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Three-dimensional Visualisation of HMS Falmouth

Bringing a First World War shipwreck back to life.

HMS Falmouth was a Town Class light cruiser sunk by U-boats in August 1916. To commemorate its centenary, Fjordr Ltd. worked with Historic England to create a new digital model of the wreck.

HMS Falmouth is a relatively well-known wreck site just off the coast of East Yorkshire, near Bridlington. Even though the basic details of its history are quite well known, the overall significance of the ship has been overlooked. Fjordr proposed a project to Historic England to examine the story of HMS Falmouth and to raise awareness amongst the wider public who visit or live at the coast but are not aware of their heritage just offshore.

The Town Class light cruisers – of which the wreck of HMS Falmouth represents the only known remains – were very active in many of the campaigns and engagements of the First World War. HMS Falmouth itself fought in the Battle of Heligoland Bight in August 1914 and was in the thick of the action at the Battle of Jutland in May-June 1916 as the flagship of the Third Light Cruiser Squadron. Shortly after engaging a Zeppelin, HMS Falmouth ran into a U-boat trap in another pivotal action on 19 August 1916.

Bathymetric survey image of the wreck of HMS Falmouth.
High-resolution bathymetric survey of the wreck of HMS Falmouth by MMT. © Crown copyright.

Gathering evidence of the shipwreck

Creating a 3D visualisation was not part of the original project. It arose opportunistically and with only a short timeframe available before the results of the project were due to be launched to coincide with the centenary of the loss of HMS Falmouth.

By good fortune, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) was planning a high-resolution survey as part of their Civil Hydrography Programme to improve navigational safety off the Yorkshire coast. The MCA agreed to add a survey of HMS Falmouth to their programme. The survey was carried out by the MCA’s survey contractor MMT and made available in May 2016.  

Underwater photograph showing one of a ship's boiler.
Underwater photograph showing one of ten V-shaped boilers that provided steam for HMS Falmouth’s turbines. © Mike Radley

The survey is excellent and has captured many details of the wreck. Although the wreck has suffered a great deal of degradation, features can be identified and related to original drawings and to photographs of the wreck on the seabed. Obtaining such a detailed survey is itself a major contribution to better understanding the survival and significance of the wreck and will provide a focus for further work.

A second piece of good fortune concerned the builder’s model of HMS Falmouth. Fjordr became aware of a model of HMS Falmouth in the collections of the Imperial War Museums. The model was a large-scale builder’s model which is presumed to have been made by Beardmores (Falmouth’s builder) in 1910-11. The model became part of the Imperial War Museums’ collection after the First World War.

A scale model of HMS Falmouth.
The model of HMS Falmouth in the IWM collection at Chatham Historic Dockyard. © AJ Firth/ Fjordr

Creating the three-dimensional visualisation

With the results of the wreck survey, and knowing about the model, the idea came about to try and combine both into a single 3D visualisation that juxtaposed the wreck with the original ship and could be made available to the public. Historic England’s own Geospatial Imaging team came on-board to acquire 3D data from the physical model and to develop the visualisation.

The IWM kindly provided access to the model at their store at Chatham Historic Dockyard. The Historic England Geospatial Imaging team visited Chatham Historic Dockyard on two days in mid-June 2016. The model was recorded using a Leica ScanStation P40 terrestrial laser scanner and by multi-image photogrammetry using a Sony ILCE-7RM2 camera.

The aim of the laser scanning was to provide control for the multi-image photogrammetry. The model was scanned from six positions with an average point spacing of 3mm. The scanner did not cope very well with the rigging but there were plenty of points on the hull that could be used for control.

The final model was generated from 891 overlapping photographs. The photographs were taken from as many different angles as possible to achieve complete coverage of the ship. Each image is 40Mp resulting in a 120Mb TIF file so there was 104GB worth of imagery.

The photography was processed using the multi-image photogrammetry software RealityCapture, which also allows the integration of laser scan data. Even using a high-end workstation with 128Gb RAM and specialist graphics cards, the processing and editing took several days.

