History: The “North” boats in World War One

During the First World War there were four major incidents involving ships of the North of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Company, resulting in the loss of two of their vessels. Here, John H. Manson outlines these incidents, and highlights the achievements of one the company’s most outstanding captains.

St. Clair in collision with a battleship

At 2130 hrs on 27th August 1914, approximately three weeks after the start of the war, the St. Clair, under the command of Captain David Burgess, collided with the battleship HMS Bellerophon (displacement, fully laden, about 22,000 tons). The battleship, which loomed in sight on the St. Clair’s starboard side travelling at high speed, was struck amidships on her port side, by the bow of the St. Clair which was going “hard a-port” in a desperate attempt to avert a collision. The oldest and one of the smallest of the company’s ships, the St. Clair had a gross registered tonnage (GRT) of 641 tons, and her displacement tonnage (i.e. her actual weight) would have been considerably less, so she was no match for the huge armour-plated battleship.

Built with a hull resembling that of a sailing ship, the St. Clair had an old-fashioned curved bow, complete with a wooden bowsprit. According to the report given by Captain Burgess, the collision occurred four miles off Wick. The Shetland Times reported that the night was clear but very dark.

It is worth noting that none of the “North boats” had an enclosed wheelhouse at that time; the officer of the watch and the helmsman stood on an open uncovered bridge with a magnetic compass as their only navigation aid.

I first read about this incident in an article in the May 1960 issue of the magazine Sea Breezes, written by a Shetlander, Captain Gilbert Harrison, who was chief officer on the St. Clair and was off watch when the collision occurred. He wrote that it was a fine evening and he was in his cabin with the porthole open when he heard the noise of the huge battleship and saw her approaching at full speed with no navigation lights on. From the curatorial officer at the Admiralty Library I recently obtained the following brief extract from the warship’s log for 27 August 1914: “Departed Scapa Flow. In collision with unknown steamer on port side.”

No doubt it was normal, in wartime, for naval ships to travel without lights but, at this early stage in the war, when the threat of enemy submarines attacking merchant ships had probably not been widely recognised, it is likely that the St. Clair and other merchant ships would have had their navigation lights on to avoid collisions in coastal waters.

In my research I have noted that, up to 1917 at least, the “North” company continued to publish in the local newspapers the scheduled days and times of their ships’ departures from all the regular ports they served. The St. Clair was on a special voyage from Scalloway to Invergordon – not one of the company’s normal ports of call – with 1,900 live lambs and no passengers. HMS Bellerophon, with other units of the Grand Fleet, was travelling east at high speed. The force of the collision caused the small steamer to heel right over to port and her bows and hull plates were torn and twisted right down to below the waterline.  Her foremast went over the side and her bowsprit was smashed. Fortunately nobody was injured and the livestock were unharmed.

Captain Burgess signalled to the battleship, as she sped away eastwards with the other Grand Fleet ships, that he was heading for the port of Wick in Caithness, where the vessel arrived an hour or two later. He commented that the battleship “favoured” them with “a mere wink of searchlight” and continued on her course. The sea was calm and there was very little ingress of water through the damaged bows of the St. Clair. The 1,900 lambs were landed safely at Wick.

R.A. Burt’s British Battleships of World War One, published in 1986, noted in its brief history of HMS Bellerophon that at 2130 hours on 27th August 1914 she “collided with ss St.Clair off the Orkneys while the latter was passing through Grand Fleet, no important damage sustained.” This was no doubt the case so far as the armour-plated battleship was concerned, but the damage to the St. Clair was much more significant, as reported in the Shipping Gazette Weekly Summary:

“Wick, Aug. 28. The steamer St. Clair, of Aberdeen, which was in collision off Wick Bay at 10 o’clock last night, received considerable damage. Her stem was cut open and twisted, and her bowsprit and foremast carried away.

“Wick, Aug. 29. The steamer St. Clair, of Aberdeen, which sustained damage in a collision off Wick Bay, is undergoing temporary repairs here.

“Leith, Aug. 31. The steamer St Clair, of Aberdeen, which has been in collision, arrived here today from Aberdeen, and was dry-docked for repairs. Besides losing her foremast, the steamer’s bows have been knocked shapeless, her stem and many plates being smashed. The damage extends below the waterline.

