Poster advertising the Anchor Lines’ Tuscania. Carrying troops to Europe, she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-77 and sank off the coast of Ireland on 5 February 1918.
On 5 February 1918, Anchor Lines’ Tuscania, converted into a troopship, was torpedoed by the German submarine U=77 off the coast of Ireland. Tuscania was traveling as part of a British convoy and carrying more than 2,000 American troops, and fell victim to the German submarine.
For the first three years of the war, the British Admiralty had resisted calls for a convoy system to protect merchant ships coming to Britain from the United States, Canada and other countries, on the grounds that such a system would divert ships and sailors from the defense of Britain’s own coastline or confrontation of the German enemy at sea. A stream of successful attacks by German submarines, however, finally forced the British to set up a system under which all merchant ships sailing across the Atlantic would travel in groups and would be given heavy protection by the British navy. A typical convoy could consist of 10 to 50 merchant ships, possibly including a troopship, escorted by a cruiser, six destroyers, 11 armed trawlers and two torpedo boats, each equipped with an aerial balloon from which submarines and torpedo tracks could be observed from above.
The convoy system, introduced on 24 May 1917, became especially important after the U.S. entry into the war in April 1917, when large numbers of American soldiers headed across the Atlantic. Convoy gathering points were soon established along the North American coastline. Tuscania, captained by Peter McLean, embarked on its final journey from Hoboken, New Jersey, on 23 January 23, carrying 2,397 American servicemen bound for the front in Europe toward Le Havre, France, as part of the British convoy HX-20.
Tuscania fell victim to U-77 off the Irish coast on 5 February 1918.
The German submarine U-77, with its crew of 34 men under the command of Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Meyer, spotted Tuscania and its convoy on the evening of 5 February, just eight miles off the Irish coast. After moving into position, Meyer fired two torpedoes at Tuscania. The first torpedo missed, but the second torpedo scored a direct hit on the starboard side, causing a terrific explosion. The 14,384-ton steamer immediately took a great list and crewmembers were plunged into darkness as they began lowering lifeboats into the sea. Of the 2,397 American servicemen aboard Tuscania, the convoy was able to rescue 2,187, along with the majority of the ship’s British crew. A total of 210 lives were lost.
Tuscania – note the lifeboat davits with two boats per davit forward of the bridge and aft at the fantail. The inadequate provisions for lifeboats on Titanic moved ship owners to provide more lifeboats.
On the whole, the British convoy system was highly successful. In the last two years of the Great War, it drastically reduced the number of ships, men and supplies lost to the Germans at sea. Above all, it played a crucial role in protecting U.S. troops crossing the Atlantic to aid the Allies: of the 1.1 million American troops transported in convoy to Europe between May 1917 and November 1918, only 637 were drowned as a result of U-boat attacks. The Allies had to re-learn the lesson of the convoys in World War II after the horrific loss of lives and ships to Nazi U-boats. The Germans had picked up where they left off in picking off Allied shipping with the outbreak of World War II, but the Allies did not begin the convoy system again until late 1942.
Tuscania was built in 1914 in the shipyards of Alexander Stephen and Sons in Glasgow, Scotland. She was 549 feet long and had a beam of 66 feet. Part of the Anchor Lines fleet, she was built for the same main purpose as White Star Lines’ Titanic and Olympic: to ferry immigrants to the United States. (White Star successfully conveyed the image that their ships were for the luxury trade when, in fact, their real purpose was to move immigrants seeking a new life in the United States.) Tuscania’s maiden voyage began on 6 February 1915 from Glasgow and Liverpool to New York in a sailing where she also carried passengers for the Cunard line.
The beginnings of Anchor Line, Ltd. date to 1838 when brothers Nicol and Robert Handyside established themselves in Glasgow, Scotland as shipbrokers and merchants. They used chartered tonnage to trade with the Baltic states and Russia. The business operated under the name N & R Handyside & Co. In 1852 the name Anchor Line was used by them for the first time, but only as a by-line in an advertisement.
In later years, the company built its own ships, though that practice had ended when Tuscania was built.
Anchor not only cooperated with Cunard in booking passengers, but also became a subsidiary of Cunard for a time. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Anchor opened routes to India. The India trade became as important to Anchor as did its sailings to the U.S. and Canada. Rather than trying to compete directly with Cunard (regardless of its other affiliations with Cunard) from Southampton and Liverpool, Anchor specialized in moving passenger from Scotland and Ireland. Anchor also fed immigrants from Norway and Sweden to its North American routes.
In 1914 the company owned 13 ships, 7 of which were destroyed in the war. At the outbreak of World War II, Anchor Line had nine ships and one on the stocks. Altogether six of these ten ships were lost.