The Sinking of the RMS Leinster, 10th October 1918

A few weeks before the 1918 November Armistice the local and national newspapers reported the sinking of the RMS Leinster.

The City of Dublin Steam Packet Company mail ship had set sail at 9.00am on 10th October from Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown near Dublin) for Holyhead in Anglesey under the command of Captain William Birch. On board were 680 passengers comprised of 493 military personnel who were on leave or returning to their units and 187 civilians – men, women and children.

Captain William Birch had a crew of 76 and on board there were also 22 Dublin Postal workers who were based in the ship’s sorting room. Just before 10.00 a.m. UB-123 fired a torpedo across the Lienster’s bows. Then a second hit the port (left) side where the mail room was located. The hit resulted in an explosion that ripped through the port and starboard (right) sides. Captain Birch tried to change course to return to port but the ship started to slowly sink and as the life boats were launched a third torpedo hit the starboard side. Shortly afterwards the ship’s bow sunk first and the attack resulted in the current day estimate of 567 deaths.

On board the Leinster were two Warringtonians. The first was Miss May Westwell 30 years of age who was serving as an Assistant Administrator at the Residential Hostel Dublin with Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (Q.M.A.A.C.) Miss Westwell was on a few days leave for a surprise visit to her family in Lovely Lane. Before enlisting Miss Westwell was a student at Warrington Training College, St Elphin’s and later taught at Evelyn Street School. Sadly Miss Westwell drowned in the disaster. Her body was recovered, conveyed to Kingston and buried at Grange Gorman Military Cemetery. At about the same time as the funeral in Dublin a memorial service was held at Warrington St Barnabas Church on Lovely Lane, which was Miss Westwell’s place of worship. There was a large congregation of family, friends, work colleagues and Training College staff. Her mother received numerous condolence messages including Miss Stack, Miss Hoskins and Miss Lloyd from Q.M.A.A.C. in Ireland.  Miss Stack was the recruiting controller, Miss Hoskins Assistant Controller and Miss Lloyd the deputy administrator at the Dublin hostel. In 1919 a remembrance plaque to Miss Westwell was placed at St Barnabas.

The second Warringtonian was Regimental Quartermaster Wyndham Morris who was stationed in Dublin. He too was returning home and in an interview to the Guardian he described the events (Warrington Guardian 19th October 1918 p5) The initial shot was met with consternation and in response to quell the fear he said it was probably gunfire practice in Dublin. He then put on a lifebelt and went to the upper deck where he was confronted with pandemonium. He said he “did all he could do for the passengers”. When he could not do anymore he went to the poop end of the ship. (highest part of the ship) The ship was slowly sinking so he jumped into the water. He decided to swim for the coast but he found himself battling for his life amongst the wreckage and the severe weather conditions.

During his two and a half hours in the water he saved several children by getting them into the life boats. Eventually he was picked up by one of the life boats, taken to Kingstown and later to Richmond Barracks where he received medical treatment. He was suffering from severe bruising and shock. Later he was transferred to Whitecross Military Hospital Warrington where he continued to recover. Wyndham Morris said he put his survival down to the fact that he was a good swimmer and he had a life belt.

A further Warrington witness to events was James Coyne of 44 Parker Street. Mr Coyne was a Stoker serving on the torpedo boat destroyer which was the first vessel to reach the Leinster. The destroyer was en-route to a southern port when it picked up the wireless message. In response the destroyer turned and at full speed travelled 30 miles to aid the rescue. On reaching the Leinster James Coyne could see the ship smashed in splinters and the crew hanging on to the wreckage. The ship’s nose and deck were under the water. The destroyer arrived alongside the wreckage, lowered their life boat and picked up 33 survivors. All of whom were taken back to Kingstown.

Nine days later the uboat crew made the return journey to their base in Zeebrugge and on 19th October Uboat 123 hit a mine in the North Sea Mine Barrage. The bodies of Oberleutnant zur  Robert Ramm and his crew of 35 were never recovered.

The sinking of the Leinster was significant for two reasons. Firstly this was the greatest loss of life in the Irish Sea and secondly it threatened peace negotiations. On 20th October the Germans agreed to stop attacks on merchant shipping, and on 21st October the attacks ceased. Shortly afterwards the Armistice was announced.