The Ben Line, George Blake
Ben Line, Graeme Somner.
The great two rivers of Scotland, Clyde in the west and Forth in the east supported much if not all of Scotland's maritime industry but for the history of Ben Line it is to the port of Leith which lies on the Forth which we have to concentrate our attention. Before the Industrial Revolution Leith was the most prominent port in the whole of Scotland and was well supported by many esteemed shipbuilders of the day not only of Leith but Alloa, Kincardine and Stirling. Much of Scotland's early trade was east to the Low Countries and the Baltic also south to the Thames, Edinburgh was the seat of Government also the home of its Kings and Queens. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution the Clyde took over much of Scotland's trade and its shipbuilders formed the biggest concentration of its kind in the world. But for the story of the Thomsons and Ben Line Steamers it is to the Tiny port of Leith that we must return.
The Thomson family interest in shipping started with its shipment of marble for the decoration of the stately mansions which were under construction at the time in Edinburgh but it wasn't till 1825 that Alexander and William Thomson sons of the builder James first went into partnership as shipbrokers of Leith. William Thomson's apprenticeship in the affairs of shipping had been served at the wine merchants, Robert and John Cockburn of Leith and he acquired a sound knowledge in the commercial aspect of ships and their operation. Both brothers also concentrated much of their efforts on the trade in Italian Carrara marble through Leghorn (Livorno) which lies south of Spezia in the Ligurian Sea. In the early years the brothers experienced some difficulties so much so that Alexander travelled to Italy and spent a winter there in an attempt to master the language and to study the local conditions. The problems were to persist for a further ten years. In 1839 the brothers commissioned the building of a wooden barque at Braucehaven, Fife she weighed 218 tons was a mere 88 ft in length and was called Carrara. She served on the Leith - Livorno route with Captain Miller in command until she was sold in February of 1847 to N. Smith of Aberdeen, Carrara eventually foundered 20 years later off Queenstown. During his time in Italy Alexander had written to his younger brother suggesting that they broaden their horizons and seek financial aid from the Thomson' s of Alloa, not relatives, and it seems that they may have invested in the purchase of the diminutive Carrara. With the support of the Alloa Thomsons William travelled to London and purchased the Australia for £3, 500 a 388 ton wooden ship. The Alloa Thomson's share of the ship was 42/64th the remainder was divided between Alexander and William. A point which George Blake makes at this juncture is that traditionally ships are owned in 1/64 shares so if you own the entire ship it represents 64/64ths. He also goes on to say that Captains of this era were actively encouraged to purchase 1/64th of their ship thus sharing in the voyage profits. William Thomson had married Sarah Wishart in 1836 whose father was a Leith merchant and it is thought that Australia carried this gentleman's textiles and coal from the Mitchell mines on the outward voyage to Livorno returning to Leith with marble. The most progressive Mitchell at the time was William Mitchell from Cupar who amongst many other enterprises was a founding partner in the Alloa Coal Company which only lost its corporate identity on the 1st of January 1947 when the whole industry was nationalized. Both the Alloa families of Thomson and Mitchell lent great support to the Leith Thomson's and it is on this solid foundation that the shipping company of Ben Line Steamers was to grow and prosper. These three families were also connected by marriage, Andrew Thomson of Alloa married Janet Mitchell daughter of William Mitchell and Alexander Thomson of Leith married Isabella Watson Thomson of Alloa.
As the Italian trade went into decline William and Alexander separated their businesses in 1847, Alexander withdrew from the shipping side to concentrate as a merchant leaving William to build up the shipping line on his own.
William's association with his ship Australia was short lived, he'd placed the vessel on the North Atlantic trade carrying Alloa coal to Canada and returning with timber which was auctioned at Leith. On the 5th of January 1841 with Captain Robert Henry Sheridan in command Australia was driven ashore on Sable Island in the St. Lawrence River and had to be abandoned.
During the latter half of the forties and the decade of the fifties the Alloa partnership purchased a further six ships the shares of which varied from ship to ship. It says something of the dangers of carrying coal that the first Joanna and Wanderer were both lost to spontaneous combustion within a month of each other in 1864, the other four ships were Signet, Araby Maid, Bencleuch and William Mitchell. William Thomson first foray to the Far East was in the 1850's when he sent the Araby Maid to search out possible cargoes in Japan and China. William looked after his ships and crew in an exemplarily manner, everything required for a First Class sailing ship was purchased with no expense spared, the victualing was well above average, and his crews' wages measured most favourably against that of other companies. Also on the early ships two apprentices were carried earning £5 in the first year rising to £10 in the final fourth year. William's ships unlike many other companies very rarely suffered from desertions and he continually strived to form a lasting bond between himself and his Officers and crews. This is not to say that some of his crews didn't desert after all it was the cheapest way to emigrate to the lands of plenty.
It was during the fifties that William Thomson's sphere of interest was expanded at an increasing rate, immigrants to Australia, coal to West Africa, Guano from Chinchas to Mauritius, raw sugar from Mauritius to refineries in Great Britain, his ships were also fitted with purpose built magazines for the carriage of munitions to the Naval bases at Simonstown and Port Louis. Some of these voyages could take over a year to complete and as an example George Blake described a voyage made by the William Mitchell with Captain Riddoch in command. She loaded nine hundred tons of coal at Liverpool bound for India, after discharging the coal Captain Riddoch backloaded a mixed cargo for the port of Marseilles. After securing a cargo in Marseilles for Odessa he sailed through the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea where he was fortunate in finding a cargo for his return voyage home, in all the trip lasted fifteen months.
In 1860 William Thomson reached the age of fifty-four and it is in this year that his eldest son also called William was offered and accepted a one third partnership in the business, two years later his youngest son James Wishart Thomson was offered exactly the same terms, he also duly accepted.
During the 1800's William Thomson's faith remained with sail and a further nine ships were acquired, four being built in Canada, May Queen, Vicksburg, Annie Laurie and Golden Pledge. These were purchased in the manner normal at the time, the ships were built by small family concerns, loaded with timber and sold as a job lot on arrival in the UK. What was strange about the ships design was that the logs were loaded and unloaded through the bow, great care had to be exercised with the closing and caulking of the ports, perhaps the first roll on, roll off?
Built: 1862 by Dinning, Quebec, Canada.
Tonnage: 1,069 Tons register.
Launched May 1862.
Burnt out at sea 27th February 1875 when on passage London to Rangoon.
The remaining five ships were Alexandra, James Wishart, Ocean Chief, Araby Maid second ship to carry the name and Alexandra which replaced the unfortunate first Alexandra which was wrecked twelve miles south of Madras in July of 1869.
Built: 1868 by R.Steele & Co; Greenock.
Tonnage: 863 grt, 837nt.
Launched in the October of 1868, Yard No 66.
She was sold out of the Fleet in 1894 to Aktieselskabet of Norway with M. Engelstad named as managers. She sank when on passage from Mobile to Rosario on the 21st of November 1903 after colliding with S.S. Denver off Florida.
The Alloa families still continued to invest in William's ships and also received dividends from shares already held in other vessels although by now these were descendents of the original investors. William's ships during the sixties continued to carry coal outward bound for China and Japan dropped their cargoes at Point de Galle in Ceylon for P & O and at Cocanada in India for British India. They then made their way to Foochow and Swaton in China or Nagasaki in Japan.
