U-boats and their sinister toll on Sunderland ships

John McLelland and his new book.
John McLelland and his new book.

Pallion-born John McLelland knows a lot about ships.

After all, he has spent the last five years researching the 800-plus vessels which were built in Sunderland that were sunk or damaged by U-boats in the First World War.

The front cover of the book.

The front cover of the book.

That’s quite some painstaking project but it has been a real labour of love.

The 64-year-old ex-teacher said: “This book reflects a period of Sunderland’s history that is fascinating and interesting. The story of each ship reflects where the ship was built and when, its weight, the cargo and voyage as well as the U boat that sank the ship and the casualties resulting.”

For the avid researcher, it’s an ideal reference book packed with details.

It tells you all about the Florazan, the first in the Great War to be sunk by a U-boat.

I grew up with shipbuilding and the noise of Doxford. I did not work in the industry but it was there. I used to wander down to the river to see what was happening. The river was the biggest draw

John McLelland

She was built by Short Brothers in 1913 and operated by the Liverpool Shipping Company. But Florazan met her demise when she was en route from Le Havre to Liverpool and was sunk by the U-boat U20 under the command of Walter Schwieger. He would later gain fame as the man who sank the Lusitania.

Florazan was torpedoed on March 11, 1915. She sank two days later 50 miles south west of St Ann’s Head with one crewman killed.

But this is more than just a list of stricken ships.

There are snapshots of life on Wearside at the time. It records the special sales on Bank Holidays, the deaths from consumption and pneumonia.

An extract from John's book.

An extract from John's book.

It tells of stories in the Sunderland Echo at the time, including how life went on as normal - including the Sunderland Hairdressers Association who met to decide they would close all day on a Monday and only work half a day on a Wednesday.

And Jacksons of High Street in Sunderland announced it was selling suits made to measure from 30 to 35 shillings.

John’s book tells of the family tragedies caused by war, including two brothers killed within four weeks of each other. Corporal TH Nutter of the Durham Light Infantry was killed in action - probably on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Private Edward Whiteman Nutter, of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, died four weeks later. Two other brothers were discharged from the Army because of wounds suffered in action.

The book adds: “The town of Sunderland had a proud history of ship building stretching from the 14th century until all the yards were closed in the mid 1980’s.

“In 1824, there were some 24 yards and by 1840 there was 70, building all sizes of wooden ships and boats. The coming of the steam age, gradually reduced the number of yards and by the First World War there was 13 with more being opened as the war progressed.

“Sunderland, was given the accolade of the, ‘Greatest Ship-Building Town in the World’ a deserved title as every yard was within the boundaries of the town. Sunderland yards were among the most innovative with the Turret Hull Design being one of the most popular.

“This book tells the story of the 800 plus ships of all sizes, built in Sunderland, that were sunk by U boats during WWI alongside the story of ships such as the, Lusitania and ships that were sunk with massive loss of life.

“Included, is a short history of the town, what was happening before, during and after the war inside the town and a look at the enemy, the U Boat and how it was eventually contained.’”

It’s John’s first book and an impressive one at that.

He calls it “essentially a reference book” and tells why he compiled it.

“I grew up with shipbuilding and the noise of Doxford. I did not work in the industry but it was there. I used to wander down to the river to see what was happening. The river was the biggest draw.”

He grew up in Pallion, went to St Aidan’s Grammar School and university and later became a teacher.

He is “three or four years into retirement” and said he got into writing the book after “reading something which got me interested. Someone suggest I should write a book and I thought ‘there probably is a book in this’.”

The book - titled Sunderland Built Merchant Ships Sunk by U Boats in World War One - is available for sale on Amazon and Kindle.

In its paperback form, it costs £15.49.