Three years ago I published the sad story of Derek Dracup, a young submariner who perished in 1944, aboard the ill-fated HMS Stratagem.
Derek was almost certainly drawn to the sea by his grandfather – George Enoch Dracup – who must have told the young boy many tales of his life as a ship’s captain in the merchant navy.
I discovered only recently that George had at least two close encounters with German submariners during the Great War.
Is it fanciful to imagine that George’s stories influenced Derek to join the submarine service? Whether or not they did, here is another of those inter-generational coincidences that crop up occasionally in Dracup family history.
This is the story of George’s life, pieced together entirely from various online resources, featuring his own brush with death at sea.
George’s Antecedents and Childhood
George was descended from his namesake, the youngest son of Nathaniel Dracup, prominent early Methodist and family patriarch.
His great-grandfather was George senior’s second son Edward (otherwise known as Neddy).
He inherited his middle name from Neddy’s son, his grandfather, Enoch (1819-88), a publican in Sowerby Bridge, near Halifax, Yorkshire.
His father Edward (1841-1929) was Enoch’s eldest son, initially a Bradford engine fitter. He it was who settled in North East England, upon his marriage to Catherine Hall (1849-1903).
Catherine lived in Newburn, Northumberland, a few miles west of Newcastle on the north bank of the Tyne. Her father, George Hall, was also a publican and sometime ferryman at the Boathouse Arms on Water Row in Newburn.
George Enoch was born on 25 October 1869 and baptised in Newburn on 16 January 1870.
He later claimed to have been born a year later, on 25 October 1870. This may have been to hide the fact that, though born in wedlock, he was conceived before his parents’ wedding. Edward and Catherine had married in the second quarter of 1869 when Catherine would have been three to six months pregnant.
The young family settled initially at 23 James Street in Jarrow, some way from Newburn, much closer to the Tyne estuary. The 1871 census records that Edward was working as an engine turner.
By 1881 they had moved to 11 Sycamore Street, in Elswick, a suburb of Newcastle, closer to Newburn. Edward was still an engine turner; George was at school. Three more children had been born: John Hall (1873 in Jarrow), Mary Ellen (1875 in Jarrow) and Henrietta (1879 in Newcastle).
George joins the Merchant Navy
George was indentured in the Merchant Navy on 8 October 1888, signing on in Glasgow for a four-year apprenticeship. He gave his age as 17, but was really just a few days short of his 19th birthday. He was bound to one John Wilson. There is a note in the Remarks column saying simply ‘fishing’.
Later records show that George had joined the City of Canton, a three-masted iron sailing barque of 908 tons, built by Robert Steele and Co. on the Clyde in 1857.
Initially commissioned and owned by George Smith and Sons as part of the City Line and used for trade with Calcutta, it was sold on in 1877 to J&R Wilson, another Glasgow company. They later sold it on again in 1892, before it eventually sank in 1906.
John Wilson was partner in the company J&R Wilson, ship owners and export provision merchants, which had offices in Glasgow, Tacoma, Washington and San Francisco.
Although apprenticed for a four-year term, George served on the Canton for only 11 months, from 8 October 1888 until 11 September 1889.
He had to wait several months, until 1 April 1890, for his next berth. But this time he was taken on as an ordinary seaman, though on the far smaller 166-ton brigantine Emily, registered in Belfast. The record is marked ‘c’, indicating that the ship was a coaster, engaged in domestic trade.
After a short summer break he had a second stint as an ordinary seaman, this time aboard the 230-ton brigantine Speedwell, built in 1878, registered in Banff, Scotland, and owned by James Mill, of Garmouth, Elginshire.
He completed nine months’ service with Speedwell in June 1891. The record is marked ‘West Indies’. His absence at sea explains his non-appearance in the 1891 Census.
In his absence, his family had moved across to Langhorn Street, Heaton, on the east side of Newcastle.
By this time two further children had been: Frederick Ernest Hall (1884 in Newcastle) and Edward Hall (1886 in Newcastle). One further son, Robert Hall, arrived in 1891 making seven children in all. Edward continued to work as a turner.
After only one month ashore, George secured his first berth as an able seaman on the Anamba, a barque of 1,110 tons built in 1885 and owned by Peter Denniston of Glasgow. He was away for a full year this time, travelling to Buenos Aires.
After a further month at home he signed on to the crew of his first steamship and largest ship yet, the Ramore Head, 2,913 tons and only recently built in 1891. He travelled to Port Said but was back in time for Christmas 1892.
In the New Year of 1893 he embarked on a four month trip to New Orleans in the Whickham, an older and smaller steamship.
There followed a series of shorter trips to the Baltic and the Mediterranean, initially on the Stranton (1,133 tons) and then repeatedly on the Crane (1,305 tons), owned by a shipping company of that name registered in Blyth, Northumberland.
Life and conditions in the Merchant Navy
This was the period in which sail was largely replaced by steam. The number of UK-registered steam vessels had almost doubled, from 6,871 in 1888 to 12,862 in 1914. Meantime, the number of sailing vessels almost halved, from 15,025 to 8,203.
