The date is 10th October 1918. The place is Kingstown (now DunLaoghaire), Britain (of which Ireland is an integral part) is at war with Germany. A war that came to a close within a number of weeks.
At the Carlisle pier one of the Kingstown to Holyhead mailboat is loading. The RMS Leinster, one of four such boats named after the provinces of Ireland, owned by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. Launched at Belfast in 1897 the Leinster held the record for the fastest crossing to Holyhead, in 2 hours 24 minutes. At the time of launching she was the fastest ship in the world.
At this time the boat was painted in drab camouflage and carried a small gun on the afterdeck as protection. It relied on its speed to avoid submarines, which were the main menace to shipping. The crew was almost entirely Irish or Welsh. Apart from the crew and passengers, there was a team of postal sorters, working in the bowels of the ship, sorting mail delivered early that morning and due for next day delivery throughout Britain. The passengers consisted of a great variety of nationalities, many of them military, but also a large number of women and children traveling for many and varied reasons.
In total there were 771 people on board as the Leinster set sail at 8.50 a.m. under the command of Captain William Birch.
In the Irish Sea at that time there were three destroyers on patrol, His Majesties Ships, Mallard, Lively and Seal. Two of these were based in Kingstown and had set sail earlier. They reported heavy weather, it was going to be a rough crossing, with winds from the South-South-West, blowing up the Irish Sea at Force 6 or 7.
Unknown to everyone, a German U-Boat was in the vicinity under the command of Oberleutnant zur see, Robert Ramm. It was UB 123 and had made the hazardous journey from the Baltic around Scotland and Northern Ireland, sinking at least one merchant ship on the way. It was now ready and waiting for a target.
One hour after the Leinster left Kingstown, UB 123 sent off two torpedoes, one of which hit the Leinster in the bow, and the ship started to sink. An SOS was sent, which was picked up by her sister-ship the RMS Ulster which had only minutes before passed them on its way back from Holyhead. The message was relayed and sometime between 9.40 and 9.50 the Mallard, Lively and Seal rushed at full speed to the scene. Meanwhile boats and rafts were being launched, with great difficulty because of the heavy seas. Captain Birch was heard to say that he did not expect the ship to last very long, when another torpedo struck, this time in the boiler room, fragmenting a lifeboat in process of launching and sealing the fate of the Leinster, which lasted only a few more minutes. The time was around 10 a.m.
At 10 a.m. Mallard reported that their forebridge was washed away by the high seas, as it raced to the scene. At 10.15 The RMS Ulster docked and brought the first news of the disaster. A fleet of boats and ships started to get ready as fast as they could, hospitals were alerted, ambulances and transport assembled.
By 10.35 the three destroyers were on the scene lowering boats in an area 12-13 miles from Kingstown and 5 miles ESE of the Kish. Small boats got damaged, lifeboats were swamped, there were people in the sea everywhere.
The destroyers were joined by a flotilla of boats from Kingstown including the Helga. By 12.40 when the destroyers left for Kingstown taking most of the survivors, many of whom were suffering terribly from cold and immersion, a few of whom died on the way. Sadly Captain Birch, 61 years of age, did not make it. He was lost when the lifeboat he was on capsized at the moment of rescue.
It was the worst disaster ever in the Irish Sea, of the 771 who left Kingstown that morning, only 270 were saved. It was a national disaster, it was also a local disaster, there are families in Holyhead and today’s Dun Laoghaire who still remember their lost ones. Of the 22 postal workers on the boat, only one survived. Fortunately there are also some happy stories such as that of the survival of 16 year old cabin boy Thomas Connolly of Tivoli Terrace and his father Philip who was a greaser.
In late October and November, bodies were washed up on the Isle of Man and given burial there. One and a half months after the event, two bodies were washed up on the west coast of Scotland. On December 18th a bag of mail was found on the shore on the Isle of Man, dried out and later delivered overprinted with a purple stamp “Salved from S.S. Leinster”
UB 123 was probably responsible for sinking another merchant ship shortly afterwards but on Friday 18th October, her base lost contact and she was most likely sunk by a mine in the North Sea, on her way back home.