During World War Two, the Port of Sunderland suffered a great deal of unwelcome enemy attention both at sea and in the air.
Merchant shipping was particularly vulnerable to German U-boats and mines, as was demonstrated by the tragic loss of the Norwegian motor ship Balzac in 1940.
The sinking of the 962 gross tons Balzac on July 26, 1940, with the loss of eight of her 19 crew plus a Sunderland harbour pilot was attributable to a magnetic mine.
One such mine had been dropped in the Examination Anchorage by a German aircraft at 1015 pm on May 1, 1940, and it is possible that this device sealed the fate of the Oslo-registered ship.
Despite unrelenting sweeping, the mine had not been located as late as June 1. A temporary examination anchorage had consequently been established to the south of the harbour entrance, its purpose being to allow Admiralty Examination Service personnel board inbound merchant and fishing vessels to check documentation and undertake searches for illicit goods.
Having arrived at Sunderland from the Downs on Jul 24, Balzac sailed from Sunderland Harbour with a cargo of coal for Cowes, Isle of Wight, intending to join a southbound convoy. On board were 17 Norwegian crewmen, two British gunners from the 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles and 33-year-old Sunderland Pilotage Authority pilot George Hall of Egerton Street, Monkwearmouth.
About 9pm, after dropping anchor in the Examination Anchorage north of Hendon Rock, a huge explosion rocked the 215-foot-long ship, causing her to break in two.
Eight survivors, including the two gunners, were rescued by the pilot boat but the others, including Captain Knut Johansen and pilot Hall, were lost.
It was established that Balzac’s degaussing equipment had been switched off, causing a magnetic mine to detonate. The principle of degaussing involves running an electric current through a wire coil around a ship, thus neutralising the vessel’s magnetic field and rendering magnetic mines harmless.
Although it was never satisfactorily explained why Balzac’s equipment had been deactivated, it is believed that the mine exploded the moment the ship’s engines were stopped.
In fact, the location of the wreck was forgotten and it was not until November 10, 1948 that it was rediscovered 1,920 yards East South East of Roker Lighthouse by former minesweeper HMS Sharpshooter, which had been converted post-war into a survey vessel.
In August, 1949, after the buoy marking the wreck had mysteriously disappeared, River Wear Commissioners craft and divers began another search.
In later years, it seems that other divers have “salvaged” her bronze propeller and brass portholes.
Balzac was built at Odense, Denmark in 1921 for A/S Ganger Rolf and was managed by Fred Olsen and Company of Oslo.