• Men of the Southland - the first Australian Troopship to be Torpedoed

“My God – a torpedo!” was the shout from a sentry. “We watched the line of death getting nearer until it crashed, and the whole ship reeled. Then the order was given, ‘The ship is sinking – abandon ship.’” A subaltern on board the Southland went on to say, “Without a cry or sign of fear, or more hurrying than on a brisk march, and singing ‘Australia Will Be There,’ the order was carried out.” It was about 9.45 on the morning of the 2nd of September 1915, and the Southland had just encountered the German submarine UB14, under the command of Oberleutnant Heino von Heimburg. As part of the 6th Brigade convoy, she had left Alexandria 3 days before, carrying troops for the Gallipoli campaign, and was only about 65km south of the isle of Lemnos when hit. Her contingent included the 21st Battalion; B Coy of the 23rd; the 6th Field Artillery Bde; members of the 2nd Division Signal Coy; as well as 6th Brigade & 2nd Div Headquarters staff; a NZ Artillery unit and various other sundry details. The convoy had been following a zigzag course all the way, the ‘torpedo guard’ on each ship keeping their eyes peeled for submarines. The Nile, carrying the 24th Battalion and well ahead, had spotted the sub and managed to outrun it, the Scotian with the 22nd Battalion on board also managed to dodge it, but the first the Southland knew of her predicament was the approaching torpedo. Corporal J.D. Burns, author of the 1914 poem ‘For England’, observed that “None of the guards, I think, saw anything of the submarine, although some of them saw the torpedo coming. We had a 4.7 gun at the stern, and she fired once but without hitting the submarine, and I doubt even whether the gunner really saw her, although he said he only missed her by a yard.” Private J. Piggott’s contribution to the picture was an impression of the gunner standing by his gun after the unsuccessful shot at the periscope, swearing because he had missed. According to Pte Ernest Thomas, Captain Kelk gave the order “Hard astern”, and just stopped in time to prevent the torpedo striking the engine-room and boilers. A second torpedo luckily missed her altogether. The torpedo that found its mark, as noted by Pte Robert Norman of the 21st Battalion “struck us in No. 2 hold, just in front of the bridge. Luckily, the hold was full of coal, and that had a lot to do with saving of the ship. I saw the coal and water fly up into the air about 30ft.” George Langley, newly promoted to Captain that morning, was talking to Private West as they stood up on the hatchway and watched helplessly as the torpedo struck just below them. Leaving a large hole in the port side and propelling deck stanchions right through the other side of the ship, it soon began to list. Thrown into the air, Langley then fell through the hatch into the bilge, which luckily for him was already filling with water, breaking his fall. Struggling hard in the rushing onslaught and choking on sulphurous fumes, he was grabbed by a 23rd Battalion Private and dragged from the water. Back up on deck, battered and bleeding, he took charge of his men during the evacuation, until he later collapsed. Langley returned home in 1919 with a Serbian White Eagle, the DSO & 3 MIDs. Not so lucky were the other men on the hatchway with Langley, who were also thrown into the air but landed hard on the deck. Pte Charles West received ankle injuries, and was sent to hospital in England, returning home in August 1916 with chronic gout. Pte John McLean, 42 years old and married, had his left ankle crushed and was returned to hospital in Alexandria the following month, rejoining his unit in January 1916. At least nine men were killed in the initial explosion, and although the 23rd Battalion took the brunt of it, a few 21st men suffered too. Private Rowe had just walked away from the deck near the hatchway where he and Albert Heywood had been sitting. Sadly, Albert was almost blown beyond recognition, and was buried at sea later that day. Pte Arthur Healy, a 19 year old painter from Melbourne, was also killed and, his body was later recovered from the hold and buried at Lemnos with six 23rd Battalion men. A further body found in the hold was that of Pte Oliver Holmes. The mate he was with when the torpedo struck, found it a mystery as to how he got there, his only theory being that he’d jumped overboard and been sucked in through the hole. Cpl Robert Young and his mates were still down below packing their kits when they soon found themselves covered in water. Grabbing their lifebelts, they rushed to their boat stations which they’d been shown the day before. However, as the troops had been about to fall in for inspection and instruction, many were already on deck, and they actually had to race below for their lifebelts before returning to their allotted place. While waiting their turn for a boat, some men removed their puttees and boots just in-case they had to take to the water, others started collecting loose timber and anything else that might float. Many ‘had to stand for nearly two hours on the enclosed promenade deck, on what during the first 30 or 40 minutes was believed to be a sinking ship.’ The Chief Engineer went about his work shutting off the bulkheads to make No. 2 hold watertight, and also closed many portholes. Kelk set a fine example as ship’s Captain: “He was smoking a cigarette when the torpedo hit us. He just walked sedately up and down his beat on the bridge until we were all off the ship, and he never stopped smoking.” General Legge, in command of the 2nd Division, stayed on the boat deck where all could see him and called for his cane and spurs. “Coolly he put on his spurs, lit a cigarette, and leaned over the rail. It was to give his men confidence. His chief of staff, Colonel Gwynn, beloved by all Duntroon College boys, joined him there, and they remained calmly watching the proceeding till the end.” Legge and his 2nd Division staff were eventually taken off the Southland by the hospital ship Neuralia. The medical officer of the 21st Battalion, Captain J.P. Fogarty organized for the sick bay to be cleared, and made sure that these men and the other injured, where in the first boats to be launched. The crew: Unfortunately the Southland was mostly manned by a scratch crew, picked up in Egypt, and described by Captain Langley as an unimpressive lot. Many of them, stokers especially, rushed the first boats and caused havoc. Cpl Ivor Williams states in his diary that he saw the bodies of “two of the crew who had been shot for looting”. However, one crew member ‘an old sailor’ was badly injured while working hard to lower the boats. As one of the davit ropes kept jamming in the pulley block, he set out to put it right, and as the boat was raised clear, it swung heavily outwards crushing him against the davit. He fell unconscious and was lifted into the boat before it was lowered to the water. In the water: Colonel Richard Linton, Commander of the 6th Brigade was in one of the first boats lowered. Unfortunately it was soon overturned, and being a strong swimmer, Linton decided to remain in the water, allowing others to take his place in the boats. However, many hours later when he was finally taken on board the French destroyer Massuo, the shock & exposure had proved too much and his heart gave out. Surviving him was his son Richard who was rescued by the Neuralia. Private Norman, with his mate Charlie, watched as one boat reached the water and turned over, and “The next boat was let down by only one end, and shot most of the chaps into the sea. That was enough for me. We took off our boots, putties, and tunics, and went astern, where we threw over some of the hatchway and slid down a rope to them.” He later managed to climb aboard one of the canvas boats, which needed constant ‘bailing’ to keep it afloat for another 3 hours before being picked up. Pte Norman was discharged mid 1917 after being wounded in France. Signalers Keith Allard and Rex Moffat also watched the above incident from their separate positions in the water. Keith described it as a sight he would never forget, when the dangling boat then went crashing down onto its previous occupants floundering in the water below. Both being strong swimmers, Keith and Rex, who’d joined the 2nd DSC together, had volunteered to jump from their overcrowded boat before it was completely lowered. “As soon as we struck the water we got separated somehow, and the last I saw of Rex he was swimming towards the boat a bit ahead of me; then a chair or something hit me from above, and when I had sufficiently recovered my nut I was a long way from it, so resigned myself to a swim…..” Keith spied another boat in the distance and made for it: “Eventually I reached it, about a mile or so from the ship, and got hauled in, although I don’t remember that; I was feeling a bit goosed. However, after five minutes spell, I got on to an oar and started to row. Not that we wanted to row anywhere, but just to keep head on to the waves and keep the water down. It was a collapsible boat, and lived up to its name admirably and collapsed frequently.” Lieutenant H.A. Crowther observed that “The boats were lowered from the davits full of men.” This was one of the reasons for them jamming, a situation that had proved ill for the ‘old sailor’, and an alternative way of freeing them had been to cut the ‘falls’. “This left us without tackle to lower the canvas collapsibles from the boat deck on top. However, the ship’s officers were regular Trojans, and we rigged bridles and