Centenary of Belfast-built ship sunk by mines with loss of 354 crew

HMS Laurentic
HMS Laurentic

Next Thursday, January 26, marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first American soldiers in Ulster during WWII.

Next Friday, January 27, is Holocaust Memorial Day, when the world stops to commemorate and grieve for the countless millions who died, or whose lives were changed beyond recognition, during Hitler’s holocaust and in subsequent genocides.

There were references on recent Roamer pages to local commemorative events - there’ll be more next week - and web addresses and further details follow at the end of today’s page.

There’s also a sad anniversary on Wednesday.

Belfast maritime-history enthusiast Harry Foster kindly forwarded Roamer a substantial calendar of events that are being held in the North West from Wednesday until Sunday marking the centenary of one of Ireland’s greatest maritime tragedies.

People from north and south of the border, and from the U.K, Canada and other parts of the world, are joining hands to remember the tragic and oft-forgotten sinking of HMS Laurentic, now a WWI shipwreck.

On January 25, 1917 the Belfast-built Laurentic embarked on its final, fateful voyage from County Donegal to Canada.

It never arrived, sunk by German mines before it had navigated out of Lough Swilly - 354 men died - from Ireland, the United Kingdom, and from Newfoundland, Canada.

Aside from treasure-hunters diving for the gold that it was carrying, HMS Laurentic had been virtually forgotten until recently when the ship has become a symbol not only of tragedy, but of unity.

For the past decade a growing number of men and women have made a pilgrimage to Donegal to remember the ship - men and women from all communities, and from around the world.

Next week, on and around the centenary of the sinking, the commemorations promise to be the biggest yet.

Originally called the Alberta, Harland and Wolff vessel number 395 was launched on the Lagan on September 10, 1908.

The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (better known as The White Star Line, later the owners of Titanic) purchased the 15,000-ton ship before it was completed and changed its name to Laurentic.

Like all Belfast-built ships, the handsome, 570-feet-long vessel was fitted with state-of-the art technology.

Her three propellers, turned by H&W’s latest triple-expansion steam engines, surged her streamlined hull through the seas at a magnificent 17 knots.

Dedicated by White Star to ‘the American run’, Laurentic offered an internationally-renowned Belfast brand of luxury, comfort, speed and reliability to her many thousands of adoring passengers prior to WWI.

Laurentic’s unusual zip soon sped her into the headlines!

In July 1910 Scotland Yard’s Inspector Dew boarded Laurentic, hoping to get to Canada before the much slower SS Montrose.

Montrose had departed Antwerp three days previously with Doctor Hewley Crippen and his lover on board.

Crippen murdered his wife Bella in February 1910, cut up her body, buried her remains in the cellar of their London house, and sneaked to Brussels with his girlfriend-secretary Ethel Clara le Neve.

They hid until SS Montrose was due to sail from Antwerp to Quebec.

Crippen boarded in disguise, without his moustache and spectacles.

Ethel dressed up as his son.

But three days’ into the Atlantic Montrose’s Captain Kendall became suspicious and radioed London.

Inspector Dew was dispatched on Laurentic which raced to the Saint Lawrence Seaway, easily catching the Montrose. Dew went aboard disguised as a river pilot and arrested

Crippen.

Back in England Crippen was hanged for murder in Pentonville Prison on the 10th November 1910.

Laurentic’s speed made her the perfect choice for requisition by the Admiralty during WWI as she could outrun German U-Boats.

She was fitted with 6-inch guns and re-commissioned as an armed merchant cruiser.

On January 23, 1917 Laurentic left Liverpool with 470 officers and sailors on board, and around 43 tons of gold bullion - 3,211 bars, then worth approximately £5 million pounds.

She was bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the bullion would finance war munitions.

After stopping off at Buncrana in Lough Swilly, she set sail for Canada on January 25.

It was a bitterly cold night with gale-force 12 blizzards.

As Laurentic passed Fanad Head, approximately two miles off-shore, she struck a mine, one of six laid earlier in the month by U-Boat U80.

Then she struck a second mine, and quickly began to sink.

Lifeboats were launched, in which many very badly injured sailors were exposed to extremes of low temperatures and sub-zero wind-chill.

The weather was so bad that rescue ships didn’t get there till the following day.

They found many dead crewmen, some with their hands frozen to the lifeboats’ oars.

Three hundred and fifty-four sailors and officers perished, trapped on the doomed Laurentic, frozen to the lifeboats, or washed away in the icy sea. Corpses were found on local beaches for many weeks after the sinking.

Since 2005, the Laurentic has been the spark for a cross-community and cross-cultural gatherings in the Northwest of Ireland, where schools have been contacting relatives of the ship’s crew and researching the tragedy.

There are a host of commemorative tours and exhibitions running from Wednesday till Sunday next week in Londonderry and Donegal, including wreath laying ceremonies at the cemeteries where crewmen were buried.

For full details contact mail@harryfoster.co.uk

Listings of all local Holocaust Memorial Day events are on hmd.org.uk