We continue our series of features about Manx involvement in the First World War with a look at a name that’s familiar to anyone who sails across the Irish Sea today.
Perhaps no other Manx vessel can have as great a claim to a place in history of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s Ben My Chree III.
She was launched in 1908 for the Liverpool to Douglas route and at the time was regarded as the fastest steamer in British coastal waters.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, many civilian vessels were taken up from trade by the Royal Navy. Of the 15 vessels operated by the Steam Packet, 11 were requisitioned or chartered by the Admiralty, including the Ben My Chree, which was sent to the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead for conversion to a sea plane carrier.
A hangar was built on her after deck, and equipped with Short seaplanes. She headed out to the Dardanelles in the eastern Mediterranean where British Empire and French forces were attempting to capture the Gallipoli peninsula from Germany’s ally Turkey.
In May 1915 one of the Ben’s Short seaplanes, piloted by Flight Commander C.H.K.Edmonds, flew over the Gallipoli peninsula and dropped a torpedo which sank a Turkish transport ship.
Edmonds reported that, as he looked backwards: ‘I observed the track of the torpedo, which struck the ship abreast the mainmast, the starboard side. The explosion sent a column of water and large fragments of the ship almost as high as the masthead … she appeared to have settled down a little by the stern when I ceased watching her.’
History had been made, and the writing was on the wall now for all the world’s navies. The age of the big gun, impervious super-dreadnought battleship had come to an end, and in the future the biggest threat to warships would come not from other ships, but from air attack.
After the Gallipoli operation HMS Ben My Chree operated in the Red Sea, before returning to the Mediterranean.
Among her officers at this time was a pilot named William Wedgwood Benn (whose son would later become a household name in politics).
He was aboard the ship when she was eventually sunk by gunfire from a Turkish shore battery, and remembered: ‘I was resting in my cabin on the upper deck at half-past two when I heard a tremendous explosion and saw a column of water rise not 15 yards from the ship. I was not surprised, for I imagined it was just the first of the usual two or three shots from an ordinary Taube [German aircraft], to which during the last few months we had been getting quite accustomed.
‘The first explosion, however, was followed quickly by two real smashers, neither of which, so far as I remember, hit the ship … it was clear that something more than a mere aeroplane attack was in progress, and our minds turned to the battery, the presence of which the French had suspected some months before.
‘I found the CO on the main deck quietly giving orders; he was in no doubt about the source of the attack. Just as I reached him, a shell, which must have been the third or fourth, set fire to the hangar.
‘Nothing now could prevent the ship from burning, and as further hits occurred, huge scarlet flames and masses of black smoke poured from the vessel. A few moments later the petrol store was hit and with it the fate of the ship was sealed. We were, of course, an actual “sitter” for the Turks.’
Fortunately all 250 crew were able to escape safely and there was no loss of life.
Among the Manx crew members on board at the time of the sinking was the ship’s Third Mate and quartermaster, Chief Petty Officer Alma Dougherty of Douglas, a member of the Royal Naval Reserve.
He received the Distinguished Service Medal and French Croix de Guerre for his bravery during this episode.
The ferry that currently sails the Irish Sea is the sixth Steam Packet vessel to bear the name of Ben My Chree.
A piece of porthole glass from the wreck of Ben My Chree III may be seen at the Manx Museum in the exhibition ‘This Terrible Ordeal’ (running throughout 2014).
The ship is also featured in the book of the same title published by Manx National Heritage.