In 1888 some 133,000 men had been employed in merchant steamships and 91,000 in merchant sailing vessels. But, by 1914, these figures were 282,000 and 14,000 respectively.
In 1888 1,853 apprentices were indentured to sea service compared with 4,155 a decade earlier, so opportunities of this kind were declining rapidly when George signed up.
Working conditions aboard merchant ships left much to be desired.
There was no limit on seamen’s working hours and the standard ‘four hours on; four hours off’ watch system meant that working weeks of 80 hours or more were commonplace. Overtime was only payable when specified in the engagement form. Rates of pay weren’t standardised and there was little continuity of employment.
The Merchant Shipping (Payment of Wages and Rating) Act of 1880 required men to serve four years before qualifying for the rank of able seaman, but this was often disregarded.
In 1888 the mean monthly pay of an able seaman on board a sailing ship was £2 15s, and on a steamship £3 7s.
If a sailor deserted, leaving one ship for a better paid berth in another, he forfeited his possessions and unpaid wages. If he deserted abroad he could also be imprisoned for up to 12 weeks on his return home.
In 1887, J. Havelock Wilson formed the National Amalgamated Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union of Great Britain and Ireland. By 1889 it had 65,000 members.
But in 1890, the ship owners formed a rival Shipping Federation which issued ‘tickets’ to non-union labour.
Seamen began to join both organisations but there was also resistance to the Federation, including several localised strikes in 1890. In the short term though, the Federation became dominant and membership of the Union declined significantly
‘Crimping’ was still common, although largely confined now to foreign ports. So-called ‘crimps’ encouraged returning sailors to spend their money at boarding houses, bars and brothels; they might also ‘sell’ sailors to captains needing crews and recoup loans advanced to seamen.
The situation was particularly bad in North America, where crimpers with nicknames to conjure with – Shanghai Brown in San Francisco, Limey Dirk in Port Townsend and Cockney Jack in Vancouver – were said to be virtually above the law.
In 1893, a strike was provoked in Liverpool when the Shipping Federation was found to have manned the Allan Line ship Mongolian through the services of a Mrs Langan, who charged from £2 to £2 5s a head.
Two of the stokers were tramps, picked up when asking the way to the workhouse. They were given drink and beds and taken out to the ship by tug the following morning.
By the turn of the century it had been accepted that crimping fed off desertion and that, if desertion could be reduced, crimping might be eliminated.
Under legislation passed in 1894, sailors deserting or absenting themselves in this country could be arrested by the captain, mate or ship owner and taken aboard by force, unless they specifically requested to appear before a court. The court could also compel them to fulfil their contracts.
In 1896, some 17% of able seamen and firemen deserted from steamships while in the UK, and some 9% did so while abroad. From 1900 compulsory discharge certificates were introduced which drastically reduced UK desertion.
Also in 1896, a Manning Committee reported that merchant ships were often under-manned and a manning scale was recommended
In the 1880s, foreign seamen had formed about one-seventh of the workforce. By 1886, the foreign signing-on rate for Newcastle and other Tyne ports was 21%. By 1901, lascars and foreign seamen together comprised over one-third of the men in employment.
Merchant seamen were more regularly exposed to tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, dysentery and smallpox. They were also at greater risk of contracting venereal disease.
In 1906 an Act introduced the first statutory scale of provisions, though this proved hard to enforce. European seamen were also now entitled to 120 cubic feet of living space. The expenses of sick and injured seamen were made the responsibility of ship owners, except in cases of venereal disease or misbehaviour.
Life remained very dangerous. There were 999 accidental deaths in 1908 and 1,053 in 1910. The rate of industrial accidents at sea was between four and six times higher than it was in the mines. Ironically, the Great War saw a rapid improvement in the accidental death rate, the average annual number of fatalities falling to 385 by 1920.
By 1917 a more generous national pay scale had been introduced – £11 10s a month for able seamen, £33 per month for chief engineers and £50 to £58 a month for the master of a 12,000 ton ship. From 1918 a war risk bonus of £3 per month was also payable.
George’s marriage and promotion
George’s shorter voyages in the early 1890s most probably coincided with meeting and courting his future wife, Mary Coldwell, who he married in the summer of 1894, aged 24.
Mary had been born in March 1871 to George and Isabella Coldwell. At the time of her birth, her father was employed as a ‘separator at a lead works’ and subsequently a general labourer. Mary herself was working as a dressmaker in 1891, so the family were of comparatively humble stock.
George was, however, beginning to rise rapidly through the ranks. A few months before his marriage, he was awarded his second mate’s certificate of competency, passing an examination at Sunderland on 10 April 1894. He gave his address as 4 Charles Street, Heaton (and his year of birth as 1870).
He completed his first passage as second mate just before his marriage, shipping in the Crete (1,121 tons) for little over a month.
Shortly afterwards, the SS Crete was subject to a court of enquiry after striking rocks on 13 August 1894, during its next voyage.
The ship had been loaded with timber at Sundsvall, Sweden, on 4 August 1894 and left bound for the ports of Algiers and Sfax in the Mediterranean. On 10 August she put into the Tyne to refill with coal, departing again that evening.
