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RMS Oceanic
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RMS Oceanic

The RMS Oceanic(II) was a luxury ocean going liner similar to the RMS Aquitania, the RMS Lusitania, the RMS Britannic, the RMS Mauritania, and the RMS Titanic, but was considered to be in a class of its own.

Oceanic had two funnels, the keel was laid in 1897, and the ship was built under the supervision of its designer, Thomas Ismay, the shipwright and owner of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, the precursor to the famous White Star Line. The ship was named after the company, and was intended to be its flagship.

The Oceanic, at 30,000 tons displacement, was to become known as the "Queen of the Ocean," costing one million pounds sterling, and even with the use of the most modern labour saving devices still required 1,500 shipwrights to complete, and was launched on the January 14, 1899. "Nothing but the very finest," was Ismay’s policy toward this new venture, and she was constructed at Harland and Wolff’s yard at Belfast, as was the tradition with White Star Line ships.

At a comfortable speed of 12 knots, this ship was capable of circumnavigating the globe without refuelling. The Oceanic was built to accommodate slightly over 2,000 passengers, including the 349 crew.

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the Oceanic was included in a deal with the Admiralty, which made an annual grant toward the maintenance of any ship on the condition that it could be called upon for naval work, during times of war. Thus, such ships were built to particular naval specifications, so that, in the case of the Oceanic, her construction facilitated the quick and easy mounting of the 4'-7" guns she was to be given subsequently. "The greatest liner of its day" had thus been pressed into Naval service.

On August 25, 1914, the newly-designated HMS Oceanic set out of Southampton for the last time, to begin a naval Service that was to last just two weeks. Oceanic's job was to patrol the waters from the North Scottish mainland to the Faroes, in particular the area around Shetland.

She was empowered to stop shipping at her Captain’s discretion, and to check cargoes and personnel for any potential German connections. The marines on board were to carry out these duties, although alongside the naval captain there was also the Merchant Master and many of his original crew.

Thus, Oceanic steered directly for Scapa Flow in Orkney, Britain’s foremost naval anchorage, with easy access to the North Sea and the Atlantic. From here she proceeded north to Shetland travelling continuously on a standard zigzag course as a precaution against the potential targeting of U-boats.

This difficult manoeuvering required extremely accurate navigation, especially with such a large vessel, and in the event it appears to have been woeful navigation rather than enemy submarines that was to be the doom of Oceanic.

Under better circumstances, the disaster may not have occurred at all, as it was at the time their had been some confusion in navigation, hampered by thick fog.

The newcomer, Captain R.N. William Slayter with overall charge, and Captain Henry Smith, with two years former service aboard the Oceanic, did not detect the navigators deviation from the scheduled course, although it had placed them on the wrong side of the Isle of Foula and directly in the path of a reef, until it was too late and they beached upon the "Terrible Shaalds."

Despite an accurate fix on their position given by Navigator Davy Blair, the night before and everyone on the bridge thinking they were well to the southwest of the Isle of Foula, they were in fact an estimated 13 to 14 miles off course.

Captain Slayter had retired after his night watch, unaware of the situation, with orders to steer to Foula. Captain Smith took over the morning watch, and with his former knowledge of the ship was only happy with her when the ship was in an open sea, and having previously disagreed with his naval superior about dodging around the island, he instructed the navigator to plot a course out to sea.

Slayter must have felt the shift in direction and reappeared on the bridge to countermand Smith and make what turned out to be a hasty and ill-informed judgement of the situation, leading them directly onto the Shaalds, a major threat to shipping nearby that comes to within a few feet of the surface, but which in calm weather gives no warning sign to the unwary mariner.

At the time of the disaster, it would not have been good form to publicise the event, being at the outset of the war with Germany, and the matter was hushed up. A world-famous 1st-class ship in perfect operational condition, without any enemy duress, in home waters whilst proceeding in calm seas, it still managed, within a fortnight of beginning its maiden tour of duty as a naval vessel, to run forward and become "incompetently parked" onto a charted reef. The revelation of such gross incompetence at this early stage of the war would have done nothing for national morale.

It has been reported a tradition for centuries that the captain of a ship, in overall command, would honour his position by taking full responsibility for any disaster regardless of the circumstance. This was not to be the case with Captain William Slayter, as he was quick to point out to his employers that he shared the responsibility with Captain Smith, who argued that technically having no orders, actual, oral or written, and with ultimate command being naval, despite all his experience of the ship he was to find himself but "a glorified look-out man".

At the court martial, both captains were exonerated with navigator and scapegoat Davy Blair reprimanded on a technicality.

Unlike the RMS Titanic and the RMS Lusitania, the Oceanic did not suffer with any great loss of lives; she sat squarely on the reef, "almost as though in dry dock."

An Aberdeen trawler, the Glenogil, was the first on the scene, and although she attempted to pull off the massive ship, it proved an impossible task, and with the hull already ruptured, Oceanic would not have stayed afloat long in open waters. Other ships in the area were called in to assist in the rescue operation that was to follow. The ships crew being delivered by the ships Lifeboats to the trawler were then ferried to the awaiting Alsation and Forward.

The 573-ton Admiralty salvage vessel, the Lyons, was dispatched to the scene hurriedly, and in the words of the Laird of Foula, Professor Ian S. Holbourn, writing about the disaster in his book on the Isle of Foula:

"The launch of the Lyons, a salvage boat which hurried to the scene, was capable of a speed of ten knots, yet was unable to make any headway against the tide although she tried for fifteen minutes. Even then it was not the top of the tide, and the officer in charge reckoned the full tide would be 12 knots, he confessed he would not have believed it had he been told".

Of the Oceanic’s two Masters; Merchant Commander Smith is said to have come ashore at the remote island’s tiny pier, and on looking back out to sea toward his stranded ship two miles away, he commented that the ship would stay on the reef as a monument and nothing would move it.

One of the Foula men, wise to the full power and fury of a Shetland storm, is said to have muttered with a cynicism not unknown in those parts ‘I‘ll give her two weeks’. (Isle of Foula: Holbourn).

Remarkably, following a heavy gale that had persisted throughout the night of the 29th September, just two weeks after the incident the islander’s discovered the following day that the ship had been entirely swallowed up by the sea. Where she remains to this day scattered as she fell apart under the pressure of the seas on the Shaalds.

An ineffectual attempt at salvage was attempted in the 1920s, but the heavy diving apparatus employed then hampered any significant progress, and in 1924 it was given up as irretrievably lost.

Further reading