“Leith, Oct. 16. The St. Clair, of Aberdeen, which was in collision six weeks ago, and sustained extensive damage, has completed repairs. Fully 20 plates in both bows were taken out, and a new stem, figurehead, and bowsprit supplied.”

Incidentally, although the St. Clair’s foremast was well clear of the collision area, it had two wire forestays attached to the fore-end of the bowsprit, and they would have pulled the mast down when the bowsprit was demolished.

The Shetland Times of 5 Sept. reported that the top of the “aftermast” was also carried away. There was no triatic stay connecting the two masts, and wireless aerials had not yet been installed in any of the “North” ships, so it must have been a “whiplash” effect, caused by the collision, which broke the top off the mainmast. It is a measure of the ship’s strong construction that the impact did not cause more structural damage than it did.

Alistair Deayton’s book Orkney & Shetland Steamers, published in 2002, contains the only photograph, of which I am aware, showing the damaged vessel lying at the North Quay in Wick harbour. This photograph is reproduced here.

Capt. Burgess had his first command in the company as master of the Earl of Zetland in 1913, transferring later to the St. Clair. As mentioned earlier Gilbert Harrison was serving as chief officer (first mate) at the time of this incident. The second mate was Daniel Brown, also a Shetlander.

I consulted the “North” company’s minute books in the University of Aberdeen library, hoping to find there more information about this incident, but to my surprise the only reference I could find was in the minutes of a meeting held on 28 August 1914, which reads:

“Telegrams were before the meeting from the Agent at Wick stating that the St. Clair had been in collision with a warship believed to be British 4 miles off Wick at about 11 pm on 27th inst. and had put into Wick harbour with damaged bows. The Manager was instructed to take the necessary steps for dealing with the matter.”  I could find no further mention of the incident in the minutes of subsequent board meetings.

St. Margaret torpedoed off Faroe

The first St. Margaret, 943 GRT, built in 1913, had one of the shortest periods of service in the company’s service. In June 1917 the company agreed to accept an offer to charter the St. Margaret for a period of thee months to provide a service between the UK and Iceland. It is probable that connections between the UK and Iceland had previously been provided by Danish or Icelandic vessels and that, because of the risk of u-boat attacks, this service had been withdrawn.

While on her way from Lerwick to Iceland the St. Margaret was torpedoed and sunk without warning by a German submarine some 30 miles east of Faroe at 15.45 hours on 12th September 1917. The incident was described in some detail in Professor Gordon Donaldson’s book Northwards by Sea but a fuller account, written by the ship’s master, Captain William Leask, formerly of Heogan, Bressay, is recorded in the minutes of a board meeting held on 21st September 1917, and a report, obviously based on information from rescued crew members, was published in The Shetland News on 20th September 1917.

Piecing together information from these various sources the story is as follows. The torpedo exploded in the ship’s coal bunkers on the port side and she sank in less than ten minutes with the loss of five crew members. One lifeboat was launched successfully with four men aboard to man the oars but the second boat was capsized by the suction of the sinking ship, throwing into the water the remaining crew members including Captain Leask. He hung on to a thwart in the hope that the lifeboat might right itself but this did not happen and he was trapped under the upturned boat along with one of the firemen.

The men in the first boat did all they could to rescue those in the water and then made a desperate attempt to break through the bottom of the upturned boat, In the half-hour it took to achieve this the fireman drowned. Capt. Leask was scarcely conscious when released and remained so for until revived by his colleagues some eight or nine hours later. He then found that the crew were attempting to row thirty miles in the teeth of the wind to Faroe, the nearest land.

Although soaking wet, exhausted, and with one hand injured Captain Leask undertook to navigate over the much longer distance – over 150 miles – to Shetland, and the others agreed to make the attempt. With an oar for a mast and part of the boat’s cover for a sail, they had a hazardous and miserable voyage. Captain Leask later wrote: “When I regained consciousness I shaped a course for Shetland as it was impossible to get to Faroe owing to the strong NNW wind and heavy sea. We had a very trying time being three days and three nights in an open boat without oilskins and very little food, only a few biscuits a day and a little water. The nights were bitterly cold and it rained every night. No vessel of any kind was ever sighted from the time we left Lerwick until we arrived back in Hillswick. We arrived there at 6.30 pm on Saturday night and the Hillswick people were very kind to us and soon got hot food and dry clothes.”

