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SS Sibiria


 Date Built: 1894

Date Lost: 1916

Cause of Loss: Foundered in severe weather.

Background

The SS Sibiria was a general cargo ship of 3535 gross registered tons with some passenger accommodation.  She was built in 1894 as a German Merchant vessel at Yard number 102 of the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg.  She was originally named SS Hertha under the ownership of AG Deutche Dampfschiffs Rhederei Zu Hamburg and remained in that ownership until 1898. In 1898 she flew the flag of the Hamburg Amerika Line and was renamed SS Sibiria. In 1915 she went into American ownership and was chartered to various companies from this date on.  Latterly she carried wheat from Canada to various ports around the world. 

For her time, SS Sibiria was a large vessel, constructed of steel, 109 metres in length with a beam of 12.8 metres.  She was powered by a triple expansion reciprocating steam engine of 1700 indicated horse power coupled to a single shaft and screw and could maintain a speed of 11.5 knots.  Three boilers were fitted into the SS Sibiria supplying steam to the main engine and auxiliary machinery.

Wrecked

The fate of SS Sibiria was sealed on the 20th November 1916 en route from Montreal to London via Sydney, Nova Scotia with a cargo of wheat and benzol.  Approaching the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel she encountered one of the worst and prolonged storms of the early 20th Century.  On the 20th November 1916, two others vessels had already got into difficulties in this storm and foundered on the Sands, the SS Val Salice and the SS Polta.  Thirty crew members from the SS Val Salice were rescued in the most challenging conditions. However, the rescue of the SS Sibiria survivors both crew and passengers proved to be an even great challenge involving three lifeboats out of Ramsgate, Deal and Kingsdown.

Soon after the Deal lifeboat Charles Dibden came ashore with the 30 shipwrecked men from the SS Val Salice signals of distress were made by another large steamer the SS Sibiria of New York that had grounded on the South-West Goodwins near to the wreck of the Val Salice. Two of the SS Another crew was mustered to man the reserve lifeboat Francis F. Barton, which under Coxswain William Stanton at once proceeded to the stranded vessel.  The gale continued with unabated fury in fact it blew harder than ever and two of the Sibiria`s own lifeboats were wrecked in the launching.  Fortunately a tug was available, so the lifeboat Charles Dibden got a tow to the spot, let go her anchor to windward of the ship and veered down on her in the customary way.  At about 2 pm four attempts were made to get alongside of the vessel but on each occasion the force of the gale and tremendous seas drove the lifeboat away.  The lifeboat nearly capsized on the first three attempts and on the fourth attempt the lifeboat went over so far that the masts were under water and the weight of water in the mizzen sail tore the mizzen mast clean out of her together with the thwart that supported it. The mizzen had been kept set to maintain the boats head to wind.  During these attempts the crew had great difficulty saving themselves from being washed away and at times did not know whether they were in the boat or in the sea. Two crew men suffered injuries during these attempts. 

At this point it was realised that the boat was now in a crippled state and unseaworthy to continue with the rescue attempt.  With the mizzen sail and mizzen mast gone and the structure of the boat weakened by the torn out thwart, Coxswain Stanton made the wise decision to bear up and retire not only for the safety of the crew but also for the eventual rescue of those on board the stricken  vessel. Stanton knew that another lifeboat could be obtained and the attempt renewed with a better chance of success. It was a slogan amongst Deal lifeboat men that “they never turn back” and it must have been a difficult decision for the Coxswain to cut loose his anchor and cable – as he could not possibly get them back under such circumstances - and make his way to the shore some four or five miles distance. The decision was a fine example of good seamanship and cool judgement under trying conditions.  Fortunately the lifeboat received a tow from a tugboat and safely reached their station at 4.30 pm, having been engaged in their fine attempt for eight and a half hours.  

The Coxswain, Wiliam Stanton and 2nd Coxswain Robert Holborn were each awarded silver medals for outstanding gallantry and tremendous skill, courage and resourcefulness during these rescue attempts. The crew of the lifeboat was composed as follows:- William Stanton (Coxswain), Henry Marsh. John Webb, William Hoile, junior, Walter Redsull, Robert Holbourn, (2nd Coxswain) Joshua Mockett, William Wells, Richard Betts, John Jordan, James Bingham, Thomas Cribben, Robert Betts, Richard Lill, Henry Hook and William Foster. One above normal complement due to the heavy weather.

