Remembering the RMS Leinster: the greatest ever loss of life in the Irish Sea
by Philip Lecane
During the second half of the 19th century and the first 18 years of the 20th, the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (CDSPCo) played an important role in the economic and social history of Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) and Holyhead.
Twice daily the company’s steamers carried passengers and mail between the two ports. The men and women who crewed the ships were drawn almost exclusively from Kingstown and Holyhead. In 1860, the company put four paddle steamers on the route. Named Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster, they were often referred to as the Provinces.
The ships proudly bore the prefix RMS, which indicated each was a Royal Mail Steamer, carrying the mail between Ireland and Great Britain. In 1894, the company placed an order with Laird Brothers of Birkenhead for four identical twin-screw steamers. Like their predecessors, they were named after Ireland’s provinces. With a speed of 24 knots, the 2640-ton vessels were, at the time of their launch, the fastest cross-channel steamers in the world.
In their first year in service they made the crossing in an average of 2 hours 51 minutes. Each ship had an onboard post office. Staffed from the Dublin Post Office, it could facilitate 30 postal sorters and 250 bags of mail. From mid-1861, a special date stamp was used to frank mail sorted on the ships.
In 1915, with the First World War in its second year, the Admiralty requisitioned the RMS Connaught. On 5 May 1915, she left Holyhead for Southampton, from where she was used to transport troops and equipment to France. On 3 March 1917, while returning to Southampton, the RMS Connaught was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel.
Three crewmen were lost.
On 27 December 1917, while bound for Holyhead, a torpedo was fired at the RMS Leinster 12 miles east of the Kish bank.
It missed the ship by about 20 yards.
On 22 March and 6 April 1918, torpedoes were fired at the RMS Ulster and on 13 April, one was fired at the RMS Munster.
All missed their targets.
The RMS Leinster encountered submarines on 21 April and 14 August, but no torpedoes were fired. As submarine attacks on British merchant shipping grew, the Provinces, like other merchant ships, were painted in camouflage, giving them an appearance similar to that of a warship. To add to the warlike appearance, a 12-pounder (i.e. 3 inch) gun was mounted on a platform at the stern of each vessel. Members of the Royal Navy were assigned to each ship, as gunners for the 12-pounder.
The Royal Navy blockaded Germany from the start of the war.
The country faced starvation and defeat unless the blockade could be countered. From the early days of the war Germany's submarines avoided the blockade by sailing beneath the ocean’s surface. They brought the war to their enemy by attacking merchant shipping, in an attempt to starve Britain into submission before Germany herself suffered the same fate. However, faced with protests by neutral America following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, Germany suspended her unrestricted attacks on merchant shipping.
In 1917, in a desperate all-out attempt to win the war, she resumed unrestricted attacks. The Germans had three classes of submarine, the U-class for long voyages, the UB-class for operations around Britain and Ireland and the UC-class for mine-laying operations.
On 26 September 1918, submarine UB-123 left Heligoland, a submarine-base off the north coast of Germany. Oberleutnant zur See Robert Ramm had orders to operate in the Irish Sea, an area in which neither he nor his boat had previously sailed. 27-year-old Ramm had served on submarines since April 1916. Married, with two children, he had been given new submarine UB-123 as his first command on 6 April 1918.
The boat’s first cruise, in July and August 1918, had been dogged by technical failures and sickness among the crew. Ramm must have hoped the second voyage would be more successful. His crew consisted of two officers and 33 men. While the officers were aged 23 and 21, the men’s average age would have been between 19 to 20 years old. Many would have had their first submarine service during UB-123’s previous combat voyage. Unlike modern submarines, which are designed to spend most of their time submerged, the submarines of the two world wars were really surface craft that could operate submerged only for short periods of time. Because of the necessity to recharge batteries and due to their slow underwater speed, they spent as much time as possible on the surface, diving only to avoid or to attack enemy ships.
To hinder German submarines sailing from the North Sea into the Atlantic, the British and American navies had laid a huge minefield – known as the Northern Barrage – between the north coast of Scotland and the west coast of Norway. UB-123 successfully avoided the minefield and sailed into the Atlantic. Robert Ramm’s submarine was on her way to bring death to the Irish Sea.
UB-123 was still on its voyage when, on 6 October, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson received a message:
‘The German Government requests the President of the United States of America to take steps for the restoration of peace, to notify all belligerents of this request, and to invite them to delegate plenipotentiaries for the purpose of taking up negotiations. In order to avoid further bloodshed, the German Government requests the President to bring about the immediate conclusion of an armistice on land, by sea and in the air.’
Wilson replied on 8 October, seeking clarification from Germany.
Early in the morning of 10 October 1918, mailbags were put on board a sorting carriage at Westland Row Railway Station and the train set out for Kingstown. Assistant Superintendent of Postal Sorters Richard Patterson’s team had 20 men.
