The steel steam yacht Conqueror was launched from the Port Glasgow yard of Russell and Co Ltd (Yard No 194) on 20th February 1889. She measured 188.0′ x 24.6′ 13.5′ and her tonnage was 526 gross tons, 222 net tons. She was powered by a two cylinder compound steam engine by William King and Co Ltd., Glasgow delivering 90 net horse power. She was built to the order of Mr William B Walker of Chiselhurst, Kent to replace his previous private steam yacht Lady Aline but unfortunately he passed away in January 1889 before she was completed. Mr William S Bailey of Hull then took possession of this beautiful yacht when she was completed. He owned her for only two years before she was sold to Frederick Vanderbilt of New York in 1891. She operated as a private luxury yacht for this owner until she was sold to William Montagu, the Duke of Manchester in 1913. On 1st February 1915 she was requisitioned by the Admiralty who armed her with two 6 pounder guns and commissioned her as fleet auxiliary HMY Conqueror II.
On Tuesday, 26th September 1916 the British steamship St Gothard, owned by William Watson of Glasgow was en route, in ballast, from Shetland to the River Forth under the command of her skipper Alex Laing. At around 4:35pm she was stopped by the fleet auxiliary yacht Conqueror II, which pulled up along the starboard side of the steamship and her escort, the hired trawler Sarah Alice. Aboard Conqueror, which had been hired for admiralty use on 1st December 1915, the commander was Thomas Agassiz, an experienced and enthusiastic patrol officer of the Royal Naval Reserve. The ship was manned by a crew of 17 men. The position was approximately 12 miles north west of North Point, Fair Isle. After a short inspection, at around 5:00pm, Captain Laing was given permission to proceed. As he rang the telegraph and signalled slow ahead, the foam trail of a torpedo streamed across his bow and seconds later the Sarah Alice disappeared in a massive explosion – she sank within minutes with the loss of Lieutenant Hugh Lovett and his 14 crewmen. Shortly afterwards a second torpedo smashed into Conqueror – the slender yacht broke in two and sank within three minutes. Boats were lowered by St Gothard’s crew and seven survivors from the Conqueror were quickly picked up – Commander Agassiz was lost with his ship.
At around 5:15 Laing spotted the periscope of a submarine in position to sink his own ship. In the early days of the war some degree of the honour war was still apparent and in this instance the German commander held his fire until Laing disembarked the remainder of his crew and the Conqueror survivors. As they pulled away from their ship, a third torpedo was fired and St Gothard was hit beneath number 3 hatch. She sank within five minutes. In a final act of gallantry the German U-boat commander surfaced and told Laing and his men to proceed three miles to the westward where another British trawler was patrolling which would be able to rescue them. They had also picked up one further wounded survivor from Conqueror who was handed over to Laing’s men. As the U-boat submerged once again the crewmen noticed two other periscopes close by – clearly the ship had been ambushed by one of the German’s famed wolfpacks. The three deadly torpedoes had been fired by the U-boat U-52 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Hans Walther. The position of the attack was later reported as 59 41 N, 01 45 W.
At the subsequent enquiry there was considerable controversy about why the captain of Conqueror had stopped the St Gothard in the first place and more importantly why the ships had remained stationary for so long making them an easy target for the U-boats. Standing orders instructed any ships involved in search procedures to keep up good speed while boarding and, if this was impossible, to direct the suspect vessel to the nearest port for examination. However, in the end, despite the fact that they did stop and that St Gothard had been flying the flag “Q” – the correct signal flag for the day, the enquiry did not attribute blame for the loss of the ships to anyone involved in the incident.
While the sea depth in the area has made confirmed identification of the wrecks impossible to date, there are three wrecks in the correct approximate area which are almost certainly the wrecks of the three vessels lost. The wreck in position 59° 43.309’N, 01° 41.809’W (WGS84) in two sections measuring 23 x 8 x 4 metres and lying 000/180 degrees and 31 x 8 x 4 metres is almost certainly HMT Sarah Alice. The wreckage lies in a depth of 111 metres rising to 108 metres. The wreck in position 59° 44.681’N, 01° 51.048’W (WGS84) in two pieces lying in 108 metres rising 10 metres from seabed with signs of rigging on scans is almost certainly Conqueror. Finally the wreck at 59° 44.575’N, 01° 41.466’W (WGS84) measuring 87 x 18 x 8 metres on a seabed at 113 metres lying 135/315 degrees is probably St Gothard.