Warship Wednesday, April 20, 2022: A Member of the Easter Egg Fleet

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, April 20, 2022: A Member of the Easter Egg Fleet

Historic New England Nathaniel L. Stebbins photographic collection negative 13620

Here we see the fine Glasgow designed-and-built steam yacht Christabel steaming offshore on 8 August 1902. While this elegant little schooner doesn’t look very formidable, she would prove herself in the Great War soon enough.

Built for Arthur Challis Kennard, Ironmaster and Justice of the Peace of the Falkirk Iron Works, Falkirk, Christabel was a steel-hulled schooner-rigged steamer some 150 feet overall and 248 grt. Designed by the famed GL Watson firm and built by D & W Henderson & Co. of Meadowside Yard as Yard No. 370, she was completed in October 1893, with her first port of register being Glasgow. Mr. Kennard was a well-known yachtsman, and his name and vessels can be found in numerous yachting and rowing calendars of the day.

From Llyod’s Register of Yachts 1901, see entry #206, with the 248 grt Christabel listed:

Unfortunately, Mr. Kennard would pass in 1903, aged 72, and sold his beautiful Christabel sometime prior, hence appearing in New England waters in the above circa 1902 image.

Christabel 8 September 1906, now with a white scheme, something else that would indicate new owners. Stebbins negative 17648

By 1909, she was listed as being owned by Mr. Walton Ferguson, Sr. of New York City. Ferguson was well known as President of St. John Wood-Working Company as well as Stamford Electric, Vice President of Stamford Trust Company, and a director of Union Carbide, in addition to a longtime Commodore of the Stamford Yacht Club.

From Lloyd’s Register of American Yachts, 1914, listing her as #575 under Mr. Ferguson still as 248 grt with an overall length of 164 feet and waterline length of 140:

By 1916, Christabel was one of at least two large yachts in the fleet of Irving Ter Bush, one of the wealthiest men on the planet and founder of Bush Terminal in Brooklyn, Bush Tower in Manhattan, and Bush House in London.

When the U.S. entered the war with Germany, Mr. Bush sold Christabel to the Navy Department in April 1917– some 105 years ago this month– and after a very short conversion period she was commissioned on 31 May 1917 at the New York Navy Yard, becoming USS Christabel (SP-162). Her skipper was a regular officer, LT Herbert Berhard Riebe (USNA 1906), whose prior experience was in cruisers and destroyers.

Her conversion saw her pick up a speckled gray paint scheme, two 3-inch deck guns, a pair of M1895 potato digger-style machine guns, and some depth charges. More on the depth charges in a minute.

She was in good company, as no less than 40 large steam and auxiliary yachts also designed by G. L. Watson were armed for wartime work– although most were by the Royal Navy.

Christabel is listed on the bottom left, along with her near sisters and cousins

Off to war!

Assigned to Squadron Three, Patrol Force, Atlantic Fleet even before she was commissioned, Christabel was one of eight hastily armed East Coast yachts– including USS Corsair (S. P. 159), Aphrodite (S. P. 135), Harvard (S. P. 209), Sultana (S. P. 134), Kanawha II (S. P. 130), Vedette (S. P. 163), and Noma (S. P. 131)-– being fitted out to go to France for the purpose of coastal convoy and anti-submarine work. Of these eight, Christabel had the dubious distinction of being both the oldest and slowest.

Shoving off to cross the Atlantic on 9 June, Christabel and five other patrol yachts arrived in Brest (via the Azores) appropriately on July 4th, 1917. With CPT (later RADM) William B. Fletcher, U.S.N., as squadron commander, the force made a splash due to their hastily applied camouflaged paint schemes, applied while underway in some cases.

Via “On the Coast of France,” by Joseph Husband, Ensign, USNRF:

Due to the unusually fantastic scheme of camouflage which disguised the ships of the Second Squadron, these yachts were commonly known as the ”Easter Egg Fleet,” every conceivable color having been incorporated in a riotous speckled pattern on their sides.

