|Royal Navy Reserves
|Place of Birth:
|Long Walk / Claddagh
|Place of Death:
|Date of Death:
Death: 25 January 1917. Age 24.
Seaman 5040A HMS Laurentic Royal Navy Reserves
Supplementary Notes: Ship was struck by a mine and sank Off Lough Swilly on the northern coast of Donegal. Born: Long Walk or the Claddagh, Galway.
Remembered: Portsmouth Naval Memorial -Hampshire -United Kingdom (21)•
On the 23 January 1917, the 14,892-ton liner LAURENTIC, which had been converted into an Armed Auxiliary Cruiser, hit a mine off the coast of Northern Ireland. In her strong rooms were 43 tons of gold, in 3211 separate gold ingots, valued then at more than £5 million, being taken to the United States to pay for food, steel, and munitions which Britain needed to continue the war against Germany. The LAURENTIC sank so swiftly that 354 of 745 men aboard were lost and there was certainly no time to worry about the strong room.
As a direct result of that sinking, Commander Guybon Chesney Castell Damant C.B.E., a famous Navy diver, was told by the Admiralty he could have as many divers as he wanted and he could have them now. The recovery of the LAURENTIC gold was to be his top priority and he was ordered to start work immediately. He called in another well known Navy diver, Dusty Miller, and the rest of the so called ‘Tin Openers’, due to there work penetrating sunken U-boats, who were now set to work to prise gold ingots from the LAURENTIC. They were told to do it as quickly as possible as the British Government feared that aid from America would dry up if there was no gold to back up the buying power of the British pound.
On the 14th day of diving after blasting their way through to the strong room, Miller smashed open its steel door with a sledgehammer and chisel. On entering he found himself facing stacks of bullion boxes each weighting 140 pounds. Even though he was over his bottom time, Dusty manhandled one of the boxes back to the deck and the next day on his 60-minute ‘shift’ he got out another three. He had almost single-handedly recovered £32,000 worth of gold!
However, Dusty Miller was to pay a price for all that gold. Cautious diving had been suspended for the duration and even more so for the LAURENTIC gold recovery. Shortly after his first haul of gold he had suffered a bad attack of the ‘bends’ with acute pain in his joints. Most of the official comments seemed to be surprised that Dusty had been a bends victim as he had been considered relatively immune since his early diving training. The attack was, they thought, brought on by the heavy boxes of gold. He seems to have received some recompression treatment in a chamber on board.
Even so, the series of northerly gales, which then stopped all diving, must have been a god-sent rest for Dusty. After a solid week of huge winds and seas, Dusty and the other divers returned to the wreck, and Commander Damant went down himself. He found that the storm had turned, twisted and folded the wreck almost in half. The passage way that Dusty had used to bring up the gold boxes was now only 18 inches high and the depth of the entry point has increased from 62 feet to 103.
After a week’s more work by divers with explosives, Dusty re-entered the strong room. It was empty! All the gold ingots had slipped through holes torn in the walls and floor and had tumbled down into the tangled and twisted wreckage of the bilges. More explosives were used to cut a hole down to the gold’s new resting place. Dusty then had another attack of the bends. He had worked hard for 90 minutes at 115 feet and, according to Navy dive tables, should have been decompressed for 87 minutes. He was actually given 40 minutes. Perhaps he really was more tolerant of the bends than others, because he continued diving.
By September the divers had recovered over £800,000. In April 1917 America entered the war. Immediately, the urgency of recovering the gold eased. The Admiralty ordered work on the LAURENTIC to be halted for the duration. It was not until 1919 that the divers once again returned to claim the Treasury’s gold. Finally after cutting up almost the whole ship with explosives, there were only 25 bars still missing. Each diver got a bonus of two shillings and sixpence for every £100 raised.
Another salvage operations in 1930 recovered three more bars of gold. In July 1987 yet another operation, using bell divers, failed to find any of the other 22 bars, which are now said to be worth some £2million.