By the end of the decade, William who by now was in his mid sixties began handing over more and more control to his two sons but always remained in the background should either require advice. William his eldest son looked after the shipping side of the business whilst James concentrated on the mercantile side and also retained the auctioneer's license. Though other countries had experimented with the power of steam and had in fact commenced building their fleets around the new method of transport it wasn't until 1871 that old William Thomson took delivery of Ben Line's first steamer, Benledi. The ship was built of iron and was fitted with compound engines, she weighed 1, 557 gross tons and was completed at the Scottish yard of Barclay Curle, Glasgow. With the advent of the Suez Canal in 1869 the passage time to the Far East had been greatly reduced and if Ben Line was to compete seriously with its rivals namely P & O and Blue Funnel it had to look to the future of steam propulsion. William was still not convinced and like many other owners ships had Benledi rigged as a Brig she also sported a Clipper Bow and Bowsprit a feature which was to be maintained until well into the twentieth century. One drawback of the design was an increase in crew costs, not only did they have to have an engine room crew, in Benledi's case three Engineers, a Boilermaker and nine Firemen but a full complement on deck also which included the Captain, two Mates, a Carpenter, Bos'un, Lamp trimmer and ten Seamen, a considerable amount of wages. There must have been undoubted friction in Ben Lines office when William, the father insisted on acquiring four more sailing ships, Mic Mac in 1872, Palmyra in 1873 and Bencleuch and Benan in 1875.
On the retirement of their father the brothers commenced to build steam ships, Benarty in 1876 and Bengloe in 1876 both from the yard of Barclay Curle and Benalder in 1880 from Arthur Stephen & Sons.
Built: 1880 by A. Stephen & Sons of Glasgow.
Tonnage: 2,054 grt, 1,331 nt.
Engine: Single screw, Compound, 1,200 I.H.P.
Launched on the 8th of September 1880, Yard No. 247.
Sold to Doyo Shosen Soshi Kaisha of Japan in July of 1894 becoming Doyo Maru. She had a further five Japanese owners until she was finally sold to Yamashita Kisen Kabushiki Kaisha of Japan and still retained her original name. She sailed from Chinwangtao bound for Yokohama with a cargo of coal on the 11th of January 1920 but never arrived having sank with a loss of all onboard.
The Benarty's first voyage was from London and Glasgow out to China and Japan eventually returning with a cargo of Tea. Bengloe's maiden voyage was on charter to Anchor Line carrying Pilgrims to Jeddah, a first for a Ben Line ship, whilst Benalder having made her first trip out to the Far East delivered her cargo of tea to New York. During the seventies the company maintained its sailing ship services on the north Atlantic, coal out, lumber home, also occasionally Guano from Chinchas to Mauritius and sugar home it also maintained a presence in the Australian emigrant trade.
Due to their fathers long time friendship with John Jordan who was a partner in the firm of James Miller & Co; who in turn were Merchants and Mill owners in Russia, William and Alexander entered into a completely new trade. John Jordan had occasionally taken minority shares in some of the company's ships and eventually went into ship owning in his own right appointing the Thompson's to manage his ships, the Thompson's were also able to purchase shares The new ventures route was Leith to the Baltic and later further British East coast ports were added to the schedule. The syndicate's first purchase was the Petersburg an iron steamship which had originally been built by the yard of A. Leslie & Co; in 1865 for MacGregor & Co; of Leith. Before entering service the owners spent £4,000 refitting and refurbishing her for her new role in the Baltic.
Built: 1865 by A. Leslie & Co; Newcastle.
Tonnage: 1,566 grt, 1,065 nt.
Engine: Single screw, 2 Cylinder D.A. Steam, compounded by T.M. Tennant of Leith in 1870, 650 I.H.P.
Launched in March of 1865, Yard No. 63.
Acquired by the syndicate in 1878 with no change of name. Sold to M Schiaffino of Italy in 1891 and renamed Santa Fe, sold in 1894 to E.A. Bungle & J. Born of Argentina becoming Nuevo Colastine. Sank after a collision off the Brazilian coast when on passage Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires on the 28th of July 1896.
Even before her completion a second ship was purchased, the Stirling, which had been built in 1856 and the two ships entered service in 1878 sailing from Leith to St. Petersburg and Cronstadt carrying coal outward bound and returning with timber, flax, grain and oilcake. With prospects good the syndicate purchased a third vessel, this time a new build from Laing's of Sunderland specifically designed for the Baltic trade. This ship was the Czar an iron steamship of 1,397 gross tons, powered by a 700 H.P; compound engine, she was fitted with four cranes and two winches on deck, most suitable for her cargo work in the Baltic. As the company acquired more steamships it naturally followed that it began to dispose of its sailing ships, of the remaining sailers which hadn't been lost by accident, William Mitchell, Royalist and Annie Laurie were all sold out of the fleet in the seventies and early eighties. The only remaining sailing ships which were left in service were the larger vessels and even their future was limited to long distance charters. At the beginning of the 1880's the company advertised its far eastern services as " The Ben Line of London and China Clippers ". During the eighties the company lost a further three sailing ships due to accidents, the Algiers in July of 1882, Vicksburg in September of 1884 with a loss of nine lives and in the December of 1888 the Benan. Two further ships were sold, Palmyra in 1883 and James Wishart in 1887. This decade saw the decline in the company's trade with the St. Lawrence, it was easier to purchase its timber requirements in the Baltic and passage time was considerably less. As Canadian interests were being wound down a fourth ship joined the Baltic fleet, she was the Moscow, an iron steamship built in Sunderland by J. Laing. With four vessels in operation the syndicate were able to operate a weekly service during the ice free season with each round trip taking approximately three weeks. The ports of Reval, Libau, Kiel, Copenhagen, Aarhus, Riga and others were all added to the original ports of Cronstadt and St. Petersburg. When the fleet was frozen out of the Baltic every winter, Thompsons more often than not were able to secure lucrative charter work thus optimising the syndicates vessels. The ships invariably traded in the Mediterranean but on rare occasions went as far a field as India and it was when she was on one of these charters that Moscow was wrecked near Jabea on the Spanish coast in January of 1890. With the loss of Moscow Ben Line immediately ordered a replacement from the yard of Ramage & Ferguson who already had the new Petersburg on the stocks. The replacement vessel was to be called Moscow, weigh over 1,600 gross tons and her triple expansion engine was expected to give her a service speed of just under twelve knots.
In 1898 the Czar was sold to the Mossgiel Steam Ship Company of Glasgow, prior to her sale she had been replaced by Reval the first Company ship to be fitted with electric lights.
Built: 1898 by Ramage & Ferguson Ltd; Leith.
Tonnage: 1,682 grt, 1,056 nt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion, 750 I.H.P. by Builder.
Launched 19th July, Completed in August of 1898, Yard No. 158.
Requisitioned in May of 1915 for use as Collier 697, served throughout the war before being released in March of 1919. The following month was in collision with S.S. Peter Benoit a Belgian ship when entering Leith. In October of 1924 she was sold to the Ulster S.S. Co Ltd., of Belfast and renamed Dunmore Head. Requisitioned again by the Admiralty in 1939 but this time as an Ammunition hulk. Finally sold for scrap and arrived at Llanelly in March of 1951 for work to be carried out by Rees Shipbreaking Co Ltd.
