ROYAL MAIL STEAM PACKET COMPANY

1914-1926

With the outbreak of World War I Royal Mail moved its home port to Newport, South Wales, two new ships entered service on the Atlantic routes they were Essequibo and Ebro. The Almanzora which was due for delivery in 1915 was in fact taken over by the Government and converted to an armed Merchant Cruiser being completed as such in September.

ALMANZORA


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Built: 1915 by Harland & Wolff, Belfast.
Tonnage: 16, 034g, 10, 323n.
Engines: Triple Screw, Triple Expansion Wings Exhausting into Centre L.P. Turbine. 17 Knots.
Passengers: 400 First Class, 230 Second Class, 760 Third Class.
Launched on 19TH November 1914, completed September 1915.

The Almanzora saw war service in the 10th Cruiser Squadron and at war's end arrived in Belfast for refurbishment which was completed in the January of 1920. She entered service on the Southampton - River Plate route and remained thus until the outbreak of the Second World War. For the whole of the war she was used as a Troopship in many theatres of the war and managed to complete her duties without incident. At war's end she continued in Government Service but this time as an emigrant ship until being laid up off Cowes in 1947. A year later she was sold for breaking at Blyth and the work was carried out by the British Iron and steel Corporation.

At wars end Royal Mail had lost fourteen ships and they were as follows:

POTARO: On the 10th January 1915 she was captured by the German Raider Kronprinz Wilhelm and used as a Scouting Ship to capture other Merchantmen, on the 6th of March she was scuttled by her prize crew.

TAMAR: Also captured by the Kronprinz Wilhelm while on passage from Santos to Le Havre on the 24th of March 1915. After the crew had transhipped the Tamar was sank by gunfire.


Kronprinz Wilhelm ©mpl

CARONI: On the 7th of September 1915 she was slowed by gunfire from a U-Boat and then finally torpedoed.

CARIBBEAN: Foundered off Cape Wrath on the 27th of September 1915 with a loss of fifteen lives.

ORUBA: In 1914 she was purchased by the British Admiralty and disguised to look like the battleship HMS Orion. In 1915 she was scuttled at Mudros Harbour in the Aegean to act as a breakwater.


R.M.S. Oruba Departing Tilbury.
Reproduced by Kind Permission of D. & A. Forman

Built: 1889 by Naval Construction & Armament Co, Barrow.
Tonnage : 5, 852g, 3, 351n.
Engine: Single Screw, Triple Expansion, 3 Cylinders, 764 NHP, 16.5 Knots.
Passengers: 126 First Class, 120 Second Class, 400 Third Class.

Originally built for PSNC for their Liverpool- Valparaiso service, transferred to Orient Line and made her maiden voyage to Australia on the 4th of July 1906. Acquired by Royal Mail in October of 1908 and placed on the South American service to Buenos Aires.

ALCANTARA: She was converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser in 1915 and was fitted with eight 6 inch guns, two 6 pounders anti-aircraft guns and depth charges. On the 29th of February 1916 while under the command of Captain T.E. Wardle in the Skagerrak she was signalled to intercept an alleged disguised Merchant Ship steaming northwards. At 0845 a ship was subsequently sighted and was identified as the Norwegian Ship Rena, Andes who was on patrol with Alcantara confirmed that the Rena was the suspected ship and ordered Captain Wardle to intercept and search. Alcantara closed to within 800 yards and a boarding party set out, within minutes the German raider Greif raised the German flag lowered false bulkheads concealing her guns and opened fire. The Alcantara was mortally wounded and soon developed a port list, the Greif was also on fire but was still able to loose torpedoes at Alcantara and Andes, fortunately both missed. At 0915 the order to abandon Alcantara was issued, the list was so great that many of the ship's complement walked down the ship's side. The Cruiser Comus and Destroyer Munster arrived to pick up survivors and at 11.08 the Alcantara sank. By this time the Greif was well ablaze and at 13.00 she also sank losses on the Alcantara were 72 crew, the Greif 280.

