Clyde Steamers in World War 1

By on Feb 14, 2015 in Clyde River and Firth, Clyde Steamers, Ships and Steamers, World War 1 | 2 comments

The declaration of a state of war on August 4th, 1914 had little immediate effect on the Clyde and the river traffic. The construction of warships had been a feature of the shipyards for the previous six or seven years as Britain built up its fleet of Dreadnought battleships, but for the steamships that served the summer resorts, there was little impact until the following spring. In early February 1915, a number of Clyde steamers were taken by the Government to transport troops across the English Channel. Among them were the large paddle steamers Duchess of Hamilton, Duchess of Montrose, and Glen Sannox, and the turbine steamers, Duchess of Argyll, Queen Alexandra and King Edward. Painted black, they quickly established an important link for the army. The Glen Sannox was found unsuitable and returned to the Clyde, but the turbines in particular had a long and distinguished service record shuttling between Southampton and the Channel Ports to Le Havre and Rouen far up the River Seine. Over the course of the war, the Duchess of Argyll made 655 trips and carried 326,608 men to war, many never to return. The King Edward, as Troopship 861, was also busy and at the end of the war was commissioned between April 13th, 1919 and June 19th, 1920 for service in the White Sea where she flew the white ensign as the hospital carrier, HC.1 1919. The Queen Alexandra had a distinguished record as a transport and on May 9th, 1918, rammed and sank the U-boat UC-78 off Cherbourg. All 29 of the U-boat crew were lost. In the photograph below, Queen Alexandra is shown on the Seine at La Bouille in 1915.

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Queen Alexandra at La Bouille in 1915

Mounting losses of shipping by mines placed a priority on minesweeping and the shallow-draft and manœuverable paddle steamers were ideal candidates for the task. In mid-May 1915, H.M.S. Duchess of Montrose was converted as a minesweeper with the pennant No. 585. She was lost when she struck a mine she was sweeping on March 18, 1917 off Dunkirk. The H.M.S. Duchess of Hamilton, No. 933, was converted in September and she too was sunk by a mine on November 29, 1915, off the Longsand when working out of Harwich. The photograph below shows her awaiting conversion to a minesweeper.

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H.M.S. Duchess of Hamilton awaiting conversion

At the beginning of May, 1915, Marmion was called up and renamed H.M.S. Marmion II, No. 586, and armed with a six-pounder, she served as a minesweeper until she was discharged at the end of May, 1920. Soon it was the turn of Duchess of Rothesay, No. 935, called up in October 1915 and, based at Portland, had a busy war until released at the end of March 1920.

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H.M.S. Duchess of Rothesay

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Detonation of a mine from H.M.S. Duchess of Rothesay

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Duchess of Fife as H.M.S Duchess

The Neptune was renamed H.M.S. Nepaulin, No. 574, when she was called up in mid-July, 1915. She did not survive the conflict and was mined near the Dyck light vessel on April 20th, 1917.  Duchess of Fife, and renamed H.M.S. Duchess, No. 533, served in the North Sea. The new North British paddle steamer, Fair Maid was building at the outbreak of war and was purchased by the Admiralty in mid-September, 1915. As H.M.S. Fair Maid, No. 589, she was mined on November 9th, 1916 near Cross Sand Buoy. Mars, renamed H.M.S. Marsa, No. 438, also did not survive the conflict, and served from the middle of September, 1916 until she was sunk in collision at the entrance of Harwich Harbour on November 18th, 1917. The North British flagship, Waverley, was also called up in mid-September 1915, and armed with two six-pounder cannons, she survived and served until July 1920.

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H.M.S. Fair Maid

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H.M.S. Waverley in 1917

The other fleets on the Firth also had their vessels taken. The Queen Empress, No. 934, was called up at the end of October 1915. After a collision with a destroyer in the channel in 1917, she was towed into port by the Duchess of Argyll. Later, the Queen Empress was based at Newcastle and in May 1919, was after conversion to a hospital carrier, HC.4, like King Edward went to the White Sea, in support of the White Russians against the Bosheviks. She was de-mobbed at the end of June 1920. The Kylemore, No. 576, was called up at the end of November 1915 and served till the end of February 1920.

