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The SS STRATHNAIRN fell victim to German submarine U-22, under the command of Bruno Hoppe, on 15 June 1915. The ship had loaded with 7000 tons coal at Cardiff and was heading to Archangel in north Russia when the torpedo struck at 9.30pm.

The crew of 33 comprised English, Welsh and Scottish mariners, as well as British subjects from India and of Chinese origin belonging to Hong Kong – a crew whose origins amply demonstrated the global calling of the merchant navy profession and also the increasingly global nature of the war.

What happened after the torpedo struck the STRATHNAIRN can be pieced together from some of the accounts given to newspapers such as the Cambrian Daily Leader, Herald Cymraeg and the Herald of Wales.

The second Officer, James Wood of Belfast stated that ‘We left Cardiff at 8 o'clock on Tuesday night. The ship was struck by a torpedo without the slightest warning amidships, 25 miles north-east of the Bishops, Scillies. The force of it burst the boiler and soon the ship listed heavily to port. We never saw the submarine till after, she had done the foul work. Then she went within 20 feet of the sinking ship. As soon as possible after the ship was struck the four boats were got out. Mine, however, was the only one to get clear away, for one was smashed, and the other two capsized on being cut clear of davits. The captain and other officers were in these. The submarine never offered to assist the solitary boat.’

James Wood, observing the STRATHNAIRN was not sinking quickly, attempted twice to get back to the ship but each time he was foiled by the submarine driving him off. At 12.45 midnight they were picked up by the schooner AMANDA, of Padstow, transferred to the steamer ROSEBELLA of Chester. At the entrance of Milford Haven, they were again transhipped to the THORMOND to be brought into the Haven.

The Chinese crewmembers walking from the docks to the John Cory Sailors' Rest for the night were barefooted. One of them, in broken English, described how the boats capsized and his shipmates were lost. He also showed how the submarine crept round to stern of the ship, apparently to ascertain the name.

The story told by the John C Smith, the chief engineer, was of a terrific explosion. Scrambling out on to the deck, Smith jumped into a lifeboat, and not seeing the captain or any of the other officers, cut away the davit rope and got to safety. At some point, Smith rescued a Chinese crewmember, lashing him to the boat when it overturned. The two men were later picked up by the steamship ABBOTSFORD and brought Swansea. The master of the ABBOTSFORD, Alexander Thomas noted that “These two members of the crew had been adrift for over nine hours, and they were in an exhausted state when picked up."

On the 12 July, the body of unknown man was washed up on the beach near Belan Las and along with many other objects such clothing, bedding, and barrels, between Clynnog and Dinas Dinlle. The body was eventually identified as that of the A Stewart, the Chief Officer, and was buried at LLandwrog.

There are 20 names commemorated on the Merchant Navy and Fishing Vessels Memorial at Tower Hill, London:

Ah Fat, Fireman and Trimmer; A Sam, Fireman and Trimmer; Ah Sang, Fireman and Trimmer; Ah Sing, Fireman and Trimmer; Ah Wong, Fireman and Trimmer; John Browne, Master; Chang Hong, Assistant Steward; Ching Leong, Fireman and Trimmer; Benjamin Bruce Evans, Third Mate; George Flemming, Fouth Engineer; Fung Long, Quartermaster; Peter Whitehill Houston, Third engineer; King Chee, Quartermaster; Leong Ta, Quartermaster; James Lionel Pemberton, Second Engineer; A Stewart, First Mate; Tan Kee, Sailor; Wong Soo, Fireman; Wong Tai, Fireman and Trimmer; and Yang Tan, Quartermaster.

The STRATHNAIRN has been built on the Clyde by A Rodger & Co, Port Glasgow, in 1906. The ship was owned by company named after it, in which the Burrell family had controlling share interests. The steamship’s technical description is as follows 4336gt, 2812nt; 370ft long x 52ft 2in breadth x 17ft 6in depth; 1 deck, 6 bulkheads, passenger deck 27ft, boat deck 94ft, forecastle 40ft; screw propulsion powered by three boilers linked to a triple expansion engine producing 384hp.

During 1856-1857, George Burrell established a shipping and forwarding agency at Port Dundas, the Glasgow terminus of the Forth and Clyde Canal. Initially ship-owning was confined to vessels small enough to transit the Canal, but in 1866 the company took a half-share in an ocean-going steamer. By 1875 a further six steamers had been built, two bearing the name prefix STRATH. This ship-naming tradition continued throughout the firm's existence. The company prospered by ordering a large number of ships from builders when shipbuilding and trade was in a slump, calculating that the vessels would be coming off the stocks when the slump was reaching an end. Burrell and Son would then in a position to attract cargoes because it had new ships available and could undercut its rivals. In 1905, Burrell and Son took advantage of one of these slumps and ordered twenty steamers. The STRATHNAIRN was one of these. At time of company registration in 1905, the proposers were Burrell & Son, Constance Mary Lockhart Burrell, Anne Jane Burrell, Andrew Muir, William Clark, and Robert Douglas Miller Mitchell. Shares in the company were divided into 230, with each share valued at £100. This provided £23,000 in capital for the STRATHNAIRN Steam Ship Co Ltd

Burrell and Son took advantage of the rise in the market value of ships after the outbreak of the First World War. Although losing 5 vessels to enemy action, the company had pursued the sale of almost its entire fleet by 1916. With the proceeds shrewdly invested, William Burrell and his wife amassed an art collection which they gifted to the people of Glasgow in 1944.

The ABBOTSFORD steamship which rescued the chief engineer and his colleague was owned by Thomas W Ward & Co.

Thomas William Ward began his business in 1878 as a small domestic fuel supplier which, with the help of brothers Joseph and Arthur, from 1881 added the valuable commodity of scrap metal vital to Sheffield's foundries and steelmakers. The industrial expanded into Works Dismantling in1885, Machinery building in 1887, and Shipbreaking in 1894. At the outbreak of World War I, over 1000 employees were helping to supply 1,000 tons of scrap metal per day to the country's steel makers.

The company had three scrapyards in Wales - Ward’s at Briton Ferry near to the South Wales steel industry, from 1906; Swansea from 1909; and the Newport yard near the steelmakers John Cashmore from 1909. After the war, two more yards in Wales were opened - Milford Haven from 1920 and at Pembroke Dock from 1926 - to handle the many naval vessels which were declared redundant by the Admiralty.

The ABBOTSFORD was carrying a cargo of scrap metal from Ward’s at Morecombe, Lancashire, (opened in 1905) to Swansea, when Captain Thomas stopped to rescue of STRATHNAIRN’s crew.

Follow these links to read more of the newspaper coverage of the sinking:

Herald Cymraeg, 20 July 1915

Herald of Wales, 19 June 1915

Cambrian Daily Leader, 18 June 1915

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