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10th
October
2018

RMS Leinster: down in dazzle

A client of mine is not working today. He is departing on a boat from Dún Laoghaire to proceed a few nautical miles out to sea, past Kish. From there, he will join many other families in laying wreaths, in memory of the 527 souls who perished and some 256 who survived, when the mailboat RMS Leinster was torpedoed by a German U-boat on the 10th October 1918. One hundred years ago, today.

His grandfather was on the boat, and his grandfather was rescued. And thus, the hand of Providence allows my client to have his life, and me the good fortune to have my client.

He and I spoke of the sinking this week. I realised I knew precious little about the largest maritime loss of life on the Irish Sea. And so, I reached to my first source of information when curiosity grips me – podcasts – and have been getting up to speed in the last couple of days. 

Getting up to speed was something RMS Leinster (and her sister ships, the Ulster, the Connaught, the Munster) was particularly good at doing. They were built for speed, as they were tasked with connecting Ireland to the rest of the British Isles. Dublin was the second city of Empire, and communications between it and London were urgent and constant. It is this speed, in part, that accounted for the RMS Leinster departing Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) without a protective ship to her side. The vessel was so nimble, it was thought that she might outdo the pesky Teutons in their pesky U-boats. 

And RMS Leinster was kitted (or, more precisely, painted) with another weapon of survival beyond speed.

Camouflage. 

When we think of camouflage, we think first to the practise of disappearance: of fading into the background and not being seen. But the cammofleur has a reverse trick up his sleeve: a mode of camouflage which seeks not to hide something, but to disorient the viewer. The object in question becomes more visible (not less so). but it also becomes more difficult to catch. 

This practice of camouflage is called ‘dazzle’, and was imported by the military in WWI from the world of the arts and artists. Playing with perceptions was a focus of the Cubists around the turn of the 20th century, and their approach was raided for clear purpose. 

The naval reasoning behind ‘dazzle’ is straightforward. If my ship’s distance from a U-boat and her trajectory across the water can both be masked or muddled, then the German officer with his finger on the torpedo button might waver. My ship might get away because the ability to confuse or trick wins temporary advantage.

The art of dazzle is not news. It exists in human endeavour since humans drew on the walls of caves. Politicians have a penchant for creating a skirmish over there, so the public doesn’t notice the illegal or scandalous stuff happening over here. Some food and technology companies are partial to a bit of dazzle too. The war against fat in food blurred the more harmful effects of sugar; the convenience of plastic masked its toxicity; the current obsession with smartphones, dressed up as modernity, blurs their ability to isolate, divide and destroy lives. 

But dazzle alone will not do it. Even in wartime, in 1918, it was a dangerous proposition to set to sea with speed, hope and dazzle as your armour. 

When RMS Leinster departed Dún Laoghaire one hundred years ago today, it was painted with dazzle. The Irish Sea was awash with enemy U-boats – and the risks were known. Laden with postal workers, munitions, civilians and approximately 500 military, RMS Leinster encountered a German watercraft off Kish with a brief and dazzling career of its own. 

This particular U-boat, UB-123, was launched out of Bremen in March 1918 under order of the Kaiserlichen Marine. The tender age of its machinery was matched in that of its thirty-plus crew. Most were between 19 and 20 years old. The eldest seaman on board, Commander Robert Ramm, was aged 27. 

Commander Ramm’s vessel had been busy. On a foray in July 1918 it had commandeered three Danish vessels and brought them under German control. Such victories are colourfully described by a navy eager to win: ‘captured as a prize’.

UB-123 then slunk into dark waters until it emerged off Dublin in October 1918. Across seven days it sank the RMS Leinster and the American steamship Caloria. Five days later, UB-123 itself was mined in the seas between Scotland and Norway. All her crew was lost. Not a single soul was recovered.  And all of these events occurred within weeks of Armistice.

We may dress up the victories, we may razzle up the ships, but we can hardly dazzle our way through the miseries of war. 

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