Meanwhile the Ramsgate lifeboat Charles and Susanna Stephens was also engaged in a gallant effort to rescue those aboard the SS Sibiria but also unsuccessfully.  Leaving Ramsgate under tow of the tugboat “Aid” at 10 am, she reached the South Goodwins at 11.30 am and found herself in the teeth of the gale. She also deployed the technique of dropping her anchor to windward to veer down onto the Sibiria but could not reach the vessel. This failure of two rescue attempts was due to the enormous wind force, coupled with the tremendous seas running at the time and the swirl and eddy of tides that run so unpredictably around the treacherous  sands of the Goodwins. The Ramsgate lifeboat similar to the Deal lifeboat constantly filled with water and nearly capsized on several occasions. One of the boats bollards was wrenched from its mounting clean out of the boat, injuring two of the crew who sustained broken arms and legs.  A further misfortune was that the anchor cable parted causing the boat to sweep leeward of the stranded vessel. The Coxswain with injured crew members and a weakened boat had no other choice but to abandon the mission and return to Ramsgate where he arrived about 4.30 pm. Mr. William Cooper of the Ramsgate lifeboat Charles and Susanna Stephens was awarded the silver medal of the National Lifeboat Institution for services rendered to the SS Sibiria of New York.

A little later and urgent call was made to make another determined effort to rescue those on board the stricken Sibiria, where the situation had deteriorated to the point of desperation for those on board.  The heavy battering of the ship by the sea had been sustained for several hours and was having an inevitable effect, the vessel now a hopeless wreck. Her decks fore and aft were under water and her crew and passengers were driven to the bridge as the only refuge and the end seemed very near. It was resolved that the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave make a further effort. Although a smaller boat than that of Ramsgate and Deal lifeboat, the boat was seaworthy and nearer to the wreck site and better situated to reach the wreck in the shortest time. The problem was that there was not the manpower available at Kingsdown to man the lifeboat and a call to the Deal lifeboat crew was nobly responded to and the boat was launched at about 7 pm.  She was launched with the greatest of difficulty facing the same hazards that prevailed on her previous mission to save those aboard the SS Val Salice. Fortunately she was able to get a tow by a vessel of the Royal Navy, which also stood by using her search lights fixed onto the stricken vessel. With the technique of letting the anchor go and veering towards the vessel the lifeboat managed to get alongside, but the sea and wind had not abated and heavy seas broke over the submerged Sibiria and filled the lifeboat which was swamped over and over again. Two of the lifeboat men were seriously injured. One by one all were taken off the Sibiria after exposure from the wind, cold and sea for some thirteen or fourteen hours. The lifeboat set off to Kingsdown with assistance of a tow from the Royal Navy warship that had stood by during the rescue operation. With a crowded boat of some sixty eight souls of lifeboat men and SS Sibiria survivors the men and women were safely set ashore. Meanwhile the Ramsgate lifeboat crew having taken suitable measures with regard to the condition of their boat set off from Ramsgate at 7.15 pm in tow of their tug to re-join the rescue effort reaching the wreck at about 9 pm, only to find the whole crew had been taken off by the Kingsdown lifeboat.  With all lifeboat men and survivors safely ashore, that terrible eventful day came to an end. The American Government gave each of the crew of the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave a cash gratuity and the Coxswain, James Pay a rare early 20th Century U.S.A. gold Presidential Medal presented by President Thomas Woodrow Wilson in Recognition of his Heroic Services in effecting the rescue on 20th November 1916 of the Master and Crew of the American Steamship Sibiria and a George V Royal National Lifeboat Institution silver medal (voted 8th Dec. 1916).

The crew of the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave was composed as follows :- James Pay (Coxswain), William George Sutton, (2nd Coxswain), Kingsdown, Frederick Sutton, Kingsdown, William Birch Laming, Kingsdown, Charles Pritchard, Deal, David Pritchard, Deal, Henry Meakins, Deal, Richard Riley, Deal, Matthew Hoile, Deal, William Hoile, Deal, John Jenkins, Deal, Dory Hook, Deal, John Hook, Deal, Thomas Cribben, Deal, Thomas Adams, Deal, and Frederick Mockett, Deal.

