SS Tycho & SS Porthkerry

SS Tycho & SS Porthkerry

 Listen to a reading of this article

SS Tycho

Built: 1904

Lost: 1917

Reason for Loss: Sunk by U-boat

In May 1917 the SS Tycho was nearing the end of a voyage from Bombay to Hull with 5,700 tons of general cargo.  Built in 1904 by Earles Shipbuilding and Engineering Co of Hull for Ellerman Wilson Lines, she was of 3216 Gross Registered Tons (GRT) and powered by a Triple Expansion steam engine. Hull was her home port and some of her crew of 33 would undoubtedly have been looking forward to arriving, having left Bombay on 25th March.

She called in to Falmouth to receive routing instructions from the Admiralty and then proceeded up the English Channel.   The weather is recorded as dismal, with rain, drizzle and haze.  At 1810 on 20th May 1917, whilst south of Brighton, she was torpedoed by the German submarine SM UB-40 (commanded by Hans Howaldt). The torpedo hit abreast of No. 2 Hatch and the ship immediately began to sink. There were no casualties at this point and the crew abandoned ship into the lifeboats.  The Tycho sank at 1840, the Master having destroyed her confidential papers. 

SS Porthkerry

Built: 1911

Lost: 1917

Reason for Loss: Sunk by U-boat

Nearby, the SS Porthkerry was on a voyage from Cardiff to Sheerness with a cargo of coal and saw the crew of Tycho abandoning ship.  Porthkerry was a smaller vessel of 1920 GRT, built in Sunderland in 1911 by J Crown and Sons Limited for the Porthcawl SS Co.  Powered by a Triple Expansion steam engine, she had a crew of 19.

In defiance of Admiralty instructions Porthkerry proceeded to the vicinity of Tycho to recover survivors, and the boats from the Tycho came alongside her.  As the survivors began to board, the Porthkerry was hit by a torpedo fired from the same U-boat that had sunk Tycho – a good demonstration of the logic behind the Admiralty orders not to remain in the area of a sinking.  The torpedo struck Porthkerry in the boiler room, killing the Master (W J Ebbett), the Chief Officer and 5 of her crew as well as 15 of the crew from Tycho - including her Master - who were still alongside in their lifeboats. The Porthkerry sank in 7 minutes.

All of the casualties (a total of 22) occurred on, or near, the Porthkerry.  The survivors, 18 from Tycho and 12 from Porthkerry, were then picked up by another nearby ship, the SS Esperanto (that also presumably ignored the Admiralty instructions but was not reprimanded). They were subsequently transferred to the tug Mercedes III and landed at Newhaven. Some of the casualties are buried at Rottingdean.

The wrecks lie close together about 16 miles south west from Beachy Head. Porthkerry lies at a depth of 42 metres, upright in two pieces in a large valley. The bow section lies east-west and is 10 metres high. Tycho lies in 45 metres of water. Neither wreck has any form of protection either as a war grave or a historic wreck.

UB-40 was commissioned on 18/08/1916 and was scuttled in Ostende on 05/10/1918 during the German evacuation of Belgium.  She sank 99 ships, damaged 15 and took one as a prize, a total of 191,275 tons. Hans Howaldt, in command of UB-40 at the time of these sinkings, died in Bad Schwartau on 6 Sept 1970.

Written and researched by Jon Pink (MAT HLF Forgotten Wrecks Volunteer).

Support the Maritime Archaeology Trust Sign up for our newsletter Become a friend - Join today