The Loss of the Troopship Tuscania
The island of Islay is no stranger to shipwrecks for there are at least 250 known sunken vessels around her turbulent shores. On the southernmost tip of the island stands a monument, similar in appearance to a lighthouse, which was erected by the American Government in 1919 as a memorial to those who died on a bitterly cold February evening in 1918 when the Anchor liner Tuscania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in the Irish Sea some seven miles south-west of Islay. On board were 2,235 soldiers consisting of companies 'D', 'E' and 'F' of the 6th Battalion, 20th VS Engineers, members of the 32nd Division, the 100th and 103rd Aero Squadrons and a British crew.
The Tuscania was an Anchor Liner of 14.348 tons built by Stephens at Linthouse
The Tuscania was part of trans-Atlantic convoy HX20 which consisted of some fourteen vessels including the White Star liners Baltic and Ceramic. She was a relatively new ship of 14,348grt, with an overall length of 576 feet and a beam of 65.9. Like her sister, Transylvania, she had been intended for the joint Mediterranean-New York service operated by the Cunard Line. With a top speed of 16 knots she was hardly an ocean greyhound but she was a good, sturdy, reliable vessel- a workhorse of the Atlantic rather than a 'headliner'.
She had commenced her maiden voyage on 7th February, 1915 after fitting out at Alexander Stephen's yard on the Clyde, leaving Liverpool for New York. With a capacity for 270 first, 250 second and 1,900 third class passengers, she sailed almost empty. The war had severely curtailed trans-Atlantic passenger traffic and the demands for men to serve in France, Gallipoli and other theatres of war ensured that she sailed without her full complement of crew - some 350. In September, 1915 the Tuscania had taken on board 409 passengers from the Greek emigrant ship Athenai adrift and on fire in the Atlantic, while the following year had seen her converted for trooping duties bringing Canadian soldiers from Halifax to Liverpool or Glasgow. The year 1917 brought the first contingent of American soldiers to British shores and in this the Tuscania played a major role embarking troops from New York via Halifax to this country.
Along with other vessels in the convoy, she slipped her moorings at 1.30 pm on a chill Sunday, 27th January, 1918 bound for Liverpool. The British cruiser HMS Cochrane led the convoy which was deployed in five columns. The Baltic followed by the Tuscania with the USS Kanawha bringing up the rear formed column 'XA'. The Kanawha was an ancient collier whose principal function was to provide rearguard protection against submarine attacks on the convoy, but she acted as a supply ship for the US Navy and had sailor recruits on board bound for Scapa Flow. 'W A' column was positioned on Tuscania's port side and totalled a mere two vessels one of which, the Scotian, was carrying Canadian troops. Column 'YA' off Tuscania's starboard beam comprised the Ceramic, Westmorland and an unidentified cattle boat, while 'ZA', still further to starboard, consisted of three merchant ships with an outer column of three more. Later, when the convoy was approaching the Irish coast, a destroyer escort would form a protective ring around the fourteen ships comprising eight warships in all.
Each merchantman lay six cables apart with three between each column. The larger and more important vessels were placed in the centre lanes; some of these were equipped with M- V sets. Basically these resembled a series of microphones set at different points along the ships hulls to pick up the underwater sounds of submersibles - an early form of hydrophone which had an effective range of around two miles.
The Tuscania's interiors had undergone a radical refit in preparation for this crossing. She had a number of compartments below for transporting livestock; these were now used as accommodation for the soldiers. The rest of the consisted of 30 mules, supply wagons, boxes of bacon aircraft spares.
Conditions for the troops were, as usual, deplorable, food frequently comprising tiny portions of steam-cooked unsalted potatoes, fish, cheese or 'slum' - a weird concoction with the appearance of bay leaves soaked in hot water and served in tin mugs. The risk of disease was always present because of overcrowding. Light calisthenics and the occasional lifeboat drill constituted the only shipboard exercise. Following her departure from Halifax, life aboard the Tuscania settled down into a pattern of dull, repetitive routine.
Convoying was a relatively new phenomenon in 1918 and there had been much opposition to its introduction, not least from merchant seamen themselves who argued that a group of vessels could not be handled together without the inevitable collision, and that the speed of the convoy was dictated by the speed of the slowest ship. Herein lay the greatest risk. HX 20's progress appeared to support this view. C.W.Nice, company adjutant aboard the Kanawha, later reported that the Tuscania had much difficulty in maintaining her position within the convoy. Progress was slow, HX 20's mean speed being around twelve knots. A series of minor engine faults plagued Tuscania's master, Peter Alexander McLean, forcing him to reduce speed for most of the crossing.
