Diary of the War: September 1916

Ville d’Oran

Today we unpack the tale of the steamer Ville d’Oran which foundered 4 miles ESE of Scarborough on 4 or 5 September 1916 (1) while bound from North Shields for Dunkirk with coal.

As was usual in this colonial era, the nationality by which she was recorded at the time was not the nationality we would accord to her now. Her eponymous home port of Oran lies in modern-day Algeria, which at the time was under French rule, and she was accordingly described at the time as a French steamer.

She was a very small steamer of around 400 tons, belonging to the firm of Scotto, Ambrosino, Pugliese & Cie, based in Oran. (2) Her master was one Cantarelli and the ownership and crewing of this vessel reveals a snapshot of the Italian diaspora of the mid-to-late 19th century. Many settled in Algeria, where by the early 20th century they had largely become naturalised French citizens. (3)

This may explain some of the Ville d’Oran‘s background. Built as Islander in 1896 for a Bristol coasting firm, she was then sold into Austro-Hungarian service, registered at Dubrovnik (now in Croatia). Following this her penultimate owners would also be Austro-Hungarian, but this time based in Trieste, now in modern Italy. (For more on Croatian wrecks in English waters, see this post here.)

Scotto, Ambrosino, Pugliese & Cie were primarily involved in the coasting trade, but diversified into longer-range seagoing routes during the First World War, explaining the presence of this small coasting vessel far out of her normal operating grounds in the North Sea. Wrecks of Algerian vessels are rare in English waters and half of the known wrecks date from the First World War, forming a distinct group of three. All were lost running coal from Britain to France, reflecting the demand for British coal in France as the war disrupted access to their own coalfields.

(The other group of Algerian vessels dates from the time of the Sallee Rovers or Barbary corsairs which ventured to England and beyond in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are therefore two historical ‘spikes’ of Algerian ships in English waters for entirely different reasons.)

It is certain that the crew of the Ville d’Oran were rescued by the British trawler Dora Duncan, whose crew received lifesaving medals from a grateful French government in 1917, a ‘silver medal, 2nd class’ for the master, and five bronze medals for each of the other crew members. (4) What they were actually rescuing them from was less clear. The loss of the Ville d’Oran was attributed to a mine, said to have been laid by SMS Kolberg, and she found her way into Lloyd’s War Losses on that basis, but she does not appear in the relevant post-war Naval Staff Monograph which usually covers war losses in some detail.

Wartime censorship meant that her sinking was not widely reported in the press: similarly, by now few newspapers were reporting ship arrivals and departures either as it gave away too much information of use to the enemy. The Liverpool press was one of the few that continued to print these details and by the time the Ville d’Oran‘s departure from North Shields had appeared in their shipping movements column she had already been lost. (5)

The story emerges through the account in another paper of the pilot who gave public and grateful thanks to his rescue by the Dora Duncan:

‘Captain Arthur Dye, of 26, Upper Cliff road, Gorleston-on-Sea, Great Yarmouth, wishes to thank Captain Hutchinson (master) and the crew of the Tees tug Dora Duncan, to whom he owes his life.

‘Captain Dye is a North Sea pilot, and recently left – with the steamer -, bound south. The morning after, when off -, a heavy concussion was felt under the ship’s bottom, and the vessel immediately commenced to settle, taking a heavy list to starboard. Captain Dye seized a lifebuoy, and clambered onto the port side of the ship, which soon sank, drawing him down with her.

‘. . . As the vessel was sinking the lights of the Dora Duncan were seen about a mile and a half distant. The whistle cord was tied down, to keep the whistle blowing to attract her attention.’ (6)

The account goes on to say that in heavy seas and poor weather the Dora Duncan located the sound of the ‘syren’ but her crew could see nothing in the dark. The master made the decision to stand by until daylight, an act of ‘very skilful manoeuvring’, given the conditions. This decision saved the lives of four men of the Ville d’Oran and Captain Dye, who was spotted at half-past five in the morning.

The gallantry awards bestowed by the French Government on Captain Hutchinson and the crew of the Dora Duncan were thus eminently well deserved in their determination to pull off the rescue regardless of the conditions.

The ‘heavy concussion’ might be consistent with a mine but there is no account of an explosion or the disintegration of the vessel (although, again, some censorship might be involved) and elsewhere it is said that the vessel sprang a leak (‘voie d’eau’ in French). (7)

Something caused that ‘concussion’. At this stage of the war there were few mine losses off Scarborough, with most of the casualties for 1916 having occurred in the first quarter of the year and the Rutil disappearing, presumed mined (but unconfirmed) on 13 September. If it was a mine, it was probably an old one, as the attribution to SMS Kolberg suggests (laid in December 1914 during the raid on Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool).

We shall never know, but, interestingly, could the Ville d’Oran have struck the remains of another vessel? For example, the remains of the M C Holm, lost in December 1914 to one of Kolber’s newly-laid mines, lie exactly 4 miles ESE of Scarborough. It is certain that Ville d’Oran does not lie near that vessel, but she clearly took some time to sink, so she may have drifted some distance before finally disappearing beneath the waves. To date she has not been located.

The complex history of the Ville d’Oran is far from over.

 

(1) Sources differ, probably as a result of the vessel’s loss in the middle of the night.

(2) It seems that she may have recently passed out of their ownership to the Société nationale maritime, Rouen, according to the Miramar Ship Index.

(3) Llinares, C, and Lima-Boutin, D, 2008. La Grande Famille de Procida & Ischia: L’émigration italienne de 1830 à 1914: causes, conditions, et conséquences socio-économiques. Paris.

(4) Journal officiel, 17 janvier 1917, p741

(5) Liverpool Daily Post, 6 September 1916, No.19,117, p2

(6) Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, 11 September 1916, p2

(7) http://pages14-18.mesdiscussions.net/

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