Shipwrecks: Past & Present

Shipwrecks of May 12

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Shipwrecks of May 12

On May 12, 1918, the Olympic, sister ship to the ill-fated Titanic, intentionally ran down and sank a German submarine, becoming the only merchant vessel to sink a warship in World War I. The question for today is: Was the Panamanian freighter Cocle carrying tons of Russian gold when she was torpedoed on May 12, 1942?

Today’s Shipwrecks™

May 12

compiled and edited by Dr. E. Lee Spence

1780: With the fall of Charleston, South Carolina, on May 12, 1780, the British captured 49 ships and 120 boats of various kinds. The frigates Boston and Ranger were taken into British service, but most of the other vessels were scuttled.

1781: HMS Thetis, 32 guns, was wrecked entering the careening area at Saint Lucia Bay on May 12, 1781. (Note: Saint Lucia is an independent country and is one of the Windward Islands, in the eastern Caribbean Sea on the boundary with the Atlantic Ocean. It is part of the chain of islands known as the Lesser Antilles, and is located north/northeast of the island of Saint Vincent, northwest of Barbados and south of Martinique.)

The Thetis was launched in 1773 and was a frigate of the fifth rate. Fifth-rate ships served as fast scouts or independent cruisers and included a variety of gun arrangements. The fifth rates of the 1750s generally carried a main battery of twenty-six 12-pounders on the upper deck, with six 6-pounders on the quarterdeck and forecastle (a few carried extra 6-pounders on the quarterdeck) to give a total rating of 32-guns. Larger fifth rates introduced during the late 1770s carried a main battery of twenty-six or twenty-eight 18-pounders, also with smaller guns (6-pounders or 9-pounders) on the quarterdeck and forecastle. Tonnage ranged from 700 to 1450 tons, with crews of 215 to 294 men.

1842: The Royal Mail Company’s steamer Dee, Captain Oman, reported “the total loss of the company’s steamer Medina, Commander Burney, on the morning of the 12th of May (1842), she having struck on a reef of rocks whilst entering Turk’s Island, on her outward route (i.e. London to Jamaica). The crew and passengers were fortunately saved. Among the latter were his excellency the Earl of Elgin, the late newly appointed Governor of Jamaica, his lady, and suite, who made their escape from the wreck with his lordship’s dispatches only.” A letter from the passengers stated in part: “It must be a source of gratification to you and your officers, that by your united exertions this calamity has been attended with no loss of life, and that so much valuable property has been saved.” Among those signing were Lord Elgin, Commodore Henry Dilkes Byng, and Consul-General Joseph J. Crawford.

Another account added “She was driven by the current on an adjacent reef. Every effort to save her was fruitless ••• the rocks had pierced her bottom” and she became a total wreck. Everything moveable was conveyed to safety, “as also the quicksilver (mercury) she had on freight, together with much of the portable machinery as could be detached.” [Note by ELS: Mail steamers almost always carried some money, usually in the form of specie (coins), in the mails, which would have been locked up for security. However, that added security also meant that the mails, and any specie, were difficult to access and save in an emergency. The fact that it is not mentioned raises the possibility that it was lost, as loses were often played down by the owners.]

One of the passengers aboard the Medina was “the young, the amiable, and the accomplished Countess of Elgin — the lady” of the Earl of Elgin, Governor of Jamaica. The countess was just 22, and died only a few months after her arrival in Jamaica, as the result of pre-mature childbirth, that was partly attributed to the countess’ agitated state, first from being shipwrecked, and subsequently from earthquakes that rocked the island. The bodies of the countess and her child were “consigned to a vault in the Cathedral Church of St. Catherine.”

The Medina was built by Messrs. T. and J. White, of Cowes. She was 1,800 tons burden. She was a new ship and was described as “the finest of the West India Royal Mail fleet as well as one of the most complete team ships afloat.”

1844: The Spanish brig Ernesto, Captain Sibils, bound from Marseilles for New Orleans, via Barcelona, was wrecked on the southern coast of Inagua the night of May 12, 1844.

1858: Peter Wilson, a fisherman, was drowned when his schooner capsized near Warsaw Island, Georgia, on May 12, 1858. His body was found entangled with his schooner’s anchor.

1863: On May 12, 1863, the United States steamers Monticello and Conemaugh shelled five schooners while they were aground in Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina, setting one on fire and damaging the others.

