The loss of RFA Caribbean


How RFA Caribbean became part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and her subsequent loss is best told in three parts.

dunottar castle at Dartmouth

She was built on the River Clyde at Govan by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co as Yard No: 348 and launched on 22 May 1890 and named Dunottar Castle for the Castle Mail Packets Co Ltd of London and she was the first Union Castle liner to have 2 funnels. Her Lady Sponsor was the Lady Currie wife of the then Chairman of the Castle Line.

How RFA Caribbean became part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and her subsequent loss is best told in three parts.

  1. Her Merchant Service

She was built on the River Clyde at Govan by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co as Yard No: 348 and launched on 22 May 1890 and named Dunottar Castle for the Castle Mail Packets Co Ltd of London and she was the first Union Castle liner to have 2 funnels. Her Lady Sponsor was the Lady Currie wife of the then Chairman of the Castle Line.

By August 1890 she was completed at a cost of £169,532 and was fitted out to carry 160 1st class passengers, 100 2nd class passengers and 100 3rd class passengers. Her owners looking to the future also had arrangements planned into her building for her to carry 1,200 troops in an emergency.

She sailed on her maiden voyage on 14 October 1890 from London via Dartmouth, Devon to Cape Town setting a new record at the time for a passage of 17 days 19 hours and 50 minutes


dunottar castle at Dartmouth

RMS Dunottar Castle at Dartmouth

She settled down in her owner’s regular service between London and Cape Town until 24 August 1894 when, in thick fog, she grounded off the western side of the Eddystone Lighthouse. The Lighthouse marks the location of the treacherous Eddystone Rocks located 9 miles (14 km) south west of Rame Head in the English Channel. The ship, using its engines managed to refloat her self and made for Plymouth Sound to discharge 215 passengers and the South African Mails. Although the ship had been damaged the Master considered there was no danger and the ships continued her voyage to London later the same morning. On arrival in London the ship had to enter dry dock for repairs to be undertaken. On 18 September 1894 at the subsequent Board of Enquiry the ships Master was held totally to blame and his Masters certificate was suspended for three months.


 Dunottar Castle 1

An undated drawing of the RMS Dunottar Castle depicting her prior to 1897 when her yards were removed during a refit

By 1899 the Second Boer war was raging in South Africa and the Dunottar Castle was used to carry troops from the UK to fight in the war. Among those who variously took passage were Major General Sir Redvers Buller VC, Colonel Robert Baden Powell, Winston Churchill, the Lord Roberts and the Lord Kitchener. The ships owner’s plans for the ship to have the facility to carry large numbers of troops had been very fortuitous.

In 1904 the ship was withdrawn from service and laid up off Netley in Southampton Water.

Her owners by 1907 seeking a use for the vessel time chartered her to the Panama Railroad Company for 12 months to carry passengers between New York and Colon in the Republic of Panama. In 1908 she was again chartered this time to Sir Henry Lunn’s Co-Operative Cruising Company for cruises to Norway and the Mediterranean. In 1911 she cruised to India carrying passengers attending the Delhi Durbar extravaganza.

 Dunottar Castle 2

Another undated image of the RMS Dunottar Castle post her 1897 refit 

By Spring 1913 she had been transferred to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co Ltd and was renamed Caribbean for use on their New York, Bermuda, Canada and West Indies service.

In the autumn of 1914 with war clouds gathering over Europe the Admiralty hired the Caribbean as a troopship for use in the first Canadian Transport Convoys to Europe during October and November of that year. 

2) Her Royal Naval Service

By November 1914 the Caribbean was at Liverpool and work was put in place to convert the troop ship into an Armed Merchant Cruiser otherwise described as an Auxiliary Cruiser. Her Royal Navy Commanding Officer (Commander Frederick H Walter Royal Navy) was appointed on 23 November 1914 and her RNR Chief Engineer Officer was appointed on 7 December 1914. She was commissioned as HMS Caribbean while alongside at Brocklebank Dock, Liverpool on 12 December 1914.

By 25 December 1914 with a full RN and RNR crew she sailed on her first war patrol as an Armed Merchant Cruiser. Regrettably she did not get very far as a note in her ships log states ‘the steering gear is very troublesome’. The ship’s engineers applied their best efforts to correct the problem however the ship’s log for 30 December 1914 states that ‘the steering gear was working badly through one watch’. Further entries in the ship’s log on 1 January, 1915 and the 3 January 1915 still notes defects in the steering gear. By the 9 January 1915 she had returned to Liverpool early and while in mid stream off Morpeth Dock the order to let go the starboard anchor was given only to find that the anchor would not run out. The port anchor was let go instead.

