Between 1902 and 1970 four ships criss-crossed the Atlantic, running the gauntlet of the allied supply lines in two world wars, ferrying passengers to Australia, bearing witness to the passing of New Zealand’s greatest leader and even taking a starring role in a Hollywood movie, before being sunk by German naval forces. What linked these ships was their name... Oswestry.
Part One: The Oswestry Grange
The first Oswestry Grange was one of two ships built by shipbuilders Workman Clark in 1902, more than 6,500 tons of steel, shaped into a single funnelled, four masted steamer, 450ft long and capable of 13knots and with accommodation for 39 passengers. Oswestry took her place on the Federal-Houlder-Shire Line service travelling from Britain to Australia and New Zealand.
It was a boon time for the service and as one of its flagships, Oswestry transported dignitaries including New Zealand’s greatest and longest serving prime minister, Richard John Seddon. It was just before setting foot on Oswestry in 1906, that Seddon returning from Australia, sent a famous telegram to the Victorian premier, “Just leaving for God’s own country,” he wrote. Seddon would never see New Zealand again, dying onboard ship the following day, but his description of the country has endured to this day.
In 1912 Houlder Bros disposed of most of their Australian trade and Oswestry was sold on to the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand as the freighter Roscommon. It was during this same period that German high command placed an order for a new batch of their feared U-boat submarines, and while Oswestry was put to work on the supply routes, U-53 was being quietly assembled in Germany’s Germaniawerft Kiel shipyard.
It was finally ready for launch on February 1, 1916 under the command of Hans Rose and would cross paths with Oswestry just once, but with deadly effect.
The sub soon developed a fearsome reputation. Germany had hoped to use submarines to slip supplies past the Allied blockades and had fitted out the weaponless Deutschland and Bremen subs to carry cargo. The ballast tanks of U-53 were specially adapted to carry extra fuel so it could escort the Bremen, but Lt Rose instead put this extra range to more devastating use, emerging unexpectedly just outside US territorial waters and sinking five ships in an attempt to intimidate the Americans. Meanwhile, the cargo carrying Bremen, departed for America, but disappeared en-route.
Early on the morning of August 21, Oswestry was one of 19 steamers attempting to slip unnoticed out of Northern Ireland’s Lough Swilly. It was a tense time, and the fleet began the long process of manouevering from single file into convoy formation, unaware of the submarine below stalking it’s prey. It took almost seven hours to move the convoy into position, but at 11.30am the formation was complete and with a sense of relief, the ships finally began to get under way.
Suddenly alarm bells rang out as the destroyers picked up three torpedoes, headed straight for the ships. There was no time to react. The first torpedo struck the Devonian at the head of her column, a second skimmed past the lucky Vasari just behind her, but the third of U-53’s torpedoes found its mark, striking the second ship on the portside column... Oswestry was hit!
The convoy’s Destroyers immediately launched a counter attack, protecting the stricken ships from further assault, but U-53 was gone, the assassin slipping silently back out into deep water and making good its escape. Five of Oswestry’s crew were killed in the attack, but miraculously, 80 made it to safety, abandoning ship and reaching land.
Captain Trant of The Devonian later spoke of the danger of assembling such long lines of vessels, sometimes up to 12miles in length: “The hours spent forming the convoy had given the submarine ample time to prepare for the attack,” he said, “resulting in the loss of two large and valuable merchant-vessels.” It was a sad end for the first ship to bear Oswestry’s name.
U-53 would prove to be one of the German’s most potent convoy killers, sinking almost 100 ships before it was eventually surrendered and broken up in 1918, but ironically, while the submarine’s earlier attack on a US port had succeeded in intimidating the Americans, it ultimately did not have the effect its commander had hoped.
The Americans had been surprised when the weaponless sub Deutschland slipped the British blockade and suddenly appeared in Baltimore with cargo to trade, but it was the devastating surprise attack by U-53 far beyond a U-boats’ normal range, that would spur the Americans to channel even greater resources into their naval forces.
CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO - The Rhodesian Prince