A further nine years were to pass before the syndicate felt the necessity to supplement the Fleet and this was Cronstadt built at Batram & Sons, Sunderland in 1907, Ladoga built at S.P. Austin also of Sunderland joined the Baltic Fleet in 1914. During the First World War Petersburg escaped from the Baltic in 1916 during a well planned operation which released approximately 100 British ships that had been trapped there. This event precipitated the Battle of Jutland. On her arrival she underwent a name change to Petrograd and was refitted for war service. Ladoga eventually escaped from the Baltic in 1917 and was requisitioned by the government for use as a Collier. When on passage off the Irish coast she was torpedoed by UB-73 on the 16th of April 1918 with the loss of twenty nine of her crew including the Captain. Moscow never did escape and was used by the Russians until she was scuttled at Petrograd by Bolsheviks. With the death of John Jordan in 1918 the impetus to maintain the Baltic Fleet was somewhat dissipated and before long the service was terminated, it wasn't however until 1941 that the original concern ceased to exist as an entity.
Trade with the Far East by 1890 was the mainstay of the company's business and the size of the ships grew accordingly, in this year Benlomond was delivered from Stephens of Glasgow by far the largest ship in the fleet at 2,670 gross tons. She was soon surpassed by Benmohr, 3,000 gross tons in 1893, a year later the company sold Bengloe and Benalder to Japanese interests and immediately ordered their replacements for delivery in 1895, the ships carried the same name as the two sold to the Japanese and both were over 3,000 tons. By 1896 the average size of the ships owned by Ben Line had doubled over the preceding years when they took delivery of Benvorlich from Stephens Linthouse yard which weighed 3,381 gross tons. As Ben Lines business grew so its main home port changed also. With more diverse cargo's to load its ships had to call at the likes of Middlesbrough, Antwerp and London to fill their holds for the long haul out to the Far East. Steel was loaded at Middlesbrough, Machinery at Antwerp and General Cargo at London. Much of the space on the homeward leg was taken up by Tea, Hemp and Copra.
Built: 1893 by A. Stephen & Sons, Glasgow.
Tonnage: 3,000 grt, 1,935 nt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion, 1,500 I.H.P. by Builder.
Launched 24th October 1893, completed November 1893, Yard No 347.
In January of 1902 she was in collision with S.S. Banffshire when in the Thames and subsequently sank, she was raised in the June and towed to the Tyne for repairs. She was sold to Okazaki Kisen K.K., Japan in 1911 and renamed Nippo Maru, sold again in 1919 to Nanyo Boyeki K.K. with no name change. Her end came on the 16th of January 1927 when she was wrecked at Shiriya Saki, Aomori Province, Japan.
During the 1890's the company made its first step towards generalising the uniform warn by its Officers when it issued cap badges and buttons which presumably carried the company emblem of the anchor. Each Officer received a cap badge, mohair band, gilt cap buttons, ten coat and six waistcoat buttons. Braid was also issued to the highest ranking Officers. In 1902 Ben Line commenced to carry Cadets on ships travelling to the Far East, it was also the year that Thompsons abandoned the shipyards of Scotland and moved South to the yard of Bartrams in Sunderland. Between 1902 to 1914 Bartrams completed nine ships for Ben Line, the first being Benarty which weighed 3,910 gross tons and was powered by a Dickinson triple expansion developing 1,750 I.H.P. Two obsolete ships were sold to the Japanese in 1903, Benlarig which became Hokuriku Maru and Benvenue which became Kisagatu Maru. The following year Ben Line disposed of Benlawers renamed Ryoto Maru and Benledi which eventually became Toyotomi Maru. 1905 saw the arrival of Benavon often quoted as being the most beautiful of the Leith Yachts.
Built: 1905 by Bartram & Sons, Sunderland.
Tonnage: 3,996 grt, 2,549 nt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion, 1,750 I.H.P., by J. Dickinson & Sons., Sunderland.
Launched on the 8th of September 1905, completed the same month, Yard No. 199.
She managed to beat off an attack by a U-Boat when on passage in the Atlantic on the 30th of September 1917. Sold to the Soviet Union in February of 1930 for use as a Crab Cannery, renamed Piatiy Krabalov, renamed again in 1936 to Anastas Mikoyan. Deleted from Lloyds Register in 1959.
By 1906 Ben Line ships ceased to carry canvas, it was thought that mechanization had finally arrived. The same year Benledi took part in Naval manoeuvres earning the Princely sum of £191_0s_8d in the process, I placed this in the narrative as it seemed such a strange amount of money to be finally arrived at, George Blake actually referred to it as eccentric, I agree. James Wishart Thomson died in 1907 aged sixty six, his two sons, William Thomson 3rd and James Wishart Thomson 2nd had already joined the company. Yet another ship was sold to the Japanese when Benlomond went to Nippon Shosun K.K; becoming Asahi Maru.
Built: 1890 By A. Stephen & Sons, Glasgow.
Tonnage: 2,670 grt, 1,752 nt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion, 1,300 I.H.P., by Builder.
Launched on the 14th of August 1890, completed the same month, Yard No.327.
Sold in the June of 1910 to Nippon Shosun K.K., of Japan and renamed Asahi Maru. Sold in 1917 to Yamashita Kisen K.K., same name. Became Mercator for Enterprises Maritimes Belges in 1919 and sold again in 1922 to Soc. Belge d' Armement Maritime S.A., name unchanged. Broken in Germany in 1923 by Waneemunde Selenger & Co.
William Thomson died in 1911 aged seventy two, both his sons, Henry who was born in 1888 and Edward born a year later already held positions in the Company. At the outbreak of the First World War the combined Fleet stood at nineteen ships.
At the beginning of the First World War and for much of it also the brutality meted out to Merchant Seamen was not apparent it was only at the end when all seemed lost for the German's that U-Boats and surface ships sank ships indiscriminately including passenger ships. Apart from ships requisitioned for War duties which incidentally were not a great percentage of the British total Company's were allowed to carry on with their commercial voyages. George Blake sites the last voyage of Benmohr as a typical example of how gentlemanly war at sea was in the beginning. Benmohr had loaded 5,000 tons of general cargo in London bound for Yokohama under the command of Captain J. B. Sarchet. The ship proceeded through the Bay of Biscay, Mediterranean, Suez Canal and Red Sea and finally entered the Arabian Sea with all her lights clearly visible at night. When manoeuvring through the Lakshadweep group of Islands which lie off the South West Indian coast he was ordered to stop by a ship which was totally blacked out, his position was sixty five miles North West by West of Minicoy. Using an Aldis Lamp the unknown vessel demanded to know what Benmohr's name was and then closed with the Ben Line ship ordering her to stop engines and prepare herself to be boarded. The boarding party came from the German Light Cruiser Emden who gave their Merchant counterparts half an hour to gather their belongings before they were hustled aboard Buresk, a prize cargo ship. On arriving onboard they discovered that they were not the only ones, approximately three hundred other unfortunates were already prisoner amongst whose number were the crew of Clan Munroe, meanwhile the Benmohr was scuttled.
Built: 1912 by Scotts Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd., Greenock.
Tonnage: 4,806 grt, 3,110 nt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion, 2,150 I.H.P., by Builder.
Launched 30th July 1912, completed September, Yard No. 443.