Ten days out of Halifax, at around 3pm, land was finally sighted and identified as the island of Islay with Rathlin island off the Irish coast some miles to the south off Tuscania's starboard bow. The previous night the British destroyers had joined the convoy from Lough Swilly and had taken up their stations - the Beagle, Savage and Grasshopper starboard; Badger, Pigeon and Mosquito to port with Harpy and Minos astern of the Cochrane leading the convoy. Contact had been made with HX 20 at 9.30pm on the 4th February but deteriorating weather conditions made delivery of the convoy's sailing instructions impossible. Occasional rain squalls and a fresh south-westerly wind had obtained since the early morning of that day, but had steadily increased to force ten.
Once the transfer had been made, both convoy and escort proceeded by the ordered course at a steady ten knots, increasing to twelve as the wind and sea died down. By the 5th visibility had improved to a range of eight to ten miles. The high peaks of Islay and Jura were sighted just after 3pm and a new course was shaped at 4.45pm to pass through the North Channel. Zig-zagging ceased at this time and the convoy proceeded towards Liverpool.
On the 29th January the UB-77 left Borkum in Germany with her full complement of seven officers and twenty-five men on yet another tour of duty standing to the north. She was a sleek looking vessel having a distinctively raked shark's head bow and a 10.5cm deck gun as well as a saw-backed net cutter. A product of A. G. Vulcan of Hamburg, this design of submarine was so successful that it was chosen some twenty years later as the basis for the Type VII U-boat of World War II. Built in 1917, she boasted five torpedo tubes - four bow and one stern. From the outset of her career until the Armistice, the UB-77 was commanded by Kapitan-Leutnant Wilhelm Meyer.
The Tuscania funeral service on the Oa
Having sneaked past the British blockade vessels maintaining a permanent watch on all German naval activities, Meyer charted a course taking U B-77 round the north of Scotland through the Pentland Firth, an area thick with patrolling trawlers and destroyers. They encountered the UB-86, also outward bound, and travelled in tandem throughout the 31st, most of the trip being undertaken on the surface, Meyer only giving the order to dive when enemy ships were sighted. On the 1st February they passed Fair Isle and the following day the Flannan Isles. St Kilda was sighted on the 3rd but with the course now set for the Northern Irish coast, Meyer pressed southward arriving off the North Channel, where UB-97 was operating, on the 5th. Here he was obliged to dive having picked up the ponderous throb of a steamer's screw.
This proved to be a vessel of some 2,000 tons but Meyer failed to reach a position ahead of her for a bow shot, besides the submarine constantly broke surface owing to the swell, and with destroyers still in the vicinity he decided to abandon the attack. At around 11.30am UB-77 surfaced to recharge her batteries but four hours later she was forced to dive again to avoid patrolling craft. She rendezvoused with the UB-97 an hour later and after promises to celebrate their tour of duty together upon its completion, the two U-boats parted and Meyer's boat dived once more. At 5.50pm he gave the order to raise the periscope. A score of ships filled his vision.
'Well ahead there was a large steamer with two funnels painted white. Ahead of her again was a small steamer presumably acting as a 'barrage breaker' (Sperrbreccher); astern of her, a four funnelled cruiser resembling the 'Drake' Class, then six to eight steamers in line ahead'. (Meyer). This misinterpretation of the convoy's formation was probably due to periscope lens distortion. Nevertheless, Meyer ordered the utmost speed in order to reach a position ahead of the convoy.
The UB-77's torpedoes, each weighing 2,000lbs, lay in readiness waiting to be fired from her bow tubes. Meyer glanced once more through the periscope and only succeeded in homing in on the larger vessels in the convoy by using maximum magnification. The 'Tuscania' passed across the periscope field very indistinctly like a light shadow and it was not until her forward funnel crossed his field of vision that Meyer at last made her out mistaking her for the White Star's Baltic. Two torpedoes of the G-7 type were fired one after the other and aimed just abaft the second funnel.
The attack was totally unexpected, for despite the M- V set carried by the 'Tuscania', it had not registered the submarine's approach. Without warning, the ship shuddered under a dull thud accompanied by the sound of breaking glass and all the lights went out. The first torpedo struck the Tuscania between the engine room and the stoke hole on the starboard side. These compartments were filled with water and escaping steam almost at once. The force of the explosion threw a spout of water-filled debris high into the air, reaching as far as the lifeboats hanging in their davits. Several were damaged so badly as to render them totally unfit for use.
