Built for the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Co Ltd. of Aberdeen the steel steamship St Magnus was launched from the yard of Ramage and Ferguson in Leith on 5th March 1912. She measured 215.1′ x 31.1′ x 15.3′ and weighed 957 gross tons, 427 net tons and was powered by a triple expansion steam engine by Ramage and Ferguson. She had accommodation for 150 first class and 100 second class passengers. Throughout the years of World War One she continued to ply the routes back and Forth from Aberdeen to Orkney and Shetland. However, as the war reached it’s final year she was to become the victim of a U-boat attack as she neared her home port on her usual run.
She had departed from Lerwick with thirty two passengers and a crew of twenty seven men under the command of Captain John McKenzie on 11th February 1918. The voyage was uneventful until, just after midnight, she reached a position a few miles north east of Peterhead. Most of the passengers were in their cabins resting or sleeping when the clam was shattered by a huge explosion. The ship immediately began to settle in the water as alarms sounded and the passengers and crew rushed on deck. The cause of the explosion was not certain but it was clear that she had either been torpedoed or had struck a German mine. The area was a favourite target for the German mine laying submarines. Later German U-boat records would show that St Magnus had been hit and fatally damaged by a torpedo from UC-58 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Karl Vesper. The previous day Vesper had attacked and sunk the steamship Baku Standard off Tod Head.
As the crew scrambled to launch the ship’s lifeboats the St Magnus settled quickly by the stern. The lifeboats along one side had been rendered useless in the explosion. The first lifeboat on the opposite side was quickly launched and the crew began to disembark the passengers. The second lifeboat jammed in the davits as they attempted to lower it and so, as the ship sank beneath their feet, the third and final boat on that side was thrown into the water and the remainder of the passengers and crew scrambled aboard. It was extremely lucky that the compliment of passengers and crew aboard for this voyage was well below the ship’s capacity or many more lives would have been lost. The St Magnus sank five minutes after the explosion but, thankfully, the efforts of the crew saved most of the people aboard. Fireman John Johnson and four of the passengers were lost but the remainder were safe in the boats and survived to be picked up by a minesweeper and taken into Peterhead.
The wreck of St Magnus lies in position 57° 32.257’N, 001° 43.595’W oriented 135/315 degrees. She lies in 49 metres with a least dpeth over the wreck of 43 metres. She is still substantially in tact sitting upright with a list to starboard. The starboard side has mainly collapsed but the superstructure and other topside fitting are still visible. She was discovered and identified by Buchan Divers in 1999 who recovered some crockery bearing the company crest.
www.buchandivers.com in the preparation of this article. We would also like to thank Naomi Watson for allowing us to reproduce her underwater photographs of the wreck.