|HMT Leasowe Castle|
|Captain F. A. Drake the Warwickshire's Ship's adjutant|
Training began at Victoria Camp on the 10th April for the Nottinghamshires and they were joined three days later by the Warwickshires. They were issued with a maxim machine gun to each company and an NCO instructor but the men were also drilled in Infantry, Gas and bayonet drill, all of which would be invaluable on the Western front during the current German offensive. NCOs and Officers were sent on special training courses at Zeitun. Training went exceptionally well and a live fire demonstration was carried out on the 16th May attended by senior brass.
With the Battalion up to establishment of 54 Officers and 984 other ranks and training complete the Battalion was ordered to Alexandria to be entrained on the 22nd May for its journey to France and on the 23rd May the Battalion joined the Berkshire and Buckinghamshire yeomanry Machine gun Battalion aboard HMT Leasowe Castle. Lt-Col Gray-Cheape took command of all of the soldiers aboard with Captain Drake of the Warwickshires as Ship’s adjutant.
The Leasowe Castle was a Union Castle Mail steamship that had only been completed in 1915 at the Cammell Laird and co. shipyards at Birkenhead. She was originally built for a Greek owner as the Vasiliss Sophia but was requisitioned by the British Government for troop transport duties. On the 20 April 1917 she was damaged whilst sailing ninty miles off Gibraltar by Kapitanleutnant Lothar von Arnauld dela Perière's U-35. Although the damage was substantial there were no casualties and she was able to limp to port for repairs. Fully repaired the Leasowe Castle had had a quiet career and her journey to Marseille to transport the new Machine gun battalion to the Western Front looked to be another easy run.
On the 26th May, at 3 p.m. the vessel joined a convoy of five other vessels in line astern as they passed down the swept channel to the open sea before forming up into a T formation with Leasowe Castle in the third spot. The force was escorted by Cruisers, destroyers, two sloops and trawlers and began making good time and travelling around one hundred miles in nine hours.
It was just after midnight when the convoy was sighted by Kapitänleutnant Kraft’s UB-51. The
convoy had taken every precaution with strict blackouts enforced but the moon was particularly bright and the sea so calm that the wash from the ship’s bows was clear to sea. The inevitable torpedo slammed into the Leasowe Castle amidships below the first funnel. Captain Sutton of the South Nottinghamshire Hussars felt the vessel judder through the darkness of sleep and he awoke. As he slowly became aware of his surroundings he asked one of his berth mates what was happening and was told; “if I didn’t get out pretty quickly I should pretty soon know what it was.” (2)
Sutton pulled on a pair of shoes and his life jacket and ran for the stair case to the upper deck.
Up on deck where most of the men had been sleeping action was taken quickly and efficiently with the soldier’s manning their action stations whilst officers calmly paraded the men and began to fill the lifeboats in an orderly fashion whilst others were organised to prepare rafts. Gray-Cheape and Captain Drale moved to the bridge to coordinate evacuation efforts with the Ship's Master, Captain Holt. The liner had taken a slight list and was going down gently by the head which allowed the evacuation to be carried out at a steady organised pace.
Fearing further attacks the convoy continued on its journey at full speed whilst the Japanese destroyer Katsura (often referred to as R) stood by to pick up survivors from the boats before sending the empty boats back to collect men from the water and rafts including the men from B coy (Warwickshire's) who had gone over the portside. The water was still warm and still and Captain Sutton remarked that:
The night was wonderfully warm and I never felt cold, even in wet pyjamas. However some kind Naval officer fitted me out in a naval tunic an a pair of trousers, and of course I was the butt of many jests. (3)
Another of the Nottinghamshire soldiers, Fred Marshal later spoke of climbing into a life boat with Sergeant Major Legg whose trousers were so waterlogged that he thought someone was trying to pull him back into the water!
HMS Lily arrived at Alexandria by 7 p.m. and the surviving soldiers were given clean dry uniforms and blankets as well as much welcomed food and supplies in the port. A letter of sympathy and a subscription of funds to help pay for personal losses was received from the Commanding Officer of the Yeomanry base at Kantara, Lieutenant Colonel Cheesewright as well as a message of condolences from Brigadier General Kelly. Immediate order also had to be restored with command naturally passing to the South Notts CO, Major Warwick but unfortunately his head injury by a spar meant that command passed to Major Mills who was promoted to Acting Lieutenant-Colonel with Lieutenant Mercer as adjutant and RQMS Pardoe as Battalion quartermaster replacing the lost Lieutenant Hunter. By the following day the Battalion was back in order and reported for duty. Following re-equipping and reinforcements the Battalion reported having 937 me by the 12th June and received orders to embark aboard another vessel on the 14th June and left aboard the Caledonia on the 17th June for a much quieter journey across the Mediterranean.
The sinking of the Leasowe Castle could have been an absolute disaster and demonstrated the vulnerability of vessels to Austro-Hungary based U-boats even at this late stage of the War as well as the ineffectual nature of the Otranto Barrage at keeping the U-boats in check, it was an argument for the Allied Naval Commanders and something that was still being mulled over when the Austro-Hungarian fleet put to sea to attack the trawlers yet again...
(2) www.scotlandswar.co.uk/pdf_Leasowe_Castle.pdf retrieved May 2018