FOR this week’s Looking Back, we will be looking back at the sinking of a ship during the First World War.

The wreck of the SS Baygitano currently lies submerged roughly one-and-a-half miles south of the Cobb at Lyme Regis.

Information for this piece has been provided by Nigel Braybrooke of the Severnside Sub-Aqua Club, thanks to Harry May who provided some information of his experiences with the wreck today, and to Amanda Bowens at the Maritime Archaeology Trust.

The ship began its life on Thursday, September 28, 1905 as the Cayo Gitano.

The Cayo Gitano was launched from the West Yard of the South Shields shipyard of John Readhead and Sons Ltd and was owned by the Cuban Steamship Co. Ltd of the City of London.

The ship’s early life as a tramper saw it sail around the Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico, the southern seaboard of the United States of America as well as back across the Atlantic carrying cargo and passengers to Sweden, France and Great Britain.

In its prime, the armed merchant navy vessel was 325ft long and a gross register tonnage of 3,073 tons, and during the war was fitted with a quick firing gun to protect the ship at sea.

At the outbreak of the war in 1914, the ship was initially detained in Manchester until a decision was made by the King’s Proctor on the disposal of her cargo before her voyages continued, this time carrying freight essential to the war effort.

During one such voyage, she was involved in a collision off Tilbury with the London steamer Monkwood, with both vessels receiving significant damage.

Whilst crossing the Atlantic bound for Bermuda, the ship rescued the crew of the Italian steamship Purificazione, who had taken to the lifeboats two days previously, their ship being lost to a hurricane.

In 1916, the Cuban Steamship and Cayo companies went into liquidation, but not before selling the Cayo Gitano to the Bay Steamship Company, who renamed her ‘Baygitano’ and placed her under the management of Charles V Sale.

During the war, the ship aided with carrying coal from the Welsh coalfields to northern France and its factories.

Due to the risk of marauding U Boats of the Imperial German Navy patrolling the English Channel, ships transported coals in convoys, with traffic distributed over three routes:

Route ‘A’ Mount’s Bay to Brest

Route ‘B’ Weymouth to Cherbourg

Route ‘C’ Weymouth to Le Havre

The vessels were sent across in groups steaming in rough formation and proceeding to special instructions, escorted by armed trawlers of the Auxiliary Patrol.

In all, only 53 ships were lost in 39,352 sailings.

On March, 18, 1918, the ship’s final voyage saw it en-route to Cardiff from Le Havre.

With fine weather and light winds from the east, the Baygitano joined the convoy following route ‘C’ heading for Weymouth.

Following the usual zigzag routing of the Channel crossings in shallow water, the passage was uneventful, and upon reaching the comparative safety of Portland Bill, the convoy dispersed, with each ship heading for its port of destination.

The Baygitano, steaming at 10 knots, took a course across Lyme Bay designed to keep her close to the coastline.

Captain Arthur Ligertwood Murrison, discontinued the zigzagging designed to make a U boat attack more difficult, with the belief that no U boat commander would risk the shallow water to carry out an attack.

At 11.45am, a loud explosion ripped through the ship.

The Baygitano had been hit by by German submarine UC-77, which was lying in wait three miles south of Lyme Regis harbour.

The torpedo struck on the port side, somewhere abaft the engine room around the no. four hold.

The torpedo wounded the vessel and she quickly started settling by the stern.

The order to abandon ship was given, the crew using two life boats and a raft to leave the sinking ship.

Two crewmen lost their lives, and a further 35 were saved and brought to Lyme Regis harbour.

Having heard the explosion in Lyme Regis, 1.5 miles away, the Lyme Regis lifeboat, the Thomas Masterman Hardy was launched for its first rescue mission after being stationed in Lyme Regis in 1915.

An elderly resident gave an eyewitness account of the sinking and said: “I was having a lie in when I heard a loud explosion.

“Looking out of the window, I saw one of the fishermen running past, pulling on his sea Jersey.

“What is it Frank? I said.

“A ship has been torpedoed off the Cobb.

“So I went down to the harbour, it was coming in thick fog.

“The lifeboat went out with a scratch crew, and the crew took their jumpers off, so that they wouldn’t look like a naval boat.

“It was a lovely flat, calm sea.

“The rowing boats went out and brought the crew in.”

It was reported that 20 minutes after the torpedo struck, Oberleutnant (the highest lieutenant officer rank in the armed forces of Germany) Johannes Ries, who fired the torpedo, and the UC-77 surfaced with the intention of interrogating the ship’s crew.

Described by Baygitano’s second officer Haste as being about 250 foot in length, and painted in “black and white blobs” with a 22 pounder gun forward of the conning tower, the submarine approached one of the lifeboats with one of three officers visible in the conning tower.

One of the officers, speaking in fluent England, asked for details of the ship they had just sunk.

Having managed to obtain the Baygitano’s registered number and tonnage, and having spotted a fast patrol boat approaching, the U boat departed in a South Easterly direction, but not before calling out “Give my regards to Mr

Hinton of the Alexandra Hotel” (a hotel in Lyme Regis whose chef was German and a friend of Ries).

Fortunately, none of the ships confidential books were taken.

The wreck of the Baygitano is now 22 metres underwater, and attracts an abundance of sea life.

Fishing trips and deep sea dives are regular activities around the wreck-site.

Make sure to read next week to find out how the Baygitano wreck site is being used today.