USS Monticello

USS Monticello

1864: A large flat, used for transporting grain, was destroyed at Simmond’s Mill, Alligator River, North Carolina, on May 12, 1864, by an expedition from the U.S.S. Ceres. The mill was also destroyed because the Yankees believed that the mill had “been engaged in grinding corn for the rebels.”

1870: The schooner Thomas Miskimmons, Captain Lewis, bound from Charleston, with a cargo of lumber and empty hogsheads (large barrels), struck on a reef near Man-of-War Cay, Abaco, on May 12, 1870. Part of the cargo was saved and landed at Abaco. Her materials were taken to Nassau. (Note: A ship’s materials included things like spars and rigging.)

1918: On May 12, 1918, just as the German submarine U-103, commanded by Claus Rücker, was readying her stern torpedoes to fire them at RMS Olympic, she was spotted by Olympic’s lookouts. The Olympic’s gunners immediately opened fire on her and the huge steamer turned to try to ram the sub. U-103 prepared to crash dive and turned to a parallel course, but before she could descend far enough she was run over just aft of her conning tower. The steamer’s port propeller sliced through U-103‘s pressure hull. The sub’s crew blew her ballast tanks and scuttled and abandoned her in latitude 49°16? north, longitude 4°51’ west. Olympic, which was bound for France with American troops, was the sister ship of the Titanic, did not stop to pick up the survivors, but continued on to Cherbourg, France. Not picking up survivors was probably due to a fear that more German submarines might have been in the immediate area and a rescue would have endangered the lives of her crew and passengers.

Olympic and Titanic together

Sister ships Olympic and Titanic together (Olympic is on left)

USS Davis later sighted a distress flare and took on board 31 survivors from U-103, nine lives having been lost. This was the only known sinking of a warship by a merchant vessel during the First World War.

U-103 was a Mittel type U-boat built by AG Weser at Bremen, Germany in 1816-17. She was 808 tons, and about 232 feet in overall length and 20 feet 8 inches in overall breadth. She was armed with 16 torpedoes, that could be fired from four tubes in her bow and two in her stern. She had a 105mm deck gun and an 88 mm deck gun.

1940: The British cargo ship Roek was sunk on May 12, 1942, after striking a mine in latitude 51°54′ north, longitude 04°21′ east. Some of the steamer’s cargo was salvaged by the Germans and sold at a prize court on November 13, 1942.

The Roek was built at Troon, Scotland in 1925 by Ailsa Shipbuilding Company Ltd. She had a single screw, was 1,041 tons, and about 246 feet in length and 35 feet in breadth.

1942: The Panamanian freighter Cocle, bound from the Tyne via Loche Ewe, Scotland for New York city with a general cargo, was torpedoed and sunk in the North Atlantic by the German submarine U-94 on May 12, 1942, in latitude 52°37′ north, longitude 29°13′ west. Four of her crew of 42 men died. (Note by ELS: Loche Ewe was a major transshipping point for bullion movements throughout World War II and, based on the timing, the Cocle may have been carrying a large quantity of Russian gold.)

A steamer, she was built by Western Pipe & Steel Co., at San Francisco in 1920 as the West Cahokia, her name was changed to Pacific Fir in 1926, then to Jacob Ruppert in 1938, and finally to Cocle in 1941. She was 5,645 gross tons, 3,500 net tons, 410.5 feet in length, 54 feet in breadth, and 21.7 feet in depth of hull. She had a single triple expansion, compound, steam engine of 2,800 indicated horsepower, with 3 boilers and a single screw.

1943: The German submarine U-89 was  sunk by a combination of torpedo bomber biplanes from the British escort carrier HMS Biter, the British destroyer HMS Broadway and the frigate Lagan. U-89 was sunk at latitude 46°30′ north, longitude 25°40′ west. Forty-eight men went down with the U-boat; there were no survivors.

• • •

NOTE: This is by no means meant to be a complete list of the vessels lost on May 12, as there have been thousands of ships lost for every day of the year. All of the above entries have been edited (shortened) and come from various editions of Spence’s List™. The original lists usually give additional data and sources. Those lists are being updated and are or will be made available for a fee elsewhere on this site.

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© 2013 by Dr. E. Lee Spence for composition, content and compilation.

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Milan says:

I’m impressed. Great job.