SS RONDO,
SOUND OF MULL

THE 2363-TON DRY CARGO standard ship Rondo was built in Tampa, Florida in 1917, ostensibly for the Cunard Steamship Co – but in reality for the British war effort.
During the early years of World War One, German U-boats had taken a heavy toll on British shipping.
By the end of 1915 alone, some 1.6 million tons of British shipping had been sunk, and hard-pressed British shipyards were unable to build enough new ships to replace the losses.
In its time of need, the British Government turned to the neutral American shipbuilding industry for assistance. In America, old ailing shipyards were updated and enlarged – and scores of new shipyards were set up.
By March 1917, orders to US yards for new British ships amounted to almost three-quarters of a million tons.
These ships were to be mass-produced to simplified standard designs – with standard hulls and engines. These ships were all given a standard nomenclature with the word War prefixed to their names. At the time of her construction, the Rondo was called War Wonder (I).

WHEN AMERICA ITSELF entered the war, on 6 April, 1917, as part of its own war effort it immediately requisitioned all merchant vessels then under construction in US yards. Some 400 hulls were swiftly transferred to US Government ownership and War Wonder (I) (still under construction) was one of the requisitioned ships.
Once requisitioned, the US government renamed her Lithopolis. She was completed late in the war, in September 1918 – only two months before the Armistice of November 1918 halted the hostilities.
In all, some 3500 “tramp ships had been constructed, but after the war they were suddenly surplus to requirements.
Some were broken up; others were laid up in rivers until they found use again in World War Two.
The Ford Motor Co purchased a batch of 200 tramp ships to be scrapped in Detroit and re-used as automobiles.
The Lithopolis escaped such a fate: instead, the US Government sold her off to a private shipping company and she went to work on the seas.
In 1930, after a change of ownership she was renamed Laurie, and finally, in 1934, she was taken into Norwegian ownership and renamed Rondo.
In January 1935, she set off in ballast from the Clyde to pass round the north of Scotland on her way down to Dunstan, in Northumberland, to pick up a cargo bound for Oslo.
On 25 January, as she travelled up the west coast of Scotland on the first leg of her voyage, she halted her journey in Aros Bay, near Tobermory at the north end of the Sound of Mull, to seek shelter from a raging blizzard.
Just after 9pm that evening, in the face of a furious wind, her anchor-chain parted and she drifted powerless down the narrow sound in pitch darkness – for almost seven miles.
Eventually, she ran aground on a shallow reef running out from the tiny rocky outcrop known as Dearg Sgeir, right beside its distinctive small white navigation beacon.
There is still a light on the little island to this day – an essential guide to night navigation in the Sound.
Over the coming weeks, trawlers, a tug from Greenock and a salvage vessel from Southampton all made successive attempts to haul her off the rocks. But
all failed and eventually her insurers declared her a total loss and ordered that she be broken down for scrap.
In the weeks and months thereafter, she was scrapped in situ on the reef.
The salvage crew initially lived aboard her while they worked, but as they stripped her down they lost their accommodation. They then set up camp on the small island, working aboard her by day and camping beside her at night.
The crew managed to cut the Rondo almost down to her waterline, but before the job was completed, heavy seas drove Rondos skeletal remains off the reef.
She plunged down the near vertical underwater cliffs of the islet, until her bows ploughed into the seabed 50m below.

TODAY, ALMOST 80 YEARS LATER, the Rondo still stands in this unnatural and seemingly precarious position – a unique spectacle in British diving.
Her uppermost rudder is only 3m beneath the surface, while her bows are well buried in the seabed in 50m of water, with only a few inches now protruding above the sandy bottom.
She is rightly regarded as one of the greatest wreck dives in Scottish waters, although it is disconcerting to be floating beside a ship standing vertically on her bow: a ship that disappears straight down into the darkness below.
Her keel and hull up to her old waterline is fairly intact and offers protection inside the open space from the current. Divers can follow the propeller-shaft down to where it meets the engine-room.
The H-frame of the mainmast and a section of the original hull and weather deck around it (not cut away during the salvage works) are still upright and jut out at an angle from the rest of the stripped-down hull.
Passing deeper beyond the mainmast, the hull is filled with a jumble of machinery and plating, but then beyond 35m and as the seabed approaches, the incline of the wreck starts to flatten out.
The hull becomes an empty void as you near the stem of the bow, buried deep in the seabed.
Turning here to ascend, with eyes now dark-adjusted, divers can see the silhouette of this fine wreck towering above them, and leading the way back up to the light of the surface.

