Roamer: When Albert became commander of the Nomadic in World War One

Early last December this page carried sad news of the death of 70-year-old Roy Snowden, highlighting his tireless commitment to our maritime heritage and unique nautical history.

Roy regularly shared stories about the Nomadic here.

As vice-chairman of the Nomadic Preservation Society and a key member of the Nomadic Charitable Trust, Titanic’s historic ‘little sister’ was one of his major interests.

If it had been published a month earlier, Roy would have keenly perused Wednesday’s Roamer page about Belfast’s six brave Hiller brothers, all Royal Navy sailors during WWII.

Roy’s beloved Nomadic sailed the same perilous seas on duty as a Second World War troop and patrol ship.

The latest Nomadic Preservation Society’s magazine ‘Lone Star’ recounts the life of one of her Commanders, Lieutenant Albert Levillain, who skippered Nomadic when she was an auxiliary minesweeper during WWI.

The multi-talented vessel was also a patrol ship and troop carrier during the Great War.

Philippe Delaunoy, the Preservation Society’s European Co-ordinator in Belgium, is the world’s foremost expert on Nomadic’s colourful history.

He has followed her story for decades and was paramount in ensuring that she stayed in the public eye until she returned to Belfast in 2006.

In 2014 Nomadic was rated Belfast’s number one tourist attraction out of over 150 visitor experiences in and around the city!

Philippe has just revealed some remarkable facts about her WWI Commander, Lieutenant Levillain, in the Lone Star magazine.

On 25th April 1917 Nomadic, still in Cherbourg where she’d been sent to service the ill-fated Titanic, was requisitioned by the French Government and sent to Brest.

Later that year in November Lieutenant Levillain became her Commander.

Following their first visit to their grandfather’s ship last year, his grandsons Jean-Noêl and Patrice Bret Levillain kindly donated some family archives, artefacts and documents, including the Lieutenant’s sword, some of his many WWI decorations and his portrait painted on board Nomadic, to the Nomadic Preservation Society.

At a joyful banquet in a Belfast restaurant in July 2015 the Commander’s grandsons handed over their Grandfather’s precious keepsakes to Philippe Delaunoy, Roy Snowden and other members of the Preservation Society.

After going through some of the documentation, Philippe has published his initial findings in Lone Star.

Having ferried her once-only quota of super-rich celebrities from Cherbourg harbour out to Titanic, Belfast’s expertly-built Nomadic unquestionably had an eminently expert skipper during WWI!

Albert Levillain was born on 4 May 1877 in Deauville, Calvados, North West France.

He joined the French Navy in Cherbourg on 16 May 1895 and was in the war campaign in Madagascar from 6 June 1895.

On 28 January 1896 Albert attended the Engineering Department at the French Naval Academy in Brest where he taught mechanics in 1897.

He served on board various French Navy ships based in Toulon and Brest until 1899 and was promoted to Second Master (Engineer Petty officer) on 1 April 1900.

He was then posted to submarines in Cherbourg where he remained until June 1902.

He became an Officer Cadet on 30 July 1903 and served on the training ship Duguay-Trouin from 1 October 1903 to September 1904.

He was also First Master Engineer on board the armoured cruiser Admiral Aube and on 3 October 1905 became Ensign of the armoured cruiser Lavoisier.

From 1907 to 1908 he commanded both the South-East Asia Navy Base of Tonkin and France’s second flotilla on the China seas.

He was then detached to France’s Reserve Service and became Lieutenant of the port in Saigon on 1 July 1909.

He was Harbour Master in Saigon from 1 July 1911 until he volunteered for WWI in 1914.

As First Officer on board the cargo ship C. Ferdinand Laeisz he returned from Hong Kong to Toulon between 30 April and 12 June 1915.

Back home Lieutenant Levillain served with the French Navy’s Reserve Service from 23 April 1916 and was Observer Officer at the Maritime Aviation Base at Dunkirk and then in Boulogne, from 8 August 1915 to 5 April 1917. He took part in the heavy bombardment raids on the German submarines bases in Ostend and Zeebruges before becoming

Commander of the Maritime Aviation Base in Perpignan-Canet Plage from 5 April to 9 November 1917.

Posted to the Minesweeper Squadron at the Basse-Loire in the Saint-Nazaire, he became Commander of Nomadic from 9 November 1917 until he was demobilized on 4 March 1919.

He then became President of the Association for the Defence of the Interests of State Employees and Colonial Agents, and was made a Lieutenant-Commander on 13 July 1926.

He became Commander of the commercial harbour of Saigon in 1922 and retired on 31 December 1935.

His glittering array of honours and awards included, mentioning just a few, the Commemorative Medal of Madagascar, Knight and Officer of the Dragon of Annam, Croix de Guerre, Distinguished Service Cross and the National Order of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration.

Albert Levillain died 70 years ago in Marseille on 12 September 1946 and 10 years ago his plucky little ship returned to the city where it was built for all of us to visit, marvel and cherish.

Her Commander’s amazing story, and much more besides, is in the latest edition of Lone Star, available at