A further man would join them at Kingstown. Patterson lived in Sandymount, Dublin. Three of his sons were serving in the army. In his spare time, he was President and Secretary of the Dolphin Rowing Club, Ringsend. Most of the sorters were Dublin born. Most were married, some with large families.
Nearly all lived on the north side of Dublin city, apart from Patterson and John Ledwidge from Dalkey. In one of those random acts of fate, which often precede large-scale loss of life, three of the men were replacing colleagues who were ill.
Kingstown resident Postal Sorter Adam Smyth was told he had been assigned to replace an ill colleague. He left home without his sandwiches. One of his daughters ran after him with them. She was the last member of the family to see him alive.
At Kingstown harbour, the sorters boarded the RMS Leinster and began to sort the mail.
As Richard Patterson’s men worked in the sorting office, high above them passengers boarded the ship by means of two gangways to the main deck. Some had travelled by train. Others had come by different modes of transport or had spent the previous night in Kingstown.
A few passengers were already aboard, having booked a cabin for the previous night. While the civilian passengers came from various parts of Ireland and Britain, most of the passengers travelling that day wore military or naval uniform and came from most of the world’s English-speaking countries. There were soldiers from Ireland, Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Irish and British sailors from the Royal Navy and American sailors from the U.S. Navy Naval Air Service and military and civilian nurses. The Irish, Canadian, Australians and New Zealanders were returning from leave in Ireland, while the British and American were going on leave (the latter from U.S. bases in Co. Cork.)
At 8.50 a.m. the ship set sail.
The weather was fine, but the sea was rough. Staff had just finished serving breakfast in the dining room. Many passengers were in their cabins, possibly feeling tired or sea sick. It was just before 10 am.
Sitting on the deck of the RMS Leinster, New Zealand Rifleman Patrick Joseph Fahey saw what he thought was a porpoise on the port (left) side. He pointed it out to Australian Lance-Corporal Michael Roach, who thought it was a whale.
The approaching torpedo had also been seen from the bridge. It missed the ship, passing across her bows. A second G6AV torpedo shot from the submarine's tubes and sped towards the ship at a speed of 27 knots. On the bridge, Seaman Hugh Owen from Holyhead saw the second torpedo approaching from the port side. He pointed it out to Captain William Birch, who shouted ‘Helm hard a-Port! Starboard full astern!’
The intention was to swing the ship to starboard, to avoid the on-coming torpedo. Before the manoeuvre could be completed the torpedo struck the ship forward on the port side in the vicinity of the mailroom. 21 of the 22 postal sorters died in the explosion or in the aftermath.
Captain Birch ordered ‘All hands to the boat stations!’
He remained on the bridge giving orders. The RMS Leinster continued to turn until it was facing back the way it had come. The ship began to settle by the bow. With only a few lifeboats launched, another torpedo struck the ship on the starboard (right) side. A full lifeboat that was being lowered on the starboard side was blown to pieces.
The RMS Leinster sank quickly.
Her mission completed, UB-123 would have left the scene as quickly as possible to avoid British warships. In the hours following the sinking, hundreds of people struggled to survive in lifeboats, on rafts, clinging to wreckage and swimming in the rough sea. Many of them lost the grim fight before rescue arrived. The most up to date research shows that 564 people died when the RMS Leinster was sunk. 239 survived aboard lifeboats, clinging to life-rafts and in the sea.
On 12 October, Germany replied to President Wilson’s request for clarification.
The German government confirmed its acceptance of Wilson’s 14 Point Peace Plan.
According to historian Gregor Dallas, author of 1918: War and Peace, ‘For days, relatives stood on the shores to identify the corpses as they were washed up. A howl of indignation buried all charitable thoughts in Britain and the United States when Germany’s second note was published.’
On 14 October Wilson sent a harsh reply to Germany saying inter alia:
‘At the very moment that the German Government approaches the Government of the United States with proposals of peace, its submarines are engaged in sinking passenger ships at sea …’
On 18 October 1918, UB-123 was lost in the Northern Barrage minefield in the North Sea, while attempting to return to Germany. Robert Ramm and his 35-man crew were lost in the sinking. Nine days later, on 28 October, Robert Ramm’s widow, Gerda, lost her submarine-commander brother, Hans Joachim Emsmann. He was Ramm’s naval academy classmate and had introduced the couple. Emsmann and all of his crew were lost in a failed attack on the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow. On 21 October, 11 days after the sinking of the Leinster, Reinhard Scheer, Admiral of the German High Seas Fleet, signalled his submarines:
‘To all U-boats: Commence return from patrol at once. Because of ongoing negotiations any hostile actions against merchant vessels prohibited. Returning U-boats are allowed to attack warships only in daylight. End of message. Admiral.’
The RMS Leinster was sunk just 11 days before Germany announced the end of the U-boat war against merchant shipping.
Philip Lecane, Library Service, National Maritime Museum, is the author of Torpedoed! The RMS Leinster Disaster