With only the lifeboat’s compass and his knowledge of the stars Captain Leask’s navigation was precise, and all 18 survivors were landed safely at Hillswick. The five crew members lost were chief officer Mr. Lamont, able seaman Charles Gallagher and three firemen, David McKelly, Pat Kearney and Adam McGregor. The only other Shetlander in the crew was Andrew Sutherland, second engineer.

Royal Navy vehicles transported the 18 survivors to Lerwick, arriving there about 22.30 hours the same night. These vehicles were presumably at the Hillswick hotel where officers of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, based at Swarbacks Minn, were probably billeted.

St. Clair attacked by a submarine

On 19th January 1918, the St. Clair was engaged in action with a surfaced German submarine. Captain William Leask, who only four months earlier had survived the sinking of the St. Margaret, was in command and the following

is a slightly edited version of his report, as recorded in the company’s minute book:

“At 4.30 pm we were attacked by a German submarine about 12 miles SSW of Fair Isle. About 40 rounds were fired at us. We fired only about 10 rounds as we could only see the flash of his guns and it was difficult to judge the range. I don’t know if any of our shots were successful – I hope they were. By using the smoke boxes” [to provide a smoke screen] “and with night coming on we managed to dodge him. We were under fire from his guns for 45 minutes. It was very exciting but the passengers and crew all behaved well and this helped us greatly to escape. The second gunner was killed instantaneously while serving the gun. The cook was severely wounded at the same time and has since died.”

A letter to the company from the office of the Senior Naval Officer at Aberdeen advised them that the vessel was not actually hit by any of the enemy shells but that a splinter of shell had killed J. Robson of the gun’s crew and wounded the cook who died later.

Captain Leask’s report referred to the submarine’s “guns” – in the plural. She would have had only one breech-loading gun mounted on her foredeck but perhaps may have opened fire with machine-guns as well. The captain’s report listed fairly minor damage to the St.Clair, which must have been caused by shrapnel from bursting shells or by machine-gun bullets, as no shells struck the ship. In Northwards by Sea, Professor Gordon Donaldson wrote that it was believed that the St. Clair’s return fire sank the submarine but there is nothing in the report to substantiate such a claim. The St. Clair, in common with most British merchant ships by that late stage in the war, would have had a breech-loading gun mounted near the stern, with Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) gunners in charge assisted by members of the ship’s crew.

Built in 1868, the St. Clair, one of the smallest and also the longest-serving of all the vessels in the company’s fleet, plied the northern routes for 69 years until sold for scrap in 1937. She was used mainly on the Caithness route from Leith and Aberdeen to Wick and Scrabster, and also on the route via Stromness to Scalloway and other west-side Shetland ports. Up until the mid 1930s the St. Clair made occasional visits to Lerwick as a stand-in vessel on the weekend indirect run at the time of the switch-over from the winter to summer sailing schedules.

St. Magnus Sunk off Peterhead

At 12.15 hours on 12th February 1918, the second St. Magnus, 957 GRT, built in 1912, was sunk by an explosion three miles north-north-east of Peterhead while on passage from Lerwick and Kirkwall to Aberdeen and Leith. Captain John Mackenzie was in command. His report, recorded in the minutes of a board meeting on 15 February 1914, states that the ship sank stern-first about five minutes after the explosion, with the loss of one crew member, named as John Johnson, a fireman, “belonging to Lerwick” and four steerage class male passengers who had boarded at Kirkwall. They were described in the master’s report as “navvies”, probably labourers from outwith the islands who had been employed on war-related work in Orkney. Sea conditions were good and all the remaining crew and passengers escaped in two lifeboats and were picked up by two minesweepers which were working in the area.  Incidentally, there is no record in Shetland’s Roll of Honour of anyone named John Johnson being lost in the sinking of the St. Magnus.

The chief officer, Peter Peterson, was on the bridge and presumably saw nothing untoward, but the master’s report claimed that a torpedo struck the ship and that gunner Magnus Oakes saw the wake of the approaching torpedo but had no time to raise the alarm. There must have been some doubt about this claim. A typed sheet, dated 15th November 1918, placed in the handwritten minute book, records the names of the vessels and of their shipmasters engaged in the company’s service throughout the war. With regard to the sinking of the St. Magnus, there is a note: “The submarine was not seen and this loss may have been caused by a mine”.

