The Aska, owned by the British India Steam Navigation Company, was a beautiful cruise liner built to carry passengers in its 200 cabins, looked after by a crew of 180, on its regular route between Calcutta and Rangoon. In addition it could carry over 2000 deck passengers on this busy and profitable route. Built by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson at Wallsend Newcastle (Yard No 1596), she was launched in April 1939 and completed in August that year. A large steamship at 444.6′ x 61.2′ x 25.2’ and with tonnage of 3974net, 8323gross. She was powered by twin propellors on shafts with two sets of three stage Parsons steam turbines developing 8,800 shp. Her official number was 167288.
However, with the outbreak of war later in 1939, like many of her counterparts, she was hired into government service to be used as a troop carrier. It was on this service that she left Freetown in West Africa in September 1940. On the 7th she called at Bathurst and then set sail for Liverpool. She had on board fifty British troops, three hundred French troops plus nine other passengers and her crew of one hundred and eighty four, mainly Indians, plus a cargo of six hundred tons of cocoa. She was a fast ship, capable of 17 knots, and believing her speed to be her best defence, did not sail in convoy. She sped safely though the dangerous waters of the east Atlantic, patrolled by the German U-boat packs, and north past the west coast of Ireland to turn finally into the killing ground of the North Channel between Ireland and the Mull of Kintyre. As the war progressed many other vessels were to meet their doom in this narrow deep channel, which was to become a favourite hunting ground of the German U-boat commanders. The Aska’s end however was to come from the skies rather than beneath the waves.
On the 16th September at 2:30am, while between Rathlin and Maiden Rock, she was attacked by a German bomber, which scored direct hits with two heavy bombs in or near the engine room, killing six officers and six of the crew instantly. Shortly afterwards another bomb wrecked the forecastle and in no time the vessel was a floating inferno. The passengers and crew abandoned the Aska in the ship’s boats in a position reported as 55°24’N, 06°05’W. They were picked up by HMS Hibiscous and HMS Jason and a small fleet of trawlers that had raced to the scene. It was some time before the tally of survivors could be completed, as they were landed at various ports in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England over the next two days but, thankfully, apart from the casualties resulting directly from the bomb hits, the remainder of the passengers and crew got safely ashore.
Meanwhile the burning and twisted hull of the once beautiful liner was drifting northwest towards the Scottish coastline. She eventually came ashore, still ablaze, on the northwest side of Cara, a small island lying south of Gigha close to the Kintyre coast. A report on 23rd September, from salvage teams standing by, stated that she was still burning and had as yet not been boarded. Even when the fire finally burned itself out it was still impossible to get aboard the grounded vessel for some time as she was pounded by a huge swell but it was obvious, even without close examination, that the vessel was a total loss.
She lay on an irregular rocky bottom in around 20 feet of water with a 14 degree list to port. Only because the stern and bow were reasonably intact was it possible to see that she was pointing NNW because the middle section of the ship was totally destroyed with superstructure gone and all her holds and engine room awash. She was abandoned as a total wreck and was heavily salvaged for scrap during subsequent years.
The Wreck Today
The remains of the Aska lie in position 55°38.183’N, 005°45.616’W (GPS), which is at a reef called Cara Rocks situated half a mile from the northwest coast of Cara Island.
As already stated the wreck has been heavily salvaged over the years but a fair amount of wreckage still remains at the above position scattered among rocks and seaweed in depths between 5 and 10 metres making it an interesting second dive after returning from the deeper wrecks around Cath Sgeir.
At most states of the tide the top of the remains of the engine are visible above water making location of the wreck easy except at extreme high tide. The wreck site is very exposed to wind and subject to huge swell and as such, with the shallow depth, care is required both in mooring close by and when diving the wreck.
We would like to thank Lloyd’s Register Foundation – Heritage & Education Centre for allowing us to reproduce a document from their archive in this article.