The large steel screw steamship Duke of Albany was built by John Brown and Company Limited at Clydebank (Yard No 376)and launched in June 1907. She had a gross tonnage of 1997 tons and her dimensions were 330.5’x41.1’x17.1’.
The Duke of Albany was built for the east coast service for her peacetime owners the Lancashire and Yorkshire Steamship Company but after seven years mainly on the Fleetwood to Belfast route she was requisitioned by the Admiralty for war service at the start of the First World War. She was fitted out as an armed boarding steamer. These ships were employed by the Navy to stop and search ships of all nationalities aiming to control the flow of goods in and out of the North Sea and stop supplies reaching Germany and her allies.
After nearly two year’s action, on 25th August, 1916, under the command of George Ramage and with a crew off around one hundred men aboard, the Duke of Albany set off from Longhope on patrol duties with the Duke of Clarence. At 9am the ships were steaming abreast, about one-and-a-half miles apart with the Duke of Albany to the north, proceeding at about 14.5 knots and zigzagging on a true east course when a torpedo was spotted about 300 yards out running near the surface. It had been fired, without warning, by UB-27 (Kapitanleutnant Victor Dieckmann). With the emergency bells ringing the officer of the watch, Lieutenant Norman Leslie, Royal Naval Reserve, at once put the engine room telegraph to full speed and the helm hard to starboard to attempt to avoid the torpedo. However it was tool late, the torpedo struck the ship under the port engine room a few feet below the water line at 9.03am. The ship’s hands were at their action stations by the time the explosion took place. A few seconds later a second torpedo passed close astern running deep.
The Duke of Albany began to settle almost immediately by the stern and, only six minutes later, she turned bows up and sank stern first. She sank so quickly that there was no time to replace the catches on the ship’s depth charges and, as the ship sank, the depth charges exploded killing many of the men in the water.
Lieutenant Leslie survived to give evidence at a court of inquiry. He said: The captain ran up on the bridge as soon as the gongs sounded. I left him in charge of the bridge and went round to see the damage. Shortly after the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. Unfortunately the captain was lost with his ship. Leslie told how it was impossible to get their lifeboat away from the side of the ship, which was sinking quickly. Then the after davit fouled the boat and capsized it bearing us down. We were underneath the boat for about five minutes. I saw two of our boats fully loaded and all around there were rafts and men hanging on to them. The Duke of Clarence came along and lowered two boats. I then steered through the wreckage with her boats three times picking up survivors, of the one hundred and six men aboard, 25 were lost. The ship sank so rapidly lifeboats were dragged down, other boats were capsized and and the explosion of the depth charges after the ship sank accounted for more of the fatalities.
The Duke of Clarence proceeded at full speed towards the Duke of Albany as soon as the explosion was heard and managed to get two boats close to the men that were swimming. She also tried to ram the U-boat but to no avail. The acting-lieutenant on board the Duke of Clarence, David Alexander Jack, was the navigating officer when the Duke of Albany sank. At 9.20am we stopped for just long enough to drop two boats. Then going ahead again at full speed circling round and zigzagging. We saw what looked like water being pushed aside like shallow water going over a shoal about half a mile ahead. We let off a shot at it which fell short and ricocheted over it. We then went straight for it and passed right over it, but felt nothing on the bridge. The captain of the Duke of Clarence and Lieutanant Norman Leslie were both recommended for commendations for their bravery. The recommendation reads: It is submitted that Lieutenant Norman Leslie, of HMS Duke of Albany is deserving of their Lordship’s commendation, also Lieutenant-Commander Cecil Burleigh, commanding HMS Duke of Clarence, who stood by his consort at considerable risk and saved 17 lives in his ship’s boats, keeping the submarine off until the arrival of the torpedo boat destroyers.
The loss of the Duke of Albany would also prove to be a pivotal point in naval history. The court of inquiry found: When any vessel is in imminent danger of sinking all depth charges should be rendered inoperative by inserting the safety catch, so as to prevent loss of life (and further damage to a vessel which might subsequently be salved) due to the depth charges exploding after the vessel has sunk. The Court of Inquiry also considered whether the watertight doors of the remaining armed boarding steamers can be kept closed at sea. The report states: Should the reports from the other vessels, called for by the commander-in-chief, show that the watertight doors, or at least those bounding the main compartments, can be kept closed when at sea, there will be much greater chance of the damaged vessel remaining afloat, or at any rate, of sinking less rapidly then in the present case. In these small vessels where there generally is, or can be made, direct means of access from each main compartment to the upper deck, it is a matter for consideration whether such doors should not be permanently closed.
Three of those who perished during the sinking of the ship are buried in the Lyness Naval Cemetery, petty officer Charles Henry Couch, of Devonport aged 51; fireman Edward Phillips and Edward Smith, greaser.
The wreck of the Duke of Albany, which lies in position 58° 42.687′ N, 002° 24.007′ W (WGS 84) lay undiscovered until 2007 when she was located and identified by the recovery of the ship’s bell. She lies in 70 metres oriented 032°/212° with most of her hull and superstructure collapsed leaving the boilers and the engines as the highest points of the wreckage standing some 5 metres above the seabed. The wreck was immediately
designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act.