The Secretary of the Admiralty makes the following announcement:- HM auxiliary cruiser LAURENTIC, Captain R A Norton, RN, was sunk off the Irish coast by a German submarine or mine late on January 25. Twelve officers and 109 men have been saved. [Aberdeen Journal 29.1.1917]
London, 29 January 1917: The British auxiliary cruiser LAURENTIC, of 14,892 tons gross, has been sunk by a submarine or as a result of striking a mine, according to an official statement issued by the British admiralty. Twelve officers and 109 men were saved. The admiralty statement adds that the vessel went down off the Irish coast last Thursday. The commander of the LAURENTIC, Cap[t Reginald Norton, is among the survivors. he as appointed about six months ago to the command of this steamer, which was commissioned for war service in November, 1914. In the first two years of the war the LAURENTIC was engaged in doing patrol duty on the far east, but several month ago returned to European waters. Ehile in the Pacific the auxiliary cruiser held up and boarded the American steamship CHINA February 19, 1916. while that liner was on a voyage from Shanghai to San Francisco, and seized thirty-eight Austrian and German subjects. The Washington government requested Great Britain to order the release of the men seized, stating that their arrest was unjustifiable and unnecessary. the United States took the ground that the case was an exact parallel of the famous TRENT affair. Being met with a declination by the British government, the State Department sent a second note, whereupon the British foreign office announced the decision to release the Teutons. [Evening Star, Washington, 29.1.1917]
LAURENTIC (1917) was sunk by a mine laid by U-80. [Helmut Sander]
London, 31 January 1917: There was ample time to save all on board the British auxiliary cruiser LAURENTIC which was sunk by a mine off the north coast of Ireland last Thursday, says an official statement issued today, contradicting reports to the contrary. The fatalities were due to severe weather, preventing the men in the boats reaching the shore, it adds. “A statement appeared in some of the morning papers,” says the official statement, “to the effect that there was not sufficient time to save all who had escaped being killed by the explosion and that the ship LAURENTIC went down, carrying with her more than 200 men. “This wholly incorrect. There was ample time to save everybody and the ship was very carefully searched above and below and all hands were put into boats. Those who were lost were lost owing to the cold and the severity of the weather preventing them from reaching shore.” Capt R A Norton, who was in command of the LAURENTIC, told the story of the loss of the ship at the coroner’s inquest today over the bodies of seventy-four members of the crew, held at an unnamed city. he said: “The vessel left port at 5 o’clock on the afternoon of January 25, carrying a complement of 470. At 5.55 I was on the bridge, when a violent explosion occurred abreast the foremast on the port side, followed twenty seconds later by a similar explosion abreast the engine room on the port side. Nothing was seen in the water prior to the explosion. The ship was steaming at full speed ahead. No lights were showing. “I ordered full speed astern, fired a rocket, gave the order to turn out the boats and tried to send a wireless call for help, but found that the second explosion had stopped the dynamo.” The coroner asked how many survivors there were. “One hundred and twenty,” Capt Norton replied. “To the best of my knowledge all the men got safely into the boats. The best of order prevailed after the explosion. The officers and men lived up to the best traditions of the navy.” [Evening Star, Washington, 31.1.1917]
Captain Norton, of the LAURENTIC, told the story of the disaster to his vessel at an inquest on 76 bodies. The ship, he said, arrived in a harbour on Thursday morning, and left the same evening at 5 pm. An hour later, when going full speed without lights, she was struck twice on the port side at an interval of twenty seconds. The explosion wrecked the engine-room, extinguished the lights, and the MARCONI apparatus could not be worked. His discharged rockets. Finding the ship sinking, he ordered the crew into the boats. When the ship was very low he personally went through her with an officer carrying a torch, and satisfied himself that nobody was left. All the boats got safely away. The ship sank in three-quarters of an hour. The boats had flares, and the rescuing boats arrived in five hours. The night was bitterly cold, and very dark. Some boats had exhausted their flares before the rescuing boats arrived. The lifeboats were given a course for land, but owing to half a gale could not make progress. he ordered his boat to anchor, and was seven hours afloat before being picked up. All in his boat were alive, but in the other boats men died from exposure. The last boat picked up was 23 hours out. All the others in it were dead. He paid a tribute to the disciple of the crew. There was no panic. All acted in the traditions of the Navy. He also spoke of the kindness rendered ashore. After the medical evidence, the jury found that the deaths occurred on the high seas from exposure, and expressed regret at the disaster and sympathy with the relatives of the deceased. [Aberdeen Journal 1.2.1917]
The Admiralty announces:- A statement appeared in some of yesterday morning’s papers to the effect that there was not sufficient time to save all those who had escaped being killed by the explosion, and that the ship LAURENTIC went down carrying with her over 200 men. This is wholly incorrect. There was ample time to save everybody, and the ship was very carefully searched above and below, and all hands were put into the boats. Those who were lost were lost owing to the cold and severity of the weather preventing them from reaching the shore. [Aberdeen Journal 1.2.1917, ex Press Association]
A correspondent who was a member of the crew of the LAURENTIC, writes to describe the captain’s last act before leaving the ship. After he had personally superintended the launching of the three last starboard boats, which was done with great difficulty, owing to the list of the ship and their consequent hanging inboard, he procured a light and went down to the fo’c’sle and released two men from the cells. As the keys had been lost, you can imagine the awful predicament of those men. The captain found the carpenter, and sent him for axes, and split open the two doors. The men’s distress was very painful; but they pulled like “Trojans” in the boat. The mental effort to leave the comparative safety of the high boat deck and thread a way down to the fo’c’sle in the dark, not knowing when the ship might heel over, speaks volumes for the captain’s self-possession and nerve. [Liverpool Echo, 6.2.1917]
Portsallon, Ireland, 26 September 1919: Salvaging $35,000,000 worth of gold ingots and bullion the White Star liner LAURENTIC is reported to have carried when she was sunk the night of January 25, 1917, off Fanad Light, one of the northernmost headlands of Ireland at the entrance to Lough Swilly, is being conducted by the salvage ship RACER.
London, 18 March 1922: Another attempt is being made to recover the remainder of the bullion sunk off the coast of Ireland with the Cunard liner LAURENTIC during the war. The salvage ship RACER is now engaged in the work. [New York Herald 19.3.1922]