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World War I at sea: An Australian witness to the Moldavia’s sinking

Now closing in on the British Isles in the early morning of Saturday 20 May, five British destroyers joined the convoy as it approached south west of the English Channel. HP recorded that there was “order now that all men sleep fully dressed… and with lifebelts on”, on alert to the ever-present threat of German U-boats.

With little more than a day from their destination, the coast of Ireland came into view. Sapper Robertson wrote to his New Zealand sister:

“…as we were gazing out towards Old Ireland, Fritz [the Germans] suddenly hopped up out of the depths and let fly a torpedo which just missed our old tub by 20 feet. Fritz thought he had struck us and cleared (off), but a hydroplane (seaplane) off the coast got its eyes on him. As he came up again to watch us sink, the ‘plane dropped a depth charge on him. That was the last seen of Fritz and his tin fish.”

However, HP’s worst fears were yet to be realised as the Persic and the convoy came into the English Channel. Within a day of reaching London, “(British) torpedoes boats were around us like flies.” Then, disaster struck the convoy in the shape of German U-boat 57, a submarine that ultimately would claim 47 ships sunk and 10 damaged before it would be sunk.

At 2.40am on Thursday 23 May 1918, HP was awakened by the alarm call of the bugle:

“Men were tumbling out all round …found my boots and lifebelt and made my way on deck. Dull booms of guns and the blasts of whistles met me and made it evident that we were on a dinkum alarm; all men were quickly at their stations, some dressed and some not… but all in lifebelts! It was bitterly cold and in the grey dawn I looked at my watch… it was 2.45am. The Moldavia had been seen and signalled to us that a submarine was lurking about. Then, a huge shape appeared on our starboard side.”

And at that moment under a very dark, overcast night sky, the Moldavia, carrying cargo and 480 of the US Army 58th Infantry Regiment, “was almost immediately struck. It was whispered that it was the Moldavia and she was sinking from a torpedo shot!

RMS Moldavia. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
RMS Moldavia. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sapper Robertson recalls: “The Moldavia was ahead of us, a distance of about 50 yards. It was 3.30 o’clock in the morning and I was on submarine guard. The early morning is a great time for Fritz to come up to his tricks. I was standing right on the nose of our boat looking at the Moldavia, and at the time was saying to myself that we were through OK, when suddenly there was a terrible explosion. Fritz had scored on the poor old Moldavia, getting a torpedo just below her bridge. The torpedo boats went mad (to) blow the submarine out of the water… (the submarine) was slow in diving and stopped a beauty.”

Elsewhere on the Persic, HP was having his own concerns: “Just then, bump, we got a shock that shook the ship from end to end. The engines stopped, they’ve got us, ‘all stand firm’ was the order. No one moved. I shall remember this first experience under fire.”

Yet HP remained calm in the surrounding chaos. “I found myself [thinking] not of life or death… but that I had left my issue clasp knife below & that it might be handy now if I wanted to cut some rope, or do any of the many things that a knife is handy for when there is a hurried transhipment!

It turned out the bump came from the Runic that crossed the Persic’s bows in its efforts to avoid the Moldavia and get out of the way of the torpedo boats and destroyers trying to save those on board. “Not much damage and all is calm again,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, on the sinking Moldavia, a US soldier described his experience that night:

“Lights went out when the ship was struck, leaving us in total darkness. The stairway from the lower troop deck was blown away by the force of the explosion, a huge hole opened up, torn in the bottom of the ship, and wrecking the ship’s deck. As soon as we heard the tremendous explosion we jumped out of our hammocks, and within minutes the water was up to our necks. In the darkness and confusion many men were unable to find their clothes and were forced to go to their boat stations with little more than their underwear – some wore even less.

Again on the Moldavia:

“… we saved everybody except those who were killed in the explosion, and some unlucky enough to fall into the hole did not get out again as the ship was still going. She gradually sank by the head, her stern towering high above the surface… she was stationary for a moment and then suddenly dived, a great wave swirling across as she disappeared.”

From the Persic: “we saw no more of the Moldavia. Two of our destroyers had remained behind… at about 5am the destroyers overtook us and we could see that her decks were loaded with troops confirming that the Moldavia had been abandoned or sunk.

After listing and drifting for some 30 minutes, Captain Adrian H Smythe RN ordered the ship to be abandoned. Of the 480 troops on board, 53 American soldiers died on impact of the torpedo fired by UB 57, three others drowned and the remainder was saved. All the crew managed to be rescued.

At 3.50am on 23 May 1918, the RMS Moldavia sank under the waters of the Channel, taking 56 American troops with her to the bottom.

As HP records, the destroyers were firing depth charges and “we could feel the vibrations as they burst! No torpedo hit us and finally by about 4.30am we were allowed to move about and finish dressing.

U-boat 57 would meet its own demise three months later on 14 August 1918 when it was mined off the Flanders coast with all 34 crew members killed, including the highly-decorated German Oberleutnant zur See, Johannes Lohs. His record as commander of U-boats 75 and 57 was 77 ships sunk and 16 ships damaged.

The HMAT Persic pictured after its departure in 1916. Courtesy AWM, ID P00997.013.
The HMAT Persic pictured after its departure in 1916. Courtesy AWM, ID P00997.013.

Later that morning of 23 May 1918, the Persic and its convoy finally arrived in the Thames at Southend-on-Sea and tied up at Tilbury Docks, the principal London port in Essex.

However, the Persic would run out of luck a little over three months later on 7 September 1918 when she herself was torpedoed by German U-boat 87 near the Isles of Scilly. But she managed to limp back into port on her own power.

Find out what happened next to HP Cornell, and his crucial role in building an iconic war monument to the 1st Australian Division in Pozières, in issue 33 of Inside History magazine. 

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