The Ulabrand was a general cargo steamship built by Burmeister & Wain of Copenhagen (Yard No.199) and launched in March 1899 for her new owners A/S Ulabrand of Tønsberg in Norway. Her dimensions were 286.5’ x 40.2’ x 19.2’ with tonnage of 2011 gross and 1269 net. She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine of 203nhp also supplied by the builders.
The Ulabrand was on a voyage from Rouen to Glasgow in ballast when she sank following an explosion – 2 miles west of Crammag Head, in the early hours of 23 February 1918. The single violent explosion aft of midships on the starboard side, also destroyed much of the aft island deck structure, the vessel went down very quickly taking with her 13 of the crew.
The master of the Ulabrand, Olaf Bjønness survived the ordeal and later made a statement to the Norwegian Vice Consul in Glasgow on 27 February 1918. As the ships papers had gone down with the vessel the statement was given from memory.
The vessel had departed Rouen around 10.00 on 12 February arriving Havre Roads at 11.30 where they anchored awaiting convoy muster. They departed Havre on 13 February around 11.00 steering in convoy across the English Channel for Anvil Point where the convoy separated. On instruction from naval authorities, the Ulabrand made for Milford Haven where she arrived on 15 February at noon, and left again at 15.30 for Holyhead arriving the following day. Due to increased U-Boat activity in the North Channel she was detained in Holyhead until Friday 22 February when she left for Glasgow. By 23.00 that night she was 7 miles to the west of the Mull of Galloway, 55 minutes later she was 2 miles west of Crammag Head.
Shortly after midnight the deck aft of the central island was lifted into the air by a huge explosion that rocked the whole ship sending fragments of decking, hull plating and seawater skyward, and the crew running for safety. Unfortunately their search was fruitless, the ship was sinking fast and the crew headed for the lifeboats. The starboard lifeboat had been wrecked in the explosion, all the crew were ordered to the port boat which was filled and lowered. However, the lifeboat could not clear away in time before it was capsized by the lifeboat davits as the Ulabrand sank lower in the water. By this stage most of the crew were in the water, either from being thrown out of the lifeboat or jumping overboard. Olaf Bjønness was sucked below the surface by the ship as it started to sink but fortunately the buoyancy in his lifejacket eventually brought him to the surface gasping for air. What he saw was total devastation with much floating debris around the near submerged hull of his ship.
A small boat, one of the ships gig’s and a life raft were lashed together and the nine remaining crew drifted away from the Ulabrand as she finally sank, they made landfall around 06.00 on 23 February. The detail in the captains report is a bit confusing as to the total number of survivors and we believe this to be nine in total. What we do know is that thirteen crew lost their lives in the attack.
So who or what was the source of the explosion? From WW1 U-Boat records and reference to uboat.net it has been established that the torpedo was fired by SM U.86 commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Helmut Patzig who must have been lying slightly inshore of the Ulabrand as she headed north along the Galloway coast.
U.86 slipped away after the attack and survived until November 1918 when she was surrendered to Britain as part of the WW1 Armistice reparations, she was later put on display in Bristol docks. The final demise for the U.86 came on 30 June 1921 when under tow to the breakers yard she sank in the English Channel off Littlehampton where she remains today.
The Wreck Today
A wreck is located close to the last recorded position of the Ulabrand prior to the attack, and the sonar measured length is of a similar size to the Ulabrand. The wreck lies in 54° 39.833’N, 05° 02.833’W and is oriented north/south. Lying on a rolling sandy seabed the wreck lies in 100 metres rising a maximum of 5 metres above seabed.