January 13 – HMS Viknor captured major German spy and perished with him

On 13 Jan 1915, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Viknor sank off the coast of County Donegal with all hands (295 dead). The cause of her loss is unconfirmed but it is likely she struck a German mine. Graves of crew members on Rathlin Island and Ballintoy are the focus of a yearly Act of Remembrance. Senior Naval Officer NI with mayor off Rathlin

They captured the major German spy and perished with him

In January 1915 the crew of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Viknor made a major contribution to the war by capturing the leading German spy-master after a search and chase operation. Unfortunately, they and their captives were lost within hours, sunk in a storm or by a mine or a combination of both.

The ship’s Commanding Officer, E O Ballantyne, had been informed by Lord Fisher that he was to search for and apprehend the SS Bergensfjord – a Norwegian owned and neutral ship. Information had been received from British intelligence sources that persons taken aboard the ship in New York under the guise of being neutral citizens were, in fact, German reservists.

This was quite a challenge to present to what in reality was a makeshift warship. Viknor was a civilian ship hastily prepared for war, and manned mainly by members of the Royal Naval Reserve, including twenty-five seamen of the Newfoundland Division of the RNR. In their search and apprehend action the ship’s company proved that they were fit for role.

Funeral with military honours of Commander Ernest Orfod Ballantyne in Dalkeith

The Viknor which was only able to do seventeen knots had headed out to the North Sea as Admiral Jellico wanted it to strengthen the blockade of Germany by the northern patrol. On Friday 8th December the message was flashed to the fleet that SS Bergensfjord should be captured at all costs. British intelligence suspected, quite rightly, that German reservists had joined her in New York and were believed to be carrying fake passports provided by the German Embassy.

The Bergensfjord was deemed to be a prize capture and the merchant cruisers were ordered to intercept. Early on the misty morning of Monday 11th January the Viknor’s ‘man in the barrel’ (crow’s nest) sighted a ship to the north east of the Faroe Islands. Viknor altered course and hoisted a red flag ‘stop engines’ signal. Nothing happened. Viknor fired a rocket across the bows of the white vessel. A live shell was next. The Viknor’s guns were trained.The rocket did the trick. Viknor beat to the windward side and lowered a boat with boarding party.
They found that the ship was the Bergenfjord and radioed fellow cruisers who converged at full speed at 0100 hours. The Norwegian captain tried to bluff it out answering the questions of the revolver carrying boarding party.

Unknown Sailors of HMS Viknor and HMS Racoon. The plot is marked by a granite Celtic Cross erected by the people of Ballycastle.  Bonamargy Friary Cemetery.

After a thorough search, two stowaways and six German passengers were found. One of these passengers according to the ship’s list was a Mexican named Rosato Spiro. He admitted after close examination to be Baron H A Wedell, a notorious arch-spy of the German secret service. Another passenger was listed as a Norwegian citizen, Dr Rasmus Bjornstad, who was also suspect. They were removed to Viknor and a prize-crew was put aboard the Norwegian vessel which headed for Kirkwall.

Viknor radioed the good news and headed southwards towards Liverpool. There were celebrations aboard Viknor. The Commander-in-Chief sent a “well done” message.

The ship was low on coal and in need of repair. At 1600 hrs on 13/01/1915 she called up giving a position of 56 deg 18’N, 9 deg W, off Tory Island saying she was steering for the North Channel and home. That was the last that was ever heard from the Viknor. On the night of January 13, the ship disappeared off Tory Island. She sank in heavy weather without any distress call. No one knows what happened. It was generally assumed she was sunk by a storm or by a mine in a field laid by the Germans, or by a combination of both.

The graves of some of the men in HMS Viknor in St Thomas’ Parish Churchyard, Rathlin Island

The War Graves of Ballintoy and Rathlin Island

None of the 295 crew – 22 officers and 273 men mostly of the Royal Naval Reserve – were saved. The fact that some of the crew had time to put on lifebelts indicated that the ship took time to go down. Many of the bodies were washed ashore in the days afterward and are buried in Ballintoy and Rathlin Island. Most of the crew have no known grave.

HMS Viknor was an armed merchant cruiser of 10th Cruiser Squadron.  She had been a ship of the Blue Star Line before being requisitioned and modified by the Royal Navy. Built by Robert Napier in 1888 as the Atrato for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, and registered at 5,347 tons, she was 421 feet long with a 50-foot beam.

The Atrato could carry 279 passengers and was used for the routes between England and the West Indies. In 1912 she was renamed The Viking for her new owners, the Viking Cruising Co. With the outbreak of World War 1 most passenger liners were requisitioned by the Admiralty for war service and so was The Viking. In 1914 she was converted into an armed merchant cruiser and renamed HMS Viknor. The Viknor was assigned to the 10th cruiser squadron and was used to patrol the waters between Scotland and Iceland.

Twenty-five seamen who were lost were of the Newfoundland Division of the Royal Naval Reserve. 24 are commemorated on the Beaumont Hamel Memorial in France. One body was washed ashore and is buried in Colonsay.