RADNORSHIRE: On the 7th of January 1917 when 110 miles North east of Pernambuco she was captured and sank by the German Commerce Raider Moewe.

BRECKNOCKSHIRE: Five weeks after the sinking of Radnorshire the Brecknockshire under the command of Captain G.A. MacKenzie whilst on her maiden voyage was captured and sank by the German Raider Moewe under the command of Count Von Donha.

DRINA: On the 1st March 1917 she was torpedoed and sank by UC 65 outside Milford Haven, fifteen lives were lost.

ARCADIAN: On the 15th of April 1917 whilst on passage Salonika-Alexandria she was torpedoed and sank, of the 1, 335 onboard 279 were lost.

TYNE: Torpedoed and sank 18 miles South West of the Lizard on the 17th of June 1917.

ARAGON:



Built: 1905 by Harland and Wolff, Belfast.
Tonnage: 9, 588 grt, 6, 038 nt.
Engines: Twin Screw, Quadruple Expansion, 875 NHP, 16 Knots by Builder.
Passengers: 306 First Class, 66 Second Class, 632 Third Class.

Launched on the 23rd February 1905 by Countess Fitzwilliam, Aragon was the Company’s first twin-screw liner. She made her maiden voyage on the 14th of July, Southampton – Brazilian Ports. She arrived in the Dardanelles on the 13th of April 1915 and her troops boarded the steamer River Clyde for the assault landing.

After arriving at Alexandria on the 30th of December 1917 with 2, 700 onboard she was ordered back out of the harbour as no berth was available. Immediately having cleared the harbour she was torpedoed and sank with a loss of 610 lives, HMS Attack a destroyer who came to her aid was also sank.

Photographs of Aragon's sinking provided by relatives of surviving Deck Officer. Mr. John Frederick Alexander Thompson.


HMT Aragon leaving Durban for Bombay Apr 1917


Loss of Aragon Dec 30 1917 off Alexandria Egypt. Torpedoed by enemy submarine.


Aragon settling down. The rescuers, HMS Attack, HMS Points Castle.


Aragon. The last.


HMS Attack torpedoed.

This site is indebted to Mr. Adrian Rowe, of Kloof, South Africa, for the following account of the sinking of 'Aragon'.

An account of the sinking of the “Aragon”, 30th December 1917.

The following unsigned letter, a copy of which is in my possession, was written by an unknown ship’s Officer of the “Aragon” to Mr. John William Hannay, my great-grandfather, giving his account of the sinking of the ship, on which my grandmother, Agnes McCall Ney Hannay (born on 16 Jul. 1892, and who later married Adrian Morrison Howie), a V.A.D., on her way to serve in Egypt and Palestine, was a passenger.

Adrian M. Rowe           10 August 2002.

“5 March 1918

Dear Sir,

Your letter to hand, and I very much regret to learn of the non-arrival of your daughter’s letter. On my arrival at Liverpool on Feby. 4th, I was compelled to submit all correspondence to the alien officer before being allowed to land. All letters had to be censored, and I was forced to put my signature to each one in my possession, before handing them to the authorities. Your daughter was very anxious that the letter she gave me should reach you intact, as she had written a full account of her experience in the terrible disaster, which befell the ship and her escort, and I am exceedingly sorry that circumstances necessitated my yielding the letter to censorship. As the letter has not yet arrived, and knowing the severity of present censorship in matters relating to the sinking of ships, I doubt if it will ever reach you now. However, I sincerely hope it will eventually come to hand; for I can fully realise how anxious you all will be to ascertain a correct idea of the whole catastrophe and Miss Hannay’s escape.

