In a quiet corner of Spitalford Cemetery, Embleton, Northumberland, you will find a small group of war graves. Near them is a substantial but leaning sandstone grave marker with a distinctive cable moulding framing the inscription. This inscription is now sadly worn but sufficient is decipherable to outline another forgotten tragedy of the Great War. This particular tragedy is of special interest because of the way it dovetails with events on the wider stage in early 1917, in this case debates over the pros and cons of introducing the convoy system to safeguard transiting neutral vessels on the East coast.
The focus of this story is the 1,196 ton steamer SS Pollux, owned by Det Bergenske Dampskibsselskab, Bergen [BDS – The Bergen Steamship Company]. In common with many Norwegian vessels the ship carried both cargo and passengers. The ship required a crew of twenty and two stewardesses to cater to the passengers. Since her launch in 1907 Pollux had been a familiar sight on Newcastle Quayside, being a regular on the Tyne to Bergen route. By the Spring of 1917 Pollux was still plying her old journey but much had changed and for ships like her the outlook was becoming bleaker with every day that passed.
On February 1 the KDM had declared a return to unrestricted submarine warfare. Any neutral vessel trading with Britain was now liable to be attacked and sunk without warning. For a time neutral vessels in NE ports were paralysed while their owners decided what to do. It was not long before neutral crews refused to sail. On February 23 no fewer than forty-four neutral vessels moored in Northumberland and Durham awaiting instructions. The casualties on the Scandinavian routes soon mounted. In January 1917 six Norwegian ships trading with NE ports were sunk by U-boats, in February four were more destroyed.
Scandinavian ship-owners and sailors alike demanded protective measures from the Royal Navy but the message from Admiralty and Findlay, the British consul in Bergen, remained confusing and the instructions issued, frequently contradictory. At this time inbound neutral ships seeking to trade at British ports , were ordered to report to Kirkwall in the Orkneys or Lerwick in the Shetlands, before making their way down the coast. This was unpopular with Scandinavian crews who considered the approaches to the Orkneys as a hunting ground for U-boats and a death trap for them.
An ad hoc, localised arrangement of ‘protected sailings’ had been introduced by the Senior Naval Officer in Lerwick at the beginning of March to escort merchants sailing from Lerwick for Bergen but talk of more general introduction of convoy remained just that, talk. Ship owners regarded the concept of convoy with distaste. It smacked of government interference with free trade. There were more pragmatic reasons to resist convoy. Convoyed ships could only sail at the speed of the slowest vessel. Delays in port as a consequence of convoy movements would only reduce profits. Losing time meant losing money. Many ship captains were averse to convoy for this reason. Often highly individualistic, convoy diluted a captain’s freedom to act. It was also pointed out that grouping ships of various speeds together simply created one massive target for U-boats to attack [Similar arguments were offered against extending the ‘War Channel’ – the buoyed and heavily patrolled seaway, swept daily for mines, up the British coast. By the beginning of 1917 only the route around East Anglia was recognised as a War Channel]. Admiralty too was averse to the introduction of convoy for the simple reason it lacked sufficient warships to escort the vessels. It had however dawned on the more elastic minds in Whitehall and Admiralty, Sir John Jellicoe, former Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet among them, that with the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, a crisis of national survival was in the offing. Britain had been unable to feed itself since 1897. The country depended upon imports from America and Canada. Just as the British sought to cauterise and destroy the German economy by means of the great blockade, so German planners were aware of Britain’s economic vulnerability and they intended to deploy their U-boats to exploit it.
It is unclear whether these arguments troubled the people on board SS Pollux moored at Newcastle Quayside on March 17, 1917 but Norwegian and Danish crews had petitioned SNO Tyne [Senior Naval Officer] with a view to providing escorts. Having embarked twenty passengers and loaded a general cargo including drums of sulphate. SS Pollux sailed at 19:00hrs. Captain Sivertsen in common with other Scandinavian captains hoped that by sailing under a cloak of darkness and by adopting a course which hugged the East coast as far as Aberdeen, Pollux would escape the attentions of any marauding U-boats in the dangerous locations of Coquet Island, the Farnes, St Abbs Head and the estuaries of Forth and Tay. At any rate the ship was given a trawler escort as far as St Abb’s Head where a second trawler took over. Sivertsen’s caution was justified as we now know that UC-50 was at work that night, sowing mines off the Farnes. Pollux made good progress, though the weather was deteriorating.