got them down somehow, chiefly by brute force.” As the first of these rafts began to drift away, Pte Geoffrey Smith of the 21st Battalion, distinguished himself by diving from the deck and hauling it back to the ship for the men to climb down into. Smith died in December that year from wounds received at Gallipoli. Pte Harold Close from Bendigo was one of those that had avoided the life boats. “Some of the crew seemed to lose their heads, and the boats were managed terribly; they got overcrowded, and some were upset. I never tried to get into a lifeboat, as they were overcrowded, so I made for the collapsible boats, and after helping to get off two or three of them I got into one by sliding down a rope.” Unfortunately, after recovering from wounds received at Gallipoli later that month, Harold’s luck ran out and he was killed by a bomb, only months after his arrival on the Western Front. Another that helped launch some of these collapsible boats was the previously mentioned Cpl J.D Burns. When he finally took his place in one, he noted “It was a fine afternoon, and the sea had not appeared rough from the deck of the steamer. From our little boat, however, the aspect differed considerably. We pitched and tossed most frightfully, and all we could do was to keep her head on to the wind. I took an oar as long as I could, but it wasn’t long before I got miserably seasick, and I am afraid I was helpless from then on until we were picked up.” Sixteen days later, James Burns was dead, shot through the head at Gallipoli, and buried in the Shrapnel Valley Cemetery. John McClure, a stud groom from Newbridge was on guard duty and had missed his allotted boat, so he eventually donned a lifebelt and took to the water. About 2½ hours later he was picked up by the Ben My Chree. “We did look sights, some naked and some nearly so.” He later went on to win the DCM at Mt St Quentin in 1918, returned to Australia in 1919, and lived to the ripe old age of 80. Ben Esposito, who went on to win a military medal the following year at Mouquet Farm, found himself floundering in the water after the boat he was in capsized. He managed to make it back to the ship, and unprepared to tempt fate again, stripped, before securing his place in another boat. His mate Lawrence Mahon from Essendon & another man, William Copeland, a Boer War Vet, who’d also been on the capsized boat, weren’t so lucky and both drowned. Another that drowned was Lindsay Adams. His brother Reg had last seen him in a boat with his lifebelt on and presumed he’d be safe. Reg himself had initially been in the ill-fated boat that upended its occupants and then crashed on to them below. Realizing how crowded it was, he’d returned to the deck only moments before. Unlike Reg, Pte Henry Bowen had stayed on board the life boat until it tipped him out, and he disappeared after hitting the water. Henry’s brother Walter was also on the Southland, but on a different part of the ship, and unaware of Henry’s fate. The Sloan brothers, James and Thomas from Scotland both drowned – but in their case, the reports vary greatly as to how. Thomas O’Byrne was another that went to the bottom of the sea, Sergeant Albert Baulch saw him jump overboard, never to be seen again. Pte James Bruce “was on a collapsible raft and saw at a distance of about 30 yards another boat, in which I identified Privates Best and Dockery. Owing to the boat being overcrowded they appeared to be in difficulties. I saw Pte. Best bailing with his hat. A few minutes afterwards I saw the boat overturn. This was the last I saw of Ptes. Best and Dockery.” Pte William Broadhurst had actually been on the boat with Best and Dockery, and he added that: “When the boat capsized, Best got caught underneath and was drowned with several others, Dockery and 2 or 3 I did not know.” Pte Clyde Richardson related how he “was on deck and heard Pte. Morgan call out, and on looking into the water I saw Pte. Morgan hanging to a rope which was suspended from the ship. I heard him cry out ‘Help me boys, I am settled’. He immediately released his hold of the rope and I saw no more of him.” With the exception of 2 (who are listed on the Lone Pine Memorial), the Australian troops that were lost or buried at sea are commemorated on the Helles Memorial, Gallipoli. The Volunteer Stokers: About an hour and a half after being hit, with the ship close to empty and the sea strewn with boats, debris and men, the Captain realized there was a chance she might continue to float. He called for volunteer stokers, and someone asked the chief engineer “Is it good enough?” “I don’t give it much chance,” was the reply, “but I’ve a wife and kids and it’s good enough for me.” Nineteen men, headed by Capt Nelson Wellington of the 21st Battalion decided to chance it. Nelson received the