Undoubtedly you have received some word from Miss Hannay since the incident occurred, but I do not expect she has been able to send any details of what actually happened, therefore I will endeavour to convey it to you. In doing so I may be exceeding my official duty, but since the loss of the ship has been declared to the public generally and the affair no longer remains hidden from view (although reports given and impression thereby conveyed have been so meagre and confused): I will give my own experience.

For two weeks we laid at anchor in shelter of the harbour at Marseilles, awaiting sailing orders each day, until at last they came and the ship sailed, in company with another Transport, the “Nile”, and an escort of destroyers. On board were some 160 Nursing Sisters, 150 Military Officers, 2200 troops and the Ships own officers and crew, numbering in all a total of 2700 souls. Besides this, the ship was laiden with the whole of the Egyptian Xmas mail, comprising some 2500 bags. From Marseilles we proceeded to Malta, in safety, and with but little excitement. For a part of the voyage the sea was heavy and many were sick, Miss Hannay being sick for one day. Her friend, Miss Parkes, was not sick at all. We arrived at “Windy Bay” Malta, on the 23rd December, where we remained for four days, thus spending the Xmas in safety. On the fourth day we again put out to sea, in company with the “Nile” and a fresh escort of destroyers, three in number, two of which were Japanese, the other British. Everything went well until the moment of actual torpedoing. This was on Sunday morning, the 30th inst., and our port of destination was just becoming distinctly visible to the naked eye on the horizon. Everybody was eagerly gazing at the sight from every place of vantage, and looking forward to be soon landed safely. Indeed, many had packed all luggage and were already attired for disembarkation. One heard many congratulating themselves on the safe passage.

