On Friday January 29 1915, the merchant vessel SS Oriole set sale from its home port of London, heading for le Havre in France. It was last seen off Dungeness on Saturday 30th. A few days later two of its lifebuoys were washed ashore on the Sussex coast.
The SS Oriole (Daily Mirror 10 February 1915)
The blockades by the Germans against the UK and by the UK against Germany were hugely important in the course of the Great War. Starvation through lack of imported food was a grave risk to both nations. In the end it was the British blockade that had the decisive effect, although the German attacks on merchant shipping in 1915 and 1917 helped to bring the USA into the war, which also helped to tip the balance in favour of the Allied Powers. Our story today, though, comes just before the German navy proclaimed the seas around Britain to be a war zone.
The Oriole was a steamer built in 1914 and weighing 1,489 tons, owned by the General Steam Navigation Co of London. On 29 January, it set sail with a normal cargo under captain William George Dale, from Wimbledon; under Dale were 20 other crewmen. On the 30th, the crew of (appropriately named) SS London Trader passed the Oriole off Dungeness.
What happened next is not definitively known. On 6 February, two lifebuoys from the Oriole were washed up on the shore at Rye. On 20 March, a bottle was found by Guernsey fisherman containing a message written by the Oriole’s carpenter: “Oriole torpedoed – sinking”. By that time, the vessel had already been declared lost, and along with it all 21 lives aboard.
It is thought that the Oriole was sunk by submarine U20, captained by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger. That same submarine struck two other vessels that day: the Ikaria, which had sailed from Buenos Aires, and the Tokomaru, which had come from New Zealand. The crew of the Tokomaru managed to get away before it sank and were taken to Le Havre; the Tokomaru stayed afloat and was towed into that same port but was taken back out and sank on February 2nd. Nothing was seen of the Oriole, the vessel on the shortest journey.
The newspapers reported the Oriole as missing on 9 February, quoting an official statement:
“The British steamship Oriole, of the General Steam Navigation Company, which left London on January 29, was due at Havre the following day.
She has not arrived, nor is there any news of her whereabouts, except that two lifebuoys marked ss. Oriole were picked up near Rye last Saturda.
There is grave reason to fear that she may have fallen victim to the German submarine which torpedoed the Tokomaru and Ikaria. She carried a mercantile crew of twenty-one hands all told
[The Oriole, a London steamer of 1,489 tones gross was built last year.]”
The Express also carried accounts by the captains of the other two ships. The experience of Dale and his crew, if they were also attacked by U20, may have been similar. Captain Robertson of the Ikaria stated:
“When about twenty-five miles N.W. of Havre, 12.30 on that day, I was on the bridge with the chief and the second officer when we saw the wake of a torpedo coming towards the ship at about 30 ft. from the ship. The ship was stopped at the time for the purpose of getting a pilot as two tug-boats were coming up with flags to the fore.
About a second after we saw the wake of the torpedo we were struck in the fore part of the ship on the port side. An explosion occurred, and a volume of water, mixed with cargo, cement, and parts of the torpedo, arose about 60ft. and fell on the deck.
The ship immediately began to sink by the head. The crew were ordered to launch the boats to leave the ship. The crew and I then boarded the tug which was lying close to us, and waited for the ship to sink.”
Robertson and his crew were lucky; they got away onto the tug.
According to naval history dot net, the attacks by U20 were the first ships sunk without a warning by the submarine crew. Robertson had 30 seconds’ warning after spotting the torpedo, the Tokomaru crew spotted the periscope as they were attacked; we do not know what warning, if any, Dale and his crew on the Oriole had.
The crew of the Oriole are all believed to have died that day. Their details are listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database:
||HENRY JOHN ALFRED WILLIAM
||HUSBAND OF FLORA ARDY, OF 9, KINSALE RD., PECKHAM RYE, LONDON.
||BORN IN LONDON.
||HUSBAND OF MRS. M. L. DALE, OF 17, CAMBERLEY AVENUE, WEST WIMBLEDON, LONDON.
||HUSBAND OF ISABEL DAISY ELLYCE FISHENDEN (NEE MILES), OF 47, PORT HALL RD., PRESTON, BRIGHTON.
||Boatswain and Lamps
||HUSBAND OF ALICE ELIZABETH HARGRAVE (NEE JEFFERY), OF 78, ST. LEONARD’S RD., SOUTH LOWESTOFT.
||SON OF ANN ELIZABETH HOLLAND, OF 15, DOVE ST., LOWESTOFT, AND THE LATE ROBERT HOLLAND.
||Fireman and Trimmer
||SON OF THOMAS LYNCH OF 20, STOREY ST., NORTH WOOLWICH, LONDON.
||Fireman and Trimmer
||SON OF MRS. MARY MULCAHY, OF 1, CORRIG CASTLE TERRACE, DUN LAOGHAIRE, CO. DUBLIN.
||HUSBAND OF ETHEL VINE PIERCE (NEE BULLEY), OF 5, BURLINGTON TERRACE, CHISLEHURST, KENT.
||Fireman and Trimmer
||HUSBAND OF ELLEN CATHERINE SADLER (NEE STEIN), OF 33, CHANCERY BUILDINGS, BEWLEY ST., CABLE ST., LONDON.
||HUSBAND OF ELLEN LOUISA SCHAFER (NEE MARCH), OF 71, HARCOURT AVENUE, MANOR PARK, ESSEX.
||HUSBAND OF SARAH ELIZABETH STATHAM (NEE SMART), OF 63, QUEEN’S RD., BAYSWATER, LONDON.
||HUSBAND OF ELIZA MARIA SWAIN (NEE SMIZZEN), OF 12, MAYVILLIE RD., ST. PETER’S, BROADSTAIRS, KENT.
||HUSBAND OF JANE MERCER (FORMERLY THOMSON, NEE BORTHWICK), OF 11, CLARENDON RD., LEWISHAM, LONDON.
||HUSBAND OF ANNIE GERTRUDE TODMAN (NEE MITCHELL), OF OAKWOOD LODGE, OLD RD., CRAYFORD, KENT.
||HUSBAND OF ANNIE POND (FORMERLY WALFORD, NEE STOKES), OF 51, LIVERPOOL RD., CANNING TOWN, LONDON.
As you can see, most (10 of the 16 with additional details) were Londoners by origin or residence. I don’t know what wives like Sarah Elizabeth Statham in Bayswater or parents like Thomas Lynch in North Woolwich were told during the days after the loss.* Did they start to mourn straight away, or wait until the presumed deaths were official six weeks later?
All 21 men are now commemorated on the Tower Hill memorial to merchant seamen lost and sea.
The U20 sinking the Lusitania
A few weeks after the loss of the Oriole, Ikaria and Tokomaru, the Germans declared their first major submarine campaign with its attacks without warning. A few months later the same submarine – U20 – sank the RMS Lusitania, sparking outrage in the UK and the USA. A renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 helped to finally bring the USA into the war. Many more men and women lost their lives during the war at sea in 1914-18, but these 21 men were among the first of this period of increased aggression by the German Navy in 1915.
* The next of kin details were collected after the war, which explains why some of the wives have new surnames.