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The moment the Holyhead bound mailship RMS Leinster was attacked and sunk

08 Oct 2018, 13:30

https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north- ... s-15225682

Our Events That Shook North Wales series looks back at the attack by a German submarine which killed hundreds a century ago

More than 500 lives were lost when RMS Leinster was sunk by a German submarine in the Irish Sea in 1918.

The sinking of the ship resulted in the greatest ever loss of life in the Irish Sea and the highest ever casualty rate on an Irish-owned ship. It even jeopardised attempts to end the First World War.


Between 1850 and 1920, the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (CDSPCo) operated a mail and passenger service between Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) and Holyhead.

Having the post office contract to carry mail across the Irish Sea, the four ships covering the route carried the prefix RMS, for Royal Mail Steamer.

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Nicknamed the “Provinces”, they were named RMS Connaught, RMS Leinster, RMS Munster and RMS Ulster.

Each ship had an onboard mail sorting room, staffed by members of Dublin Post Office.

Irish post for Britain was put aboard trains to Dún Laoghaire. British post for Ireland was sent by rail from London to Holyhead. At both ports the post was put aboard the mailboats.

From the start of the First World War, the Royal Navy blockaded the North Sea, Germany’s ocean access to the outside world. The country faced starvation and defeat unless the blockade could be broken or the German army could achieve military victory.

German submarines avoided the blockade by sailing beneath the surface of the ocean. They attacked merchant shipping bringing food and supplies to Britain, in an attempt to starve Britain into surrender. However, faced with protests by neutral America following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 , Germany suspended the attacks on merchant shipping.

But in 1917, in a desperate attempt to win the war, Germany resumed attacks on merchant shipping. As a counter measure, the British sailed merchant ships across the Atlantic in convoys escorted by the Royal Navy.

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The crew of the RMS Leinster mail ship

Faced with the difficulty of attacking escorted convoys, the Germans focused their attacks on the waters around Great Britain and Ireland, where shipping tended not to be convoyed.

During the First World War , the Provinces continued their Irish Sea service. Each was painted in camouflage and a gun was placed in the stern, manned by a Royal Naval gun-crew – a useless defence against submarine attack.

On March 3, 1917 RMS Connaught was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel with the loss of three crewmen. From late 1917, the remaining Provinces were attacked a number of times by German submarines, but they managed to avoid being sunk or damaged.

The Germans used several types of submarine in the first World War with the UB-boat tasked for operations around Britain and Ireland. In late September 1918, UB-123 set out from Germany, bound for the Irish Sea.

October 10, 1918

Shortly before 9am on October 10, 1918, the RMS Leinster left port under the command of Captain William Birch, a Dubliner who lived with his family in Holyhead.

The weather was fine, but the sea was rough following recent storms. Aboard the ship were crew from Ireland and Holyhead, 22 postal sorters, civilians from Ireland and Britain and soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses from many countries.

Shortly before 10am, a torpedo fired by UB-123 missed the ship, passing across its bow. But a second torpedo struck the ship in the vicinity of the mail room.

Attempting to turn, the ship was struck again by another torpedo. It quickly sank five miles east of the Kish light.

Survivors struggled in the rough sea, in lifeboats and clinging to life-rafts and wreckage. Some were saved by naval vessels.

The death toll
The official death toll was 501, out of a total of 771 (77 crew and 694 passengers) but recent research suggests the death toll was higher.

The dead included Captain Birch, 21 of the 22 postal sorters aboard, and Josephine Carr, 19, from Cork, the first ever Wren (Women’s Royal Naval Service) to be killed on active service.

The Holyhead & Anglesey Mail recorded the “outrage” and “indignation” which greeted news of the tragedy in Holyhead, which had been home to many of the people killed.

“There was great sensation on Thursday morning when the news came that the RMS Leinster had been sunk.

“At first it was said that all on board had been saved.

“Later in the day, however, it was reported that there had been a great loss of life, and great indignation was felt as to the fate of the crew, many of whom were Holyhead men.

“When it became known that hundreds of innocent people had perished as the result of the German policy of frightfulness at sea, the indignation knew no bounds.”

How the people of Holyhead reacted

Newspaper reports included accounts of individual heroism and duty.

Wireless operator Arthur Jeffries was “one of the last to leave his station” after the ship was attacked. He “remained sending out the SOS signal until the second torpedo tore the interior out of the vessel, and sent her to the bottom. This gallant man perished.”

William Matthias, the ship’s chief engineer, “stuck to his duty till the last and helped to save life. Finally he plunged into the sea trying to reach some of the rafts or boats, but it is feared he has been drowned.”

The bodies of those brought ashore at Holyhead were met with flags at half mast, blinds drawn in all houses and shops and business were closed.

“Thousands of persons had assembled all along the route to witness the funeral procession,” the Mail added.

A fund was launched for the widows, orphans and others in Holyhead affected by the tragedy.

Its founders wrote: “With the details of this crowning infamy of the enemy fresh in the minds of all, we believe that it is necessary only to mention the existence of the fund to ensure from the public that generous and spontaneous response which has been so marked a feature of the war.”

The Holyhead Maritime Museum tells the story of the sinking and is home to many artefacts from the ship.


Trustee Barry Hillier said: "In all, 70 children were left without fathers after the tragedy and three wives were pregnant with children who would never know their fathers. It was a terrible loss of life that people still remember in Holyhead to this day. It affected many local people."

UB-123 was later lost in a minefield with its entire crew while attempting to return to Germany. The bodies of her commander Oberleutnant zur See Robert Ramm and his crew of two officers and thirty-three men were never recovered.

A few days after the ship was attacked US President Woodrow Wilson sent a harsh reply to German peace overtures which included the phrase: “At the very moment that the German Government approaches the Government of the United States with proposals of peace, its submarines are engaged in sinking passengers ships at sea.”

Soon afterwards, Germany ceased its attacks on merchant shipping and an armistice was signed on November 11.

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