The accident occurred late in the evening of 13 August off Finisterre. The Captain, Enoch James, made for Falmouth in the damaged ship, arriving there at 14:30 the following afternoon.
The court severely censured him for failing to account for the tide when setting his bearing but:
‘…taking into consideration his long and good service and the fact of his bringing his vessel safely into port, they refrain[ed] from dealing with his certificate on this occasion.’
Meanwhile though, George had joined the SS Angerton (1,823 tons), this time as third mate, initially for a 7-month voyage to Japan and New York, and subsequently for trips to Odessa and the Mediterranean.
And, in November 1895, the Angerton herself became the subject of a court of enquiry, after running aground off Gibraltar.
She had left Palermo with a cargo of sulphur and fruit, bound for New York, but intending to take on coal at Gibraltar.
George had taken his turn on watch some time before the accident and had no part in it. The court found the Captain solely at fault, but confined itself to reprimanding him given his ‘exceptionally high character and previous immunity from casualty’.
The Angerton was later lost off Alexandria in March 1899 and, as a consequence, her then captain’s certificate was suspended for three months.
But George’s stellar progress continued unabated. He had been awarded his first mate’s certificate of competency on 24 January 1896, giving his address as 57 Morley Street, Heaton.
The paperwork also includes a brief physical description – he was 5 feet 7 inches tall with a fair complexion, light hair and blue eyes.
Shortly afterwards their first child, George Edward Dracup (Derek’s father) was born, on 6 February 1896, followed in short order by his sister, Florence Mary, on 24 July 1898.
Betweentimes George secured his Master’s certificate, which is dated 22 October 1897. After the Angerton he undertook several voyages as second mate, on the SS Huntingdon (1,403 tons), the SS Columba (645 tons) and the SS Ravensheugh (1,143 tons). But his experience as first mate was confined to a single 9-day coasting voyage on SS South Moor (628 tons).
His had been a meteoric rise – from apprentice to ship’s captain in just nine years!
Captain Dracup’s family
George was aged only 28 when he obtained his master’s certificate – and pretended to 27 – which could well have made it difficult for him to obtain captain’s berths.
Although his full seafaring record, up to the start of the Great War, is not available online, the 1901 Census describes his occupation as ‘Sea (mate) mercantile service’, suggesting that he was still normally shipping as second-in-command.
And we know he was first mate on the SS Belton, which arrived in Albany, Western Australia in April 1901, having previously docked at Cape Town, South Africa.
Meanwhile, George’s young family continued to live at 57 Morley Street, in the parish of Byker, while parents Edward and Catherine were located at 81 Cardigan Terrace, also in the Heaton area, with their five younger children.
Edward, now aged 59, was described as a ‘marine engineer’. Daughter Henrietta, 22, was working as a stationer’s assistant and son Frederick Hall, aged 16, was an apprentice pattern maker.
Second son John Hall Dracup, now 27, was living in Berwick-upon-Tweed with his wife Susannah, nee Ramage, who he had married in the summer of 1899. Susannah father Robert was a publican and beerseller in Walker, Northumberland. John was employed as a grocer’s assistant.
George’s mother Catherine died at the age of 54 in 1903 and, four years later, his father Edward remarried. His new wife, Annie Cowie, was some 30 years his junior. She gave birth to a son, William Cowey Dracup, in April 1908.
In April 1905 George joined the De Loraine Freemasonry Lodge in Newcastle, giving his address as Wingrave Avenue.
But the 1911 Census shows the family remained at 57 Morley Street, though George was again away at sea. Mary records that she has had a third child who has died. The other two children are at school. There are four rooms in the house.
Edward and Annie also continued at 81 Cardigan Terrace with Edward Hall (24), now an engineer’s clerk, Robert Hall (19) an accountant’s clerk and the infant William Cowey. Edward was described as a fitter and turner working in marine engineering.
There is also a boarder, Charles Woodrow, a Chief Engine Room Artificer in the Royal Navy. Around this time he was serving on the depot ship HMS Blake. Subsequently, for much of the First World War, he was posted at HMS Vivid, the Royal Navy barracks at Devonport, until invalided out in 1918 following a hernia.
Elsewhere in 1911:
Brother John Hall and family were also now living in Heaton. He remained a grocer’s assistant. They had three children including a baby aged ‘under 10 months’ who had been born in Newcastle.
Sister Mary Ellen had married Fleetwood Hammond, a 25 year-old mechanical draughtsman, in 1901. But in 1911 she was living with her sister-in-law’s family. Hammond was initiated into the Lord Collingwood Freemason’s Lodge in January 1912, giving the same address. We know that he travelled out to Buenos Aires that year, to work as an engineer, and that Mary Ellen joined him there, for they returned together on the SS Highland Scot, reaching England on 30 September 1916.
Sister Henrietta married Thomas Edward Smith in 1907. They had three children by this point and lived in Whitley Bay where Smith was a shipbuilder’s cashier.
Brother Frederick Ernest Hall married Laura Carr in 1908. He had now qualified as a pattern maker, they had one son and were living elsewhere in Newcastle.
