On 25th May 1918, Kyarra was sailing from Tilbury to Devonport near Plymouth to embark Australian wounded soldiers back to Sydney and take on full general cargo. She was sunk on the 26th May 1918 near Swanage in Dorset by a torpedo to her portside amidships from UB-57 under the command of Oberleutnant Johannes Lohs with a loss of six lives.
Design and Build
The Kyarra was a twin masted schooner rigged steamer. She was built in 1903 by the W Denny Brothers ship builders, Dumbarton on the river Clyde, Scotland. At this stage in history ships such as the Kyarra were fitted out to a very high standard. Brass was extensively used throughout the Kyarra.
As with many ships, the Kyarra shared her design with a sister ship named the SS Kanowna. The Kanowna was actually launched four months ahead of the Kyarra and lost in 1929 when she ran ashore off Wilsons Promontory in foggy conditions, laying today at some 77 metres in Tasmanian jurisdiction waters.Both ships were fabulously designed and built.
Launch and Finishing Touches
The Kyarra was launched on 2nd February 1903. She was 415 feet and 5 inches long and had a beam of 52 feet and 2 inches, with a draught of 31 feet and 5 inches. After launching, the Kyarra was moved to a fitting out dock and it was during this period that the Kyarra’s final touches were put in place. When finished the Kyarra would weigh 6,953 tons with a net tonnage of 4,383. Her two engines produced 375BHP each. These triple expansion engines by Denny pushed her to a speed of 15.4 knots.
Both the Kyarra and the Kanowna were ordered by the Australian United Steam Navigation Company Limited (AUSN).
The Kyarra was assigned the International Code letters T.W.S.C. as being registered at the port of Fremantle, Western Australia in 1903.
Passenger and Cargo Vessel
The purpose of the Kyarra was to not only carry fare paying passengers but also a range of general cargo. This meant she had an impressive forty two first class 3 berth cabins and twenty second class cabins each with 8 berths. Not surprisingly for such an elegant ship she also had a number of state rooms.
The cargo area consisted of 253,000 cubic feet of space and cargo winches were set fore and aft of the Kyarra’s foredeck and aft deck holds.
The Kyarra was a very profitable and successful ship. For ten years Kyarra sailed between Fremantle, Western Australia, where she was registered, and Sydney, New South Wales carrying cargo and passengers. She sailed under the flag of the United Steam Navigation Company Limited of London.
On 6th November 1914 she was requisitioned in Brisbane by the British government and converted into a hospital ship (HMAT A.55 Kyarra) for the purpose of transporting the Australian medical units to Egypt. The hull was painted white with a large red cross on the side. She carried the full staff and equipment of the Nos. 1 and 2 General Hospitals, the No. 1 and 2 Stationary Hospitals and the No. 1 Clearing Hospital. In March 1915, Kyarra was converted into a troop transport.
Back to Britain
Commonwealth control of the Kyarra ended on the 4th January 1918. On 19th January 1918 just a couple of weeks after ending control of the Kyarra, Captain Albert Donovan took command and readied the ship for a return to Britain.
In early May 1918 the Kyarra arrived in London. Although the journey had been dangerous the Kyarra was safe.
Preparing for departure from Zeebruge was Oberleutnat Lohs, commander of UB-57. The UB-57 was part of the Flanders Flotilla. At this point in time no one could have predicted for sure that these two vessels would be in the same section of water together. But history now tells us that they would.
On 26th May 1918 the luxury passenger liner sailed west to towards Plymouth along the South coast of England to pick up 1,000 wounded Australian troops from Devonport and return them to their homeland.
The sea was calm and the SS Kyarra was steaming across waters off the Dorset coast, all on board unaware that a German U-Boat was lying in wait. She was making good progress. As the Kyarra started to move around Anvil Point, no one on board could have said for sure she was being watched.
As Oberleutnant Lohs gave the order to fire from a hidden position just a short distance from the Kyarra, the fate of the ship was sealed. As the torpedo left the submarine at 08.50am and made its way towards the Kyarra, people on board who knew the dangers of the sea during war time, but none had any idea how close that war was about to come to their lives.
Aboard the Kyarra the shout of “torpedo” sent fear into the heart of every one close enough to hear it. Captain Donavan run to the port side of the bridge. The watchman had spotted the signs but it was already too late.
Less than 100 yards away, approaching on a determined course was the signs of a torpedo. The order for hard to port was given but was never actioned.
There just wasn’t enough time. The torpedo struck the Kyarra amidships the port side. Just forward of the boilers. The order to abandon ship was given and the lifeboats were winched down as the Kyarra began to sink.
In just 20 minutes the 6,953 tonne ship had disappeared beneath the waves killing five crew members immediately and injuring another so badly that he died later. The once beautiful ship was gone.
Diving The Kyarra
The wreck stands 18 metres proud of a rocky seabed at 30 metres depth, one mile off Anvil Point near Swanage. Popular with divers today, she is considered the most dived shipwreck off the English coast, drawing thousands of divers each year.
The holds still contain perfume, red wine, champagne, stout, vinegar bottles, Lea and Perrins, sticks of red sealing wax and medical supplies. Recent finds include silver purses, men’s pocket watches, ladies’ gold watches.
Dive at slack and beware strong tides. Bow lays NE to SW at latitude 50° 35′ 16.19″ N and longitude -1° 56′ 34.79″ W.
In the early 1990s, part ownership of the wreck was transferred to the Kingston & Elmbridge BSAC from the Kyarra Salvage Association. Members welcome divers to this wreck but request that no items be removed to preserve what remains there in good condition for all to enjoy.
We Will Remember
- Brown. Fireman age 33. Born in London.
- Duncan Mackenzie. Fireman age 52. Son of the late Murdo and Catherine Mackenzie. Born at Udrigle.
- Laurence Albert McPhun. Stewards Boy age 16. Son of Mrs Louisa McPhun of 12, Tynemouth Street, Hull.
- Henry Garnet Warmlington Morley. Trimmer age 28. Husband of Allison Trent Cook (nee Morley) of The Shack, Calangir, Western Australia.
- James Abbott Nanles. Fireman age 28. Son of Emily Nanles (nee Wiltshire) of 25, Trinity Street, London and the late Abbott Nanles born at Canning Town.
- William Small. Fifth Engineer Officer age unknown. Son of Mr and Mrs A B Small of Sydney