The ship, with the British destroyer “Attack” was just entering the Channel, which leads into the Port, and had actually passed inside of the first “buoy” which indicates the entrance to the Channel, when a wireless message was intercepted from Trawlers in the Channel, stating the presence of mines therein. The “Attack” immediately signalled to us to follow it, at the same time turning seawards. One of the Trawlers was also observed to be Flying the same signal, indicating that by an order of earlier period, it had been sent to direct the ship through the Channel. The destroyers signal was at once obeyed, that being the senior ship, and the “A” manoeuvred to follow it. In doing so she had to keep well away from the “buoy”. The submarine was lurking at the “buoy” and was unable to Fire its torpedo as the ship entered the Channel, because of the close range, but immediately she turned to follow the “Attack” she presented a perfect target for the enemy, who took full advantage of the situation. The officers on duty on the bridge saw the periscope of the submarine, and at the next instant the wake of the torpedo, which was coming straight for the ship. An endeavour was made to turn the ship, and avoid the torpedo, but it was of no avail, as the ship was going very slowly. The explosion was a dull crashing blast, and the ship shuddered like a reed. I was on duty at the moment, and all the glass in the office came crashing on my head. Next instant the ship was alive to the awful fact that what we had been dreading, had actually happened, and everybody was at “stations” in record time: orders being obeyed with wonderful precision. The first great duty to every man was the rescue of every sister, and they were all mustered in their respective boats and lowered to the water before any other order was given. This operation took but a few minutes and was carried out without a hitch, the boats being the best in the ship, and in a position to afford greatest possible facility for getting off. I happened to be the officer in charge of the boat to which Miss Hannay was allotted, but being on duty, was unable to reach the boat, it being my great duty to stand by my instruments, and here I might mention, the Wireless call for assistance had been transmitted and replies received within a few seconds. By the time the sisters’ boats had got clear, the ship had taken a heavy list to starboard and had sunk deep astern. For a few minutes she seemed to remain thus and during this time the destroyer had run up alongside. The troops were ordered to get “off” and they managed to do so by attaching ropes from the ship to the destroyer. On other parts of the ship troops were ordered to “take the water” and rafts were let loose. In a few minutes the sea was full of struggling men. On the boat deck where I was performing duty, the ship’s boat crews were working in vain to get off the remainder of the boats, which had become jammed by the list. One could feel her going fast, and the list was rendering it impossible to stand upon the deck. About fifteen minutes had elapsed from the time of the explosion, when the Commander gave the order – “Every man for himself”. Then there was a rush to get over the side, but nowhere was there any sign of panic. The discipline throughout was astounding, and troops clung on to each other, singing and cheering until they reached the water level, and then broke up into struggling masses. Just at this moment a groan and a cry of – “She’s going” went up from everybody, and she began to sink rapidly astern. I found it time to move, and managed to scramble on hands and knees to the side, where the destroyer was still at rescue work. One rope still remained attached to the destroyer, and to this I climbed and was sliding down – when alas! - it was cut, thus throwing me into the sea between the two ships, where I sank like a stone with all my uniform, boots and all on. When I got back to the surface I found myself in the midst of a mass of struggling humanity. It was a grim moment! Somehow I succeeded in getting to the destroyer, and got aboard, but some few seconds elapsed before I recovered my senses. Then I looked around – the destroyer was crammed with men: some wounded and bleeding, others stripped of clothing; many were laid out unconscious and dying. The “A” was disappearing rapidly amid a roar of rushing water, and the smashing of internal fittings. Scores of poor fellows still clung to the decks, and now at the last moment were attempting to throw themselves into the sea, rather than be “sucked under”, but from the great height to which the bow had raised, they were being killed outright as they touched the water. It was an awful moment! With one great surge, a roar of inrushing water, and the explosion of the ship’s boilers, she went beneath the surface. Once out of sight, a grim silence seemed to settle on all, and I shall never forget the expression written upon mens’ faces, as I saw it then. The spot over which she sank seemed enormous, and all around were struggling men and wreckage, upturned boats and rafts, to which they were clinging. One lot of Scotch lads I saw near by were standing shoulder to shoulder on a raft, knee deep in water, and singing “Loch Lomond”. It was pathetic! On the destroyer all hands were busy helping unfortunate ones, and preparing to clear a way for her to move ahead, when a shout rang out and next instant there was a terrific explosion. The middle of the destroyer had been smashed and men blown into the air. Oil, fumes, splinters of wood and steel flew in every direction, and she broke in halves and commenced to sink at once: the two ends, bow and stern – rising into the air and the middle sinking rapidly, where the torpedo had hit. There was no chance to do anything but “jump for it” which I did, as did also everybody else who could do so. It is impossible to describe the “mess” there was around those severed remains of that fine destroyer as they sank, and there was little hope to be entertained for those who could not swim, as the only means of rescue remaining were the two Trawlers, who were near at hand, and upon which the Sisters were: besides these, only the “A’s” boats were available for rescue work; everything else, excepting rafts and wreckage, had disappeared.

However, these boats did wonderful work, and took hundreds of rescued fellows back to the Trawlers, where the Sisters worked unceasingly and with great heroism. Other Trawlers soon became visible on the horizon, and were rushing at top speed to the scene, but as the port was at least eight miles from the ship, they took quite a while to arrive, and many went down in the interval.

For more than an hour my senior officer and I were struggling for existence, before a Trawler picked us up, and it was a long time before either of us could “stand up”, as the temperature of the water was very low indeed. On board the trawler we had an exciting time, as we feared both submarine and mines. The Trawlers did fine work indeed, and but for their presence, few would have survived. As they became filled, they went back to port. Those with the Sisters were the first to reach land, and it was about 2.30 p.m. when they landed, everyone being safe. The Trawler upon which I was, arrived alongside the wharf at 4.30 p.m. Every possible provision had been made for our reception, and all were treated to the best that it was possible to acquire. The Sisters were taken in motors to the Sisters Quarters, a fine Hotel, and given every comfort. The Wounded (a large number indeed) were taken to hospitals, and all other survivors were looked after in a manner which drew forth the appreciation of one and all.

