The Man Who Survived 3 Sinkings in the First World War and the Titanic

John Priest, born in Southampton in 1887, was one of the few firemen (stokers) to survive the sinking of the Titanic on 14 April 1912. The firemen had a long way to go to get from the boiler rooms to the deck.  An article on the BBC website claims that most of the lifeboats had left by the time that Priest made it and he had to swim for his life in very cold water. The Encyclopedia Titanica, however, says that he was in a lifeboat, probably number 15.

He had previously been on board a ship called the Asturias that was, according to the BBC website linked above, involved in a collision on her maiden voyage in 1907. The Asturias was completed in 1907 for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and served as a hospital ship in the First World War. She was beached on the English coast on 20 March 1917 in order to prevent her sinking after she was torpedoed by the U-boat UC66. I have not been able to find any other mention of her being involved in a collision on her maiden voyage, so it may have been a minor accident.

Priest was on board the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic on 20 September 1911 when she collided with the cruiser HMS Hawke. The cruiser, which was sunk by U9 In October 1914, as related here, was the more seriously damaged of the two.

In February 1916 he was a member of the crew of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Alcantara, a sister ship of the Asturias. She was one of a number of merchant liners requisitioned by the Admiralty and armed, in her case with six 6 inch and two 3 pounder guns and depth charges. She was assigned to the 10th Cruiser Squadron, which was helping to enforce the Allied blockade of the Central Powers.

By 28 February the squadron had lost one ship to weather, two to mines and three to U-boats but none to enemy surface ships, although the Grand Fleet boarding ship Ramsay had been sunk on 8 August 1915 by a raider flying Russian colours.[1]

On 28 February the Admiralty warned the Grand Fleet that a German raider was attempting to break out into the Atlantic. Just after 8 am on 29 February Alcantara (Captain T. E. Wardle), which had been about to return to port after transferring secret documents to her newly arrived sister ship HMS Andes (Captain G. B. W. Young), was ordered to remain on her patrol station.[2]

Alcantara spotted smoke at 8:45 am and soon afterwards received a signal from Andes stating ‘Enemy in sight steering N.E. 15 knots.’[3] This was followed by a second signal that Alcantara took to mean that the enemy had two funnels. However, the signal log of Andes did not mention funnels until 9:10, when it stated that the vessel had a ‘black funnel.’[4] Alcantara’s times appear to be 20 minutes earlier than those of Andes.

Alcantara closed on the smoke, which belonged to a one funnelled steamer flying Norwegian colours and bearing the name Rena on her stern. Wardle assumed that she was a different ship from the one in Andes’s 8:45 signal, but at 10:14 am a signal from Andes revealed that they were the same vessel.[5]

The ship was the German raider SMS Greif (Fregattenkapitän Rudolf Tietze), converted from the tramp steamer Guben, which been under construction at the outbreak of war. She had been designed with two funnels, but one was removed when she was requisitioned by the German Admiralty. She had a concealed armament of four 5.9 inch and one 4.1 guns and two 19.7 inch torpedo tubes.[6]

It is impossible to give a detailed account of the subsequent action because the reports of Wardle and Young differ greatly. Greif dropped her Norwegian colours, revealed her guns and opened fire when Alcantara was about 1,000 yards away. A close range battle then took place, with Andes joining in whenever Alcantara was not in the way. Andes had been 7,500 yards away when the action began and stayed at 6,000 yards range in order to stay out of torpedo range.[7]

Grief’s crew began to abandon ship after about 15 minutes but Alcantara, which had been hit by a torpedo, was sinking by 10:45 am. The light cruiser HMS Comus and the destroyer HMS Munster then appeared. Comus and Andes fired on Greif, which was still flying the German ensign, until she sank at 1 pm, whilst Munster picked up survivors. The rescue was briefly suspended after mistaken reports of submarines.[8]

The British picked up 220 out of about 360 men on board Greif, with 69 of Alcantara’s crew being lost.[9] Wardle and Priest were amongst the survivors, but Tietze, the last man to try to leave Greif, was not.[10] Alcantara’s dead are listed towards the bottom of this page on Naval-History.net.

The Admiralty said that Wardle and his crew had ‘fought their ship in a very creditable way.’[11] He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

John Priest then joined the crew of the Britannic, the Olympic and Titanic’s sister ship, which was serving as a hospital ship. On 21 November 1916 she struck a mine and sank near the Greek island of Kea. Thirty died, but the survivors included Priest and two other Titanic survivors: Violet Jessop, a stewardess who had become a nurse, and Archie Jewell, a lookout.

Priest’s fourth sinking occurred on 17 April 1917 when he was a fireman on board the hospital ship Donegal, which was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel. He received a head injury but survived. Jewell, however, was amongst the 40 dead.

John Priest died on land in 1937 at the age of 50.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vii, 19: Tenth Cruiser Squadron i. p. 58.

[2] Ibid., p. 60.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. note 3, p. 60.

[5] Ibid., p. 60.

[6] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War, p. 174.

[7] Naval Staff vol. vii. p. 61.

[8] Ibid., pp. 61-62.

[9] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. iii, pp. 271-72.

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War, p. 177.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 272.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Man Who Survived 3 Sinkings in the First World War and the Titanic

  1. Didn’t he start to feel like a jinx? What a survival status he has!

  2. Jonah x 3. Why was it called a “tramp” steamer?

  3. He seems to have stayed on land after the third sinking.
    A tramp steamer is one that does not have a fixed route, but instead takes whatever cargoes are available to wherever they are to be sent. The name comes from the use of the world tramp to describe a vagrant who continually moves on foot, which in turn comes from the verb to tramp.

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