USS Christabel (SP-162) In port, circa 1918-1919. Taken by Carl A. Stahl, Photographer, USN. NH 300

Although often nursing cranky machinery– Christabel had almost 30 years on her engine and broke down often– she was part of no less than 30 coastal convoys, being particularly useful in the role of bringing up the rear of convoys and policing stragglers and survivors of lost vessels.

First, she saves

Speaking of saving lives, on the night of 17 April 1918, the U.S.-flagged cargo ship SS Florence H. (3,820grt) suddenly erupted in a brilliant fireball while at anchor in Quiberon Bay as her cargo of 2,200 tons of smokeless powder lit off. Several vessels in the harbor rushed to her aid, including Christabel. Although 45 of her complement and Naval Armed Guard perished, 78 men were rescued, although about half of those were extensively burned and injured. For the rescue, one of Christabel’s CPOs earned a DSC.

Chief Pharmacist Mate Louis Zeller, United States Navy. Member of the crew of the USS Christabel while on patrol duty off Brest, France, during World War I, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Admiral Wilson. Zeller dove into the water filled with burning exploding powder boxes from the Florence H., to rescue severely burned seamen, managing to accomplish this within seconds of a severe explosion. NH 63045

Then she attacks

Just a month after saving men from the Florence H., Christabel had a close brush with one of Kaiser Willy’s U-boats and at the time was credited with damaging it enough to put it out of the war.

Via “Account of the Operations of the American Navy in France During the War with Germany,” by VADM Henry Braid Wilson, United States Navy Commander, United States Naval Forces in France: 

On the afternoon of 21 May 1918, the CHRISTABEL, the smallest of the converted yachts operating in French waters, was escorting a slow ship which had dropped behind the north-bound convoy from La Pallice to Quiberon Bay.

This vessel, the British steamer DANSE, was about eight miles behind the convoy, making about seven and a half knots, with the CHRISTABEL on her port bow. The sea was smooth, weather clear with no wind.

When about two miles outside of Ile de Yeu a well-defined oil slick was sighted on the port bow. The CHRISTABEL cruised around it but saw nothing definite.

At 5 :20 p. m. The Officer-of-the-Deck and the lookout suddenly sighted a wake, about six hundred yards distant on the port quarter, the CHRISTABEL at this time being about 300 yards on the port bow of the DANSE.

The CHRISTABEL headed for it, making all possible speed—about ten and a half knots—whereupon the wake disappeared, and a number of oil slicks were seen.

The Commanding Officer followed this oil as well as he could and at 5:24 p. m., believing that his ship was nearly ahead of the submarine, dropped a depth charge, but no results were obtained although the charge exploded.

At 7:00 p. m. the convoy changed course following the contour of the land and was making about nine knots. The CHRISTABEL was astern, making about eleven knots to catch up.

At 8:52 p. m. the CHRISTABEL sighted a periscope about two hundred yards off the starboard beam. She turned and headed for it, whereupon the periscope disappeared.

At 8:55 p. m. a depth charge was dropped which functioned in ten seconds, followed by a second one a few moments afterwards.

Nothing followed the explosion of the first charge, but following the explosion of the second there was a third very violent explosion which threw up between the stern of the CHRISTABEL and the water column raised by the second charge, an enormous amount of water and debris.

The CHRISTABEL then turned and cruised in the vicinity and noticed a quantity of heavy black oil and splintered pieces of wood, with very large oil bubbles rising to the surface.

Nothing further was heard of this submarine, but, on May 24, 1918, an enemy submarine, the U. C. 56, arrived at Santander, Spain, in a very seriously damaged condition, and from such information as was received, it was believed that this was the vessel attacked by the CHRISTABEL.

German Submarine UC-56 (KptLt/in Wilhelm Kiesewetter). Caption: At Christabel, Spain where she interned herself, 24 May 1918, after injuries received in an encounter with a U.S. Patrol Yacht. The explosion of one of the Yacht’s depth charges was followed by a second detonation after which splinter wood and much heavy oil came to the surface. The UC-56 is primarily a mine-laying submarine, her elaborate camouflage is distinct in the photograph. NH 111101.

Christabel’s skipper, LT Riebe, earned the Navy Cross for the attack and was made an Honorary Commander in the OBE through the offices of the Admiralty. He retired from the Navy in 1938 as a Captain with the Bureau of Navigation, died in 1946, and is buried at Arlington.

