The Bethlehem Fairfield shipyard, with its sixteen spacious slipways, was the largest of the emergency yards established to build the liberty ships and was to be the launch site of the first of these utilitarian cargo vessels, ordered and owned by the US War Shipping Administration, which became the lifeline to the British Isles during the Second World War. By the end of the war some three hundred and eighty five of these ships had been built at the yard.
The yard number of the William H Welch was 2103 and she was identical to the other ships of her class – basic design, dry cargo type EC2 -S-C1. She was a single screw steamship with raked stem, cruiser stern and a balanced rudder. The design was specifically created to maximise safety with seven watertight bulkheads and central line bulkheads in the ship’s five cargo holds. The ship’s ‘up and down’ reciprocating engine, furnished by Harrisburg Machinery Corporation, Pennsylvania, was located beside her twin boilers in a single midships compartment and delivered 339 nhp. Accommodation was provided in a three-deck-high midships superstructure which also contained the bridge and officers’ quarters. She measured 423.0′ x 57.1′ x 34.8′ and weighed 4380 net tons.
In February 1944 she left London in water ballast bound for New York. Her route, with the other nine ships of convoy EN50, would take her first to a rendezvous point in Loch Ewe before setting out across the North Atlantic. In the early months of 1940 Loch Ewe had become one of the Navy’s most important and well defended bases as the Admiralty spread their risks and their ships following the loss of HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow. As the William H Welch steamed north the weather was not kind and by the time she reached the entrance to Loch Ewe, in the early hours of 26th February, a severe storm from the north east was driving onto the bow of the ship.
The she turned east towards the entrance of the loch she broached in enormous seas and was immediately in severe difficulties. Difficult to manoeuvre due the her empty holds, she was inexorably driven south west towards Eilean Furadh Mor. At 04.20am she struck on a reef on the north side of the island and stuck fast. Huge seas pounded the ship forcing the captain to order his men to the bridge, the highest and therefore safest, part of the ship. The crew fired distress flares and hoped for rescue but they knew their situation was very serious. A British escort tug standing by tried three times to fire a line to the stranded ship but to no avail and she was forced to withdraw to summon additional assistance. At 06.00 disaster struck when the ship finally broke in two under the strain of the pounding. The forward part floated off but the major piece, including the midships accommodation and bridge section remained fast.
Ashore various teams were assembling to attempt to help. Troops from the Highland Fieldcraft Training Centre at Poolewe were on exercise in the area and they marched towards the wreck site. Local Coastguard, Charles McDonald, had seen the flares and he too set out for the scene. When they reached the nearest point to the wreck there was little they could do but peer through the driving snow and wait to see what happened. Slowly, one by one, the frozen men clinging to the disintegrating ship were washed off the wreck and into the boiling surf. Most failed to make it to the shore or were smashed against the rocks and killed before they could be rescued. Amazingly some did survive to be picked up, exhausted, by the men and women waiting ashore. They had a huge fire burning to warm the men that did survive and soon they were on their way to full medical assistance at the base. The rescuers maintained the vigil that whole day but as darkness fell they had saved only twelve from the crew of seventy four.
The remaining wreckage of the William H Welch lies scattered in shallow water to the west of Eilean Furadh Mor in position 57°52.529’N, 005°43.120’W (WGS84).