The murderers who mocked drowning women

Falabra survivors

Falabra survivors - Credit: Archant

“RUTHLESS murder on the high seas”. “The murderers who mocked drowning women”. “They laughed their sides out at these poor creatures – Falaba’s passengers struggle for life in the water”. “Terrible scenes follow the destruction of the Falaba”. “If this is not piracy and murder, I don’t know what is!”

A BIT OF A SWELL...the drifter Eileen Emma in her normal fishing role.Picture: MALCOLM WHITE COLLECT

A BIT OF A SWELL...the drifter Eileen Emma in her normal fishing role.Picture: MALCOLM WHITE COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

Those hard-hitting national newspaper headlines were penned almost 100 years ago and were thoroughly justified as they encapsulated one of the first atrocities of the First World War.

VICTIM: the liner Falaba.

VICTIM: the liner Falaba. - Credit: Archant

Because that conflict broke out a century ago this year, undoubtedly there will be exhaustive attention as the nation looks back on the bloody events of 1914-18 with tales of Flanders mud, gas and wanton carnage. Nobody alive today has first-hand knowledge of the so-called “war to end all wars,” but stories of its horrors have been passed down within families torn apart by them.

Submarine and Falabra

Submarine and Falabra - Credit: Archant

The callous sinking of the unarmed Royal Mail Ship Falaba, a 4800-ton liner, in March 1915 by a German submarine off British shores infuriated the nation with its cold-blooded disregard for innocent, helpless civilians.

A prime figure in that 1915 drama was a Gorleston skipper who courageously steered his fishing boat into the danger zone to rescue scores of stricken survivors and, by so doing, kept the death toll down and restored some humanity to a grim situation.

He was George Wright, of the Lowestoft trawler Eileen Emma (LT342) fishing from the Welsh port of Milford Haven.

The passing of almost a century since that dastardly slaughter in St George’s Channel between Wales and southern Ireland has not diminished the family’s pride in the skipper whose grandson, Richard Wright, has informed me of that long-ago drama.

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Richard, a 67-year-old widower with two children, is a retired gardener living in Somerville Avenue, Gorleston. He has photocopies of contemporary national newspaper coverage of the 1915 incident.

He says at first his heroic grandfather, who died in retirement in 1957 while resident in Church Lane, did not immediately tell the family of his role in the Falaba saga, but it was difficult to keep it secret for long when it was worldwide news...

Skipper Wright was in the Eileen Emma’s wheelhouse when he spotted a submarine conning tower jutting above the sea.

Although unaware whether the submarine was friend or foe, he ordered “Full speed ahead” and tried to cut it off as a precaution.

When a steamer appeared on the horizon, the submarine fully surfaced and made for it, outpacing the trawler whose skipper realised it was a German raider bent on attack. The quarry was the defenceless Falaba, with a crew of 95 men and 147 passengers including seven women, bound from Liverpool to West Africa.

The U-boat signalled her to stop and abandon ship. When the liner’s master ignored the demand, the raider signalled “Stop or I fire”. Knowing escape was impossible, the Falaba stopped engines.

“Abandon ship immediately”, ordered U28, warning that it intended to sink the Falaba in five minutes. And five minutes later, at a distance of only 100 yards, the German captain fired a torpedo into the helpless Falaba. The Eileen Emma was only 300 yards away when the torpedo struck. Within eight minutes, as passengers desperately tried to launch lifeboats or escape by leaping into the sea, the Falaba sank.

Ignoring any threat the German U-boat might have posed for the unarmed Eileen Emma,

George Wright went to the rescue of the souls struggling in the wintry sea that March day, and he and his crew succeeded in saving scores, some hauled from the water and others who had managed to clamber into the few lifeboats that had been launched.

Skipper Wright, then living in Fredrick Road, told the subsequent inquest into the Falaba deaths that the submarine made no attempt to rescue any of the survivors.

Stanley Earl, researcher at the Lowestoft Maritime Museum, reports: “The Eileen Emma (LT342) saved 116 souls from the SS Falaba torpedoed in the St George’s Channel. She picked about 40 from the water (of whom six died) and she then got alongside the liner to save the rest. She then transferred some survivors to a destroyer and the others were landed at Milford Haven.”

He says the Eileen Emma, wood-built at the John Chambers Lowestoft shipyard, was requistioned by the Admiralty from 1915-1919 (presumably after her Falaba involvement). And Malcolm White, an author specialising in Lowestoft’s port and fishing industry, adds that the Eileen Emma left Britain for Norway in 1946.

The sinking of the civilian ship, even though she did belong to Germany’s enemy, enraged and horrified Britain.

At an official inquiry, chairman Lord Mersey held that whether or not the submarine was within her rights as an enemy craft in sinking the Falaba, “in any event she was bound to afford the men and women on board a reasonable opportunity of getting to the boats and of saving their lives.

“This those in charge of the submarine did not do.

“And so grossly insufficient was the opportunity in fact afforded that I am driven to the conclusion that the captain of the submarine desired and designed not merely to sink the ship but, in doing so, also to sacrifice the lives of the passengers and crew.”

Survivor Cpl Turnbull, a soldier, told a newspaper: “The barbarity of the crew of the submarine was frightful. They waited to see the last of the Falaba before they dived but, of course, they made no attempt to save any of us.

“That was not the worst part. The most maddening thing was to see the crew of the submarine after they had torpedoed us.

The Falaba listed over, and the passengers and crew were clinging like flies trying to get a grip of the deck, and dropping one by one into the water, while the crew of the submarine laughed and jeered at them.”

Lord Mersey found: “In my opinion, all on board (the Falaba)...did their very best.

“People were fighting for their lives and for the lives of others about them, and in the struggle the captain, half the crew and a large number of the passengers were drowned (the ascertained loss of life was 104).

“The responsibility for the consequences of this catastrophe must rest exclusively with the officers and crew of the German submarine.”

Remarkably, the high-seas drama was photographed by an Army officer who was a passenger on the Falaba. His loaded camera was in his pocket when the order to abandon ship came.

He continued clicking while helping to lower lifeboats, give his lifebelt to another passenger and do his best to soothe women and cheer up men.

Finally, he thrust his camera back into his pocket and jumped overboard, spending an hour in the water clinging to a plank before being washed semi-conscious against the Eileen Emma and pulled to safety by the fishermen.

On board, he felt in his mackintosh pocket and discovered his camera, the exposed film still dry and apparently unharmed.

He sold the pictures to the Daily Mirror for £200 (£17,000 today) and told his story.

“Nobody imagined that the little group of Germans standing on the submarine could be so fiendishly cruel as to let them drown,” he said. “Some people were even making jokes.

“How the Huns laughed and talked while the sea all around them was full of drowning people!

“I have never seen anything so horrible in all my life.”

The Elder Dempster line, the Falaba owner, gave £125 (the equivalent of £11,000 in 2014), and a passenger of German birth but naturalised Australian added £100, to be divided among the crew in appreciation of their service.

Grandson Richard Wright says a wealthy businessman gave George Wright a box of cigars and a walking stick, but his offer of a free holiday at his mansion was declined by the skipper and his wife.

Another gift memento was an inscribed silver rosebowl which George Wright’s son Raymond and daughter Mrs Evelyn Williams presented to the Lowestoft Maritime Museum eight years ago.