An aside: John Hall Dracup
George’s younger brother John Hall Dracup seems to have had a complicated personal life. By 1911, the grocer’s assistant had three children by his wife Susannah: John Edward, 10; Susannah, 9; and baby Reginald.
But, at some point between 1910 and 1913, he met Ethel Isobel Irvin, a widow with two young daughters.
She had been born Ethel Isobel Shaw in Hartlepool, in 1877, to Joseph Shaw, an engine driver, and his wife Isabella, nee Graham, who died soon after in 1880. The 1901 Census shows her still living at home in Hartlepool, working as a dressmaker.
Then in October 1902 she married John James Irvin, a ship’s engineer and latterly a boilermaker and fitter. But he died in the first quarter of 1910, aged only 42.
The 1911 Census records Ethel living above a ‘lady’s mantle shop’ at 70 Jefferson Street Newcastle, with daughters Hilda aged 6 and Dora aged 4. Both children had been born in and around Middlesbrough, while John’s death had been recorded in nearby Stockton, so it is unlikely that the family had arrived in Newcastle before April 1910.
Ethel gave her age as 30, losing almost four years at a stroke. They were lodging with a young married couple, the husband working as a porter in the same mantle shop. Mantles, or cloaks, had been a popular ladies’ fashion item but were now being discarded in favour of coats.
It seems that John travelled twice to Australia in the second half of 1910, his destination Melbourne. Was he perhaps exploring an opportunity to emigrate there, either with Susannah or with Ethel?
A son was born in the second quarter of 1914, Frank Irvin Dracup, the mother’s maiden name given as Shaw. Evidently then, the affair between John and Ethel was well advanced by mid-1913.
Three years later, on 23 August 1916, Ethel – travelling as Mrs Ethel Dracup, married, aged 37, and accompanied by Hilda, Dora and Frank, now aged 11, 9 and 2 respectively – set sail from Liverpool for Quebec, Canada.
They travelled aboard the SS Scandinavian, operated by the Allan Line. She had been used to transport Canadian troops to Europe in 1914 and, by 1917, was once again adapted for military use under the Liner Requisition Scheme. In between she resumed a normal passenger service.
This must have felt quite a dangerous voyage, undertaken only a year after the sinking of the Lusitania. Although the Germans had drawn back from attacking passenger ships, there was no guarantee of safety.
On this occasion 514 adults and children crossed the Atlantic safely, 197 in second class and 317 in steerage – arriving in Quebec in the late afternoon of 31 August. Ethel and the children were travelling in steerage and gave their destination as Toronto.
Here they settled. Daughter Hilda – going by the name Hilda Irvin Dracup – was later married there in September 1926.
And, when John’s wife Susannah died the following year, in October 1927, John and Ethel married. Their wedding also took place in Toronto, in January 1928, just three months later. According to the record John was now aged 52, Ethel 49.
John eventually died on 30 September 1944, only weeks before his nephew Derek perished aboard the Stratagem. He had by then retired, though the record reveals that he had previously kept a sausage store.
The death record gives his date of birth as 9 September 1875, adding that he had been resident in Canada for 25 years, which would place his arrival in 1919. The 1919 electoral register for Newcastle shows that Susannah was already living alone.
But we know that John Dracup, describing himself as a 40 year-old clerk, had already departed from Liverpool for Halifax, Nova Scotia in March 1915.
He was also travelling on board the Scandinavian, just a couple of months before the sinking of the Lusitania.
So it seems that John preceded his new family to Canada.
The Toronto Directory for 1916 includes an entry for ‘Jno Dracup’, a clerk with rooms at 366 Osler Street.
The 1918 Directory calls him John, says he is a clerk with Eatons, the vast Toronto department store, and that he has moved to 492 Ontario Street.
By 1921 he is manager of Dominion Stores Limited at 101 Danforth Avenue, and has moved a little further down Ontario Street to Number 414. There are also entries for both ‘Mrs Ethel Dracup’ and Hilda, the latter now herself working at Eatons.
The impact of war on the merchant service
During the first few months of the war German U-boat attacks were largely restricted to Royal Navy warships, though there were occasional attacks on merchant shipping as early as October 1914.
These generally observed the so-called ‘prize rules’ set out in a 1909 agreement. This meant that unarmed ships could not be attacked without warning. An attacker could only open fire if an unarmed ship refused to stop when ordered, or if the crew resisted boarding.
The sole purpose of boarding was the removal of ‘contraband’ – materials that could be used for the purposes of war. After removal the unarmed ship might be allowed to proceed on its way, or else it might be captured or destroyed.
If it was destroyed, attackers were expected to secure the safety of the crew. Turning them into their lifeboats was only acceptable if they could reasonably be expected to reach safety, and had sufficient food and navigational equipment to do so.
But the British had begun to protect their merchant shipping by means of so-called ‘Q-ships’ – merchant ships carrying concealed guns, uncovered only when a submarine surfaced to challenge them. This led the Germans to regard all merchant ships as potentially hostile.
