Single Project

DERBENT

DERBENT
SHIP NAME: DERBENT
LOCATION: -4.24, 53.47

The DERBENT was built by Armstrong Whitworth & Co. Ltd. at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1907. The ship was built for Soc Anon d’Armement, d’Industrie et de Commerce, Antwerp, and completed in March 1908. Voyages before requisitioning by the Admiralty in 1914 include destinations such as Port Arthur, New York, and Rangoon. The tanker was on passage from Liverpool to Queenstown carrying 3860 tons of fuel oil, when it was torpedoed by U 96 on 30 November 1917 off Point Lynus.

The DERBENT was built on the Tyne, at the famous shipyard of Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. at Low Walker. The yard had been established in 1882 and, by the outbreak of the Great War, was part of company holdings which ranged from the manufacture of cars to machine tools, swing bridges, guns and armament. The company employed around 30,000 people. For the two years bracketing the ordering and building of the DERBENT, the Low Walker yard specialised exclusively in tankers (i.e. yard number 801 OBERON completed in 1907 to yard number 817 MAGIVE completed in 1909 were all tankers).

The DERBENT joined the fleet of the Soc Anon d’Armement, d’Industrie et de Commerce. The company was based in Antwerp. Surviving documents provide small windows into the ship’s movements, for example the DERBENT is known to have berthed at Gravesend six months after completion on 24 September 1908.

In August 1909, the ship arrived at Port Arthur Texas where the oil industry had begun to boom. In 1901, Captain Anthony F Lucas had struck an oil reserve under the salt dome formation of Spindeltop Hill. It was the first oil find on the US Gulf Coast. By 1910, when the DERBENT arrived off at Port Arthur, Gulf Oil and Texaco, now part of Chevron Corporation, has been formed to develop production at Spindletop and further reserves had been discovered. So large were these reserves, that it had become economically feasible to use petroleum for mass consumption.  The DERBENT was part of the transportation network.

In March 1914, the DERBENT was in Burma calling at Rangoon.

Naval Service began on 4 September 1914 when she ship’s registry was changed to the Port of London and the owner became The Lord High Admiral, Admiralty, London, SW1 – none other than Winston Churchill in his first World War governmental role. The DERBENT was managed day-to-day by a civilian company – Messrs Lane and Mc Andrew – which was normal for a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel.

The DERBENT became part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA). The RFA's primary role is to resupply Royal Naval vessels with fuel, water, ammunition and other essentials. The ships were primarily manned by civilian crews. Source: Tyne and Wear Archives

The ship’s requisitioning coincided with the period when Turkey (then known as the Ottoman Empire) signed the Turco-German Agreement and formally entered the war on the side of Germany on 28 October 1914. Whilst the Ottoman Empire had remained neutral, supplies could still be sent to Russia (Britain and France’s ally) through the Dardanelles strait to Black Sea ports. Now the Straits were closed, Russian was in danger of being cut off by sea in the south.

In the winter months that followed, plans were drawn up by the French to take back the straits, but these were rejected by Britain. Britain tried financial enticements, but these too failed to persuade the Ottoman Empire to change sides. Eventually, Winston Churchill proposed a naval attack to be combined with a small army of occupation. It was hoped that an attack on the Ottoman Empire would draw Bulgaria and Greece (both formerly ruled by the Ottomans) into the war on the Allied side. The final push to launch the Allied attack was received in January 1915, when Russia appealed for assistance against the Ottomans who were conducting a land offensive in the eastern Black Sea (i.e. land that is now Georgia). The Allied plan was ambitious – not only was control of the Straits and Sea of Marmara to be regained, but the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) was also to be captured.

The first phase of the attack began on 17 February 1915, when a British seaplane flew a reconnaissance sortie. Two days later, an Anglo-French task force, including the British dreadnought HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, begun a long-range bombardment of the Ottoman Empire’s coastal artillery batteries. By 25 February, the outer forts had been reduced to rubble and the entrance to the Dardenelles partially cleared of mines. Royal Marines were then landed to destroy the batteries at Kum Kale and Seddülbahir, while the naval bombardment shifted to the batteries between Kum Kale and Kephez.

Emboldened by these first successes, Admiral Sackville Carden drew up fresh plans to commence a larger offensive which would draw upon more ships from the Mediterranean fleet. In the events that followed, the DERBENT played the supporting role of a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel. For example, on 8 March 1915, the DERBENT was reported at Port Mudros on the Greek Island of Lemnos alongside the cruiser HMS PHAETON delivering 275 tons of fuel oil. On the 18 March, HMS PHAETON along with 18 battleships with an array of other cruisers and destroyers began Carden’s planned larger offensive. HMS INFLEXIBLE, the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean force, was hit several times and so seriously damaged by a mine that it was beached at the island of Bozcaada (Tenedos) to prevent it from sinking. HMS INFLEXIBLE was temporally repaired here. Then, on 6 April, it was refuelled by the DERBENT so that it could sail for Malta to complete repairs.

Back at the entrance of the Dardanelle Straits, mounting losses amongst the British and French fleet forced a general recall and the abandonment of the offensive.

The DERBENT is next recorded as forming part of a Transatlantic convoy in July 1917 led by the Armoured Cruiser HMS ROXBOROUGH. A stamp placed in the back of the vessel’s Crew List suggests that voyage ended at Plymouth around the 2 August 1917.

Then, through October and into November 1917, it was being escorted by armed trawlers between Queenstown, Barry, Manchester and Liverpool. For example, 953 RODNEY and 1721 CARLEDA were assigned to escort the DERBENT on 16 October 1917 between Queenstown and Barry, and the 927 BRECK and 953 RODNEY on 22 October 1917 between Queenstown and Liverpool.

The DERBENT had left Liverpool for Queenstown at 11pm on 29 November. Despite posting lookouts on the bridge, in the crow’s net, and having the gunners ready to return fire at the aft gun, the ship was still attacked by U 96 at 5.40 a.m. The ship sank by the stern, but slowly enough for all the crew (and stowaway) to get safely into the lifeboats. The crew were picked up by their escort, the trawler AUCKLAND, and taken to Holyhead.

Special thanks must go Chris White and other members of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Historical Society for their assistance in telling the story of the DERBENT.