Diary of the War No.15
Today’s wreck, the Novocastrian, which was sunk a century ago on 5 October 1915, is representative of themes emerging in the loss of civilian vessels during the war.
Over the last few months we have traced the emergence of the UC-class minelaying submarines which sank so many ships off the east coast, which remained the key focus of war activity: in this case it was UC-7 which was responsible for the loss of Novocastrian, sunk a day after the minefield was laid off the Pakefield Gap, Suffolk.
Novocastrian was built for passenger service in 1915, but never carried her intended 54 first-class and 28 second-class passengers, since passenger services had been curtailed following the outbreak of war in August 1914. Instead, she became a cargo-carrying vessel, and at the time of loss was laden with a general cargo from London for Newcastle.
The ship sank within ten minutes. The boat was launched with all hands on board before she finally sank, but falling debris from a derrick upset their boat as they got away. Nevertheless everyone managed to cling on to bits of wreckage until they were picked up by a minesweeper.
The sinking of a new vessel only a few months old was a sign of things to come, since pressure would be later be put on British tonnage as ships would be sunk almost as fast as they were built, but this point had not yet been reached.
The Novocastrian appears on page 27 of Lloyd’s War Losses for the First World War. The month’s tally on the next page showed that 11 British ships had been sunk by submarine worldwide for 39,154 tons; 5 ships from Allied nations for 14,961 tons; and one neutral was lost for 2,508 tons. These losses covered sinking by torpedo, gunfire, or shelling only.. Minelaying submarines had not come into use at the beginning of the wartime loss register, so mines are dealt with in a separate column (at the beginning of the war it was expected that they would be laid by conventional vessels).
The next column shows that the Novocastrian was among the 14 British ships sunk by mine for 16,770 tons, 2 Allied for 2,064 tons, and 8 neutrals for 8,371 tons. Among those 8 neutrals was the Dutch Texelstroom, mined the following day off the Thames in a field for which UC-7 was also responsible.
The Novocastrian is therefore quite representative of the average type of vessel and location of loss at this point in the war, a ship of between 1,000 and 2,000 tons, lost on the east coast of England: the Texelstroom likewise fits this profile. At this stage in the war, too, brief notices in the press still announced sinkings, but these were confined to the bare facts and omitted details of the vessel’s voyage or when and where it was lost. It was enough to know all hands had been saved and three were in hospital.