The Ehrenfels was a steel general cargo steamship launched from the yard of Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson in Newcastle in July 1903 (Yard No.405) for her new German owners Hansa of Bremen. The vessel was powered by a 4 cylinder steam engine of 476 nhp and had dimensions of 375.5′ x 50.5′ x 27.3’; with tonnage of 4450 gt / 2781 nt.
The Ehrenfels remained in this ownership until 1920 when the vessel was transferred to Belgian ownership as part of war reparations and a name change to Ostende.
The captain of the Ostende could not be certain what caused the damage to his ship as he did not see any signs of a mine or a torpedo. He was 9.5 miles west of Skerryvore Lighthouse, en route from New York to Liverpool with a general cargo of war supplies, on the night of the 16/17th of January 1943 when, at 12:51am, the quiet of the night was shattered by an explosion near the bow of his ship and immediately she began to take in water. Within a short time number 1 hold was eighteen feet deep in water and, although the bulkhead between number 1 and number 2 hold seemed to be secure, the captain began a race to save his ship, planning to beach her at Scarnish on Tiree.
The wireless operators ashore listened to a series of dramatic messages over the next few hours as the captain fought to save his ship but thankfully, after a change of plan during the night, the message came through that she was beached in Loch na Lathaich near Bunessan on the south west coast of Mull. By the time the ship came to a halt in the shallow, sheltered loch the bulkhead between holds 1 and 2 had finally given way flooding number 2 hold. If the captain had not reached shallow water when he did his ship would almost certainly have foundered. As it was, she settled on a gently sloping sandy seabed with her bow in 4 fathoms and her stern in 6 fathoms of water.
The Ostende seemed to have been saved but unfortunately this was not the end of her story. Salvage tugs and small coasters were dispatched to the scene and began offloading cargo from number 1 hold to allow access to the damaged area of her hull. They planned to repair her where she lay and then tow her off. On the night of the 20th the drifter Lydia Long tied up alongside the Ostende and the men aboard both ships cleared up after they stopped work for the day. That night the villagers of Bunessan and the sleeping workers were awakened by a series of enormous explosions. The Ostende had somehow caught fire destroying her cargo, which included over 500 tons of bombs and artillery shells which exploded tearing the stranded ship apart. In the morning daylight revealed the dreadful damage. The twisted hull of the Ostende was almost totally submerged with only the forecastle and bridge sections visible above the surface. Two of her forty eight crew had been killed in the explosions. The Lydia Long was gone too but luckily her crew were safe. Divers inspected the wreck and described her as an unrecognisable mass of scrap and distorted plates. Incredibly, large amounts of her cargo did manage to survive the fire and explosions. This cargo was removed over the next few weeks by a salvage team before the ship was finally abandoned.
The Wreck Today
Apart from the fire and explosion of 1943, the Ostende has clearly been heavily salvaged in post war years. A recent visit to the Ross of Mull in August 2023 provided an opportunity to investigate this wreck further. There is actually a substantial piece of wreckage still lying in the bay off the old Bendoran Boatyard in position 56° 19.286’N, 06° 15.993’W (GPS). The wreckage which appears to be around 90 metres long by 15 metres wide and comprises the lower hull, much of which is below surrounding seabed level, rising between 1 and 1.5 metres above seabed level. The shallowest part by dive computer was 5.5 metres with general seabed being between 7.8 – 8.3 metres. The wreck lies 236°/56° with bow to the south west.
There are shell casings lying on the seabed and we recommend anyone diving this wreck to follow the advice from the Naval spokesman in the newspaper article below. The Navy have visited the site a number of times to clear live ammunition.
If you are planning to visit this area to dive we recommend using the old Bendoran Boatyard as a base. There is a good slip and boat storage facilities, which is run by the South West Mull & Iona Development who are based at Fionnphort.
We would like to thank Lloyd’s Register Foundation – Heritage & Education Centre for allowing us to reproduce documents from their archive in this article.