Imagine the nightmare: a ship is torpedoed and among the passengers thrown into the sea is a woman hugging her young son. How, you might ask, could the two possibly survive?
ell, I have a letter from this passenger, an Irish woman, describing how, against all odds, she managed to keep herself and her child afloat.
Her nightmare happened not long after the torpedoing of the Lusitaniain front of the Old Head of Kinsale in Co Cork on 7 May 1915.
There were nearly 2,000 passengers on board, most of whom perished, including many women and children.
One would have thought that such attacks would have stopped due to the scale of the disaster. But they didn’t.
The woman’s account gives us an idea of how the passengers of the nightmare ships continued to suffer from attacks by German submarines during the First World War.
Her name was Norah Webber from Killiney in Co Dublin.
She and her three-year-old son were with the SS City of Birmingham when it was torpedoed 90 miles southeast of Malta the following year Lusitania was sunk.
Her husband, also Irish, was an officer in the British Army. He had returned to India after two years of service in France, and she wanted to travel to Karachi to join him.
“The poor old man City of Birmingham,” she wrote. “Was a horrible old boat indeed, and the food was very bad. There were 50 cadets on board bound for one of the new Indian Army colleges, so we were actually more or less a troop ship and would have should have one
According to the British Admiralty, the ship carried 170 passengers and general cargo.
After they left Gibraltar, Norah had a long chat with the captain. “He was very cheerful and said he was sure we were going to be fine, that we had just passed three danger zones and there were only two left.”
The captain’s optimism was misplaced.
“Monday 27th November was fairly calm although it was prone to rain. However, as usual, we all sat in a sheltered place on deck,” she recalls.
“It was just after 11am and I was beginning to wonder when the soup would come when suddenly there was a terrible bang and the boat shook all over. Of course, everyone knew what that meant and the first thoughts were: Where were our lifebuoys?”
That’s what the Admiralty said Birmingham was torpedoed without warning and “the explosion was so violent that the ship immediately began to sink at the stern and one of the lifeboats was blown to pieces”.
“Fortunately, my life belt and my son’s were right next to us, although I couldn’t see them for a moment after the explosion. It was like a nightmare when you have something next to you and you can’t find it.
“Everyone was pretty calm and there was no panic although I assume we all looked pretty scared.
“We were helped into our lifeboat and we were quite crowded as two of the smaller boats were damaged by the torpedo.”
Then she recalled the moment when “the most uncomfortable thing of all happened. Our boat refused to be lowered at one end. Something happened and the rope got stuck. They tried everything they could, but nothing brought it forth. Finally the captain came and ordered one end of the boat to be lowered at that angle. He called out to all of us to persevere with everything we were worth.
“Although they were about 20 feet above the water, they cut the ropes and the boat went down with a thud. Of course it submerged immediately and although we tried our best to stick to it, most people either got out and swam or got washed out.”
Norah said she was still holding her little boy, “and some oars washed out with us were a help to hold on. There were also several others holding her.”
Luckily, she said, some of the cadets could swim. One of them next to her was holding a two-year-old baby, “and almost all the children were in the care of some of them.”
However, the ship quickly sank and her only idea was to get away from it.
“I’ll never forget the sound of the steam being shut off – it sounded like a big animal in pain. The stern dived deeper and deeper into the water. We managed to get out of the way and then suddenly she tipped over and went down stern first and disappeared into the water with a horrible roar – it was a horrific sight.”
Norah said the swell was quite strong for some time afterwards and it was difficult to keep her child high enough to keep the waves from going over his head.
“But eventually one of the lifeboats reached us, and although it was quite full, they all got us in, holding on to the oars.
“The child was a little overwhelmed, but a few sips of brandy put her right and soon fell asleep in the stewardess’ arms, wrapped in a blanket that a nice person had lent her. I was fine but was ill for a while which probably resulted in too much sea water.”
She then wrote: “The sun rose and cheered and warmed us. Everyone was as happy as possible and we started singing. We tried to keep up more or less with the other boats when in reality we were all quite far. We rowed on and on imagining our joy and cheers and shouts from the lifeboat as we saw smoke on the horizon.
“We hoisted the stewardess’ apron as a flag. Then a large ship gradually came into view and imagine our even greater delight when we saw the white and green band and red crosses of a hospital ship. They had received our SOS message and drove back 30 miles to pick us up. I really think we were luckier than we could have ever imagined.”
Indeed they did. They were rescued by the hospital ship, Letizia, within three hours of her ship sinking. Four of the 145 crew members were listed as drowned, including the ship’s doctor and bartender. All 170 passengers, including 90 women and children, survived.
Norah’s three-year-old son grew up to be a senior officer in the British Army. When he retired he settled back in Ireland. I had several conversations with him, but it was only after his death that I learned that he had been awarded the Military Cross for Valor during a very distinguished career.
And being a very private family, I only heard from a speech at his funeral about the bravery of his mother in saving his life when her ship was torpedoed.
Many of them on the Lusitania were not so lucky, the majority, 1,198, including 94 children, died; 761 passengers were rescued. A large memorial in Cobh honors the fishermen who rushed to their rescue in a flotilla of small boats and commemorates the many passengers who died.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/attacked-at-sea-the-extraordinary-story-of-a-mothers-bravery-41581751.html Attacked at sea – the extraordinary story of a mother’s bravery