To sum up the affair – The “A” was torpedoed approximately eight miles from Alexandria, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 30th, 1917, and sank in twenty minutes. Her escort, the British destroyer “Attack” was torpedoed about 5 mins. later, in the act of rescuing survivors, and sank in from 5 to 7 mins. At the commencement I omitted to say that the other Transport – the “Nile” with the two Jap. destroyers, left us at daybreak, the same morning, and continued their course to Port Said. I understand that they also were subjected to Submarine attack, but reached their destination safely.

Up to the time of the calamity, the voyage had been one of the happiest in my experience, and I had thoroughly enjoyed the Xmas season. Indeed, I think everyone had! and as the company assembled were such a splendid lot, and had been on board so long, many lasting acquaintances were formed. For many days after the ships were sunk, friends were meeting friends, and a mutual rejoicing extended. Experiences were related and fortunes and misfortunes shared. I saw Miss Hannay on several occasions, and had the pleasure of dining with her and her friend Miss Parkes and others. She related her experience to me, and I gathered that she had rather an exciting adventure before leaving the ship, as at the moment of the explosion she was in her cabin, together with Miss Parkes, and they were packing luggage in preparation for disembarkation. In the excitement of the moment they rushed into the corridor, where they discovered that they were not prepared to rush on deck, being minus some portion of apparel, which Miss Hannay had left behind, so she returned to seek it. These few seconds seemed “Ages” as she put it, and upset both young ladies for the moment. They lost everything in their possession, except that in which they were attired. Miss H. was greatly troubled about the loss of her gold wristlet watch, which she explained had been a valued present from you. It had been removed to prevent its being broken in packing of luggage. She saved all her official papers and documents, including money, and was granted a compensation of £50 for losses, by the Military authorities. As far as her health was concerned, she was none the worse for the experience, and when I left Alexandria for England some eight days after the landing, she was on duty at one of the chief Hospitals in Alexandria, and was delighted at the prospect of a permanent duty there. Miss Parkes was also attached to the same Hospital. Beyond the loss of valued treasures, and personal equipment, and the inconveniences caused thereby, I think they are none the worse for their experience, which, sooner or later, will be given to you by their own lips, I trust sincerely. In the meantime, I have every reason to believe that they are sure to be well cared for, and have things conducive to their happiness, and well being, which fact should remove any anxiety from your mind. I am personally well acquainted with Egypt, and can say conditions are far better there than in the homeland just now. I trust that this plain note of what actually occurred will be sufficient to convey some little idea of the very sad and deplorable loss. Much more comment might be given, but from which I must refrain, for obvious reasons.

I hope Miss Hannay is in good health at present, and should you be communicating with her, please convey my kind regards, both to her and her friend.

Personally I am at this moment on leave on account of ill health through the experience, but hope to return to duty on the high seas soon. Should you wish to gather more detail of the disaster, I shall be pleased to help with what information I can offer.”

P.S. My mother Mary Morrison Rowe (née Howie) confirms the authenticity of the above letter. She was told by her mother that after the ship was hit by the torpedo and they rushed out of their cabin and along the corridor, my grandmother discovered that she did not have her skirt on! As she was not prepared to be seen in this state, she fought her way back to her cabin, against the flow of passengers trying to reach the deck, to finish dressing!

Adrian M. Rowe

AMAZON: Whilst outward bound from Liverpool on the 15th of March 1918 she was torpedoed and sank off the North Coast of Ireland within 30 minutes, miraculously all were saved. An escort HMS Moresby depth charged U-52 and forced her to the surface and then destroyed the submarine, nine of the crew were rescued.

MERIONETHSHIRE: Having left her convoy of twenty five ships she was torpedoed and sank on the 27th of May 1918. Survivors were picked up the following day by the Spanish Schooner Luna and landed in the Azores.

