I was privileged to join a Dive Expedition to the Falkland Islands, Lead by Don Shirley in January of 1996, the year I would eventually leave the Army. I had met Don on a previous Army Diving Expedition to Jamaica and we had got on very well, despite the difference in rank, I a lowly Lance Corporal, Don a Warrant Officer. Don was someone I would soon call friend rather than Sir, a down to earth and highly professional soldier, but also a keen adventurer with an infectious spirit and a healthy regard for those willing to take a step outside the ordinary! Don had planned the Expedition over the last year or so, with the ambition of diving under the ice of South Georgia, this would be thwarted by the desperate acts of an Army expedition the year before we arrived, where a canoe party forced back to shore by storms at sea, failed to re-supply the party that had tabbed (marched) the island and were isolated, without the rations carried in the sea canoes…..to the demise of some of the local penguin population. It was felt by the Islanders that our expedition should be denied diving South Georgia as a result, probably just a reprisal for the outrage caused by the roasting of a protected species, but it pissed us all off….there’s millions of the bloody things……. everywhere….. and Don had actually served through the Falklands war, ungrateful bloody Bennie’s!
Anyhow, I digress, when is a shipwreck not a shipwreck? Well, in this case when it is “Protector III” lying ashore in New Island’s Coffin Harbour. She sits just around the corner from the Two settlement houses occupied by the Islands Two inhabitants, the Islanders and renowned wildlife artists, Ian Strange and his immediate neighbor Tony Chater. Protector III was built in Port Greville, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1942 during the latter stages of WWII. She was of wooden construction, built at the Wagstaff and Hatfield Shipyard for the British Admiralty, with the original purpose of mine sweeping. The Germans had made significant use of magnetic mines, dropped by parachute into the seas surrounding the UK, wooden minesweepers had a distinct advantage in counter-mine operations, obviously, not being made of Steel, and undoubtedly saved many ships by successfully clearing magnetic and acoustic mines as a result. Protector III served until the end of the war, then finding employment in various roles before being bought to be used in the Falklands, as a sealer, and later as a fishing and general work-boat, an ignominious end to a heroic career. She was beached, (hence, although “wrecked” is not truly a “Ship-Wreck” in true diving terms, for quite obvious reasons,) in Coffin Harbour, New Island in 1969. Co-incidentally the Southern Craftsman Expedition was bunked on New Island for the second phase of our Diving adventure, following a week long stint on Weddell Island
The Sight of Protector III was unusual at the time, to say the least, here was a complete shipwreck, sat on the beach, as if she could be re-floated and, with a little ingenuity, resume her journey…. Nothing is ever, truly what it seems, at higher tides it was evident Protector III’s hull was not in any way sound as she did not float, rather she lay slightly to Starboard as if relaxing in the surf. It makes you wonder if there are many of her type remaining as examples around the world as, from a historical perspective, Protector III represents a valiant, and relatively unsung fleet. Such vessels crews, who’s “Navy Reserve” status meant many were regular trawler-men, disdainful of rank and Naval discipline, but were still willing to undertake some of the most dangerous work on the high seas, hunting and de-fusing that which could easily destroy far larger ships than theirs! At the time it wouldn’t have taken so much to get Protector III back afloat I’m sure, no matter though, now she is in quite different condition as photo’s taken more recently show
I cannot find Protector III’s previous MMS designation, it would be nice to add a little of her earlier history to this piece, she could have been a “Llewellyn” derivative having been made at Wagstaff & Hatfield, but there would need to be evidence of that and I have none but anecdotal to go on. It is clear that as Protector III there was modification carried out when she was re-roled as a “Sealer”, the Mine array reel was removed, and her transom replaced to fill the stern-gap the mine drag-lines were deployed through. On the picture of MMS 636 you can see the Bow carries the modification carried out to many of the wooden minesweepers, a device fitted to cope with “Acoustic” mines, a later development deployed to go off based on the “sound signature” of passing shipping. Basically this was a hammer affair used to create an artificial “signature” to set-off mines before more valuable ships were taken down in passing
