Monday 19 November 2018

Torpedoed! 567 perish as German sub sinks Irish mailboat

It was known as Dublin's Titanic. The sinking of the RMS Leinster by a German U-boat in 1918 was the Irish Sea's worst-ever disaster - but the plight of its victims was largely forgotten

U-boat attack: Brian Ellis, right, honorary librarian at the National Maritime Museum, and author Philip Lecane beside a model of the RMS Leinster in the Dún Laoghaire museum. Photo: Damien Eagers
U-boat attack: Brian Ellis, right, honorary librarian at the National Maritime Museum, and author Philip Lecane beside a model of the RMS Leinster in the Dún Laoghaire museum. Photo: Damien Eagers
A painting of the RMS Leinster
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It was the morning when World War I came close to Dublin's shores, as the Germans attacked.

On October 10, 1918, just 15 miles off Dún Laoghaire, the mailboat RMS Leinster was struck by two torpedoes fired by a U-boat on its journey to Holyhead.

Up to 567 people lost their lives in the sinking, which remains the worst disaster on the Irish Sea - and the greatest ever tragedy involving an Irish-owned ship.

More Irish people died in the sinking of RMS Leinster than on the Titanic or the Lusitania.

A painting of the RMS Leinster
A painting of the RMS Leinster

But, according to the historian Philip Lecane, with the passage of time, the story of the Leinster sank into an ocean of forgetfulness as deep as the sea in which the ship itself lies.

Despite the huge loss of life, it has been largely ignored in mainstream Irish history books.

Together with Brian Ellis, a librarian at the National Maritime Museum, Philip Lecane has spent decades studying the event, and discovering who was on board on that day.

Ellis believes the tragedy was largely ignored because there were many Irish members of the British forces on board as well as ordinary civilians travelling across the Irish Sea.

"A lot of the passengers were Irishmen going to fight for the British in the war, and in many families, people didn't want to talk about that," says Ellis.

"Also, it was just before the end of the war and it was quickly overtaken by events and the War of Independence."

The weather was fine just before 9am when the RMS Leinster moved away from Carlisle Pier in Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) on what should have been a routine journey.

Captained by William Birch, there was a crew of 76, mostly from Dún Laoghaire and Holyhead. Also on board were 22 postal sorters from Dublin Post Office, working in the ship's mailroom.

There were just under 200 civilian passengers, most of them from Ireland and Britain, and the rest of those on board were military personnel.

The original purpose of the ship was to carry post, but passenger traffic soon became the most important source of revenue for its owners.

By the time the ship passed the Kish light vessel beyond Dublin Bay soon after 9.30am, staff had finished serving breakfast on board.

First-class passengers took their breakfast in an elegant mahogany-lined dining room with a glass dome.

There was a first-class smoking room fitted out in oak with seats of Morocco leather and a first-class ladies' sitting room, "decorated in Louis XVI style in white and gold".

Passengers were relaxing and reading the papers, but as Philip Lecane describes it in his book Torpedoed! The RMS Leinster Disaster, the German submarine UB-123 was patrolling the depths like a steel shark.

Merchant ships were considered legitimate targets by the Germans at the time, and undetected in the area, the submarine fired off its first torpedo.

Sitting on the deck of the Leinster seconds afterward, PJ Fahey, a soldier, thought he spotted a dolphin coming in the direction of the ship.

Another passenger thought it was a whale, but it was the first torpedo, which missed its target.

When a second torpedo was spotted approaching, Captain Birch desperately tried to manoeuvre the ship out of the way, shouting: "Helm hard a-Port! Starboard full astern".

But it was too late - the torpedo hit the left side of the ship near the mailroom where the postal sorters were working, and sliced through to the right side of the boat.

Captain Birch shouted: "All hands to the boat stations!" But he himself stayed on the bridge giving orders.

The ship was slowly sinking and lifeboats were filling up with passengers.

Passenger Minnie Donnelly, lady-in-waiting to Lady Keppel, later told how she was helped into a lifeboat by an American soldier.

Lifeboats capsized

But she complained that many men paid no attention to the motto "women and children first" and barged their way on to the boats.

There were 30 in Minnie Donnelly's lifeboat and it had just got away from the Leinster when another torpedo struck the ship and seemed to blow it apart, causing scenes of pandemonium and panic.

"Dense black clouds of smoke went up," said Donnelly in an interview with the Waterford News.

"Pieces of the steamer were blown into the air, including the two funnels, and some of the passengers were also blown up with the force of the explosion."

Passengers were thrown into the water or jumped into the sea to escape the sinking ship. Within four minutes, the Leinster split up and sank, bow first, beneath the waves.

Minnie Donnelly saw another lifeboat capsize under the force of the explosion. Passengers clung desperately to life rafts and flotsam in the sea.

The captain was blown into the air and into the sea, but bleeding and wounded, he managed to get on board a lifeboat. But he later drowned when another lifeboat capsized.

It took a long time for rescue boats to arrive, and in the intervening period many passengers perished.

According to an account in the Irish Independent, Anna Carlye was thrown into the sea during the rescue when her lifeboat turned over.

"She wore a large fur coat, however, and this appears to have retained the air and floated her head above the surface."

Meanwhile, back in Dún Laoghaire, word has spread that the Leinster had been hit.

As the Irish Independent reported: "When the news spread abroad in Kingstown, huge crowds thronged the Marine Road, and the trains and trams from the city brought friends and relatives of those on board."

The mood was one of anxious expectancy as men and women scanned the horizon, and it took a long time before the scale of the tragedy sank in.

Doctors, nurses, and a fleet of over 200 ambulances waited at Victoria Wharf, and the injured were taken to St Michael's Hospital and other Dublin hospitals. Those not requiring medical treatment were brought to local hotels and guest houses.

According to the next day's report, "many were scantily clothed, and a great many of the seamen were barefooted".

"The spectacle was an extraordinary one and crowds of people in the streets of Kingstown, deeply moved by the plight of the rescued ones, gave them encouraging cheers as they passed," it added.

The military adjutant on board, Hugh Parker, who walked from the jetty in pyjamas and a dressing gown, got a rousing ovation.

'A diabolical crime'

The initial estimates of the number of deaths was put at 501, but after an exhaustive study of the sinking, Philip Lecane and Brian Ellis estimate the number of fatalities at 567.

In an editorial on the day after the U-boat attack, the Irish Independent described the sinking as a "diabolical crime".

"A vessel carrying women, children and defenceless civilians was attacked and sunk with the most cold-blooded disregard for the safety of any of the unfortunate passengers and crew."

Within a few weeks, the war was over and the Germans had been defeated. Within a short time, the War of Independence had broken out - and the significance of the disaster seemed to disappear in a bout of collective amnesia.

It took many decades for the plight of the hundreds on board the RMS Leinster to be reawakened in public consciousness.

In 1991, the anchor of the RMS Leinster was recovered by divers and rests on Dún Laoghaire seafront as a memorial to the victims, close to the spot where the ship set off on its final voyage on that fateful day.

@KimBielenberg

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