Legion of Honour for his work that day. Lieutenant Crowther who went on to amass a plethora of awards throughout the war, took nine men down the stoke hold and confessed “my knees were very wobbly, but someone had to give the men a lead.” L/Cpl Ahearn also noted that “Some of the volunteers felt a ‘bit off’ as they went down the long succession of ladders and passed the gratings, but it was only for a few seconds, and then they set to.” The men worked hard for an hour and twenty minutes before they managed to get the ship operational, all the time contending with the uncertainty of their fate, brought to bear even more when the ship changed her list. Ahearn explained how “The fires were down, and there was no water in the glasses; but we followed the engineer’s orders, and nine of us took on 32 fires. Steam had been down – only showing 70lb – hardly enough to keep one pump going. It was awfully hot down there, but our only hope was to keep moving. We kept the pumps going, and got steam up to 200lb, which enabled the engineers to get the ship under way. We had the engines going when a relief party of stokers came aboard. I was never so glad to see a sailor in all my life.” Leaving the rest to the experts, the volunteers returned to deck where they found themselves surrounded by rescue ships, and a beaming Captain Kelk assuring them “She is going to last, boys.” They broke into laughter with the relief of being back in the open, and laughed even more after becoming aware of their appearances: “A nigger glee-party was not in it with us.” They then proceeded to accept the ship’s company’s grateful hospitality, dining in the saloon on a veritable picnic of chicken and ‘heaps of good stuff.’ Ships to the rescue: The hospital ship Neuralia was first to the rescue, and on board was Captain Frank Apperly, an Australian doctor in the RAMC who was able to take several photos. “…we found the ship in a sinking condition, and all the sea strewn with boats and rafts, crammed with soldiers, who cheered and sang songs as we drew near.” “The more and more one sees of the Australian troops the more and more one feels proud of them.” Daisy Richmond, an AANS nurse on the Neuralia, had been preparing the wards ready for the injured, but as the survivors clambered aboard, she went down to greet them, and shook hands with each and every one, Keith Allard amongst them. As Frank Apperly began plying the troops with brandy, Bovril (beef tea) and dry clothes, he soon discovered that there were several among them that he knew, ‘old Wesley boys’. The seaplane carrier, the Ben-My-Chree was another in the area that answered the SOS. Allard’s mate Rex Moffat was one of the 694 troops rescued by her. He saw the war out and married an English lass in 1919, before returning home to start a family, while Keith was invalided home early 1916 with Neurasthenia. The Haverford, carrying the majority of the 23rd Battalion, as well as members of the 6th Field Ambulance, was steaming 2 hours behind the Southland and had been narrowly missed by a torpedo herself. The men on board had earlier discussed the Southland’s fate because she was carrying Headquarters, and had come to the conclusion ‘that if any were to be torpedoed she would be the one, as she carried the brains, or most of them.’ Standing to their posts with lifebelts on, they eventually managed to help in the rescue effort by picking up a couple of boatloads of their comrades. Captain Frederick Johnson of the 6th Fld Amb made the following observation: “We slowed down as we came up, but missed some of the boats, as no rope was thrown out to them. They drifted past us, calling out ‘Don’t you want us?’ and another wag added, ‘We’ve just been fishing.’ In another boat they were singing ‘Here We Are Again.’ All were more or less merry, including the injured, for some had their hands torn with sliding down the ropes; others had got under the capsized boats, and had a struggle to get out, especially if they had the lifebelts on; others got cuts on the head etc. We had four, pretty seedy, on board this boat. One died soon after we got him into hospital this morning, but he had a throat just like a diphtheria patient.” Captain Johnson lost his own life on the Peninsula a few months later. Mudros Harbour, Lemnos: The Southland, escorted by the destroyer HMS Racoon, reached the isle of Lemnos under her own steam. Lieutenant Crowther proudly noted “we brought her into harbour in triumph at 9 o’clock that night, and ran her straight on the beach.” The various rescue ships transferred the majority of the troops to the Transylvania, were they rested, regrouped, and re-equipped. Unfortunately, “the crew went back to their ship on Friday morning, and looted all the officers and soldiers’ kits, stealing razors, etc.” But most