The story of the HMS Laurentic

Information received from Don McNeill, Ireland
November 30, 2016

The S.S. Laurentic was launched on September 10th, 1908. It was built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast, the same shipyard that would launch the infamous Titanic, just a few years later. Like Titanic, she was also a White Star Line steamer, built to service the booming trans-Atlantic passenger trade.

Weighing some 15,000 tonnes, and with a length of 525 feet, Laurentic could carry 1660 passengers, and was capable of a top speed of 20 knots. Her maiden voyage began on April 29, 1909, and went from Liverpool to Montreal, a route that would become a regular one for the luxury steamer.

But her service as a passenger-liner would be short lived. Shortly after the First World War broke out in 1914, Laurentic, like so many other civilian ships, was drafted into war service. Because of her size and speed, she was requisitioned as a transport ship, ferrying soldiers and war materials around the globe. It was while carrying out these duties that Laurentic would meet her end.

In the dead of winter, on January 24th, 1917, Laurentic set sail from Liverpool bound for Halifax, in Canada. It was a normal trans-Atlantic run, one in which she carried 475 men, as well as some 3,211 ingots of gold. The gold, valued at the time at some five million pounds, would be used to buy much-needed munitions to help with the war in Europe.

As it steamed around the northern coast of Ireland, an order was given for Laurentic to put in at Lough Swilly, a sheltered inlet in County Donegal. Captain Reginald Norton eased the huge vessel to moorings off the town of Buncrana, where four sailors who had contracted spotted fever were taken from the ship. In the safe waters of the Swilly, Captain Norton permitted a brief shore leave for some of the crew.

Only a few years earlier, Lough Swilly had been home to the British Grand Fleet, and was still a thriving naval base serving ships headed for the Atlantic. This base made the waters outside of Lough Swilly a target for German U-Boats, the captains of which prowled in the waters along the coast, laying mines or hoping to make a victim of a passing ship.

In the gathering darkness of late afternoon on January 25th, the SS Laurentic nosed out of Lough Swilly, toward the open sea. She passed through the boom that stretched across the Lough, protecting the waters from the U-Boat threat. On her starboard side loomed the great guns of Dunree Fort. On her port side flashed the lighthouse on Fanad Head.

“It was dark and bitterly cold with a black rolling frost,” one sailor on Laurentic recalled. “The ship increased speed to sixteen knots. It was about 6pm, with flurries of snow. There was a sudden explosion, followed quickly by another.”

The SS Laurentic had struck two German mines. Within twenty minutes the great liner sank, barely enough time for lifeboats to be lowered into the frigid waters. For many, however, the lifeboats were of no help. Some 354 men died from wounds, drowning, or exposure in the dreadful weather conditions, which at the time of sinking was described as a full-blown snow storm.

Only 121 survivors made it safely to shore that night. In the days that followed, the largest known funeral in Buncrana’s history would grip the seaside community, while for months afterwards the bodies of Laurentic’s dead washed up on coastlines in  Donegal and beyond.