Western Front Association

SHIPPING LOSSES: At the last meeting of the Western Front Association at Alnmouth, David Thompson’s topic was British shipping losses off the coast of North East England, 1914-1918.

Between St Abb’s Head and Bridlington, in all 137 British merchant vessels were captured or sunk by enemy action off the North East coast with the loss of 650 lives. Additionally, a significant number of vessels operating under the flags of neutral nations were lost.

Surprisingly, until the end of 1916 the number of British vessels lost was quite modest, only eight, but that immediately changed at the beginning of 1917, a situation which continued until the end of the First World War.

The first merchant vessel casualties off the British coast were aboard the Wilson Line steamer Runo, which was sunk after hitting a mine in a known and specified minefield.

Admiralty warnings about the extraordinary dangers attending disregard for its directions were reported in the New York Times five days later, on September 10, 1914. Runo was mined about 22 miles from the Tyne en route to Archangel from Hull with a cargo of rubber and almost 300 passengers and crew including many Russian Reservists returning from Canada. Nearly all were saved but 29 perished.

The North East also had the dubious distinction of being the scene for the first casualties of Lord Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ when seven men of the 18th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry were killed during the bombardment of Hartlepool by German battle cruisers on December 16, 1914.

The majority of shipping losses were attributable to submarines, mostly by torpedo, but over 20 per cent of losses off the North East coast were caused by mines.

Today, it may be hard to understand that in 1914 British shipping carried half the total volume of the world’s seabourne trade. East Coast services were severely handicapped by the minefields and navigation restrictions in the North Sea and the carriage of coal to London was also affected by the general shortage of tramp tonnage. However, by the beginning of 1915 the swept channel from the Thames had been buoyed as far north as Hartlepool.

David’s research revealed that a small Newcastle-registered collier, SS Thordis, was the first British merchant ship to sink a German U-boat. On February 28, 1915, while on passage from Blyth to Plymouth a submarine periscope was sighted. Having avoided a torpedo Thordis rammed the submarine.

Another dubious distinction of losses off the North East coast was the last victim of submarine warfare during the First World War.

On November 10, 1918, the minesweeper HMS Ascot was torpedoed by UB-67 off the Farne Islands and was sunk with the loss of all 50 of her crew.

In addition to losses by enemy action many other ships foundered as a result of storm, some also directly attributed to the blackout introduced as a precaution against enemy attack.

The largest loss of life occurred at the end of October 1914 when HM Hospital Ship Rohilla ran aground off Whitby during a terrible gale. Contemporary Daily Mirror pictures illustrated the scale of the disaster and showed rescuers helping men ashore. The ship had been carrying 229 people. It was only 400 yards from the shore and 60 people made their own way to landfall but 82 perished in the attempt to do so. The rescue of 85 by life-boats from Whitby, Scarborough, Teesmouth and Tynemouth remains ones of the RNLI’s greatest achievments.

The WFA’s next meeting will be held on Monday, January 24, when Harry Bagley will relate the second and concluding part of his father’s recollections of the 1918 Battle of Estaires.

The subject matter for February’s talk will be slightly different from normal when Derek Gladding will deliver The River War – Sudan, 1896-1898.

Meetings will be held at Alnmouth Ex-Servicemen’s Club starting at 7.30pm, for 8pm. Visitors and new members welcome. The suggested minimum donation is £1, to include a light buffet supper.