The loss of RFA Caribbean
How RFA Caribbean became part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and her subsequent loss is best told in three parts.
- Her Merchant Service
She was built on the River Clyde at Govan by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co as Yard No: 348 and launched on 22 May 1890 and named Dunottar Castle for the Castle Mail Packets Co Ltd of London and she was the first Union Castle liner to have 2 funnels. Her Lady Sponsor was the Lady Currie wife of the then Chairman of the Castle Line.
By August 1890 she was completed at a cost of £169,532 and was fitted out to carry 160 1st class passengers, 100 2nd class passengers and 100 3rd class passengers. Her owners looking to the future also had arrangements planned into her building for her to carry 1,200 troops in an emergency.
She sailed on her maiden voyage on 14 October 1890 from
She settled down in her owner’s regular service between
An undated drawing of the
By 1899 the Second Boer war was raging in
In 1904 the ship was withdrawn from service and laid up off Netley in Southampton Water.
Her owners by 1907 seeking a use for the vessel time chartered her to the Panama Railroad Company for 12 months to carry passengers between
Another undated image of the
By Spring 1913 she had been transferred to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co Ltd and was renamed Caribbean for use on their New York, Bermuda, Canada and West Indies service.
In the autumn of 1914 with war clouds gathering over Europe the Admiralty hired the Caribbean as a troopship for use in the first Canadian Transport Convoys to
2) Her Royal Naval Service
By November 1914 the Caribbean was at
By 25 December 1914 with a full RN and RNR crew she sailed on her first war patrol as an Armed Merchant Cruiser. Regrettably she did not get very far as a note in her ships log states ‘the steering gear is very troublesome’. The ship's engineers applied their best efforts to correct the problem however the ship's log for 30 December 1914 states that ‘the steering gear was working badly through one watch’. Further entries in the ship's log on 1 January, 1915 and the 3 January 1915 still notes defects in the steering gear. By the 9 January 1915 she had returned to
The next day she had been moved into Morpeth Dock for Harland & Wolff’s engineers to make good the defects. She loaded bunker coal and on 15 January her lifeboat on the starboard quarter was damaged when the sling bolt carried away. A water boat which had been alongside when casting off fouled the ships port quarter causing damage to the water boats deck structure.
Not only was the ship in a poor state mechanically but there were problems with crew – one Signalman had been sentenced to a term in DQ’s and a Fireman was logged and discharged for being ‘objectionable’ – the mind boggles as to what this ment!
On the 19 January 1915 with all her defects repaired she sailed from
While at anchor in
By the 25 January 1915 she was able to sail back to
On 7 February 1915 she sailed on her third war patrol. She replenished her bunkers on 16 February 1915 at Loch Ewe but by 1 March 1915 she was at Tail of Bank steaming towards the Princess Dock, Glasgow for John Brown & Co’s engineers to over haul her steering gear.
The 30 March 1915 saw her sailing on her fourth war patrol out into the
In June 1915 the Admiralty purchased her outright and put in hand an over haul at Liverpool to remove her armaments and fit her out as an RFA accommodation vessel to be berthed at
3) Her RFA Service
The ship joined the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service in July 1915
One of the first requirements for RFA Caribbean was a crew. In accordance with the practice at the time all RFA vessels with the exception of 17 or 18 freighting tankers were commissioned vessels with the senior officers – the Master, the Chief Officer, the Chief Engineer Officer and the Second Engineer Officer being granted the RNR ranks of Lieutenant or Sub Lieutenant while all other officers and crew were, in the main, MMR (Mercantile Marine Reserve) provided by HMS Eagle at Liverpool.
The ship’s Master was appointed on the 12 August 1915 – he was Commander H W Bethune but later it was reported that he had ‘not been to sea for twelve years’.
On 6 September 1915 the Master received a communication that only the ships four senior officers would be appointed as officers in the RNR. He wrote complaining that Chief Engineer Officer Alfred Nettleton and Senior Engineer Ernest Ashley Tee, both of whom had held RNR ranks in the ships RN days had stood by the ship after she had been decommission. In addition Engineer John Colquhoun Black, Chief Officer Robert Henderson, 2nd Officer James Griffiths and 3rd Officer Hugh Speakman all wanted to be commissioned as RNR Officers – positions they held during her Royal Navy commission. 3rd Officer Hugh Speakman did not pursue his request due to a medical discharge but the others, due to misreading their letters of appointment had already renewed their RNR laced uniforms. The Director of Transport replied what the RFA policy was and when told they would not all receive temporary RNR commissions the officers all refused to take up their appointments.