What can be said about these small, and not truly “Navy” (in the “Royal” sense of the term) ships, is that they carried out incredibly hazardous work. I have dived HMT Elk some way off the Breakwater in the sound at Plymouth, a story for another post on here later, sunk whilst carrying out operations in the sound and hitting a mine in 1940. Many served, and many were lost, taking incredibly brave and not well recognised heroes to the depths in the service of their nation. The “T” in HMT is not a mistake, the minesweepers of the class were designated “Trawlers” or, to give their full title, His Majesty’s Trawler….. abbreviated to HMT
Here was a ship, “wrecked” but ashore, the worst thing possible for a wreck diver. It didn’t help that there were other wrecks around the Falklands that we were not permitted to dive, compounding the disappointment brought by the forbidding of our under-ice diving ambitions. The Admiralty and the Ministry of Defence had refused us permission to Dive the Falklands war wrecks of HMS Coventry and HMS Antelope, although at the time none of us but Don would have dived Coventry as she sits deep at 90m, I’d love the chance today though! I did get to dive a true Falkland island wreck earlier whilst on Weddell Island, and would dive another, later, whilst in Port Stanley, but you will need to visit other posts on here in the future to hear those tales……..
There are several co-incidences in respect to the Protector III, she gave me a perfect look at what HMT Elk would have been like when at sea, something I loved when I was diving the Elk years later. The second is the similarity to HMT Texas which I dived in Jamaica, all Three of these gritty and heroic little ships sit upright and proud, in Three different locations around the world, and fascinated me whilst underwater and ashore. But there is one more, although a little more tenuous, co-incidence here, Protector III sits in front of a museum now, when I was on New Island this was a desolate stone building full of whale-bone and the relics of those who pursued the leviathans of the deep in Southern Oceans. I did some research following my stay on New Island and found a little more about the site, having spoken to an American couple who were gradually restoring the building one holiday at a time, at their own expense I might add!
The coincidences continue as the hut was built by Charles Barnard, marooned on New Island June 11th 1813, June 11th of course being my Birthday. Charles Barnard was on New Island as a result of the wreck of the ship Isabella, out of Port Jackson, New South Wales (Sydney, Australia) en route to England when, being so badly handled by her Captain, George Higton, she ran aground off the Falklands on Eagle Island in February of 1813. Bear in mind 1812 was the American war of Independence….(a kind of “Pre-Brexit” divorce case where the USA (Largely British) dumped Britain….) leading to a tale of Two ships crews…….. the potential rescuers of those wrecked on the Isabella, from the American Sealer “Nanina”, and the remnant crew of the British ship Isabella, marooned on Eagle Island. Thereby hangs a tale best read in David Miller’s (Ex-Rupert in the Signals) excellent book “The Wreck of the Isabella” (ISBN 0-85052-456-3) which I read shortly after getting back from the Southern Craftsman Expedition. For those who can’t wait, or who will not look up such a story, it is one of treachery, where rescuers become the marooned after mutiny………It is far too good a read, and too well researched, to do more than whet the appetite here…….. I promise those reading it will not be disappointed!
So what has become of the Protector III today? I took a look on the internet and quite quickly learned that time has taken it’s toll, sadly the valiant survivor of WWII still sits in the lonely bay on New Island, and the weather and the years have not been kind. Protector III has become a shadow of her former self and it seems inevitable that she will eventually fall into the sands of time, as we all must. There is always a glimmer of hope, eventually the world woke up to the potential loss of the SS Great Britain, another long time resident of the Falkland Islands, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first Iron, Propeller driven, Ship in the world. Now I am not saying Protector III is of the same importance or of the same innovation, but who know’s perhaps she is the last of her line and somewhere, someone cares enough……..