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Description

The VAN STIRUM was built by the North of Ireland Shipbuilding Company, Londonderry, in 1915, for the Dutch company of Wambersie & Zn of Rotterdam. It was not handed over to them by the year, instead it was requisitioned by the Admiralty. The steamship was carrying a general cargo from London to Rouen when it was torpedoed in the St George's Channel by the U-24. This u-boat, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Rudolk Scheider, had been responsible for the sinking the British battleship HMS FORMIDABLE on 1 January 1915 off Portland Bill. This loss was the very first underwater attack by a u-boat at night.

After trying to escape pursuit by the German submarine, the captain of the VAN STIRUM had no choice but to order his ship to stop and for his crew to abandon ship. The ship was torpedo has the lifeboats were being lowered and two crewmen were killed. Five shells were also fired at the ship, but it remained afloat.

Contemporary Welsh newspaper accounts tell the story from the perspective of the crew of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary trawler which tried to tow the sinking VAN STIRUM to port - '… one of the patrol vessels of the Auxiliary Fleet which had discovered the Van Stirum and lowered a boat with four hands, of whom Seaman Richard Davies, Borth, was one, to tow the ship into port. The undertaking was full of danger as enormous seas were breaking over and the vessel was lurching heavily… the four brave men pulled to the side and clambered aboard. No sooner had the last man got up than the boat was smashed to pieces against the ship's side and immediately sank. They found that the vessel had been torpedoed in the engine room. The stokeholds and engine rooms were full of water. On entering the saloon they saw the tables set for the Christmas dinner. The party successfully set the hawser from the port bow to the attendant trawler; but as the steering gear had been jammed she became uncontrollable. Meanwhile the gallant four remained at their post on board. The lieutenant in charge of the trawler made up his mind that he would save them. No sooner had the boat been hauled alongside than the VAN STIRUM suddenly rolled over and went down. The four men managed to slide down the ship's side in time, cut the boat adrift, and push clear.'

The two VAN STIRUM crewmembers lost are commemorated on the Merchant Mariners memorial at Tower Hill, London - W A Belanger, Boatswain, age 32, born in USA but resident in London, and J T Hetherington, Ordinary Seaman, age 17, of Chatham, Kent.

Note the name on Richard Davies' cap band - we think it reads HMS EVANGEL. If so, then the rescue trawler was itself sunk later in the war.

The EVANGEL was built by Smith's Dock Co Ltd, Middlesbrough, in 1914. It too was on Admiralty hire from the Consolidated Steam Fishing, & Ice Co, Grimsby, and had been taken into service as an armed patrol boat and minesweeper. In August 1915, the EVANGEL was featured in local newspapers in relation to a tragedy involving her skipper, George Ernest Ellis, of Cleethorpes who collapsed a died in HM Naval Patrol Office. He was 38 years of age. His body was placed in an oak coffin, a a division of RNVR skippers and men transferred his coffin draped in a union jack to the station, to be transferred home for burial.

The EVANGEL was under the command of H Andrews when it detonated a mine laid off the port of Milford Haven on 25 March 1917. The crew of 14 were lost in the incident.

Sources:
The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, 22 September 1916, pg5, http://newspapers.library.wales/view/3413447/3413452/33

The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, 17 November 1916, pg 6
http://newspapers.library.wales/view/3413519/3413525/59

Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph and General Weekly Reporter, 25 August 1915, pg2, http://newspapers.library.wales/view/4118577/4118579

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