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100 years ago: The incredible story of Pendlebury hero torpedoed by German submarine

In a very rare newspaper story from 100 years ago we hear the testimony of a local sailor whose crew was attacked by a First World War German U-Boat submarine.

By October 1916 the papers were mainly full of the horrors of soldiers being killed on in land battles on the Western Front.

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But the Eccles and Patricroft Journal of October 1916 told this rather astonishing story about a Mr S. Taylor, a wireless operator from 330 Bolton Road in Pendlebury.

He worked aboard an unnamed merchant ship and his day job was to operate the Marconi radio system, which could send wireless telegraphs and radio messages from ships at sea to land.

As the ship was transporting goods, and unarmed, one would assume they would normally be ignored by military vessels.

But it to an enemy submarine at war they were still considered fair game.

The sinking of merchant vessels carrying goods bound for Britain almost brought the country to its knees and was a particularly successful ploy by the German Imperial Navy.

German Marines load torpedoes on their U-Boat © IWM

German Marines load torpedoes on their U-Boat © IWM

Taylor wrote an incredible story to the Eccles newspaper editor, telling of his brush with death.

At 11.30am on Sunday 8 October 1916 his ship was travelling 60 miles off the North American coast when it was fired upon by a German submarine.

The heavy shell blew up close to the ship’s port side.

While the crew was panicked, the ship’s captain initially thought it was a shot across their bow from an American crew, perhaps to warn them of upcoming danger.

But when another shot rang out, closer this time, the captain instructed a full stop of the engines and ordered all of his men to abandon ship via the lifeboats.

Taylor rushed to his cabin and was successful in sending out an SOS distress radio call for help, giving operators his ship’s location.

All the while potential death and destruction was raining around him.

While German U-Boats were famous for their use of torpedoes, when they surfaced they had heavy machine guns on board to shell enemy craft.

German submarine crew aboard the smaller UC boats

German submarine crew aboard the smaller UC boats

The submarine crew were firing on his boat and at the same time trying to jam the radio signals: no less than 17 heavy shots came at the boat, which by now was starting to sink.

When Taylor had done his all he finally jumped into a lifeboat.

But the crew were astonished to see the German submarine sail up alongside them.

The enemy Commandant shouted across a question in English to ask if there were any more men still on board the boat.

When he was told that all of the crew had been safely accounted for, the Germans fired a final torpedo which crashed into the hull and blew up the ship.

German postcard of the U-Boat sinking of RMS Lusitania - which sparked riots in the UK

German postcard of the U-Boat sinking of RMS Lusitania – which sparked riots in the UK

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The merchant vessel sank stern first, standing upright in the water before snapping in half and crashing to the bottom of the ocean.

In an act of astonishing humanity the Commandant of the submarine fixed a tow rope to the lifeboat and towed it away to safety.

The rope actually broke three times and each time the German Commandant ordered it to be reconnected.

They were towed to within five miles of the Nantucket Lightship and once they were safe the Commandant waved them goodbye and submerged.

The Lightship Nantucket is a floating lighthouse marking the dangerous rocks on the east coast of North America

The Lightship Nantucket is a floating lighthouse marking the dangerously shallow waters of the Nantucket Shoals on the east coast of North America

To me, this is an amazing act of humanity.

The newspapers at this time were depicting the German forces as barbaric murderers of women and children with no concern for human life.

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The men in the lifeboat were taken on board an American destroyer and taken to the naval barracks at Newport where they spent the night.

From there they took the train to a Seaman’s Institute in New York and from there sent home on The White Star Line’s RMS Adriatic back to England.

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For his bravery in sending out the radio SOS Taylor was presented with a gallantry cerificate which read: “This is to certify that Mr S. Taylor was Marconi operator in charge when the steamer was sunk in the North Atlantic by German submarine.

The only known surviving photograph of Mr S Taylor

The only known surviving photograph of Mr S Taylor

“He sent out the wireless message of distress and general warning to other ships in the area whilst being heavily shelled by the enemy.

“He only left his instruments when ordered to do so by the captain after all hope of rescue had been abandoned.

“I have much pleasure in placing these facts on record of Mr Taylor’s coolness and and attention to duty under very distressing circumstances.”

It has to be said that Mr Taylor was indeed a very brave man and remarkably cool under pressure, I wonder if he survived the war and if this particular citation still exists in his family?

After the Armistice which ended the First World War, all German U-Boats were surrendered under the Treaty of Versailles – they would never again pose such a serious threat to British trade.

Main image: German U-Boat crew © Imperial War Museum

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SalfordOnline.com's Local History Editor and Senior Reporter.