of the kit was recovered, including part of Pte Norman’s uniform; “I left my tunic on deck when I went over the side, and all they took were my badges.” Pte William Stewart died on the Friday on board the Neuralia, from internal injuries he’d received the day before, and was buried at sea. Along with most of the men, Private Norman soon recovered: “It took us two or three days to get over the shock, and I am feeling fit and well again now. A lot of the chaps are still very bad; their nerves are gone. Some of the worst cases went back to Alexandria by hospital ship tonight.” Thomas Ainsworth was one of these; he embarked at Suez on the 17th of the month for return to Australia, suffering a dilated heart & bronchitis. Pte Fred Jenkins, a school teacher from Bendigo was a little worse for wear after his experience. “All the chaps proceeded to the front a few days later with those on the other transports, but a few of us, with minor injuries, have been in hospital tents for a week. I was right at the gun when our man fired at the submarine, and what with a couple of hours in the water, I got a good shaking up. An abscess formed inside my right ear, and I am practically deaf in it now. The doctors thought they would have to operate, but after several days it all discharged through my ear, and since then I’m just about right.” Fred walked away from the war in 1919 as a 2nd Lieutenant, with a Military Medal, a Military Cross & Bar. About six weeks after the Southland disaster, Pte Patrick McDonough’s body washed ashore at Mudros, and he was buried with his other 23rd Battalion mates in the East Mudros Cemetery. His brother Christopher of the 21st Battalion, survived both the Southland and the war. Reminiscing: In September 1922, Southland survivors of the 21st Battalion held a smoke night at Sargent’s Café in Melbourne. The Rev D. Macrae Stewart who had been their padre, addressed the men and imparted how; “Just before the Southland was struck, he was saying to a companion that it was an ideal spot for a yachting cruise. Then ‘Fritz’ chipped in, and for the moment I forgot all about the yachting cruise.” (laughter) On a more serious note, he commented on how proud he was of them for their splendid behavior during their baptism of fire, which continued into their fierce struggles both on Gallipoli & the Western Front. 21st Battalion men in Warrnambool celebrated the 1924 Anniversary with a church parade, and amongst them were 3 survivors, Sergeant-Major Dawson, Mr A. Worland and Colonel Langley who’d been unceremoniously dumped in the bilge when the Southland was torpedoed. Endnotes: 1. There are varying reports of the total number lost from the Southland, those I’ve been able to identify include: 21st Bn = 12; 23rd Bn = 11; other Aussies = 5; NZs = 4; crew = 10 (this may include the 2 ‘alleged’ to have been shot). 2. Officers of the Southland: John B. Kelk – Master; John H. Jones – 1st Officer; W. Robinson – 2nd Officer; B. Harrison – 3rd Officer Heather (Frev) Ford, 2009
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    • FrevFord
    • Thursday, 16 October 2014

    AIF MEMBERS THAT LOST THEIR LIVES 2nd September 1915 21st Battalion: 1. BOWEN, Henry William - (B Company) 339, Pte, 2. COPELAND, William - (B Company) 354, Pte, 3. GORMAN, Patrick - (A Company) 159, Pte, 4. GUNN, Charles Edward - (D Company) 858, Cpl, 5. HARRIS, David (Di) – (A Company / HQ) 166, Pte, 6. HEALY, Arthur Leslie - (D Company) 868, Pte, 7. HEYWOOD, Albert Paul - 1769, Pte, 8. HOLMES, Oliver Aitken - (HQ Details) 30, Pte, 9. MAHON, Lawrence Edward - (D Company) 938, Pte, 10. O’BYRNE, Thomas - (A Company) 254, Pte, 11. SLOAN, James Bowman - 1783, Pte, enlisted 3/5/1915 at Box Hill, Vic 12. SLOAN, Thomas Bowman - (C Company) 741, Pte, 23rd Battalion (B Coy): 1. BEST, Albert - (2nd Reinforcements transferred to B Coy) 1660, Pte, 2. CHISHOLM, Donald Alexander Gordon - 312, Pte, 3. DOCKERY, Lester Frederick - (2nd Reinforcements transferred to B Coy) 1704, Pte, 4. HARTON, Horace Carl - 25, Pte, 5. JOHNSON, William James - 378, Pte, 6. KALMAN, Maurice - (2nd Reinforcements transferred to B Coy ) 1739, Pte, 7. McDONOUGH, Patrick Joseph - 414, Pte 8. MORGAN, Walter John - 923, Pte, 9. SARGENT, Frederick - 439, Pte, 10. WITHERS, Henry Albert - 476, Pte, *11. STEWART, William – 444, Pte, Died at sea on board the Neuralia 3/9/15, of internal injuries received 2/9/15 on the Southland. Commemorated on the Lone Pine Memorial Others: 6th Australian Infantry Brigade (Commanding): LINTON, Richard - Colonel 2nd Australian Division Headquarters: 1. ADAMS, Lindsay Thomas - 55, Pte, 2. WILSON, Allan Elwood - 61, Cpl, 16 Company 2nd Division Train, Army Service Corps: PELL, Frederick Edgar - 6387, Pte 1 Brigade Australian Field Artillery: CARTWRIGHT, Bernard Ray - 538, Dvr,