The steel steam trawler Sarah Alice was launched from the Middlesbrough yard of Smith’s Dockyard Co Ltd (Yard No 472) on 11th May 1911. She measured 130.5′ x 23.0′ 13.2′ and her tonnage was 299 gross tons, 121 net tons. She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine by Shields Engineering Co Ltd, North Shields delivering 91 registered horse power.
Ordered by the New Dock Steam Trawling Co Ltd., Fleetwood she was registered in this port FD140. In August 1914, with the outbreak of World War One she was requisitioned hired by the Admiralty for war service.
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, 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 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.
We would like to thank Lloyd’s Register Foundation – Heritage & Education Centre for allowing us to reproduce documents from their archive in this article.