Commercial and leisure ships across the country offered themselves up for service during both global conflicts of the 20th century. During the Great War and the Second World War, the White Star Line’s vessels were used to further the efforts against the ongoing war and so, the White Star warships were born.
Previously used as migration and commercial ships, the White Star Line’s ships took on a new role during the wars, serving as hospital ships and armed merchant cruisers.
Many British ships were attacked and sunk by enemy forces, with a great loss of life, supplies and vessels.
White Star Warships in The Great War
During World War I, White Star Line ships were requisitioned to do their part in the war efforts. By the time the terrible conflict came to an end, White Star Line had sacrificed 13 ships, with the majority being taken down by German U-Boats.
From 1914-1918, White Star warships carried half a million troops and four million tonnes of cargo across oceans and sea to wherever they were needed.
Perhaps the most famous White Star warships lost at the time were Oceanic II and Britannic II. The Oceanic was wrecked when she ran aground in Scotland and became stuck on rocks in 1914. Rescue efforts had to be abandoned and The Oceanic was eventually broken apart where she lay. The Britannic was the third Olympic class liner from the White Star Line and the sister ship of the ill-fated Titanic. During the First World War, she served as a hospital ship but was sunk when she hit a mine in the Kea Channel in November 1916. She sunk within 55 minutes and to this day, The Britannic remains as the largest passenger liner on the ocean floor.
German U-boats were the threat from the sea that nearly brought Britain to its knees in World War I. Nearly a thousand merchant ships were sunk by U-boats after Germany declared the seas around Britain a war zone and all British ships were attacked without prejudice.
White Star warships were not excluded from targets and the shipping company lost more than a couple of vessels to torpedoes. Arabic II was the first White Star ship to be lost to torpedoes, while Cymric went down less than a year later when she was attacked by the same U-boat that sunk Cunard Line’s Lusitania in 1915.
The Delphic and Afric were also both targeted by U-boats in 1917 and Justica went down in 1918 as she was serving as a troop transport ship.
One of the most notable minings of a White Star warship was that of the Laurentic. In 1917, she set sail to Nova Scotia with a secret supply of gold. After hitting two mines, she sank to her fate, taking 43 tons of gold with her (valued at approximately £390 million). Recovery efforts were made by the Royal Navy, with 5,000 dives being made to the wreck over the next seven years. All but 25 of the gold ingots were saved, with three more being found ten years later. The remaining 22 have never been found.
Some ships managed to survive these turbulent years, and with great success. The Olympic, the first Olympic class liner from the White Star Line, was the only merchant ship inworld War I known to have sunk a warship when she rammed and sank a U-boat that had tried to torpedo her.
The Celtic suffered significant attacks but sprung back to life after hitting a mine in 1917. A year later, after being repaired and put back into service, she was torpedoed but managed to escape. She was repaired again and served the rest of the war without incident.
World War II White Star Warships
The White Star Line was economically damaged after the horror of the First World War. With ships getting picked off and little income able to be generated.
When White Star Line was called upon yet again to contribute to war efforts, their ships and crews were offered. The three main ships had a more successful outcome than their sisters in the First World War, although Laurentic II was lost to the sea, taking 49 lives with her.
White Star warship Laurentic II put up a fierce battle when she and her crew engaged in combat with German U-99, a U-boat that sank more ships than any other U-boat in Germany’s history. When two torpedoes were fired towards the White Star liner, both of which missed, the ship returned fire with her gun. Four hours later, U-99 fired two more torpedoes and finally sent her to the ocean floor.
The Georgic II was the last ship built for the White Star Line before the infamous merger with the Cunard Line. The ship was spotted by German aircraft and bombed heavily, sinking in shallow water. A year later, the ship was recovered and set back to Harland and Wolff in Belfast to be refurbished into a troopship.
30 James Street During the War
As the former home of the White Star Line’s headquarters, 30 James Street (then named Albion House), was a hub of activity for the ships that they dedicated to the war.
During the Liverpool blitz, the entire city suffered major damage thanks to its importance and significance. 30 James Street managed to stand the test of time, being one of only a few buildings left standing on the street.
The only significant damage to the building was the destruction of the gable, which crumbled under the force of the sustained attack. The damage to the building was then rectified in the late 1940s and 30 James Street went on to become a listed building and, in time, a luxury Titanic-themed hotel in Liverpool.
Just inside the entrance to 30 James Street is a wooden war memorial that is dedicated to all the White Star members of staff who ‘gave their lives for their country’ during the First World War.
Liverpool During Global Conflicts
Liverpool was at the forefront of both the global conflicts of the 20th century. Its importance as a port and its position on the coast meant it became a key location for wartime operations. Our maritime history is deeply entwined in the city’s culture and it’s this aspect of our heritage that makes Remembrance Day so significant in Liverpool.
Remembering the sacrifices made during conflict is a part of British life, culture and heritage. Taking the time to silently thank those who gave their lives to secure and protect our freedom has been an important November event in Britain for decades.
Liverpool pays their respects to the fallen members of our armed forces on Saturday 11th of November, with a two-minute silence, and on Remembrance Sunday, with a number of services set to take place at some of the many war memorials around the city.