At the outbreak of the First World War, 11 of the 15 ships of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company were requisitioned or chartered by the Admiralty for use in war service.
Some of the vessels were employed as troop ships but others were armed and used as auxiliary cruisers.
Throughout the war the Royal Navy maintained a blockade of Germany, and needed additional patrol vessels to enforce the embargo on supplies reaching German ports. The Royal Navy had closed the English Channel and one Steam Packet vessel, the Peel Castle, became known as the ‘Terror of the Downs’ for her work in intercepting contraband in these waters.
The other main route to Germany was via the Pentland Firth and through the North Sea, where patrols routinely inspected neutral shipping.
One ship which undertook this monotonous patrol work was HMS Ramsey, the former Steam Packet vessel. Before the war, many of her crew had enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve for the additional pay and gratuities which this offered. With the outbreak of hostilities these men were called up into the navy, so perhaps as many of half the crew of the Ramsey were Manx, or had been aboard her in pre-war days; certainly most of the engine room staff had remained on the ship when she entered the Royal Navy.
For this reason it was a heavy blow which struck the island on August 8, 1915, when HMS Ramsey met her fate. On this date she intercepted a steamer flying the Russian flag, and signalled for her to stop.
As the two vessels closed, the stranger hauled down the Russian flag and hoisted the German ensign.
It was the raider Meteor in disguise. Almost as soon as she had revealed her true colours, she opened fire on the Ramsey with devastating effect.
Engineer Lieutenant Fayle, of Douglas, remembered afterwards: ‘The raider opened fire with machine-guns, and two 4.6 guns, which were on disappearing mounts, forward and aft.
‘With these, she gave us the benefit of a broadside, sweeping our decks with bullets and shells, killing the Commander, Lieut. Raby RNR, and the officers who were with him on the bridge. At the same time she released a torpedo, which struck the Ramsey aft, just where the crew’s quarters were situated.’
The survivors were rescued by the enemy vessel, and another crewman, Marshall Cleator, wrote to his mother later to say: ‘We had a terrible time of it in the North Sea. Those saved were taken to a German ship.
‘We were taken prisoners. They treated us fairly, giving us dry clothes; but they did not give us a dog’s chance to get out of the boat before they struck us.
‘As soon as she was hit by the torpedo we had to jump into the water. She sank in five minutes. I don’t know anything about Will, George Perry, or Tommy Crosbie, or any of the other Manx chaps.
‘It was every man for himself … men were getting killed on the deck from the quick firing of the Maxim guns. They had all their guns covered up until we were close to them … when the Germans came in their boats to pick us up out of the water we thought they had come to shoot us in the water with their revolvers.’
The Manxmen were only prisoners for a short time however, as they were soon released by another Royal Navy vessel.
With more than 20 Manx crewmen lost in this incident, the news was a bitter blow to the island.
The story of the loss of HMS Ramsey is covered in the book ‘This Terrible Ordeal’, published by Manx National Heritage, which supports the exhibition of the same name.
The Widow, by Miss A.I.Caine
The reaction of many bereaved relatives was captured in this poem.
I hadn’ the heart for to tell her,
So I tuk her the paper instead-
When she seen his ship’s name in the headline,
‘My man’ll be drownded,’ she said
‘My gough, but the swimmy me head’s gone,
Could I ax ya to read it for me?
Jus’ wait till I purron the kettle,
The childer is wantin’ their tea.
‘An’ hundhreds of sailors aboord her,
An’ jus’ these ones saved? Mercy me!
An’ think of the lil childher prayin’
“Ternal Father” and “Glory to Thee”.
‘An’ couldn’ the Lord stop all this fightin’,
Or not lerrit start? – O me head!
Aw, Jim, how I wish I was with ya!
The good it’d be to be dead!’
The paper slipped urrov me fingers,
I gorrup and went out by the gate-
An’ I seen the whole skutch of the childher,
An’ wondhered who’d get them their mate.
This feature was brought to you in association with Domicilium.