The British had imposed a tight naval blockade on Germany from the very beginning of the War and, in November 1914, had declared the entire North Sea a war zone in which all shipping was at risk of attack.
Three months later, in February 1915, Germany made a similar declaration in respect of the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland. They declared that, from 18 February onwards, every enemy merchant vessel within this zone would be destroyed.
Even neutral vessels would be at risk, because of ‘the hazards of sea warfare’ and alleged British misuse of neutral flags.
In February 1915 German U-boats sank only nine ships (23,000 tons) but, by March, the toll had risen to 43 ships (79,000 tons). And by June that year, 119 ships were sunk (122,000 tons), the vast majority of them either fishing trawlers or merchant ships.
In May 1915, the sinking of the liner Lusitania off Ireland caused huge loss of life and equally huge public outrage, (although it had also been carrying munitions as well as passengers). Following the sinking of another passenger liner, SS Arabic, in August 1915, the Germans by and large, returned to ‘prize rules’.
But in March 1916 a German U-boat attacked the Sussex, a French passenger steamer, mistaking it for a British minelayer. Fifty people died. American pressure caused the Germans to end indiscriminate attacks on merchant shipping.
But the resumption by Germany of unrestricted warfare was already being discussed. In February 1916 an influential study had argued that, if Germany’s U-boats could sink 630,000 tons of enemy merchant shipping each month, Britain would need to sue for peace within six months, because it would be unable simultaneously to sustain the war and feed its people.
It was argued that, given the likely speed of Britain’s capitulation, even the entrance of the United States into the War would not prevent this British surrender.
This study influenced a memorandum written in December 1916 by the German Navy’s Chief of Staff which advocated once again engaging in unrestricted sea warfare. Earlier drafts had run into opposition, but by now the mood had hardened, not least because the land war was going far less well for Germany.
The Kaiser and the German Chancellor still favoured moderation, but were coming under increasing public pressure. When the German Army Supreme Command agreed to support the plan, the Kaiser began to waver and the Chancellor was outmanoeuvred. The order to resume unrestricted warfare came into effect on 1 February 1917.
Germany had 105 U-boats deployed at this point, including 23 based in Flanders. It planned to increase its complement to 120 submarines, and to maintain that number in the face of losses.
As expected, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany on 3 February 1917, declaring war on 6 April. But meanwhile losses of merchant shipping were already huge and crippling.
In December 1916, German U-boats sank 209 ships (345,000 tons), rising to 301 ships (506,000 tons) in February 1917 and reaching a peak of 474 ships (888,000 tons) in April of that year.
In March 1917 alone, some 25% of all British-bound shipping was lost.
The British initially rejected convoys as a form of protection, because they were thought to cause severe delays and were much disliked by merchant navy and royal navy captains alike. There was also protracted resistance amongst senior Admiralty staff.
They were finally introduced in May 1917, initially with limited effect, but gradually had much greater success. By January 1918 losses had fallen back to some 300,000 tons per month, largely as a consequence of convoy tactics.
By the end of April 1917 only nine German submarines had been lost since the resumption of unrestricted warfare. But subsequent losses ran at between five and ten submarines per month, and 61 were lost all told by the end of that year.
George goes to war
The online records of George’s service resume as war approaches.
We know from a brief article in the Pensacola Journal of November 1913 that he arrived there as captain of the SS Archbank (2,455 tons), having sailed from Tampa with a cargo of phosphates, and was about to load 7,000 bales of cotton for export to Havre, France.
The Archbank was eventually torpedoed and sunk by UB-105 in the Mediterranean in June 1918.
George next joined the SS Riverton (2,236 tons). The Agreement and Account of Crew indicates that the ship was travelling from Manchester to Galveston, Texas, departing on 11 December 1914 and scheduled to return to Avonmouth on 21 February 1915.
There was accommodation for 30 men, but the crew was considered complete with 22 hands of which not fewer than 8 had to be sailors. George gave his home address as 7 Albemarle Avenue, Jesmond, Newcastle.
Unusually, the ship seems to have been carrying two masters, the other being John Kerr, a 54 year-old Liverpudlian. Perhaps George was taking over from the older man.
This is followed by a second Agreement for a home trade voyage and then another for an overseas trip. This time the crew are signing on for a voyage of up to three years’ duration, though the date of termination is given as 3 September 1915, six months ahead.
The Riverton was to sail from Barry, Wales, heading to Alexandria and terminating its voyage at Newport, Monmouthshire. On this occasion the crew were deemed complete with just 20 hands.
A final foreign-going Agreement completes the record for 1915. The crew were once more deemed complete with 20 hands, though at least 8 had to be sailors. The arrangements were identical, except that the voyage was scheduled to terminate on 6 December 1915 at Avonmouth.
As far as we know, these early wartime voyages were free of incident, but George’s luck was not to last. He had at least two close encounters with German U-boats, the first in December 1916, the second and more serious in February 1917.
December 1916: SS Glencoe
The Glencoe was a steamer of 2,560 tons, built in West Hartlepool in 1898 and operated by Bolivian General Enterprise Limited.