MOLDAVIA,
LITTLEHAMPTON, WEST SUSSEX

THE P&O LINER MOLDAVIA was built on the Clyde in 1903 by J Caird and Co, Greenock. She was 520ft long with a beam of 58ft and, powered by two triple-expansion engines, she could reach speeds of 18.5 knots – fast for her day.
She is perhaps one of the most revered and well-loved wrecks in the English Channel, lying 26 miles out in about 50m of water.
The wreck itself is vast, hauntingly beautiful and still full of items of interest. Portholes hang open, their brass and glass fitments still in place.
The massive anchors are still held snugly in their hawse-pipes, despite the ravages of more than 90 years at the bottom of the Channel.
The sea life is immense and large schools of fish drift over the wreck, sometimes hanging like a curtain obscuring the ship itself.
In her heyday, her two large raked-back funnels were set at the same angle as her stylish foremast and mainmast to give her a sleek, modern look.
The main central superstructure housed the bridge, captains accommodation and saloons at the front and extended back for almost half the length of the vessel, rising up for two deck levels. Wooden lifeboats hung on davits either side atop.
In addition to a substantial cargo-carrying ability, she carried 348 first-class passengers and 166 second-class.
Moldavia was a very famous ship in her pre-war days – well known on the Britain-to-Australia run.
Two years into World War I, in 1915, the British Government requisitioned her for war service. She was fitted out with 4.7in guns and became the armed merchant cruiser HMS Moldavia – joining the 10th Cruiser Squadron to enforce the blockade between the north of Scotland and Iceland.
The Squadron was based in the Shetland Islands and its duties included the interception of merchant ships. Armed guards would go on board to ensure that the ship sailed to an Allied port for its cargo to be inspected.
Her gunners sank the abandoned ship SS Patio in November 1916. Her 4.7in guns were latterly removed and eight more powerful 6in guns were fitted.

