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"So this is death"

SS Tuscania sinking by U-boat in 1918 kills 200 Americans

By Caitlin Hamon
Staff Writer

February 5, 1918: The sun was setting as the liner S.S. Tuscania and the British convoy made its way through the North Channel, with the rocky Irish coast to the south and the cliffs of Scotland rising to the north. The icy gale-force wind and rough seas which had risen the previous night were starting to subside as night approached.

Buffalo Commercial Front PageIt was shortly before 6 pm when suddenly a huge shock sent a tremor through the entire ship; all the lights went out at once, followed by the explosive sound of shattering glass. There was no question what had occurred; the Tuscania had been hit by a torpedo.

The S.S. Tuscania was part of a joint service transport from New York to Glasgow and Liverpool. Though initially outfitted to carry over 2,000 passengers, the outbreak of war had curtailed transatlantic passage, and like many other ships at the time, it had been refitted to transport troops and supplies from Canada and the United States to the shores of Great Britain. It had made several successful voyages across the Atlantic, and even had the distinction of aiding in the rescue of passengers aboard a Greek ship in 1915 which had gone adrift.

The Tuscania set out on its final voyage January 27th, 1918 from Hoboken, New Jersey. On board were over 2,000 American troops from the 6th Battalion- D, E, and F Company, the 20th Engineers, miscellaneous members of 32nd division, and the 100th & 103rd Aero Squadrons, as well as a contingent of British crew. They were a part of a transatlantic convoy totaling 14 vessels and were set to rendezvous with an additional HX-20 convoy of 8 British destroyers off the coast of Ireland.

On February 4th, the convoy arrived in the so-called “Danger Zone” where it met with the British Destroyers, which formed a protective ring around the 14 ships as they set course for the North Channel towards Liverpool. As the convoy continued its journey, a German submarine, UB-77, with a contingent of 7 officers and 25 men, spotted the liner through the periscope. Kapitan Wilhelm Meyer gave the order to fire two torpedoes. One struck the Tuscania, while the other missed its target.

ww1 u77Immediately after being hit, men began rushing, calmly but quickly, to their posts. Firsthand accounts from the 20th Engineers recorded the scene:

“From the lowest deck - the troops occupied five—to the first cabins, a steady stream of men—and profanity—issued. In ten minutes practically every able bodied man was at his post. Then we began to take stock and find out what had really occurred. The torpedo had struck us squarely amidships on the starboard side. A great hole was torn in the hull and all the superstructure directly above was reduced to a mass of wreckage. Several sets of davits with their lifeboats were utterly demolished, thus diminishing the chances of getting away safely. From the minute of the explosion the ship began listing to starboard. It became exceedingly difficult to walk on deck, and more than one of the boys on losing his grip on the port rail would find himself sprawled against some of the deck machinery, a keg of rope or even the rail on the lower side.”1

SS Tuscania in Nova Scotia in 1917S.S. Tuscania in Nova Scotia in 1917Visibility was low, and as the ship listed starboard, launching lifeboats on the port side became near impossible; several lifeboats on the starboard side were capsized as they were lowered, throwing the occupants into the freezing water. Many were so damaged from the torpedo explosion they were unfit for use, had broken oars, or were leaking water; yet despite the dire situation, those on board didn’t fall into panic, and remained focused on the task at hand of evacuating the slowly-sinking ship. Distress rockets were fired, three red, indicating the presence of a submarine to the rest of the convoy.

The HX-20 escorts quickly responded; the HMS Grasshopper, Mosquito, and Pigeon were dispatched to assist the Tuscania. As the Mosquito came to rescue the men in overturned lifeboats, another torpedo passed beneath its stern and Captain J.B. Fellows ordered depth charges dropped from where he believed the U-Boat was before continuing his rescue of American troops, despite the clear danger to his own ship.

The Grasshopper, meanwhile, was also picking up survivors who had attempted to swim off the starboard side, loading as many as she could hold before forced to head for a safer distance from further attack by the Germans.

The Pigeon took a bulk of soldiers, while its launch, led by Petty Officer John Jones, gathered up the 11-12 lifeboats full of soldiers, whose occupants were later picked up by a trawler. Eyewitnesses described the brave rescue:

“Suddenly on the starboard, out of the darkness, a tiny destroyer came sidling up to the troopship. With a display of seamanship nothing short of marvelous she approached near enough for the men to be transferred to her deck. Sometimes almost hidden by the roll of the big ship, the destroyer clung to us. Ropes were let over the side and several hundred of the boys went over. When the destroyer was loaded to the limit she steamed away…Shortly after the departure of the destroyer-load of troops another one sidled up to us and completed the work of rescue. She, too, was crowded to the limit; but she stayed till every known person on board had been transferred.”2

This quick action by the British destroyers resulted the rescue of the majority of those aboard the Tuscania: the Grasshopper reported 500, the Pigeon over 800, and the Mosquito 200.

ww1 islay gravesAmerican Soldiers' graves at Port Charlotte, Islay, Scotland.By 10:00 pm, the Tuscania had sunk, bow first, into the sea. Position was recorded last as Lat 55° 22' North, Long 6° 13' West, approximately seven miles south-west of Islay, Scotland.

Though the majority of the survivors had made it aboard the rescue vessels, and a number of Island trawlers has joined in the rescue, the pitch-blackness of night had fallen. The dark made it near impossible to locate several left helpless, swimming in the water; three lifeboats drifted the seas for hours before crashing into the 600 ft cliffs of Islay, killing more than 50 men.

As survivors came ashore to Port Ellen, the islanders were quick to offer aid in the form of donated food, clothing, shelter, and sadly, timber for coffins, as the loss of life became apparent. 230 estimated men were killed; 201 of them were American troops and the remainder consisted of the British crewmen.

Though the death of over 200 men is a tragic casualty of war, the quick and decisive action of the American troops on board, the bravery of the British destroyers, and the hospitality of the nearby Island inhabitants played a notable role in lessening what might have been a greater tragedy. The memory of these events lives on, not just in the accounts of those who bore witness, but by the Monument erected in 1919 by the American Red Cross on the Oa Peninsula of Islay.

 Memorial towerMonument erected in 1919 by the American Red Cross on the Oa Peninsula of Islay,the rocky coast where many casualties were lost, seen atop the headland (left), and in close-up (right).

 ww1 6Bn20E bandMembers U.S. Army 6th Battalion, 20th Engineers Band, among those on the ill-fated SS Tuscania.

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