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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Sinking of HMS Louvain

On 20th January 1918, the British requisitioned passenger ship HMS Louvain was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in the Kea Channel, in the Aegean Sea, with heavy loss of life. A total of 224 men went down with her, including more than 70 Maltese naval ratings, making this incident the heaviest loss sustained by Malta during World War I.

HMS Louvain after she had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy and turned into an armed boarding steamer.

HMS Louvain had started her life as the SS Dresden, a British passenger ship built in 1897 by Earle’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd., in Kingston upon Hull. Owned by the Great Eastern Railway Company, the SS Dresden operated on the North Sea route between Harwich and Antwerp, Belgium. It was during this time that the German inventor and mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel mysteriously disappeared whilst travelling as a passenger on board.

SS Dresden in pre-war years.

Rudolf Diesel was the man who invented both the Diesel engine and Diesel fuel. On the evening of 29th September 1913, he boarded the SS Dresden in Antwerp, on his way to a meeting of the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing company in London. After dinner, he retired to his cabin at about 10 pm, leaving instructions to be woken up at 6.15 am. Yet, the following morning, his cabin was discovered to be empty. His bed had clearly not been slept in and his nightshirt was neatly laid out. A search of the ship also led to the discovery of his hat and neatly folded overcoat beneath the afterdeck railing.

Ten days after he was last seen, the crew of the Dutch pilot boat Coertsen came upon the bloated corpse of a man floating in the Eastern Scheldt. The body was in such an advanced state of decomposition that it was unrecognisable, and due to the heavy weather, the crew decided to throw the dead man back into the sea after having retrieved personal items from his clothing. On 13th October, these items were identified by Rudolf's son, Eugen, as belonging to his father.

Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel, inventor of the Diesel engine and Diesel fuel.

Various rumours were floated around as to what had happened. The most popular theory was that Diesel had committed suicide. Shortly after his disappearance, his wife Martha opened a bag her husband had given her just before his ill-fated voyage, with directions that it should not be opened until the following week. In it, she discovered 20,000 German marks in cash, as well as financial statements indicating that their bank accounts were virtually empty. In a diary that Diesel brought with him on the ship, 29th September 1913 was marked with a cross, possibly indicating the date when he had been planning to end his life.

Another rumour was that he might have been murdered, possibly due to his refusal to grant the German armed forces the exclusive rights to use his invention. Indeed, one of the reasons why Diesel was heading to the UK was to meet with representatives of the Royal Navy to discuss the possibility of British submarines being powered by diesel engines. Yet, despite the numerous conspiracy theories, the circumstances behind his death have remained a mystery to this day.

In 1915, the Admiralty took over the SS Dresden to be used as an armed boarding steamer, renaming her HMS Louvain. Indeed, following the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914, all ships with German names were given a new name, generally that of a 'brave' town that had suffered in the firing line. Louvain, also known as Leuven, was a Belgian city that had been heavily damaged by the advancing German army at the start of the war, part of the events collectively known as the Rape of Belgium.

The Belgian city of Leuven in ruins in 1915.

From 19th to 22nd August 1914, the German 1st Army made its headquarters in Leuven, with some 15,000 German troops occupying the city. Over the course of several days of pillaging and brutality, 248 people were killed and approximately 1,500 others, including women and children, were deported to Germany. Some 1,100 buildings were destroyed - approximately one-sixth of the city's structures - including the world-famous Library of the Catholic University of Leuven, which contained many Gothic and Renaissance manuscripts. Approximately 230,000 books, 950 manuscripts, and 800 incunabula were lost when German troops set the place on fire, an event that shocked the world.

For the duration of the war, HMS Louvain was mainly used to ferry men and mail around different ports in the Mediterranean. At 3 pm on 18th January 1918, she left Malta on a regular run to Mudros, on the Greek island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean Sea. Louvain was carrying mail, officers and ratings on their way to be assigned to other Royal Navy warships serving in the Aegean. Escorted as far as the Corinth Canal, Louvain passed through independently, before being met at the other end by the River-class destroyer HMS Colne, which was to escort her to her destination.