IN FEBRUARY 1917 she intercepted the Italian ship ss Famiglia, which had already been intercepted by a German U-boat, which had put an armed guard aboard and ordered her to sail to Germany. The Germans set off scuttling charges and she was abandoned.
Moldavia thereafter served as a convoy escort between West Africa and Plymouth. Following the Battle of Jutland in 1916, when it became clear that the German Navy had been deterred from any further fleet action against the Royal Navy, auxiliary cruisers such as Moldavia were no longer required and, due to her great speed and size, she was turned over for use as a troopship.
In 1918 she was sent to America to collect troops for the European battlefields who were completing their training at Camp Mills, New York.
On 11 May, the 907 men of the 58th Regiment of the US 8th Infantry Brigade boarded the dazzle-painted Moldavia bound for Europe. The slow crossing of the Atlantic was completed successfully and on the night of 23 May, 1918, now in a convoy of five large steamships protected by Royal Navy destroyers, she started up the English Channel en route for France.
A strict black-out was in force on the ships – every porthole was blacked-out and no light was permitted that might reveal the convoy to the enemy.
All aboard knew that they were now entering the most dangerous part of their voyage: the U-boat killing ground.
The evening before, UB57 of the Flanders Flotilla had left Zeebrugge and successfully passed through the Belgian coastal barrage, a wall of steel nets with mines suspended at different heights.
UB57 then passed through the Dover nets and entered the Dover Straits. Here, between Folkestone and Cap Gris Nez, was another wall of nets and mines, linked to sound detector loops. These loops enabled mines to be set off remotely from shore if an unidentified vessel was detected passing by.
On the surface, fast Royal Navy sub-hunters patrolled as giant searchlights swept across the seas. UB57 successfully penetrated all these British defences and then took up a position on the surface, near the Owers Lightship – which both the Allied and German U-boats used for navigation fixing.
It was common for Allied merchant vessels to pass close to it.
In the welcoming cover of darkness, UB57s engines were switched off and the U-boat rocked gently on the surface, while high in the conning tower, spotters scanned the horizon with binoculars. The convoy was sighted.
Immediately, UB57s engines were restarted and she set off on the surface in pursuit. Gradually the gap closed on the slower convoy and soon UB57 was in a firing position. She submerged to await her prey, hidden by the sea.
As UB57s commander watched through the periscope, the convoy, which was zigzagging to avoid torpedo attack, made a turn and the lead ship, the Moldavia, started to head directly towards UB57.
A bow torpedo was fired and exploded on Moldavias port side amidships. The explosion was heard and felt all over the ship and 56 US troops in an adjacent compartment were killed instantly.
Fifteen minutes after the explosion, Moldavia slewed to a wallowing halt. As escorting Royal Navy destroyers started a depth-charge pattern at the scene of the attack, onboard damage reports made it clear that the ship was doomed.
Moldavia started to settle by the head. Her majestic bows disappeared first beneath the water, their water-filled weight dragging the front of the ship under and forcing her great stern to lift upwards.
Her massive twin screws and rudder rose up and held there for a moment, seemingly suspended and motionless before she started her final plunge down through 150ft of water to the bottom.

TODAY, THE WRECK of the moldavia lies 26 miles out into the English Channel on her port side – hiding the damage from the torpedo strike.
Her majestic bow still shows its beautiful straight stem, and on deck nearby are situated her massive anchor-winches and a tripod crane for lifting and fitting a spare anchor.
Her foredeck cargo-hatches are now open and her large midships superstructure – the most prominent feature of the wreck – has collapsed to the seabed: a jumble of interesting pieces of ship.
The hull itself is collapsing now, but is still lined with portholes – some with brass and glass fitments still in place.
Although she rests in 50m of water, the uppermost side of the wreck is reached at 37m and, with the general good visibility this far out into the Channel, as you swim above the ship it is usually possible to see all the way down to the seabed.

GREAT BRITISH SHIPWRECKS
For more than 30 years, acclaimed wreck-diver and author Rod Macdonald has dived and researched shipwrecks around the world, resulting in books such as Dive Scapa Flow, Dive Scotlands and Dive Englands Greatest Wrecks and The Darkness Below.
In his new 160pp Great British Shipwrecks, he provides a snapshot of 37 wrecks with accounts of their time afloat, eventual sinking and their state today, each one illustrated by marine artist Rob Ward.
The journey starts with classic wrecks at Scapa Flow from giant German WW1 battleships to the cruiser HMS Hampshire. In the English Channel he describes such famous ships as the Salsette, Kyarra and Britains seaplane-carrying submarine M2.
He then explores the deep warships of the North Channel of the Irish Sea such as Audacious and the liner Justicia and, back in Scotland, its most celebrated West Coast shipwrecks, such as the Thesis, Hispania and Breda.
Lastly he covers major North Sea shipwrecks, including the haunting HMS Pathfinder.
Great British Shipwrecks is published by Whittles Publishing, ISBN 9781849950770, price £18.99

SHIPWRECK – THE ESSENTIALS
Type of wreck: P&O cargo/passenger liner
Nationality: British
Launched: 1903
Dimensions: 520.6 x 58.3ft
Tonnage: 9500 grt
Date sunk: 23 May, 1918
Cause of sinking: Torpedoed by UB57
Depth of water: 50m
Least depth above wreck: 37m
Position: 50.23.16N, 000.28.768W