Captured and sank by the German Light Cruiser Emden in 1914.
When the total complement reached six hundred prisoners four or five days later they were all transferred to the St. Egbert of Liverpool and finally landed at Cochin. The Officers and Engineers of Benmohr then travelled as passengers on P & O's India and ultimately repatriated. H.M.A.S. Sydney caught up with Emden just after it had destroyed the Radio Station at Coco's Islands in the Indian Ocean, Sydney battered the Emden and she was finally beached on the 9th of November 1914.
The end of Emden was regarded by the British public as a not inglorious end to a sporting career, such was the mood prevalent at the time, however this was somewhat tarnished by the sinking of the Lusitania a year later.
The next Ben Line ship to be lost was Benvorlich on the 1st of August 1915. She was captured by U-28 when 50 miles South West of Ushant, her crew again were given time to evacuate the ship before Benvorlich was sank by a single torpedo.
Built: 1896 by A. Stephen & Sons, Glasgow.
Tonnage: 3,381 grt, 2,165 nt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion, 1,500 I.H.P., by Builder.
Launched 27th May 1896, completed June, Yard No. 365.
The inscription translated reads;
A "Left and Right "---- In the foreground the English Steamer Benvorlich; farther away unknown Steamer ( ? English Steamer Ramsa ) which gets it 2 ½ minutes later.
It wasn't until 1916 that the German policy on Merchant Shipping changed especially British Shipping and the Germans introduced sinking on sight which was thought at the time would reduce Britain's ability to fight to its full capacity on the Western Front. Eventually it was this change in policy which brought the United States into the conflict in 1917 just when it was thought that our shipbuilding capacity was falling behind our losses.
As previously stated at the outbreak of War Ben Line operated nineteen ships which included five of the Baltic Fleet, of the remaining fourteen seven were taken up for War Duties by the Government. Of those seven requisitioned two were lost to enemy action. The first ship to be requisitioned was Benlarig in April of 1915 which for the purpose of War became known as Collier No. 617 and carried cargoes as diverse as timber, sugar and grain. She sailed from the UK in the December of 1916 bound for Australia to collect a cargo of wheat, after loading the cargo Benlarig sailed from Fremantle on the 2nd of April, she was never heard from or seen again. At the time sabotage was suspected but with no evidence impossible to determine, Ben Line never used her name again. Between the final months of 1915 to the end of 1917 the Government requisitioned Benlawers, Bencleuch, Benvenue, Benlomond and Benrinnes also the recently acquired Benmohr. The Government placed two 'standard' ships under Ben Line management towards the end of the War, they were War Roach and War Carp. The Officers and crew of Ben Line escaped the First World War with relatively little serious trouble except for those which perished to a man on Benlarig. A few however were involved in attacks by the enemy, the Benalder was struck by a torpedo on the 23rd December 1916 when on passage in the Mediterranean, her Commander Captain J.H. Cole managed to reach Alexandria and for his endeavours was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross. A month later Bendoran was rescued by an Allied warship, 225 miles out from Fastnet when she was under gunfire from a U-Boat, on sighting the warship the U-Boat dived and Bendoran was able to proceed. On the 30th of December 1917 Benavon was also attacked by a U-Boat on the surface and an account written by Captain J. Hastie is as follows: 'I suppose you will have heard that we were attacked by an enemy submarine on Sunday night, 30th September. Our first intimation was a shell going over the ship. Luckily, we got sight right away, just a lump on the horizon, 5 points before the starboard beam, got him astern at once and opened fire.
His shots fell very close to us. We set several smoke boxes away as soon as possible, but in our case, I don't know that they did us much good. The gunners said it obscured their vision. The enemy fired seven shots in all, we eight, we fired the last shots at 6.45. Four of our shots fell very close to him, and if he had the range of us, we certainly had the range of him. Some of the Gun crew think that we hit him, but I am doubtful.
It was just coming on dark and it got difficult to pick him out. I think he found it was getting too warm for him and dived. We kept a straight course til midnight, going as hard as we could, but saw no more of him. I estimated his distance from us as between 4-5 miles. The gun and Gun crew did very well........... one of the sailors is a qualified man, which was a big help to the Leading Gunner, as his 2nd man got nervous on it and lost his head a bit.
The two elder apprentices also did very good work at the gun. I was afraid at the beginning that the Firemen were going to go back on us, but Mr. Nilson (Chief Engineer) soon rectified that. The Chinese were quiet and obedient. The Wireless Operator took his part on the job very coolly. His messages were picked up by a War Vessel, which transmitted them to Shore Stations, as he heard them repeated from the Stations afterwards.
It took me all my time to look after the Helmsman, who was a Russian Finn and kept on seeing the Submarine everywhere, falling down every time a shot whistled........ we may have a little attention at Gib, as I want a supply of smoke boxes and more ammunition.'
Built: 1904 by Bartram & Sons Ltd., Sunderland.
Tonnage: 3,931 grt, 2,509 nt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion, 1,750 I.H.P., by J. Dickinson & Sons Ltd., Sunderland.
Launched 27th October 1904, completed November the same year, Yard No. 197.
Managed to escape from a U-Boat in the November of 1917. Sold to the Soviet Union in 1930 for use as a Crab Cannery and renamed Chetverti Krabalov. Deleted from Lloyds Register in 1959.
On the 8th of November Benledi was also attacked by a submarine when West of Gibraltar. The U-Boat torpedo passed directly beneath the ship and so her Commander lay off at a distance of approximately four miles and commenced to shell Benledi. The ship's Radio Officer, Mr. Gardiner, began sending S.O.S. signals immediately and was fortunate in contacting a Shore Station which promised immediate assistance. Mr. Gardiner remained at the radio even after being told to stand down by Captain E.B. Watters and was killed when the wireless room received a direct hit. A short while later a U.S. Cruiser hove into view and the U-Boat made a hasty retreat. Radio Officer Gardiner was posthumously awarded Lloyds Silver Medal, Captain Watters also received the Medal and was subsequently decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross. A month later Benlawers survived an attack by a submarine in the North Sea, even more fortunate was Bencleuch under command of Captain George McMillan. Bencleuch came under attack when in a twelve ship convoy off the West Norwegian Coast, only three ships escaped, two British and one Belgian, all the remaining were sunk along with the Royal Navy escorts, Strongbow and Mary Rose. For his skill George McMillan was awarded Lloyds Silver Medal. Benlawers struck a mine in the Irish Sea which killed five crew members but she managed to make landfall at Holyhead in the May of 1918. in August of 1918 Bencleuch was again fortunate this time escaping close attention from a U-Boat off Cape Hatteras and in October Benrinnes survived what was possibly the last submarine attack of the First World War when on passage in the Atlantic, both torpedoes fired missed.
During the War Ben Line ships usually operated in their familiar waters of the Far East returning with their precious cargoes of wheat, rice, hemp, cotton; nickel and rubber, all desperately required for Great Britain's War effort, voyages often lasted over a year. Along with its losses in shipping the Company also suffered losses in the trenches including two sons of the second William Thomson who were both killed on the same day whilst serving as Officers in the Royal Scots at Achi Baba in Gallipoli. More fortunate was the second James Wishart Thomson who eventually became the Shipping Controller for India and his cousin Edward G. Thomson who served in both France and Flanders attaining a Military Cross.
