On this day in 1918, the Cunard steamer RMS Carpathia was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland by the German U-boat U-55.
Chances are you may have heard the name Carpathia before, as it was the ship that rescued many hundreds of survivors from the White Star liner RMS Titanic in April 1912.
Six years later, the Carpathia (which had been built on the Tyne and had its maiden voyage in 1903) was being used to transport US troops, having also carried many thousands of tons of supplies on behalf of the British government. On July 17, 1918, the vessel set sail from Liverpool as part of a convoy heading for Boston.
Three torpedoes were fired from the submarine, which was under the command of Wilhelm Werner. The first two hit the port side and engine room respectively; the second being responsible for the only five fatalities (three trimmers and two firemen). With the vessel taking on water and listing, Captain William Prothero gave the order to abandon ship. The remaining crew members and all 57 passengers (36 saloon and 21 steerage) were able to board lifeboats as the Carpathia began to sink. A third torpedo struck the vessel and the Germans would almost certainly have inflicted greater loss of life had it not been for the intervention of HMS Snowdrop, which was able to halt the attack before rescuing the survivors.
The report from the New York Times (on 19 July) included a number of quotes from members of the Carpathia’s crew: “The passengers had just finished breakfast and it was a beautiful summer morning, when about 9:15 a torpedo struck us near No.3 hatch forward. Two minutes later another torpedo struck right in the engine room and killed five of the crew who were at work there. We could see the submarine. It was a big two-masted vessel, quite the latest type of U-boat.
“The Carpathia did not seem very badly damaged by these two explosions. She was taking in water, but I think she would have lasted for hours, and might even have been towed into the harbor [sic] if the U-boat had not got busy again.
“A quarter of an hour after the first torpedo had been discharged a third was fired and caught us near the gunner’s rooms. A big explosion followed. We could see that the Carpathia was doomed. She settled down rapidly after that and, about 11 A.M, disappeared.”
Seemingly the first explosion had damaged the wireless equipment so that the Carpathia was unable to send out a distress call. Another vessel in the area was able to raise the alarm; and as well as noting the admirable calm on board the Carpathia, one survivor commended the actions of the ship’s third engineer and boilermaster who were able to bring the vessel safely to a halt, despite suffering from severe burns.
The Carpathia was the fifth (of a total of ten) Cunard passenger vessels lost in just five weeks. The other casualties were RMS Ascania, SS Ausonia, SS Dwinsk and SS Valentia. U-55 reportedly sank 64 merchant vessels during the War, before eventually surrendering to the Japanese later in 1918. Sinking RMS Carpathia was undoubedly the submarine’s most notable “achievement”, but this wasn’t quite the end of the story for the British vessel, as the wreck was found in 1999.
Reportedly lying in over 500 feet of water, just under 200 miles off the Cornish coast, Carpathia was described as being “in reasonably good condition for a wreck of that age. She is in one piece and she is sat upright." Huge tears were visible in the side of the hull and the boilers appeared to have exploded as the ship sank.
Obviously the watery grave was a desperately sad end for the Carpathia. For a vessel to be attacked and to sink with the loss of just five lives is pretty astonishing, but the actions of the captain (Arthur Rostron) and the crew of the ship back in April 1912 are both remarkable and inspiring. Whilst so many families owe their very existence to RMS Carpathia, this blog respectfully remembers the five crew members who perished on this day 97 years ago.