Today (February 14) is the centenary of a terrifying incident involving a U-boat, a torpedoed ship, hostage-taking at gun point and being shipwrecked in an open boat in the Irish Sea.
Jack Ronan, whose father Willie was involved, said last week from his home in Castletown that it is important to remember these extraordinary events happened to ordinary people.
Jack, a retired Steam Packet captain, wrote the story which was published in the March 2001 edition of Sea Breezes magazine. Elements of that story are reproduced here, with Sea Breezes’ kind permission.
Willie Ronan was a seaman on a Liverpool coaster, the SS Margarita, which 100 years ago was on passage to Swansea with a cargo of wheat.
In the Irish Sea, 20 miles off Bardsea Island, a German U-boat UC-65 surfaced and put a shot across her bows and captured her.
The crew was forced to lower a boat so that armed U-boat crew could board and plunder her. They looted her food and other supplies.
Jack remembers his father telling him that the German crew, who were all very young men, ’behaved and plundered us like pirates’.
Willie was taken hostage with a gun to his head while the U-boat crew planted explosives in Margarita’s engine room.
Jack said: ’He recalled the commander being very agitated and screaming the whole time. Willie admitted to having been as scared then as at any time in his life.’
Willie and his crew mates were abandoned in the ship’s boat and as the U-boat dived, the boat’s painter (a rope attached to the bow) got tangled with the submarine and they started to get pulled under.
In the panic they somehow managed to cut themselves free, but then watched on as the Margarita was blown up and sank.
In weather described as ’sloppy and getting worse’, the men were adrift in an open boat and had no supplies for two days.
Morale was low but ’being a resilient and entertaining person’ Willie kept spirits up with singing.
This lasted until a Spanish trawler picked them up and they were landed at Milford Haven.
When Willie finally reached home in Port St Mary, he received his call up papers for the army, and told his son that that was the lowest part of the whole experience.
Jack said: ’He had no pretence about it, it was 100 per cent massacre at the front.’
To avoid joining up, Willie went straight back to Liverpool and found another ship.
One month after this incident, a sister ship, GA Savage, was sunk without trace with the loss of all hands in the same vicinity - it was assumed by a U-boat.
Losses included Willie Watterson, a cousin of Willie’s future wife from Cregneash. Willie went back to sea for the rest of the war and in 1923 married Mabel Crebbin of Cregneash. He then served with the Steam Packet until his death in 1976 at the age of 86.
’My father recounted this story many times and would say he didn’t know how he got through that war when so many of his friends were lost, either at sea, in France or elsewhere,’ said Jack.
’He suffered what is now known as survivor guilt and found solace in religion, so grateful was he for his own deliverance.’