1919 saw the disappearance of 'one ship accounting' which meant the end of each ship being separate actuarial entities, instead all the ships profits or losses became the Company's, not individuals. The general public were not invited to become shareholders, instead those owning the 1/64 shares in ships became the Shareholders in the Limited Company of Ben Line Steamers. A popular misconception is that shipowners make excessive profits during wartime, in Ben Line's case the partners were obliged to pledge their personal fortunes against the Company's formidable overdraft. The main cause of the overdraft was the Government's insistence on dictating the manner in which ships under requisition operated and also a taxation of up to ninety percent on profits of the said vessels, it even quibbled at the wear and tear costs submitted by the Companies concerned. None of the above helped any of Britain's Shipping Companies to rebuild their depleted and in some cases obsolete Fleets. Like other British Companies Ben Line were faced with increasing costs, British shipyards building costs were rising, the price of coal had nearly doubled, freight rates slumped and the wages of seamen had risen to King's ransom figures. I personally find the last comment beyond belief, no seafarer whatever his nationality has ever in the history of man ever been overpaid, in most cases quite the reverse!
In the early Twenties William Thomson, Sir James Wishart Thomson and their cousin Edward Thomson managed the Company. During the immediate years after the First World War the Company began to dispose of its older vessels replacing them with second hand but relatively modern ships. Two notable purchases were from Holland America Line Sloterdijk renamed Benvannoch and Maartensdijk renamed Benvrackie. Both ships had been built by Furness Withy of West Hartlepool and at the time of purchase were far the biggest ships operated by Ben Line about 6, 500 gross tons apiece.
Built: 1902 by Furness Withy & Co, West Hartlepool.
Tonnage: 6, 498g, 4, 164n.
Engine: Single Screw, Triple Expansion by Richardsons Westgarth & Co Ltd, West Hartlepool.
Completed March 1902, Yard No. 260.
Built for Holland Amerika Lijn, Netherlands as Sloterdijk. Acquired by Ben Line in March of 1924 renamed Benvannoch, sold in 1929 to C. Devoto Fu G.B. of Italy renamed Sorriso in November of 1929, sold for breaking three years later.
About the same time that the Company purchased the two Dutch vessels another Company ship was experiencing difficulties when on passage in the Red Sea. The underwater sea water injection valve jammed and the Engine Room was flooded to a depth of ten feet extinguishing the boiler fires. The Donkey Boiler which was situated up on deck had first to be filled then fired up and steam raised to feed the pumps in the Engine Room. A collision mat had been secured against the ship's side to reduce the ingress of water and the Third Engineer Mr. Cooper drawing the short straw dived into the murky depths in an attempt to repair the valve. All seemed lost when a storm blew up with Bengloe wallowing helplessly in the rising sea, fortunately for all onboard a passing ship Clan Munroe seeing the vessel's plight came stern on, a hawser was attached and Bengloe was successfully towed into Aden for repairs.
Two of the Company's ships Bengloe, Captain McCorquodale and Benreoch, Captain Webster assisted with the evacuation of civilians when Yokohama the port for Tokyo was struck by an earthquake on the 1st December 1923. It wasn't until mid afternoon that the full gravity of the situation was realised and a Dutch ship lowered a powered lifeboat visiting each ship in the harbour asking them to assist with the evacuation of people from the beach, apparently there was some apathy amongst some of the ships' Captains. Bengloe's response was to lower a boat with Chief Officer J.P. Drummond, Cadet Campbell and Able Seaman Thompson and Jefferies. By eight in the evening over five hundred people had been ferried out to Bengloe, this in turn created a food shortage onboard so Captain McCorquodale asked Captain Webster who hadn't participated in the rescue being much further out in the stream to relieve him of some of the survivors. The following morning a lifeboat from Benreoch transported refugees from one ship to the other which in turn relieved pressure on the demands placed on Bengloe's Catering Department. At the time Ben Line earned a great deal of credit in the eyes of the local Japanese, funny how memory faded over a short period of time!
In August of 1925 Benalder with Captain J.H. Cole in command suffered a serious fire in one of her lower bunkers when homeward bound from China. Chief Engineer Mr. Hughes and second Engineer Mr. Goldie both went below to fight the fire with hoses and a short while later both men were overcome by fumes. With scant regard for his own safety Captain Cole first rescued the Chief Engineer and then entered the space once more for the Second Engineer who was in turn hoisted to safety with the aid of a rope. For his bravery Captain Cole, already a D.S.C. holder, was awarded the Silver Medal of the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire.
Built: 1910 by Russel & Co, Port Glasgow.
Tonnage: 4, 732g, 3, 047n.
Engine: Single Screw, Triple Expansion by D. Rowan & Co, Glasgow, 2, 500 I.H.P., 12 Knots.
Completed in January 1910, Yard No. 610.
Built for Kirkdale S.S. Co with J.R. Cuthbertson as managers and named Kirkdale. Purchased by Ben Line in July of 1919 and renamed Benalder, finally arriving at Shanghai for breaking on the 31st of January 1933.
Captain Cole was also awarded a Lloyds Silver Medal for meritorious service and the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society. Later he succeeded Captain David Clark as the Company's Marine Superintendent.
Like most other British Shipping Companies Ben Line struggled through the depression adding either second hand ships or making prudent purchases of new tonnage and at the same time selling off its out of date tonnage. As the Second World War loomed Ben Line's Fleet had grown to twenty vessels with an average weight of 6, 000 G.R.T.
The Second World War's losses of unarmed merchantmen managed to surpass anyone's wildest imaginations, Hitler in an attempt to cripple Britain's much needed supplies unleashed weapons of War unprecedented in World history. His U-boats had been honed to perfection as killing machines aided by the introduction of the Schnorkel, his surface warships were fast and extremely modern, he introduced both the magnetic and acoustic mines, his long range bombers reigned supreme in the beginning and last but not least he strategically placed well disguised Raiders around the World which masqueraded as innocent unarmed Merchantmen. Ranged against Hitler was an overstretched Royal navy ill equipped to deal with the menace of U-boats and a Coastal Command that consisted of out of date aircraft with extremely limited endurance. This however did not deter Merchant Seamen from manning their slow and unarmed ships from criss-crossing the World's seas in an attempt to maintain Britain's lifeline of oil, food and much needed materials and equipment of War.
Ben Line Officers and men were no exception and even without the trouble it experienced in the early years with its Chinese crews (other companies suffered also) it did not deter the crews from conducting themselves in a manner which was both exemplary and often courageous. The following is a chronicle of the exploits of some of Ben Line ships and its crews.
