The South Western was a steam ship built by J & W Dudgeon of London in 1874 and designed to be used for passage between Southampton and St Malo. It was 222ft 3in long, 27ft 1in wide and 13ft 5in deep and had a tonnage of 657 gross (by 1914 this had altered to 674 gross). In 1890, it was fitted with a Triple Expansion 3 cylinder engine generating 225 hp and powering a single screw, and had two single ended boilers. It was capable of 14 knots. At the time of sinking it was owned by London and SW Railway Ltd and registered in Southampton.
The South Western departed from Southampton on the 16th March 1918 with 12 ½ tons of general cargo and a bag of mail. On board were 28 crew, including Captain John Alfred Clark, and four passengers (two of whom were members of the armed forces). At 11pm the ship was proceeding south west at ten knots, bound for St Malo.
There are some conflicting reports of the sinking; the captain reported spotting a submarine at 11pm, but it was too close to the ship and submerged before a shot could be fired. At 11.30 it was seen again on the starboard side and the order was given to the aft gun crew to fire. Before they had time the ship was hit by a torpedo and began to sink.
Frank Gleadhill, the commander of the gun crew, gives a different account. He reported that he lay in his bunk until 11.30pm, at which point he felt a judder through the ship. Upon going out on deck he heard the captain report something suspicious and order a sharp lookout. Ten minutes later he spotted a submarine on the port beam. Gleadhill ran to the aft gun, where the two crew loaded and layed (aimed) the gun. Moments before the order to fire could be given, a torpedo slammed into the side of the ship. After the blast the gun crew were nowhere to be seen.
Captain Wassner of the Kaiserliche Marine (German Imperial Navy) U-boat UB-59 reported that he fired a torpedo at the South Western at about midnight, but it appears to have missed and the torpedo exploded on the seabed. He fired a further torpedo after midnight which caused the whole forecastle of the South Western to explode.
The torpedo seems to have hit the starboard side of the South Western just forward of the bridge, blowing out the ship's side and destroying the bridge. The captain was briefly knocked senseless but on recovery was able to abandon ship. The crew attempted to launch several boats, but these capsized. Instead some survivors gathered on the upturned boats and rafts. The vessel sank in about ten minutes, and went down by the head and listing heavily to port. Of the 32 people on board only six survived. Three were picked up by a Royal Naval patrol vessel (HMS P30) at 6am, the other three were rescued by the Torpedo Boat Destroyer Ettrick.
Initially it appeared that the behaviour of the gun crew was unsatisfactory, but the survivors' report led to a reconsideration of this view. It appeared that they had remained at their station and were only prevented from firing by the explosion of the torpedo.
for some time it was believed that a vessel off the south coast of the Isle of Wight was the South Western, but in 2010 fieldwork identified this wreck as the Saxmundham. The actual location of South Western is now known, thanks to extensive archival research carried out by Mr David Wendes, a local maritime historian. The results of this research can be viewed in: Wendes, D. 2006. South Coast Shipwrecks off East Dorset and Wight: 1870-1979.
This site has not yet been researched by the Maritime Archaeology Trust dive teams but was researched in 2011 as part of the Archaeological Atlas of the 2 Seas project. The target wreck has a height of 5-6m above the seabed and lies on its starboard side with its boilers spilled out onto the seabed.
In February 2013 we joined a team on an exploratory dive to the wreck to help families discover the fate of their relatives for a BBC Inside Out feature, broadcast on the 24th February 2014.