The Sinking of the SS Marquette

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The Sinking of the "HT Marquette" Transport Ship on 23 October 1915

SS Marquette

The SS Bodicea (as she was first called), was originally built for the Wilson & Furness-Leyland Line with accommodation for 120 1st class passengers. Launched on November 25th 1897, she made her maiden voyage from Glasgow to London and New York on January 15th 1898. Later that year she became one of 5 sister ships acquired for the Atlantic Transport Line for around £140,000 each.

She made only one trip across the Atlantic in service with her new owners before, on September 15th 1898, she was renamed SS Marquette. She then began further regular sailings across the Atlantic. By September 1905, she had been transferred to the Red Star Line and, once fitted with radio, she commenced the Antwerp to Philadelphia service for that Company.

By the end of 1914, she had completed her final Atlantic crossing, as Antwerp and other Belgian ports had fallen into German hands. She was then requisitioned for use as a British war transport ship, for which she was re-painted grey. Less than 12 months later, she was torpedoed without warning, and sunk in the Aegian Sea with the loss of many lives.

What was SS Marquette doing?

SS Marquette had set off from Alexandria, Egypt on a routine mission to Salonika, Greece on October 19th, 1915. She was escorted for 4 days by the French Destroyer, "Tirailleur". On board were 22 officers and 588 other ranks of the 29th Division Ammunition Column, Royal Field Artillery with it's vehicles and animals. Also on board were 8 officers, 9 NCO's and 77 other ranks of the New Zealand Medical Corps, and the equipment and stores of No.1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital, including thirty-six nurses. In addition, SS Marquette had a ship's crew of 95, making a total of 741 persons on board. Her cargo included ammunition, horses and mules.

U-Boat, U35

The U-35 was commissioned into the German Imperial Navy on November 3rd, 1914. She was powered by 2 diesel engines which gave her a submerged speed of around 9 knots. She was 67.80 meters long, 6.32 meters at the widest point, 3.6 meters from keel to water deck and she displaced 878 tons. She could carry 6 torpedoes. Armed with 4 torpedo tubes, 2 at the bow and 2 at the stern, she was brought into service in the eastern Mediterranean to support the struggling Austrian's and Turks. The U-35 was to become the most devastating U-boat in WW1, holding the record for tonnage sunk at 224 ships. Not all of U-35's targets were sunk using her valuable torpedoes; some were sunk using her deck cannon after the crew had been allowed to leave the ship! Indeed, there are reports that the submariners even gave the ship's crew advice on which direction to travel in their lifeboats to reach safety!

The Strike

Unfortunately for the Marquette, she was a legitimate target. Although she was carrying a field hospital team, she was also carrying men, machines and ammunition. There was to be no warning and no opportunity to abandon ship before she was destroyed. Now without her escort (the French Destroyer "Tirailleur" had left the convoy the evening before), SS Marquette was struck by a torpedo from U-35 completely without warning at 09.15 on October 23rd, 1915. She sank within 13 minutes and 167 died.

Could this tragedy have been avoided?

Arguably, yes! There are certainly a number of factors which would have made U-35's task difficult if not impossible. Survivors at the enquiry in Salonika asked the following questions, amongst others:

HT Marquette Memorial in the Mikra British Cemetery (Click for larger image)
  • Why did the escort ship leave early when the Marquette was only 35 miles from the safety of the anti-submarine nets at Salonika?
  • Why was the Marquette only making 9 knots, the same speed as a submerged U-boat?
  • Why was she not zig-zagging?
  • Why were the hospital staff travelling on board this ship when the British hospital ship, "Grantilly Castle", with 552 beds, left Alexandria on the same day as the Marquette and with the same destination? She sailed empty! She was used to treat many of the survivors of this tragedy.

One lesson learned was that never again would a medical unit be transported in anything other than a hospital ship, a practice that continued into the Second World War.

Mikra British Cemetery, Greece

John's Medal Card (Click for larger image)

Mikra British Cemetery now contains 1,810 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, as well as 147 war graves of other nationalities. The Mikra Memorial can be found within the cemetery, commemorating almost 500 nurses, officers and men of the Commonwealth Forces who died when troop transports and hospital ships were lost in the Mediterranean, and who have no grave but the sea. They are commemorated here because others, who went down in the same vessels but were washed ashore and identified, and are now buried at Thessalonika.

In the photograph of the Mikra Memorial (right) in the centre pane, the name Tunkin J.P.R can clearly be seen just right of centre. (For a full size view of the centre pane, click this link).

Driver John Patrick Reed Tunkin was the son of John and Emma Tunkin of Torbay and he died at the age of 20, probably drowned. His name is remembered on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website and also on the Memorial to the Great War in Torquay, Devon, his home town.

J.P.R. Tunkin's Medals

To the left, is a scanned image of John Tunkin's WW1 medal card. It clearly shows the Theatre of War as Egypt, and the date of entry as 6th April, 1915. It also shows his entitlement to medals for service to his country. The medals listed are as follows:

  • The Victory Medal 1914-1919, was authorised in 1919 and was awarded to all eligible personnel who served on the establishment of a unit in an operational theatre.
  • The British War Medal 1914-1920, authorised in 1919, was awarded to eligible service personnel and civilians alike. Qualification for the award varied slightly according to service. The basic requirement for army personnel and civilians was that they either entered a theatre of war, or rendered approved service overseas between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. Service in Russia in 1919 and 1920 also qualified for the award.
  • The 1914/15 Star, authorised in 1918, was awarded to those individuals who saw service in France and Flanders from 23 November 1914 to 31 December 1915, and to those individuals who saw service in any other operational theatre from 5 August 1914 to 31 December 1915.

Acknowledgements and thanks:
I owe a debt of grateful thanks for historical information provided by the "Marquette Angels" project on Rootsweb without whose assistance, this page would not have been possible. I must also acknowledge Nontas Meletiou, an employee of the Kalamaria Municipality, for taking, and making available, the photograph of the Mikra Memorial. The larger photo of the centre panel of the memorial was supplied by The War Graves Photographic Project.

Visit J.P.R. Tunkin's page on the main website.