The steel steamship Empire Homer was launched by the Greenock Dockyard Company (Yard No.449) on 19th November 1941 for the Ministry of War Transport. She measured 432.7′ x 56.2′ x 34.2′ and her tonnage was 6993 gross, 4990 net. She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine by John G Kincaid and Company of Greenock delivering 320 nhp. The vessels official number was 168976.
The Empire Homer was the second of a series of ‘Empire’ ships constructed by the Greenock Dockyard Company, although a number were completed as motor ships. The picture below is of the Empire Kingsley, Yard No 448.
The Empire Homer was constructed as part of the British Governments WW2 standard ship programme (Type Y) which was managed by the Ministry of War Transport. Once completed she entered service under the day to day management of Haldin & Philipps of Greenock, and was the second of series of very similar vessels constructed by the Greenock Dockyard Company.
The newly completed Empire Homer was to form part of convoy ON.057 from Liverpool, heading across the Atlantic for the eastern seaboard of the USA. She arrived at the Tail of the Bank on the 12 January 1942 and departed the anchorage on the 14 January, as part of a small group of ships that joined with the main convoy in the North Channel. The convoy sailed into a storm of exceptional violence.
On the 15 January Kyle Coastguard received word that a vessel was ashore 2 miles WNW of Barra Head. Barra lifeboat crew were mustered but were stood down when a further message was received that the vessel had managed to get off and had continued on her voyage. By evening a full storm was blowing from the south east, it was pitch black and showers of sleet and rain were sweeping in across the island. The lifeboat Lloyd’s was on her mooring in the middle of Castlebay, however conditions were such that the crew were unable to get to their boat due to the weather conditions until there was some lull in the wind strength.
Around 11:00pm a message was received from the Barra Coastguard at Leanish Point, that a large steamer was ashore off the point. Three of the crew drove out to Leanish and were able to see the steamer aground on a flat reef with seas breaking over her decks. Unable to launch the lifeboat they signalled the crew to stay aboard and not attempt to abandon ship, This ship turned out to be the R J Cullen.
Shortly after midnight another distress message was received by Kyle Coastguard from the SS Empire Homer, aground on the east side of Mingulay and breaking up. The lifeboat crew stood by unable to launch in the weather, they were also advised to leave the vessel ashore off Leanish Point and head round to Mingulay when conditions permitted. Around daybreak the wind moderated enough to allow the lifeboat crew to launch their shore boat and row out to their main vessel the Lloyd’s. On leaving the bay there was still a gale blowing and heavy sea running, they passed the R J Cullen checked on her position and headed south for Mingulay. After circling the island they could find no trace of the Empire Homer and returned to the RJ Cullen but found they could not her due to reefs around the casualty and returned to base. By now it was 03:30pm on 16 January, the crew had been on duty for 18 hours.
At 8am on 17 January the lifeboat again went in search of the Empire Homer the weather had abated but the heavy swell remained. The crew checked the island of Mingulay again but there was definitely no wreck to be seen. As they started to return home they saw a rocket fired from the west coast of the neighbouring island of Sandray. They headed over and found a group of men ashore who confirmed they were part of the Empire Homer’s crew. Unable to land because of the swell, they decided to head back to base and tow back their shore boat which was smaller and more manoeuvrable and with this they rescued the 49 crew from the Empire Homer and landed them safely at Castlebay.
The following day, the 18 January the master of the Empire Homer asked the lifeboat crew to take a few of the officers back to the wreck so they could recover navigation equipment and defensive armaments. When they arrived at the wreck she was lying with bow proud of the water and stern broken off and submerged. They were able to recover Lewis guns, wireless and navigation equipment. Later that same day the Empire Homer was declared a constructive total loss by Lloyd’s of London.
Convoy ON.057 was hit by a huge storm as it headed out into the Western Approaches, vessels were unable to stay in formation, and a number were lost. Of the 38 merchant vessels that left the Clyde only 15 continued on and made their destinations of east coast ports in USA. A further 18 returned to the Clyde or other ports of Loch Ewe and Oban. This left 5 vessels stranded on offshore islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides in addition to the Empire Homer, and on the Isle of Tiree the cargo steamers Ingrid and Laristan were both aground although the Laristan was later refloated. On the Isle of Barra, the steamer RJ Cullen was aground off the east coast, joined a few days later by the cargo steamer Eugenie S Embericos. Stories of these shipwrecks can be found by following the links highlighted. The Barra lifeboat had a particularly challenging period of service between the 16-26 January 1942, and we reproduce the full story from the Lifeboat Magazine below as it gives more detail of the rescue and an insight to the skill and gallantry of the crew, in what must have been frightening conditions.
The Empire Homer is reported to lie in position 56° 52.951’N, 007° 30.885’W by the UK Hydrographic Office (UK HO), which is on the west side of the most south westerly bay of Sandray Island. The site has been dived by a number of groups over the last 30 years and diving information has been submitted and included in UK HO data sheet for this wreck. The wreckage is noted as lying at the base of a rock shelf between 6 and 18 metres in a generally north / south orientation. Wreckage rises 3-4 metres maximum. There may also be some wreckage on the shore.
There are a number of anomalies with the information we have considered during our research, that put a question mark over the identity of this wreck. Firstly, the place of loss is recorded as Skertichenish Rock (aka. Skerlechinish) this rock is located approximately 1.2 km south east of the wrecks recorded position above. Secondly, diver reports submitted to the UK HO refer to riveted construction, the Empire Homer was predominantly welded construction, although main frame structure junctions for the hull were riveted. Finally there is one source that notes to the engine and boiler were salvaged in 1944, yet reports from dives made in 1986 and 1994 suggest these items are still present in the wreckage. If you know better, or have a picture of the vessel aground then please get in touch with us.
We would like to thank Lloyd’s Register Foundation – Heritage & Education Centre for allowing us to reproduce documents from their archive in this article.