Benlawers loaded with supplies and ammunition whilst under the command of Captain J.P. Drummond arrived off the French port of Boulogne at the end of May 1940, she was then redirected to Calais and ordered into the port by an on station Destroyer. Calais was heavily congested and Captain Drummond initially had great difficulty in getting his ship into port, with great care he manoeuvred Benlawers' bow so that she was facing the harbour entrance should he have to make a hasty withdrawal. Though strafed from the air and shelled from ashore his crew laboured to remove its cargo into the Military's hand for their defence of the port. All of that afternoon and evening Captain Drummond kept his ship in Calais awaiting a Troop Transport which was carrying wounded for evacuation, eventually the Transport arrived and 768 wounded men embarked for the trip across the Channel. Benlawers was shelled from the German held port as she made for the entrance and open sea, one shell landed in No. 2 Tweendeck on ammunition which had not been landed, miraculously it failed to explode and Benlawers made good her escape. She crossed to Dover and in the ensuing confusion was redirected to the Hampshire port of Southampton. Having successfully discharged her wounded charges Benlawers made various crossings to Le Havre and Cherbourg helping in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. On her way to Milford Haven shortly afterwards she survived low level bombing attacks when the port of Plymouth was attacked. She was lost on the 6th of October the following year when she was torpedoed by U-123 in the North Atlantic when on passage from Swansea to Port Said via the Cape. Only one Chinese Fireman was killed in the initial attack but twenty-three others drowned when their lifeboat was swamped when M.V. Forest came alongside in an attempt to rescue them.
Built: 1930 by C. Connell & Co Ltd, Glasgow.
Tonnage: 5, 943g, 3, 755n.
Engine: Single Screw, Quadruple Expansion, 3, 000 I.H.P. by D. Rowan & Co Ltd, Glasgow, Yard No. 420.
During the early years of the War a number of the Ben ships continued in some part on their more familiar commercial routes but in the main were either totally requisitioned or operated piecemeal between the two. Since War had been declared on Germany relations with the Japanese had deteriorated to such an extent that Ben Line ships rarely called at its ports. On one occasion Bencleuch actually carried munitions to Haiphong to aid the Chinese in their fight with the Japanese who had invaded the China mainland in 1937. Benvrackie on her maiden voyage made at roughly the same time carried just over four tons of gold valued at over a million pounds (what's it worth today?) to Siam, the first big consignment of gold ever carried by a Ben Line ship. Various Ben Line ships were damaged during the bombing raids in 1940-41, Bennevis in London Docks in 1940, Benlomand, Bendoran and Benreoch all at Liverpool. It's worth mentioning Benlomand as she must have been without propulsion, she had to be moved across the dock by pure muscle power with men on ropes and hawsers when adjacent sheds caught fire and threatened her very fabric.
The Company's first casualty was Benarty when on passage in the Indian Ocean on the 10th of September 1940. An aircraft launched from Atlantis repeatedly strafed her for over an hour until her Captain surrendered. After the crew had abandoned ship time bombs were set down below by the German Boarding Party and a short while later Benarty sank. The survivors were landed by Captain Rogge on the coast of Somaliland in the care of Italians, on the 25th of February the following year they were released by British Troops which had driven the Italians out of Merca where they had been held. Benavon was sank the day after Benarty by the German raider Pinguin when on passage in the Indian Ocean, U.K. bound from Penang.
Built: 1930 by Lithgows Ltd, Port Glasgow.
Tonnage: 5, 872g, 3, 723n.
Engine: Single Screw, Triple Expansion by Rankin & Blackmore Ltd, Port Glasgow, 2, 600 IHP, 12 Knots. Yard No. 834.
She was passed astern by what purported to be a Norwegian ship, when in line the well disguised ship dropped the covers, raised the Swastika and opened fire with its 5.9 inch guns. In the following hour some sixty shells ripped into Benavon scoring hits in the superstructure and Engine Room, all the ship's lifeboats were destroyed. Benavon attempted to return fire with its single stern mounted gun but the efforts proved futile. As the ship burned from stem to stern it would appear that the Chief Engineer Mr. Porteous took charge of trying to evacuate the remaining crew members. Of the fifty or so crew seven British and eighteen Chinese were eventually made Prisoners of war. A German version of the sinking of Benarty 'Ghost Cruiser H.K. 33' by H.J. Brennecke by Kimber, London first published in 1954 somewhat glosses over the brutality of the attack, the only truth in the account would appear to be the date. A more revealing account was kept by the British Authorities at the time and what follows is an account scribbled in pencil by the Chief Engineer Mr. Porteous. As the events were unfolding.
A. Thomson - Master - was on the Bridge.
J. Cameron - First Officer - was on the Bridge and blew the klaxon horn for the men to report to the gun platform. Killed later in one of the last salvos.
J. Robertson - Second Officer - the gun had been firing and Robertson came along the after deck to the gun platform in time to spot for the last shot fired. Spiers was speaking to him at the last and Mr. Robertson said it was no use him doing anything and told Spiers to make for the boats. Mr. Robertson was hit by shrapnel after the last shot had been fired and was in a very bad way when Spiers left him. He couldn't have lasted many minutes.
J. - Third Officer - was seen on the Bridge Deck as he was making for the Bridge.
J. Johnson - Third Engineer - was last seen keeping the Chinese crew in the stokehold and afterwards made to the ship's side for a raft but apparently was badly wounded and disappeared over the side.
J. Cherry - Fourth Engineer - Spiers was with him on fore deck. His lifejacket was on fire and he was badly wounded about the body. He got on a raft and was taken aboard the Raider. He died on the 14th of September.
K.R. Taylor - Cadet- he was with Spiers on the gun platform and when the Second Officer shouted for the boats, he, the Carpenter and one A.B. got into the Bridge boat (Port). It was being lowered by the Bo'sun when a shell struck it.
P.C. Holman - Carpenter - was last seen going in the boat as above.
A.E. Hall - Sailor - was last seen in fore deck badly wounded and his eyes were blown right out, probably died before the ship sank.
J. Gottwall - sailor - on gun platform, he left to make for the boats.
W. Cooper - Sailor - Spiers passed him on the Bridge deck. One of his legs was badly injured and Spiers asked if he was coming with them. But he said it was no use. He was picked up and put on the Raider. He died shortly after.
From the account my interpretation is that the Spiers referred to was in fact the Second Engineer.
Built: 1919 by C. Connell & Co Ltd, Glasgow.
Tonnage: 5, 193g, 3, 222n.
Engine: Single Screw, Triple Expansion by Dunsmuir & Jackson Ltd, Glasgow, 2, 500 IHP, 12.5 Knots.
Completed August 1919. Yard No. 390.
Benvorlich sailed from Middlesbrough in March of 1941 carrying a cargo of war stores to the Far East amongst which was 1, 100 tons of explosives. On the morning of the nineteenth when West of Malin Head she was attacked by a Focke-Wulf Condor. A single bomb scored a direct hit by way of No. 1 hatch and soon the ship was ablaze threatening the cargo of explosives. Captain E.D. Copeman gave the order to abandon ship but before this could be carried out the ship exploded. The Captain, though severely wounded was assisted in evacuating the vessel by Ordinary Seaman Alex Dalziel who guided him to a raft, in all twenty of the crew were lost.
The Company's next loss was the following day when Benwyvis was sank by a torpedo fired from U-105 when on passage to the U.K. in a position north of Cape Verde Islands.
Built: 1929 by C. Connell & Co Ltd, Glasgow.
Tonnage: 5, 920g, 3, 751n.
Engine: Single Screw, Quadruple Expansion by D. Rowan & Co Ltd, Glasgow, 3, 000 IHP, 12.5 Knots.
Completed May 1929. Yard No. 414.
Benwyvis sank within ten minutes giving the crew time only to launch two of the ship's lifeboats. Immediately one of the lifeboats sank with five crewmen being lost the rest were picked up by the remaining boat which resulted in severe overloading. Fortunately the following morning two lifeboats from Clan Ogilvy joined them and Captain Gough agreed to take eleven in his No. 3 boat and nine in his No. 1, Clan Ogilvy had been sunk a few miles from Benwyvis on the same day by the same U-boat losing sixty-one of its crew.