Another of Christabel’s officers, Ensign Daniel Augustus Joseph Sullivan, USNRF, came away from the action earning one of just 21 Medals of Honor presented to U.S. Navy personnel in the Great War.

Medal of Honor citation of Ensign Daniel A.J. Sullivan (as printed in the official publication “Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, The Navy”, page 125):

For extraordinary heroism as an officer of the U.S.S. Christabel in conflict with an enemy submarine on 21 May 1918. As a result of the explosion of a depth bomb dropped near the submarine, the Christabel was so badly shaken that a number of depth charges which had been set for firing were thrown about the deck and there was imminent danger that they would explode. Ensign Sullivan immediately fell on the depth charges and succeeded in securing them, thus saving the ship from disaster, which would inevitably have caused great loss of life.

Portrait photograph, taken circa 1920. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism while serving in USS Christabel (SP-162) during action with a German submarine on 21 May 1918. He was a Naval Reserve Force Ensign at that time. Note the overseas service chevrons on his uniform sleeve. Sullivan would go on to serve in destroyers, and then in the U.S. Navy headquarters in London at the end of the war and into 1919, leaving the USNRF as an LCDR. He died on 27 January 1941 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. NH 44173

In September, VADM Wilson signaled Christabel she was entitled to carry a white star on her stack, denoting an enemy submarine kill. Only two other American ships in France, USS Fanning (Destroyer No. 37) and the yacht Lydonia (S. P. 700) would join the same club.

USS Christabel (SP-162) View of the ship’s smokestack, circa 1919. The star painted on it represents the German submarine she was then credited with having sunk during World War I. Note steam whistle on the forward side of the stack. NH 55162

Epilogue

Completing her war service, the little Christabel left Brest in early December 1918 and headed home. She would celebrate Christmas in Bermuda and arrive in New London, Connecticut on New Year’s Eve.

Placed in reserve at the Marine Basin in Brooklyn on 17 May 1919, she was disposed of the next month, and sold to the Savannah Bar Pilots Association for $22,510.

According to The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2 (June 1934), pp. 145-175, she was renamed for the first time in her life to Savannah and used as a pilot boat well into the 1930s. 

Christabel/Savannah‘s final fate is unknown, but she was apparently disposed of by the pilots before World War II.

Speaking of WWII, post-war research discounted Christabel’s role in damaging SM UC-56, but the minelaying U-boat still missed the rest of the conflict. Surrendered post-Armistice Day, she was turned over to the French and scuttled.

U-boats U-108 and UC-56, in Brest docks in 1918, turned over to the French under armistice terms, UC-56 in the foreground. NARA 45511774

The subject of much controversy, UC-56’s only success of the war was the marked and unarmed HMs Hospital Ship Glenart Castle, which sunk on 26 February 1918 with the loss of 162 including eight female nurses and 99 patients. The submarine reportedly attempted to cover up the action actions by shooting survivors in the water.

The British arrested her commander, KptLt/in Wilhelm Kiesewetter, as he was returning to Germany from Spain and tossed him in the Tower of London as a war criminal before eventually releasing him without trial. Kiesewetter, at age 61, was recalled in 1939 and is cited as the “oldest Kriegsmarine officer to command an operational U–boat,” having been the skipper of UC–1 from November 1940 to May 1941. “This boat was the ex-Norwegian submarine B-5, captured in 1940 and commissioned into the Kriegsmarine on 20 November 1940.”

Specs:

Tonnage: 248 GRT, 103 NRT
Length: 164 ft overall (per DANFS)
Beam: 22 ft
Draft: 9 ft 8 in (12.5 ft depth of hold) (listed as 11 ft. 3 in the draft in 1914 Lloyds
Installed power: 1-screw. T3Cyl. (13, 20 & 33 – 24in) 160lb. 53NHP triple expansion engine
Auxiliary sail rig: two-masted schooner
Speed: 12 knots
Complement (1917) 55 officers and enlisted men
Armament:
2 x 1 3″/23 caliber deck guns
2 x M1895 Marlin/Colt .30-06 machine guns
Depth charges


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