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H.M.S. Queen Empress

Mercury, No. 578, left the Clyde in December, 1915 and armed with two six-pounder guns, served at Harwich where she had both her bow and her stern blown off on separate occasions.

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H.M.S. Mercury

Some of the Clyde steamers that had found employment elsewhere, also received the call. The Marchioness of Bute was renamed H.M.S. Marchioness of Fife, No. 936, and with two six-pounders was taken at the end of October 1915. She was purchased by the Admiralty in October 1917 and became a troop carrier in January 1919, and three months later was converted to hospital carrier HC.6. She was broken up by Wards of Inverkeithing in 1923. One steamer already in service was H.M.S. Harlequin, formerly Strathmore, ran a ferry service at Portsmouth until May 1917, when she was converted for minesweeping, No. 838, in the Bristol Channel and Sheerness. She resumed her ferry duties in May 1919.

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H.M.S. Harlequin

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H.M.S. Eagle III

The next year, the demand for minesweepers continued. The Eagle III, No. 534, was taken in February and served until March 1920. It was the turn of Cameron’s Lady Rowena, No. 1239, in April when she was taken for the ferry service at Scapa. Later, she served as a minesweeper August, 1917 until February 1919.

Lady Rowena 2 War

H.M.S. Lady Rowena

The Forth steamer Redgauntlet was renamed Redgauntlet II, No. 535, served from June, 1916 and was eventually purchased by the Admiralty in July 1917. She was sold for breaking at the end of April 1919.

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H.M.S. Redgauntlet II

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H.M.S. Redgauntlet II in a heavy swell

Marchioness of Lorne, 0110, and Minerva, renamed Minerva II, 0111, were both called up on 19th of June 1916 and were sent to the Mediterranean where they were based at Alexandria until April 1919.

Marchioness of Lorne (War)

H.M.S. Marchioness of Breadalbane

It was in April 1917 that Marchioness of Breadalbane, No. 558, left the Clyde, serving as a minesweeper until January 1919 and then as a troop carrier until she was returned at the end of May that year. At the end of May, 1917, Isle of Arran, No. 843, was called up, serving till the end of March 1920, while Glen Rosa was renamed H.M.S. Glen Cross, No. 843, in June and was released in September 1919.

The depletion of the Clyde steamer fleet caused problems in providing services to communities around the Firth. This was exacerbated when the Cloch-Dunoon Boom was put in place on July 1 1915 and other restrictions including closing the upper river to passenger traffic compounded the problem.

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Cloch-Dunoon Boom

The steamers that remained were mostly the older craft, less suitable for minesweeping. The North British had a restricted service with Dandie Dinmont and Lucy Ashton. The real problems lay with the Caledonian and Glasgow and South Western Companies. Benmore and Isle of Cumbrae were both chartered by the railway companies as were Ivanhoe and a number of MacBrayne’s older craft.

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Benmore at Wemyss Bay as a Caledonian Steamer

The postcard of Isle of Cumbrae dates to the World War 1 period and the details of the Clyde anchorage have been removed by the censor.

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Isle of Cumbrae in Glasgow and South Western colors at Princes Pier.

The problems persisted through the end of the war and into 1920 where some relief arrived as many of the surviving steamers were released and reconditioned.


  1. Sarah U.S Gordon

    August 25, 2017

    Post a Reply

    W hat a good website. Thank you. I am reading a John Buchan novel and this is excellent background.

  2. James Willoughby

    November 30, 2017

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    My grandfather John Francis Bewley RNR, Service No D1444, served aboard HMS Lady Rowena 16.08.17 leaving on 09.09.17 to join HMS Pekin.

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