Captain Small of Benwyvis and Captain Gough agreed to stay together and make for the nearest landfall which was the Cape Verde Islands. After eleven days it was agreed by mutual consent to go their own ways having missed the Islands. Both of Clan Ogilvy's lifeboats were eventually picked up, not so Captain Small and his thirty-three British and Chinese survivors, the following is an account written by Cadet John Ross the sole survivor.
'Our lifeboat stores' he said, 'consisted of one twelve gallon breaker of water, one case containing forty-eight twelve-ounce tins of sweetened condensed milk and a big drum of biscuits. We had rationing from the start, Captain Small giving out milk, water and biscuits. Water was very short - we had about two thimblefuls twice a day. Biscuits were plentiful but they were too dry to eat.'
'The wind was very badly against us. Our hopes of sighting an island were not fulfilled. The water would not have been sufficient for the journey to South America. After parting from the other lifeboats we saw only one ship away in the distance and it passed about three miles ahead of us. We stopped but the ship did not.'
'All the time it was a case of thirst and starvation; cold at night and very hot in the day-time. Almost every half-hour during the day I dipped my head under the water to cool it and then wet myself with salt water letting the pores take in the moisture without the salt. After the first night or so I got used to it, much experience of fishing with my father in a small boat at home no doubt helped me.'
'But the acute strain began to take effect. The Chinese were among the first to lose grip on themselves, most of them jumping overboard. When the Captain died I buried him by crawling aft and throwing him overboard. One by one the survivors were overcome by exposure and thirst, until I was left with only one sailor.'
After about two weeks the water supply was exhausted, so I had to mix salt water with condensed milk. Sometimes I mixed sea-water with iodine to take the taste of the salt water away. A lot of flying fish flew overboard and all the time sharks rubbed against the bottom of the lifeboat. It was impossible to stand up, I could only crawl about the boat.'
'About two days before I was picked up the sailor went out of his mind, shouting for cigarettes and imagining that he saw water, mountains and trees. He leaned over the side calling to his friends and then he approached me menacingly. I lifted one of the axes, threatening to kill him. The next morning, saying that he would walk ashore, he jumped overboard.'
I was in the boat for twenty-seven days. During this time not a drop of rain fell and I had to make a half a tin of condensed milk do for the next two weeks.'
'On the 17th of April I was picked up by the French Steamer S.S. Ville de Rouen. I was yelling and shouting when the French ship came near. The main sail was down at the time, but though I tried desperately I could not get it more than half way up. I was too excited to do anything really.'
'Three Frenchmen rowed up to take me on board, lowering a rope round me and hauling me up. I could not walk. They put me into a cabin and gave me some soup. About three weeks later I was just beginning to move. I could manage to get out of bed to get a drink, but was not allowed to have a bath in case I drank the bath water! The doctor on board was very helpful and everyone was most kind to me. One or two could speak English.
'The French ship was taking between 2000 and 3000 men from Dakar, via the Cape to Madagascar. Arriving there I was put ashore at Tamatave and later a shipping agent gave me work as an office boy. A number of British people subscribed for my clothing and pocket money.'
Because of my nationality the French Authorities of the colony refused me a permit to leave, orders from the Vichy Government being that no British National of Military age should be granted a visa. However, unofficial arrangements were made, and five months later I was helped to stow away on an American ship and was taken to Durban. By this time I was feeling well again.' It was not for some months that the Company and families learnt of the fate of the ship and her crew when a cable arrived at Ben Line's office from Tamatave, Madagascar detailing the end of the Benwyvis and the survival of Cadet Ross.
On the 13th of May the Company recorded its sixth loss and third for the year when Benvrackie was torpedoed and sunk by U-boat 105 when in the South Atlantic twenty miles North of the Equator, 630 miles S.W. of Freetown bound for Capetown and Beira. This was the second Company ship sunk by U-boat 105, another was to follow shortly.
Built: 1922 by D & W Henderson & Co Ltd, Glasgow.
Tonnage: 6, 434g, 4, 065n.
Engine: Single Screw, Quadruple Expansion by Builders, 3, 000 IHP, 12 Knots.
Completed September 1922. Yard No. 507.
Originally the Darian she was built for Frederick Leylands & Co Ltd of Liverpool who in turn sold her to Charente S.S. Co. Ltd in January of 1934, no name change. Acquired by Ben Line and renamed Benvrackie in May of 1939.
Benvrackie was struck by the torpedo in the early hours of the morning on the 13th. As well as her own ship's compliment Benvrackie was carrying survivors from the Motor Ship Lassell amongst whose number was a woman. The one boat which the crew were able to get away was grossly overcrowded and after sailing 520 miles in thirteen days the survivors were picked up by the Hospital Ship Oxfordshire. Li Fook the Second Steward survived on his own on a liferaft and was eventually picked up by a Blue Star ship, he bore the marks of an unsuccessful shark attack. Twelve crew members lost their lives in the attack.
Built: 1927 by C. Connell & Co Ltd, Glasgow.
Tonnage: 5, 920g, 3, 750n.
Engine: Single Screw, Quadruple Expansion by D. Rowan & Co Ltd, Glasgow, 3, 000 IHP, 12.5 Knots.
Benvenue became the third Company victim of U-105 in less than two months when she was torpedoed and sunk when on passage from Newcastle to Bombay and Karachi on the 15th of May 1941. The ship was 500 miles S.W. of Freetown when the torpedo struck and the crew were fortunate in getting away all four boats before the magazine exploded.
With the emergency radio operational three of the four lifeboats were picked up the same evening by S.S. English Trader, unfortunately they had lost contact with the Chief Officer's boat which sailed some 400 miles before being picked up by a Destroyer and subsequently landed at Freetown, one crewman was killed in the initial attack.
Pamia, an Italian prize ship captured by the Royal navy on the 17th of June 1940 eventually found its way to Ben Line, renamed Empire Protector she never even completed one voyage. Just before midday on the 30th of may 1941 she was struck by a torpedo fired from U-38 when
Empire Protector after being struck by a torpedo.
on passage from Capetown to Freetown off the African Coast. Leaving onboard four missing seamen the remaining crew pulled away from the ship in the remaining two lifeboats. Within minutes the U-boat surfaced and fired a second torpedo into the ship and a couple of minutes later she sank stern first. After the U-boat departed Captain John Cringle gambled on staying in the immediate vicinity reckoning that the floating cargo would be more easily spotted than his two small lifeboats. Soon smoke was spotted in the distance and along with his fittest seamen commenced to row on an intercept course. The ship turned out to be the Arundo of Rotterdam and she dropped off the survivors in Freetown the following day.
On the 5th of July 1941 Captain Riddle was manoeuvring Bencruachan into Alexandria when he struck an acoustic mine when in the Great Pass half a mile short of the boom defence. Three men were killed and Captain Riddle along with twenty other crew members were injured. The ship settled by her bow in the shallow water but eventually the cargo shifted and Bencruachan's back was broken, it was 1950 before the wreck was finally scrapped.
