Type: Ocean Liner
Lost: 3rd February 1917
Reason for Loss: U-boat attack
The wreck of the American converted ocean liner, the S.S. Housatonic, lies twenty miles south-west of Bishop Rock, Isles of Scilly. The vessel is one of many wrecks situated off the south coast of the United Kingdom dating from the period of the First World War.
Built by Barclay, Curle and Co. Ltd of Glasgow in 1890 for the Hansa Steamship Company, the S.S. Housatonic was being operated by the Housatonic Steamship Co. Inc. of New York at the time of her sinking. Originally launched as the S.S. Pickhuben, the vessel sailed on the Hamburg – New York – Montreal route until 1895 when she was renamed the S.S. Georgia, sailing between Stettin and New York. Thereafter she transferred to Genoa – New York in 1900 and then Odessa – New York in 1902. On the outbreak of war in 1914, the S.S. Georgia was interned at New Orleans, renamed the S.S. Housatonic in April 1915, and then in February 1916 chartered as a cargo ship by Brown, Jenkinson & Co. of London for the duration of the war.
Sailing from Galveston, Texas, on 6th January 1917 with a cargo of wheat and flour, the S.S. Housatonic called at Newport News, Virginia, before sailing for Liverpool on 16th January 1917. At 10.30 am on 3rd February 1917, the vessel was stopped by U-53 south-west of Bishop Rock. Three crewmen from the U-53 boarded the S.S. Housatonic and the ship’s Master, Thomas Ensor, was sent over to the submarine for questioning. After inspection of the vessel the commander of U-53, Kapitanleutnant Hans Rose, asked Captain Ensor to return and order his crew to abandon ship, explaining apologetically that he was sinking the vessel due to it carrying foodstuffs to an enemy belligerent. After the ship’s crew took to lifeboats, the Germans opened the seacocks of the Housatonic, however, as the vessel took a long time to settle, U-53 fired a single torpedo to sink her.
The commander of U-53 showed considerable humanity to the crew of the Housatonic, taking the lifeboats in tow towards the English coast for two hours before sighting the trawler Salvator and firing his deck gun to ensure the other vessel had seen the lifeboats, then diving out of sight. The crew of the Housatonic were picked up and taken to Penzance, with the Master and his crew returning to the USA on separate ships.
At any other stage of the war the sinking of the S.S. Housatonic might have been unremarkable, however, coming only three days after Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare and the same day as the breaking of diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany, it has been cited as one of the final steps towards America’s declaration of war in April 1917. The debate as to whether the sinking of the Housatonic was one of the immediate causes of America’s entry into the war, was certainly very active at the time. In most scholarship since the war, however, the episode of the Housatonic and those of the nine other American vessels sunk in the period after the breaking of diplomatic relations, have been generally overlooked in favour of more celebrated causes such as the Zimmerman Telegram and the failure of President Woodrow Wilson’s mission to secure peace between the European powers. In the immediate aftermath of the sinking, interventionists such as Theodore Roosevelt definitely saw the loss of the Housatonic as a cause for war, while those on the side of neutrality, including President Wilson, were largely unconvinced as to the episode constituting an overt act of war. The American press too, were generally of the opinion that the U-boat commander was within his rights under the so-called ‘cruiser rules’ to stop, search and then sink the Housatonic as it was carrying contraband. In fact, many American newspapers reported extensively about Hans Rose’s scrupulous adherence to the rules of war by initially firing a warning shot to stop the Housatonic, then ensuring the safety of the crew by towing them towards the English coast.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of the different sides of the debate, there is little doubt that the sinking of American merchant vessels in the eight weeks leading up to the declaration of war on 6th April 1917, including that of the S.S. Housatonic, formed an important part of the shift in American opinion from neutrality to war. While the sinking of these vessels did not necessarily precipitate the declaration of war by the United States, resulting as they did in the loss of relatively few American lives, these hostile acts made it much easier for the interventionists to conflate attacks on American ships with those of other neutral and British-registered ships. Conversely, there is evidence that the sinking of American vessels after 1st February 1917 increasingly hindered attempts by neutralists to keep the United States out of the war partly due to the disregard of the rights of neutrals in many of the later attacks, and also highlighting the improbability of any form of negotiated peace between the Entente and Central Powers. On its own, the sinking of the Housatonic did not provide sufficient cause for war, nevertheless in combination with the increasing number of U-boat attacks on American ships after 1st February 1917 and other diplomatic and strategic factors, it can be seen as one incident amongst many which led to the United States declaring war on Germany.
Written by Heathcliffe Bowen, MAT Volunteer.