Shonas Wrecks - RMS Salsette

This page is an entry in Shonas Wreck Guide.

Salsette under way
Salsette under way

Depth: 32-48m
Tonnage: 5842 Grt
Built: 1908
Sunk: 20th July 1917 by UB40

In 1907 the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, with an already large building programme in hand, had laid down for them in Caird's yard, at Greenock, a special vessel which was one of the most beautiful ships the company has ever owned. This was the Salsette, smaller than the current "M" class but nearly 6,000 tons and specially designed for a shuttle service between Aden and Bombay. The company's Australian mail ships were calling enroute at Aden every other week, alternating with the Indian mail steamers and it was to be Salsette's job to pick up the Indian mail, together with passengers and some special cargo, from the Australian bound ships and rush it to Bombay. On the return voyage she was to load the United Kingdom mail at the Indian port and transfer it in Aden to the ships homeward bound from Australia. For such a service she needed a considerable reserve of power and speed to cope with any delays occurring to the mail ships themselves, and a designed seas speed of 18.5 knots was required.

A steel twin screw ship of 5,842 tons gross and 2,388 net, the Salsette had an overall length of 457 ft. and registered length of 440 ft, while the beam and depth were 53.2 ft and 19.5 ft respectively, 28 ft depth to the upper deck. There were two hatchways forward and one aft and eight watertight bulkheads with two overall decks, a forecastle, bridge deck and poop, the after "well" being decked over.

The lines of the hull were fine and she had a beautiful sweeping sheer, a graceful counter stern and no parallel middle body at all - a really beautiful hull with well spaced masts and funnels and a large yard on the foremast. Cargo and mails were worked by six hydraulic cranes.

Often described as a miniature "M" class ship, she was hardly "miniature" with her 457 ft and was not so built up amidships as the larger mail ships. There was little space for cargo and she was essentially a mail and passenger carrier.

Her twin screws were driven by large quadruple-expansion engines with cylinders 28, 40, 57 and 82 ins in diameter and a stroke of 48 ins and together these indicated 10,000 h.p. Four double-ended and two single-ended boilers, working at 215 lbs per were fitted in two boiler rooms. Each double-ended boiler had six furnaces, the single-ended ones three, and the total heating surface was 23,151 sq. ft. They burnt coal, of course, and this was loaded into the bunkers through coaling doors in the ship's side. Turbines had been seriously considered for her propulsion but were turned down owing to the heavier first cost and their rather poor economy at reduced speeds, possibly also due to lack of repair and overhaul facilities on a run on which the ship was not intended to return home.

In the summer of 1908 the ship ran her trials and made 19.5 knots. She was given a white hull and yellow funnels and looked a picture and almost yacht-like, obviously cut out for speed. Originally, her superstructure was painted the usual P and 0 "light stone" colour but if this is so she was very soon repainted white.

After her trials she made a delivery cruise down the Irish Sea and into the Bay of Biscay with guests of the owners, and then went to Tilbury where she was thrown open to the public, at a shilling a head, for the benefit of the Seamen's Hospital.

One of the Salsette's telephones
Alfred Graham & Co - Patent Navy Phone

Before going out to her station she made two pleasure cruises, one to the Northern Capitals and one to the Mediterranean. On the first, from August 8 to 31, she visited Amsterdam, Christiana, Copenhagen, Kronstadt, Helsingfors and Kiel. The second one, September 8 to October 8, took her to Gibraltar, Algiers, Corfu, Cattaro, Venice and Sicily and she ended the cruise at Marseilles. From there she went out to Bombay and in spite of being held up for several hours in the Suez Canal and being in need of drydocking, beat the company's record between these ports with a time of 11 days, 21 hours. She was soon to show that she was quite capable of sprints of 20 knots at sea.

From 1908 to 1915 she remained steadily on the shuttle service, In Aden once the Australian mail steamer had arrived at the buoys ahead of her, there was intense activity as the mails and passengers were transferred and it was a matter of pride on everyone's part that the transfer was at top speed and that no sooner was the last bag aboard than the Salsette was off.

Her masters found her a strong and reliable ship and well able to be driven. She often was. But her fine lines made her prone to rolling and the high horse power in the comparatively slender hull caused vibration so that at times, bashing her way between Socotra and Bombay in the south-west monsoon, she gave her passengers a rather thin time of it. She carried a large golden cock at the masthead, claiming to the fastest ship on the Indian Ocean and this claim certainly seems well justified. In 1910 she made her best passage between Bombay and Aden with a time of three days, 19 hours, seven minutes. With awnings spread and a "bone in her teeth" she was as smart as any cruiser of Royal yacht and her crew were immensely proud of her.

These were the grand years of shipping when pride was taken in the services run and a ship was not merely a unit in a transport system nor judged solely by some efficiency coefficient derived from a economic formula by some computer.

When the war broke out the Salsette was left to her normal run until 1915 but then, due to many of the regular mailships having been requisitioned for Admiralty work, was ordered home and put on the London-Bombay mail service. When in Marseilles on her first voyage the French captured two spies who admitted that they had given information as to her sailing to a U-boat waiting outside for her. She remained in Marseilles for two days as a result and the submarine, strangely enough, sank the French ship Salsette instead.

Homeward bound there was no gun in Bombay available for her so her carpenter manufactured a very passable wooden dummy 4.7 in and it was mounted aft. Off the Spanish coast it appears to have frightened off a U-boat for when she approached on the surface and the dummy was trained on her she promptly dived and made off. A real gun was fitted in London.

On her next voyage, when outward with the mails and a few passengers, she stranded in the Gulf of Suez off Ras Abu Dorez. Her condensers choked up with sand, but she was eventually pulled off by the French cruiser Montcalm, with the British cruisers Fox and Proserpine standing by to assist. Little damage was done to her hull. On returning home she was put onto the Australian service via Bombay and Colombo and in 1916-17 made two round voyages to Sydney. She then returned to the shuttle service for a time but returned to Britain in the summer of 1917 and in July sailed from London, with a large consignment of money for paying the troops in Egypt, on her way to Sydney.

But on July 20, when doing 19 knots and zig-zagging off Portland Bill she was hit by a torpedo and sunk. The explosion wrecked five of her 12 boats and killed a number of men in the engine room. She sank in four minutes, rolling over and going down by the head. Fourteen lives were lost and the survivors were picked up by trawlers while destroyers circled the area and depthcharged the submarine. But it escaped and, in fact, torpedoed another ship shortly afterwards.

So, after only nine years, ended the life of an extremely fine ship. It was not till 1925 that another ship, the Razmak, took her place on the shuttle service, a vessel of 10,600 tons and very slightly greater speed. But due to increased foreign competition from the Mediterranean the service never regained its popularity and though the Razmak ran from Marseilles after 1926 she was withdrawn altogether in 1929 and became the USS Co's Monowai.

These days, the Salsette lies approximately 10 miles from Portland Bill, on her side in a 48m scour with a 45 degree list to port. This vessel is one of the best dives in Lyme Bay - not only because of her 600 portholes. The ship is very much intact, despite all of the superstructure having slid down the deck to the seabed. The s'brd side of the wreck lies in approx 32m of water and still has the majority of it's 300 portholes remaining.