She departed Glasgow on 13 December 1916 with a cargo of coal destined for Bordeaux and a crew of 24 under George’s command. (Reports refer incorrectly to ‘Captain S. Dracup’.)
On the same day, the Portuguese steamer Leca, 1,911 tons, had left Cardiff bound for St Nazaire, also loaded with coal. She was under the command of Captain F. Predade.
Both ships were unarmed.
By the morning of 14 December they were heading south in the Bay of Biscay, close together, at a speed of 8 knots, about 12 miles North-North-West of the Ile d’Yeu.
This is some 25 miles south of St Nazaire, meaning that the Leca was way off course. The weather conditions were poor, with rough seas and almost zero visibility, which may have been a contributory factor.
Suddenly a lookout aboard Glencoe spotted a German submarine to the west, heading directly towards them on the surface. Six men were on the bridge. Two manned the cannon and fired a warning shot
George stopped his ship immediately, ordering his crew to take to their boats.
The Leca put on speed, trying to escape, but the submarine moved to the stern of the Glencoe and fired a second warning shot towards the Leca. Captain Predade then evacuated his crew of 35 into their two boats.
No attempt was made to gather ‘contraband’. The submarine placed itself some 500 metres from the port side of the Leca, firing 14 times at its waterline before it started to sink.
It then moved 500m off the starboard bow of the Glencoe. Having fired twice with the cannon, the Captain decided to save time by launching a torpedo which immediately sank it.
The two crews in their four boats were rescued at around noon by a pilot boat whose path they had crossed earlier that morning. There were no casualties.
One of the crew identified the submarine as U46, but must have been mistaken as that was operating off the coast of Ireland at the time.
In fact, it was UC-18, a coastal minelayer type submarine, commanded by Oberleutnant Wilhelm Kiel. Born in September 1889, he was a comparative veteran, having previously commanded UB-12.
UC-18 was built in March 1916 and entered commission on 15 August. She was part of the Flanders Flotilla, operating out of Zeebrugge and Ostend. She was about 49 metres long, armed with an 88mm deck gun, 7 torpedoes and 18 mines, and carrying a crew of 26 men.
UC-18 undertook six patrols between October 1916 and February 1917, sinking a total of 34 ships with a combined tonnage of 34,343. Leca and Glencoe were the second and third of eleven victims on her second patrol.
UC-18 was lost with all hands on 19 February 1917 when she was sunk off the Channel Islands by the 702-ton Q-Ship Lady Olive.
The submarine had badly damaged Lady Olive with cannon fire but, on drawing close to the stern of the ship, gunner William Dumaresq fired eight shots at the conning tower from a range of only 100 yards.
Since Lady Olive was also sinking, the crew took to their boats and made for the French coast. Some were eventually picked up by the French destroyer Dunois, not without difficulty as they were simultaneously trying to engage a second U boat, which had apparently been trailing Lady Olive’s lifeboats.
Gunner Dumaresq was awarded the DSM.
Life aboard a German U-boat
Conditions on WW1 German submarines, though often preferable to those on British vessels, were still extremely uncomfortable.
They pitched violently in rough seas, causing widespread seasickness amongst their crews, already confined closely together in cramped and poorly-ventilated compartments. This could not be avoided, even at depth, unless the submarine was settled on the seabed.
There was a single toilet and no showers. Toilets could only be flushed when there was no risk of detection. The fresh water supply was rationed and kept exclusively for drinking and cooking.
Sea water collected in the bilges and became increasingly foetid. The diesel engines gave off fumes and were extremely noisy. If salt water reached the ship’s batteries, it could react with the sulphuric acid they contained and generate poisonous chlorine gas.
Men slept in hammocks or rudimentary bunks, often shared with those on an alternate watch. It was cold and damp. The temperature regularly fell to a few degrees above centigrade, while condensation formed on the inside of the hull, often dripping onto clothes and bedding.
When surfacing in winter, submarines could rapidly become coated with ice which had to be removed before submerging again. Surfacing often caused air to escape so violently that it was customary to hold the legs of the man opening the conning tower hatch.
Fear and stress were constant companions. Life expectancy was short – the Flanders Flotilla ended the war with an 83% casualty rate – and few sailors could bear repeated patrols; some needed drugs to keep going.
If a submarine sank, submariners might prefer to shoot or drown themselves rather than suffer a slow death by suffocation.
Johannes Speiss, who served aboard U-9, later described his submarine:
‘Far forward in the pressure hull, which was cylindrical, was the forward torpedo room containing two torpedo tubes and two reserve torpedoes. Further astern was the Warrant Officers’ compartment, which contained only small bunks for the Warrant Officers (Quartermaster and Machinist) and was particularly wet and cold.
Then came the Commanding Officer’s cabin, fitted with only a small bunk and clothes closet, no desk being furnished. Whenever a torpedo had to be loaded forward or the tube prepared for a shot, both the Warrant Officers’ and Commanding Officers’ cabins had to be completely cleared out. Bunks and clothes cabinets then had to be moved into the adjacent officers’ compartment, which was no light task owing to the lack of space in the latter compartment.