Portglenone and Annalong

There were five from Northern Ireland lost on Viknor. Samuel Mooney Gourley, a RN Volunteer Reservist from Portgenone had been called up at the outbreak of war. The Ballymena Observer had previously reported his service with the Royal Naval Division in an ill-fated attempt to defend Antwerp. The report stated, “Samuel M Gourley, Portglenone, son of Mr. James Gourley, senior Postmaster in Portglenone, was with the Royal Naval Volunteers in the trenches at Antwerp. He returned to Portglenone on a few days furlough on Thursday, October 15 and he left Ballymena on Sunday last to report himself at Dublin on Monday morning.

“Before going he received a presentation of a beautiful Bible from Miss Young, Portglenone House, and a presentation of cigarettes and money from several of his companions in Portglenone.

“The Naval Marine was one of a party of the defenders (of Antwerp) who, mud-stained, dirty and unshaven, returned to Dover from Ostend. Only a week previously he had left Dover and with his comrades embarked for a port unknown. They landed and were sent direct to the trenches where they were under fire at once.

“Several chaps around him were struck but he escaped. On the retreat he experienced many thrilling adventures. At one time they were almost led into the German lines but through the intervention of a Belgian officer they were put on the right track and the treacherous guide was shot. Most of them got back to England safely after about eight days but some strayed into Holland and were interned there and a few, alas, were left lifeless in the trenches.” (See Brave Report Issue ).

Leading Seaman Hugh Pue from Annalong also died in HMS Viknor. Eighteen months later his brother James was lost in HMS Eden on 17/06/1916. They were the sons of Arthur and Elizabeth Pue, of Moneydorraghmore, Annalong, Kilkeel. Hugh was husband to Sarah Pue, Annalong.

In 2006 the survey ship Celtic Explorer located the wreck of HMS Viknor. It was later reported that the wreck is located on the outer edge of a minefield laid by SMS Berlin which lends some credibility to the theory that she could have hit a mine, but as yet there is still no definitive answer as to the cause of the loss. The first U-boat appeared in the Irish sea on 30th January, 1915 and there is no evidence of activity north-west of Ireland before that. Mine-laying by submarines, later in the war accounted for the Laurentic and two ships off Rathlin Island, HMS Brisk and the Lugano.

Viknor was one of three Armed Merchant Cruisers of the 10th. Cruiser Squadron lost in January, February, and March of 1915.

SS Arabic III was an auxiliary cruiser in the German Navy. In October 1914 it laid a minefield between Northern Ireland and Scotland. HMS Audacious was sunk by a mine in the same area. About ten bodies of her crew were washed ashore or recovered. Those that were able to be identified (only 2 or 3) were brought back to their home towns or buried close to where they came ashore on Rathlin Island.

ROLL OF HONOUR – HMS VIKNOR

+BLOCKLEY, John Alfred
RN. Petty Officer. 1st Cl. 132052. HMS Viknor. Died 13/01/1915. Aged 45 years. B Hinckley, Leicstershire 14/02/1870. Bangor Cemetery

+GALBRAITH, Francis
RN. Boy 1st Class. J/28128. HMS Viknor. Died 13/01/1915. Aged: 17. Son of John and Martha Galbraith, Londonderry. Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 8. Londonderry, The Diamond WM. Great James Street – PCI RH

+GOURLEY, Samuel Mooney
RNVR. AB. Clyde 3/2177. HMS Viknor. Died13/01/1915. Aged 21. Son of James Gourley, Portglenone. Portsmouth Naval Memorial

+GREER, James A
RNR. Assistant Engineer. HMS Viknor. Died 13/01/1915. Son of James Greer, Woodstock Rd., Belfast. Married, his wife was a daughter of William Coulter, Evelyn Ave., Bloomfield. They were residing in Birkenhead where he was in the service of Camel, Laird & Co., having worked in Belfast with Messrs Musgrave & Co. An ‘Ulster and The War’ column in Belfast News Letter, 28/01/1915, adds, “A number of bodies from the Viknor have been washed ashore at various parts of the Antrim coast during the past few days.” It also tells of a man from Dundee who has come to search for his brother’s body. Picture of James Greer in Belfast Evening Telegraph. Portsmoutth Naval Memorial, Panel 10

+PUE, Hugh
RN. Leading Seaman. 192413. HMS Viknor. Died 13/01/1915. Age 34. Born Kilkeel. Son of Arthur and Elizabeth Pue, of Moneydorraghmore, Annalong, Kilkeel; husband to Sarah Pue, Annalong. Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 7

HMS VIKNOR WAR GRAVES
IN NORTHERN IRELAND

+GRIFFIN, J
RMLI. PO. 7084. Bonamargy Friary Cemetery, Ballycastle

+HEWITT, ER
RN. First Class Boy. J/27300. Ballintoy Churchyard.

+WALTON, JJ
RN. Petty Officer 2nd Class. 130152. Rathlin (St Thomas) Church of Ireland Graveyard

Bonamargy Friary Cemetery, Ballycastle
Four Unknown Sailors HMS Viknor. The plot is marked by a granite Celtic Cross erected by the people of Ballycastle.

Rathlin (St Thomas) Church of Ireland Graveyard
Nine Unknown Sailors HMS Viknor

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