List to Starboard
Within minutes the Tuscania had taken on an 8-10 degree list to starboard. Meyer had succeeded in manoeuvring UB-77 to a position roughly off HMS Beagle's port quarter and some 1,200 metres distant from his target. Only one detonation was heard by the U-boat's crew and recorded aboard the stricken vessel, the second torpedo having missed the target. Immediately thereafter, Meyer set a course away from 'Tuscania's' starboard beam over a distance of a few nautical miles surfacing some twenty minutes later. The sight which greeted her officers was that of a large liner heeling over to starboard and settling aft. Then a message was passed to Meyer from his radio operator who had managed to intercept the ship's distress signals and thus identified her as 'Tuscania'. Her position was given as Lat 55° 22' North, Long 6° 13' West, approximately seven miles south-west of Islay.
The 'Tuscania's' steam whistle shrieked incessantly as distress rockets were fired, three of which were red indicating the presence of submarines in the vicinity. No panic was evident among the soldiery as each man made his way to his lifeboat station. They stood there in virtual silence counting off names as they waited to leave the stricken vessel. With the coming of dusk and a slight wind blowing, visibility was reduced to around a couple of miles. HX 20's escorts were quick to take action. Grasshopper, Mosquito and Pigeon were ordered to proceed to the assistance of the 'Tuscania'. 'Mosquito's' captain, J. B. Fellowes, sighted some men clinging to an upturned boat and, despite orders to the contrary from destroyer leader Harpy, stopped to pick them up. At this point a junior officer standing on the after deck reported that a torpedo had passed close under Mosquito's stern. Fellowes gave the order to proceed again at high speed and dropped depth charges in the position where he roughly believed the U-boat to be. Thereafter he returned to the 'Tuscania' and secured 'Mosquito' on her port side taking men off the liner's well deck on to the destroyer.
Launching the port side lifeboats was made almost impossible by 'Tuscania's' list to starboard. As they filled up with troops and were lowered, the waves battered them against the bilge of the liner. Oars were broken attempting to absorb the shock of the impact. Cracked and leaking, some drifted away empty; one lifeboat was accidentally parted from its davits and crashed on top of yet another trying vainly to escape crushing its occupants. Some men, thrown from these boats were caught in the wash of 'Mosquito's' propeller, while others were lost between the ships. On the starboard side the lifeboats were launched only with great difficulty as the davits and the waves held them out of reach. Many were lost trying in vain to jump the intervening space between liner and lifeboat. The Grasshopper, commanded by Lt John Smith, layoff the Tuscania's starboard bow picking up survivors who had decided to swim for it, before darting off a short distance to prevent a U-boat attack. Having picked up as many as her capacity would allow, she was obliged to leave while Mosquito, in a much more dangerous position, continued the rescue. Further assistance was rendered by HMS Pigeon commanded by Lt K. E. Eddis. He inched his ship alongside Tuscania's starboard bow and with the aid of heaving lines, rescued over 800 soldiers. Pigeon's launch was lowered in order to pick up those men still struggling in the water, but Eddis was forced to leave her behind after warnings of enemy submarines in the vicinity had been received. Petty Officer John Jones was in charge of the launch. Upon the departure of Pigeon, he continued with the rescue and methodically gathered all the lifeboats - eleven in all - and their human cargoes together. Hours later they were picked up by the trawler Elf King and returned to Larne - a total of 375 men.
When the torpedo struck the Tuscania there were 39 men toiling in her boiler-rooms stoking coal. Not one of them survived. No one was in any doubt as to what had caused the explosion, and among the troops there followed an overwhelming urge to get up on deck to escape the sinking ship. Evacuation was carried out in an orderly fashion without panic, and the majority of Tuscania's complement were rescued but not all. The Grasshopper had accounted for 500, Pigeon over 800, Mosquito 200. Some, like Coxwain Jones, were picked up later by armed trawlers but the remainder had to take their chance with the sea. The Tuscania remained afloat for some four hours before taking the final plunge, bow-first with her monstrous stern in the air. She hung there briefly then, with a muffled explosion, slid beneath the waves. Those who survived the suction struck out for land.
