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LOCATION: -5.11, 51.64

The SAINT JACQUES was a steamship built by Atel. & Ch. De France, Dunkirk, in 1909.  At time of loss, the vessel was owned by Societe Navale de l’Ouest, and registered at Le Havre. The steamship was carrying a cargo of coal from Barry to Bizerte under the command of master Jules Simon when it was torpedoed by the German submarine UC 51 on 15 September 1917. The ship sank some 5 miles (8km) off St Ann’s Head.

This illustration from the 1972 house magazine of the Societe Navale De l’Quest depicts the moment that the SAINT JACQUES was torpedoed. Source: Musee Portaire Dunkerque.

The SAINT JACQUES was the third vessel of that name owned and operated by the Societe Navale De l’Quest (the first SAINT JACQUES was built at Dundee in 1871 and the second at West Hartlepool in 1889). The company was formed in 1880 by George Leroy and maintained a preference to name all its ship after saints during all its years of operation right up 1972 – for example, it first steamship of 1500 tonnes was the Saint Pierre, which was soon after followed by the acquisition of the Saint Jean and Saint Paul.

More ships were added to the fleet after 1887, when the company became the recognised carrier between Normandie and Antwerp, Spain and Portugal, North Africa and eastern Mediterranean. The company also acquired vessels which could also be used in the fruit and wine trade to Algeria, Bordeaux and La Rochelle. New larger vessels, such SAINT MATTHIEU, SAINT BARTHELEMY and SAINT PHILIPPE, allowed the shipping company to venture still further afield to destinations such as Dakar in West Africa.

Between 1907 and 1909, the company ordered eight new vessels from the shipyard Ateliers et Chantiers de France at Dunkirk – each was around 3500 tons (3556 tonnes) and they were named the SAINT ANDRE, SAINT JEAN, SAINT LUC, SAINT MARK, SAINT PAUL, SAINT PIERRE, SAINT JACQUES and SAINT THOMAS.

The SAINT JACQUES was not the only ship in the company’s fleet lost in the Great War. The SAINT PHILLIPPE was sunk on 29 November 1918 off Guernsey to UB-39. The SAINT SIMON was lost to the UC 57 on 3 April 1917 and the SAINT ANDRE on 19 December 1917 to UB 58 on voyages between Tunisia and the Bristol Channel.  Three others, the SAINT JEAN, SAINT LUC and SAINT BARNABE, were lost in 1918 to attacks by UB 50 and UB 105.

On 15 September 1917, the SAINT JACQUES left Barry and began to follow the instructions it had received from the Naval Base at Cardiff – that is to steer a course 3 miles south of the Helwick Light Vessel, thence to St Govan’s Light vessel and thence to St Ann’s Head to be taken in Milford Haven.

The ship was carrying 2700 tons (2743 tonnes) of small coal consigned to the Compagnie des chemins de fer Bône-Guelma (Bône-Guelma Railway Company) which operated railways in Algeria and Tunisia (then part of French North Africa). The ship was under the direction of a pilot from Barry and was not zigzagging as the master, Jules Simon, had felt that he was close enough inshore to be secure from U-boat attack. Simon had taken the precaution of making sure that the gunners were at their posts forward, aft and on the bridge.  Simon also reported that there were several other vessels in sight – a Norwegian and a French steamer heading for Milford, several vessels to westward, including destroyers off St Ann’s head, as well as the armed trawlers SIDMOUTH and ALBATROSS. Yet the UC 51, under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Hans Galster, went undetected by all – until the torpedo struck the port side of the SAINT JACQUES at 15:50. The explosion caused a large hole, measuring 36ft (11 metres) long and 13ft (4 metres) wide, below the waterline. The engine room was completely wrecked and flooded, and five crewmen within those spaces were killed.

The master, the Barry pilot and 28 crewmen took to the lifeboats and remained alongside to see if the ship might yet remain afloat and be taken in tow. The trawler SIDMOUTH came alongside the SAINT JACQUES and signalled to Milford Haven for assistance at 16:10. The trawler ALBATROSS arrived 10 minutes later, followed by the HM Rescue Tug FRANCES BATEY.

The SAINT JACQUES had taken on a heavy list to starboard, and yet crew from the FRANCES BATEY still managed to board and secure a tow rope. The SAINT JACQUES stayed for only 10 minutes of the voyage to the safety of Milford Haven. The ship turned over on its starboard side showing the damage sustained on its port side and sank bottom upwards.

A special thank you must go to Christelle Méniel of Musee Portuaire Dunkerque for her kind assistance in helping to tell the story of the SAINT JACQUES.

The National Archives, Kew. ADM–Records of the Admiralty, Naval Forces, Royal Marines, Coastguard, and related bodies. ADM137/4000. Enemy submarines: particulars of attacks on merchant vessels in home waters. 1-15 Sep. 1917. ‘French SS “SAINT JACQUES”’, n.p.