Daily Event for January 4, 2012

The cargo ship Coquet was a 360' long steamer registered at 4,396 tons, she was built by Sir Raylton Dixon at Middlesbrough in 1904 and was owned by the Mercantile Steamship of London. She continued to operate during the Great War as many merchantmen did, most of the time unescorted. She was sailing in just that way on the morning of January 4, 1916 bound for Rangoon from Torrevieja, Spain when 200 miles east of Malta her master, Arnold C. B. Groom, heard shells being fired at the ship. When he emerged from his cabin he was told that a submarine was shooting at them from the port quarter, another crewman said he saw a second submarine off the port bow. As it turned out only one submarine, SMS U-34, was responsible for the gunfire.

Groom quickly realized that he could not escape so he stopped his engines and made ready the lifeboats. He raised signal flags indicating his ship was stopped and received a reply from the submarine to abandon his vessel. Before Groom got off the ship he burned the ship's papers and gathered up his navigational instruments which he would soon need. As soon as the thirty-one man crew entered the boats and got clear more shells began falling around the ship, only one of eight managed to cause any damage and this only to the signal halyards. The seas were running high and as the two lifeboats bobbed up and down on the waves, the submarine drew near and ordered the master to board the boat. During this time the lifeboats were dashed against the casing of the boat causing them to spring leaks, which would require continuous bailing to keep them from sinking.

Several crewmen from U-34 got into the lifeboats and forced the men to row back to the drifting ship, while Groom was kept on the U-boat. He was interrogated by the commanding officer, Kapitänleutnant Claus Rücker, who was interested in learning Groom's views on the war, Groom feigned ignorance on the subject. The two boats reached the Coquet and she was reboarded, the crew were allowed 20 minutes to collect their possessions and return to the lifeboats. The Germans searched the ship, taking whatever the desired, then they planted two charges and got back into the open boats and returned to the submarine. Before they got back to the U-boat, the charges went off and Coquet began to sink by the bows. As the story goes, just before she went under her steam whistle, in a final defiant act, blew loud and long, then the ship made her plunge for the bottom.

Before casting them off, the Germans, as the story is told, took everything of value from the survivors, including Groom's instruments. Groom was then put back in the lifeboat and the leaky boats were cast adrift in the cold and heavy seas. Groom stated that he protested to Rücker that sending them out in boats in this condition was nothing short of murder, Rücker laughed and said he would send the next ship he saw to rescue them. (It is worth noting that during the war the Germans were usually portrayed as bloodthirsty and inhuman, this was mostly propaganda, but as I don't know anything of Rücker's character I can not say if this was a true story or not, one thing is for sure, he did send them away in boats that were not seaworthy condition.) Groom reported that he believed the U-boat was Austrian because the uniforms worn by the officers bore the Austrian crown, the boat was based at Pula, but it is not clear to me if she was manned by an Austrian crew.

Groom decided to make for the shipping lanes south of where he had been stopped, but the weather and the sea made the going most difficult. The cold and constant spray made life a terrible ordeal for all of the men, but Groom seems to have stood fast and his leadership was noted to have been of the highest order. Just before dark a steamer was sighted, red flares were shown, but no response was made by the mystery ship, she sailed off into the distance somehow without seeing the flares.

The two lifeboats kept some distance apart which gave them a better chance of being seen, but all the survivors were suffering great pains. Two days later on the 6th Groom saw a dark shape in the distance, flares were lit, but it turned out to be the other lifeboat, Groom ordered them to keep more distance between them and the other lifeboat pulled away. The fourteen men and that lifeboat were never seen again.

It would be difficult to describe the torturous conditions faced by the seventeen men in the captain's lifeboat, but one can imagine that the cold, lack of cover, food and fresh water, took a huge toll on the men. Groom gave rations and kept good control of them so they would last, but they were meager to say the least. The fact that the boat had to be bailed by two men around the clock just to keep the water ankle deep meant that physical exhaustion from that activity took a toll as well. Groom made his way through the shipping lanes, and finally south of them, he realized that because of the winds there was no turing around for another go, so he decided to head for the north African coast.

It took until Jan. 10th for them to find the coast of Libya, and after several attempts they finally made land. The survivors were exhausted, hungry and cold, but they were alive. The miserable creatures slept on the sand that night, but by the next day they entered nearby caves and built a fire. Groom set out with a couple of men to find civilization, and after several hours came across a friendly Arab who agreed to help them. He wanted them to get back into the lifeboat and he would pilot them to a save port, but the boat was finished, so he asked Groom to walk to the nearest town, but Groom was spent so he sent two Greek members of the crew, one spoke Arabic and the other spoke Italian (Libya was under Italian control at that time.) They were to arrange rescue of the remaining men.

As they dried their clothes and found fresh water and food the men waited for rescue. On Jan. 12th the fifteen remaining men were attacked by a tribe of Bedouins. Groom was shot and wounded in the back (he ducked just as the Arab fired and the bullet tore through his shoulders and his back) and as he fell he hit his head on a rock and was knocked unconscious. What happened next can not be known for sure, but when he awoke he saw only two men, one was dead the other was badly wounded and was dying. A little later he found a young Italian mess boy who had been brutally killed, for what reason is unknown. A fourth man, a black man named Lord, was also found, he had been shot and before the Bedouins left they bayoneted him and left him to die. The remaining ten men were taken off into the desert as prisoners to a fate unknown.

Soon after an Italian steamer pulled into the cove and lowered a boat, they picked up Groom, Lord and the dying carpenter. They also recovered the bodies of the dead. A search was made for the others, but the Bedouins were not to be found. The boat took them to Fort Marsa Susa where they were treated quite well by the Italians, sadly the carpenter passed away on the ship. At the fort they were given the best possible medical attention and were clothed, fed and given the greatest hospitality. Groom gave the highest praise to his hosts.

Groom made his way back to England and told his story, but it was some time before the fate of the ten prisoners was known. In June eight Englanders were reported at Gedabia "working" as masons, under what condition was unknown. In mid August at least nine of them were released and arrived at Malta. What happened to the last man I do not know.

Rücker, the U-boat commander, survived the war with a record of sinking 80 ships for a total of over 174,000 tons, not all as commander of U-34. Perhaps as poetic justice, U-34 sailed from Pula on Oct. 18, 1918 and like the missing lifeboat was never seen again.
© 2012 Michael W. Pocock

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

Bouzan, William
Connors, John
Able Seaman
Denis, A.
Gayton, Arthur W.
Ship's Cook
Griffith, Arthur
1st Mate
Hatte, M.
Hutchinson, John G. A.
3rd Engineer
Lindsay, Douglas H.
3rd Mate
Livanos, Georges
Assistant Steward
Lloyd, Alfred
Chief Steward
Lowry, Robert
O'Neill, Thomas
Stuart, James E. F.
Chief Engineer
Svenson, F.
Able Seaman
Wiklund, Alexander
Wilen, G.
Killed by Bedouins Jan. 12.
One name is missing from the list, if you can help complete it please email the webmaster.
Message 1
Mar. 11 2018

I was interested to read your account of what happened to the Coquet and her crew. My great uncle was aboard the Coquet as 1st mate. His name was Arthur Griffith. He was Welsh and came from a family of seamen. His brother was a master mariner as was my father who was also named Arthur after him. As you know, his body was never recovered and there is a small stone memorial to him in the graveyard at Nazareth chapel in Penrhyndaedraeth next to where other members of his family are buried.

Kind regards
Sian Griffith

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