Dunottar Castle 3


The next day she had been moved into Morpeth Dock for Harland & Wolff’s engineers to make good the defects. She loaded bunker coal and on 15 January her lifeboat on the starboard quarter was damaged when the sling bolt carried away. A water boat which had been alongside when casting off fouled the ships port quarter causing damage to the water boats deck structure.

Not only was the ship in a poor state mechanically but there were problems with crew – one Signalman had been sentenced to a term in DQ’s and a Fireman was logged and discharged for being ‘objectionable’ – the mind boggles as to what this ment!

On the 19 January 1915 with all her defects repaired she sailed from Liverpool on her second war patrol. She crossed the Liverpool bar with the intention of making her way out into the North Atlantic – the steering gear was found to still be defective and she was forced to anchor in Bangor Bay. H & W engineers sailed from Liverpool in a tender to try and repair the defects again.

While at anchor in Bangor Bay on 21 January 1915 while further tests were being made on the steering gear the Chadburn helm indicator carried away! Her second war patrol was cancelled.

By the 25 January 1915 she was able to sail back to Liverpool and entered the Brocklebank Dry Dock. On the 29 January the dry dock was flooded up and she was moved into Canada Dock. While in dry dock it had been noticed she had a chipped propeller.

On 7 February 1915 she sailed on her third war patrol. She replenished her bunkers on 16 February 1915 at Loch Ewe but by 1 March 1915 she was at Tail of Bank steaming towards the Princess Dock, Glasgow for John Brown & Co’s engineers to over haul her steering gear.

The 30 March 1915 saw her sailing on her fourth war patrol out into the North Atlantic but by now the Admiralty had realised that her condition was so poor that she was ill equipped to be an Armed Merchant Cruiser and steps were taken to deploy her on other duties.

In June 1915 the Admiralty purchased her outright and put in hand an over haul at Liverpool to remove her armaments and fit her out as an RFA accommodation vessel to be berthed at Scapa Flow. Scapa Flow lacked accommodation for Dockyard workmen employed on working on HM ships and here was the perfect use for this very tired old vessel.

3) Her RFA Service

The ship joined the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service in July 1915

One of the first requirements for RFA Caribbean was a crew.  In accordance with the practice at the time all RFA vessels with the exception of 17 or 18 freighting tankers were commissioned vessels with the senior officers – the Master, the Chief Officer, the Chief Engineer Officer and the Second Engineer Officer being granted the RNR ranks of Lieutenant or Sub Lieutenant while all other officers and crew were, in the main, MMR (Mercantile Marine Reserve) provided by HMS Eagle at Liverpool.

The ship’s Master was appointed on the 12 August 1915 – he was Commander H W Bethune but later it was reported that he had ‘not been to sea for twelve years’.

On 6 September 1915 the Master received a communication that only the ships four senior officers would be appointed as officers in the RNR. He wrote complaining that Chief Engineer Officer Alfred Nettleton and Senior Engineer Ernest Ashley Tee, both of whom had held RNR ranks in the ships RN days had stood by the ship after she had been decommission. In addition Engineer John Colquhoun Black, Chief Officer Robert Henderson, 2nd Officer James Griffiths and 3rd Officer Hugh Speakman all wanted to be commissioned as RNR Officers – positions they held during her Royal Navy commission.  3rd Officer Hugh Speakman did not pursue his request due to a medical discharge but the others, due to misreading their letters of appointment had already renewed their RNR laced uniforms. The Director of Transport replied what the RFA policy was and when told they would not all receive temporary RNR commissions the officers all refused to take up their appointments.

On the 22 September 1915 the Senior Naval Officer, Liverpool was sent a message from the Admiralty that if the officers refused to accept the RFA policy they were all to be discharged immediately and other RNR officers would be supplied to allow the ship to sail to Scapa Flow. After arrival at Scapa Flow mercantile officers would be provided to man the ship.

The officers were discharged and four RNR engineers who were working at Camel Lairds at Birkenhead were immediately appointed in their place. None had previous experience of the ship or any similar ships of her class.

The Master was advised by the Admiralty that he was to be in contact with the Commodore of the Special Service Squadron for crew members and who, in particular, had several carpenters awaiting employment. The lack a good carpenter was a crucial detail which the subsequent Board of Enquiry found had resulted in the loss of the ship.

To a further signal the Master confirmed he required ‘no further ratings’ on the morning of the 13 September 1915 yet by that evening he was seeking thirteen engine room ratings. Ten were sent and they arrived on 15 September 1915.

Commander Bethune appointed the Chief Officer and this officer obtained further members of the crew, including a carpenter, from the local Mercantile Marine Office on HMS Eagle.

