A sailor’s life – 28. Monkbarns or See-Adler? 1917
Monkbarns left Barry Roads, in the Bristol Channel, early in February 1917, racing under full sail behind another British-registered ship, the Mount Stewart. As they drew out of the lee of Wales, the strong northeasterly wind freshened to a gale and the seas grew wilder. The steam sloop escorting them struggled to keep up as the old “windbags” flew along at 14 knots (think racing bike), neither captain fainthearted enough to shorten sail, as the sloop’s RNR commander – himself sailing ship trained – noted appreciatively.
Lewis Watkins, one of eight apprentice boys in the half deck that trip, remembered passing a torpedoed Norwegian tanker off Lundy. The naval escort, wallowing in their wake, her bridge and foreward gun blinded by the sheets of flying water, had peeled off in relief to deal with the wreck. “Proceed independently,” she had signalled to her charges. “Safe voyage and good luck,” and with an answering flutter of their own flags the sailing ships had stood away on their separate courses.
It was the middle of the first world war and aboard Monkbarns they had swung out their lifeboats in case of attack and posted the best watch they could manage shorthanded, Watkins recalled. Other than that there was nothing to do but make their way with all speed past Fastnet and out into the Atlantic, beyond the reach of the submarines. They were bound for Montevideo, Uruguay, with coal from Cardiff.
Three weeks later, John Stewart & Co’s Galgorm Castle was stopped and sunk by an enemy submarine 90 miles west of Fastnet. The crew got away in two lifeboats, one of which, with the captain and his wife, was picked up by a passing steamer the following morning. The captain’s wife, who had borne and raised two daughters aboard her husband’s ships over 16 years, went straight back to sea, was again sunk by a submarine, and amazingly both she and her husband survived the war. But the mate’s boat was not found until ten days later. Only one man in it was still alive.
Within four months of the loss of the Galgorm Castle, four more John Stewart ships had been sunk and by the time Monkbarns dropped anchor in Montevideo on March 25th news of a new enemy in the Atlantic was trickling ashore: a sailing ship raider was reported to be at large, menacing shipping with a hidden engine and guns.
A disguised former banana boat, the steamer Mowe, had slipped the British blockade of Germany’s ports the previous year – and claimed 15 ships, including John Stewart’s Edinburgh, but See-Adler, as the Germans called their new auxiliary cruiser, looked particularly unthreatening.
Indeed, she looked very much like Monkbarns, which would become a problem.