The Beacon Light was a steel steamship built by Armstrong and Mitchell & Co Ltd., Low Walker, Newcastle (Yard No. 559), and launched in March 1890. She had dimensions of 311.0′ x 40.2′ x 28.2′ and weighed in at 2763gt. She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine of 225nhp., from the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Co Ltd.
Originally built for R Stewart and Company of Liverpool the oil tanker Beacon Light was sold to the Bear Creek Oil and Shipping company in 1898. At the outbreak of the First World War the tanker was requisitioned by the Admiralty for war service and was employed providing fuel to British naval ships at the various fleet ports on the west coast.
After leaving Liverpool with a cargo of fuel oil in early February 1918 the ship made her way to Stornoway. She was under the command of her master J Owen who had a crew of thirty two men aboard. At midnight on 18th February Beacon Light left Stornoway harbour and headed out into the Minch en route to Scapa Flow. She was escorted by two armed fishing vessels HMT Samuel Baker, commanded by C Brewster RNR, and HM Whaler Humpback, commanded by R Jamieson RNR. The Samuel Baker took up a station about a mile four points off the Beacon Light’s port bow. The Humpback took up a similar position off the tankers starboard bow. By 3:30am they passed Tiumpan Head. Around 4:30am the Humpback lost contact with the Beacon Light in the poor visibility and by 5:30am the remaining two vessels were in a position later reported as 58°24’30″N, 005°49’30″W steaming at six knots on a course NE by E.. The night was dark with a moderate swell and squally showers which reduced visibility dramatically as they swept through.
Without warning, there was a huge explosion. The night sky briefly lit up then all that could be seen of where the Beacon Light had been was a huge pall of smoke. The Samuel Baker turned towards the site of the explosion to attempt to rescue any survivors but, although they heard one brief shout from the water, failed to find anyone. They searched until daybreak and then headed back to Stornoway.
At the subsequent enquiry it transpired that a number of errors were made by the master of the Beacon Light and the master of the escorting whaler, Humpback. En route they had encountered some fishing vessels. Despite a prohibition on fishing in the North Minch a number of local boats were in the area that night. It is not clear if this resulted in a major error. It transpired that all three vessels had navigation lights showing, despite fleet instructions against this, and that they were not steering a zig zag course, again possibly explained by the presence of the fishing vessels. The enquiry was unable to establish if the explosion was caused by the Beacon Light hitting a mine or if the ship had been attacked by a German U-boat able to see the ship with it’s lights showing in the dark night, The concluding notes from the enquiry suggested that a U-boat attack was the most likely explanation. This was confirmed after the war when German U-boat records revealed that Beacon Light had been attacked and sunk by U-91 under the command of Kapitanlieutnant Alfred von Glasenapp. The master of the Humpback, Robert Jamieson, as the officer in charge of the small convoy, was primarily responsible for the loss due to the unauthorised use of navigation lights and the failure to steer a zig-zag course.
The wreck lying in the position 58°27.374’N, 005°45.055’W has not been positively identified as the Beacon Light but the dimensions of the wreck surveyed were approximately 90 metres long and 15 metres wide. This information when taken with the approximate position reported for the loss would strongly indicate that this is Beacon Light. The wreck lies in 112 metres rising a maximum of 9 metres above seabed.