In order to live at all in the officers’ compartments a certain degree of finesse was required. The Watch Officer’s bunk was too small to permit him to lie on his back. He was forced to lie on one side and then, being wedged between the bulkhead to the right and the clothes-press on the left, to hold fast against the movements of the boat in a seaway.
The occupant of the berth could not sleep with his feet aft as there was an electric fuse-box in the way. At times the cover of this box sprang open and it was all too easy to cause a short circuit by touching this with the feet. Under the sleeping compartments, as well as through the entire forward part of the vessel, were the electric accumulators which served to supply current to the electric motors for submerged cruising.
On the port side of the officer’s compartment was the berth of the Chief Engineer, while the centre of the compartment served as a passageway through the boat. On each side was a small upholstered transom between which a folding table could be inserted. Two folding camp-chairs completed the furniture.
While the Commanding Officer, Watch Officer and Chief Engineer took their meals, men had to pass back and forth through the boat, and each time anyone passed the table had to be folded.
Further aft, the crew space was separated from the officers’ compartment by a watertight bulkhead with a round watertight door for passage. On one side of the crew’s space a small electric range was supposed to serve for cooking – but the electric heating coil and the bake-oven short-circuited every time an attempt was made to use them.
Meals were always prepared on deck! For this purpose we had a small paraffin stove such as was in common use on Norwegian fishing vessels. This had the particular advantage of being serviceable even in a high wind.
The crew space had bunks for only a few of the crew – the rest slept in hammocks, when not on watch or on board the submarine mother-ship while in port…
The central station was abaft the crew space, closed off by a bulkhead both forward and aft. Here was the gyro compass and also the depth rudder hand-operating gear with which the boat was kept at the required level similar to a Zeppelin.
The bilge pumps, the blowers for clearing and filling the diving tanks – both electrically driven – as well as the air compressors were also here. In one small corner of this space stood a toilet screened by a curtain and, after seeing this arrangement, I understood why the officer I had relieved recommended the use of opium before all cruises which were to last over twelve hours.
In the engine room were the four…engines which could be coupled in tandem, two on each propeller shaft. The air required by these engines was drawn in through the conning-tower hatch, while the exhaust was led overboard through a long demountable funnel. Astern of the gas engines were the two electric motors for submerged cruising.
In the stem of the boat, right aft, was the after torpedo room with two stem torpedo tubes but without reserve torpedoes.
The conning tower is yet to be described. This was the battle station of the Commanding Officer and the Watch Officer. Here were located the two periscopes, a platform for the Helmsman and the ‘diving piano’ which consisted of twenty-four levers on each side controlling the valves for releasing air from the tanks. Near these were the indicator glasses and test cocks. Finally there was electrical controlling gear for depth steering, a depth indicator; voice pipes; and the electrical firing device for the torpedo tubes.’
February 1917: SS Dauntless
Shortly before the demise of UC-18, at the beginning of February 1917, George found himself preparing to leave Newcastle once again, this time in command of the steamer SS Dauntless.
She had been built by Blyth Shipbuilding in 1897, her gross tonnage was 2,157 tons and she should have carried a crew of 23 (though she may have sailed with fewer hands on this occasion).
On this trip she was heading to Bayonne – located at the junction between France and Spain on the Bay of Biscay – with a cargo of coal.
Dauntless worked her way steadily south along the west coast of France and, by Sunday 4 February, was some 10 miles off the Pointe de La Coubre, close to La Rochelle, perhaps 250 miles from her destination.
Towards evening she was intercepted by German U-boat UB-39, a coastal torpedo attack boat built in 1915 by Blohm and Voss of Hamburg. About 37 metres long, she carried 4-6 torpedoes and a 3.5 inch deck gun.
She had been launched in December 1915, commissioned in April 1916 and was also part of the Flanders Flotilla. She carried a complement of 23 men.
The captain was 27 year-old Oberleutnant Heinrich Kustner, son of a university professor, who had joined the navy as a cadet in 1908. He had assumed command of UB-39 in November 1916.
There is a near-contemporary account of what followed in ‘The German Pirate, His Methods and Record’ published anonymously by Ajax in 1918.
Although clearly biased, this claims that:
‘The following accounts of German submarine exploits have been compiled from British Admiralty documents and the sworn statements of survivors.’
It is therefore likely to rely heavily on George’s own version of events.
UB-39 must have surfaced for the attack, since it opened fire at around 18:00 with shells.
When a shot hit the funnel, George immediately ordered a change of course, but then a second shell hit the bridge, wounding him and the man at the wheel and damaging the ship’s steering.
So the engines were stopped and two boats were lowered. One fireman was killed on deck, but all the remaining crew managed to leave the ship.
The submarine drew alongside one of the lifeboats and ordered all the men on to the submarine. The German crew then rowed the lifeboat back to the Dauntless to search it, eventually returning with ‘contraband’ – some tinned food, turpentine and enamel. They were also towing the ship’s jolly boat.
The Germans had mined the Dauntless. A muffled explosion was heard shortly after eight that evening. The crew on board the submarine were ordered back into their boat.
