- Auten, Harold, VC, Lieutenant Commander, RN
- WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1997 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Lieutenant Smiles stationed one man in the fore-end to keep a look-out forward, and it was this rating who warned him that the fore-end was right under water, and that the party forward had dived overboard and were swimming about. The fact of the ship going down by the head naturally brought her stern up, and by this time Lieutenant Smiles’ gun was useless, owing to the angle at which the ship was lying. He consequently gave the order to his party to abandon ship, which was carried out by throwing overboard two small rafts that were on No. 6 hatchway. To these were added several long planks.
As they were doing this, the ship gave a lurch, and they were all thrown into the water. A moment after the ‘Stonecrop’ sank, leaving nothing to tell of her existence beyond a quantity of wreckage and a number of officers and men swimming about.
As far as was able, Commander Blackwood collected his men who had jumped overboard on to a wrecked raft, and later got hold of one of the `panic party’s’lifeboats, which had been swamped. Subsequently he picked up Lieutenant Smiles from a plank, he being unable to swim.
A few minutes after this incident the “U” boat broke surface some distance away, and steamed toward the boats and raft at some fifteen knots. As she approached, her gun was cleared for action. She eased down when approaching the boat containing the navigator, who had originally gone away in charge of the `panic party’, and covering the boats with his gun hailed her.
“What ship is that?” he demanded.
“The `Salient’, Cardiff to Scapa, cargo coal, 2,000 tons”, replied the navigator.
Apparently satisfied with this information the submarine commander turned his boat round and made off to the S.W., securing his gun as he went. This was the last the ‘Stonecrop’s’ crew saw of him.
They were now in a desperate fix. There had been no time to get out a wireless signal after the explosion to warn other craft in their neighbourhood, or to ask for assistance. They were far from land, the sea and wind were rising, and to crown all, they had only two boats. one of which was waterlogged, and a raft, to accommodate the whole crew, which had originally numbered ninety-nine.
Of provisions and water they had little enough, and it was necessary to put every man on short rations. Commander Blackwood collected all the floating wreckage together and Lieutenant Smiles started to build a better raft than the one on which they were. The work occupied them until dark. It was a slow process. swimming about securing planks and towing them towards where the first lieutenant was engaged in his construction.
Eventually Commander BIackwood received a report from his first lieutenant to the effect tnat he was satisfied with the raft, which had a freeboard of only 18 inches. At five o’clock Commander Blackwood sent one boat off towards the land in the hope of obtaining assistance. In his report referring to the behaviour of his crew after the ship had been lost, he said: “I have the honour to draw your attention to the behaviour of my ships’s company: or rather what was left of them. It was simply splendid. I can find no other words for it. When the ship had gone down, and we were all in the water, the men were singing ‘Tipperary’, and a hail of ‘Are we downhearted?’ drew the usual reply from all hands. When they were not singing, they were cheering”.
This was characterisitc of “O” boat crews, particularly those of popular commanders who had shown that they knew their business. It was through no fault of either officers or men that the “Stonecrop” had been lost. It was a case of having met an antagonist who was not to be bluffed.
Having completed the raft, and as night was rapidly approaching, Commander Blackwood informed Lieutenant Smiles that he would stand by the raft until daylight, and he hoisted a light in his boat.
Until midnight the boat and raft kept together, then the breeze freshened and they drifted apart. Commander Blackwood got out the oars and tried to find the raft, but the men were practically helpless with cold and could make little or no headway.