P&O Ferries on the Frontline
The Great War called upon both men and ships to do their duty. 41 P&O ships, approximately two thirds of the entire fleet, served as troop carriers, hospital ships, store and supply vessels, under constant threat of attack from U boats, torpedoes, mines, bombs and gunfire.
Not all attacks were successful but some were disastrous. For example P&O’s Persia went down with the loss of 334 lives when torpedoed off Crete. All told, P&O lost 25 ships.
Amid the perils were heroic acts of bravery, notable among them Captain Bisset-Smith who died with five of his crew defending their ship the Otaki against impossible odds when attacked by a heavily armed German merchant raider, the Mowe. The Captain was awarded, posthumously, one of only two VC’s (Victoria Cross) given to members of the merchant marine in the First World War.
P&O’s chairman, Lord Inchcape, was sanguine is his acceptance of the company’s role. He reflected: “We make no complaint, we have borne philosophically our share of the burden of war, and we are proud to think that the Prime Minister has said that without the British Merchant Marine we should have collapsed as a nation by February 1915.
Header image: The passenger / cargo liner SS Carpentaria in her ‘dazzle’ camouflage. The ship survived the war, having been narrowly missed by a torpedo from German U boat UB31 in the English Channel in November 1917