This tale of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary relates to the history of an early RFA ship with a wooden hull and a set sails as well as a steam engine for propulsion. It details the effects of warfare in World War 1 and of many deaths and to make it a little more interesting finally a few bars of gold. The story also involves an Armed Merchant Cruiser – HMS Laurentic and a German Submarine U80
RFA Racer started her nautical life as a barque rigged vessel which was built for the Royal Navy at Devonport Dockyard being laid down on 9 April 1883. She was of composite construction, which is iron keel, frames, stem and stern posts with wooden planking. She was fitted with a 2 cylinder horizontal compound expansion steam engine driving a single screw. The engine was produced by Hawthorn Leslie. Racer also had a full set of sails on three masts and was classed as a Mariner class composite screw sloop.
She was launched on 6 August 1883 and commissioned on 9 April 1885. She saw service in the Royal Navy off Sierra Leone in 1886 before becoming a tender to the training ship HMS Britannia at Dartmouth, Devon in 1896. She was present at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review at Spithead on 26 June 1897 and later became a tender to the Royal Naval College, Osborne at Cowes, Isle of Wight in 1903.
Between 1916 and 1917 she was converted to become a salvage vessel and was fitted with a variety of pumps which were capable of pumping 3,000 tonnes of water per hour and her RFA service had begun.
The second vessel in this story is the German submarine U80 – a UE 1 Class of submarine which was ordered from the Vulcan shipyard, Hamburg, Germany on 9 March 1915, launched on 22 April 1916 and commissioned on the 6 June 1916 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Alfred von Glasenapp.
Kapitänleutnant Alfred von Glasenapp.
This was von Glasenapp’s first submarine command and he remained as her Captain until 31 July 1917. He enjoyed considerable success sinking thirteen ships and damaging a further four. His naval service continued with a further U Boat command until the end of the Great War. U80 continued under other Captains until she was surrendered on 16 January 1919 and then broken up at Swansea in 1922.
The largest ship U80 sank was the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Laurentic which was of 14,892 tons.
The RMS Laurentic was launched on 10 September 1908 as a cargo passenger liner by Harland & Wolff at their Belfast ship yard for the Oceanic Shipping & Navigation Company Limited of Liverpool – the White Star Line. She had been originally laid down as the RMS Alberta but her named was changed prior to her being launched. She was completed by 15 April 1909.
The ship became famous in 1910 when Dr Hawley H Crippen, who was wanted for the murder of his wife in London, made his escape to Canada on the RMS Montrose and was chased by the Police Officer in the case on the RMS Laurentic and arrested on the Montrose’s arrival in the St Lawrence River.
At the outbreak of the Great War the Laurentic was taken over by the Admiralty as a troop ship to bring the Canadian Army to the UK to go and fight in France. By 1916 she had been converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser – and thus she became HMS Laurentic.
On 23 January 1917 HMS Laurentic sailed from Liverpool bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia with, as part of her cargo, a consignment of forty three tons of gold bullion with a value, at that time, of £5,000,000 as payment for munitions. The gold had been stowed in the 2nd Class baggage room.
At 5.55pm on 25 January 1917 while off Lough Swilly, County Donegal, Ireland HMS Laurentic struck a mine on the starboard side followed twenty seconds later by hitting a second mine on the same side. The minefield, of six mines, had been laid earlier by the German Submarine U80.
The War Diary of the German Submarine U80 details its passage into Loch Swilly, the laying of the mines and its departure when the submarine suffered temporary steering gear failure.
HMS Laurentic began to sink and her crew of over 475 took to the boats or just jumped into the sea. Only 121 survived. The bodies of some of those who perished were buried in a mass grave at Fahan Church of Ireland Church. The grave is marked with a large Celtic cross.
Fahan COI Church and Cemetery with the Laurentic Grave
HMS Laurentic settled on the sea bed at 55° 18’ 20’’N 7° 35’ 20’’W roughly one mile off Fanad Head.
In secret the recovery of the gold was commenced some five weeks after the sinking of HMS Laurentic with the arrival of the salvage ship RFA Racer.
Commander Guybon Chesney Castell Damant, O.B.E. Royal Navy (Retired), a highly experienced naval diver was appointed in charge of the recovery of the gold and the ships crew was a mixture of RFA and RN personnel.
Commander Guybon C C Damant OBE Royal Navy (Retired)
RFA Racer was joined in the salvage work at various times by RFA Dapper and the salvage vessels Folden, Forn and Coripia.
Diving on the wreck was difficult due to the tides and the inclement weather but over the period 1917 to 1924 during the summer months over 5,000 dives were made on HMS Laurentic and out of a total of 3,211 ingots of gold all but 10 were recovered. The value of the gold recovered at to-days prices was in excess of £210 million.
The diving expert of the day was Professor John Scott Haldane and he visited RFA Racer to give advice.
After the 1924 diving season and with only a few bars of gold missing the salvage operation was ceased. The RFA Racer returned to Portsmouth Harbour to be laid up, as had been the practice in previous years.
The amazing efforts to recover the gold resulted in the following appointments and awards being made by King George V.
To Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service personnel –
British Empire Medal
Foreman Rigger Frederick LITTLE, R.F.A.
To Royal Navy personnel -
Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
Commander Guybon C C DAMANT, O.B.E. Royal Navy.
British Empire Medal
Chief Petty Officer Albert Balson, D.S.M., O.N. 211943 (Po)
Chief Petty Officer Richard Stubbington, O.N. 228562 (Po)
Chief Petty Officer Augustus Henry Dent, O.N. 215995 (Po)
Chief Petty Officer Charles Petty, O.N. 231808 (Po)
Petty Officer William Light, O.N. 225900 (Po)
Leading Seaman Ralph Victor Jordan, O.N.J. 18637 (Po)
Leading Seaman Leonard Ernest Mayes, O.N.J. 21500 (Po)
Able Seaman Michael Maddison, O.N.J. 12916 (Po)
Able Seaman Frederick Maskell, O.N. 212281 (Po)
Able Seaman Horace Morgan, O.N.J. 17234 (Po)
RFA Racer remained in RFA Service until 6 November 1928 when she was sold to Hughes Bolcknow of Blyth for breaking up.