Account of the sinking of the Leasowe Castle
by Major Philip H. Warwick, D.S.O. Senior Officer, South Notts.
Hussars Machine Gun Companies.
"Orders were received on 22nd May 1918 that
the Battalion, plus 10 per cent reinforcements, were to leave
Egypt, and embark on the following day for France, and accordingly
the Battalion numbering 54 officers and 984 other ranks, were
conveyed by train to the docks and embarked on the 23rd on the
Leasowe Castle. In addition to the Warwick and South Notts.
Battalion, the Bucks and Berks Yeomanry Machine Gun Battalion, there
were other details and a number of attached officers on board.
Colonel Gray-Cheape was O.C. Troops, and Captain Drake the Ship's
Adjutant. As soon as the embarkation was complete, the ship was
taken out into the harbour and anchored, remaining until 3 p.m. on
May 26th, when she sailed as one of a convoy of six transports,
accompanied by destroyers, trawlers, aeroplanes, and a captive kite
The convoy steamed in " line ahead " to the
end of the swept channel, and then came into " T " formation—four
ships in the leading line, of which the Leasowe Castle was third.
Every precaution was taken to prevent lights showing after dark, and
as many men as possible were ordered to sleep on deck at their
emergency stations. It was a brilliant moonlight evening, and from
the decks of the Leasowe Castle every ship in the convoy and its
protective ring of destroyers and trawlers could be seen.
All went well till midnight of the 26th, but
at 12.25 a.m. on the 27th, about a hundred miles from Alexandria,
the Leasowe Castle was struck. By a torpedo on the starboard side, a
little forward of amidships. The engines were immediately stopped.
Troops paraded at their stations, rolls were called, boats lowered,
and rafts flung overboard. The Japanese destroyer " R " stood by,
while the remainder of the convoy continued on their way at full
speed and rapidly disappeared. Perfect order was maintained on
board, the men standing quietly at their station as on parade, while
those detailed for the work assisted in lowering the boats. One boat
had been stove in by the force of the explosion, but the remaining
forty were launched in the course of forty-five minutes,
transhipping their freight to the Japanese destroyer, and on their
return to refill were able to pick up men in the water or on rafts.
So far the Leasowe Castle had remained on a
fairly even keel, though sinking a little at the stern, with a
slight list to port, and all of " B " (Warwickshire Yeomanry)
Company of the Battalion went over the port side and were picked up
in the water, the sea being happily calm and warm, with the moon as
yet still clear and bright. About 1.45 a.m. H.M. sloop Lily
appeared, having turned back from the convoy to assist in the work
of rescue. She gallantly ran her bows up to the starboard bow of
the Leasowe Castle and made fast, so that troops were able to pass
quickly on board. Meanwhile the Japanese vessel put up a smoke
screen for protection.
Suddenly, about 2 a.m., a bulkhead in the
after part of the ship gave way, and with a loud, rending noise the
Leasowe Castle sank rapidly by the stern, the bows rearing straight
on end. The Lily had a narrow escape, as the hawsers connecting her
with the sinking ship were cut with an axe only in the nick of time.
The casualties amounted to 101 of all ranks, and included Captain
Holt (the ship's captain) and eight of his crew, 10 officers and 51
other ranks of the Warwick and South Notts. Yeomanry Battalion, and
5 officers and 25 other ranks of other units.The Battalion lost
their Commanding Officer (Colonel Gray-Cheape) and Adjutant (Captain
F. Drake), both of whom were of the Warwickshire Yeomanry, and of
the South Notts. 8 officers and 42 other ranks were amongst the
As soon as the Leasowe Castle had disappeared,
the boats were rowed over the spot and all the men on the rafts were
picked up and taken into the boats, and H.M. Sloop Lily started back
for Alexandria. The sea was calm save for a slight swell, but a
great number of men suffered from sea sickness. The boats were kept
fairly close, with the Japanese destroyer steaming round them
continuously. At nine on the morning of the 27th, a boat was lowered
from the Japanese destroyer, and a doctor collected all the wounded
from the boats and they were placed on board the destroyer. At
eleven o'clock the smoke from the approaching vessels was observed,
and half an hour later all the survivors had been picked off the
boats and were made as comfortable as possible on the rescue ships,
the men being entertained to the full extent by the ship's crews.
Of those lost, probably most were carried down
by the ship, as not a single lifeless body was picked up by the
boats engaged in searching the floating wreckage. Colonel Gray-Cheape
and his Adjutant remained on the bridge directing operations to the
last, and it is supposed that the Colonel succeeded in reaching a
raft, but was subsequently killed by a falling spar. The death of
the Colonel and his Adjutant were not only a great loss to the
Warwickshire Yeomanry, but to the whole combined Battalion.
Alexandria was reached at 7 p.m. on May 27th,
and on being landed on the quay, food and clothing were distributed
by the Red Cross. The officers were sent to the various hotels,
chiefly the San Stefano Hotel, and the men conveyed by train to Sidi
Bishr Camp. Excellent discipline and coolness was maintained
throughout by the South Notts. Hussars and the whole of the troops
and crew on board the ill-fated ship, and the launching of the forty
boats in forty-five minutes was a most commendable performance."