watson, Cecil


Feb. 1915


Source: Naval Staff Monographs (Historical), Fleet Issue, Volume XIII (October 1925)

Nugent, Rowland




Source: Personnel records at the National Archives


Frederick Henry Peere Williams




The last letter from Captain Freeman as SNO Aultbea that I found is dated March 1st, 1917

Walker, Frederick M.


Jun 17

Feb 18

The first letter from Captain Walker as SNO Aultbea that I found is dated June 19th, 1917

Boys, William H.



Okt 18


Alston, Hubert G.



Apr 19


There’s a big question mark concerning Commander Watson. I could only find one source mentioning his appointment sometime in February 1915, and given the fact that Captain Nugent was appointed SNO on February 24th, 1915, Commander Watson cannot have held this position for long.

Following various submarine sightings between February 8th and 15th, 1915, and the fact that the planned system of booms and gates had not yet been finished at that time, Admiral Jellicoe reduced the number of colliers anchoring in Loch Ewe to only two. Later in 1915, more precisely on April 5th, Swarbacks Minn (a deep sea channel off the west coast of Shetland) was judged a better coaling base for the 10th Cruiser Squadron.

On March 18th, 1915, Admiralty decided that the fixed defences for the boom net (i.e. the four batteries) that had been proposed on Sept 1st, 1914, were to be postponed as the estimated costs of BP 10.800 could not be justified.

Nevertheless, the works to set up the boom net continued, and on October 6th, 1915, the boom defence at the entrance to Loch Ewe was completed. It consisted of Munro Anti-Submarine Nets extending from Gob-na-Lice Point on Ewe Island to the mainland near Sgeir Moitaig Rock off Rubh-a-Choin Point, and from the shore 100 yards north of Fisher Point, Inverasdale, to the west side of Ewe Island. The 175 yards wide gate was situated 720 yards from Fisher Point and marked by three Drifters, the easternmost Drifter being responsible for hauling the Gate open. Written regulations for passing the Gate were issued.

 (© Open Street Maps Mitwirkende)

Only 4 months later however, on February 6th, 1916, the SNO Aultbea informed the Admiralty about a severe damage of the boom defence, caused by rough weather throughout the whole January.

He wrote “A large number of the floats have been washed away and several sections of the net defence have sunk. New floats and nets are being obtained from Inverness and repairs are being carried out as quickly as possible.”

In the following months, Loch Ewe was increasingly used for coaling by the 10th Cruiser Squadron and other ships, and on June 19th, 1917, the SNO Aultbea requested that a new boom should be fitted as he regarded the existing one not being a sufficient protection.

He asked for a boom similar to the Cromarty Inner Boom as this would only require the same number of Drifters as the present one. This was approved by the Admiralty on July 30th, 1917.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to go into the technical details of boom nets and submarine defences at this point. This is a science in itself; should I ever have more detailed insights into this subject, I will post a separate report.

The decision by the Admiralty of July 30th, 1917, is the last information about Loch Ewe in WW1 that I have. As far as I could find out, the base was disbanded in 1919.

 Main sources for this article:

1) Books:

  • John Rushworth Jellicoe - The Grand Fleet 1914-1916: Its Creation, Development And Work
  • F.J. Dittmar, J.J. Cooledge – British Warships 1914-1919
  • Steve Chadwick – Loch Ewe During World War II
  • R.A. Burt – British Battleships 1889-1904
  • H.R. Gibson, Maurice Prendergast – The German Submarine War 1914-1918

2) Digitalized Material:

  • The National Archives, Kew: Secret packs of the Commander in Chief Grand Fleet, Volume XIV, pack 007, section D, Folios 131-164
  • The National Archives, Kew: Grand Fleet Bases: Scapa, Cromarty, Shetlands, Loch Ewe, Clyde
  • The National Archives, Kew: Aultbea. Removal of look-out station and sick quarters to new site, Loch Ewe
  • National Library of Scotland: Monthly / Quarterly Navy Lists, several volumes
  • Royal Australian Navy: Naval Staff Monographs (Historical), several volumes
  • Imperial War Museums: Private Papers of Captain W B Forbes AM RN
  • Deutsches U-Boot Museum Cuxhaven / Stiftung Traditionsarchiv Unterseeboote: Several war journals of German submarines

3) Websites: