Daily Event for October 20, 2010

The Ontarian was a 385' long cargo steamer built at Robert Duncan in Port Glasgow in 1900, she was a livestock carrier which was also refrigerated. The Allen Line used her to to open service between Canada and South Africa in 1902, when she sailed from Montreal on Oct. 21, 1902 for Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and terminating in Durban. One day short of fourteen years later she became the victim of a U-boat.

In 1913 the Ontarian was sold to the Donaldson Line and renamed Cabotia, her final voyage began on Oct. 9 when she left Montreal bound for Manchester, she was loaded with 5,000 tons of cargo and 300 horses. Shortly after leaving Canada the ship sailed into a south-west gale, which lasted the whole voyage. The ship plodded along in the heavy seas day after day, the sea was rough, waves breaking over the decks, the ship constantly rolling, just a terrible voyage for man and beast.

John Mitchell, the master, kept the ship on a zig-zag course and at noon on October 20, 1916 they were about 150 miles from Ireland. At 12:20 p.m. in the tremendous seas the silhouette of a submarine was sighted three miles off the starboard bow, the lookouts had done their job. Mitchell ordered all hands on deck and began to take evasive action. He turned his ship away from the enemy putting the submarine at his stern, trying to make a run for it and giving the smallest target to the German.

The submarine, SMS U-69, fired several shells from her deck gun, but the U-boat's commander, Kapitänleutnant Ernst Wilhelms, had no intention of allowing his prey to escape from him. Shells from the U-boat began to fall, but only every few minuets, this was apparently the best the gun crew could do as the seas were running so high that one of the survivors from the Cabotia said the gunner was awash up to his neck when the waves washed over the boat. Cabotia could not outrun U-69 which could make almost 17 knots while the Cabotia's top speed was 12 knots, neither was running at top speed on this day, but the men deep in the Cabotia remained in the engine room giving Mitchell all the steam he could use.

For over an hour and a half the Cabotia tried to escape and U-69 continued to close the distance, the gunner, despite the sea, scored a hit on the Cabotia and Mitchell realized that his ship could not escape, and now that the German had the range and landed several more hits, Mitchell decided that he would abandon his ship. He had the boats swung out, but this was a difficult decision, the gale was still blowing and the chance of survival in small boats in such conditions was slim, but this was the only chance they had. Distress signals that had been continuously been sent since the attack began received no answer until 2 p.m., which must have given Mitchell some small comfort.

Soon after this U-69 was very close and a shot was fired through the funnel, after which Mitchell shut down the engines and signaled to the submarine that he was abandoning the ship, he also tossed his papers over the side, four boats got away with no casualties, which in itself is amazing. The heavy sea made staying together impossible and the boats were scattered almost immediately, one of them was approached by the submarine and there was some kind of conversation between the lifeboat and the Germans, what was said is unknown. After they parted Wilhelms put 12 shells into the Cabotia and half an hour later she went under.

All seventy-four survivors must have seen the steamer that came into the area and they must have been relieved to think that they would soon be picked up and saved from almost certain death, but this was not to be. The unidentified ship which was flying neutral colors, stopped and U-69 came alongside. At least two of the lifeboats were within a couple hundred yards and were signaling with everything they had, but nobody on the ship noticed them or they just ignored them. The reason the ship failed to respond to the distress signals is unknown, it is speculated that Wilhelms told her master that if he picked up the survivors that his ship would be sunk, it is also possible that the ship was actually a German ship disguised as a neutral ship, the truth is not known, but the ship did salute the U-boat with a blow from her whistle before she left.

Four hours after Cabotia was sunk the situation with the weather got worse, not only heavy winds and seas, but now the rain came. The survivors in the four scattered boats fought to stay alive and at 9 a.m. the next morning a patrol boat was sighted and the survivors from one of the boats were rescued. Being told of what had happened a search was begun and shortly thereafter a second boat was found. Hours went by and the search continued, but the two remaining boats and the thirty-two men in them were never found.

The identity of the mystery ship which did not respond to the distress signals of the survivors, to the best of my knowledge was never learned, neither was the content of the conversation between the ship and the U-boat, Wilhelms made no statements after the war because he and U-69 went missing in July of 1917. He had sent over 100,000 tons of shipping to the bottom, and somewhere, perhaps in the Irish Sea, Wilhelms and U-69 have joined them.
© 2010 Michael W. Pocock

Roll of Honour
In memory of those who lost their lives in SS Cabotia
"As long as we embrace them in our memory, their spirit will always be with us"

Bassoli, Carlo
Able Seaman
Caswell, W. F.
Copp, Arthur
Able Seaman and Lamps
Danielsen, Elinar
Fraser, John W.
Garrity, Joseph
Hart, Henry W.
Henry, John
Wireless Operator
Hilditch, Christopher J.
Ordinary Seaman
Hubbard, J. C.
Assistant Foreman
Isaac, Manuel
Fireman & Trimmer
James, William
Johnston, Edward A.
3rd Mate
Kohlmann, Carl
Lang, John
Fireman & Trimmer
Lewis, C.
Lyon, Robert F.
Maynard, John
Assistant Foreman
McArthur, James
Fireman & Trimmer
Mitchell, John
Muckle, Hugh
Nichol, R.
Nilsen, Einar
Fireman & Trimmer
Pacheco, Arthur
Roberts, Charles L.
2nd Steward
Robertson, James K.
Roy, H.
Scott, David
Stronach, Robert
4th Engineer Officer
Whitton, D.
Wise, F.
Wright, Tom
Assistant Cook

To submit a photo, biographical information or correction please email the webmaster.

2005 Daily Event
2008 Daily Event
2009 Daily Event