According to this narrative, George and six other men took to the jolly boat, while the remaining nine crew members were in the other lifeboat. It seems likely that the first mate took charge of the lifeboat, while the remaining officers were with George in the jolly boat. It is not clear what happened to the second lifeboat.
The two remaining boats became separated. The remainder of Ajax’s narrative is confined to George and his companions:
‘They rowed the jolly-boat all through the night, and at 6 a.m. next day the steward died from exposure. His body was thrown overboard at 6 o’clock that evening. Land was then visible, but a snow-storm came on, and land was lost. They rowed all through the night, but on Tuesday morning land was sighted again, and at 10 a.m. the boat touched the beach and was overturned by breakers. The remaining six men managed to get ashore, but soon after landing the second engineer and a fireman died on the beach. The four survivors were taken to hospital, and on 12th February the mate and chief and second engineers were discharged. The master was left behind, suffering from exposure and shell wounds.’
The first newspaper reports, on 8 February 1917, broadly confirmed this version of events. But, two days later, newspapers carried further reports that:
‘The trawler Mamelena has picked up eighteen miles from land a boat with four seamen of the British steamer Dauntless, which was torpedoed at four o’clock last Sunday week. The men – three Englishmen and an American negro – had been without food of any kind for five days, and were in such terrible condition that they were taken to hospital.’
Two days later, the Birmingham Mail reported:
‘The British steamship Dauntless, with a crew of 23 men, was torpedoed and apparently shelled by a German submarine on February 4. The master, wounded by gunfire, the second mate and the chief and third engineers severely frostbitten, were picked up five days later. The boat also contained three corpses. The rest of the crew were not heard of again.’
The sailors in the lifeboat were presumably lost at sea.
It is impossible to explain why the two accounts differ so markedly.
We do know that fifteen casualties were listed, all given 4 February 1917 as their date of death:
- Ah Lung, an able seaman from Hong Kong
- Joseph Aquah, 27 year-old fireman from Newcastle
- Charles Austin, 23 year-old able seaman born in Barbados
- Bedon, 29 year-old able seaman born in Singapore
- Bolassi, 23 year-old able seaman from Singapore
- Robert Percy Davidson, 24 year-old second engineer from Jarrow
- Juan De Cruz, 36 year-old sailor from Cape Verde
- Joe Harris, 36 year-old fireman from Sierra Leone
- Francis William Houlbecq, 36 year-old first mate from Jersey
- Pablo Ibanez, 32 year-old donkeyman from Spain
- Ibrahim, a fireman from India
- Lee, 32 year-old steward from Montserrat
- Mauricio, 22 year-old steward from Cape Verde
- Miller, 34 year-old boatswain from Jamaica
- Robert John, 24 year-old fireman from Sierra Leone.
If there were only four survivors, this suggests that the full crew was only nineteen strong. The list illustrates perfectly the international flavour of a typical wartime merchant navy crew.
Kustner and the crew of UB-39 went on to attack many more ships. In a 6-month period between October 1916 and April 1917 they sank a total of 51 vessels (52,135 tons).
But UB-39 was also lost with all hands, in the English Channel on May 7, 1917, most probably to a mine on its homeward journey back to port in Zeebrugge.
Its end was also initially unclear. In 1921 the British adjudicated that it had been sunk by the Q-ship Glen off the Isle of Wight, but this has since been disproved by divers who have located the wreck.
George’s later years
I could uncover no information about the severity of George’s wounds, or how quickly he recovered from the trauma of this experience. If he did return to sea before the end of the War, he presumably travelled in the comparative safety of a convoy.
There are no further online records of his service, though he appears in Newcastle’s Absent Voter Lists until 1932, suggesting that he did not retire for another 15 years, when in his early 60s.
His father Edward died in 1929, at the age of 87.
According to the electoral register, George and Mary continued to live at 7 Albemarle Road until 1937. But Mary died on 6 January 1938 at St Margarets in Surrey. This suggests she had moved to be with her son George Edward and family, who were at this time living in Ailsa Road, not far from Twickenham Bridge.
The probate record gives Mary’s normal address as 10 Pine Avenue, Fawdon, Newcastle, indicating that she and George couple had moved shortly beforehand.
Following Mary’s death, George quickly remarried.
His aunt, Henrietta Dracup (1846-1924) had married one Robert Winter (1839-1911) and settled in Sheffield. Their youngest child, Henrietta Beatrice Winter, George’s first cousin, was born in 1888. The 1911 Census show her living at home, employed as a dressmaker.
She and George married in Sheffield in the second quarter of 1938. A year later, the 1939 Register finds them living at 4 West Park Avenue, Scalby, just north of Scarborough. George now gives his correct date of birth.
Here they remained until George died, at Scarborough Hospital, on 1 March 1946, aged 76. This was some 18 months after the untimely demise of his grandson Derek.
Henrietta continued to live in Scarborough, dying on 24 May 1962.
One can well imagine the young Derek visiting his grandfather at the outbreak of the Second World War and, perhaps while walking together along the cliffs beyond Scarborough, hearing once more the tale of his frightening near-death experience at the hands of the German Imperial Navy some 20 years earlier.