The weather report for that day showed overnight rain periods expected to clear and give way to a fine day with only a thin layer of cloud. Still cool for the time of year, with winds were expected to be light. A heavier cloud was expected by evening with the possibility of rain periods. A fine day with haze in the Straits of Dover. Winds north-westerly and light.
In the channel, the weather had improved enough during the early morning of 25th July 1940 for the German Luftwaffe to make an attack on Convoy CW8, while it was working its way through the Dover Straits. Consisting of 21 vessels, Convoy CW8 was heading west through the Straits with cargos including coal and coke for the factories of Southern England. Off the Kent waters today, lay the Polgrange, Leo, Henry Moon, Corhaven and Portslade. It was a disaster for the convoy as they were also pounded by heavy guns from the French coastline as well. Nine merchant ships of Convoy CW8 out of twenty-one were sunk over the 25th and 26th of July. Six were lost during the air battle on the 25th and three more on the 26th by torpedo.
The afternoon of 25th July 1940 was a desperate one for the already exhausted fighter pilots of the RAF who were defending the South coast of England. A new tactic was used by the Luftwaffe. As Convoy CW8 made its way west through the English Channel, eight Spitfires of 64 Squadron Kenley were scrambled together with twelve Spitfires of 54 Squadron Hornchurch. Taking off from their newly captured airfields from Northern France, fifty Messerschmitt Bf 109s came in at sea level to be met by both Squadrons while forty Junkers 88 bombers and sixty Junkers 87 Stuka’s of I Gruppe, StG 1 (I/StG 1) and IV Gruppe, LG 1 (IV/LG 1) came out of the sky to dive-bomb the convoy. Hurricanes from 32 Squadron Biggin Hill and Hurricanes of 111 Squadron Croydon came in to assist the sea level dogfight with fifty Bf 109s. Spitfires from 54 Squadron Rochford also answered the call for assistance from the escorting naval vessels and engaged Bf 109s that had arrived to assist the Junkers 87s. The British pilots found themselves massively outnumbered, nevertheless put up a spirited fight against the teeming enemy. Like the previous day, 54 Squadron suffered badly, but with one Spitfire to every five Bf 109s downed, they were lucky not to lose more than three aircraft.
The air battle was said to be watched by scores of people from Abbott’s Cliff, Dover. Ultimately the convoy was badly attacked losing six merchant ships of SS Leo, SS Henry Moon, SS Corhaven, SS Polgrange, SS Portslade and SS Summity to bombs, with two escorting destroyers and four other merchant vessels damaged. During the following day, the remains of the convoy were attacked by German Kriegsmarine S-boats which claimed a further three victims of SS London Trader, SS Broadhurst and SS Lulonga from the S-19, S-20 and S-27 S-boats.
SS Leo [+1940]
The SS Leo was built in 1908 by the German Stettiner Oderwerk. She was 226 ft long, of 1,140 tons with a beam of 34 ft and draught of 14 ft. She had 128 hp triple expansion steam engines.
Leo was attacked at 4.00pm that day by four Junkers-87 German dive bombers, attacking her from the starboard quarter, dropping bombs and machine-gunning her.
She was placed astern of another collier called the Tamworth. The Merchant Navy Gunner on the Tamworth was John Gallagher. He described the end of Leo:
At the time of Leo’s loss, she was carrying 1,536 tons of coal from Seaham to Portsmouth and owned by the Ellerman’s Wilson Line. Though Leo was upside down when seen by the Tamworth, only six of her twenty-seven crew were lost.
At just two miles from Dover, today she lays in 32m on a steep sloping seabed on her side and only 3m proud of the sand which is rolling down her.
SS Henry Moon [+1940]
The SS Henry Moon was built by William Pickersgill of Sunderland for the Brighton Electricity Undertaking, a 1,091 ton collier carrying 1,450 tons of coal from Burntisland to the Firth of Forth for Shoreham on Thursday 25th July 1940. She got just about level with Folkestone on her way down Channel, when despite her attempts to weave away, a bomb from the belly of a Ju 87 hit her, killing one man out of her crew of 16 and sending her to the bottom in 25m. Now she stands upright with a big scour around her with the bow, bridge and stern around 7m proud. Amidships she seems to be covered with sand and mud. The identity of this ship was confirmed by the discovery of her forecastle bell.
SS Corhaven [+1940]
Built 1933, this collier of 991 tons was also in Convoy CW8, carrying 1,244 tons of coal from the Tyne for Portsmouth when she too was dive-bombed and sunk off Dover. All of her 15 crew were saved. Today the SS Corhaven lays on her starboard side with her bow to the north and across the tide at 32m and standing 5m proud. She is mainly intact with anchor chains and cranes showing at the bow with the iron propeller and rudder at her stern. The cargo holds are open and easily accessible, but divers should exercise caution as silt can be stirred up. The area does succumb to poor visibility due to the nearby spoil ground where the dredgers from Dover Harbour loads.
SS Polgrange [+1940]
A British collier of 804 tons, the SS Polgrange was carrying 990 tons of coal from Blyth to Portsmouth and Cowes. A direct hit killed two of her crew of 14. Today she lays with her cargo around her at 30m with a scour taking her depth down another metre. She has her bow to the west and this is her highest point at 9m.
SS Portslade [+1940]
SS Portslade was carrying a cargo of 1,450 tons of coal from Sunderland and heading for Shoreham. She was hit by bombs from Junkers 87s, the dive bombers which had created such havoc during the German invasion of France. Her crew of 17 were all saved. She how lays with some of her cargo spilling out of her broken hull. Depth is around 30mand she stands 6m proud with her bow to the north-east. There is a 1m scour around her.
SS Summity [+1940]
Awash at low water, this 554 ton motor vessel was coming down the Channel when the German Air Force attacked from their new bases in Occupied France. The SS Summity, which was carrying a cargo of cement, was hit in the cement-filled holds once and suffered further damage from three near-misses by Stuka dive bombers off Dover. Covered with cement dust and sinking, she was beached by her captain underneath Shakespeare Cliff at Dover. Her steel mast and some plating have occasionally been used as an exercise mark by Air Sea Rescue helicopters.
The two Summity signalmen were among six of the dead and twenty wounded suffered by the convoy’s crews. While Summity went ashore, the other four ships were brought into Dover, assisted by tugs. The consequences of the diver-bomber attack was far reaching, but the ordeal was not over. Under the cover of darkness that evening, German S-boats ventured again and attacked. The three enemy torpedo boats of the Kriegsmarine, S-19, S20 and S-27 made every torpedo count, sinking three more colliers on the 26th July. Only ten ships of the initial twenty-one reached the waters off Portland with trawler escort.
26th July 1940 Losses
SS London Trader [+1940]
The cargo ship was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel south of Worthing, Sussex by S-19 Kriegsmarine.
SS Broadhurst [+1940]
The cargo ship was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel off Shoreham, Sussex by S-20 Kriegsmarine with the loss of four crew.
Cover photo is an image of an oil painting titled “A Day for Heroes” by Ivan Berryman, depicting the Stuka attack on Convoy CW8. Although the original oil painting has been sold, prints and artist proofs are available for sale. Image Copyright © Cranston Fine Arts and Ivan Berryman.