On the 22 September 1915 the Senior Naval Officer, Liverpool was sent a message from the Admiralty that if the officers refused to accept the RFA policy they were all to be discharged immediately and other RNR officers would be supplied to allow the ship to sail to
The officers were discharged and four RNR engineers who were working at Camel Lairds at
The Master was advised by the Admiralty that he was to be in contact with the Commodore of the Special Service Squadron for crew members and who, in particular, had several carpenters awaiting employment. The lack a good carpenter was a crucial detail which the subsequent Board of Enquiry found had resulted in the loss of the ship.
To a further signal the Master confirmed he required ‘no further ratings’ on the morning of the 13 September 1915 yet by that evening he was seeking thirteen engine room ratings. Ten were sent and they arrived on 15 September 1915.
Commander Bethune appointed the Chief Officer and this officer obtained further members of the crew, including a carpenter, from the local Mercantile Marine Office on HMS Eagle.
On the evening of the 23 September 1915 the Master received orders to sail the next day. He asked for a 24 hour delay as his Officers and men were not sufficiently acquainted with their ship. – his request was refused.
RFA Caribbean sailed on 24 September 1915 and after adjusting her compasses anchored off
On sailing the ship enjoyed fine weather but by 2am on 25 September the sea had increased as they sailed northward up the
At 11am the ship rounded
A SOS signal was transmitted and as the Chief Engineer reported that he would not be able to keep steam for very much longer, the ship’s head was turned to the Westward to keep well clear of the land.
By 2pm the fires had to be drawn and all lights gradually went out. The ship was drifting beam on, in very heavy seas and rolling heavily.
Assistance arrived in the form of three drifters between 3pm to 4pm and later other ships – one returned as they could not find her and the sea was too rough. At about 7.40pm HMS Birkenhead appeared on the scene and sought to take the
A Board of Enquiry was held a few days after the loss of the ship chaired by the Rear Admiral in command of the First Battle Squadron, two Captains of Royal Naval Battleships and an Engineer Captain RN and they subsequently found that three scuttles (portholes) on the port side of the ship to the drying room were only partially closed thus allowing water to enter. The Master primarily blamed the loss of the ship on the decision not to grant all the Engineer Officers who had experience of the vessel RNR commissions. Despite having orders to obtain crew, as far as possible, from the Special Service Squadron he allowed a mercantile crew to be obtained by the Chief Officer. The Board blamed the Chief Officer and described the Carpenter as “evidently quite incompetent”. However, the Master was ‘primarily to blame’ for not taking the necessary precautions concerning the inexperience of the officers and the crew and state of the weather. Commander Bethune was censured.
The fifteen members of the crew who died were: -
Stoker 1st Class Henry George Cade, Royal Navy *
Stoker 1st Class Stuart Chandler, Royal Navy *
Chief Cook Harry Dickinson, Mercantile Marine Reserve **
Canteen Manager Thomas Griffiths, Admiralty Civilian **
Stoker William Moore Margetson, Royal Naval Reserve ***
Assistant Steward Robert McGregor, Mercantile Marine Reserve **
Fireman Alexander Dadalot Messenger, Mercantile Marine Reserve **
Donkeyman George Ernest Moss, Mercantile Marine Reserve **
Stoker 1st Class Charles Edward Pescot, Royal Navy *
Baker William Short, Mercantile Marine Reserve **
Assistant Cook Henry Smith, Mercantile Marine Reserve **
Stoker 1st Class Alexander Kerslake Wade, Royal Navy ****
Canteen Assistant Herbert Sydney Waterfield, Admiralty Civilian **
Messman Ernest William Benjamin Wormwell. Mercantile Marine Reserve**
Stoker William Arthur Wright, Royal Naval Reserve ***
Each of whom is remembered with pride on the: -
* Portmouth Naval Memorial
**** Buried at
The headstone marking the grave of Stoker 1st Class Alexander K Wade in Sandwick Cemetery, Ross & Cromarty
The vessel has remained untouched off