HMS Tara and the ordeal in the Red Desert

This post is one of a continuing series to showcase some of the special objects we have in Holyhead Maritime Museum’s collection.

The two small items below could seem very insignificant to many when seen on display at the museum. However they help to tell the story of the loss of the Holyhead ship HMS Tara  (ex. SS Hibernia) in 1915 and the ordeal faced by the crew during their 4 months of captivity.

SS Hibernia was built by William Denny and Brothers, Dumbarton, Scotland for the London and North Western Railway, entering service on the Holyhead to Ireland route in 1900. Soon after outbreak of war in 1914, along with three other Holyhead ships of the LNWR, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty as an Armed Boarding Steamer and commissioned as HMS Tara. She was quickly armed with three 6-pounder guns.

The ships crew, mostly from Holyhead and Anglesey, were largely retained with the addition of some RN and RNR officers. The ship was under the joint command of the ship’s Master, Captain Edward Butler Tanner and Captain R Gwatkin-Williams, RN. In late October 1915, after service in the north Irish Sea, she was transferred to the Mediterranean to relieve her sister ship, HMS Scotia. She then had a crew of 104 men.

SS Hibernia in her LNWR Colours

In the morning of  5 November 1915 she was patrolling off the coast of Sollum, North Africa at just over 7 knots. Just after 10.00am the ship’s lookouts were shocked to see a torpedo heading their way. The Helmsman attempted to avoid the torpedo, but due to her slow speed, the ship didn’t come around in time.  The torpedo launched by the German submarine U-35 struck the ship amidships on the starboard side.

Twelve crew members, mostly from the Engine Room, were lost during the ships sinking. The remaining 92 survivors took to the lifeboats which were then towed to Port Bardia by the U-Boat and handed over to Senussi tribesmen as prisoners. They were then marched deep into the Libyan dessert. They suffered great hardship for 4 months whilst held captive by their Senussi guards at a remote desert Wadi.

Among the numerous artefacts at the museum’s Tara Display, probably the most poignant are pictured above. The small glass was used to measure one man’s portion of rice per day, if any was available. The men hunted for snails among the rocks surrounding the Wadi to supplement their very meagre diet. Unfortunately the conditions began to affect the health of some of the crew resulting in the eventual death of five men from dysentery and malnutrition.

With very little to occupy their minds some of the men turned to making items out of whatever they could find to hand. The small bone brooch carved with the name of ‘Cissie’ was made by one of the ship’s Quartermasters, Richard Williams from Holyhead. He was 47 at the time and had four sons and two daughters, one of them adopted. It could be said that carving the brooch was an act of optimism by Richard in the belief that he would indeed see his family again and be able to hand this keepsake to his 12 year old daughter, Mary Elizabeth, known to the family by her pet name, Cissie.

Royal Royce Libyan desert
One of the Duke of Westminster’s Armoured Cars operating in the Libyan Desert.

On Saint Patrick’s Day, 1916 a British armoured car column led by the Duke of Westminster reached the Wadi and rescued the sailors. After time recovering at Alexandria they returned home to their overjoyed loved ones.

Contributed by the Editor.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum

This series of posts is to showcase items from the museum’s collection and to support the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ project that features and promotes five ports of the Irish Sea connecting Wales with Ireland – Rosslare, Dublin Port, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke. More information here –

3 thoughts on “HMS Tara and the ordeal in the Red Desert

  1. Gareth Huws August 16, 2020 / 10:50 am

    Yet another of the many superb Holyhead stories which, if written as fiction, would be dismissed as being too incredible. Thank you, Barry, for reminding us how Irish Sea ships contributed so much to world history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wyn Edwards August 18, 2020 / 7:48 am

    Another fascinating and interesting story. Thank you


  3. Edwyn Hughes August 23, 2020 / 5:46 pm

    Another fascinating contribution, thanks for sharing Barry.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s