Type: Merchant Steam Ship
Lost: 16th March 1918
Reason for Loss: U-boat attack
The S.S. South Western has only been positively identified relatively recently. 9 miles south-south-west of St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight,[i] the S.S South Western is now one of a series of wrecks situated around the south coast.
Built in 1874 by J. & W. Dugeon of London, and used in 1918 as a mail ship by London & South Western Railway Company, the steamer was on route from Southampton to Saint Malo, France on the 16th March 1918 when it was attacked.[ii]
At 11pm on the 16th March a submarine had been spotted on the surface near to S.S. South Western. The vessel was turned to allow the gunners clear fire on the submarine UB 59. However, the gunners did not open fire, although they had been ordered to do so [iii] and the UB 59 sent a torpedo at the S.S. South Western. However, this missed the vessel.[iv] Around twenty-minutes later the UB 59 was noticed again by crew on-board the South Western. Regardless of the sighting of the submarine, by the time the gun crew had readied themselves for the second time that evening, the UB 59 had released another torpedo that hit S.S. South Western on the starboard side before the bridge.v Gunman Frank Gleadhill reported that they were unable to fire back “as our vessel was enveloped in smoke for more than a minute after the explosion.”[vi]
The ship sank very quickly with reports suggesting it only took 8 minutes.vii Whilst attempts were made to release lifeboats, problems arose: “The amidships lifeboats were jammed and could not be launched. The two after boats were launched but capsized with people in them.”[viii] Consequently, there were 24 casualties,[ix] with only the master and 5 crew members surviving after they were rescued from the sea by two escorting warships.[x] Amongst the casualties were both crew and passengers, ranging from age 15 to 67.[xi]
The UB 59 submarine that launched the torpedo, sinking the S.S. South Western was commanded by Erwin Wassner. Wassner was a highly successful commander and was awarded the Pour le Mérite for “outstanding leadership and distinguished naval planning and successful submarine operations as he sank a total of 86 enemy vessels” in 1918.[xii] Wassner recorded both attacks on the S.S. South Western, discussing how it was a caliber 3 torpedo strike that sank the steamer.[xiii]
Following the loss of S.S. South Western, an enquiry was called to determine the events that led to the vessel’s loss and of those on-board, particularly as to why the gun crew had not fired on the submarine. Whilst one report states, “Master appears to have done everything possible and to have carried out his instructions but the gunners do not appear to have acted with sufficient promptitude and did not fire the gun in spite of definite orders to do so, and it is reported that they jumped overboard. (both are now missing)”,[xiv] following the report of gunner Frank Gleadhill, a survivor, another report concluded, “This information tends to modify the opinion expressed thereon as regards the unsatisfactory conduct of the gun’s crew.”[xv]
Although initial reports lay blame for the destruction of the S.S. South Western on the gun crew, it appears that survivors’ reports led to a reconsideration of this view.
Written and researched by Katie Cassels (MAT HLF Forgotten Wrecks Volunteer).
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.
Digital Memorial to the people on board
The Forgotten Wrecks project, using the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War website, has created a digital memorial to the men, women and children who lost their lives on the SS South Western. The Maritime Archaeology Trust would like to thank volunteers Sheila Pickthorne and LoFWW volunteer Richard Dickens from the Fife Military Project for their help with this, as well as Dave Wendes who has been researching the South Western for many years. It is hoped that the digital memorial, as well as commemorating those lost on SS South Western, will help to identify further information about the individuals and maybe even photographs held by relatives.