Rocky Shores of Islay
The rocky shores and cliffs toward which they headed were swept by storm-tossed seas. This was lslay's most southerly point called the Mull of Oa, and nowhere seems more appropriate for the enactment of the final scenes of the shipwreck. It is a wild, inhospitable place covered in bracken and heather and unutterably bleak with 600 foot cliffs continually tormented by gale-force winds. Of all places to struggle ashore this one of the worst and by this time (around 10pm) it was pitch black, Some lifeboats had not been rescued and their occupants were not equipped to withstand the freezing temperatures.
Everett Harpham and Roy Muncaster were both members 6th Battalion, 20th Engineers. They and 33 others had made it to the lifeboats and struggled for over an hour to free them from the tangle of jammed pulleys and cables. This group was one of the last to leave the Tuscania. Their boat was violently tossed about and was filled with water up to its occupants' knees, forcing them to bail out constantly just to keep afloat. After what seemed an interminable time, the dim outline of land appeared through the leaden darkness and the men steered the boat towards it, but on approaching closer they saw that they were near a rocky shoal with the breakers dashing high against the forbidding shore. Each wave drew them closer until the light craft was smashed against therocks. Harpham felt a huge wave surge over him and the current pulled him beneath the surface. His head struck a submerged rock and partially stunned him, but another enormous wave threw him high out of the water and he woke up clinging to a sharp pinnacle. He vomited violently and later sought refuge behind some rocks from the bitter wind. Early the next day he was rescued by members of the island population. Of the thirty-five men in his boat only nine survived, but his friend Roy Muncaster was not amongst them. His body was interred in the graveyard at Kilnaughton Bay by Port Ellen, Islay and, in accordance with the wishes of his remains there to this day - the only identifiable grave on the island.
A total of 166 soldiers and seamen lost their lives in the sinking of the Tuscania. For the survivors who sought warmth and comfort after their experience, the islanders were more than generous with their help, especially the people of Port Ellen whose two principal hotels were made available to them.
The public hall served as a temporary mortuary and a new cemetery was prepared at Killeyan as well as Kilnaughton. Islanders donated clothing and food while estate owner Hugh Morrison of Islay House provided a further burial ground at Port Charlotte and timber for the manufacture of coffins. The British Empire Medal was awarded to islanders Robert Morrison and Duncan Campbell in recognition of the parts they played in rescuing survivors from the cliff face where many were washed ashore.
As for Meyer and the UB-77, he had watched the sinking ship for some time before deciding to return to the scene to hasten the destruction of the liner. He manoeuvred his submarine to a position off Tuscania's port quarter and at around 7.50 fired a K-lll torpedo which missed its target. It was this torpedo which had passed under HMS Mosquito's stern and provoked the depth charge attack. Thereafter, Meyer withdrew to complete what otherwise turned out to be an uneventful tour of duty.
The subsequent Court of Enquiry Reports (on both sides of the Atlantic) praised the actions of all concerned and made no attempt to apportion hlame for what had happened. Copies of these were sent to the C-in-C AEF in France on 28th February) but a sour note was struck when several survivors, Lt Arnold Joerns among them, submitted their own scathing reports on the subject of boat drills aboard army transports in the light of their Tuscania experiences. Joerns' report (dated 16th April, 1918) highlighted the total lack of boat drills at mess times, the lack of instruction concerning the wearing of lifebelts and life preservers, the total absence of night-time drills, the poor condition of the ropes used in the davits and the fact that several of these had been painted over making launching almost impossible, the poor physical condition of the lifeboats themselves and the non-co-operative attitude adopted by the officers and ship's crew towards the soldiery. Whether there was any validity in Joerns' allegations no-one knows. They were certainly never investigated. Officially the Tuscania was just another wartime casualty.
As for the vessels involved, the UB-77 continued in service before surrendering at Harwich on 1st January, 1919, She ,was then sold for scrap and broken up by G. Cohen and Sons of London. The destroyers Mosquito and Pigeon were decommissioned from the Royal Navy in 1920 and the Grasshopper the following year.
Exmouth Tragedy The loss of the emigrant ship Exmouth Castle on 28th April 1847 is one of the most tragic incidents on Islay.
Otranto and Tuscania Lord George Robertson recounts the aftermath of two dreadful sinkings.
Islay Shipwrecks A compilation from the book Argyll shipwrecks by Peter Moir and Ian Crawford.
Tuscania History A website dedicated to the Tuscania by Steve Schwartz.
This article, was printed with kind permission from the Ileach.