Once ashore, two Kingsdown pubs, Zetland Arms and the Victory, accommodated the American crew until they could be repatriated. Despite their relatively recent date, the remains of Val Salice and Sibiria have not been located.

Controversy

These events caused controversy about the SS Sibira and other vessels operating  under the flag of the stars and stripes at a time when the U.S.A. was not yet involved in the Great War of 1914 to 1918.  It was reported in the Times that the stranding of the U.S. steamer SS Sibiria on the Goodwins has opened British eyes to the fact that this vessel, which was a Hamburg-Amerika liner, had been transferred to the owners in the U.S during the war. It appears that the SS Sibiria was transferred to the Sarnia Steamship Corporation. Note that she was transferred not sold. This was enough to elicit a clarification from the vessels agents through the New York Times. The vessels were under charter to the Atlantic Fruit Company in the banana trade when the war began, and were bought by the latter company in May 1915. The price paid was said to be about $150,000 for the two vessels.  Both vessels were then transferred to the Bay Steamship Company of America, while retaining her American crew. The question at issue was the Trading with the Enemy Act 1914, under which the Hamburg-Amerika Line was defined as an “enemy”. The British press continued to niggle at the question of whether ownership of former German  vessels in neutral countries was a “front” or “flag” of convenience with a view to the long term preservation of the German fleet.  Just a few months after the loss of the SS Sibiria, their premises in Cockspur Street, London were offered for sale in 1917, under the Trading with the “Enemy Amendment Act, 1916”.  The sales particulars noted that the premises were partially in the occupation of the Ministry of Munitions for the purposes of “the present war”, with the Canadian Red Cross, and Allan Line, which would soon be subsumed into the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, also tenants.  The particulars had a form of declaration at the back for the buyer to confirm on purchase that they were not purchasing on behalf of any nation “at war with Great Britain”.  The cover of the auction catalogue is annotated with the name of the corporate buyer, the unexceptionable British, P. & O. Together a wreck and a building tell a tale of socio-economic disruption and atmosphere of suspicion wrought by war, which overshadowed the remarkable rescue of all on board the SS Sibiria under unimaginable difficult conditions. The former Hamburg-Amerika House at 14-16 Cockspur Street still stands today and is Grade 11 listed. Jacob B. Smull, Vice President of the firm J. & H. Winchester & Co., agents for the SS Sarnia and Sibiria in New York, said that the vessels were bought from the Atlantic Fruit Company by the Hudson Bay Company of Canada and London through its American operating company, which it called the Bay Steamship Company of New York.  While most of the vessels bought by the Hudson Bay Company to carry wheat from Canada to England had been under the British flag the SS Sarnia and Sibiria had been continued under the American flag and were manned by American officers and crew.

Researched and written by MAT Volunteer Robert Steer  

 


Sources

Transcription from George Bethel Bayley`s book “Seamen of the Downs” (1929), published by William Blackwood & Sons Ltd., Edinburgh & London.

United Kingdom shipwreck index [pre publication typescript]

Richard and Bridget Larn 1995 Shipwreck index of the British Isles, volume 2 : Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Sussex, Kent (Mainland), Kent (Downs), Goodwin Sands, Thames

Section 6, Kent Goodwin Sands (BF)

Richard Larn 1979 Goodwin Sands shipwrecks Page(s) 147

The Newcastle Journal 23-NOV-1916, No.22,302 Page(s) 8

New York Times 21-NOV-1916

New York Times 22-NOV-1916

Dover Express  24-NOV-1916, No.3,045 Page(s) 2

Times   25-NOV-1916, No.41,334 Page(s) 9

New York Times 26-NOV-1916

The Newcastle Journal 24-NOV-1916, No.22,303 Page(s) 6

Yorkshire Post 12-DEC-1916, No.21,678 Page(s) 4

Thanet Advertiser 23-DEC-1916, No.2,995 Page(s) 5

http://miramarshipindex.org.nz/ship/show?nameid=4184&shipid=100714 accessed on 11-NOV-2016

http://miramarshipindex.org.nz/ship/list?IDNo=2213171&search_op=OR accessed on 11-NOV-1916