Sadly, gun-layer Magnus Oakes RNR, of Lerwick, lost his life six months later when the ship on which he was then serving, ss Movenia, was torpedoed off Scarborough.

More details of the sinking of the St. Magnus were described in a report, written sometime later by a member of a Shetland family who had joined the ship at Lerwick on the previous evening. They comprised a mother, her 18-year-old daughter, and a younger daughter and son. They were leaving Shetland to set up a new home in Edinburgh where an older son was already living. The lady’s husband, also a Shetlander, was serving as a merchant marine officer, possibly with a Leith-based shipping company.

Under the assumption that the ship had been torpedoed, the writer recalled that most of the passengers were resting at the time and were literally thrown from their bunks or seats by the explosion. Stewards were quickly on the scene to hurry everyone to the boat-decks as the stern of the ship began to tilt downwards because of the inrush of water.  It was discovered that all three lifeboats on the port side of the ship had been rendered useless by the explosion. One of the three lifeboats on the starboard side was rapidly manned and launched, the second one fouled in its davits and could not be lowered.  Because of the increasing inclination of the vessel there was no time to launch the remaining boat in the normal way. It was just dropped into the sea and the remaining passengers and crew had to jump into it from the now steeply tilting deck. One young man misjudged his jump and had to be rescued from the water.

In this apparently over-crowded boat there was some anxiety as they hurried to pull away from the stricken ship which, only minutes later, upended and slipped out of sight. Some time later the two minesweepers came to the rescue, taking all the survivors on board and towing the two lifeboats into Peterhead harbour.

The survivors had only the clothes they were wearing; all their personal possessions and luggage went down with the ship. At Peterhead they were fitted out with “odds and ends of clothing from the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society” and those passengers destined for Leith were accommodated in a local hotel overnight before continuing their journey by rail the following day.

Captain William Petrie Leask, DSC

Captain Leask was one of the most outstanding, and also the most highly decorated, of the North company’s shipmasters. His first command was the Earl of Zetland in 1908, followed by the St. Giles, St. Magnus and St. Margaret.   At a board meeting on 25th January 1918, at which his report was received on the encounter with the enemy submarine, “instructions were given to congratulate Capt. Leask on the manner of his successful escape and to pay him a month’s salary extra.”

The Shipping Federation awarded silver medals and diplomas to Capt. Leask and Mr. Frank Russell (chief engineer) late of the ss St. Margaret “in recognition of the skill and bravery of their conduct in bringing the ship’s crew safely to port”, and at Buckingham Palace on 4 June 1918 Captain Leask was decorated by King George V with the Distinguished Service Cross. He was also awarded Lloyd’s War Medal.

Captain Leask’s written reports to the directors on the two wartime incidents in which he was in command are masterpieces of clarity and brevity. Reading his report on the St. Clair’s encounter with the German u-boat, just four months after his traumatic experience in the sinking of the St. Margaret, I was impressed by his “up-beat” attitude. “It was very exciting” he wrote!

Following the retirement of Captain John Scott, MBE, in 1921, Captain Leask became Commodore of the company’s fleet. He took command of the third St. Magnus on her completion at Aberdeen in 1924 and, similarly, of the second St. Clair in 1937.

A quiet, unassuming, slightly-built man, he was an outstanding navigator and ship-handler. The 1924 St. Magnus at 1,590 GRT was significantly bigger than all previous ships in the company fleet and her superstructure was higher, with the navigating bridge a deck above those of the earlier ships. Incidentally, she was the first of the “North boats” to have an enclosed wheelhouse when built.

One of my boyhood delights was to watch Captain Leask manoeuvring the St. Magnus at Lerwick, particularly on a windy Saturday evening when perhaps both cross-wind and tide were making it difficult for the helmsman to keep the ship’s head “on the boot”, which was the final instruction given to the helmsman when making for the narrow gap between Victoria Pier and the end of the breakwater. Captain Leask usually made the approach at a speed which would have frightened many a weaker heart.


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