Reason for Loss: U-boat Attack
The SS Londonier was a steel schooner built in 1911 in Britain for a Belgian company. For the first five years of her career she operated under the name the name Vrijhandel as a merchant ship. On the outbreak of the First World War, Vrijhandel was stranded in a Russian port, and not much is known about it's operations in the first two years of the conflict.
By 1917, Vrijhandel's name had been changed and she was taken to Stockholm and then onto Britain. She continued to operate as a cargo ship across the Atlantic and was then chartered by the French government until disaster struck in March 1918.
At noon on the 12th March 1918 Londonier left Calais, bound for the Bristol Channel. It carried no cargo and was expecting new orders once it arrived in the UK. On board were 25 people: at least 12 Belgians; three Russians; two Dutch; two British; one Swede and one Norwegian. One of the British members of the crew was a Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve signalman, formerly of HMS Gloucestershire, who had joined the ship’s company at Norfolk, Virginia in the United States. In the early hours of the 13th March, the ship passed south of St Catherine’s Point and headed on a compass bearing of 276 degrees (approximately west) at a speed of 9.5 knots. There was a light easterly wind, but the sea was smooth. A light haze reduced visibility to two miles (Admiralty, p.168).
The ship’s master, George Degryse, believed that his ship was in the company of another Belgian steamer and under escort from two armed trawlers. This may explain why Londonier was not zig-zagging as it made its way across the Channel (Admiralty, p.168). Subsequent investigations by the Admiralty showed that in fact, the Londonier was not under any escort from the Portsmouth fleet and no other escort was known about (Admiralty, p.175). Degryse also believed himself to be approximately 3.5 nautical miles (4 miles or 6.5km) south of St Catherine’s Point. In fact the ship was approximately 3.5 nautical miles (4.1 miles or 6.6km) south west of where Degryse believed himself to be and approximately 6.7 nautical miles (approximately 7.7 miles or 12.4km) south-south west of St Catherine’s Point.
At approximately 2am, the Londonier was sighted by UC-71, under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Walter Warzecha. This may be considered lucky given the visibility – the Londonier was only showing one dimmed light (Admiralty, p.169). The Admiralty later suggested it was possible that Londonier had been “silhouetted seawards by [the lighthouse at] St Catherine’s Point”, which may have been a factor in its sinking. Warzecha does not mention this in his log, but records torpedoing the ship at 2am (Wendes, 2006, p.174).
As the UC-71 fired its torpedoes, the Londonier was altering course (Admiralty, p.168), presumably to follow the coast of the Isle of Wight. Some members of the Londonier‘s crew claimed they saw the submarine on the surface approximately 200m away, although only one man was on lookout (on the Focsle) and only one officer was on the bridge. In his summary of the sinking, Scarcériaux (1936) states that the helmsman saw the submarine and began to turn in response, but this is not recorded in the sinking report. Moments later the ship shuddered as UC-71’s torpedoes hit their mark (Admiralty, p.169). Degryse believed that two torpedoes struck the Londonier on its port side, one amidships and one further forward in the engine room. However, one of the gun crew believed he saw a second torpedo missing the ship (Scarcériaux, 1936). The ship began to founder immediately; there was no time to make evasive manoeuvres, make smoke or for the gun crew to return fire (Admiralty, p.169, 170). The ship was not fitted with a radio, so it wasn’t possible to send an SOS (Admiralty, p.169).
One torpedo struck just behind the second partitioning wall and the second hold immediately began to fill with water. The first partitioning wall broke under the pressure of the water and the forward hold also flooded (Scarcériaux, 1936). Within seconds the ship sank at the bow, raising the stern vertically into the air. The masts and chimney collapsed, whilst the steam boilers fell from their position and crashed forward (down) through the ship, crushing everything as they descended (Scarcériaux, 1936). The ship remained vertical for a short while, with the entire front half underwater, but when the remaining partitioning walls burst the ship sank (Scarcériaux, 1936).
Those who could escape took to the water instantly, but the boiler-men and engineers were probably killed by the impact of the torpedo and everyone asleep in the forward areas of the ship were drowned (Scarcériaux, 1936). Those in the water clung to wreckage and an upturned sloop. Only 14 men got off of the ship, 11 men died in the explosion or drowned (Admiralty, p.170). The submarine was glimpsed momentarily by the ship’s crew as they gathered in the lifeboats and, at around 2.30am, was seen to dive (Admiralty, p.169).
The survivors were picked up shortly afterwards (Scarcériaux, 1936), possibly by HM Tug Vagrant (Wendes, pers comms). By the time they were landed at Haslar in Gosport, one man had died of exposure, leaving only 13 survivors of the sinking (Admiralty, p.172).
Written and researched by Stephen Fisher (MAT HLF Forgotten Wrecks Research Officer).
The Maritime Archaeology Trust is indebted to Dave Wendes of Wight Spirit Charters who has generously shared decades of his research into the wrecks off Hampshire and the Isle of Wight with the Forgotten Wrecks project.
Board of Admiralty: English Channel: German Submarines, 1-15 March 1918. National Archives ADM 137/1476.
Scarcériaux, Paul (1936) Histoire Londonier, in: Wandelaer et sur l’eau, August, no 164, p. 378-381.
Wendes, David (2006) South Coast Shipwrecks. Wight Spirit Charters. ISBN: 0955459214