Warship Wednesday Sept. 9, 2015: The (bad) luck of the Irish
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Sept. 9, 2015: The (bad) luck of the Irish
Here we see the Irish Mercantile Marine-flagged schooner Cymric as she appeared during WWII. The hardy windjammer had a very hard luck life indeed.
Cymric, named after the extinct dark beaked, grey-eyed eagle sometimes termed Woodward’s Eagle, was built on the orders of William Thomas of Wales in 1893 as a 123-foot barquentine for South American and Australian trade.
By 1906, she was acquired by Irish interests in Arklow and re-rigged as a three master schooner.
Fast forward to 1915 and the Royal Navy was on the lookout to acquire some disposable ships to serve as well-armed bait for U-boats. The concept, the Q-ship (their code name referred to the vessels’ homeport, Queenstown, in Ireland) was to have a lone merchantman plod along until a German U-boat approached, and, due to the small size of the prize, sent over a demo team to blow her bottom out or assembled her deck gun crew to poke holes in her waterline.
At that point, the “merchantman” which was actually a warship equipped with a few deck guns hidden behind fake bulkheads and filled with “unsinkable” cargo such as pine boards to help keep her afloat if holed, would smoke said U-boat.
Something like this:
That’s when Cymric, along with her sistership William Thomas’s former Gaelic and a third Irish schooner, Mary B Mitchell, were acquired by the RN and put to work. They were given an auxiliary engine, armed with a 12-pounder and two 6-pounder guns (all hidden) as well as two Vickers machine guns and some small arms for their enlarged 50-man crew.
In all the Brits used 366 Q-ships, of which 61 were lost in action while they only took down 14 U-boats, a rather unsuccessful showing.
Mary B Mitchell claimed 2-3 U-boats sunk and her crew was even granted the DSO, but post-war analysis quashed her record back down to 0.
However, Cymric bagged a submarine of her own, literally.
First let’s talk about HM Submarine J6.
The seven 274-foot J-class boats built during the war were faster than most subs of the era (capable of 19-knots) but still not fast enough to keep up with the main battle fleet on extended operations, which relegated them to the 11th Flotilla at Blyth from their commissioning through the end of the war, stationed around the Hungarian freighter turned depot ship HMS Titania, rarely seeing action.
One of these was J6, commissioned 25 January 1916 for service in an uneventful war in her assigned neck of the woods. That was until her skipper Lt.Cdr. Geoffrey Warburton, while on the surface with her deck gun unmanned off Northumberland coast on 15 Oct. 1918 (just weeks before the end of the conflict) stumbled upon a non-descript schooner hanging out.
That’s when the HMS Cymric thought herself very lucky indeed.
“At about 15.30 on the 15th October a submarine was spotted on the surface steaming towards CYMRIC. Visibility at this time was about 6000-yards and when first spotted the submarine was from two and a half to three miles off. She continued on an opposite course to CYMRIC and I decided she was a friendly submarine…I recognized the bow of the ship as typical of the ‘J’ Class. When first sighted ‘action stations’ were sounded, but when I decided this submarine was friendly I told the gun crews, but ordered them to ‘stand by’.”
There was no obvious evidence that the submarine was hostile, because her gun was unmanned and men could be clearly seen on the bridge. Yet, Lt. Peterson was disturbed by the position of the gun, as it did not correspond to any of the friendly submarine silhouettes he had been issued with for training purposes. As the lettering on the submarine’s conning tower became clearer, suspicion grew that the submarine was an enemy. Some eyewitnesses from CYMRIC claimed that an object was partly obscuring the lettering on the conning tower.
Shortly after this, when the submarine’s letter and number could be seen clearly, it appeared to me to be ‘U 6’; the submarine at that time was still on the bow: I waited until the submarine was on the beam and still being convinced she was ‘U 6’, I gave the order for action. The White Ensign was hoisted on the mizzen truck of CYMRIC. There was a pause, but no recognition was shown by the submarine at that time.”
With that, the Q-ship dropped her bulkwarks and opened fire on “U6” at 1800 yards with her starboard 12-pounder, hitting the sub’s conning tower with the third shot, and thereafter firing for effect.
Although Lt.Cdr. Warburton of J6 fired no less than six flares off to signal the surface ship to stop the shelling. Tragically, the sub closed her hatches, sealing off eight sailors below decks to their ultimate fate while she continued ahead in course and speed– her control room shot to shit and unable to signal the engines to halt. The bombardment ended when J6 entered the sea fog again and disappeared.
The slower Cymric caught up to her dead in the water and, seeing RN sailors swimming for their lives, realized with horror what had happened.