At the end of the War Royal Mail acquired a mixture of ships off the stocks, these included designs A, B, C, G and N standard type vessels. The Company also undertook to manage eleven ships of the Russian Volunteer Fleet under the auspices of the 'Government Ship Management Department'. Due to the fact that the Company still had a shortfall on its West Indian Service Quilpue and Quillota were purchased from P.S.N.C., the following year on the 4th of August Royal Mail closed down its passenger operation to the West Indies after almost eighty years of service.

LOMBARDY


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Built: 1920 by Richardson Duck & Co, Stockton-on-Tees.
Tonnage: 3, 457g, 2, 146n.
Engine : Single Screw, Triple Expansion, 3 Cylinders. 352 NHP, 12 Knots.
Launched in1920 for David MacIver.

Taken over by Royal Mail in 1932, moved on after twenty-four years service to Far Eastern Metal Industries & Shipping Company. Renamed Metal Trader. In November of 1957 she was sold for scrap to Hong Kong Salvage & Towage Co and arrived in Hong Kong for breaking in 1958.

Lochkatrine entered service in 1921, the Company's first Motor Ship, three P.S.N.C. (subsidiary Company) ships commenced on the Hamburg-Southampton-Cherbourg-New York route, they were Orduna, Orgita and Oropesa. The route proved very profitable so much so that in 1922 Royal mail chartered three ships from Lamport & Holt they were Vestris, Vauban and Vandyck, in the December the route was supplemented with Orca with Oropesa returning to P.S.N.C.

In 1923 Russia petitioned for the return of the eleven Volunteer Vessels which Royal Mail was managing, Russia won its case but immediately afterwards writs arrived for outstanding monies and Russia was forced to back down, the vast majority of the ships staying with Royal Mail. Also this year Sir Owen Philipps became Lord Kylsant of Carmarthen & Amroth, Ebro and Essequibo joined P.S.N.C. and the Ohio commenced on the Southampton-New York Service.

1924 saw the introduction of Quebec and Halifax as ports of call on the New York run and in 1925/26 Asturias and Alcantara entered service on the South American route.

ASTURIAS


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Built: 1926 by Harland & Wolff, Belfast.
Tonnage: 22, 048g, 13, 226n, 13, 000dwt.
Engines : Twin Screw, 8 Cylinders, 4 Stroke Double Acting with Air Injection. 15, 000 BHP, 17 Knots.
Passengers: 432 First Class, 223 Second Class, 453 Third Class, 450 Crew.
Launched on the 7th July 1925 by the Duchess of Abercorn, completed 21st February 1926.

When she was launched she was the largest motor ship in the world and also the first Royal Mail passenger ship which had a cruiser stern, her forward funnel was a dummy. She made her maiden voyage on the South American service with Commodore E.W.E. Morrison in command, at the time it was reported that not only was the ship slow but that she suffered from severe vibration as well. Due to the aforementioned irresolvable problems she was re-engined with two Parsons Single Reduction Geared Turbines, her bow was reshaped and she was fitted with new propellers. This increased her horsepower to 20, 000 SHP and for aesthetic purposes as well as soot the height of her funnels was increased. She was Royal Mail's representative at the Silver Jubilee Spithead Review in 1935 for George V and Queen Mary.

At the outbreak of hostilities she was converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser for use on the South Atlantic patrols, her fore funnel and mainmast were removed to improve the capabilities of her anti-aircraft guns. In July of 1943 she was torpedoed in the South Atlantic but was successfully towed to Freetown some five hundred miles by Zwarte Zee. With her Engine Room flooded she lay there for two years and was finally abandoned by Royal Mail. In 1945 she went undertow again by Zwarte Zee with an escort of seven Corvettes she made her way to Gibraltar for temporary repairs before being towed to Belfast for an extensive refit. She became a Government Emigrant ship and in 1953 repatriated British troops from Korea. She underwent further refurbishment in 1954 and emerged in full trooping colours.

In 1957 she was sold for breaking but before she sailed on her final voyage played the part of Titanic in the film 'A Night to Remember' at Faslane.

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