The morning of March 19 brought a strong Westerly gale with hail showers. By this stage SS Pollux was off Fraserburgh. A trawler escort had been provided from Peterhead but due to the prevailing conditions (wind WNW 6, in gust 7, swell 6) it could not be seen. At 06:00hrs Sivertsen ordered a slight change of course when at 06:30hrs there was a violent explosion between the aft hold an the funnel. The hatch was blown overboard and two of the lifeboats were smashed to pieces by the force. The position of this attack was logged as 57.45′ N 1.8′ W or twenty miles East of Kinnaird Head, Aberdeenshire [Admiralty sources offer this position but some sources give the location as forty miles from Aberdeen].
It must be presumed that the Peterhead based escort trawler had powered too far ahead to see this attack. The Captain immediately stopped engines and gave orders for those on board to don lifebelts, and evacuate the ship using the three remaining lifeboats. However, the sea was heavy, and the crew had great difficulty in launching the boats, partly because of the swell, partly because Pollux was sinking rapidly by the stern.
Edvard Sivertsen and his First Mate, Jakob Vallestad lowered the three boats, then realising crew and passengers were missing, courageously went below to search the lower deck. Both men heard cries for help but were driven back by smoke and fumes from the cargo of sulphate. Unable to help the trapped people, Sivertsen and Vallestad managed to jump overboard from the fo’castle just before the bows of Pollux slipped under. Initially dragged under by suction, they were released when Pollux suffered an internal explosion. Pollux had sunk in less than ten minutes. Sivertsen spent forty-five minutes in the freezing sea before he was picked up by one of the lifeboats, Vallestad was also rescued. Confirmation that Pollux had been sunk by a U-boat rather than a mine came when the low profile of a conning tower glided out of the dark behind the lifeboats.
UC-45 was a minelaying U-boat attached to the 1. U-Flotille. The boat, Commander, Kplt. Hubert Aust and his crew were on their first war patrol.
The U-boat had sailed from Helgoland on March 14. UC-45 had been ordered to lay mines off Kinnaird Head then to attack any maritime traffic encountered with torpedoes. The mines had duly been laid and torpedoes loaded. Pollux had been too good a target to miss.
Now, as U-45 approached the lifeboats a German officer hailed the survivors in broken English. What follows is a translation from the U-boat’s KTB
‘”Hit aft of the funnel. Norwegian steamer Pollux (from) Bergen, 1196 grt, with passengers and general cargo from England to Bergen, sinks immediately. Crew and passengers, about 30 people, including a woman with child, rescued themselves
setting sail in three boats.”
First Mate Jakob Vallestad, only too aware that the current was dragging the lifeboats further out to sea, urged the Germans to tow the lifeboats towards land but the officer refused any assistance. The Norwegians then held up a three-year-old boy to the officer and repeated their plea. Once more, the officer was adamant. He pointed Westwards. The Norwegian Captain had a compass. The survivors must row to the coast themselves. Jakob Vallestad spat out a sailor’s curse at the U-boat and its crew. While Aust’s action [or inaction] may seem heartless, from the perspective of a U-boat commander he had little choice in the matter. An escort trawler was steaming ahead, three merchant ships were visible and a major Royal Navy base lay a short distance away at Peterhead. By first light the coast would be swarming with patrol craft. Aust’s priority was the safety of his boat and crew. The result, however, was that the lifeboats drifted apart and were soon out of sight of each other.
By sheer luck, the captain’s lifeboat [with fifteen onboard including the child] met a steam trawler which brought the survivors in to Aberdeen tat 20:00hrs. On the morning of 20 March, Vallestad’s lifeboat made landing at Peterhead. All were alive but suffering badly from exposure. It is the fate of the third lifeboat which really concerns us here. Without the benefit of a compass, it was driven South in heavy seas. On board were five passengers and five crew members. Three of the passengers and three of the crew died of exposure and exhaustion. On 22 March at 22:03, after four days at sea, the wretched survivors s attempted to land in Craster Harbour but the savage Northumbrian coast offered no sanctuary. The lifeboat struck Saddle Rock. It capsized. The three remaining crew either drowned or were dashed against the rocks.