A Cymric crewmember:
“The first thing I noticed was the marking ‘HM Submarines’ on the bands of the men’s hats. We had sunk a British submarine by mistaking the ‘J’ for a ‘U’. I can remember a big red headed chap who was badly wounded shouting at us from the boat ‘Come on you stupid ##### these are your own ###### side! Give them a hand’.
We pulled over to the sinking men. One man was holding up his commanding officer. He yelled come and help me save Mr Warburton. Others were drowning. We dived in and rescued all that we could. One we took out of the water was too far gone and died on board…We sent a signal to Blyth that we were making for the port with the survivors of J6 aboard. I will never forget entering the port. As we rounded the pier and worked our way into the basin where the depot ship TITANIA and the other submarines were moored, we could see the wives and children of the submarine gazing with anxious eyes to see if those dear to them were among the survivors.”
In all, some fifteen men were lost with HM S/M J6, the only member of her class of submarines to suffer a casualty in the war:
Armstrong, Ernest William M/12905 E.R. Artificer.3rd
Brierley, James Roger Ingham, Sub-Lieutenant
Bright, C.T. Artificer Engineer
Burwell, Herbert Edward Philip M/3779 E.R.Artificer.4th
Hill, Arthur Herbert J/5428 Able Seaman
Lamont, Athol Davaar M/14927 E.R. Artificer.3rd
Rayner, Edward George J/5764 Leading Seaman
Russell, William Thomas J/28769 Able Seaman
Savidge, Albert Edward K/19992 Stoker.1st
Stevenson, Percival James P/K 1628 L/Stoker
Tachon, Philip K/20794 Stoker 1st Class
Thompson, William Piper K/23871Stoker.1st
Tyler, Frank Andrew J/2116 Able Seaman
White, Henry Thomas J/13130 Able Seaman
Wickstead, George Herbert J/31563 Leading Telegraphist
A court of inquiry cleared Peterson and his crew, though some had reservations.
In the end, the court records were sealed until 1997 under the Official Secrets Act.
With the end of the war arriving, Cymric was disarmed and disposed of by sale in 1919 and later reacquired for the now-free Irish Merchant trade, spending most of her interwar career as a mail ship.
However her bad luck continued.
On November 28 1921, while waiting to move through the Grand Canal Docks in Dublin near Ringsend bridge, a stiff seaward wind came and pushed her forward suddenly, impaling her bowsprit in the side of a street tram, in one of the few instances in which a ship, technically still afloat at sea, was in a traffic accident with a city streetcar.
Nevertheless, Cymric‘s most unlucky day was still nearly 15 years off.
In 1939, neutral Ireland entered World War II and tried to walk a fine line to keep that neutrality in place, going so far as to intern both Axis and Allied servicemen found on her territory for the duration.
Isolated by a large degree, her 53 Irish flagged merchantmen continued their vital trade to other neutrals such as Portugal and Spain, trying to keep out of the war as best they could while saving 534 seamen from other countries lost upon the water in the period known in the service as “The Long Watch.”
Their only defense was their flag and national markings on their side, and that wasn’t much.
By the end of the war nearly a quarter of the Irish ships and men upon them were sunk by ships, planes and mines of both sides, but they kept the island country fed, warm and out of the dark.
As for Cymric, she sailed on the Lisbon Run for the last time in early 1944 and promptly vanished, never to be seen again.
The final crew of schooner Cymric (missing since 24 February 1944), were posthumously awarded the Irish Mercantile Marine Service Medal for the contribution to the war:
Bergin, P., Wexford
Brennan, J., Wexford
Cassidy, C., Athboy, Co. Meath
Furlong, K., Wexford
Kiernan, B., Dundalk
McConnell, C., Dublin
O’Rourke, W., Wexford
Ryan, M., Dungarvan
Seaver, P ., Skerries
Tierney, M., Wexford
Their names are a part of both Wexford’s Maritime Memorial, where many of the men came from and their loss still lingers, as well as the larger Dublin City Quay Memorial to the 149 seamen lost on neutral Irish ships sunk or damaged by torpedoes, mines, bombs and aircraft strafing (by Luftwaffe & RAF) during WWII. In Dublin, a street is also named after this vanished ship.
As for J6, her war grave was located in 2010 by divers from the UK by accident but has since been mapped and verified.
Class and type: Iron barquentine
Tonnage: 228 grt
Length: 123 ft (37 m)
Beam: 24 ft (7.3 m)
Draught: 10 ft 8 in (3.25 m)
Propulsion: Sail, Auxiliary motor fitted in World War I
Sail plan: Three masted bark, then schooner
Armament: 1 12pdr, 2 6pdr, small arms (1915-1919)
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