Friday 1 August 2014 by Jennifer Milward. 9 comments
Collection, Personal Stories, Warilda, troopships, First World War

In August 1915, the SS Warilda was requisitioned by the Commonwealth and fitted out as a transport ship. HMAT Warilda made two trips to Egypt and one to England, carrying more than 7,000 troops. Following the Warilda’s conversion to a hospital ship in July 1916, she spent a few months stationed in the Mediterranean, before being put to work transporting patients across the English Channel. Between late 1916 and August 1918 she made over 180 trips from Le Havre to Southampton, carrying approximately 80,000 patients.

Warilda in camouflage paint added in 1917 after Germany stated all vessels operating in the English Channel would be attacked. Warilda in camouflage paint added in 1917 after Germany stated all vessels operating in the English Channel would be attacked. A02847

HMAT Warilda survived two potential disasters in early 1918. She narrowly missed being sunk in February when she was struck by a torpedo which failed to explode. Then, in March while her regular captain was having a month break, she collided with the SS Petit Gaudet near the Isle of Wight. The Petit Gaudet was seriously damaged and had to be run ashore in St Helen’s Bay.

On 3 August 1918, the Warilda’s luck ran out. The night was very dark, the sea was smooth and visibility was about half a mile. At 1.35am, a torpedo fired from the German submarine UC-49 took out Warilda’s starboard propeller. The port engine could not be shut down as the engine room had been flooded and the steering gear blown away, so the ship continued moving in a circle at about 15 knots. Life boats could not be lowered until the engine ran out of steam.

HMS P.39, one of the escorts, attempted to tow the Warilda, but had to cut the line when it became clear the Warilda was going to sink. She finally sank by the stern at 4.10am.

That night, the Warilda had 801 people on board. Sadly 123 lost their lives, including all the engine room staff, all the occupants of “I” ward (the lowest ward containing 101 “walking” patients), and 19 people from capsized lifeboats. The fifteen Australians who died in the sinking of the Warilda are commemorated on the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour.

Private Thomas Faulks (3231, 29th Battalion) from Koorong Vale, VIC, was one of 15 Australians who lost their life when the Warilda was torpedoed and sunk on 3 August 1918. Private Thomas Faulks (3231, 29th Battalion) from Koorong Vale, VIC, was one of 15 Australians who lost their life when the Warilda was torpedoed and sunk on 3 August 1918. DA15114

Private George James Tevelein (2403, 38th Battalion) was on board the Warilda that night. He later wrote “we were all shocked by our boat being lifted out of the water, and then seeming to roll over on her side, with all the men tossed out of their bunks. This was accompanied by the roar of a torpedo… It was not necessary to ask what was the matter, as the smell of the explosive soon permeated through the ship”. He described the horror of the occupants of I ward: “Suddenly came terrible screams and shouting from under the deck, which, fortunately did not last long, caused by, as we found after, 153 [actually 101] poor beggars who were trapped in the lower deck and were drowned like rats in a trap.” (AWM, MSS1457)

Private Alfred Edward Taylor (1253, 29th Battalion) was also on board the Warilda when it sank. He had an even luckier escape. He wrote to his mother from the Alexandra Hospital at Cosham, telling her “I was to have gone as a walking case but the Sister and Doctor kept asking me if I could make the trip. I naturally said yes but this wouldn’t satisfy them so they dumps me on a stretcher and the way events turned out later on this saved my life.” (AWM, PR01110)

Many reports praise the discipline on board the Warilda that night. Private Tevelein wrote that “although we were not supposed to be any good at discipline, it seemed as it if came automatically”. Captain James Sim was commended in the London Gazette in recognition of his conduct that night.

On 30 August, Captain Sim received the following message:

Paris newspapers of the 11th inst. publish the following message from Havre, dated 10th instant – “News has reached Havre that the German submarine which sank the Ambulance Ship ‘Warilda’ was herself sunk by a number of British destroyers. The submarine lost a lot of her crew, and the remainder, including the German commander, were captured and taken to England.” (AWM7, Warilda [5]).

The Warilda now lies about 50m underwater, approximately mid-way in the English Channel between Le Havre and Portsmouth. An underwater video of the wreck of the Warilda has been posted on YouTube.



Kate Lawrie

My grandfather, Bertie Dixon (Service Number: 7052; Rank: Private; 25 Infantry Battalion), was sent aboard the Warilda for his passage to England for hospitalisation, after being wounded seriously in May 1918. He kept a postcard of the Warilda and he also named a house he bought after returning to Australia in honour of the ship. This plucky vessel must have had an impression upon him. Perhaps his time aboard, even though he was wounded, afforded him some sense of safety and peace after his experiences in the trenches.

Margaret Frost

My father, Noel King, served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and joined the Warilda when she was commissioned as a Hospital Ship in Liverpool. He nursed patients returning from Gallipoli and later in 1918 was on the Warilda when she was torpedoed in the English Channel. He was on deck at the time and used to describe to my sister and I the sight of the torpedo cutting through the sea and hitting the ship. He helped to launch lifeboats and get the patients into them. It was amazing that so many were rescued.

Paul Boyle

My grandmother Violet,Beatrix,Alice Lampton Waye perished on this vessel while trying to save others.She was posthumously awarded the O.B.E.

Jennifer Milward says:

Thank you Kate, Margaret and Paul for sharing your family connections to the story of the Warilda.

Timothy Finnegan

On the Findhorn Village, Forres, Moray, IV36 3YJ, UK, (near Inverness) War Memorial is named 'A.B. JAs Smith HS Warilda'. He is not listed on the CWGC site and we are having no success in tracing him. The medical staff on Warilda were British, I think. Were her crew RAN, RN or Merchant Navy? Any help much appreciated. TPF

Frank Shannon

My Grandfather was the doctor in charge and his war memoirs describe how difficult it was to extract the wounded men. He did a last ditch sweep of the lower decks and then filled his pockets with all the tobacco available to keep up the morale of those who had escaped. He knew he could swim for it if requied.

Jennifer Milward says:

Hi Timothy. SS Warilda belonged to the Adelaide Steamship Company before it was requisitioned by the Australian government. Its master, Captain James Sim, was a merchant seaman from Sydney. Amongst a crew of about 80, we know of at least seven Australian merchant seamen who were killed when the Warilda was torpedoed. Their names can be found on the Memorial's Commemorative Roll. (The Commemorative Roll was primarily developed through appeals to the public for nominations, and the Memorial still accepts nominations for additions to the Roll.) According to the summary of an interview with Captain Sim (held in our collection at AWM7 Warilda 5), the medical orderlies were all British and probably all men. (Captain Sim reported that there were only four women on board: one WAAC, one nurse, one VAD and one other war worker; although the captain of HMS "P.45" claimed to have six female survivors on board). The National Archives (UK) have published on their website a guide to records of merchant seamen serving between 1858 and 1917.

Timothy Finnegan

Dear Jennifer, Thank you very much. I had tracked down a fair amount about Warilda from various websites and Stephen McGreal's book The War on Hospital Ships. The www.diggerhistory site has the following useful extract: A 62. HMAT Wandilla 7,785 tons. 16 knots. Adelaide SS Co Ltd Adelaide. Manned by Australian officers and (during part of her service) Australian crews. Commonwealth control ended 24 January 1917. A 69. HMAT Warilda 7,713 tons. 16 knots. Adelaide SS Co Ltd Adelaide. Manned by Australian officers and (during part of her service) Australian crews. Torpedoed and sunk by a submarine in the English Channel 3 August1918 This has is not in line with our church Roll of Honour where the unit title Transport A 62 is listed against AB James Smith which would be the Wandilla and not the Warilda. I suspect that it is a transcription error. We also now think, because of local newspaper articles, that he died on 14 Nov 1917 on board the SS Helmsdale in Buruta, Nigeria following an accident. I have looked at the UK National Archives site for merchant seamen but it is not simple to navigate for the naïve. I shall have a look at the sites you mention just in case. Thank you again. Timothy Finnegan

Catherine Masters

My great Grandfather (2nd Lt) Stephen Smith was aboard this ship which departed from Fremantle Western Australia 1916