Undersea finds that ring a bell with war historians

BELLS from ships lost during the Great War have seen daylight for the first time in nearly 90 years after Yorkshire sub aqua club members struck lucky while exploring wrecks this summer.

National diving experts say there has been a glut in recent finds aboard lost vessels around the country because the summer rain prevented diving earlier in the year and now enthusiasts are making up for last time.

Seven bells have been recovered off the Yorkshire Coast this summer by a number of sub aqua club members and other enthusiasts from the Filey and Scarborough areas – who are usually surprised to find more than one a year.

Many of the wrecks were torpedoed fishing vessels but a team from Scarborough Sub-Aqua Club recovered bells from two better known casualties of the First World War U-boat campaign – the SS London and SS John Miles, both sunk off Whitby.

The John Miles was sent to the bottom with the loss of 14 lives in February 1917 by feared submariner Bruno Mahn whose UB.21 crew sank 21 vessels off the North Yorkshire Coast, and sank or crippled another 15 along the East Coast.

The German skipper also landed two saboteurs near Whitby only months before the Armistice to attack an industrial and munitions factory. His vessel survived the war and was surrendered,but Mahn tricked his captors by scuttling her while on route to internment by the Royal Navy.

No one was totally sure that the wreck near Whitby was the John Miles until this summer's dive by Scarborough Sub-Aqua Club members Anne Polkey, her partner Rob Broadhead, Karen and Tony Herbert, Ian Hamp and Caroline Pindar.

Contrary to popular belief, U-boats did not always sneak up on convoys, send a merchantman to the bottom, and then scuttle away. In the early days of the Great War they would often surface near a lone vessel and warn the crew they were about to be sunk.

Not only was this an opportunity for the seamen to abandon ship, it also allowed the Germans to plunder the ship's bell as a trophy. Dr Polkey, a GP of Scholes Park Road, Scarborough, said: "The bell is what every diver wants because they identify the wreck and are also very attractive."

She spotted something wedged in the ocean floor. "I thought it looked like a bell and when I got there it was so I flashed Rob to come over.The bell was stuck fast in mud which had set like concrete".

The team continued to dive on the wreck over the next few days until they were exhausted. Dr Polkey, 40, and Mr Broadhead, 52, an engineering firm boss, refused to give up, however, and bought the bell to the surface on the sixth dive.

After ending speculation the wreck might have been that of the John Miles's sister ship the team had more luck while exploring the London, torpedoed in June 1918.

Mr Herbert went down their boat's anchor line and was waiting on the bottom for his wife when he saw the bell in the bows, picked it up and brought to the surface. Dr Polkey added: "If he had not been waiting for Karen he probably would not have seen it."

The bells were given pride of place at an end of season party at the club house on St Mary's Street, Scarborough, on Saturday. Usually the club only recovers one or two bells a year.

Alison Kentuck, deputy receiver of wreck for the Coastguard Agency, said the rise in underwater discoveries was a national trend partly because better diving equipment. Bad weather this summer had also led a late surge in reported finds.