Built for the Charente Steamship Company of Liverpool and launched from D W Henderson’s Clydeside shipyard on 23rd April 1917 the steamship Astronomer was 482.7′ x 58.2′ x 33.2′ and weighed in at 8401 gross tons and 5341 net tons. Her quadruple expansion steam engine by Hendersons produced a mighty 696 nominal horse power. After a successful mercantile career for her owners, the Astronomer was requisitioned by The Admiralty at the start of World War Two for war service. In addition to her normal crew of fifty one under the command of Captain John James Egerton the Navy added fifty two naval officers and ratings and a gunner making a full compliment of 105 men.
During the last few days of May 1940 she was docked at Rosyth and loaded with a cargo of 3000 tons of naval stores and boom defence equipment destined for the High Seas fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow, Orkney. When fully loaded the ropes were cast off and she set out on her short voyage north. Her route took her through dangerous seas patrolled by German U-boats intent of disrupting the vital supply lines to the fleet at anchor in Scapa Flow.
Just before midnight on the 1st June she was crossing the Moray Firth and was in a position 30 miles south east of Wick when a huge explosion erupted at her stern. She had been hit by a single torpedo fired by the U-boat U-58 under the command of Kapitanleutnant Herbert Kuppisch. Two firemen were killed in the blast but the Astronomer was not fatally damaged at this stage.The report of the subsequent inquiry explained as follows:
‘The first explosion seemed to have taken place in such a position in or under the stern of the ship as to blow a large hole several feet across in the midship section of the steel main deck completely destroying the timber partition which protected the mercantile crew’s living and sleeping quarters. The poop deck was laid open to the sky aft.’
The Astronomer was damaged but still afloat. However Herbert Kuppisch was not finished with his attack. After temporarily retreating to a safe distance to avoid detection he then returned to the ship and fired two additional torpedoes at 3:18 am then later at 4:42 am.
This time the Astronomer was doomed and she finally sank beneath the waves at 5:45 am. Thankfully in the meantime two Admiralty trawlers, Stoke City and Leicester City had pulled alongside the disabled steamship and removed her crew and the naval ratings aboard. Sadly two of her naval compliment had died from their wounds taking the death toll to 4 men.
The Wreck Today
The huge wreck of the Astronomer lies in position 58°01.818’N, 002°02.735’W oriented 015°/195°. Seabed depth is charted at 67 metres and the wreck rises 11 metres from the seabed. She is substantially in tact sitting upright with a slight list to starboard. The wooden decking of the bridge and midships area has rotted providing clear views into the bowels of the ship with the engine and boilers below. Her cargo of boom defence equipment is also clearly visible.