Captain J.D. Wilson in command of Bennevis arrived in Hong Kong in early December of 1941. He was immediately ordered to turn round and tow an 800 ton lighter to Singapore. When on passage two days later on the 9th she was approached by two enemy Destroyers and ordered to strike her colours. The ship was escorted to Hainan Island which lies to the east of the Gulf of Tongking. Captain Riddle and his crew were interred and four died during captivity, three from malnutrition. Bennevis became Gyokuyo Maru and was sunk by the United States submarine Spadefish east of Shanghai on the 14th November 1944.
It was believed at the time that Bencleuch was the victim of sabotage as an unidentified person had been seen, leaving one of the holds prior to her departure from Leith bound for the Far East via the Panama Canal, never substantiated. She caught fire on the 11th December 1941 when off Cape Farewell, Captain Murray immediately ordered three boats away leaving himself and a fire party onboard to tackle the blaze. As the fire began to approach explosives which were part of the cargo the Captain and remaining crew finally abandoned Bencleuch. The first three lifeboats away were picked up by M.V. Athel Viscount, Captain Riddle and his party were picked up a short while later by H.M.C.S. Nanaimo. Bencleuch blew up and sank at 01;15 hrs the following day. Benmacdhui sank under similar conditions when she sailed from Immingham bound for Hong Kong on the 17th December 1941. Whilst still in the estuary a smell of burning rubber was suspected and the Chief Officer was sent to investigate, the seat of the fire was impossible to locate and at 21.45 there was a terrific explosion, the ship sank within twenty minutes with a loss of two lives. Ben Line had lost nine ships in 1941 by far its worst year of the War. Its first loss of 1942 was in the evening of the 4th of
March when Benmohr was hit by a torpedo from U-505, within eight minutes she was hit for a second time and sank bow first at 20.18 hours. Captain David Anderson was in command and the ship had been U.K. bound from Bombay when she sank 235 miles south east of Freetown. What is remarkable about the fifty-six survivors' rescue is that it was carried out by a Sunderland Flying Boat the following day which had come across them quite by chance. With difficulty the plane was able to take off and land them safely at Freetown a couple of hours later.
Fort Qu'appelle was bare boat chartered after completion at the North Vancouver yard of Burrard's to the Ministry of War Transport, my rough translation of Qu'appelle is ' that is called up into service', quite appropriate. Well, she was only to last just over two months for she was sunk when on her maiden voyage to the U.K. via Panama 300 miles off the U.S. East Coast by U-135 on the 17th of May with a loss of 12 lives.
Built: 1922 by Irvines S.B. & Drydocks Co Ltd, West Hartlepool.
Tonnage: 6, 630g, 4, 160n.
Engine: Triple Expansion by Ricardsons, Westgarth & Co Ltd, West Hartlepool, 3, 000 IHP, 12 Knots. Yard Nos: 587.
Completed in January 1922 for Furnes Withy as Cynthiana.
Benlomond was acquired by Ben Line in May of 1938 from Goulandris Bros; of Greece. She was torpedoed and sank by U-172 when on passage from Port Said to Paramaribo via the Cape of Good Hope on the 23rd of November 1942 when situated some 750 miles east of the Amazon River. A steward called Poon Lim was the sole survivor from a crew of forty-seven, four Dems Gunners were lost also. Benlomond was sailing light and the theory was that the torpedo blew a massive hole in her sending her to the bottom in minutes. During his time after the ship sank Poon Lim maintained that he saw the U-boat responsible (in this case U-172) in the distance but his description didn’t tally with that of the said submarine. He also saw another life raft which was thought to contain the Dems Gunners, they were never seen again. Poon Lim was finally rescued after 133 days at sea by a Brazilian Negro fisherman off the coast of the State of Para East of Salinas, the World’s Champion Survivor.
Benalbanach had been designated a Combined Operations Ship and was selected to take part in the Allied Landings in North Africa codenamed ‘Torch’. Within the assault group Benalbanach was allocated to the centre task force for landings at Tunisia in French Morocco in November of 1942. Captain D. MacGregor was in command and the final passage in his last message to his crew before the landings was as follows:-
‘Each and every one of you has a job to do. That job may have to be done under difficult circumstances. But that job has got to be done better than you have ever done it before. Without the co-operation of the merchant Navy, this undertaking would not be possible. Your fullest co-operation is necessary now. I know you will not hesitate to play your full part in this great venture. Good luck to you all.’
The ship was readied for its approach to X-Ray Beach and for the following two days all went well at the landings. Troops from Benalbanach landed at Mersa Bu Zejar and their objective was to capture Lourmel Aerodrome and to block all the main roads leading to it. They also had to advance South of Debkra and assist in the capture of airfields at Tafaroui and La Senia before finally taking Oran itself. For their actions Captain MacGregor and his crew received high praise from Service Chiefs and he responded in kind to his own crew by stating:-
‘I was proud and happy to see the manner in which you all carried on and worked unceasingly throughout the operation. Had you not done so, I am certain that we should have required to get the landing ship alongside, for the men in the Docks Company did not appear to have much experience.
So to you all – Deck Officers, Engineer Officers, Radio Officers, Cadets, Deck and Engine Room Personnel, and to all in the Victualing Department – I say thank you for carrying through a grand job of work for your country and the honour of the Red Ensign under which you serve’
Captain MacGregor for his efforts and that of his crew was mentioned in dispatches.
Benalbanach returned to the UK to backload more troops and equipment and sailed once more for North Africa on Christmas Eve. The returning convoy was attacked on the evening of the 7th of January 1943 by a single low flying aircraft which released two torpedoes, Benalbanach was struck by both and sank in les than two minutes. Though Captain MacGregor survived the attack he later disappeared in the water when in company with First Officer Mr. A. P. Paterson and Third Officer Mr. Hume. Also lost were 410 service personnel and crew.
Fort Babine which had been bare boat chartered to the Ministry of War Transport and was involved in Operation Torch had been built by North Vancouver Ship Repairers Ltd and delivered in June of 1942 unbelievably she could only attain a speed of 9 knots.
On the 6th of February 1943 she was attacked by aircraft and sustained some damage and had to be towed to Oran and later Gibraltar for temporary repairs to be carried out. Whilst under tow to the UK she was again attacked on the 13th of September by aircraft which this time proved fatal. She sank with a loss of seven lives.
Bendoran was completed in March of 1910 by C. Connell & Co Ltd of Glasgow for the Indra Line Ltd and named Indradeo. She had various owners until being acquired by Ben Line in June of 1931. She was sold to the Ministry of War Transport in May of 1944 and sank as a block ship to form part of the Mulberry Harbour at Arramanches in June of 1944. After the War she was re-floated in May of 1947 and towed to Blyth for breaking by Hughes Bolckhow.
The final Ben Line loss of the War was Samvern which had been built at the Bethlehem Fairfield Shipyard Inc Baltimore in 1943. When on passage in the Scheldt Estuary on the 18th of January 1945 with Captain T. Mc.Blaikie in command she struck a mine and quickly sank, sixteen lives were lost out of a complement of sixty-three.
During the War the Company's Head Office moved from Leith to a larger premises in Edinburgh and by War's end the Company had lost a total of 18 ships in action and Bendoran which had been sold to the M.O.W.T. for use as a block ship during the D-Day landings. Ben Line had to replace its lost Fleet and if it was to remain a force to be reckoned with as quickly as possible.