Articles, Maritime History, Newsletter June 2019

SS St Barchan – The Last Ship Torpedoed in WWI By Richard McCormick

Early on 21st October 1918 a small 362 ton Home Trade coaster the SS Saint Barchan of Glasgow (Official No. 13785), built on the Clyde by Scott & Sons in 1917 for J & A Gardener & Co. Ltd. and commanded by Scottish Captain Donald McDougall with his crew of seven, cast off from Ayr in Scotland bound for Dublin with a cargo of coal.

Onboard were two Inishowen seamen, the Mate Mark O’Donnell aged 29 from Shrove, Co. Donegal and his next door neighbour 24 -year-old Able Seaman and Lamps Thomas Leo Mc Laughlin. Two other Irish crewmembers were Fireman Patrick Galbraith (19) from Springhill, Glenarm, Co. Antrim and Able Seaman William Rice (50) from Ringsend in Dublin. The Chief Engineer James Bradley (47), his son Fireman Peter Bradley (18) and Second Engineer Daniel Vernal (25) were from Paisley in Scotland.

The Saint Barchan had narrowly evaded a torpedo attack six months earlier in the North Channel and the crew would have been acutely aware of the tragic fate of RMS Leinster on 10th October 1918. Little did the men realise that the Saint Barchan would earn the dubious distinction of being the very last ship sunk by German submarine in Home Waters, just three weeks before World War One ended. On 21st October, the recently commissioned German submarine UB-94 was on station off St. John’s Point, Co. Down having recently sunk the 3,000-ton steamer Hunsdon one mile South of Strangford Light Buoy with the loss of one of her crew.

As darkness descended, Lieutenant Commander Hauman lined up the armed merchant ship Saint Barchan heading south in his periscope and torpedoed her without warning, killing all eight crewmembers. No bodies were ever recovered and she now lies in 30 metres of water 4 miles off St. John’s Point, Co. Down, a wartime curiosity for divers to explore. At 04:30 hours on 22nd October 1918, Lieutenant Commander Hauman received a general command from the Imperial German Admiralty ordering all submarines to return to base. She berthed safely in Heligoland on 2nd November 1918. Exactly 20 days later UB-94 was surrendered as a war reparation ship to France and served as TrinitéSchillemans until she was scrapped in 1935.

As Saint Barchan’s crew have no known grave, their names appear on Tower Hill Memorial in London. My Inishowen relative Thomas Leo Mc Laughlin and Mark O’Donnell are inscribed on the Inishowen Maritime Museum and Planetarium’s Memorial in Greencastle, Co. Donegal and are also recorded in the County Donegal Book of Honour, The Great War 1914 – 1918.

The photographs of five of SS Saint Barchan’s crew are reproduced here from CR-10 Cards by kind permission of Southampton City Archives, and David Snook of traced the two Inishowen casualties. The author also wishes to thank the Commissioners of Irish Lights who have granted permission for a memorial plaque to be erected to honour the crew of the SS Saint Barchan at St. Johns Point lighthouse, Co. Down.

Ar Dheis de go raibh a n-anamnacha dílse and may their sacrifice never be forgotten.