The heroes who refused to abandon their torpedoed ship in World War One

WAR WORKER: The Thornhill - built in Sunderland and a heroine of the First World War.
WAR WORKER: The Thornhill - built in Sunderland and a heroine of the First World War.
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IT was all hands on deck when Wearside decoy ship Thornhill was torpedoed in a U-boat attack during the First World War.

The terrific force of the explosion knocked Captain Sam Miller out onto the steps of the chart room, and left the former collier badly holed just 20ft from the engine room.

But according to Blue Peter – the Echo’s shipping correspondent of the 1930s – several sailors refused to evacuate and managed to save Thornhill against the odds.

“Most of the crew went over the side,” he wrote. “Only the chief engineer, Mr J Craig of Sunderland, the first, second and third officers and the donkeyman remained.

“It was these men who, with their captain, saved the ship and her valuable cargo at the risk of their own lives. All six men are deserving of the highest praise.”

The first Wear ship to carry the title Thornhill caught fire and sank in the Atlantic in 1907 – leaving her crew to make a treacherous 700-mile voyage in open boats to safety.

But Sunderland steam shipping firm Taylor and Sanderson hoped it would be second time lucky when they ordered another Thornhill to be built by Short Bros in 1911.

“Who would have imagined in those peaceful days that, five or six years later, the ship would be acting as a decoy for U-boats in the Great War?” wrote Blue Peter.

“Wearside ships have served in all seas of the world and their cargoes have shown great variety – from whale oil, frozen meat, explosives, coal, to iron ore and French wine.

“Many times must they have startled their builders when they went into trades for which they were not designed. But then, the life of a ship is not unlike that of a man.

“Circumstances call the tune, and the ship or the man finds herself or himself doing a task successfully which, judged by ordinary standards, should show failure.” The outbreak of the First World War saw Thornhill pressed into service as a Royal Navy Q-ship – or decoy – designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks.

The steamer was heavily armed with concealed weapons for the task, but her crew had to face the possibility of death 24-hours-a-day.

“What Q-ships did was look like innocent tramp vessels, plodding their way homewards with cargoes for a hungry country,” Blue Peter told his readers in 1936.

“They went out to those unhealthy spots, known to be infested by submarines, and there they remained – to be literally shot at.

“But decoy ships were not as daft as they looked. When the enemy came within range, down dropped the side of the “tramp” – revealing a business-like gun.” Thornhill’s name was changed to Warratah after being taken over by the Admiralty, and she spent the next two years carrying stores and ammunitions across the Channel.

The year 1916 saw her pick up the crew of the torpedoed Springwell off the island of Crete – a Newcastle-built steamer bound for Calcutta with a “general cargo.”

But, by the time the battle-scarred Thornhill arrived for repairs at Barry Docks in June 1917, there was “not a whole piece of glass left in her.”

“Her plates were dented and scarred from gunfire,” revealed Blue Peter. “Above the water line were many shot holes, and bags of concrete reinforced her deckworks.”

Thornhill was returned to her original owners after repairs and a scratch crew signed up – including at least one sailor from Sunderland.

But her war record was, evidently, very well known – for after leaving Barry for the Mediterranean, the transport convoy officer at Gibraltar recognised the Thornhill.

“You’ll never get out of the Mediterranean with that ship,” the officer told Captain Miller. “They know you too well – you’re a marked ship.”

The captain, however, refused to turn back. He steered on towards Italy, safely landed his cargo, sailed to North Africa and finally brought back iron ore to Middlesbrough.

Blyth was the next port of call for Thornhill, followed by Italy again. This time luck went against the captain – and Thornhill was torpedoed off Monaco on November 27.

“After examining the damage, the chief engineer came up to Capt Miller and offered to work the engines, if the captain would attend the telegraph,” said Blue Peter.

“That was how they saved Thornhill. She was navigated to safety with a heavy list and a gaping hole in her side. Some 400 tons of her cargo had been blown out.”

Thornhill finally ran aground near Oneglia, 30 miles from Savona in Italy. As salvage work was carried out, her crew was snapped up for service on the Northern front.

he steamer saw out the rest of the war carrying iron ore for a Swansea firm, before being sold on to a Newcastle shipping company following the signing of the Armistice.

More than 16 years later, however, Thornhill returned fleetingly for repairs to Sunderland – bearing the new name of Perast and looking “much the worse for wear.”

Her former captain, Sam Miller, was there to greet now Yugoslavian-owned ship at the docks and told the Echo: “It was grand to see her again.”

•Thornhill survived the Second World War and was renamed Neretva in 1946. Damaged in a collision in 1959, she was sold to a Japanese shipbreakers in 1960.