by Bruce Barrymore Halpenny - Military Historian & Author.
Date: 01 August 2010
Why did the German U-boat U38, pick on the Mercian?
And why did it suddenly dive when it had the Mercian at its mercy?
That, I can now answer, but first, let us have the Mercian story.
In October 1915, the Mercian, a fruitship converted into a troopship to carry troops and horses, under the command of Captain C.J. Walker, set sail under a cloak of secrecy for Gibraltar as their first port of call.
On board the Mercian were 500 troopers of the Lincolnshire Yeomanry and a number of horses belonging to Regimental HQ.
At Gibraltar the security was broken by the port authorities. Ships calling at Gibraltar had to signal their names and cargoes before they were allowed into harbour.
Captain Walker had not been provided with a code, so he had to reply in English, thus, his signal could easily have been read by enemy agents. Also, as the Mercian was leaving Gibraltar on November 3rd, the ship encountered many small Spanish fishing-boats whose crews seemed more interested in the Mercian than on fishing.
It was a calm, sunny day as the Mercian steamed into the Mediterranean, giving the troopers, many at sea for the first-time, a chance to do their washing. Thus, the ships rails were hung with washing. It was a very carefree atmosphere, as troopers lounged in the warm sun, some polishing equipment... the thought of battle furthest from their minds.
But that was the calm before the storm. At 1430 hours on November 3, 1915, a shell whistled over the Mercian. Another quickly followed that fell short but, the third struck amidships.
Immediately after the first shell had whistled overhead the ship's siren had sounded and, the Mercian's decks sprang to life. The Lincolnshire Yeomanry was under fire for the first time, one of the few cavalry regiments to be blooded at sea.
Unseen and unsuspected, a prowling U-boat, U38, had spotted the ship and begun shelling her.
Was it a prowling U-boat? Or had it been waiting for the Mercian? That I will answer in a moment. Let us continue. On the Mercian's bridge, Captain Walker sighted the U-boat through his binoculars. It was on his port quarter and was calmly cruising along, keeping pace with the troopship and firing at 90-second intervals.
"Full speed. Commence zig zag," Captain Walker ordered. That was all he could do for the ship had no guns (remember, this was only a converted transport ship), so all they could do was steam and zig-zag.
The third shell that hit the Mercian wrought havoc... dead and wounded men lay everywhere. And over the scene of destruction hung thick black smoke.
At the sound of the ship's siren the troops made for their allotted boat positions, dolling life-jackets on the way. They carried out their duties in a very calm and orderly manner, even though the shells were now coming thick and fast. But, thanks to the skilful Captain, only about one in every five shots registered a hit of any kind.
The Mercian became a shambles... slowly being blasted to pieces.
"It is just not possible to describe the scenes of carnage," said one trooper. "Bits and pieces of men, horses and ship were everywhere. All of this covered in steam and thick black smoke."
In a scene of utter carnage, Captain Walker called for volunteers and, within minutes his boilers were being fired by Lincolnshire farm hands and, a fact, made public in the Ghost Stations™ Series for the first-time, the good ship Mercian was saved by Grimsby fishermen.
Many of the Lincolnshire Yeomanry were seamen, thus, they were able to put the ship to rights and raise steam. They wrapped the steam pipes up with bagging for the shells had burst many of the pipes. They got the ship underway and as they did so, the shelling ceased.
For some unknown reason, the German U-boat suddenly dived, leaving the Mercian to make its way to Oran in North Africa.
At Oran, they buried their dead (not at sea as was reported) and, supervised treatment for the wounded in the French Foreign Legion hospital in Oran.
One who was on the Mercian was Squadron Sergeant Major Percival (Percy to his many friends) Pepper of the Grantham Squadron. He was one of a number who did not report their wounds when the ship was shelled by the guns of U38. It was his sad duty to collect the personal effects of the 23 men who were killed.
After major repairs were carried out the Mercian set sail for Malta where, their orders were changed.
Instead of going to Salonica, they sailed for Alexandria in Egypt, for British Military Intelligence had uncovered Turkish plans to attack the Suez Canal, from Sinai, while the Senussi Arabs attacked Egypt from the Western Desert... The start of a 'holy war'.
So let me now answer the three opening questions. Who was the spy?
More than likely, it was an agent in Gibraltar. But, on the other hand, it could have been the Mercian itself. The mucking-out parties threw the stable cleanings over the side.
Any U-boat commander worth his salt would not have taken long to connect such flotsam with horses and, horses with cavalary and, in turn, cavalry with a troopship.
Why did the German U-boat, U38, attack the Mercian? As stated above, because it was a British troopship.
But, you might ask, why did it not torpedo it? The answer to that is simple. The German U-boat was out of torpedoes. It is a fact that U38 had been at sea for sometime for it was a long way from its base, the then Austrian port of Pula (then became Italian, then Yugoslavian after the second world war and lastly in 1991, after the fall of Yugoslavia, it became a part of the modern Republic of Croatia), on the Adriatic.
And why did U38 suddenly dive when it had the Mercian at its mercy?
A voice... Let me explain...
After the war was over, Captain Walker had to take a ship into Hamburg and he tied-up alongside a German merchant ship. He got talking to the German skipper and it happened to be the very captain of U38 that had shelled him in 1915 in the Mediterranean. When asked why he stopped shelling, he replied:
"I suddenly heard a voice saying to stop and you also will be saved."
How very true... for the German U-boat commander survived in return for the life of the good ship Mercian.