When I was a child my maternal grandmother “Babs” (Scriven) Watkins often spoke of the death of her brother Richard Scriven in the sinking of the SS Lismore by a German U-boat as it was “going out of the harbour”.
The assumption was that she was talking about Cork Harbour. I often wondered why the sinking of a Cork ship with a Cork crew, near Cork Harbour, had not received any publicity.
I discovered recently that “the harbour” referred not to Cork Harbour, but to the French port of Le Havre, which literally means “the harbour”.
April 1917 was the most brutal month of the war, with the greatest loss of shipping. But wartime secrecy played a role in the lack of publicity at the time.
The Lismore was built for the Cork Steam Packet Company in Dundee, and was launched in 1905.
It was sunk by the German submarine UB-38 at 8pm on April 12, 1917, while on a voyage from Le Havre to the Bristol Channel in ballast.
The Lismore was under the command of Captain Henry Blanchard, later the Port of Cork’s harbourmaster. He gave the following account of the sinking to William J Barry for the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1919:
“I had just come off the bridge, leaving the second officer, Mr Fluery, in charge, and had only reached my room with the chief officer, Mr H Hore, when we were startled by a fearful explosion which jammed the door, and it looked as if our means of exit was cut off.
"However, after our combined efforts we succeeded in forcing it open, and stepping out we found water up to our waists, and a scene of the most awful devastation met our eyes, the engine room skylight being a mass of twisted iron and broken glass, the steam escaping from the engine room in dense clouds.
“I realised at once that the ‘Lismore’ was doomed, and immediately we set to work to lower away the after starboard lifeboat.
"As we did so the ship took a heavy list to starboard and commenced to go down by the head, thus adding to the difficulty and danger of lowering the boat, and at the same time the position of the ship caused the lowering falls to foul, but fortunately a heavy sea lifted the lifeboat and when she rose on it automatically freed the falls; then she drifted right aft, the steamer’s stern being out of the water, with the propeller rapidly revolving over our heads.
"In fact, we thought our last moment had come. We even felt our faces fanned by the breeze caused by it, but we miraculously drifted clear, and in about four minutes the ship went down. We then rowed about amidst the floating debris, and hearing cries around us, succeeded in picking up five of our crew who were struggling in the water.
“Immediately after this the submarine came to the surface quite close, with position of her crew on deck armed with rifles.
“She then approached, threw a line ordering us to make it fast to our boat. We did so, and the submarine steadied us, head on to the sea. Her commander [Captain Wilhelm Amberger] questioned us as to cargo, identity of the ship, where we were bound, etc. When he learned that we were not carrying any cargo, he became quite angry, evidently because the result of his action did not cause the loss of a cargo-laden steamer.
“The submarine then commenced to tow us, with her deck partly awash. She had the towing rope made fast to a revolving drum on her deck, and was slowly drawing us on to her partly submerged deck.
"Seeing this, I passed the word along to slip the rope, but the chance of doing so unobserved did not occur. The result was that we were towed right on until we struck the submarine, when we let go and drifted clear.
“On seeing this the U-boat came full speed astern, and striking us on the port bow damaged four planks. We immediately hailed them that our boat was badly holed, in a sinking condition, and very likely we would be drowned before we reached the shore.
"The submarine then disappeared for a while, but shortly re-appeared, and the officer in charge asked us: ‘Were we sure we were sinking?’ We answered in the affirmative, and he ironically said ‘good-bye’ and disappeared in the darkness.
“After waiting some time to ascertain if there were any other survivors and that the submarine had really taken her departure, we set sail on our boat, and with a favourable breeze, set a course for the land, until we made out the light on Cap d’Antifer Lighthouse, on the French coast, when we were fortunately seen and picked up by a British patrol boat and taken into Le Havre.
“We were treated with great kindness by the British Admiralty and the officials of the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society. Seven of our crew who were wounded when the torpedo struck the ship, received every care and attention that medical science could afford during their stay at Le Havre.”
Those who drowned were: Second officer William Henry Fluery from Tramore, Co Waterford; 1st engineer Alexander Barrie, 2 Waterloo Terrace, Cork; Sailors John Crone (5 Morton Villas, Dunbar Street, Cork) and William O’Brien (17 Broad Lane, Cork); Carpenter Richard Scriven, 10 Castle View Terrace, Cork.
Those saved were: Captain Henry Blanchard, Richard Hore, chief officer, R King, 2nd engineer; A Grant, J O’Sullivan, P Collins, W Moore, T. O’Brien, sailors; M Walsh, steward; J White, cook; J Curtain, J O’Driscoll, M Ahern, H Gould, J McGuire, A Higgins, J Murphy, J Fenton, A Power, fishermen and 2 gunners.
The wreck of the Lismore lies in the English Channel, off Cap d’Antifer, France.
Another Cork ship, the SS Bandon was sunk by a German mine off Ardmore, Co Waterford, on the following day, April 13, with the loss of 28 lives.
The previous week, the US had declared war on Germany, and at the beginning of May 1917, the US Navy arrived in Cobh, then Queenstown, under the command of Commander Joseph Taussig. His fleet began to provide protective escorts for shipping, and the losses declined for the remainder of the war.