Over the course of the War Diary on this blog, the featured wrecks have illustrated the twists and turns of the war away from the Western Front. Today’s wreck is no exception: the Spanish steamer Luisa, torpedoed by UB-74 off Pendeen lighthouse on 12 May 1918, while bound from Barcelona to Liverpool with a general cargo.
Built in 1897 as the Tyneside collier Minerva, she was sold on into Spanish ownership under the same name in 1899, and ten years later was sold on again to the Cia Naviera Sota y Aznar of Bilbao, who renamed her Aizkarai Mendi. Each ship in their fleet was evocatively named in Euskera (Basque) after a different mountain (mendi) in the Basque country.
Aizkarai Mendi was sold on once more in 1915 to become Luisa for a family firm whose main business was timber. Spain was neutral during the First World War, a stance which opened up her shipping to commercial opportunities which companies such as Luisa‘s owners Hijos de José Tayà were quick to seize. Bilbao’s exports of iron ore were much in demand from both sides requiring raw materials to turn into war materials, and Luisa became the first in the family’s fleet. (1) The Tayà fleet would go on to expand rapidly over the course of the war with vessels which, like the Luisa, were bought up from other fleets.
As we have seen in previous articles, neutrality was no guarantee of safety at sea, and finding ready markets on both sides carried the risk that the belligerent powers would each seek to hamper the other’s trade, and U-boats began to target Spanish shipping. The news from Madrid broke in Britain a fortnight later, in the context of three Spanish ships ‘sunk in a period of four days’, including the Luisa ‘with a cargo of coal’. (2)
‘The indignation in maritime circles is enormous . . . A very energetic protest has been made to the Government by M. [sic] Señor Taya, the owner of the Luisa, who demands the immediate seizure of all German vessels now lying in Spanish ports.’ The U-boat attacks were attributed to reprisals for the ‘diplomatic check sustained by Germany in the matter of the commercial agreements concluded between Spain and the Entente nations’. In further news from Madrid, clearly seen as connected, the next paragraph goes on to reveal that the ‘German submarine U.C. 48, which sought refuge in a Spanish port in a damaged condition, has been interned.’ (3)
More details on the wreck event emerged as the survivors arrived back at Barcelona in late May. In a telegram to the Spanish Prime Minister, Señor Tayà described the circumstances. Luisa was torpedoed ‘unarmed, neutral, and flying the Spanish flag’ in ‘full daylight at one o’clock in the afternoon’ while ‘following French and British steamers with a view to avoiding mines,’ the French vessel 3 miles ahead and the British a quarter of a mile ahead. ‘The submarine, however, kept at a respectful distance from the foreign steamers, as they were armed.’ (4)
After being torpedoed, the Luisa sank within a few minutes with three men killed in the engine-room, but the remainder of the crew were rescued by two British patrol vessels. ‘The owners of the lost vessel fully expect the Spanish Government to make a claim on Germany and in the meantime to seize a German steamer of equivalent value.’ (5)
As the U-boat campaign against Spanish shipping continued, the Aznar company would go on to lose Anboto Mendi off Runswick Bay, while en route from Bilbao for Middlesbrough with iron ore on 10 May 1918, and the Tayà company’s ship Villa de Soller would be sunk in the Mediterranean on 15 May 1918. Ten days later, the U-boat which had attacked her sister ship Luisa would be depth-charged by HM Yacht Lorna off the Bill of Portland.
(1) García Domingo, G. 2007 “El impacto de la Primera Guerra Mundial en la marina mercante española: un apunte sobre el caso catalán (1914-1922)”, Transportes, Servicios y Communicaciones, No.13, 122-144; Lowry, C. 2009 At what cost? Spanish Neutrality in the First World War MA thesis, University of South Florida
(2) Cambridge Daily News, 25 April 1918, No.9,269, p4
(4) The Scotsman, 7 May 1918, No.23,279, p3; Londonderry Sentinel, 25 May 1918, no issue number, p4, republishing in translation a contemporary article in El Sol.