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Attacks from the Sea

On 5 September 1914, HMS Pathfinder was the first ship to be sunk by the enemy off St Abb's Head on the east coast of Scotland. First reports stated that the cruiser had hit a mine but later press releases announced that a torpedo, fired by a submarine, caused the ship to explode with the loss of 269 men. Only 11 of the crew survived.

Background to the impact of the Great War on Scotland.

Photograph of a German U-boat
The Government response to the German submarine campaign, 1917

An attack on merchant shipping, 1917

A German U-boat

Image of German U-boat, Imerial War Museum, reference 20220

Reproduced with kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, reference 20220

The Government response to the German submarine campaign, 1917

In 1915, Germany set up a submarine blockade of Britain in an attempt to cut off the supply of food and raw materials to the country. The German government did not discriminate between enemy, merchant or passenger ships. On 15 March 1915, the SS Fingal, a cargo and passenger ship belonging to the London and Edinburgh Shipping Company of Leith, was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Northumberland with the loss of 6 members of the crew of 27. In May 1915, a U-boat sank the liner the Lusitania with the loss of many lives. America entered the war against Germany in 1917, partly in response to interference with world trade and frequent submarines attacks on shipping.

Philip Kerr, 11th Earl of Lothian, was Private Secretary to Lloyd George during the war. His duties included gathering information for the Prime Minister. On 29 January 1917, he received this draft speech from a member of the Admiralty to support an official statement on the government's response to the German submarine campaign.

Print of copy of the transcript of the draft speech sent to Philip Kerr, 11th Earl of Lothian, Rich Text Format, 12KB, new window

A few words about the German submarine campaign.

I have not – I never have been – one of those who think that the British people flinch from the truth; therefore I tell you quite plainly that the scale and scope of the German submarine attacks upon the merchant shipping, not only of ourselves and of our Allies, but of the whole world, constitute a very serious danger. The surface supremacy of the sea is, and has been, ours since the beginning of the war. It has scarcely even been challenged. It is still true, if I may be allowed to adapt the famous sentence of that distinguished American historian, Admiral Mahan, that the fat off storm-beaten ships of the Grand Fleet, upon which the eyes of the German High Seas Fleet have not looked more often than they can help, stand between our enemy and the dominion of the world.

But the barbarous, ruthless nature of the underwater war upon peaceful shipping is another story. Like all new dangers it must be met – and is being met- by new methods. But do not imagine that the problem can be solved by any one man or any one method. It can only be solved by patient concentration, tireless energy, and the cumulative effect of every measure and device that human ingenuity can suggest.

We have got to tackle – and we are tackling – the problem at both ends. At one end we have got to destroy as many enemy submarines as we can – and for this we must look to the new Board of Admiralty and to the distinguished sailors who have come fresh from the sea, to devote their days and nights to the problem. As the Germans themselves have confessed, the British Navy dealt only too faithfully with the menace in its earlier phase. I do not believe the British Navy will fail us now: they have never failed us yet.

At the other end we are adopting what I may call defensive measures: and here I mean the vigorous efforts the Government are making to economise tonnage, to restrict superfluous imports, to provide British merchant vessels with a defensive armament, and to build new ships. One of the first decisions taken by the new War Cabinet was to see that our gallant merchant seamen shall be enabled to exercise their immemorial right of defending themselves against attack; and we laid it down that the Admiralty requirements for the defensive armament of merchant ships should have priority over all other demand for guns. I often wonder how long neutrals will endure the ruthless sinking of their ships without giving their own merchant seamen the same measure of protection which for centuries has been recognised as the right of all who sail the broad seas.

As to the construction of new ships, our aim is to see that if possible as many ships are put into the pool as the Germans can take out of it. The Shipping Controller, in conjunction with the Admiralty, is hard at work laying down fresh keels. What we want is a standardized cargo vessel – a sort of "Ford" merchant ship - whose parts can be built and put together with great speed.

I think I have said enough about this question to show you that the problem is being tackled with energy and vigour, and that we are leaving no stone unturned to deal with the danger with the same success as we have dealt with it before. Let us once rid the ocean highways of these pests, and we shall have done much to regain for the whole world the true and liberal "freedom of the seas."

(National Records of Scotland reference: GD40/17/638/7)

An attack on merchant shipping, 1917

On 12 September 1917, the SS St. Margaret, a cargo steamer on a voyage from Leith to Reykjavik, was torpedoed by a German U-103 submarine and sank in the Atlantic 48 kms [30 miles] south-east of the Faroe Islands.

The record of this wartime casualty has survived among the papers of William Whitelaw, a lawyer based in Leith, who specialised in handling maritime disasters. Usually he dealt with the loss of ships due to storms or mechanical failure but the outbreak of war presented him with different cases.

In order to claim compensation for the loss of his ship, the cargo and some of the crew, the Master of the St Margaret had to submit a detailed report of the incident to William Whitelaw. This is a summarised version of the report:

Print a copy of the transcript of a summarised version of the report complied by the Master of the St Margaret, Rich Text format, 10 KB, new window

William Leask, Master of the SS St Margaret of Aberdeen stated that he sailed from Leith at 8am on 9 September 1917, with a general cargo of 450 tons, bound for Iceland via Lerwick. He left Lerwick at 4pm on 11 September heading for the Faroes on his way to Iceland.

The following day at 1.30pm, he saw a black object in the distance from the starboard bow of the St Margaret. At 3.45pm, his ship was struck amidships by a torpedo on the starboard side and started to sink at once. Just as the torpedo was fired, the periscope of a submarine was spotted about 150 yards away.

The Master ordered the port boat to be put out and got 4 men in it but the starboard boat became waterlogged and no one could get in. The ship sank in 3½ minutes. Five of the crew were drowned. The rest kept themselves afloat until they were picked up by the port boat. The submarine came to the surface, examined the boat and then left.

At this time, the Master and his crew were 30 miles from the Faroes in a gale in heavy seas. They spent 3 days and 3 nights in the open boat before reaching Hillswick [on the coast of Shetland] at 6.30 p.m. on 18 September having lost all their personal effects.

(National Records of Scotland reference: NP1/175)
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