The location (in red) where HMS Louvain was sunk, in the Kea Channel, Aegean Sea.

At about 9 pm on 20th January, Louvain was sighted by the German U-boat SM UC-22 in the Kea Channel. Commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Carl Bünte, UC-22 was a Type UC II minelaying submarine serving in the Pola/Mittelmeer II Flotilla, a formation of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) that had been set up to implement the U-boat campaign against Allied shipping in the Mediterranean in support of Germany's ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Throughout the war, out of the 14 million tons of Allied shipping sunk by U-boats, 3.6 million were lost in the Mediterranean.

Upon sighting Louvain, Bünte decided to lay mines in front of her, while at the same time positioning his submarine for a torpedo attack. A total of ten mines were laid, after which a single torpedo was fired in the direction of Louvain from a range of 600 metres. The steamer was hit on her port quarter and started to sink rapidly by the stern, while Colne increased speed to 21 knots and turned in the direction that the torpedo had come from. Two depth charges were dropped, after which the destroyer swung around and headed back in the direction of Louvain, which had already disappeared beneath the water.

The River-class destroyer HMS Colne.

The order to abandon ship had been given shortly after the torpedo had struck home, and an attempt had been made to lower the lifeboats, but the ship had sunk so quickly that most of the boats had gone down with her before they could be released from their davits. When an undamaged UC-22 went up to periscope depth about an hour later, Bünte was able to observe Colne performing rescue operations. Indeed, the destroyer remained in the area for two-and-a-half hours, picking up and searching for survivors. No other attacks were reported. Although 240 men were rescued by Colne, and another 36 were able to reach the shore in lifeboats, 224 of those who had been on board perished.

Three months after the sinking, a court martial was held in Portsmouth, where it was established that a single torpedo fired from an enemy submarine had caused the sinking of Louvain. HMS Colne had taken all possible precautions against submarine attack and also did everything possible during the subsequent rescue attempts. The problems with releasing the lifeboats were attributed to insufficient boat drill or an incomplete understanding of it by the ship’s crew. At the same time, criticism was also levelled at the faulty organisation of placing all the officers together instead of distributing them evenly among all the boats, which would have had a steadying influence. Finally, the court also noted that HMS Louvain had not been zigzagging as she ought to have been doing, but was unable to apportion blame as neither her captain nor the officer of the watch had survived.

A cutting from The Times of 4th February 1918, reporting the tragedy.

A total of 73 Maltese died as a result of the sinking of HMS Louvain. 24 of these were crew members, while the other 49 had been among the passengers. Malta had not suffered such a heavy loss since the Battle of Jutland in 1916, when several Maltese serving in the British Grand Fleet had been killed. A Naval and Dockyard Families Help Society was set up for the purpose of meeting “the distress occasioned by heavy casualty lists among Maltese ratings afloat”, while mass for the repose of the souls of those who had perished was said at the Church of the Jesuits in Valletta.

When the Floriana War Memorial was officially unveiled on 11th November 1938, twenty years after the signing of the Armistice which ended World War I, it had tablets on three sides with the names of all 592 Maltese who had died during the so-called Great War, including the 73 men who had gone down with HMS Louvain. Yet, when the monument was rededicated to those killed in both world wars in 1949, these names were replaced by four tablets reproducing Malta's armorial bearings, a document issued by King George V in 1918 acknowledging Malta's role in World War I, King George VI's letter awarding the George Cross to Malta in 1942, and a 1943 scroll by President Franklin D. Roosevelt saluting Malta for its role in World War II.

The Plymouth Naval Memorial in Plymouth, Devon, England.

Today, the names of the victims of HMS Louvain are recorded on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, in the UK, which commemorates the British and Commonwealth sailors who were lost in World War I and World War II and who have no known grave.

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