In August 1914 the SS Galway Castle was requisitioned from the Union Castle Line by the Admiralty as a troop ship and was engaged in carrying troops for deployment in the German West Africa campaign. Following a successful campaign, she ‘reverted’ to commercial mail ship duties and was the sole remaining Union Castle vessel in that role.
Sailing between the UK and South Africa as she did pre-war – although now generally in convoy - the SS Galway Castle featured in several incidents during the course of the war, including being attacked by German aircraft in the Channel in August 1916 and running aground in October 1917 at Orient Bank, off East London in South Africa.
On the 10th September 1918, the SS Galway Castle sailed from Devonport en route to Cape Town and Durban, South Africa with mail, passengers and recuperating soldiers as part of convoy OD123, made up of 16 steamers and escorted by cruisers and destroyers. She was carrying over 950 persons, including 399 invalided walking wounded South African servicemen, 346 passengers and 207 crew. Heavy weather made progress slow and thirty six hours after departure, at 9.30pm on September 11th, the order was given for the convoy to disperse and the 'Galway Castle' followed a more westerly course, as ordered by the ship that was to escort her, the armed liner 'Ebro'. No longer being kept back by slower vessels, speed was raised to 11 knots.
At 07.30 hrs on 12th September 1918, the SS Galway Castle was attacked without warning and torpedoed by the German U-Boat U-82 160 miles South of Fastnet Rock. The explosion broke her back and she sagged amidships, the stem and stern rising up, while sinking in the middle. So severe was the damage that it was thought that she would sink immediately and it was apparent that U-82 was lining up for another attack (which ultimately didn’t materialise). The damage to the ship included the bridge area where all the senior officers were injured, the engines stopped, lights extinguished and communications rendered inoperative. There are some reports that the torpedo struck from the port side and exited the ship to the starboard, but the SS Galway Castle had been hit low down on the port side, forward of the boiler room and the torpedo exploded inside her. As she doubled up, all the decks amidships buckled and burst up. In addition to the hissing of the escaping steam there was all the time a great tearing noise, caused by the rending decks, but the water-tight bulkheads kept her afloat.
The evacuation of the ship proved very difficult as the breaking up of the decks amidship rendered communications between forward and aft parts of the ship dangerous and it was also impossible for all to reach their proper lifeboats. Many were not wearing their lifejackets and being about breakfast time may not have even been fully dressed. In the rush to abandon ship several lifeboats were swamped by the heavy seas and many finished up in the sea.
Only a few boats were safely put off to sea, the others were either capsized or battered against the side of the ship, possibly some dropped into the sea upside down and whilst 18 of the 21 were launched few were successful. Many were killed or injured by floating wreckage and debris. Some 40 other rafts were thrown into the sea by individuals and many simply jumped overboard and swam to these craft. Despite these difficulties, an hour after the explosion with the exception of the captain, some of his officers, and about 40 members of the crew and volunteers who had been working the boats, everyone was off the ship
The survivors were afloat for over 9 hours before rescue as ships responded to the SOS calls, observations and messages from the Ebro (who fearing an attack had sailed off before returning.) Ultimately the survivors were rescued through a combination of ships including the Ebro, HMS Spitfire, two submarine destroyers and an American destroyer. In the conditions of heavy seas and low visibility the rescue ships had great difficulty in actually seeing the lifeboats and rafts and it was only through frantic waving that rescue was effected.
The survivors, including the Captain and those crew members who had stayed aboard the SS Galway Castle and others rescued by HMS Spitfire and Oriana were returned to their point of departure at Plymouth.
Records suggest that at least 143, and perhaps more than 150, lives were lost.
However, although terminally damaged, the SS Galway Castle remained afloat and held together for 3 days, during which time tugs arrived to tow the wreck to shore; she finally succumbed and sank on 15th September. The ship was taken in tow by Woonda and Epic and later Cynic and Cartmel escorted by Allen (DD66), Caldwell (DD69) and Kimberley (DD80)
Much has been made about the survival of the ship post the attack and that the loss of life might have been less had the ship not been abandoned immediately. This is of course hindsight as the ship was very badly damaged and could have sunk at any time. All reports characterise the decisions made by Capt. Dyer as being the right ones at the right time.
The sinking was vigorously reported in the world press, with articles in the Australian Sydney Herald of 17th September 1918, whilst the New Zealand Evening Post reproduced an article from The Times. The attack on the SS Galway Castle broke the record of ‘immunity’ of South African mail steamers since the beginning of the war. The attack and subsequent sinking emphasised to many the global nature of WW1.
Researched by Andrew Daw and Charlie Cripps. Written by Andrew Daw (MAT HLF Forgotten Wrecks Volunteers).