All told, it is believed that the two stewardesses, five passengers and two crew members had gone down with Pollux. Thus, a total of eight passengers and eight crew members lost their lives. Norwegian sources give the following death toll:
– BROOK, Mrs. M. W. – Passagier aus Manchester
– BROOK, Mr. E. – Passagier aus Manchester
– ELLINGSEN, Emil – Leichtmatrose aus Bodø
– EDVARDSEN, Conrad – Heizer aus Bergen
– ERIKSEN, Olaf – Passagier aus Larvik
– HOPE, Sverre – Passagier aus Bergen
– JOHANNESEN, Georg Johannes – Passagier aus Larvik
– KOPSTAD, Oline – Messestewardess aus Lurø
– LARSEN, Marius – Donkeyman aus Tromsø
– LYNGNÆS, Carl B. – 2. Steuermann aus Florø
– NILSEN, Emma – Messestewardess aus Vesteralen
– OTTEM, Ludvig – Koch aus Trondheim
– PEDERSEN, Carl Adolf – Passagier aus Sandefjord
– RASMUSSEN, Georg – Hilfsmaschinist aus Svendborg
– WHIST, Rolf – Passagier aus Kristiania
Rolf Whist was the Director of Lloyds Norwegian operations.
That was the end of SS Pollux but not the end of the story. For SS Pollux accounted for just a tiny part of the 27,769 tons sunk in March 1917 alone. Twenty-seven Norwegian ships trading with North East England were sunk by U-boats, without factoring in losses to British ships or those of other nationalities. Enough was enough. Lloyd-George forced the issue in cabinet. Admiralty had no option but to act. The Longhope Conference convened between interested parties held on April 4, 1917 recommended the adoption of convoy. This was ratified by Admiralty on April 24.
From this point onward convoy was adopted on the Scandinavian route. Two Royal Navy destroyers and five trawlers would await neutral traffic, anything up to nine inbound ships, off Bergen. The neutral ships would be shepherded into the Lerwick roads. Next morning a new relay of destroyers and trawlers would escort them down the coast as far as St Abbs Head, steaming at an average of seven knots. Off St Abb’s head the Tyne/Humber destroyers would take over. Most Scandinavian ships were bound for the NE coal ports but the scheme stretched as far South as Immingham. Northbound Scandinavian convoys would sail from Spurn Point at 09:00hrs, arriving at Lerwick three days later. The ‘War Channel’ was now extended from East Anglia as far as St Abb’s Head. These measures all played a massive role in defeating the U-boats. The number of ships lost peaked in April at fifty-eight [most of the losses reflected the old system before the introduction of convoy] before falling back dramatically for the rest of the year. Over six thousand ships were convoyed between May 1917 and December. Only seventy were lost. However most ship captains and shipowners still preferred to sail independently and there were still plenty of targets for the U-boats but the convoy system removed much of the initiative from U-boat commanders in respect of when to strike, where to strike and how to strike. In the words of John Winton, convoy did not win the war but it prevented the war from being lost.
As for UC-45, she went on to complete four more patrols in the course of which she sank eleven more ships . Hubert Aust reinforced his credentials as a capable commander and was appointed to a Mediterranean commission. Fate however had a strange and cruel trick to play on the U-boat. UC-45 failed to surface following a routine diving exercise on 17 September 1917. All thirty-five crew perished either from drowning or from the effects of chlorine gas.
UC-45 was raised but never again saw active service. Perhaps Jakob Vallestad’s curse was more potent than he realised.
And so we return to that weather-ravaged grave in Embleton and ask, who is buried here ? Only three names are now legible on the gravestone; Sverre Henriksen Hopen of Bergen, Marinus Larsen of Tromso and Olaf Eriksen of Kristiana. Some clues as to the remaining names are provided on the staircase of the old BDS Building in Bergen. Here can be found a number of plaques commemorating those Norwegian crew members who lost their lives while working for The Bergen Steamship Company in both wars. One of these is devoted to the crew of Pollux.
One of the names is ‘Ludvig Ottem, Cook’ , surely the fourth man on the gravestone. Sadly the two lines below his name have been destroyed by the elements. On one, the name ‘Georg’ and ‘Larvik’ can just be made out. This may have been added later as the lettering cuts into the cabling design and possibly indicates a body recovered some time after the event. According the the Listed Buildings entry, the now missing name is recorded as ‘Georg Johannsen of Larvik’. I would speculate that the penultimate line states that the memorial was erected by the Bergen Steamship Company. The only decipherable words on the last line are ‘The Unknown…’ or is it ‘The Owners’ ? If anyone can shed light on this inscription I would be very interested to learn more – because we should not forget these people.
English Heritage listing for Embleton
Jellicoe Memo 22 April 1917
W. Keilhau ‘Norway’s Oldest Shipping Line’ 1951
Arno Spindler ‘Handelskrieg mit U-booten’ Band 4
Admiralty Technical Series: The introduction of the Convoy System
Naval Staff Monograph Vol XVIII ADM 275/20
Ops off East Coast ADM 275/23
© P Armstrong