Three-dimensional visualisation of HMS Falmouth.
Three-Dimensional visualisation of HMS Falmouth juxtaposing wreck and builder’s model. © crown copyright

Although the model was much less "noisy" than the laser scan data, it still required a lot of cleaning. Nonetheless, the still images from the visualisation were ready in time to include in the design of the fold-out leaflet that was distributed to museums and Tourist Information Centres.

A simplified model was made available publicly using the web application Sketchfab, where the visualisation was accompanied by text with links to further information. Annotations were added to highlight features of the ship and the wreck, and to tell the story of the seven torpedoes that sank HMS Falmouth.

The visualisation on Sketchfab was made public to coincide with a media release – ‘Jutland Wreck Brought to Life’ – in time for the centenary of the attack on HMS Falmouth on 19 August 2016. A link to the Sketchfab visualisation was also included in Historic England’s own web page on HMS Falmouth.

Images from the visualisation featured in the extensive press coverage of HMS Falmouth’s centenary, both in print and online. The online versions of many newspapers embedded the Sketchfab visualisation within their pages, adding to impact and connectivity. Since being published, the visualisation on Sketchfab has received over 20,000 views

Reviewing the project

Creating a 3D visualisation from such a detailed physical model was very demanding, especially within the short timescale available from data acquisition to printed output. Although it has limitations, the visualisation contributed very significantly to the overall objective of raising awareness of HMS Falmouth, especially through the media.

The visualisation will continue to serve as an intriguing conduit for people to find their way to more detailed information about HMS Falmouth. Hopefully, the visualisation and supporting material will also generate further interest locally, creating social and economic benefits through tourism and recreation, for example.

A contemporary black and white photograph of a group of Naval officers onboard HMS Falmouth.
Officers taking a break aboard HMS Falmouth, including Sub-lieutenant Pears (seated on stowage bin, at left). © John MacDonald

The visualisation still holds great potential for further development. Even the juxtaposition of the wreck survey and the builder’s model suggests that the remains of HMS Falmouth are more complete and coherent than its history of clearance and salvage might suggest. The visualisation has also helped in identifying the original position of historical photographs taken aboard Falmouth, which it might be possible to include in the visualisation in future. A further aspiration is to incorporate other sources of information, such as original construction drawings of the ship. This project points the way towards far greater use of 3D visualisation to ‘bring to life’ underwater heritage by representing and reconnecting other seabed surveys, ship models, drawings, photographs, documents and diaries.

Gunnery Lieutenant Arnold Pears wrote poignantly of HMS Falmouth’s sinking as follows:

I have no heart to write … the loss of that ship, the symbol to me of my home, my work, my play, my life, my companion in danger, hits me too hard …

This three-dimensional juxtaposition of wreck and ship reminds us to see shipwrecks not as hidden features of the seabed, but as the important historic places in which the First World War at sea was fought.

Contemporary postcard of HMS Falmouth.
Contemporary postcard of HMS Falmouth. © Image courtesy of AJ Firth/ Fjord

About the authors

Antony Firth

Dr. Antony Firth, MCIfA

Director of Fjordr Limited, a marine and historic environment consultancy based in Tisbury, Wiltshire.

Antony started his career in marine archaeology as a volunteer diver in 1986. He subsequently combined fieldwork and research on historic wreck sites and submerged landscapes before working for Wessex Archaeology, where he was Head of Coastal and Marine until 2011. Antony established Fjordr Ltd. in 2012, specialising in strategic research and public engagement projects.

Jon Bedford

Jon Bedford, MCIFA

Senior Geospatial Imaging Analyst with Historic England

Jon has worked for Historic England and its predecessors since 2003, initially as a historic buildings surveyor. He now works in the Geospatial Imaging Team.

David Andrews

David Andrews, AssocRICS

Geospatial Imaging Analyst with Historic England

David has worked for Historic England and its predecessors sionce 1989, initially as a Photgrammetrist. He now works in the Geospatial Imaging team and as well as carrying out surveys mananages a framework agreement for their procurement.

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