On the evening of the 23 September 1915 the Master received orders to sail the next day. He asked for a 24 hour delay as his Officers and men were not sufficiently acquainted with their ship. – his request was refused.

RFA Caribbean sailed on 24 September 1915 and after adjusting her compasses anchored off New Brighton to await that evening’s tide. With a pilot she sailed at 8pm and the pilot left the ship at 9pm when they were off the Bar Lightship.

On sailing the ship enjoyed fine weather but by 2am on 25 September the sea had increased as they sailed northward up the Upper Minch. At 8am the Chief Engineer reported that water was coming down into the stokehold through the port foremost cross bunker. Watertight doors were closed and all pumps were put in the stoke hold and the water level appeared soon under control.

At 11am the ship rounded Cape Wrath. There were very heavy seas and a strong gale was blowing. The swell was abeam and the ship commenced to roll heavily.  The Chief Engineer reported that the ship must haul her head to sea as the level of water was lifting the floor plates in the stokehold. He reported the pumps which were becoming choked with coal and ashes and could not keep the water level down.

A SOS signal was transmitted and as the Chief Engineer reported that he would not be able to keep steam for very much longer, the ship’s head was turned to the Westward to keep well clear of the land.

By 2pm the fires had to be drawn and all lights gradually went out. The ship was drifting beam on, in very heavy seas and rolling heavily.

Assistance arrived in the form of three drifters between 3pm to 4pm and later other ships – one returned as they could not find her and the sea was too rough. At about 7.40pm HMS Birkenhead appeared on the scene and sought to take the Caribbean in tow but the weather was still bad and this was not possible. By midnight the ship had developed a list to port and the crew were ordered to come on deck. The lee lifeboats were lowered one by one. 50 or 60 crew members gradually got away from the vessel. The ship now had a heavy list to port and another life boat was lowered with 10 to 12 men onboard. This life boat capsized and those onboard were thrown into the sea and drowned. A boat from the Birkenhead took 24 men off the weather bow. This boat returned to take the remaining Officers and the Master off the ship. RFA Caribbean eventually foundered at about 7.40am in about 50 fathoms 35 miles (56 km) off Cape Wrath.

A Board of Enquiry was held a few days after the loss of the ship chaired by the Rear Admiral in command of the First Battle Squadron, two Captains of Royal Naval Battleships and an Engineer Captain RN and they subsequently found that three scuttles (portholes) on the port side of the ship to the drying room were only partially closed thus allowing water to enter. The Master primarily blamed the loss of the ship on the decision not to grant all the Engineer Officers who had experience of the vessel RNR commissions. Despite having orders to obtain crew, as far as possible, from the Special Service Squadron he allowed a mercantile crew to be obtained by the Chief Officer.  The Board blamed the Chief Officer and described the Carpenter as “evidently quite incompetent”. However, the Master was ‘primarily to blame’ for not taking the necessary precautions concerning the inexperience of the officers and the crew and state of the weather. Commander Bethune was censured.

The fifteen members of the crew who died were: –

Stoker 1st Class Henry George Cade, Royal Navy *

Stoker 1st Class Stuart Chandler, Royal Navy *

Chief Cook Harry Dickinson, Mercantile Marine Reserve **

Canteen Manager Thomas Griffiths, Admiralty Civilian **

Stoker William Moore Margetson, Royal Naval Reserve ***

Assistant Steward Robert McGregor, Mercantile Marine Reserve **

Fireman Alexander Dadalot Messenger, Mercantile Marine Reserve **

Donkeyman George Ernest Moss, Mercantile Marine Reserve **

Stoker 1st Class Charles Edward Pescot, Royal Navy *

Baker William Short, Mercantile Marine Reserve **

Assistant Cook Henry Smith, Mercantile Marine Reserve **

Stoker 1st Class Alexander Kerslake Wade, Royal Navy ****

Canteen Assistant Herbert Sydney Waterfield, Admiralty Civilian **

Messman Ernest William Benjamin Wormwell. Mercantile Marine Reserve**

Stoker William Arthur Wright, Royal Naval Reserve ***


Each of whom is remembered with pride on the: –

*     Portmouth Naval Memorial

**   Plymouth Naval Memorial

*** Chatham Naval Memorial

 **** Buried at Sandwick Cemetery, Ross & Cromarty

Stoker WADE RFA Caribbean

The headstone marking the grave of Stoker 1st Class Alexander K Wade in Sandwick Cemetery, Ross & Cromarty


The vessel has remained untouched off Cape Wrath until a few years ago when local sport divers found her. It is reported she is sitting upright on the sea bed festooned with fisherman’s nets. The wreck of RFA Caribbean is a war grave and should be remembered as such.